Term two began on a cold and dark Wednesday evening in January. The group met to hear from Gordon Brennan, a local artist and lecturer at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA). The session was aptly titled ‘Putting Art Back into Public Art’ and looked at a variety of different artworks. Gordon helped the group to understand that art, regardless of its’ setting, has to be good art. And art is ‘rated’ by the viewer or audience based solely on their personal understanding of the work itself.
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The group met one last time to finalise plans for the forthcoming Public Art Study Tours to Liverpool, Berlin and Barcelona. For the first trip, we headed to Liverpool, City of Culture 2008. I was very eager to get there as I had arranged for the group to meet the internationally acclaimed artist Richard Wilson. He spoke to the group about his temporary artwork ‘Turning the Place Over’, an impressive and unique engineering feat showing in the city centre. Richard’s talk gave the group true insight into the idea, planning and process behind such large scale interactive works. With several stop-offs planned, the group then moved on to see several city centre artworks including ‘Penelope’ by Jorge Padro, described as “Liverpool’s most colourful sculpture”. Sited outside the ‘Cream Nightclub’, the large, colourful upright overhead structures stand like intertwined lollipops. In stark contrast to this is Clive Gillman’s contemporary digital display called ‘Metroscopes’. Each metroscope automatically hunts the internet 24hours a day for live information about one of Liverpool’s twin cities. Finally there was ‘Lambana’ by Taro Chiezo, Liverpool’s iconic and playful fusion of a big lamb and a bright yellow banana sited onddly on a street corner. The following day saw us drive up the coast to Crosby beach where we encountered Anthony Gormley’s powerful piece entitled ‘Another Place’; around 100 repeated steel cast human forms dispersed along the beach. This trip proved a success and was an inspired start.
Shortly after the visit to Liverpool, the group headed south into Europe, destination Berlin. You could feel the artistic atmosphere of the city from the minute we touched down in the evening sunshine. After a short rest and an excellent Thai meal, everyone ventured out into the city darkness to see some art. After photographing sections of the Berlin wall by night, we eventually located the dynamic ‘Balloon Flower’ by Jeff Koons with its’ highly reflective surfaces. Sited close by were the bold steel figures of Keith Haring’s ‘Boxers’ and a huge, quirky yellow ‘Giraffe’ made of lego. The next day involved some serious walking around the city. Almost lost in the enormity of the Reichstag public square, we viewed the cold steel panels of the ‘Reichstag Memorial’. On closer inspection, the names of all the politicians who died under the Nazi regime were cast into the steel with each short sunken panel standing poignantly behind the other in succession. The ‘Holocaust Memorial’ is an evocative field of dark grey characterless structure like tombstones. Row upon row of these regimented forms are separated by haunting corridors in this huge space. Its’ size sadly mirrors the scale of the atrocity it commemorates. After spending 20 minutes within the space, the group met again and seemed quietly contemplative. Next stop was our meeting with ‘Public Art Lab’, an exciting public art collective based in Berlin. Sitting in the contemporary meeting room of ‘Redesign Deutschland’, our hosts showed us slides of ‘Mobile Studios’, a project they had recently completed. This innovative public art project involved taking several large portable ‘nomadic’ style artists’ studios on an impressive journey, through three European countries. Then we saw images of glowing light installations by the artist Hans Weigner, who also took part in the afternoons’ discussions. Our session culminated with more images of an inspiring international project called ‘Urban Screens’ which incorporated various ‘live’ screens and digital projections. There was a noticeable confidence in the way the group interacted with the host speakers, displaying their interest and understanding of the subject. Finally, on our last day in Berlin, the group met with Thorsten Goldberg. Thorsten is an artist, commissioner and lecturer extensively involved in Berlin’s public art scene. He has been commissioned to archive, re-site and restore numerous public artworks from the post war era, many of which are located in housing schemes due for redevelopment. Thorsten was an impressive speaker and fascinated the group with his stories of working in Berlin. By the time we headed home to Edinburgh, we were absolutely exhausted but elated and inspired by the sheer scope of public art projects taking place.
With several weeks to go before the final trip, the group met with Marion Smith, an established Scottish artist. She informed the group of the different ways an artist can present ideas to a ‘commissioner’. Marion’s demonstration set a precedent for the group, showing them the quality to look for in an artists’ overall presentation. By using sketch books and drawings, Marion was able to explain clearly the origins of her ideas and the often very complicated process behind her work. By using quality, hand made models and maquettes, she demonstrated their scale effectively. In the group’s final evaluation, this session was mentioned as a highlight of the course.
The deadline for the artists’ submissions had arrived. The group had a total of 24 proposals from local, national and international artists. Linda Thompson, a local artist, was invited to read through each of the proposals with the group. This helped speed the process up as there was a lot of work to cover in a limited time. Overall each of the artists’ proposals, statements and images of previous work gave the group an insight into the variety of the submissions and it proved to be an intense session.
