We have been working in Craylands, an estate in Basildon, over a period of nearly 9 years. This is our second “public art” project here, commissioned by Swan Foundation. Over this time we have got to know many of the residents here and got a feel for the place. We have used the commissions we have been given here to experiment with the notion of a collectively conceived piece of public art.
Public art in Basildon has a long and tarnished history, having been erected and largely unappreciated since the town’s very beginning. Many of the works of art have been forgotten, ignored, stolen for scrap, or possibly the home of a criminal private collector. I don’t know of a single example of art on permanent display in the town that has been made by a Basildon resident.
The public art that exists in Basildon comes out of a modernist tradition of aesthetic expertise and art knowledge to create well crafted vessel for reflection at key locations across Basildon’s many social housing projects.
We wanted to take a different approach. We wanted to investigate the collective imagination to see if together we could produce an idea for an artwork that truly emerged from the discussion and projected values of local residents.
In our first project in Craylands we quickly came to realise that the area urgently needed social activities more than an art object. It seemed that the area, like many in the UK, lacked much social adhesion. With our expertise in facilitating non-hierarchical exchanges we were well placed to deliver a bit of bonding.
However this commission, from Essex County Council, required that we deliver another public art object to Basildon. We came up with the concept of a temporary, reconfigurable social space. We named it the Hacienda, referencing Ivan Chtcheglov’s seminal essay on fluid architecture, Formulary for a New Urbanism, in order to give it art credibility. While the project was aesthetically and emotionally a success, functionally it was not. The Hacienda was renamed Home Sweet Dome, but it turned out to be too cumbersome for local residents to erect. We had rushed the testing stage.
This time around we are determined not make the same procedural error. The brief is much less ambitious- a small scale piece of public art in the renamed Beechwood Village Estate, now a mix of privately owned and social housing. We have spent a lot of time talking to residents and understanding their aesthetic concerns and used the simple method of very quickly visualising ideas around the Talkaoke table to reflect, respond to and amplify ideas. Even if the ideas were not visualised at all as imagined, this is a highly effective visual response, stimulating the imagination and affirming the participants’ contribution.
It is generally perceived that art must be conceived and developed by an individual genius producer, and the more minds thinking concurrently on the problem, clouds the vision of realisation of the artwork. The People Speak believes in talent but doesn’t believe that creativity is exclusive to the artist figure. We think that the artists’ creative talent can actually be used to enhance a collective, creative outcome. What’s been missing until now is the methodology and technology necessary to make this happen.
In our experimentation over the past ten years we have succeeded in making these kinds of collaboration a fun process, but the result often tends to be clichéd and conservative. I could propose a number of reasons for this. Risk of failure and and a lack belief in extraordinary possibilities play a very big part in this. Part of what we do at The People Speak is to underwrite this risk- emotionally, performatively and administratively.
We have attempted to embrace the cliché and try to progress beyond it. There is a zone, unconstrained by art-world normative aesthetic considerations and beyond the cliché which is full of possibilities. When I say beyond the cliche, I mean taking the concerns expressed in the cliché and re-framing them in a novel way. For example there is a history of conflict and antisocial behaviour in the area. A theme arising for this has been the theme of unity or togetherness. Suggestions for representing this have been the idea of young and old, or black and white embracing shaking hands or representing togetherness in some other way.
It was later suggested that the shaking hands be yellow like the Simpsons cartoon to make them more universal – as represented by this image merged with the Basildon heroes idea.
Similar to the monolith idea, the leading contender for actualisation is the cave painting idea. There is a lot of passion in the area for a piece of artwork that connects with a supposed prehistoric past.
None of these ideas really fits into a conventional art aesthetic, but that’s not really the point. Some of the residents said they would prefer something more practical like play equipment or a car parking space. That led us to conceive of the idea of an interactive, uplit parking space as a piece of art, although it hasn’t proved to be very popular.
We face a real challenge in how to select and refine a single idea in an open and engaging way. We’ll let you know how that goes.
We will be refining and visualising the ideas at the opening of The Beech Community Centre, Beechwood Village, Basildon, Essex at 3.30pm on Thursday 29th September 2016. This event is free and open to all.