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Adaptation - Covid Proofing Community Participation in Public Art, Part 1

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

I want you to imagine creating a project so Covid-Possible that it could go on regardless of lockdown or isolation... In this era of uncertainty - perhaps now it is more important than ever for Art to create connections within communities, and with our communities adapting to new technology so quickly, it has never been so possible. In the spirit of keeping society healthy and engaged, how does Covid-Safe Art equal Covid-Proof Art?

I'm Matt Aberline and I'm part of the Goldberg Aberline Studio. We are an art studio based in Sydney, we are most known for our outrageous inflatable art installations, but since 2020 we have been working closely with communities, and have become much more strategic about creating meaningful experiences for audiences. Our mission has always been to put "the Public" into "Public Art" and Covid gave us an unprecedented opportunity to implement our ideas into a bold experiment.

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. In this two-part article I'll share how we created a community art experience that beat lockdown, isolation and quarantine.

In this first section, I'll discuss how the project was conceived, and running the process.

In the second part, 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.


How the Project was Conceived:

When Covid hit in March 2020, our studio transitioned to doing online creative workshops and enjoyed a lot of success with this, albeit at a small scale. With a background in film, thinking about our online workshops as designing for the screen was a very natural transition. The workshops were an invitation to participants into our studio, and used a multi camera set up show the space in a dynamic way.

Initially it was low tech. We had invested in a high quality camera and mic for the presenter, but everything else was improvised. My studio partner Maurice was the presenter, and I played producer switching vision between overhead views of the work bench, medium shots of the presenter, and long shots showing the studio floor. Incorporating music and prerecorded footage, the experience became more like Live TV than just Zoom.

Maurice has a background in leading workshops and he built into these sessions, continual opportunities for visual and verbal interaction. It was active engagement - everyone was talking, participating, sharing their work, and being present.

With that toolset in mind, we created a project to reach out to Regional NSW.

To motivate participants, we wanted to offer something big - the sort of project that they normally wouldn’t have access to. We’ve always used Sculpture by the Sea (SxS) as an experimental space where we can try out new ideas, and Adaptation won a place at Tamarama Beach. The thing I love about SxS is that a few years ago when I told my parents that we were showing a work at Sculpture by the Sea - they suddenly knew what I actually did with my life. It has tremendous general public appeal.

With that outcome in place; the Grafton, Bathurst, Maitland Regional Art Galleries and Albury City Place Making joined the project, bringing members of their communities.

The collaboration package evolved to delivering a series of online workshops, to over a hundred regional creatives, collaboratively creating an abstract art inflatable sculpture, which would tour to those regional centres, then finally be shown at Sculpture by the Sea. There was a lot of 'padding' built into the timeline to accommodate the Covid uncertainties.

Our gallery partners promoted the project within their own communities, participants logged into our website, and were sent a small kit of supplies to work with. The kit was a way to make things 'more real', and packaged some basic materials in a fun way. Each participant joined us for a series of three sessions which was run 4 times to suit the timing of the regional centres.

What worked:

It was exciting. We found a way of fulfilling needs during a time of crisis. The work was called Adaptation because everyone was adapting to a new way of working.

Although there was no government funding for the project, each partner was able to invest enough in their component to make it happen. The partnership made it possible.

The Gallery partners formed a gateway to access communities.

What was challenging:

It was scary. We were moving quickly into reasonably unexplored territory. There was an urgency in the project and it was difficult for many galleries to be quickly responsive, providing engagement to their communities at a time of crisis.


Running the Process:

The participants were very mixed. Typically everyone was stuck at home and needing an outlet and a personal connection, something to reach through the computer screen and into their homes. Grafton brought a swag of bright creative professionals and artists, Bathurst brought a contingent of academics and interior designers, Albury brought an older population wanting to explore new ideas, and Maitland introduced us to the remarkable crew from Mei Wel - a disability network from the Hunter Region.

The participants were invited into a three session creative process. Our plan was to familiarise the participants to the mediums (charcoal, pastel and chalks) through a series of simple exercises. They could see Maurice, over head views of the workbench and close ups of anything in his hands. We used a lot of music (played directly from each participant's own computer via sound sharing in Zoom). We used movement and got people to stretch and dance. We blindfolded them and asked to draw just to the music. It was a way of creating a level playing field where initially no one could be great, no one could be bad, but they were all able to experience a creative sense of flow.

Meeting every single participant was a gift. As producer, I got to see everyone respond to the work, the music, the exercises, the fun. By the third workshop, when everyone had grown accustomed to working with us and were feeling very confident, the excitement was palpable. The artworks that were initially hesitant became bold and expressive, filled with energy and colour.

One of the roles of art is to reflect back to society, but in Adaptation, it was reflecting back something very personal. It was reflecting back hope, excitement and a new way of understanding your own creativity.

Collaborating with Mei-Wel was life changing for us. We knew some of the participants in Maitland would have intellectual disabilities, and frankly we were a bit shocked when we logged on for our first workshop and found the entire class had a disability. Then something wonderful happened. I watched as Maurice effortlessly transitioned the workshop plan to an elegantly simplified version. Nothing really changed, he still quipped about the dollar value of contemporary abstract art, talked about how to use emotion as a creative tool, got everyone to draw blindfolded and to concentrate on what that freedom felt like… But it felt like something magical happened in that workshop and formed ongoing collaborations within the disability field.

The participants worked quickly and prolifically. We focused on having a great time rather than "trying to get it right". As all the participants worked, they photographed their work on their mobiles. At the end of each workshop, they transferred their images to our custom We-Transfer page directly from their phones. It was reasonably seamless, although there was the occasional hiccup especially in the older demographic. Having a step by step visual guide to loading the photos was was essential.

As the works came in, they were downloaded into Lightroom, sorted by artist and region. We ended up having thousands of quick drawings done with plenty of spirit.

What went well:

• The production of the workshops was very successful. It wouldn’t have been possible to achieve that level without a producer managing switching vision, queuing additional media (music and prerecorded video), and dealing with any additional small tech problems. All of this was managed within Zoom. It gave Maurice the presenter the freedom to just concentrate on creating relationships with the participants.

• Dynamically showing the environment - inviting the class into the workshop was a great experience. It became 'proof' they were part of something bigger, seeing the sculptural works materialise on the workshop floor.

• The online workshops afforded the participants a great deal of freedom (ie: no one judging their work closely, they could chose what work they would submit etc).

What was challenging:

• Building a level of trust /and a sense of ownership could have been improved initially. The set up was done very quickly, and I think there was a wasted opportunity to create more connection through initial on-boarding conversations. There was a cute creative kit that was set to the participant’s homes, and I wish it had more info about the project and what was going to happen and what our goals were.

Tune in next week to read about how we realised the public artwork and staged it at multiple exhibitions across the country including Sculpture by the Sea (picture here at Cottesloe, image by Richard Watson.)

Want to know more? Read about the Adaptation project here.

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