Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Open Spaces, Open Places - Northampton

OSOP, now in their 9th year, describe themselves as 'a professional arts organisation working in Northampton and the county. It commissions artists to make new works and offers people the chance to see and experience art outside the traditional gallery space.'
Greyfriars Bus Station, Northampton: Nominated as one of the top 12 buildings that the public wished to see demolished in Channel 4's Demolition series, 2005.
On Saturday, 7th June, Dave Bethell (AirSpace) and I took a train to Northampton to take part in their 'Walkie Talkie' - a tour which would take in the four newly commissioned art pieces for Northampton's Greyfriar's Bus station - ending at the wonderful Fishmarket for a look at Louise Clarke's site-specific piece 'Show me Your Garden and I Shall Tell You What You Are' and a discussion of the process that the commissioned artist's have been engaged with on OSOP .
For some reason (degree show the night before? Red wine?) I was fairly bleary eyed first thing Saturday morning, and managed to forget my camera. The tour started at the Greyfriar's cafe with complimentary tea and toast. The cafe is a traditional greasy spoon - and I was pleased to see they were selling throw-away cameras - so I bought one for only £2.50 - later realising that it went out of date in 2006. It was an interesting experience to suddenly have to adhere to only 27 exposures - with no immediate viewing facility - and made me realise how addicted to digital I am. Now that the photos are back from the developers I think the quality will provide an incentive for remembering my camera in future!
Curator Trevor Pitt, who lead the walk, was brought in by OSOP to oversee the completion of the project, working with the artists and facilitating the realisation of their creative approaches to the Bus station. The walkie talkie took us out of the bus station and round to the subway entrance below in order to view the deterioration of the building - Trevor described it as 'the building eating itself' - as the concrete and metal are slowly corrupting and disintegrating.
Jonathan Velardi's 'Waste'.
We then worked our way around to the sites of the four interventions by the commissioned artists, who had taken various approaches - Jonathan Velardi's wallpaper and 'Waste' - a bin upholstered in gold fabric worked with the existing fixtures of the bus station - decorating the space in order to comment on the Bus Station's reputation as an eyesore.
Rich White talking about 'Survivalist.'
Rich White built a wooden structure which commented on the threat of demolition that the building faces. There was an organic quality to the piece, as if the building were alive, and had grown itself a sort of scaffolding structure to hold itself up - there is something very touching about this idea of this great unwieldy building trying to protect itself.
Michael Shaw's 'The Chameleon Breathes.'
Michael Shaw discussed the difficulties of working with a building like Greyfriars. Shaw had wanted to install his breathing sculpture 'The Chameleon Breathes' in the Bus station - but found this to be impossible, due to the unstable electrics - which mean that nothing extra can be plugged in and powered, for fear of blowing out the electrics to the entire building completely. Shaw instead installed the piece in the shopping centre next to the bus station. When asked if he found this sort of compromise difficult to work with, he said that this is the nature of working as a site specific artist - You work with what is there, you make allowances, you adapt.
Lisa Berry - recipient of the Northampton University OSOP Bursary.
The final commission, was a photographic record of a participatory project by the recipient of the University of Northampton's student bursary, Lisa Berry (and the only female among the commissioned artists). Lisa's piece tapped into the transient nature of the space - the bus station is not a destination in itself, but rather a space that people move through to get somewhere else - a non-place. Lisa worked with the public as they moved through the space, asking them to plot out their journey, using wool and ribbon in order to allow their movement to leave a trace. The 'traces' were then photographed and displayed within the bus station.
We then moved on to Northampton's Fishmarket - now an exciting art venue, set up eighteen months ago by Northampton's Art Collective.
The Northampton Art collective are an independently run - not-for-profit arts organisation, committed to 'enriching people's lives through the arts.' They set up the Fishmarket as an art space 18 months ago. The Fishmarket houses two dedicated gallery spaces, a number of independent retail spaces - some of which have a dual function as workspaces/studios for designers, as well as shopfronts for the artists to sell directly to the public. There is a fantastic cafe - selling yummy food, and an outside garden space. This multi-use space looks like a really fantastic example of artists improving the cultural offering in a town in a sustainable and accessible way. Our discussion happened in the middle of the main space, and so we had a perfect vantage point to see who uses/visits the space on a Saturday afternoon.
Reaching the public - OSOP awareness raising collaborative project.
It felt to me that the diversity of the shops, and the reasonable but desirable cafe has meant that a more varied range of the people are visiting the Fishmarket. In conversation with some of the artists that helped to set up the space, they said it had been a struggle to encourage local people to use the space - but that this seemed to be turning around now. They felt that this was partly due to the cafe's effect - saying that traditionally, the Fishmarket cafe had been a destination for courting couple's and that people were citing this as a reason for visiting, but that also having a good independent cafe in the town was a real draw for people. It may be that people are not visiting the Fishmarket for the primary reason of looking at the art on show, but instead to visit the shops and cafe, but even if the secondary effect is that they end up looking at, enjoying and perhaps even participating in the arts, then I would say that the Northampton Arts Collective are achieving their aims.
This was perhaps in the forefront of the collectives' minds when they selected Louise Clark for their first site-specific commission for the Fishmarket.
Louise described the process of working in the large Fishmarket gallery, with people wandering in throughout the process.
At first, when the space was relatively empty, the public would come in and remain at the edges, but as Louise started to set out her collections of household objects, drawings, and matchsticks, people started to come into the space and engage with the artist - asking questions, offering up thoughts and anecdotes about their own connections and feelings about what the artist was doing in the space. Louise described one particularly touching encounter; one lady came in and donated her entire button collection to the project. The work grew intuitively within the space, and could be seen as a collaboration between the artist and the people of Northampton.
I really felt that the Fishmarket project could be seen as an example of really good practice in setting up an art space in a town or city. The Northampton arts collective have really embraced the need to make the project accessible and inclusive for the public, engaging a wider range of people - which encourages the people for the place to take ownership of the project, which should ensure its survival.


Rich said...

Hi Anna. Thanks for the kind words.
This is a very interesting blog too.

Anna Francis said...

Thanks Rich, glad you found it interesting.
I really liked your piece - there really was something quite sad about it.