At the start of Covid lockdown 2020 - we started a large public art project that collaborated with four regional art centres, with over 100 creatives working in isolation. Together we created an art installation that toured those centres - created completely from crowdsourced art work.
The experiment was had both successes and challenges. If you missed it, check out the project conception and workshop process in part one of this blog article.
In part two of this article, I'll discuss realising and manufacturing the work, and staging the work in the various regional centres.
At each stage I've tried to describe the process that we used, and summarised each section looking at the key learnings, the successes and failures that became apparent as the experiment evolved.
Realising and Manufacturing the Work:
The most unexpected thing happened. The work that was being created by the participants started being good. Like - REALLY good.
Our sculptural work has always relied on a certain amount of chaos and clashing of patterns and texture, and although we had preliminary sketches of where we thought we were going, suddenly it didn’t seem quite right.
The idea behind the project was 'adaptation’ happening on many levels. Most of the artworks were done very quickly, 20 minutes at most, and we were adapting similar visual themes from various contributors together to a fully resolved art fabric. These works were large scale designs created in photoshop, then printed digitally onto fabric.
We tried to be very true to the integrity of the works. We had to be very mindful about how we used colour in the work, as all the participants had a great time using lots and lots of colour. It became hard to create themes within the finished sculpture. Ultimately, we had to push works into strict colour fields - i.e. the blue area, and the green area, and had to tone down some of the more extravagant prints accordingly.
What went well:
• We were able to create quite extraordinary art fabrics from the participants work, and I think this had a really powerful impact to the creative practice of many participants.
• We were able to respond to the ‘unexpected’. The canvas prints became a gateway to understanding the sculpture better.
What was challenging:
• We wanted the participants to explore with a very wide scope. But maybe it turned out to be too big, and we could have been more prescriptive about the direction. This would have made the realisation of the work easier.
Staging the Work:
Adaptation was designed to tour the regional centres in a variety of timings to suit the four partners, then finally at Sculpture by the Sea.
It was initially shown at the Maitland Regional Art Gallery utilising an unusual space; the stair case void, which maximised the dimensional experience, with the stretched canvas works featured in an adjacent space. The participants were all able to reconnect at the launch, and we were also able to do live workshops, which was a great way to connect to some familiar faces.
Happily, some of our gallery partners were able to show stretched art fabrics in an adjacent space to the inflatable sculpture onsite - and this profoundly informed the overall work. It helped participants connect to a more traditional form of artwork.
The work then toured to Sculpture by the Sea at Cottlesoe WA. We weren’t able to install the work because of travel restrictions in WA, and SxS had to install it by themselves. Built upon a series of tripods, we were accustomed to how precisely the legs of the sculpture needed to be positioned, but it was more difficult for the expert team at SxS to stage it without us. Issues with the installation ended up being resolved over FaceTime, but we realised elegant simplicity is key! (SxS photo by Ross Watson)
Albury City Place Making used the work as a focal point for a series of other activities during their Winter Festival. There was strong participant interaction and a series of other happenings like bands, food and workshops.
One of the arts officers at Albury had a keen insight - “What if you DIDN’T have to be there to install the work?”... It started a line of creative exploration into simpler, easier to deploy public art work outcomes. Works that a busy arts officer could implement without too much drama.
At this point, we were finding the momentum behind the project was starting to lag. It had been over 12 months since the project started, and I realised that if a participant wasn't following us on Instagram, then they might have missed out on any updates. I realised the conduits for communication had become a bit rusty, although we did continue to receive some amazing messages:
"Thank you so much for creating such a wonderful project to be a part of. Professional development opportunities for emerging regional artists are rather scarce! I wanted to express gratitude for the innovation, connection, and collaborative community building through Adaptation."
I realised that the focus of the work had shifted from being a purely digital experience for all the participants, to being purely physical for those lucky enough to see it. I think the comments from the participant above ask: "How do we keep the innovation, connection and sense of community alive during the 12 month trajectory of the project?". A powerful piece of learning...
What worked well:
• Showing the work at the regional centres created a profound sense of ownership and involvement. The participants could see that they had been part of something unique and they had contributed something real that they could share with their family and friends. The engagement was real and rewarding.
• Using the community artwork as a centre piece for further community involvement was a bit of a masterstroke by Albury. They had ignited a whole series of other opportunities, building upon the momentum of the original project.
What was challenging:
• The engagement was originally conceived as an online experience, but the online aspect tapered after the initial workshop series, and became more about the physical work. For example, there wasn’t one central place where a participant could go online to see the various aspects of the work, or show their own personal involvement in the project.
• The communication around the project could have been handled better with a central distribution list and regular updates.
• There's a bunch of ideas for ongoing community engagement in future projects; a blog or web gallery showing the development of the participants artwork, a way for people to download material, opportunities for participants to print their own "finished art fabric", or a way of translating the physical work into a 3D Virtual Reality version that people can see at home using Google Cardboard googles!
Adaptation was an experiment in how many diverse communities could contribute meaningfully to a public work, at a time of national crisis. It managed to break through the difficulties of Covid restrictions and create something unique. It wasn't completely smooth sailing, some things were great and other things we'll do better next time armed with our newly earned knowledge. My hope is that this knowledge will be useful for other artists and organisations too.
At the beginning I asked you to imagine creating a project so Covid-possible that it could go on regardless of lockdown or isolation... The big question is how to do we make the Arts Sector more robust ? Covid is just the latest challenge to get us to be more creative and move beyond traditional models. So instead of crossing our fingers and hoping for happier times and a return to the old ways of making and showing art, maybe now is the time to think about project design in new ways, operating by building meaningful connection and active engagement with our diverse communities. If you are looking to implement a Covid-proof creative project in your community. Start by asking yourself the following questions:
- What kind of assumptions about digital/online fluency am I making about my participants?
- Where does the participation component end? Are there ways to integrate participation throughout the project?
- What is the lifespan of my project? How can I use technology to let it live on beyond its physical or time based limits?
We can use the best of new technology and innovative funding and touring models to inspire and support creative expression by us all. Rather than letting our projects stall, let's use Covid as an opportunity to pivot and innovate. I think projects like Adaptation are just the beginning!
Want to know more? Read about the Adaptation project here.