By the start of February the group were ready to see the public artworks of Barcelona! We arrived in glorious sunshine and it stayed with us all weekend, enhancing our ‘art trail’ experience. Starting from our beachfront hotel, we headed along the long, wide and recently re-developed beachfront promenade. Most of the artworks on show had been commissioned for the 1992 Summer Olympics and were sited towards the west end of the promenade. We walked past several large children’s climbing frames which appeared like artworks in themselves, past a collection of stylish cast cement waterfront seats and were met with the impressive copper architecture of Frank Gehry’s ‘Fish Building’. After examining Rebecca Horns’ slightly weathered glass and steel tower entitled ‘Wound Star’, we found the entrapped figures of ‘Una habitacio on sempre plou’ by Juan Munoz, translated as ‘a place where it always rains’. These enigmatic manipulated figures with sad distorted eyes stared out at us from their cage, almost like frightened, untouchable creatures in a zoo. This piece was appropriately sited, nestled protectively in a small cluster of trees in the open public square. From the seafront we headed into town, viewing en route, Mario Merzs’ pavement light works, Roy Lichensteins’ colourful arterial centre-piece and some large, white playful figures floating in the harbour. A long and interesting walk took us through the winding city streets to Gaudis’ decorative buildings. From there we went to the artistic, Gothic Quarter of the city and to the home of our speaker, the artist Rueben Santiago. Rueben welcomed us into his small studio flat and as we sat drinking some strong coffee, he showed us images of his past work, talking us through some of the subversive, political ideas behind it. Rueben’s work is very process based and the audience is often involved directly with the piece. Many of Rueben’s ideas were, at times, very close to the bone and certainly gave the group plenty to think about. On our journey home from this exciting and beautifully divers city, the group began questioning where exactly the boundaries of public art lay.
Luckily the annual public holidays were upon us and provided a brief opportunity to recharge. One week later the group were straight back to work for the artists’ short listing session. Working with the local artist Jan Waugh, the group’s mission was to reduce the 24 artists submissions down to ten and then select the final three. After two very intense sessions full of debate and discussion, the group made their final selection. Three interesting and very different proposals were selected and the artists were notified and asked to develop their ideas further, over the next month, for presentation and interview.
The group had been given the task of documenting a particular artwork that had inspired them on one of the public art trips. Finally participants were given the chance to present the group with their chosen artwork, giving the reasons why they had selected the particular piece. This type of interactive sessions went down well with individuals, giving them the opportunity to share their ideas with the whole group.
The group were then asked to nominate themselves for the interview panel and four people put their names forward. Kate Gray, the artist and public art commissioner, helped the group create a series of pertinent and challenging interview questions for the artists. The questions focused on various issues relating to public art including; any problems the artist had experienced with past commissions and how they had resolved them; how the artist had worked within management structures; budget control; project timelines; practical health and safety issues.
The following week saw the group arrive early, taking their places for an evening of artists’ presentations and interviews. Artists were given 10mins to present their idea to the group before going to interview. The group set about selecting their favourite artist, who would be given the opportunity to fully realise their idea. This proved to be a long and challenging session but a decision was finally reached……….
Having selected an artist, the group participated in a fun and practical session around publicity. Diana Cairns, a Trustee and experienced community campaigner, involved the group with several tasks including developing a publicity plan, writing a specific press release for the commissioned artwork and writing a 30 second sound bite for radio. This proved to be a key learning exercise which the group thoroughly enjoying.
For the final stage of the course, the sessions focused on evaluation. Paul Steer, an arts theorist and Trustee, talked to the group about an ‘Evaluation Tool Kit’ which could be used within a public art context. The group were given the challenge of creating two temporary ‘public artworks’ made from cardboard which were then evaluated by the other participants using the tool kit. For the final session the group completed an overall course evaluation. Course participants revisited their original course expectations to see if they had been met. They also documented the course highs and lows and made some recommendations for improving it as well as evidencing their learning outcomes. Participants commented that the course was; “Rich in content, very stimulating, superbly delivered, varied and interesting”; “a unique opportunity” which “brought the whole subject to life”; “made me feel more a part of Portobello” and that “meeting artists face to face was a revelation.”
And so this point marks the conclusion of the second and final public art course run by ‘Big Things on the Beach’. It also signals the end of an exciting and unique two year project. The public art course proved to be an interesting and challenging experience. The course has raised awareness, within the local and wider community, of the role art plays in public spaces. This educational, community based course has presented the opportunity for local residents to go on a journey into the world of public art. The project has highlighted the need for more community involvement in commissioning public artworks on a ‘grassroots’ level. However, there are now around 30 people, resident in Portobello, who have a good understanding of the content, language and intricacies of public art and the commissioning process. The Trust also has eight new Trustees signed up, participants from both public art courses. Soon this exceptional public art course will be available online, as an educational resource, for local councils and developers to use as a learning tool for communities everywhere. And with newly established local, national and international creative networks and partnerships, the Trust is now tentatively reaching out into Europe.
Thank you to the Scottish Arts Council and local government for funding such an important project. And to the Trust, keep up the good work and let’s see more art on the Portobello’s beachfront!!