In 1991, during my undergraduate Fine Art degree at Brighton Polytechnic I was part of a small three-person show entitled ‘Common Ground’. Along with Esther Lane, Ed Harper we set up a small show in the foyer of the Grand Parade site for what I recall was a chance to show off works during the beginning of our final year. Being members of the Alternative Practice programme, the three of us tended toward installation work and conceptual in quality. While Esther (as I recall) installed modified public signs and Ed his minimal paintings, I built a scaffolding platform which supported four TV screens. Each screen displayed a computer graphic image that portrayed a virtual three dimensional object that I claimed had been installed inside the planet. I claimed this because I had sent the four points of the tetrahedron out to four places in the world: Tokyo, Chicago, Falkland Islands, whilst one was installed in the Brighton Museum and Library. Standing on the scaffolding platform allowed visitors to the gallery to augment what they saw on the TV screens with the shape of the tetrahedron below their feet. I’m not sure anyone really understood, but then again I’m not sure many people remember that they are standing on a planet anyway!
Once the show was up, it was usual to hold a crit involving the artists who were showing work, and fellow students from the programme. Chaired by tutors, the crit pursued lines of enquiry through questions that tried to draw out a criticality between the works. I don’t recall much from the event other than a striking comment made by a young first year student in response to the tutor who was struggling to engage with the work. It was becoming apparent that the student wasn’t particularly ‘moved’ by any of the artworks and on pressing him, the student stated: “well, it just doesn’t take me anywhere.” Interested in the response, the tutor asked him to unpack the idea: “where do you expect art to take you?” The conversation floundered after that as the student wasn’t too sure where it should “take him” other than perhaps far away from any conflict with our tutor.
It is this tiny relay of phrases in the Autumn of 1991 that still interests me, and was recovered during the AHRC funded project Art Casting, led by Jen Ross, with Jeremy Knox, Claire Sowton and Chris Barker.
“Artcasting is a mobile application that invites visitors to exhibitions to choose an artwork and digitally ‘cast’ it on a trajectory to a new location, adding stories about their choice of cast and their associations with the artwork, and re-encountering their own or other artcasts in the future.”
The app “helps visitors make imaginative connections with artworks, and helps galleries and museums understand how people are experiencing and engaging with their exhibitions. With an emphasis on movement, trajectory and imagination, Artcasting offers a way of experiencing a gallery exhibition as mobile and open to new interpretations and encounters both in and beyond the room.”
In particular the work evoked the principle of mobility through memories or imaginaries that are evoked through engaging with an artwork. Sheller and Urry provided the theoretical framework for the research and allowed the team to consider how the memories, networks and imaginations could provide clues to the mobility of our participants and the artworks – albeit conceptually.
The app was piloted in two ARTIST ROOMS exhibitions in 2015-16: ARTIST ROOMS: Roy Lichtenstein at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and ARTIST ROOMS:Robert Mapplethorpe: The Magic in the Muse at the Bowes Museum. Through workshops the app elicited a wide variety of responses that provide clues to ‘where the art took people’:
On sending the cast, a geofence was generated at the destination. Anybody with the Art Casting app, with their notifications turned on, would receive a message to say that they have stumbled upon somebody’s cast. As the project went on, it became clear that people enjoyed the prospect of sending art to peoples doorsteps…
Many of the comments that were attached to a cast involved participants associating artworks to personal experiences, which for arts engagement offers a rich opportunity to capture how exhibitions affect their visitors…
The project has proven a popular engagement tool that has fostered new practices within the white cube and a platform for visitors to connect art to personal experience, to places where the art makes sense for them, places where desires, dreams and memories were acted out. In de Certeau’s text upon the “Railway Navigation and Incarceration” he constructs a narrative to critique the tourist who travels the world behind glass:
“Only a rationalized cell travels. A bubble of panoptic and classifying power, a module of imprisonment that makes possible the production of an order, a closed and autonomous insularity – that is what can traverse space and make itself independent of local roots”. (de Certeau 1987: 111)
The text is useful at understanding the nature of our sociological attachment to a place as he positions the reader in an unfamiliar context in which our relations with an environment are touristic and detached. From behind the glass of the train and the rails that keep us on a course to never engage with what we see, he depicts the unusual detachment that we have with spaces which he finds converse to the experience of walking through a town or city.
Flipping the perspective of the tourist for the gaze of the artwork, the ArtCasting platform allows the art to become the detached actant, forever travelling the UK through the Artist Rooms network but never able to engage with a community or place. Associating stories, memories and personal contexts to each artwork offers each painting a chance to engage with a place. Through the visitors comments we get a glimpse into the complex social settings that the artwork evokes. de Certeau continues his metaphor by describing the intense social and spatial intercourse that takes place when we arrive home:
“Everyone goes back to work at the place he has been given, in the office or the workshop. The incarceration-vacation is over. For the beautiful abstraction of the prison are substituted the compromises, opacities and dependencies of a workplace. Hand-to-hand combat begins again with a reality that dislodges the spectator without rails or window-panes. There comes to an end the Robinson Crusoe adventure of the travelling noble soul that could believe itself intact because it was surrounded by glass and iron.” (de Certeau 1987:114)
As each artwork finds itself cast as a geofence on somebody’s door step, in somebody’s lounge or place of work, the artwork has the first chance to slip away from the protected white walls of the gallery and engage in the cut and thrust of human life.
ArtCasting’s technology does as much to capture the affect that art has upon visitors, as it does to get the art out into the world and begin to engage with the complex, colourul, dirty places where we humans live.
The project is technically over now, but new futures are planned through the use of further analytical tools to better understand the sentiment of people comments and casts. However the project site is full of different perspectives on the project with papers and chapters in press that reflect in more detail about the research. Available for further insight is Jeremy Knox and Jen Ross’ essay “Where does this work belong?” New digital approaches to evaluating engagement with art presented at MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. The essay highlights in particular the (re)encountering of art as people walk into geofences:
“Re-encountering work from the exhibition in different spaces, “out there” in the world, and at different times when they may have been forgotten, offers tangible ways of making connections between art and the wider contexts that visitors experience in their daily lives.” (Knox & Ross 2016)
Returning to the discussion between the disengaged art student and our tutor who sought to find out why our work in the 1991 show wasn’t taking him anywhere, ArtCasting has revealed an opportunity to recognise our resposibility to take art on journeys out of galleries and into the streets where de Certeau found place. Whether we do it with the help of an app or not, the affect that art has upon us needs to be mobilised in order for the art to meet our lives outside of the white cube. Lonely and dreading the cold nights when the gallery has closed, art needs us to take it away, and is pleading “Where will you take me?”
Jen Ross (PI), Jeremy Knox, Claire Sowton, Chris Barker and Chris Speed.