The context of the trip - Katy Beinart
The roots of this project lie over 10 years ago, in a scheme called the Art Plus Awards (funded by Arts Council England and SEEDA), which offered artists funding, time, and mentoring to realise a self-initiated idea for an artwork in a public place. Out of the legacy of this scheme, a group of artists met and decided to continue as a supportive network for self-initiated, artist-led public art work, calling the network Figure Ground.
What the Art Plus scheme offered enabled artists at emerging or crucial moments in their careers the freedom to test an idea out without fixed outcomes, a process which for many was transformative for their practice. Looking at the lay of the land in 2017, that freedom seems to be ever more difficult to find. Over the past 10 years, political changes, recession, funding cuts, restructuring of funding bodies like the Arts Council, and a Government with a neoliberal agenda which has forced austerity, privatisation and changing priorities for local authorities and other organisations all contribute to a different landscape for artists working in the public realm today.
I recently met a young sculpture student who said she was thinking of retraining as an architect because she could see no way of making a living as an artist in the UK today. Meanwhile, definitions of public art practice have also changed and artists practice in the public realm today encompasses many different modes of working. Socially engaged practice has been validated as a medium (institutionally, if not critically), and collaborative teams of artists & non-artists are working on public art briefs, while artists shape-shift to solve social and political issues and get enmeshed in bureaucracy. At the launch of the Situations book ‘Public Art Now’ in 2015, Claire Doherty asked: ‘What’s at stake now? What stresses us out? What do we want to believe in? And how are we going to navigate the next decade?’
The Public Art Road Trip set out to discover how the last 10 years had shifted the ground of public art practice for artists working in the UK, and how they felt about the future, by listening to artists talk about their practice. Visiting artists in their home towns around the UK brought to light the very different contexts they worked in, as well as their different definitions of what public art meant for them. Listening to their voices again a year or two on from the trip, I am struck by the diversity: from those who had just begun to work in a more ‘public’ way to those who were established but feeling their work needed redefining; the different kinds of ‘success’ that had been achieved and the failures and problems encountered; and those who felt that the world of public art had become too demanding and needed to leave it behind and move into a different kind of practice.
Many people had worked locally over long periods of time, had thought carefully about the intention and effect of their practice and its relationships with publics, and were making quietly provocative, subversive work. They often struggled to get funding, curatorial or producer support and had to balance their practice with other work. But despite this there was a sense of the huge commitment people had to their practice, the constant search for meaning, the questioning of relationships to publics and the intentions behind what they did. That in a sense the lack of funding, critical recognition or institutional approval would not stop them working in this way.
What emerged through the conversations was that the space we had set up to allow people to speak about their practice freely, openly and without a set outcome was a valuable one. The conversations in the caravan had an intimacy and care that enabled people to open up, explore and ponder questions about their practice and direction. More often than not, this opened up questions as well as giving answers. This speaks to what Louise Kenward called the ‘the artist journey as mystery’: a mystery with an unknown ending. This openness is a crucial factor in the risk taking behaviour inherent in making work in the public realm, exciting and rewarding but also potentially challenging on many levels.
Some notes I made while transcribing the conversations:
The painful process of becoming a (public) artist
Artists’ journeys as mysteries – unknown ending, no expectations
There has to be a place where people want this to happen
The way different pieces work - having to understand the world you engage with.
Pieces you are in control of (you can make as sole creator) or you need help/other input, which are more serendipitous
Static things or mobile things?
Does public art have its own agency?
Is the engagement in the process of making or the finished work- what is the finished work? Is it ever finished?
People encounter the work and it’s scary because they haven’t walked into a gallery
Commissioners need an idea they can see – how to match meanings?
The Safety of the commission
Risk/accident as part of the practice
Where is the art if problems are removed (by others)?
Durations – it’s very slow building relationships in the place you live – whereas you can be parachuted in for ready-made relationships and do a project somewhere unknown
Among lots of awkward meetings, occasionally you get someone who confounds your expectations and is a fountain of goodness and fun and so you either get some personal satisfaction or some artistic satisfaction
Timeline of Figure Ground events
2005-7 Art Plus awards
2008 Figure Ground started as legacy of the Art Plus network (Jon Adams, Jo Thomas and Katy Beinart)
2009 FG events in Brighton, Bracknell and Chatham and London
2011 Track changes project: LV21 residency (Jack Brown, Laura Krikke and Lucy Brown join team)
2011 Track changes project cont. with banner repeater, Bristol meeting with PLaCE, Exeter/Portsmouth trip (Lucy and Jon leave)
2012 Exchange project space, and presentation at The Home & The World
2014 Road trip begins, visits to Kent, Sussex, Liverpool, London, Nottingham (Jack, Jo, Katy and Laura)
2015 Road trip visits to Liverpool
2017 Road Trip publication launched