Yesterday I had a great meeting with Karl and Chloe at the Longhouse offices in West Bromwich, we were there to talk about Interrogation, and whether or not it can take place in a new place this year, or whether the programme can only really work in one place?
We talked about the successes of last year, what worked, and why - and what was not
so successful, and why that might have been, and therefore what could be tweaked if we were to do another Interrogation somewhere else.
We all agreed that in many ways, as a first outing for Interrogation, Walsall was a gift. The context, provided by the gallery, and the specific area to be investigated gave the artists something to really get their teeth into and respond to - and as a working environment, we were really, in many ways, sheltered. Somehow, despite being in a public square wearing moustaches and berets, we were not exposed to public scrutiny. The back drop of the gallery protected us.
Considering whether Interrogation could work in a town like West Bromwich we can see that there will be no easy graft job - this is an entirely new situation, requiring a new approach. West Brom has an art space, but it is not one that is well embedded in the hearts of the people there (unlike Walsall, where people were almost without exception, entirely positive and passionate about THEIR gallery). This means that the public in West Brom may not be quite so keen to pitch in, and get involved in projects instigated by artists on the street. Is this a reason not to do it?
The question for me here is how do artists negotiate the difficult territory of a place where the majority of people there believe that contemporary art is not for them. It is something that I have come across and attempted to explore many times in Stoke-on-Trent, it is a difficult question, which I am very interested to continue to try to answer. The broad question then which we will be focusing on is; How do artists bridge gaps? Gaps in infrastructure, gaps between councils, governments and the public, gaps between the public and cultural activity...ad infinitum. Artists today are constantly finding themselves in the position of gap filler - how successful can we be in these situations? What does this mean for the artist? and what does it mean for the public? All of these questions, I believe can provide a strong context for exploration in West Bromwich. Especially in the context of a new art space (The Public) who are arguably struggling to find a foothold in the local community.
I had a good walk around West Brom after I left the meeting, and saw some of the examples of 'culture' in gaps. All over the country Council's are trying to find 'sticking plaster' solutions for our emptying out high streets. Empty shops and boarded up buildings can be found on every High Street in the U.K. and there are various gap filling approaches being explored. Many have been given to artists (rent free) for a period of time, while others have been boarded up, and then the hoardings used as a space for public display of artworks. These are all fantastic opportunities for artists - but what do the people of a place make of this usage? This is something we talked about in the meeting.The Timpson's key place, right in the centre of the West Bromwich high street has had images of an Italian Deli applied to its hoardings, perhaps in an attempt to suggest what could be done with the shop. It is of course better than a metal shutter, but is it appropriate for West Bromwich?
On a rainy grey day I could completely see the potential difficulties of intervening in the town, and I know that the choice of target area, and how the context is presented to the artists will be really important when negotiating that. There is real sensitivity needed to avoid looking like an explensive Deli in a Town with one of the worst unemployment rates in the country.
Walking around there are a lot of empty outdoor market slots, which is good, as if it rains on any of the mission days the artists will still be able to work outside.The busiest space is by the entrances to Kings and Queens square it is too busy to carry out missions there, as the artists are more likely to annoy people there than engage them. It could perhaps be better locating a target zone towards the top end of town, which is quite unpopulated at the moment (except by bird poo) I also noticed that the physical layout of the high street is really uncomfortable - lots of disturbances in the form of brick planters everywhere, which interrupt the rhythm of the walker. This was interesting.I did notice that a lot of people did look depressed, but that may have been the rain?I think rather than feeling that activities which reactivate the space (and people) cannot happen here, as it is such a gap to bridge - maybe the greater gap is what we are exploring...how far is too far? Are there places where art is inappropriate, where people just simply are not interested, or is it possible that art can reach the areas that others cannot reach? Perhaps, if Interrogation: West Bromwich goes ahead we will find out.Once we know either way I will update here...and then go on a reccy in West Brom to really explore the full context.