Sunday, November 28, 2010

Call the Operator

Last Saturday Katie Shipley, Kate Lynch and I were commissioned by Rednile to carry out 'Call the Operator.'
We were really pleased to get this commission - because two weekends before we had gone along to the Factory Night at the old telephone exchange and been really inspired. (see previous post).
The call for commissions and time frame in which the project needed to happen was very tight, and we didn't actually find out until two days before the event that we had the commission -this meant that we had to make preparations/gather materials before we even knew if we would be commissioned. We were really glad that we were selected, because we all got quite excited about what we were going to do.
The other reason we were so pleased was that we are planning on working on a larger (self-initiated) project in the new year - and so this was a good opportunity to see how we work together and also it could help with funding bids if we have worked on a project together before.

We decided to focus on drawing out the historic, architectural and personal stories around the building - each responding in a different way.Katie found a few ex-trinity workers - and gathered personal stories about the exchange.These were then played through an old telephone situated on the bar in Fat Cats, which Andy helped to rewire.
Kate created this lovely telephone directory - one was placed on each table. On the cover was a small illustration of a traditional old fashioned telephone receiver - which represented Kate - referring to the old style of the directory. The middle illustration represented Katie - showing an image of her old black telephone. and then the modern mobile phone on the end representing me - as the public interactions would use modern technologies - mobile phones. Inside were instructions to select an number from the directory - there were 3 headings: Architectural, Historical and Personal - with a clue by each number. The public could call my number and I was waiting in the side room (originally the room where the public would come to pay their bills.)I was waiting for the calls to come in, and when they did I would say:
'Hallo Operator, which number do you require?'
and then the person on the other end would ask for a number, relating to a piece of information, for example: Caller: 'Number 3 please operator.'
Operator: 'You require Architectural number 3, please hold the line while I try to connect you - thank you - architectural number 3 - Towers have decorative terracotta panels and corbel table and bell-cast tiled roofs and leaded turrets carried on bulbous balusters. Central dormer in roof of 3-lights with pediment. These towers were actually to house pigeons – in the event that the technology should fail, a carrier pigeon could be employed to deliver the message.
Thank you, do you require anything else today sir?

Caller: No that's all thank you operator.
Operator: Have a lovely day, Bye.
Through our research we discovered that the 1960's were the heyday of the telephone exchange, and being an operator was seen as a very prestigious job. That meant the Operator should be well turned out - and so a particular shade of pink lipstick and nail varnish was selected to help with the character.We had 'Call The Operator' posters everywhere in the building and even managed to get them displayed on the television screens.
We had a really great day, and we were particularly pleased with the way the interactions took place, and the interventioist nature of the works - which worked quietly with the buildings history - not jarring against it.
Somone asked me why I needed to be dressed up to do the performance - since noone would see me down the phone. I am not sure why - perhaps just to feel like I was the operator - or perhaps just because I like dressing up?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Factory Night: Fat Cats/Telephone Buildings

I was one of the artists selected to go on The Factory Nights Experience yesterday at Fat Cats Telephone Exchange Building.
I go here for a pint, and have done since the day it opened as Fat Cat Cafe - but have never been upstairs before so I was really keen to be involved in this.
We arrived and were given a short briefing by Michael Branthwaite and Janine Goldsworthy from Rednile Projects. Then there were introductions around the room - to see who everyone was. I knew all but two of the assembled people already - but it was good that there was a mix of disciplines (artists, musicians, writers etc.)
We were then allowed upstairs to the amazing glass roofed room.There were quite a few gasps as people entered the grand room, which was once the switch room for the exchange. The beautiful shape of the ceiling, and ornate glass were fantastic.
Everyone explored the contents of the room - it has become a bit of a dumping ground over the years - but had lots of interesting artifacts to look through. One thing which was commented upon by Greg was that though the books all had the appearance of historical documents it may not be the case that they had lain in the room since the buildings was first in use - many of the the books were actually reproductions - and not really that old. It was thought that it might be more likely that the books had once been bought as a collection in that 1990's pub decor habit of having shelves of books.
There were some great letters lying around - and I thought I would really like to gather these together to create a text piece to install downstairs in the bar - reminding people about the history of the building. I could see what letters there are and then get any extras made at Weston's Signs down the road. It could say 'Call the Operator' in reference to the idea I am working on in response to the event (more about that later.)
One thing I noticed was that quite a few of the people at the event were rearranging and picking up objects from around the room to take home with them. I found this quite difficult as I felt I wanted to capture exactly how the room had been left - before any intervention could be made - this is of course the nature of collaboration! You may not always agree with other people's approach to a situation. I wanted to shout out - stop moving everything! I found my reaction to the situation interesting...Greg had brought his banjo along with him - and gave us all a treat in the form of a rendition of a 200 year old 'Hanley Hornpipe.' Then historian Fred Hughes came along to talk to us about the history of the building - and its layout - which was very interesting.He talked a bit about the front room downstairs being the place that the public would come and queue up to pay their phone bill.Also talking about when the bulk of the machinery moved next door to the big brutalist 1960's telecom building. He pointed out the lines on the floor - which had been painted on as the Managers used this space as a Badminton court. Fred also spoke about the Hanley Railway station which had been nearby - and the fact that Piccadilly Arcade used to be a cinema - these things I am going to research and go and have a look at the remnants.We then returned to the room downstairs for a spot of lunch and quick chat about our initial thoughts and reactions.
Rednile Factory Nights usually lead to commissioned works - and though this is not the only point of the event - I think it's great that artists may have an opportunity to make a piece of work from an inspiring visit.
They have already released a call for proposals in response to the event - and I am formulating a proposal. I would love to develop a new character 'The Operator' - I used to work in the third incarnation of the three Telecom buildings in the vicinity - the newest (and worst architecturally) where I was a 192 operator. I would like to do some kind of performance where people in Fat Cats can call the operator and access information about the history of the Telecom building.I would also like to collaborate on this with Kate Lynch and Katie Shipley. Kate mentioned creating a book and Katie talked about wanting to create something which could go on each table in Fat Cats - so perhaps this could be some kind of telephone directory/menu for people to select the piece of information they want on the telephone. Katie also mentioned the idea of a phone sculpture and when you pick up and listen you hear stories from people who used to work in the building. I am also thinking that perhaps people could get me to deliver their messages for them - I like the way if you send a text message to a house phone you get a computer voice reading it to you - I could ask people to send me their text messages and then I could call the people the messages are for and deliver them in a human way - drawing on the old ways that operators used to pass on messages.
When I worked for 192 we often used to get dirty calls - I wonder if we would get any if we did this?
The proposals have to be in by the end of the week - so there isn't much time to work on this really, but hopefully we will get a chance this week. Even if we don't get selected - it was a great chance to explore one of the city's important heritage buildings, and we had a good morning doing it.

