with Jo Thomas, Katy Beinart, Laura Krikke and Kasper
Will's Studio, Lewes
FG: Describe your Practice…
WN: I’m an artist, I currently spend the majority of my time making public sculpture for public spaces, but I also make other artworks, sometimes they’re interactive and sometimes they’re not but usually there’s some kind of people connection rather than it being about me.
FG: How did you get started?
WN: My dad is a sculptor, and I grew up not really understanding that there were other interesting jobs so I was fairly fixed on the idea of being an artist! I remember being 6 or 7 and having to paint a picture’s of what you are going to do or what your job is going to be and it was always somebody with tools who made stuff. I went to Middlesex in 1993 to do a foundation and stayed on to do my degree. I completed an MA at Brighton in 2006, whilst I was doing that I also got accepted on to the Art Plus thing, and ended up using my MA to figure out how to be a public artist as opposed to a studio artist.
It was a weird MA called ‘Design by Independent Project, a sort of a mini PhD, you apply with a proposal for what you’re trying to do and that becomes your MA. It was fairly random and my proposal was quite vague, I think that I was the only sculptor on the course at the time, the main thing for me was to find the right people to talk to.
My Independent Project was called the Footprint Project, it was a study of Stanmer Park, near Brighton. It’s got an interesting history; traces of this are left in the landscape. I had the idea of mapping it through other people’s experiences; first I made my own map of the park as there wasn’t a detailed one, in it I included all the footpaths, the different zones, ruins, statues. These maps were printed and made available in the park. I asked people to draw their route around the park onto it. On the back of the map there was a questionnaire about what they use the park for. Some people would just scribble drawings of cocks onto it and other people would get really into it and say “oh yeah we got married here” and “there is a badger set here…” you have this range across all the people who use the park engaging with it in their own way. I collected the maps back through post-boxes in the park and used the overlaid routes and info as data to generate sculptures and prints. The resulting artworks were exhibited at the Gardner Arts Centre in the park. Their last show before they closed. This building has now reopened as the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts.
FG: More ephemeral?
WN: The things I made could have been made from more permanent materials and I was sort of angling towards that but the funding was not there so I realised it was a lost cause and it was better to create and exhibit a series of artworks alongside all the maps. This experience made me realise that I could not really function in that way as a public artist; that there has to be a place where people want a thing to happen, rather than me saying I want this thing to happen. Maybe if I had been more persistent, or willing to adapt how I was seeing it, that approach could have become something. I’m thinking of public artists like Jeremy Deller who function quite well without the need for permanent finished sculptures. So it can happen but maybe I was too stuck in the idea that I need to make a thing. So that way of working was really useful as a learning process. But I then started to get offers based on what I’d done to make real things from scratch so from the Footprint Project I went straight onto a project we called Our Space. It was a year-long project, at a school near Eastbourne that continued with the same data collecting approach and added a real physical result. A kind of pavilion based on dimensions collected from the school community
The school arts officer (Marina Castledine, who had been involved with Art Plus and now works at Towner in Eastbourne) wanted to bring an artist to work with the school. Through Art Plus they had already done a load of stuff with architects, artists and photographers and she was keen on the idea of an actual finished sculpture being installed in the school.
I probably get most excited about technical bits and bobs, there’s a kind of puzzle to be solved, there’s a resolution I suppose. That project has been a model for most of the public projects I’ve done since then.
FG: What about the projects you are working on now…
WN: Noisy table (which came after my ‘Laws of Table Tennis’ on the LV21 boat), I had an urge to make something less serious, people like ping pong; it’s an easy win so I started fiddling around with other ping pong stuff. I ended up doing an event outside the Hayward Gallery, at the Southbank centre. Organising a selection of different artists and designers to make their own customised ping pong tables, I made one with audio enhancement so the ball hit generates vibrations, which are sent through digital effects into speakers suspended over the table, a dramatic bonkers experience! Graham Peet (Director of the Public in West Bromwich) saw it and asked me if I wanted to exhibit it at The Public. Since then Noisy Table has been exhibited all over the country. I’ve now done a new version which has a data projector pointing down at the surface so when the ball hits not only does it make a sound but it also generates visuals on the table.
Each time it’s exhibited I try and get workshops run by artists and programmers who hack it making new sounds and visuals. It’s really collaborative and I’m not really techy enough so I have to find people to help along the way, coders who can use Pure Data and Processing are very useful. Hopefully they get something out of it too, sometimes I can pay, other times there might be a student getting experience.
