In our latest feature, guest writer Natasha Sutton Williams speaks to multidisciplinary artist Rhiannon Armstrong about making work grounded in social intervention and how to create digital artworks in the Covid era.
This year, the BBC and the Space commissioned award-winning multidisciplinary artist Rhiannon Armstrong for their Culture In Quarantine series. In Armstrong’s audio work The Soothing Presence of Strangers they revisit a seminal childhood friendship with the help of bus drivers and passengers from the W12 route in East London. As listeners we follow Armstrong’s journey from Walthamstow to Wanstead. Godfrey Stewart and Mohammed Shabir, two longstanding W12 bus drivers, tell stories of the past and present during the pandemic. Through these conversations, Armstrong recollects an early friendship with a school bus driver in 1990’s Montreal, and ruminates on how their understanding of this relationship has changed. The piece is a meditation on solitude, the helpfulness of strangers, and the emotional impact a bus route can have in our lives.
Armstrong’s latest research has been funded by Unlimited. The goal is to create videos of kaleidoscopic landscapes for heart failure patients to breathe along to. ‘I’ve been developing the project with a physiotherapist and nurse specialist, thinking about these videos as interventions for patients who have been admitted to hospital. Patients can have serious issues with anxiety, closely linked to the symptoms of breathlessness that they experience with heart failure. Physiotherapy exercises that treat this can also be anxiety inducing. The idea is that if they become part of an enveloping and immersive artwork, it will increase the beneficial impacts of the exercise, and hopefully feel like something you can’t fail at.’
Armstrong’s portfolio of work has always existed outside of traditional art genres. “I call myself a performance artist. To me that says you can do anything you want; it makes people unsure what to expect from you. I was involved in the early immersive theatre world, but quite quickly I moved out of theatres and was more interested in ‘outside’ spaces. It has meant for a long time my work was funded or connected to theatre organisations but in fact came from their outreach budgets. I was doing these weird outreach pieces that no one in the building was paying much attention to, or an installation in a theatre foyer. The work exists is a slightly marginal moment. More recently, I’ve become more involved with visual arts organisations.”
Armstrong continues: “There is a narrow group of people art institutions and structures currently serve. I didn’t want my work to be only seen by people who were interested in art and performance. I’m interested in the idea that my art might encounter people during moments in their life when they are not expecting it or seeking it out. I started putting my work in the street where people walking past can encounter it.”
The first street performance Armstrong created was ‘Can I Help You?’. They stood in the street offering people assistance, wearing a T-shirt with ‘Free Help’ emblazoned on it, and a tool belt slung across their waist with seemingly random objects in it. “I very carefully choose where I stand on the street. I don’t run around approaching people asking, “Can I help you? Can I help you?!” That’s how I stand out: I stand around, looking expectant. I stand so that I’m observable from a distance, so that people can notice me, notice that it’s out of the ordinary. They realise I’m not running up to people with a clipboard. They start to look with a bit more detail at my outfit. Some people walk past and do a double take. I look back at them and that might prompt a conversation. A lot of people come up to me and say, “What are you doing here?” because it’s their high street. They know what’s out of the ordinary. And that’s how it starts.”
Armstrong adds: “I make dramaturgical decisions about how the piece will be encountered, what the experience will be like, and how to support people through the piece. The conversations are the work. The premise behind the piece is that we don’t have time for each other. But what if I just took my whole day and decided I’m here to help people out? On the street I’ve ended up in conversations about why people don’t ask for help. When people struggle, and they don’t let it show, what kind of help can one stranger offer another? Conversations emerge about what art is, because eventually during the conversations I admit to the fact that this is a piece of art. Usually when people ask who is paying for it.”
Another social intervention piece Armstrong created is the Slow GIF Movement, which has similar resonances to their performance street art. “The Slow GIF Movement makes GIFs and puts it onto a GIPHY channel. Those GIFs become part of the GIPHY global search engine, which feeds into our smartphone keyboards. To me, that’s a public intervention. I’m putting content into this online space that people encounter as part of everyday life. So many GIFs are loud and sharp. The intention with the Slow GIF Movement is to feed slow GIFs into the system to start intervening.”
As an artist who has consistently made works for live and digital performance, Armstrong is well equipped for creating work during the pandemic. So what is their advice for artists looking to adapt and make digital works in this brave new world? “I always think about what the change is I’m trying to make. What impact am I trying to have in the world? Then I look at places we spend time in. How do I make work for those spaces? I see someone’s laptop or their smartphone as an intimate space.”
They continue: “There is pressure at the moment to suddenly deliver work in forms that we don’t know. I have friends who say ‘I’m a theatre-maker’ and they shouldn’t be forced to instantly come up with work in another medium. Artists are experts at making relevant, moving works in whatever way that they choose to. That kind of pressure devalues the time and experience necessary to find your way around a form. It’s not just about learning how to code a website. You can do that, but that’s not going to teach you how to make relevant, moving artworks as a website. That takes something different: it takes thinking time.”