So last Wednesday four artists arrived at The New Art Gallery Walsall, armed with a set of instructions, and a sense of anticipation. First to make contact was Agent Kemp, who was quick to change into her agent uniform, and seemed a keen recruit.
Then came Agent Griffiths, who, it turned out, had made an undercover reconnaissance mission to the gallery the day before to scope out the scene.Next was Agent Beavis-Harrison.
And finally came Agent Armstrong.
It transpires that Agent Beavis-Harrison and Agent Armstrong actually came as a pair, and have previously gone undercover as EXIT HERE, and so would be working together during the day.
The agents received their briefing, which entailed exploring popular for creative consultation, information about the gallery and the process of designing and building it. A fair amount of detail was given in to the audience development activity, and consultation that happened between 1995 and 2000, during the design and build process, as this was relevant background information for the agents, and showed the commitment that the gallery has in terms of connecting with local people, and could also (I believe) be seen as a model of best practice, in terms of the development of cultural buildings with public money. Some examples of artists using consultation within their practice were given, and then the Agents were taken on a tour of the gallery and surrounding area.
The artists were then given an hour and a bit to plan their response. An interesting synchronicity appeared to be going on, with Agents Kemp and Griffiths deciding to work together - having identified that they had similar ideas about how to respond, and had actually brought similar materials with them to work with. Agent Griffiths had brought some long strings of net with her in white and pink, and Agent Kemp had brought long pieces of elastic bungee in yellow, white and blue. After planning what they intended to investigate, and how they might record their findings, the Agents went out into the square to get started.The first thing they did was to set up a space on a nearby wall to record the public reaction to the intervention they planned to make on the square. The recording area would consider the public reaction to their intervention, in terms of whether the public would interact with the intervention, simply comment on it, or ignore it. They had previously discussed (within the interrogation room) the importance of collating the data, and the fact that it was necessary for one person to 'interact' with the public while the other recorded. They discussed the need for these two roles to be covered, but were aware that one of the roles was less interesting for the artist than the other.This would explain why any commitment to this process yielding scientifically verifiable data seems to have quickly been discarded - as both artists chose to be active participants in terms of 'engaging the public' rather than one having to record the results of the engagement. This is entirely understandable, given the short time allotted to the active part of the mission.
Their main question involved engaging the public in debate over the use and purpose of Gallery Square. They decided to engage the public in activity within the square as a distraction technique, to get them to be more open and creative in their thinking about what they would like to see the square used for. Starting with very accessible questions, like do you come here often, and moving onto what do you usually do here, and then further to what could be done here, and what would you like to see happen here. They began creating personal creative spaces with members of the public - in the form of individual circles drawn around the participants feet. The participant was then encouraged to say what they might like to use their personal creative space for. The artists found that this question was quite difficult for people to respond to immediately, being quite conceptual, and quickly adapted their questioning methods, to encourage the participants to think about the sort of activities they enjoy, or would like to do.
This activity was just a bit of a warm up, but received very positive responses from the people engaged. Then Agent Griffiths and Kemp threaded the bungee chord between the enormous stadium style lamp posts, effectively creating a barrier across the square, in response to the way that the public walks directly across the edge of the square, avoiding the gallery. This started as just a simple line, which people would either avoid or limbo under, or there was a way of walking close to the wall - which meant you could safely get under the rope.
The artists set out to record responses on the wall.Then over time more bungee chords were added and the activity in the square became more complex. Soon groups started to interact with the artists, to make a giant cat's cradle in the square.
The artists worked with the groups to create variously shaped spaces in the middle of the square, and then engaged the participants in conversation over what the space in the middle could/should be used for. It seemed to me like a very successful participatory method, creating a literal, physical creative space which was used as a consultation tool. As well as this the public square was brought alive, and the public were 'moved' to negotiate the space differently, due to the activity going on. Later the agents decided to test out some individual ideas for working within the space. Agent Kemp occupied the seating area on one side of the main square, using the bungee to cordon off the benches creating an interesting sculptural effect. She found that the passive approach, patiently waiting for members of the public to come and interact was not as effective as the earlier activist approach. Agent Griffiths created a large sign asking 'What is this area for'?' and hung it in the middle of the square. She then used this as a prop for getting people talking. The wind unfortunately had a negative effect on this, buffeting the sign about in an alarming way, which seemed to keep the public away.
The consultation technique employed by Agent Beavis-Harrison and Agent Anderson complemented the cat's cradle activity, and in fact may have benefited from the 'cordoning off' effect of the bungee rope. These agents went to the local hardware store and armed themselves with white gaffa tape, as well as white boards and broom handles, which they turned into signs.They decided to mark out an alternate route in the square, which would aim to reroute the public's usual journey across the edge of the square, bringing the public closer to the gallery than before. They then proceeded to march up and down the line they had created carrying signs which said art first 'Walk The New Route Today' which seemed to work quite well, but Agent Beavis-Harrison had written 'Take A Walk' on her sign which some people seemed to find a source of antagonism - responding with 'I'll walk where I want to thanks!' The two experimented with semantics further trying out 'STOP' which did physically stop a few passersby and then 'WALK A NEW WAY.' They offered to accompany members of the public along the new route they had created, and while en route would ask them questions about the square, and its uses.As well as this they carried out a poll to see how many people in a 15 minute timescale would walk the usual route through the square, and how many would walk the new route, as proposed by them.
They found that 80% walked the usual route and 20% walked the new route.
Over the day as well as this interesting piece of quantitative gathered data, both groups were gathering qualitative data, in the form of comments made by the public. Here are a selection of some of them:
ABOUT THE SQUARE:
'Why don't you move the building forward?'
'Do something with the wind - with colours!'
'Make it a welcoming area'
'Get a plinth - like trafalgar square'
'Get a statue - like the bull in the bullring'
'This is the gateway to Walsall'
'I'd like an outside gym'
'I'd like a moustache shop'
'Id like floor art - outside the gallery'
'I never use the benches'
'They have performances inside - why not outside?'
About the artist's interventions:
'Why don't you walk around like normal people?'
'I love my own circle here - being in my own space.'
'I'll walk where I want!'
'You're invading my space!'
'Brendan and Chantelle skipped with the elastic'
'I've never really though of walking a new way!'