FG: Describe where it’s on show at the moment/future…
WN: I’m looking for places to take it, now I’ve got a new version, I feel like it’s quite tried and tested, places will have it back, helping to tour it, internationally as well.
FG: Is that something you would like to do more of? It’s difficult with big objects isn’t it.
WN: Yes stuff has to be tested for people to be willing to spend the money on it, they’ve got to believe there is a market for it, or there’s got to be someone in the British Council supporting it, and a funding stream to enable it. Noisy Table is quite fun but it’s an odd one because although it’s one of my most successful things to date, it doesn’t really relate to other stuff I’m interested in.
FG: Yes it’s very playful.
WN: It seems to feed a little bit of me that wants to have some fun… But an art practice seems to need to balance and make sense to other people, so that it can be a marketable product…
FG: That’s funny…can you explain it a bit…compared with someone we saw yesterday who didn’t have any way of marketing, didn’t want to, did her day job and did her projects…
WN: Which is perfectly valid. But what I want, is to do the things I’m interested in doing, and to actually be able to make a living out of it. In order to do that I feel that I have to understand the world I’m trying to engage with.
FG: So the balance is between your own interests and what other people are interested in?
WN: Yes but also – that particular strand, although its doing really well, doesn’t connect with my other stuff, so that fact people like this and want to exhibit this doesn’t mean they’re automatically interested in anything else I’m doing.
FG: So do you drop that stuff?
WN: Maybe I should. I don’t know. I think ultimately I’m more interested in making physical objects, using geometry and evolving sequences to see how stuff comes together or apart, But I do want a tangible, physical thing. I’ll figure it out, I’m not having sleepless nights or anything, it’s a nice problem to have.
The public projects are very much my sculpture. Like the work in progress outside the front of the studio, oak and steel sections that tessellate for a housing estate in Whitstable, I’m installing it next week.
The other current project, for the Environment Agency, making structures out of old groynes, at the beach at Camber sands. That feels like it’s mine.
So with Noisy Table, it’s kind of this wild card, it’s outside of my control. That makes it interesting and I think I can learn from that.
FG: like with Louise Kenwards project connecting Bexhill’s in different places –it has the serendipity of that changes your practice – Noisy Table is like that – encounters can change it
WN: Yes it’s just responding to a demand, people really like it and keep coming.
KB: Isn’t there something about these things that they are static and once they’re made they are a bit like a building, in the sense that once they’re there, they’re there.
WN: But that is the nature of sculpture, isn’t it?
Unless you can actually fiddle with it. That’s when people come alive in relation to this sort of stuff, feeling like they are part of it. I do try and bring that into my process, but it usually still results in a static object. Like Our Space, the process of making it was very engaging, involving lots of people, they had fun with it but the end result wasn’t interactive. The difference with Noisy Table is that people keep on being able to mess around with it in different ways. People can just play with/on it or if you are a bit more geeky you can actually mess around with the inside of it, you can recode it. That’s why it’s a bit of a monster because if people really want it and like it, then you are in a position where as an artist you keep on showing this thing and there is a buzz around it. But it’s no longer a creative thing for the artist.
FG: Do you get involved with the static work after it’s been put in place at all? Can you walk away and leave it?
WN: Yes, for this one over here (Swale Park, Whitstable), the engagement bit of that is about making a social space for people to be in; combining seating, an apple orchard and creative play. It is also an artwork, inspired by the formation of ice crystals into a snowflake. Other than visiting it to see how the trees are doing there is no need for me to be involved.
FG: How do you get your projects?
WN: So with that one I was approached for the shortlist, which is much better. When you are doing it cold (open submission), chances are there are maybe 60, 100 people applying, like that London road project, they have to go through 100 and whittle it down to the usual 3 or whatever, but there doesn’t seem to be much room for art in a process like that.
KB: A lot of these briefs seem to be quite rigid, with no room for the art.
FG: So would you want to shift to gallery practice because of the scale of the work or the audience that would see it or…
WN: Some of it was about wanting to make the work myself, because quite often with these big things you don’t end up making the work, you just make a model and somebody else makes it because of the scale of it and the equipment needed. I addressed that with this project because I could make it in bits. That satisfies something.
It’s because I like making things, and I want to be in a position where I could make lots of variations of (this tower) and unless I can actually sell them there’s not a point, I’ve got one, I can imagine it, that’s where it stops. So I want to have that outlet so I can make it again. Each time you make one it evolves and changes but without being able to put it out there it seems a bit pointless…
FG: so it’s not really about who sees the work
WN: I bet you that if you saw me in 3 years’ time and I had made this transition and I’d cut off all the public stuff I’d miss it, I don’t want to cut if off, I would like to get a balance where I can do both.
