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Travelling Dialogues | Niki Russell

Photo of individuals and Niki Russell partaking in the 'Travelling Dialogues' event near Apothecary's Tower
As part of the Travelling Dialogues weekend, programmed in relation to Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan’s Are you LOCATIONALIZED artworks spanning the isles of Skye and North Uist,  ATLAS Arts commissioned two guest bloggers to report back on the many topics covered. The guest blogs were intended to continue the conversations started during the weekend and to catalyse future debate on the themes under discussion.
Niki Russell, an artist, curator and writer. He co-founded and is now the Programme Curator at Primary – an artist-led space in Nottingham that is dedicated to supporting creative research through studios, residencies and commissions. Russell has also worked extensively with Radar at Loughborough University, in a curatorial capacity commissioning new temporary public art projects in response to research at the University and the town it is situated within. Russell is practicing artist and has exhibited widely, both individually and as a member of the collective Reactor.

A dispersed symposium: this weekend of talks, discussion and performances were scheduled to take place across the islands of Skye and North Uist – both framing, and offering a communal experience of Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan’s composite artwork Are you LOCATIONALIZED.

An introduction, a desk, a tower and a talk

‘Can someone tell me what this is?’

An unattributed response to Are you LOCATIONALIZED

Are you LOCATIONALIZED comprises several component physical parts: an information desk (with accompanying information) at the ATLAS Arts Office; a structure built around the Apothecary’s Tower in Portree; a speaking wall erected on the gable end of a former dairy in Lochmaddy; and a series of photo-works at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre. However, it appears that the artists and ATLAS Arts – the commissioner of the artwork and the organiser of this Travelling Dialogues weekend – prompt us to think about the gaps between these component parts, and the wider context of public art.

As is common with Joanne and Tom, there is a recycling or reworking of objects and images (from earlier work) as well as the sense that each part serves to point towards another part of the work. As the artists introduce the project in the ATLAS Arts Office, I stare at the information desk and it stares back at me.

The desk is reworked from their recent exhibition DOES THE IT STICK at Bloomberg Space, where it awkwardly over-identified with the reception-type quality of this foyer. Transferred to the ATLAS Arts Office, the desk reception-ises what is usually a private working environment – turning it into a space to receive and greet public visitors. On top of the desk there are four pieces of printed information, each pointing to different component parts, and sending us off in different directions in search of the work.

ATLAS also wants us to keep moving. The weekend is structured not only around the necessary travel to reach the different parts of Joanne and Tom’s work, but extends this movement further, embracing perambulation and distance as a means to allow participants to engage with each other in varied ways. Encouraging these conversations to shift as we move between scripted presentation, or structured discussion to chatter on the coach, from destination-focused travel to reaching a dead end, or having to take unexpected detours.

Walking up ‘The Lump’ we appear to be heading straight for the Apothecary’s Tower, but at a fork in the road a change of plan means we first take in the man-made amphitheatre lower down the hill. The reason: to tell a story that precedes the work. ATLAS Arts had commissioned the artwork to coincide with the Highland Games in Portree, which is hosted within the amphitheatre each year. Joanne and Tom recount how standing in this location they felt making the work here would fetishise the Games, and said to themselves: ‘no, we’re not going to do that’, and instead wandered around the corner and found the tower (a movement that we would then repeat).

Now encased in brightly painted pink plywood, the top of the tower jutting out from behind this decorative facing, and with an opening at the door remaining to allow access inside. This lurid modification is purposefully disruptive, drawing attention to a landmark – that usually ‘goes unattended and vandalised’ – by changing it. Acting as a reminder. Bringing people back to the tower who don’t currently use it, and asking what this could be? How we might make use of it? And hinting at other ways of being (if only temporarily). If that starts to sounds a little utopian, it was also acknowledged that this temporary transformation has not been wholeheartedly welcomed– with one local resident describing it as a ‘shocking-pink polythene condom‘.

Perhaps then it is fitting, that Professor Richard Williams’ presentation Sex, buildings and public sculpture, began by discussing why we like to attribute bodily qualities to buildings (with reference to Cabinet Magazine’s quest to find the most phallic building in the world). Before moving on from ‘this kind of stuff’, to explore how different architecture might attempt to control sexual behaviour – from the orgone accumulator, to the Schindler House, sex hotels and Drop City. So here we return back to Utopian thinking about architecture, and what its function or use might be.

A ferry, a fiction, a wall, a presentation/performance and shoes

‘The intern: … Certainly, the challenge for a viewer is to find a way to read such geographically and formally disparate elements together. I would also wish to establish where the limits of such a work might be. I mean, given the significant distances involved between the different elements, how should a viewer regard the spaces in between?

The architect: You mean are they part of the work? Indeed. I mean here we are midway across the Little Minch, shielding out eyes from the setting sun. Hmm and space, of course, is also time.’

‘Summer 2014. A conversation overheard on the Caledonian MacBrayne Lochmaddy-Uig ferry.’ Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan

To get from Skye to North Uist requires a ferry, and so the freer movement (wandering) from earlier in the day, is replaced with a more controlled movement akin to that of an organised school excursion – with meeting points, coaches ‘leaving promptly’, and the impending ferry schedule to meet. And yet, other pockets of freedom appear, whether taking the opportunity to slumber on the coach, or standing at the edge of the ferry talking with another person – a conversation that starts ‘on theme’, but is allowed to wander and then stray further and further in another direction.

