LightingUpTime : Darwin bicentenary public art commission

January 10, 2009

In October 2008 digital artist Andy McKeown (www.junctionbox98.net) and I were awarded a grant from the Arts Council West Midlands and Shrewsbury & Atcham Borough Council to produce public art and develop community arts involvement in Shrewsbury throughout 2009 – to celebrate the town’s most famous son, Charles Darwin, and the legacy of his ideas. Our proposal, LightingUpTime, was to make small-scale and very large work, for brief periods, using light and light projection all over the town, working with local schoolchildren, young parents, art students and undergraduates.Events will be recorded in a website (www.LightingUpTime.net – under construction) and on the local Council’s website (http://www.discoverdarwin.co.uk/festival-events).

We kicked off 2009 at midnight on New Year’s Eve 2008 with a large scale projection of the entire text of Origin of Species (softly falling in many colours and layers; 45 min loop) onto the side wall of the 1960’s Market Hall (from upstairs in MossBros opposite).

In preparation for LightingUpTime, in December 2008 we projected photographs of details of C19th Shrewsbury architectural features associated with Darwin in a klaidescoped animation (created by Andy McKeown) onto the floor of the town’s St Chad’s church (www.stchadschurchshrewsbury.com) during a performance by the internationally famous Ex-Cathedra choir (www.ex-cathedra.org) see video below; we projected a moving ‘newsfeed’ of text describing Darwin’s voyage on The Beagle, created by a Year 9 pupil at a local school, across the front of the Unitarian Church where the boy Darwin worshipped; and, using three projectors housed in small tents in the gardens, experimented with a massive projection across the whole facade of Shrewsbury Public Library - where Darwin went to school.

I am currently editing a video interview with Elaine Morgan – author of the contested ‘Descent of Woman’ (www.elainemorgan.me.uk/), about her Kuhnian struggle to bring new ideas into the scientific establishment , which in many ways mirrors Darwin’s own – and describing key concepts in the theory of evolution. I am collaborating with Elaine Morgan to host a public seminar ‘What Makes Us Human ?‘ in February, a month which also sees a large number of well-funded public events in Shrewsbury featuring British and American Creationist scientists, which position evolution as a ‘contested and outdated theory’. At that event we may show work based on the text of her latest book ‘The Naked Darwinist’.

During the year, our interactive installation ‘Dear Maurice’, which plays with ideas about DNA and utopian society and won the Whittingham Riddell Open Regional Prize in 2006 (www.mediamaker.tv/mm_docs/ArPr_jul06.php), will show in a gallery in the local Museum. During 2009, I hope to make work around the idea of ‘analogy’ and ‘empathy’ – drawing on research I’ve recently done  for my MA in Fine Art at BIAD (BIAD.bcu.ac.uk) and Darwin’s idea that collaboration played a key role in the development of human beings.

Newtown Mountain – curating an Exhibition

January 10, 2009

Exhibition theme: I first started researching the abandoned squatters’ village on Ruabon Mountain in the second year of my BA Fine Art at the Birmingham Institute of Art & Design (www.biad.bcu.ac.uk), taking photographs and printmaking. I continued to visit the site, and its  ruins of tiny houses built by economic migrants and ‘marginalised’ people, home now only to quail and buzzards, sleeping out there in the Summer and so on. I made a video (which sits alongside my previous themes, eg ‘Reading Agatha Christie’ 2007 , made with Iraqi Kurds), about ‘difference’, migration and our feelings about the ‘natural’ environment (see video ‘Lle y dan ni, Artur? 2008 below in this blog). I invited three local artists (see below in blog) to visit the site and make work in response to it and to the available gallery space. When I had a sense of all the final pieces, I made a sound piece (‘I live Here’ 2008 see below in this blog) which played throughout the space, hoping it would push viewers towards reflecting on the common theme of the show; not just a response to ‘place’ but to the ideas of ‘place’, belonging, difference, home, migration.

The Venue: In May 2008 I started work at Glyndwr University School of Art in Wrexham, North Wales (http://www.newi.ac.uk/en/Academicschools/ArtandDesign/). I looked for the opportunity to curate an exhibition, which I had only done before with help (from ‘Colony’ artist Mona Casey (see Colony (art gallery) Wikepedia) as coordinating artist for a community arts show ‘Inside/Outside’ at Bantock House, Wolverhampton Art Gallery (http://www.theasiantoday.com/article.aspx?articleID=65). Exhibitions officer Jonathon Gammond of Wrexham Museum (see below in this blog) agreed to support an art show (for the first time) with generous ‘in kind’ support and a small room containing three immoveable , lit glazed plinths, a TV monitor and stand, chairs and white wall space. The quid pro quo was that the show might attract ‘new audiences’ to the museum. Therefore the work produced by myself and three local artists was partly in response to the theme, and partly site specific to this room. I chose this small, local museum because the exhibition theme worked with it; and because part of the artwork was an invite to visitors to add their own ‘collections’ to the show – echoing the provenance of donated museum exhibits.

Curation: I wanted to make a show that was accessible to the museum-going public (ie met their initial expectations) but also challenged their expectations and provoked thought. I expected that most visitors would be local, so the issue of local history and current migration would be live to them. It was important that the voices heard on the sound piece from the door of the gallery were familiar – traditionally local (Welsh and English) – as well as ‘foreign’ – and the names of well-known local places, housing estates, hills etc could be heard.

