Sunday, November 1, 2009


On Wednesday, 30th September five artists arrived at The New Art Gallery Walsall, with instructions to meet a (heavily disguised) contact, and deliver a particular code phrase. As with previous weeks they had each received a text message the night before instructing them on what to do and what to say - the code phrase which they had to deliver was 'The concrete hippo is on the move' relating to Walsall's (arguably) most popular piece of public art. Their contact would them ask them the question 'Are you an agent for change?' to which they would usually say yes (although one confused agent said, 'No, I thought I was an agent for Interrogation!') They would then have to show their i.d. before being issued with an agent i.d. card and sent up to the Interrogation room. On arrival in the Interrogation room they would be issued with their uniforms, paperwork and materials fee (£20) They would have to quickly change into their uniform, before being made to sit silently in a row to be photographed. Intervention agents were: Agent Doubleday (below)
and Agent Duffy (both from Open City.)Agent Pitt.Agent Smith.
and Agent Winnett.
The entire process up to this point is designed to make the agents feel uncomfortable, in order to disarm them and perhaps encourage them to work differently to their usual approach to practice. The last week's mission was Intervention, and there was to be 3 artists working alone, and one pair that had applied together (from Open City). We were surprised ourselves when we were expecting one agent from Open City, (AGENT BROWN) but another turned up in his place (AGENT DUFFY), due to unforeseen illness. Though this was most irregular, there was no real problem, as the replacement agent had worked with Open City on various projects as well.As with the previous weeks the Agents were fully briefed on their Mission for the day, contracts were signed and then a masterclass to explore precedence and methodologies for the day took place.
Then we went on the whistle stop tour of the gallery - starting on the roof to see the view...
And checking out the view from Gallery Four...
Before the fastest viewing of Gordon Cheung's show ever, quick peak at the video piece:We then went outside to look at the target area, and take a group photo.Before pausing to consider directions...Then back inside for lunch and planning time.Getting some funny looks from visiting school groups on the way.This weeks artists seemed to want to get outside as soon as possible, and a few even went back outside to continue the planning process.
The Open City artists had decided to use their £20 materials fees as cash payments for members of the public, who they hoped to engage in their project. This had caused a bit of a problem, as all monies had to be accounted for - with any money spent being replaced by a receipt. A bit of negotiation with Longhouse was necessary to agree that the artists could write an invoice for the entire amount, rather than getting a receipt from each member of the public engaged. Agent Doubleday and Agent Duffy got their materials fees changed into £1 coins, and then went out into Gallery Square to start negotiations with the public. They were interested in the way people move through public space, and in the way that public life is speeding up all the time. People no longer seem to have time to stop and contemplate, pausing in our busy lives to look around us, or think for a moment about where we are going, preferring to hasten through life, getting from a to b with no thought for the journey. They decided to negotiate with the public, offering them payment for their time. They would have to stand still in one spot, for an agreed amount of time, for an agreed amount of money. In order to get paid the member of the public would have to stand absolutely still, not smile, talk or laugh, and just look in one direction - effectively becoming a human statue for a few minutes. Some people were more happy to be employed in this way than others. This pair of participants drove a hard bargain, but negotiations finally saw them settle on being paid £1 per minute, and that they would stand still for 5 minutes. Part of their agreement was that there would only be one photo of their faces taken, and that their faces should not appear anywhere on the Internet (hence the back shot).Other participants were cheaper, and more willing to get involved, but one participant had to give up half way through - finding it impossible to stand still for the allotted length of time.
The interesting phenomenon which occurred as a result of this activity, was that other members of the public (not being paid) would stand completely still in other parts of the square, watching the standers, and extending the project. Once the participants had finished their allotted time slot, they would be paid, and then a postcard would be left on the ground where they had been. The postcard read:
Time: Next Saturday at Noon
Place: In front of the City Hall
Action: Assemble facing towards the steps.
Fix your gaze and remain completely still.

