a moment of your time, 2013
An artist’s residency and commission to develop a new work about pro-social behaviour
I was commissioned by People United and Turner Contemporary to produce a new work in response to the objects in the gallery’s summer 2013 exhibition Curiosity: Art & the Pleasures of Knowing. I was asked to select one work to explore how art enables us to question our values, morality and the way we live our lives.
The approach I decide to take was based around investigating the role of the gallery as a meeting point. A gallery and the exhibitions it curates draw many different people yet little dialogue goes on between strangers when they are looking at works in a show. Often people occupy the space in a silent, private, disconnected way. Some common interest – values, curiosity or wonder has brought a disparate group into a public space, yet most often everyone leaves having no notion of what they may share with the people they have spent an hour or more with.
I devised a dialogic artwork, which I called a moment of your time. The intention was to reveal what people have in common by initiating random conversations with visitors to the gallery about the object I’d selected from the exhibition. By transcribing their words into a large-scale tracing of my chosen object I hoped to visually demonstrate the ‘weight’ of the commonality between the public through the words they used.
I decided to ask everyone who took part to sum up our conversations, but restricted them to write only 140 characters – a tweet. This idea of a kind of ‘twitter without the technology’ was about using a rudimentary version of this form of social media to encourage the public to review, reconsider, reject and/or reaffirm their values and beliefs in a real rather than virtual place.
There were a number of social values I wanted to discuss – freedom, justice, equality, democracy, authenticity, and ethics, and I did actually attempt to find one object that would ‘speak’ to all these values. It was also important the object worked aesthetically as a tracing. It proved impossible to find the one object. Having reconsidered my options and reading Common Cause I decided on four objects, and three values: co-operation (imperative for freedom, justice, equality, democracy), materialism, and ethics. Common Cause describes the 10 universal values that influence the life choices we make and describes these values as ‘neighbours’ and ‘opposites’. This information presented the logic I needed to introduce four objects into the conversation. The co-operation objects became the ‘neighbours’ and the materialism and ethics objects the ‘opposites’.
Co-operation (Skyquakes in Ear Trumpets)
I selected Skyquakes in Ear Trumpets (2013) by Aura Satz because of the relationship between the large horn and the ten ear trumpets inserted inside it. The work produces ambient tones above and below the threshold of human hearing. The composition and the sound got me thinking about how we communicate. The work seemed well placed to act as a metaphor for the art of good conversation and active listening. How a coherent and productive conversation is reliant on negotiating the space in which to speak – developing a respectful to-ing and fro-ing.
Co-operation (The New Mineral)
The New Mineral (2009) by Nina Canell offered up associations related to co-operation with more of an emphasis on control, and the balance between leaders and followers. Again, this work acted as a metaphor, as eight light bulbs on broomsticks are reliant on one central lit bulb to activate the radiometers that are inserted inside them. The closer the bulb to the light source the faster the radiometer vein moves. What happens when one person is in charge?
Materialism (A Cloudburst of Material Possessions)
A Cloudburst of Material Possessions (c.1510-13) is an exquisite and prescient work by Leonardo da Vinci, a drawing which depicts a deluge of ‘stuff’ spilling out of the sky with familiar objects – a brush, bottle, plate – strewn in the foreground. I used this piece to ask visitors about consumerism and what I see as the ethical dilemmas attached to the continuous collecting that seems to have gripped society. What is the impact of this relentless purchasing (and hoarding)? Should we be allowed to distinguish between the precious objects – gifts, heirlooms – we own and all the other stuff?
Ethics (The Los Alamos Rolodexes)
The Los Alamos Rolodexes (c.1965 – 78) from the Centre for Land Use Interpretation is a set of seven rolodexes acquired from a collection of objects once owned by Ed Grothus. They contain the business cards of various company representatives. There are many concerns inherent in these objects – the development of nuclear weaponry, the denouncement of a movement after twenty years of supporting it (exactly what Ed Grothus did), and the right and wrong of displaying a collection of individuals’ business cards as an artwork alluding to their involvement in the production of nuclear bombs.
Once I’d selected the works and completed the drawings I installed the tracing of each object in selected sites in the gallery, and installed the photographs I had taken of each participant adjacent to the corresponding drawing, i.e. the value they chose to discuss with me.
Each conversation was unpredictable, some lasted longer than others, most were one to one with adults, some were with families with children or a group of friends. The issue of materialism became the favourite, and I think this had something to do with the intrigue and wonder of the artwork but also what I perceived as a social anxiety about what we are told we need, who suffers and who benefits from our purchasing choices and as one visitor put it “to hoard or not to hoard?” What is this compulsion to collect?
Each conversation was emotional in the sense that everyone discussed the theme in relation to a personal concern, need, or desire, and connected what they were talking about to aspects of their lives and the people in them. And people opened up to me about what mattered to them, this was unexpected – the weight of the sharing of these personal thoughts.
All the conversations intrigued me, and there were some moments that deserve a special mention: the lady who talked about giving her car to her son in law to make sure her grandsons went to school, then did the splits for her portrait; the family who recognised me on the journey home and so participated in a moment of your time on the train; my conversation with the man from Sri Lanka about his experience of living in Oshogbo, Nigeria in the 70s (a place that not too many travellers know about) and my experience of being there in 1991; a woman coming to see the project on the last weekend and recognising someone amongst the portraits who had participated in a previous week (the father of the family on the train in fact); and the thought provoking conversations during the Philosophical Inquiry session Can art change the world? and my Turner Contemporary Twitter takeover in the final week of the residency.
Some of the things people said:
“An object for me is a physical manifestation of the event, location and emotion; a collected waypoint by which I can navigate my life.”
“What happens when the cabinet is full? The acquisition, care and disposal of objects takes more time and emotional reflection than some might think?”
“The health of a family is much more important than possessions. We should look to the older members of our family and see through their eyes what is important.”
“Every person has rights but not every person gets given those rights.”
“Stuff: how much of it exists. Different values and meanings we invest in it. How much getting rid of I have and want to do. The desire for non attachment.”
“Learning to sit in someone else’s no.”
“…sometimes it’s better to let go of your own strong ideas and compromise. If you resist other people’s ideas then you can wind up feeling drained. Sharing ideas means giving up something of yourself for the sake of others…”
“First I said no then I changed my mind and said yes.”
“To cooperate seems to require the use of electronic medium as this gives more time for consideration of other perspectives.”
“Community and personal involvement. A risky endeavour to involve oneself in others’ hardships. An ethical dilemma – should one be seen to interfere? Should one fly in the face of convention?”
“We live in a culture not a vacuum; what is ordinary and normal today won’t be tomorrow; fear brings conformity.”
“Art doesn’t change the world, but it changes people and people’s thinking.”
Some things I learnt:
Sometimes the project was complicated, I had a lot of explaining to do about the residency and commission before I could start the conversations; the art of conversation is without doubt a major skill; some days I didn’t want to talk to the public so being incognito was actually quite good on these days; people are prepared to share a lot of personal information with you if you ask them what they value; I absolutely loved tweeting, retweeting and reading tweets; there is something about the possibility of the unrecorded dialogue being actually, wholly the artwork, this concept is beginning to attach itself to my creative thinking.
(…oh and I learnt a lot about Frances Glessner Lee, The Nutshell Studies lady. I got quite obsessed with the book by Corinne May Botz about her life and the death scenes she recreated as dollhouses. It relates to my desire to understand what makes people tick, and to somehow see what is unseen.)