Balance, Stack, Play at Grizedale Forest for Sculpture

My initial idea for the show builds on my previous solo show at Gallery North, ‘My Five Year Old Could Have Done That’. The exhibition revealed some of the questions I had asked myself in the studio, which were placed around the walls of the space. These were accompanied by tests, or proposed answers to the questions as sculptural installations. Eg. “Can the blocks be made from a different material?”

I wanted to make a show that was completely interactive, to invite the audience to make their own propositions, and I wanted to see how other people might address the kinds of questions an artist may ask themselves in their studio. I knew the show would include my wooden blocks and some kind of instruction for the audience to respond to.

I was thinking about George Brecht’s Event Scores and the book, Do It –The Compendium, Hans Ulrich Obrist. ‘Do It’ is a series of exhibitions that create a framework of instructions for something the participant should do. I just wanted to share a couple of my notes:

Boltanski’s was interested in “the notation of interpretation as an artistic principle. He thinks of his instructions as analogous to musical scores , which… go through countless realisations as they are carried out and interpreted by others.” The book talks about this structure allowing art to stay relevant and “travel through time and through objects”. I think something can be relevant to anyone if they have the opportunity to create it for themselves.

Obrist talks about this model allowing for an exhibition that could continue without an end point. “What would happen if there was an exhibition that wouldn’t ever stop?” This is how I want my practice to function: objects are always in play and depend on never reaching a resolved point so there is always a starting point/framework/source material.

The instructions that I found most interesting/relevant to my research from the book seemed to fall into categories; diagrammatic, story-like, step-by-step etc. I wondered if the same instructions could be written in different forms, or even just the possibility of including different groups of instructions that used different formats. The audience could then decide which format best suited their way of thinking and choose which instructions they wanted to respond to. I had an idea that these could be presented on colour coded cards, in a similar way to the walks and bike trails in the forest, that are colour-coded for the type/difficulty of the trail.

While I was preparing for this show, I was working as a teaching assistant at a local secondary school, where I mainly taught Maths. I’ve always loved and been fairly fluent in Maths and it’s pivotal to my practice in a number of ways, but working in this environment allowed me to unpick this a lot further. I had to write a summary of myself for the school newsletter, and when describing my interest in problem solving, I realised that these skills learnt through Maths are central to my practice, and are probably very similar to the logical reasoning skills required for exhibition making practices.

The process of making and exhibiting is dependent on a cycle of problem solving, not only in the creation of the work, responding to feedback, the trial and error testing of materials and techniques, but also the logistics of how it will be hung/fixed/mounted/transported/packed. Being an artist often feels like one problem to solve after another. This made me think about how we may approach a question or instruction and how we know to start to problem solve to find a solution. The language used in Maths questions in schools is something most people will have come into contact with, and provides a familiar framework; we know we’re being asked to formulate something. I thought a lot about these stimulus words and phrases in my questions in the hope to prompt action from the audience.

When I saw ‘Kaleidoscope: Colour and Sequence in 1960s British Art’ show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, I became aware they had a really good community engagement room for children running alongside the show. The activities were mainly on A4 sheets, but there was also information on the walls and sets of materials to use to complete the activities at tables. I liked the language that was used on the A4 sheets, and the way the audience was invited to consider their own position in relation to the show. Eg. one activity asked you to locate given shapes within the work in the gallery, and see what shapes of your own you could make with your hands and with your body. I like the way the shape is translated from a part of the artwork to something real that exists in real life, and something that relates directly to the person viewing it.

An important realisation at this stage was that this show could turn into something quite similar to a community engagement activity room without clear conceptual direction, and I wanted to ensure that the show felt like a considered and critical exhibition of contemporary art. I wanted the emphasis to be on the creation of the artwork for exhibition within the space, and I decided I need to be careful in the way I devise my instructions with this in mind.

I had a meeting with the curator for the show, Hazel Stone,  and we were concerned that blocks could possibly go missing from the space, and it would be quite unsafe if the blocks were thrown about. I had an idea to drill through the blocks and thread them with rope to be fixed down. This could allow for a number of ways to attach the blocks into the space; into the wall and on the floor, onto a plinth, onto a shelf. This would also keep the blocks evenly distributed in the space, and allocate areas for the work to be staged. We started to talk about whether the plinths and shelves could reference abstracted parts of the forest, ie. Low plinths like tree stumps, or shelves like branches.

I met artist Joe Hartley at a workshop with Castlefield Gallery. I was really interested in the project he’s involved with at PLANT NOMA in Manchester because of its engagement with a wider audience than just an art audience. PLANT are an open design studio and workshop space in Manchester. They have a big impact on the city of Manchester; bringing creative activity in a number of ways to people that is accessible to almost everybody.

I had decided that I wanted to make a Sculpture Kit instead of a catalogue for this show, as I didn’t want to give too much written information about my work, or to be too leading with people’s interpretation of it, and I also thought this was a better representation of the exhibition for people to take away. Inside there are: 5 different coloured blocks of random shapes, each with holes drilled through; 3 lengths of string; a set of 12 instruction cards with the instructions from the show; and 12 blank cards to write new instructions.

I held a public workshop at PLANT to gain some feedback about the kits, see how people would interpret the instructions, and help shape what would be included in the kit. I originally included lots more instructions, and I had initially thought I would include up to 20 blocks in the set, but I found that this was too overwhelming for people to have thoughtful responses to, and people felt much more confident to play freely and purposefully when there were less blocks.

I was having some trouble with photographing the blocks for the marketing material for the show. I really wanted to capture the emphasis on interaction with the objects, but it was difficult both play with the blocks and photograph this at the same time. Rado Daskalov, a photographer, offered to help me take some photos, so I went to his studio in Bolton in November, and we collaborated on some images. Rado’s currently working as a commercial photographer so it was great to get some advice about staging and lighting the objects. We tried out a number of things but we decided that we really liked to see the hands in the shot, directly showing an interaction between a person and the blocks. Some photos show the blocks ‘in motion’ as they fall, and other show them balanced very precariously as though they are about to move.

I went to a talk at Castlefield Gallery with collaborative collective “One Five West”, who are artists Sophie Bullock and Anna Horton. Their practice is very much involved in encouraging play and I was thinking about what you’re actually doing when you play. These were my ideas:

-seeing what something does

-seeing what you can make happen

-seeing how you can use a ‘thing’ in a way to entertain or do something unusual or unexpected

-doing something new/different

-learning about something by discovering it physically or by testing it for yourself

This helped me to form the ideas for the instructions to frame different ways in which a person might play.

Personally, throughout my preparations for this show, I moved house 3 times, I was without a studio, and all of my belongings were in storage over a number of different places. This made it very difficult to organise myself, and I had limited space to see the work and think about the objects properly, but it did help me to perceive the blocks in different ways when I was packing and unpacking. I used this opportunity to test out the different instructions I was toying with each time I repacked the blocks, and it allowed me to work out which sets of shapes worked well together.

I split the blocks into groups based on colour and shape, to be staged around the space and attached into either plinths or the walls with rope. These are at different heights to make them physically accessible to as many people as possible. I decided to leave some blocks free to move around the space, to give more opportunity for play that didn’t feel overly structured. The instructions I selected have a range of different verbs, to appeal to people that think in different ways, and to prompt different kinds of actions. These include “build”, “make”, “create” and “design”, all intended to be speculative and open-ended. After considering presenting the instructions in a number of ways. I decided to present the text on the walls, so that it was clear to see for anyone walking into the gallery, and to invite people to want to get stuck in and see what they could create from any point within the room.