Newtown Mountain – how the exhibition came about

January 10, 2009

Video (7 mins) of Sue Challis telling the story of Newtown Mountain, the research and how the exhibition came about at the Exhibition Private View on Friday 28th November 2008. (The show runs until February 21st 2009, Mon-Sat, Museum opening hours).

The exhibition attracted considerable local media (in Clwyd and Cheshire) articles and many local residents visited the exhibition – several with stories of relatives born or lived in the village – all grist to the mill of a bid for funds to tour the show ! Publicity – see  http://www.chestereveningleader.co.uk/features/Abandoned-village-is-not-forgotten.4847340.jp

Newtown Mountain – Exhibition : Wrexham Museum

January 9, 2009

Wrexham Borough County Museum is a small, local museum in the town centre in the soft sandstone shell of a C19th Army Barracks and Police Station (more information on the museum at http://www.wrexham.gov.uk/english/heritage/wrexham_museum.htm ). It houses an eclectic local collection and occasional touring exhibitions. Star of the show is ‘Brymbo Man’, the skeleton of an early Bronze Age man kept in a cask in the central exhibition space.

Brymbo Man's Head (reproduction); Kirsty Hillyer, Dir 'Multistory' community arts company, West Bromwich (real)

(Right) Brymbo Man's Head (reproduction); (left) Kirsty Hillyer, Director 'Multistory' community arts company, West Bromwich (real: see http://www.multistory.org.uk) at the Private View

Newtown Mountain – Exhibition notes – participants

January 9, 2009

I invited three local artists, two of whom also show internationally, to visit Newtown Mountain. Andy McKeown  (www.andymckeown.com) built a digital ‘collectionBox’ into which visitors can scan their written, drawn responses to the show – or photograph images, small objects etc with a screen displayinging up to 45,000 images (below centre). Tim Pugh (www.timpugh.co.uk)  created a ‘design sheet’ using his own photographs, maps, collages and drawings (detail below left). Simon Howe made three sculptures fusing embedded glass and stone from the village itself  (below right). I made a video (for TV monitor)  and sound piece (see both below in the blog) which filled the gallery space.sany00044

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Newtown Mountain – Exhibition notes continued : design

January 9, 2009

Simon Howe's 'Qualities and use of Stone' 2008 showing labelling and displayThe graphic design for the posters and labelling of the show was in the hands of the Museum and their design department. I provided two images (photographs taken by one of the artists), and chose the final design from two produced which was used for the posters, invites and fliers – see the design below. This was part of the Museum’s not inconsiderable  ‘in kind’ contribution to the exhibition. I felt the style of design reflected the ‘cross-over’ nature of the event – and certainly  more ‘museum’ than ‘gallery’. There is much more a sense of ‘information delivery’ in museum labelling. For example, I had envisaged the room as a fairly empty space with lots of white wall space which would draw attention to the artworks. The Museum curator added an exhibition poster (inside the gallery) and several information panels (maps, handouts etc), extra chairs etc. This may have made the exhibition more accessible to museum visitors, meeting their initial expectations – although they may have felt some confusion as they engaged with the elliptical nature of the artwork. It’s hard to identify the exact genre of the style: over the past three years I have been filming and researching traditional museum collections; in retrospect I might have discussed creating a ‘faux’ traditional collection style with the Museum which would have fitted well with the ‘local’ starting point of the artwork and the theme of the exhibition.

Newtown Mountain – Exhibition notes continued: Sue’s sound art

January 9, 2009

‘I live Here’ 2008 Sue Challis – sound piece played continually in the gallery from wall mounted speakers. Snatches of conversation with ‘local’ people describing their attachment the place they live – Wrexham – interwoven with ambient sound from Newtown Mountain – streams, birds, stones moving. The voices suggest a thread of stories of settlement and movement : Welsh, Polish, Portugese, Chinese and English. The sound piece was designed to suggest a link between the themes of place, migration and the natural environment – variously represented by the different artists. (‘I Live Here’ played without visuals : it is shown here with a clip from ‘Le y dan ni, Artur?’ for technical reasons)

Newtown Mountain – Exhibition poster and publicity

January 8, 2009

Bi-lingual A3 poster, also in Polish and Portugese, produced by the Museum’s in-house design team using an image by participating artist Simon Howe; also used for A4 flier and postcard Private View invites. The Museum used its mailout and a local press release to publicise the show; the artists put up posters (including in local Polish and Portugese shops) and distributed e-fliers to their own contacts. Articles appeared in the Wrexham Leader and the Evening Post.

January 8, 2009

Newtown Mountain Exhibition poster

Newtown Mountain – Exhibition notes continued : Sue’s video

January 8, 2009

‘Lle y dan ni, Artur?’ (2008 )  is a short film made by Sue Challis with Halina and Artur Stach. During the exhibition it played continually on a monitor with two headphones.

In ‘Lle y dan ni, Artur?’ (Welsh for ‘Where are we, Artur?’ ) a young Polish couple find themselves on a bleak North Wales hillside, amid the ruins of a C19th squatters’ village, once home to economic migrants and socially marginalised people on the edge of an industrial border town. Subtitles in Polish, English and Welsh, and the ambiguous setting, combine to evoke in the viewer some of the confusion that migration between cultures and languages might produce, only partially resolved by the protaganists’ determination to learn English and ‘make their way’ into an unknown future.


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