How Central St Martins took over the Tate for a week to engage with the public on art, science, education and politics
Jewellery evoking the most isolated inhabited place on the planet. A collectively constructed oversize data visualisation of climate change affecting the Indus Valley. A giant pinhole camera capturing the Shard. A wall comprised solely of doodles. Therapy. Experiments measuring the heartbeats and brainwaves of individuals engaging in various activities. Collages created by solar light.
Where can you see all of this under one roof? A science lab? A toyshop? The library of a medical research institution? NASA?!
”Liberate yourself from your dearest objects” – Çağlar Tahiroğlu
Actually the usual answer is the studio of Central Saint Martin’s MA Art and Science programme. Here, on a given day, you will find students using embroidery thread to measure perceptions of identity, making solar prints, carving marble (and measuring their heartbeat as they do so), using cola cans to produce long exposures of the sun’s trajectory through winter. However, except for one day a year, the studio is the preserve of the students and tutors involved in the course, and not ordinarily open to the public.
But for the week of 9th January this all changed. Central Saint Martins brought the studio out of the university and into the public in the week long event ‘THIS IS AN ART SCHOOL’. And what more public setting than the fifth floor of the Tate’s new Switch House building, overlooking the Thames, St Paul’s Cathedral, a sizeable number of luxury new flats, and, well, half of London.
Indeed it seemed like half of London came out to join us. Perhaps persuaded by press coverage in the Guardian, Evening Standard and Channel 4 News, waves of visitors descended on the Tate Exchange, the Tate’s space ‘for everyone to collaborate, test ideas and discover new perspectives on life, through art’.
As a result, Olga Suchanova guided 448 people through her camera obscura, the same basic device used by Aristotle, da Vinci and Vermeer to observe the world (and nowadays used for such diverse purposes as astronomy, art, medicine and high-energy physics). Enthusiastic viewers included teachers who are inspired to build a camera obscura in their school playground, and visitors who now want to open their own version as an art gallery.
The camera obscura worked better on sunny days, and solar radiation also played a key role in Lisa Pettibone’s homemade photographic prints. ‘Students’ (curious members of the public) created collages on special photosensitive paper, using materials such as sand, glitter, foil, string and hair clips. Collages were then placed next to the Tate’s large windows to expose, and after 20 minutes would bear an elaborate series of negative shapes flattened onto a pictorial surface.
“It wasn’t the creativity or kind of zen order that surprised me most about the Tate art school. It was the crackling atmosphere that permeated the experimental thrust of it all” – Lisa Pettibone
Audience participation underpinned a number of the ‘lessons’ taking place in THIS IS AN ART SCHOOL. Tere Chadwick’s interactive events included a talk on books about Easter Island, an origami-packaging workshop, and a weeklong display of 21 goldsmith pieces based on Easter Island culture and archaeology. UNESCO has declared this Polynesian culture a World Heritage site for its uniqueness in being the most isolated inhabited place in the planet. Tere had political messages in her work. On the one hand, she considers whether globalisation is driving ethnic cultures to lose their identity. On the other, she uses her origami workshop to show how packaging could be made much more sustainable: a single sheet of recyclable paper is folded into a sturdy box.
Gary Scott’s interactive work also had an important political dimension. ‘Students’ were asked to produce a doodle without ‘thinking’. They were encouraged not to be considered in their approach but to ‘play’ to allow input direct from the unconscious and to express the creative impulse. The global concerns of our time (resolving conflict, climate change, immigration and a tough economic environment, etc) require creative solutions. Gary believes there is a danger that our education system is producing a generation who think within the ‘academic’ box. If creative subjects could be made compulsory at secondary school, he contends, we would be a richer, more contented and balanced society that would find better solutions to the big issues. Gary’s wall of doodles was designed to inspire and ignite creativity in individuals, but was also a call for change.