Monday, November 1, 2010

NierghtravAOnWint’sIf A Teller

This is my first London exhibition - and I was really pleased that curator Simon Lewandowski invited me to be involved.
The curatorial project is in 8 chapters - plus a preface and an afterword.
Each week a different artist has been invited to take over the 24/7 space at Gooden Gallery, Vyner Street. There are rules which must be followed - you can add things, but not take anything away. Each chapter should respond to the previous one.
I was randomly given chapter 6.
Two pieces of writing were given by way of an explanation: one was Italo Calvino’s ‘If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller’ - which is a book made up of ten unrelated chapters taken from various books and put together forming an unlikely narrative - and the other an extract from Jonathan Swift's 'Gulliver's Travels'

Before going I started reading Gulliver's Travels in case that may help - and I also paid close attention to the website to see what each other artist did in the preceding weeks.
I felt that a visual response might be required - which is something I am particularly bad at - associating notions of aesthetic with decoration.
The space looked like it was getting fuller and fuller each week - but I also felt that I would have to wait until I was confronted with the physical space before deciding what I might do, to some extent. I did wish to explore the idea that as artists we are often mistaken for 'window dressers' - and decorators. I was worried that my response might look like this - so decided to directly confront that.
Recently two things have been levelled at me which have made me think: one involved a discussion over a commission which a council wish to make for an artist to decorate some new toilets - I felt strongly that artists should not be commissioned to decorate toilets - but rather perhaps to design a concept for the toilets (being involved in the beginning, rather than as an afterthought at the end.)
The second thing that has bothered me was in regards to being described as a social activist - and being asked if I felt my practice in some way responds to a need. This is also something which I feel uncomfortable about - and wish to explore further.
I am pleased that I was able to incorporate these thoughts into the window piece - the previous weeks artists had used diamante rhinestones and glitter perhaps to make the place look cheerful and sparkly - which certainly upholds the idea of making things look nice. I brought similar along with me.
When we actually arrived at the space Simon was there to meet us. I was surprised by the way the window space and everything in it had looked deceptively different on photographs.
The other thing that surprised me was my own reaction to the space. I had originally intended to almost move everything aside in the space - creating a pile of stuff and effectively getting back to a blank canvas - but once there and confronted with the work of other artists I suddenly felt unable to be so ruthless. Instead I decorated what had been there before with glitter spray, rhinestones and bunting- and worked within the gaps that were still remaining - writing a statement on the wall about social activism, and finishing decorating a letter A which someone else had started previously. I also placed some blank pages on the wall - waiting for the next part of the conversation. I hope someone might do something with them. The bunting worked well - and I think suggests 'community minded artwork' well. Perhaps talking about celebration and events. I will be interested to see what happens next week - I wonder if they will take a more ruthless approach - it seems like they must do something drastic as the space is pretty full now. The strange glittery pink chandelier in the middle takes quite a bit of the attention - and the Gooden Gallery curator mentioned to me at the end of the day when I was finished that I could have moved it - or destroyed it - perhaps suggesting that they wished I had!
I rather enjoyed the problem of what to do when confronted by the space - and needing to respond quickly - in particular since I am so bad at making things look nice. I don't think that in the end I succeeded in making the space look nice at all.
Everyone at the Gallery was really friendly and welcoming - and also I am really pleased that the show has been voted in the Top 5 on Time Out's First Thursday - so hopefully will get quite a few visitors this week!