2 November 2014
Alexandra Parry reflects on her experience.
I arrived in Wellingore at the beginning of September. My starting point for the residency was to explore how objects and situating objects in public space can provoke conversations with people and how this can be used as a research tool. So much information can be gleaned from the internet, but I am interested in acquiring knowledge through conversations and chance encounters with people in public spaces and using an object as the starting point for these conversations.
On my first day of the residency I walked around the village, getting an overall sense of the place I would be in for two weeks. I wandered around, following my instinct, the obvious paths in the village as well as suggestions that John, the curator at Beacon had given me. During this walk I was thinking about how I could find some materials to start making. In London, I’m used to there being an availability of free materials in public spaces - things households or industry have thrown out. On first glance in the streets of Wellingore there was one skip with a couple of pallets and some building rubble. So I approached a man who was doing some gardening outside his house and asked if he had any spare wood. He gave me a nice bit of hard wood and some plywood.
I had decided the first object I would make would be a bench, as it’s an object that would allow me to create temporary social spaces around the village. Due to the size of the materials the bench was smaller than most, but enough for two people to sit on. I carried it around the village, set up in different places and waited. The first place I went to was the village green, where I waited half an hour for someone to come. The village green is a curious place, a sort of triangular roundabout, with a tree in the middle and a concrete verge. Later on in my residency I interviewed the man who had built this green with his father. He is a farmer and landowner whose family had lived in the village for a couple of generations. He described how he had built the green and that it was later urbanised with the kerb, to allow for traffic to come through without destroying the grass.
During these early conversations I used a set of questions as a starting point. I asked about what public spaces in the village people go to, what they do there and if any public spaces have changed. I documented these conversations on my phone. I soon abandoned my pre-determined questions and approached people for chats. I also stopped using the bench as I realised that the bench had been a starting point for me to put myself in these different spaces, but it was actually my approach that had initiated the conversations.
People kept on recommending that I talk to different people in the village:
‘John would really be the best person to talk to, he’s lived here all his life’
I was being referred to people in the village and I realised I was relying on a social network, rather than an object for this to happen.
After steering the project away from the object I started thinking about knowledge. I was constantly being told to talk to people in the village who had lived there a long time and I started thinking about who has authority over knowledge. This idea of knowledge = time spent challenged me as an outsider coming to the village who was proposing to make work about the village in a short space of time (2 weeks).
The conversations I had included varied forms of individual knowledge and experiences, peppered with place specific references. The knowledge seemed both subjective and objective (as there were crossovers of knowledge between the interviews) and changeable in relation to time. I selected sentences from the interviews as well as sentences from Wellingore: Past and Present, a book of historical photographs that was given to every household in the village and the local parish magazine.
I cut up words from the sentences I selected and attached them to building blocks that I made. I then took them back to the public spaces for people to arrange and rearrange. I met a couple of dog walkers, who were more interested in talking to me rather than playing with the boxes. On my walk back home to the studio, I was thinking about how I could create something that people wouldn’t think twice about using. Which is when I realised that I was essentially asking people to play the fridge magnet poetry game.
I liked the idea of using fridge magnets, which are something recognisable and it is obvious how they work. The magnet would enable the experiment to get inside peoples homes where this knowledge could be played around with informally and in people’s own time. It would also allow this knowledge to be reconfigured according to events and time. People could also decide what objects they could attach the words to, limited only by the force of magnetism.
I made several packets of the words, which I gave to the petrol station / post office, the two village pubs, my next-door neighbour and a resident in the village that I had interviewed.
I left my contact email on the envelope inviting people to email me with their new configurations. I heard nothing. I went back two weeks after I had given them and most of the people who I had given them too weren’t there. There was one household, that I got to know over the course of the residency who I know participated (see photograph below) but I’ll never know what the configurations will be in the future or what became of the other magnets.
Towards the end of my residency I started thinking about my practice more generally, how I’ve used objects to provoke interaction between the public and how conversations have been an essential part of my work. I revisited a project I did in 2008, in which I had displayed some of my possessions that had some sentimental value in public space. I had an extraordinary conversation with a man about what I was doing. During this conversation I realised that sometimes the audience knows more about your work than you do and how conversations are so important to our understanding and ideas.
Towards the end of the residency I returned to the object, my starting point. I began to attach the benches I had made to fences using bolts; a small experiment into thinking about the road to permanency through fixtures. During this time I was thinking about planning permission and individual rights and means to reconfigure public space.
After the residency was over, I returned two weeks later to deliver a public talk about my time in Wellingore. It was a good opportunity to revisit what I had done and consolidate some of my experiences. During the residency I was aware how much my practice is focused around outcome and working towards a final object, because often that is what I am commissioned to do. It was amazing to have two weeks to experiment and follow threads through by making things. I realised how important it is to play around with new ideas and to follow them through by doing them. It is in the doing that takes us to new places.
I also realised how much effect working solo in a studio had on me. My studio space in London is the co-operative RARA, a chaotic workshop, with no dividing walls, used by architects, carpenters, builders and designers. I’m used to conversation and discussion in the workspace. During the residency I was a solitary worker, alone in the studio. Since the residency I’ve been working from home more!