“This project might not seem like a big deal to the ‘art world’ but for people who feel marginalised or even afraid of art, the opportunity to contribute to an installation at the Tate presented a powerful message” – Gary Scott
Building walls is topical at the moment, and it is interesting that another was created by Stephen Bennett, one also containing a political message. However, instead of a message of divide, this wall could only be built through collaboration. Working with whoever wanted to sit down and paint, Stephen relied on gallery visitors to produce 64 single 15x15cm sheets of different colours. When put together, they formed a giant, homemade data visualisation of the climate change affecting the Indus Valley on the Pakistan-India border. Stephen’s work was an experiment to consider whether people become more invested in evidence when they actively participate in its creation, especially when it takes the identity of a piece of art.
Ellie Sher also created a participant-built data visualisation, innovatively using embroidery thread to capture information. Ellie is interested in the psychological and philosophical questions surrounding identity; how we communicate our identity and what strands of identity are most pivotal to our sense of self. Her piece at the Tate explored the top 3 strands of identity selected by people, who chose different colours of thread and matched it to different notches on a constructed frame. Some examples of the strands include cultural, social, memories, genetics, aura, and work. There was a lot of interaction with the piece. It raised a lot of questions and provoked discussion, as the topic of identity often does, but also resulted in a beautiful and fragile piece of art.
Data collection also underpinned Juan Perez’s work, which is centred on real-time sculpting of marble. This marble piece is only worked upon whilst exhibited. Data is collected from the performer’s oxygen levels and heart rate, whilst performing. An invitation is made for the viewer to be part of the piece, by adding his/her own oxygen and heart rates to the database, and, if desired, for their information to be used and uploaded to the web, as this project grows. The piece, titled ‘Work in Progress’ is an on-going project that constantly develops ways to question the relationships that our bodies have with the realms of art, physical labour, desire and globalisation.
Monika Dorniak’s interactive event also explored how important body processes responded to artistic performances. Her workshop provided information about body rhythms including heartbeats, breathing and brain waves, and the effect of various stimuli (stress, relaxation) on them. Monika then worked with participants to create short performances in partnerships or groups using rhythms such as clapping, whistling, breathing and others. She supported individuals and groups to develop exercises, and perform to the public. The partner work, in particular, aimed to strengthen group bonds by acknowledging similarities, instead of differences: a collective synchronisation.
Çağlar Tahiroğlu further developed the art-as-therapy theme in her drop-in performance/workshop entitled Liberate Yourself from your Dearest Objects. Participants were invited to reflect on what they want to liberate themselves from, engage reflective discussion with each other and create representative clay figurines (or depose a real object!). Finally, they put their work into a collective square, which then forms a group sculpture-in-progress. There was an enthusiastic response from participants. Some revealed intimate subjects; discussion were rich and interesting. Different groups of people led to different results. An important finding was how flexible the art-therapy theoretical framework is, and how it can blend into a fine art context without losing its depth. The experiment has provided Çağlar with a quantity of ideas about how to interact with the public in different contexts and different ways to go further in this research.
Bekk Wells worked with workshop participants to build an enclosure out of sheets and blankets, similar to the forts and dens built by children. For most of the afternoon the structure was full to capacity with people getting to know one another and sharing stories. Bekk commented, “It was a successful exercise in modifying the built environment in order to change in the social environment. It’s surprising how relatively minor interventions can create a new kind of space.”
Neus Torres Tamarit devised and ran two related activities under the banner of ‘Metagenomics in Art’. The first was recombining and sequencing printed strips of three original artworks displayed at Tate Britain and Tate Modern using human metagenome sequences as reference. The artworks are; Los Moscos by Mark Bradford, The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, Ophelia Sequenced I by Neus Torres Tamarit from the original Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais, and mirrored strips that reflect the environment. The second activity consisted of creating artificial DNA sequences using red, blue, green and yellow plasticine, colours that are normally used to represent the four nucleotides of DNA.
If you are inspired by some of these art and science experiments, please follow us on Twitter or Instagram and share this blog. And come see our work in exhibition at the MA Interim Show, Somehow You and I Collide (16-19 March, Mangle, 2-18 Warburton Rd, London E8 3FN), the degree show (24-28 May, Central Saint Martins, 1 Granary Square, London N1C 4AA).