In this blog Foka Wolf reflects on their commission exploring humour with People United and Compton Verney alongside sketches and design drafts of the final art trail they created called The Open Arms.
Foka Wolf x People United x Compton Verney
In the Summer of 2020, I received the fantastic news that I’d been chosen to be the artist for People United and Compton Verney’s co-commission, which focused on the theme of humour. The commission stood out to me because the brief was pretty much exactly what I was doing with my work already and it listed all of the things I enjoy about creating work, such as the playing around with language and creating signage.
The commission wanted the artist to explore humour through visual art and explore how art might encourage empathy. I found this concept very challenging because my humour is one that pokes fun at people, ideas or organisations in order to provoke a response. But it was something I’ve been thinking about for a while and wanted to confront for myself. The commission, using humour to highlight positives aspects of people, made me think a lot about my work processes and creative practice, and question the ways I could marry the two ideas together.
At the start of the project People United and Compton Verney hosted two online Laughter Café events to search for stories of humour from people in the community or connected to the local area. The events were presented by the comedian, Janice Connolly (a.k.a Barbra Nice), who asked questions about humour and got people to share funny stories. Skits about family members doing funny things and personal in jokes were prevalent. They were great conversations and offered an insight into the role humour has played during the global pandemic. What I got from the Laughter Cafés, was that people relied on humour as a coping mechanism in times of need, and their friends and family provided it.
But I was still asking myself, can you be funny and kind at the same time?
From this commission I have found out that yes, you can. The Open Arms art trail I created for Compton Verney playfully changed familiar or expected things and subtly subverted expectations, spaces or meanings. For example, I had a sign saying ‘do not feed the trolls’ installed at the entrance bridge to Compton Verney with a cartoon of an internet troll and there was an advert for ‘Delicious Equality Pie – Its great to share’ positioned at the kitchen garden.
The humour in the final signs touched on something that was central to the original artist call out: its known as benign violation theory, and it argues that most humour happens when a situation is both a violation of the way we think the world should work and also benign (kind, gentle and not hurting anyone).‘
I think it works with The Open Arms because people at first see something familiar (a sign or advert) but then there’s something unexpected at the end (the message) that can send a brain into a mental somersault – and its in that moment that I realised I could offer alternative perspectives and encourage people to review their actions or values for the better.
Before The Open Arms was conceived, a lot of other ideas were presented to Compton Verney, including transforming the historic manor into a pound shop (which was rejected!). The commission was a great learning curve for me in generating different ideas. I have never really professionally installed something in a venue like Compton Verney – with permission – before. It took a lot of resilience and creativity to get my head around how my artwork could exist in a space with more boundaries than say, the bus stops and billboards that I might usually put my work in.
In the end, I looked to Compton Verney’s British folk-art collection for inspiration. I felt that the aesthetic was perfect for the Capability Brown landscape, but also because folk art is all about community makers – “Folk Art refers to art made by highly skilled people who wished to express their creative urges but had no formal artistic training.”  Which I also think reflects the energy of 2020, when so many people have got creative with signage in their windows to communicate with neighbours, celebrate key workers or give messages to customers while their shops/cafes etc have been closed.
I would like to thank everyone at People United that made this happen and everyone at Compton Verney for the use of their magnificent grounds. The project helped me grow in many ways and has inspired me to create more permanent signage in more interesting places.
Words: Foka Wolf, January 2021
Artworks: Foka Wolf, 2020.