FG: it’s a different process, in the gallery essentially you want to be represented.
WN: Creating exhibitions is a different thing to creating a piece of public art.
FG: is there more freedom in a show? Public art is always responding to a brief
WN: Potentially – but people I know who work with galleries don’t seem to feel especially free. There are a different set of constrictions. You can end up stuck making a different thing, which there is a demand for.
There is something about being an artist which you are only really aware of if you are doing it, which is that you are never really quite satisfied with what you’ve got. You are either hungry for success because you’re poor/unknown and no one is interested in your work or they are interested and then you feel under pressure to create it, all the time, maybe it’s part of the human condition but I guess as artists you may be thinking about it harder.
FG: is this just the human condition? Or A Personality that makes you be an artist? You always want to improve, embrace change?
KB: Yes maybe it’s more of a problem with the art world, getting locked into drawing dogs or lines. Do you have a dream project?
WN: I just aspire to continuing to work, continuing to find stuff that I’m interested in.
FG: Is place
important in the work?
WN: For Public Art, yes. I’m responding to something that’s put in front of me. In Chichester harbour, I’ve never been there, but if they are interested in my proposal I’d go there and figure out what I’d like to do, I guess it leads you to interesting places. The piece I’m about to install next week is in the centre of a bland housing estate, identikit architecture where there is only a little bit of variation. It is not an inspiring place but it is, in its own way interesting. I’m presented with these environments then figure out how to respond.
FG: Is it a new build - when did you come into it?
WN: Half built – 160 homes total. I like the nature of my job, last week on the same day as I was on site at Swale Park installing foundation pads. I also had a meeting at the Harbour Masters office at Rye harbour, for the Environment Agency project, talking seriously about the logistics of running a giant sandcastle competition on Camber Sands.
JT: I'm interested in difference between public art and gallery art, can you do both, can you move from one to the other.
Others: yes you can do both but not all gallery artists can engage with the public.
WN: For either it’s a set of skills you learn, some people have an aptitude for that side of art, you have to get your head round what it means to you and how you are going to engage with people. These are life skills as much as anything.
FG: How do people find your work?
WN: If it is in a prominent place, like I’ve got a large wall sculpture on the side of Chelsea Academy on Lots road in Chelsea, then hundreds of people see it every day, it has become part of our urban landscape. But a lot of the things are quite hidden away, not many people are going to see them, they are not a destination, they are just going to exist there. With Noisy Table over 100,000 people have played it, I don’t know what that means really.
FG: Its means it’s really popular!
WN: It doesn’t mean that its good, does it, it just means that it’s there.
FG: Depends on your criteria – criteria for public art don’t seem so clear or established. How do you quantify good public art? David Harding’s criteria were very good, about people and how it relates to the place and how much they took it on.
WN: There’s a balancing of elements which include the engagement
side; connecting with people in some way, a relationship with the place, and also the overall aesthetic.
FG: Do you feel commissioners want to protect you from the public?
WN: I don’t feel that. I think perhaps because I’m quite confident about working with people, I’m not coming to it thinking that the engagement is secondary or is an obligation; it has become a criteria for funding. Some artists may feel they want to do a project but they don’t really want to engage and then maybe there is a difficulty there.
FG: Maybe this comes from experience of having hostile reactions to something!
WN: You can have things that are quite inappropriate for a place, the brief for (Swale Park, Whitstable) was for a sculpture and I felt from visiting that although you could just make a sculpture, it was completely pointless if it did not connect to the people (who live in the place) and have a function of some kind.
FG: What makes your own work successful for YOU?
WN: I feel likes it successful if I look at it and it’s working, not beauty particularly but I want things to balance; I’m interested in a kind of harmony that can exist in a form, not that it’s symmetrical or perfect but there is something happening within the form which in my mind’s eye I can explore, it makes sense and works, that’s when it’s successful. My large scale public sculptures are quite technical so they have to be engineered, by the time they are being made there’s not so much room for change. This means that I’m not responding to the material as I’m making it, but variations of the form are made and remade over and over as virtual and physical models, if a model is not right I’ll make another one. The spark for a sculpture exists my head before I pick up any tools. The art exists in the 10 seconds when I think of it, that’s where it is.
Since our meeting in August 2014, I have completed 5 new public art projects (including the two in progress when we spoke), created and exhibited a new group of sculptures at the William Benington Gallery (London), exhibited at Blickachsen11 in Bad Homburg (Germany). Noisy Table is turned down low for the time being.