Guest blog: Public art for what it’s worth

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Kate Kelsell was one of five Emerging Writers selected by the In Between Time Festival to engage in critical writing about contemporary performance in new ways.

My reactions to art and performance tend to be instinctive, instantaneous and rarely reticent. On the train returning from the writers-in-residence programme at Bristol’s In Between Time festival, trying to think about public art made my brain feel oppressively cloudy. My impressions were smudged, my ideas vivid, consuming but unformulated. Now, many weeks later, I’m in no doubt that the experience moved and provoked me deeply, and will remain pertinent for many years, but I’ll be damned if I can explain just how and why.

How then does the (oft and fondly mentioned) ‘passer-by’ compute the kind of public art programmed by IBT? How long does it stay with us – and before that, how long does it take us to contextualise it among the rest of life’s debris? If we cannot make sense of it, do we lose its worth? With current chronic lack of funding in the arts forcing discussion about the economic worth of culture, how can we come close to quantifying the spiritual, cognitive and emotional import of outstanding projects such as IBT? Maybe public art, with its desire to open conversations, is at its most powerful when it is beyond words…

Helen Cole’s We See Fireworks is a delicate patch-work of voices recounting profoundly personal and resonant memories of performance. In a sense it can be read as a jubilant calling card for what In Between Time sets out to achieve: the creation of moments which stay with us, altering perspectives and enriching lives. For the most part they are characterised by a tie to the individual’s existence (affiliation to the performance giving it its poignancy) or the differentiation from it, with the sentiment ‘I’d never seen anything like it’ holding the memory outside the normal realm of experience. Wholly personal yet of universal appeal, they speak of our collective fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams, as crystallised in that moment when something on stage, or otherwise, makes sense of it all for a moment.

There is something quasi-mystic about listening to these disembodied voices in the womb-like darkness. An air of religion or mythology – like stories told around an open fire. The speakers recount their tales with outstanding lucidity that often ventures into a fragile lyricism. Memories become enshrined in meaning and mythology over the years. Where and when does this eloquence arise? As Cole puts it: “…they come up with the most beautiful metaphors and evocative language because they cannot think of the right word”. They struggle for details that don’t matter to us – dates and the like – but can describe the performance with poetic clarity.

Curious to know about people’s instant reactions to meditated reflections on performance, I set myself up outside the Old Commonwealth Museum to ask people what they thought of We See Fireworks. I half hoped for a collection of eloquent rhapsodies to mirror the installation itself. What I recorded, unsurprisingly I suppose, were comments on the sensory experience of the installation, rather than its emotional impact, less nuanced and altogether less confident. People expressed the literal experience of the piece (one man to my amusement had initially thought I was part of the performance, sitting and writing notes in the corner), their confusion as they entered the darkness and how they began to understand the format of the piece as their eyes adjusted to the lack of light. They expressed their admiration for the darkness, the vintage light bulbs and the intimate space allowing you to concentrate on the voices. For the most part however, they didn’t elaborate on what those voices meant to them, but preferred to reference accents or “the power of the human voice”, as one woman put it. One woman got goose bumps in time with one of the narrators describing the same sensation. A Japanese girl who spoke broken English explained that she found it difficult to engage with because of the language barrier but was mesmerised by the voices’ rhythms and intonations, and struggled to drag herself away to catch her train. Someone’s jovially delivered account sums this up: “I need longer to think about it, but I think I liked it.” Perhaps then, that deep-set identification evolves with hindsight. Art lies dormant within us until a moment in our lives when we need it – like a rolling stone, it gathers momentum and moss as it tumbles through time.

Many of IBT’s pieces were un-ticketed, finding their home in the streets or in freight containers along the docks, surrounded by the buzz of everyday urban life.  This type of art often goads contention from mainstream press; as Director of Situations Claire Doherty acknowledges, it is often portrayed “…as the uninvited guest… something that is thrust on us… imposing on our public space”. It’s easy to see why the stereotyping of non-artsy types, into a bracket who will benefit from the conversations initiated by encounters outside their familiar experience, can be viewed as patronising. Gleaning positive impressions of its impact is harder. With work that is subtle and fleeting, measuring its enhancement of an atmosphere or environment is nigh-on impossible. Just because it borders on intangibility does not make it less important. Unlike the performances reanimated in We See Fireworks‘ memories, this public art is not trying to help you make sense of anything. If anything it disrupts you, ever so gently, with the hope you will start looking for answers to questions you still have not properly formulated. A pebble that starts the avalanche will not be judged for the destruction it causes.

