When we joined forces with a group of like-minded Tate Exchange Associates over Easter to bring a ‘Fairground of art and ideas’ to level 5 of the Switch House at Tate Modern, what we weren’t expecting was between 800 and 1,200 people each day!
What we did expect – and thankfully also did experience – were the Tate Exchange values of generosity, curiosity, risk, openness and trust. The Tate staff and wonderful founding associates and artists we were fortunate to be in a group with (University of Kent, Canterbury Christchurch University, Valleys Kids and Whitstable Biennale with artists Kelly Green, Hollie MacKenzie, Lucy Steggals, Anne Culverhouse Evans and Estelle Collins) were incredibly thoughtful, warm-hearted and open-armed. Which was a good job because dealing with over 4,000 people over 4 days required teamwork, shared energy and quite a few coffee runs.
During our time at Tate Exchange it was our group’s aim to re-enact and update the concept of the fairground as a site of exchange, exploring the theme in relation to politics, power, social class, tolerance and kindness. Through 13 interactive stalls and 8 live programmed events, we brought people together through performances, tours, installations, participatory work and conversation. (It is worth noting that the ‘Fairground’ week itself was one unique moment in what was for most of our group, a year-long initiative with a multitude of partners and participants).
People United’s stall For Me, For You, For Us – created with artist Lucy Steggals – explored the idea of whether an exchange can be free and solely for the benefit of others. Visitors to our stall were invited to donate their breath (which is free and unique) by blowing up a balloon and placing it on a stick. We then gave them a choice (which they would write on their balloons) – 1) to keep the balloon for themselves (‘For Me’), 2) to give it to someone else (‘For You’) or 3) to donate it to a collaborative balloon structure to be paraded around the gallery for everyone else to see and enjoy (‘For Us’).
This activity helped us to test psychology theory which proposes that in particular circumstances people can act for the primary intention of assisting another, rather than themselves. In other words, it is not an exchange which expects something in return.
After closely tracking the choices of over 500 people, our testing out of this idea proved to be positive. 45% of people taking part chose to give their balloon ‘For Us’, with 14% of people choosing ‘For You’. Most of the visitors who chose ‘For Me’ were young children who understandably wanted to keep their balloons, although many made multiple balloons so that they could also give them away.
For us, as well as exploring people’s choices, it was the conversations created through this activity which were important. Amidst invitations across the Fairground for visitors to choose ‘For Me, For You, For Us’, or to ‘Smash the Patriarchy’ or to watch ‘Peace and Judy’ there were lots and lots of new conversations – between partners, participants, Tate and visitors from across the globe. Tate Exchange’s main purpose is to ask the question ‘How can the arts make a difference to society?’ It is, of course, a massive question threaded with ambivalence which operates across individual and collective interpretations. But within our conversations at Fairground (about memory, place, family and belonging to name a few themes) there were moments when the experience did bring people together – where individual conversations were adding up to something bigger. As one visitor said ‘The arts open your eyes to look at the world and people differently (in the best way)’.
The link to Tate Exchange continues with You are Welcome, devised by artist Sarah Carne. This is a 4 week participatory event at Tate Exchange that is asking people to consider how can art make a difference to people’s lives and society. In 2015 People United commissioned Sarah to explore the theme of Love at Southbank Centre. See Sarah’s blog about her Tate Exchange event here and watch the film here.