“This is regeneration – I have to engage with that.”
LIMITACTION is a collaborative art project, developed as a curatorial and artistic residency, taking place in the Window Space Gallery at the Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design, London Metropolitan University, from January to July 2015. The project unfolds through the exploration of four distinct limitations of the window space, namely: accessibility, privacy, freedom and space. These chapters will form the overall structure of the project, progressing as a series, with each culminating in a preview event on the First Thursday of the months March, April, May and June.
Privacy, the second chapter of LIMITACTION, investigates the phenomenon of the privatisation of public outdoor spaces, which has prioritised business over community needs, granting corporations control over some of the London’s busiest squares. For this installation, the artist has been playing with the perception of privacy in a publicly visible space by replicating and recreating the street environment inside the Window Space, blurring the boundaries between where the external public space ends and the interior domestic environment begins.
On the occasion of the unveiling of the new “environment” in the Window Space, Stefania Sorrentino, curator of ‘Privacy’, interviewed Charlotte Warne Thomas, the artist-in-residence, to investigate further the concept alongside the artistic point of view on this current issue.
Stefania Sorrentino: Privacy, the second chapter of LIMITACTION, questions the blurring line between public and private property in public spaces. What is your position as an artist in this debate and in the particular case of privatisation of public spaces in London?
Charlotte Warne Thomas: I find it quite difficult to talk about my position as an artist because I don’t really feel I have to have a position. What I tend to do as an artist is to draw attention to things that might be interesting or might otherwise be not noticeable. However I don’t feel that this means taking a position. Rather it is more about highlighting something in a way. Regarding the blurring line between the public and the private realm, I think this is really worrying because it is insidious and it is something that is going under the radar that most people are not aware of. For example when you walk across the Millennium Bridge, you don’t notice that it is actually a private space. A lot of Georgian squares and terraces were opened up to the public during the Victorian period, and now we are going in the opposite direction, with public land being sold off to corporate developers. In this process it feels like we are only going backwards…
SS: Do you believe contemporary art also has the social responsibility of making people aware of political issues and social concerns, such as what is private and public in a specific city and/or country? If so, to which extent?
CWT: I don’t think that art has to have a social responsibility. But I think it should be socially responsible. For example I don’t think it’s an artist’s job to make people go out and vote, or to raise political issues and awareness about them. That’s not the job of the artist. That’s the job of politics and media. But having said that, art, artists, and the art institutions we live with (just like everyone else) should be socially accountable, especially the art that’s being funded publicly. The elephant in the room I think is the fact that the art market is so utterly morally bankrupt. The big galleries who trade the big name artists and the blue-chip works are the worst possible example of insider trading. No stock market company would get away with that level of insider trading and manipulation of prices. It’s the worst kept secret in the art world that gallerists bid on their own artists’ auctions. Most of them are just traders and only look for a financial return. And obviously this doesn’t work well with the integrity of being an artist. But it is true though that a lot of big artists don’t feel comfortable with the high quantity of money that their works generate: it just doesn’t seem to fit with their motivations.
I think it’s a matter of social responsibility in the way that you act and in your own accountability.
SS: So how does that relate with your intention of calling attention to issues that would be otherwise remain hidden?
CWT: I think that’s a difficult, but a really important, question. As an artist I just want my work to have some sort of agency. I have a difficult relationship with the idea of having an agenda, and I don’t want my work to look like it’s serving someone’s agenda. I don’t want my art to be propaganda. I only want it to be interesting and fairly provoking.
SS: Speaking of big museums and the constraints that they quite often impose on artists, there is today this tendency of evading the institutional framework by bringing art into an outside space. What do you think is, today, the role and the impact of art in public spaces?
CWT: I believe public art is made to appeal to the maximum number of people possible, to be populist and entirely inoffensive. But I do think that it tends to be very banal. I relate the rise of the phenomenon of post-war public art to the increasingly progressive agenda of the period, whereby the establishment felt obliged to look after both the physical and aesthetic of needs of everyday people. The founding of the Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts (the precursor of the Arts Council England) in 1940 is an example of the state-sanctioned belief that everyday people deserved to have good public services and good art in their streets. Where I grew up in Ealing, at the centre of the shopping mall there was this really banal bronze of a perfect traditional family; a mother and a father, two kids, everyone holding each other’s hands. Now I would consider this almost disgusting and almost offensive, cause I wonder why a family should look exactly like that. However there are some great modernist pieces in Paris for example, generally abstract pieces. And likewise some very interesting works of art by Henry Moore were put up in London’s public spaces in the post-war years, all for the benefit of the people who lived in the area.
SS: I was recently listening to this conversation on the radio between Richard Sennett, Professor of Urban Studies at the London School of Economics, and sculptor Antony Gormley about the importance of public art. The main idea brought up was that what we call public art is indeed landscaping rather than isolated works of art to look at. And if I think about it, what you are doing for LIMITACTION can be considered as part of a broader urban context, although it’s enclosed within the margins of the window.
CWT: I do agree: public art is much more landscaping, and partly because of its permanent nature. That’s why I haven’t really thought of my work in the window in the context of public art. In fact although it’s visible to the public, it’s not actually in a public space. Besides the installation itself is visible only for a week, therefore it has a very ephemeral character. But I reckon this is intrinsic to the process of the residency, which, in this particular case, is subject to some very fast-paced changes.