Back on theme, at a set time we are tasked with commandeering a section of the lounge. This performance space carved out aboard the MV Hebrides is used for a reading of one part of Are you LOCATIONALIZED – presenting a conversation between an architect and an intern discussing the work (a section of which is quoted above). Here interpretation of the work is included within it, positing certain specific fictional viewers. But the words and sentences are not fictional as such; they are repurposed from certain texts that circulate around the work – whether that of funding applications, or other forms of instrumentalised language. Arriving on North Uist, the wall at Taigh Chearsabhagh also speaks to us but in a very different language. Talk of the male corncrake, flowery machair, bountiful beaches, chambered cairns. Words tumble out of its inverted cone mouth. Cut-up poetry that uses texts that are more likely to circulate around this particular location (rather than the work itself) – North Uist tourism websites, or descriptions of living, working and making art on the island. How does this work then relate to this location in a different way, tell a different story? And how do we get meaning out of the work?

Words continue to circulate. Fiona Jardine has previously written several texts that have existed adjacent to Joanne and Tom’s work. For her presentation as part of Travelling Dialogues she discusses how the term ‘archive’ has expanded and deteriorated, illustrated in this instance by a pair of Topshop Premium Shoes – a range that promises added value due to its archival potential. Fiona had bought these special shoes knowing that they would in fact not be worn, and therefore that they wouldn’t have a use. This idea of use is connected back to a debate over the difference between a picture of shoes and the actual shoes – via Martin Heidegger, Meyer Schapiro, and Jacques Derrida’s interpretation of van Gogh – and then onto a pair of shoes that Joanne and Tom made, a pair that was no longer a pair, with Fiona declaring that the artists themselves are also ‘always unpaired and slightly diabolical’.

A coach, a disrupted schedule, a diversion, loose threads and function

‘The seven-foot sculpture of Hercules the grizzly bear was carved by Ian Chalmers and is sited within the Langass Woodland on North Uist. It was commissioned in 2013 by the Langass Community Woodland Project. In August 1980 Hercules captured the world’s imagination when he escaped on Benbecula during filming for a television advert for Andrex. For 24 days the bear evaded the army, police and hundreds of volunteer searchers who scoured the hills and moors.’

The publicly sited sculptures of Loughborough University Campus and the Uists (in reverse chronological order), Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan

The final component part of Are you LOCATIONALIZED is a series of photo-works at Taigh Chearsabhagh that document publically sited sculptures on North Uist, as well as in the more removed location of the Loughborough University campus (sculptures that are also catalogued and described in one piece of print). Having seen the four identified parts of Joanne and Tom’s work, the second day of the weekend could in some ways stray further away from this anchor, and yet kept returning to it. Starting the day with a perambulatory coach trip, notionally in search of these publicly sited sculptures, which the day before we had seen in the photo archive and read about in print.

The coach journey had a second narrative, provided by Sophie Morrish – an artist who has been resident on North Uist for the last seven years – who framed the journey in relation to the wider environment that these public sculptures are sited within. Sophie’s own work involves her walking in this natural environment as a means to explore her own perception and relationship to it. She acknowledged that it was somewhat strange to try and talk about these things whilst looking out of a coach window, but nonetheless began to introduce us to the complex environment outside our contained vehicle and think about the mark of human activity in the land. When we put something out into the landscape, what does it do to it? Our first stop brought us face to face with Hercules the grizzly bear, and prompted questions as to why this story from 1980 should be chosen as the brief for this newly commissioned public sculpture. How might this thing added to the landscape ‘help or obfuscate our relationship to [its] natural surroundings’.

I suggested that this part of the weekend was only notionally about visiting the publicly sited sculptures. It always felt that our journey was being squeezed, and that from the outset time and distance were against us. At another fork in the road we would have turned left to visit a second sculpture, but the ferry schedule came back into play, and meant that instead we turned right. There was something fitting about this in relation to the weekend – the welcome absurdity of the travelling itself, taking a two-hour circular coach trip in search of publicly sited sculptures, only to find one lonely carved bear.

The uncertainty of travelling around these islands was brought into sharper focus when we arrived back in Lochmaddy to find that the ferry had switched to a different timetable – the ship we could see on the horizon was going out, rather than coming in as we had initially thought. An unintended space for dialogue was created as the organisers busily looked look for an alternative route. The solution: a diversion via the Isle of Harris – three ferries and three islands for the price of two, providing a delay/diversion that was accepted and in fact largely seen as a welcome digression in our travelling dialogues. One that would require each of us to rework, or rethink, our schedules, timetables and further discussions.

On board the ferry we made space for the final two presentations – one that had been intended for a ferry (if not this one), with Jonathan Baxter picking up on loose threads. Who we are? And who they are? In relation to this weekend and also more widely in relation to public art, he asked: who gets to experience and discuss it? A provocation perhaps, and one that many of those participating wanted to answer – with individuals stating that “we are all audience” for the work, and that we had ‘become one through the ‘travelling dialogues’. The second presentation was one meant for another place. Gavin Morrison had crafted a talk specific to location and geography, only for it to be disrupted by the vagary of ferry schedules. Returning to ‘towers’, we had been set to visit Dun Beag, an example of a fairly complete broch ruin – an Iron Age dry stone structure of debated purpose. Via James Boswell he connects these specifically Scottish structures to their (relatively) more contemporary ‘architectural doppelgängers’: Mortella / Martello Towers. These small defensive forts inspired by Corsican design were built around the UK coastline to repel a Corsican – Napoleon Bonaparte (‘homeopathic architecture as Gavin neatly termed it). However, these towers ended up not actually being used for the purpose for which they were built – and in this sense became follies.

Towers that have a function, but then lose this function. These structures that have an uncertainty of use –whether the broch, a Martello Tower, or back in a circle to Joanne and Tom’s artwork Are you LOCATIONALIZED – invite projection of both use and meaning. An invitation that is perhaps a fitting place to end.

The end, or, it continues

Published on 30 September 2014