In Between Time does not survive on spectacle. Take the Fake Moon hovering above College Green, at first disappointing in its very fakeness: it takes imagination to bring its worth into perspective. Less of an intrusion, more an invitation – there only if you choose to acknowledge and indulge it. A stranger in Bristol, I roamed the streets armed with an inadequate map and my non-existent sense of direction seeking out Pete Barrett’s Pave. After mingling with crowds, being distracted by market traders and seductive wafts from various eateries, wandering up dead end alleys and watching the early evening light flutter across Bristol’s waterways, I finally stumbled across the artist at work, as though by chance, as of course is the maker’s intention. Gold leaf, with all its connotations of Renaissance grandeur, being painstakingly applied to dirty cobbles in the shadow of vivid graffiti, contains a timid plurality of possible readings.

I barked at the artist: “I almost gave up hope, I’ve been searching for you for hours” – and was momentarily outraged when he didn’t look up. A young steward pattered over, explaining – not without a tinge of embarrassment – that not interacting is part of his process. What the fuck kind of message does that give about accessibility? I wanted to chat out his intentions and understand his personal perspective on the project. In retrospect, what would this have added?  Works like Pave slip silently into the fabric of urban living. In some instances, such as Alex Bradley’s Field-Test – an otherworldly glen within St Stephen’s Churchyard created from solar powered LED lights and a steel-guitar sound-scape – they alter the space, freshening perceptions of familiar places. As you enter the churchyard the guitars’ moaning twangs sound alluringly sinister, but once inside they are inexplicably calming – you find a home in this new territory. As a passer-by there is nothing to necessarily differentiate this as ‘art’, it merely weaves its way into your path. You need not ‘consume’ or ‘experience’ it in any active sense. It infiltrates your subconscious, as with lost details of the day embellished after sleep in dreams.  I’d like to borrow a phrase from Icon Eye (writing about London’s Grey World): “by making the interaction effortless and invisible, their work is infused with a sense of magic”.

Alongside this merging with the everyday, comes the dissolution of condescending type casts surrounding those likely and unlikely to enjoy and engage with such art. It is precisely this lack of proscription that validates IBT’s claim to be, in some senses, for the city it inhabits. Where the borders between art and life blur, the conversations thus initiated can be seen to deepen our reflection on the world we live in. In We See Fireworks some of the speakers recount instances from real life, framed in a performative light. In the high-mindedness that surrounds debate around the arts, it can be forgotten that they are at base an expression of our humanity. Talk of art need not be segregated inside a different vocabulary, shrink-wrapped in the exclusive realm of those ‘in the know’, and live art like that at IBT opens up the modes of communication by placing unassertive work in city space.

Where these moments gently lapse into the city’s fabric, inside the walls of the Arnolfini, Wickham Theatre and beyond, the ticketed events were challenging and certainly not to all tastes. The vitality and rawness of this content often felt akin to holding fingers over a lacerated vein, trying to stem the flow. Here IBT balances its agendas diplomatically, with these facets serving separate purposes. Is this not also some form of public good? As it is reassuring to know there are men in white coats labouring away in labs testing god knows what, doesn’t it benefit the wider public to know there are people toiling over the questions this art presents? Any anxiety over the inclusiveness of these shows should be assuaged by the promise that the public-facing programme holds. Fake Moon extends a hand to pull you into the dance and dig deeper, if you so choose.

I left Bristol with a lot of open questions. There is a vagueness in my response that first agitated me, so used to making incisive judgements on the art which I encounter. However, I’ve come to feel that with public art, this is precisely the response needed. Fledgling as it may seem, I know it will grow, un-tethered. I see, now, why Barrett chooses not to talk about Pave with passers-by. It is not about arrogance, exclusivity or retaining an air of mystery – this art is just not a convoluted, rarefied conversation designed to lead you in any direction. It is an opening statement.

Image: Bristol to Cardiff