Perhaps the most enthusiastic (and most knowledgeable on all matters of espionage) agent of the entire project was Agent Pitt. Pitt had come prepared for his mission, having already created some Dope books (spy notebooks where details of assassinations and spy subjects are recorded), but Agent Pitt was also very prepared to respond to the givien situation on the day, like all good agents. Agent Pitt set himself up a base in the centre of Gallery Square, and set out a collection of postcards purchased from The gallery shop, showing selected artworks from the Gallery's collection. These he intended to use by persuading the public to write innocuous thoughts and remarks onto - they would then be posted to various intelligence agencies worldwide (CIA, MI5 etc), as these were to be what in spy language are called 'Innocent Postcards.' Spies use Innocent postcards to activate other agents.
Here is Agent Pitt persuading Bob and Roberta Smith to fill out one of the innocnet postcards.Another intervention which Agent Pitt carried out involved various formation of chocolate MICE around the square, the significance is that MICE is a spy acronym meaning Money, Ideology, Compromise and Ego. Which Pitt said could also be an apt description for most public art.
Then the dope books came into their own, vantage points around the gallery were selected, and the dope books left in the vantage points - resulting in three different assassinations around Gallery Square: one using the old poisoned umbrella technique,one saw the accidental death of a raven
and the final one seemingly a suicide (though possible murder staged to look like suicide.)It was very impressive to see just how much could be achieved by one person in one day. Excitingly Agent Pitt remained undercover for a while longer - taking Interrogation to the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square - very exciting: click here to watch Agent Pitt's continuation of the project.Agent Smith responded to the Floral/natural still life section of the Garman Ryan Collection, and decided to create an opportunity to make connect the collection with the public in Walsall. Agent Smith purchased lillies, cyclamen, turnips and other natural objects which can be found in the collection, and held a Free Garman Ryan Tombola. Members of the public would come over, and be invited to select a raffle ticket. If there ticket number matched with a number of one of the Garman Ryan objects, then they had won. But in order to take their prize with them they would have to draw a picture of the natural object.This was a lovely idea, that these real objects, now represented inside the gallery within the collection, had made there way out into the public realm, effectively raising awareness about the art works they were now representing. The public would then create a representation of that object, which then returned to the gallery to be exhibited as part of the Interrogation Room. A fantastic exchange had taken place.Even people who won a turnip were pleased, and each person was given a leaflet about the collection, which could encourage them to visit the gallery (and in some cases actually did.)
The final Interrogation project was Agent Winnett's Heritage Fishing.It was during the process of putting up this sign to advertise the fishing that the video camera was lost. Agent Orange was helping Agent Winnett with the unwieldy sign, and somehow the video camera was dropped into the canal. Plop. Luckily, Agent Winnett's trusty fishing device (an extra strong magnet) saw the camera being fished out, but unluckily it no longer worked...Agent Winnett had noticed that there were quite a few romantic views of fishing shown in the Gallery's collection.He was interested in exploring the romanticism of being a lone fisherman on the canalside, but he was not fishing for fish, but heritage. Referring to the importnace of the canal in Walsall's industrial history, he used his extra strong magnet to fish the canal for metal treasures dropped by the canal boaters into the murky depths.
Swords were discovered, as well as various saddles with badges (directly referencing Walsall's two main industries, stirrup and saddle making and mining for metals.)It was a site to behold, as Agent Winnett pulled one treasure after another from the water. It was almost as if someone had planted all of these treasures there for him to find! Members of the public would come along to watch, letting out shocked gasps whenver a new treasure was discovered. One eager onlooker informed me that Winnett was using the wrong equipment, saying what he really needed was a more traditional approach. He was keen to show the giant fish he had caught in that very spot the week before!Agent Winnett's project attracted the attention of a purely male audience, and they were keen to discuss the canal and its fruits.Everyone returned to the Interrogation Room to mount their documentation, and as with other weeks, this group decided to split the space into columns, with one column per project. It was the last mission, and so we all went to the pub for a pint afterwards.