Last Wednesday six artists arrived at The New Art Gallery Walsall, with instructions to meet a (heavily disguised) contact, and deliver a particular code phrase. The week's mission was to be Collaboration, and we had two pairs who had applied together to collaborate, and two separate individuals (strangers to each other) who would be put together to collaborate.
The artists arrived one by one, and were instructed individually to change into their agent uniforms, and make contact with their collaborators. First to arrive was Agent Marsden, closely followed by her collaborator Agent Taylor. The two were keen to make contact with each other, and get into their uniforms. In fact expressing that they were quite used to moustaches.
Next came Agent Holdcroft, who tried to disobey instructions and had to be put straight by Agent Orange. Then came one of the two individual collaborators - Agent Strain. Followed quickly after by her soon-to-be-partner Agent Shipley. The agents were hurriedly getting into their uniforms, while the lead interrogator waited for the final collaborator to arrive. We waited and waited, but Agent Charnley failed to appear.
Finally around 15 minutes later the tardy agent made an appearance. It later transpired that the Agent had failed to understand the instructions given, and had to be severely reprimanded by Agent Orange - it was clear that Agent Holdcroft and Agent Charnley were going to be a handful!
The agents waited in line on the chairs to have their mug shots taken. They all looked suitably nervous, and there was even a bit of apprehensive whispering going on, which was quickly cut short by Agent Francis - who sternly said 'No Talking Please!'
The agents underwent their deprogramming process, in preparation for the days mission. Then the Masterclass got underway. Agent Francis introduced the agents to the notion of collaborative practice, and offered a methodology for the days mission.Then the agents were taken on a whistle stop tour of the gallery, looking out of the windows at the square below, and taking the lift up to the roof to get an idea of the landscape and immediate environs. Pausing briefly for a group photo... Before returning to the Interrogation Room for lunch and a planning session. The Agents prepared themselves for their missions - with Agents Taylor and Marsden creating their (Inter)rogation Station, Agents Charnley and Holdcroft drafting plans and then building a paper wall.And Agents Shipley and Strain (who perhaps had the most challenging experience, having never met before) planning their strategy, and going to the local shop to arm themselves with protective clothing and a rake.The Agents were soon ready to launch themselves on an unsuspecting Walsall public.
The (Inter)rogation Station was set up on the left hand side of Gallery square. Agent Marsden and Agent Taylor had come prepared for their mission - with badges declaring I'm (inter) Walsall, and with postcards which people could fill in and send back by post. Their Interrogation mission saw them consulting the public using a textual aid - a sign which bore the word (inter) - the participant was invited to write a word under the (inter) which expressed how they felt about Walsall. The agents would then photograph the individual holding their sign. They managed to engage a large number of respondents in this manner. The surprising thing for the agents was the negativity expressed by the public. It is unclear what caused this (bad weather??) but many of the words written down were negative - for example (inter) bad memories. It was a great idea to have something to exchange with people (for their thoughts) and is certainly something that I have found in previous consultation/participation projects - the public are very happy to engage and even happier when they get to take something home with them. They collected some really interesting responses, and also generated lots of fantastic photos of the people of Walsall.
Agent Holdcroft and Agent Charnley took their paper wall out into the square and attempted to create a paper barrier across the square, which they hoped to encourage people to write on. The wind however had other ideas, and saw the agents struggling to assemble the wall.
At first it looked like it might work, as they slowly unrolled their wall. But once the wind had taken it, the wall started to rip, and so the artists had to adapt to their new situation. The wall was flapping noisily around, and seemed to deter a good number of the public from approaching.The agents decided to work with this rupture in their paper barrier, and attached the wall to the ground and clearly indicated in chalk where the break in the barrier had occurred. They then created a performance space, within the middle of the break where one of them would lie down - in a passive protest - symbolising escape and resistance to power structures. Every now and again the Agent within the circle would come out of their foetal position, jumping up and crying out 'See through the glass!' or 'Lets do something different' or simply letting out an anguished cry. The agents were fairly experimental in their approach to the performative element of the work - testing out their bodies and vocal chords in this new situation. While one of them was performing in the space, the other one was involved in an engagement activity, talking to members of the public about what it might all be about, and acting as a bridge between the public and the performance art work. This was important to them, as they felt that often work of this nature could be inaccessible, and they were interested in exploring the role of dialogues when working within the public realm.
Agent Shipley and Strain had decided to focus their activity at the back of the gallery, on the Canal.
They put on their protective clothing and went outside to dredge the canal - taking out a variety of discarded objects: bottles, teabags, condoms, cans, plastic - there were also some needles floating around in the canal.The agents first laid out their finds in lines on the ground - creating an interesting display.While one of them emptied the objects out the other one would be ordering them into lines.
Then they decided to use the objects to draw attention to Richard Wentworth's piece of public art - the stripey floor, that continues on up the canal away from the New Art Gallery Walsall.
They lined up the bottles and other objects into what reminded some of mini city scapes. The city scapes were carefully placed on each stripe, as far along the canal as can be seen from the gallery. They then selected one object from each grouping, which was then tied onto a long string, in order to create a long floating sculpture, which they returned to the canal - and floated back home to the gallery. The Agents then took their rubbish floating sculpture and removed it from the canal for good. One passerby asked, 'what's happened - has there been a murder?' responding to the Agents protective outerwear - if ignoring the moustaches.Then all of the agents returned to the interrogation room to talk about what happened, and work out how to disseminate their findings, and eat some cake.They decided as a group to have two of the collaborations working from the top of the space downwards, and then the other one to work from the bottom up and try to coincide somewhere in the middle. The resulting wall space was vibrant and interesting, representative of the days mission.