How did this exhibition come about?
Local architect, Huw Griffiths’ initial idea, suggested to Amanda Roderick, Director of the Mission Gallery, was for an exhibition of a series of architectural models – proposals for the failing spaces of Swansea. Amanda spoke with me about this idea while I was producing Keeper(s), a collaborative and participatory exhibition at the Gallery and asked if I might want to curate* the project. We soon saw that the plan had to be developed further, and in particular directions, to work within the remit of the gallery and to create a valid and exciting response to the city.
Discussion revealed that ‘the problem’ was that we had to locate or identify ‘the problem’ – and that if there was a problem, or problems, they probably didn’t have an answer – but there might be a hope for many answers. And that while some of these might be in the form of practical ‘problem-solving’ – structures and rearrangements of space and objects – other possibilities, such as changes of vision, viewpoint or policy were emerging – ideas that were both broader and less tangible than the comfort of specific project proposals for a particular sites.
We started to understand that wider philosophical or political views might clash with some of the current directions within urban design and planning, such as a focus on simply encouraging business – ‘shopping’ – back into the centre of the city, and the evident intention to eliminate ‘trouble’ by removing the possibility of public use of much of the public space in the centre of Swansea. (A complaint reiterated in initial conversations with possible exhibitors had been that many open areas have now become car parks or are blankly paved and devoid of seating – and that, cold and wet, they had become not ‘indefensible spaces’, but deserts, ‘defended’ from use, or ‘misuse’ by sheer bleakness.)
Huw Griffiths had introduced his proposal by saying ‘Swansea is s**t’.
So are cities a problem? Is Swansea a problem? Whose problem? Artists and architects are often required to provide ‘solutions’ or to fill the gap between the broader issues of urban planning, economic pressures and ‘the public’. It seemed as if this exhibition could provide the space for debate away from the direct pressure of the ‘project’ and the need for ‘results’.
What happened next?
Amanda Roderick and I approached local artists and architects and found four architects/architectural practices interested in exhibiting, 4 artists – two a collaborative pair – and a writer.
We walked and talked the city together and discovered that walking and talking was a productive method – when we are physically active we think in a different way and find turning left one day instead of right might take us around a corner to a place we had forgotten or never seen.
So – how does change happen? What do we want to change? One idea that emerged as we planned the work for this show is that we change ourselves and others, or change ‘rules’ and perceptions, rather than the fabric of the city. That through creative thinking, through narrative, through drawing, making and asking questions we can change the way we see and use Swansea.
The work started to ask that we consider time, scale and duration – the short span against the permanent, the ephemeral in relation to concrete, brick and stone, cell change in place of the larger project – and that history, often ‘plagiarised’ for the heritage industry, might be considered with the present – that we might see the past emerging in small artefacts, memories and anecdotes to inhabit the same space as the imagined and the now.
The practitioner pairings produced a variety of models for how architects and artists might work together and how their methods and processes diverge and overlap.
Jason and Becky have extended sensory understanding through sound walks and investigated with Niall Maxwell how collaboration might be achieved through social media. Niall Maxwell’s responses through drawing return to the basic common language of artist and architects.
Huw Griffiths and Anna Barratt have met in the most complained of space in Swansea – The Kingsway – to charm and challenge with possibility and poetry.
Owen Griffiths and Andrew Nixon started with the shared concerns of the greening of the city and the re-use of lost spaces and have taken separate but complementary paths to the potential of flat rooftops, guerilla gardening and skateboarding the city.
Lindsey Halton and Catriona Ryan will encourage us to be active participants, to look from our windows and to change how we see what we see, and make poets of us all.
The possibilities that have emerged may dismay, excite, please or bore those who encounter or engage with them.
Could Swansea be a ‘theme park’ devoted to experience not shopping?
Could we remove the traffic from the Kingsway, leaving it to trams and bicycles?
Can we look out of our windows and see the city differently?
Can we all be poets and fill the streets of Dylan Thomas’ city with poetry?
How could we report on Swansea and how might it exist through anecdote, social media or drawing?
Who is already using this city and other cities creatively – what can we learn from them?
Can we find the lost or hidden spaces and use them well?
These ideas are starting points for discussion and permission to dream about what we might want here and to see what we have here already.
‘Table-talks’ across the city will make further discussion visible as panels including the artist and architects meet to talk about the work and the issues around it.
I have now let go of the project a little – let it lift and grow – working with the Mission Gallery staff and volunteers – especially Deirdre Finnerty, Emma Cartwright and Karen Tobin – to make it happen and gently pat the work into being.
The skill of the designers involved in the project has moved the exhibition to completion.
Jason&Becky’s Civic logo has provided a unifying and ongoing identity for the project. While their exhibition design, utilizing the distinctive C, has given eloquent shape to the idea of flexible exhibition space, formed to hold the work, to adapt to and with it, and to accommodate and to encourage the collaborative and discursive activity across the seductively tactile central concrete table. Eifion Porter has made the exhibition furniture with a craftsmanship pleasing to both hand and eye.
J&B’s Civic logo has been developed by Matthew Otten and Rhiannon Pepper into laser-cut building tiles – ‘Civic lego’ – for the Play Build Learn space which occupies the upstairs education area of the gallery. The P B L space is a manifestation within the exhibition of open-ended play as an educational possibility – or imperative – for participants of all ages. Terri Saunders’ Civic sandbags and a variety of building materials, gathered in discussion with Kath Clewett and Ian Cook, permit visitors to explore the idea of free construction as way of thinking and learning – to focus on questions about building and the city – or to ‘de-focus’ and work intuitively with 3D forms, structures and compositions. Learning through making and discussion are central to the exhibition’s intentions and the overall remit of the Mission Gallery.
Matthew Otten’s design for the online/printed material accompanying the exhibition has accommodated the collaborative, improvised approach with a ‘zine –like collection of loose-leaf A4s. A short run has been photocopier printed and clipped together for display and distribution in the gallery, while the online version can be downloaded and printed by individuals. Through online expression the space of the gallery is extended beyond the city, encouraging engagement with a wider audience and development of the project into the future – watch this space…
*What’s a curator to do?
Why does this exhibition have a curator – what does a curator do?
Role: curator, caretaker, carer, keeper, minder, co-ordinator, facilitator, organiser, administrator, middle-manager, cat-herder, nag…
To make what? – an ‘exhibition of ideas’, an essay, or anthology of art works?
But what of form – design – space – the visitor?
I’m looking for the bridge between some kind of accessibility and current practice – between the art language of social engagement and engagement itself – somewhere within the haptic, conceptual, physical, participatory, interactive spectacle – where something that can be said – be made – a communication and an experience(s).