SS: Speaking of the residency, I would really like if you could walk me through it starting from the very beginning of this experience.
CWT: Ok. So, four exhibitions. That is what I was asked to develop in the Window Space. I generally work in a responsive way to the environment and one of the first things that I identified and became conscious of while being in the space is how different Whitechapel looks compared to how it looked a few years ago. I was struck by these new tower blocks above Aldgate East station. I even read about these towers having two separate entrance doors, a “poor door” for the social housing, and another one in marble for the residents of these luxury flats. When I was in the Window Space I literally had those buildings in front of me, this is what triggered me to think more about these aspects of the local environment. Whitechapel used to be the old East End, now it’s just changing so quickly. Property values are shooting up. And I just found myself in the midst of it. I really responded to that with the first installation with the set-up based on the style of the estate agents. Also the material for the film that I shot was taken from adverts for these super posh penthouse towers. With that what I really identified was a sort of super-individuality that was very much tied in with the way these properties are advertised: they generally offer a spectacular view of the city at twilight, from a very high yet anonymous perspective. Often there’s a long exposure on the images so that the lights appear to be fading. Sometimes the buildings have not even been built yet and the images are just computer-generated. It’s all designed to emphasize this feeling of anonymity and isolation from society. It’s quite a romantic feeling.
SS: Would you define this as a sort of sublime moment?
CWT: Yes, I think so. I think it does relate to the notion of Kant’s sublime and the post-enlightenment individual subjectivity, and this might be what is being emphasised in these adverts. I really think they are using a specific visual language that makes the lifestyle looks so attractive. If you’re selling this sublime moment in a luxurious penthouse flat to this conscious, super subjective, individualized consumer, it’s kind of the perfect recipe. I saw that very clearly when I was in the Window Space.
I started to read more and think about it more and the idea of public space being privatised just came along straight away. Just across the road from the CASS Central House is that new Barratt Homes development. And if you look at the advertisement information on the hoardings, it goes something like: “New penthouse developments, including brand new public squares.” And what that really means is actually private spaces. One other important thing is that because these spaces look like public spaces most people take it for granted that they are public – but they are not and this lack of transparency leads to a lack in democracy. If you decide to protest in these spaces, or just do some skateboarding, then it’s not possible and you have to ask for permission. In fact there were a lot of stories of art students a few years ago getting manhandled by security guards in Canary Wharf because they were taking photographs of the buildings for learning purposes. They were told that they just didn’t have the right to take photographs. And actually I think this is a fine line, because I reckon you do have the right to photograph, you know, you can’t own the copyright of your building.
SS: But the truth is that the land where those buildings are situated is not public. People are simply not aware of that.
CWT: I think if you explain this situation to people, most people just don’t really care because they feel that it doesn’t affect them. They just take it for granted. While the streets are a site of freedom and democracy, these privatised (but public-looking) squares are closed to democracy. For example, when the Occupy movement started in London in 2011, they had wanted to protest outside the London Stock Exchange in Paternoster Square, but because it’s not a genuine public space, they had no rights to protest there, and instead they went to St. Paul’s where the church gave them the permission to camp. If you think of the function of the public square in the past, it was a place designed to gather people to listen to their leader giving a speech. It was a place of democracy.
SS: In fact this distinction from the public and the private sphere actually originates in Greece with philosophers such as Plato or Aristotle.
CWT: Yes, I agree. These ideas of public versus private space are fundamental to the foundations and definitions of democracy, even if those ancient models are just not valid anymore.
SS: Charlotte, speaking about your new installation for LIMITACTION, can you tell me a bit more about it? How did you conceive the idea?
CWT: Almost as an aesthetic reaction, when the CASS building was covered in scaffolding in February, I felt like I had to engage with it. As an installation artist I am very aware of my surroundings. I work with these conceptual theories, but I do also work with materials. I’m not a sociologist. These social issues obviously interest me, but I reserve the right to change my opinion and position as time goes on. I mainly respond visually. So, when I saw all this scaffolding around the building, I felt that I just had to work with it, because it was there. At first I thought “oh no, all my work is going to be ruined by this ugly scaffolding”, but then I thought “hold on, this is regeneration”. It’s actually a nice way of regenerating the building because they’re making it nicer and better. They’re taking care of the building; they’re looking after it. I think the word regeneration is often totally misused to mean knocking buildings down and erecting new ones. This is not regeneration, this is destruction, and renewal. But regeneration in this case is an accurate word ‘cause they’re replacing the windows and making the building more pleasant for the people who work in it. In this case, the scaffolding is part of the regeneration and it just has to come inside the space – I thought. To a certain extent it was a sort of intuitive reaction to it being outside, right in front of me and my work place. Once it was inside, the conversation between the notion of interior/exterior started to unfold in my mind. The fact that it’s made of such an industrialised material is kind of odd, ‘cause it makes this installation look so different from the last one. The brick effect I will give to it through the use of wallpaper, will just aid the conversation between the inside and the outside.
SS: Also the wallpaper itself is something that is very much an interior sort of thing.
CWT: Yes, I totally agree. I think what I’ve mainly done is something that looks like an exterior space, yet indoor. It is a sort of play that will hopefully invite people to think about what is public and private space.
SS: How relevant do you think these discourses of regeneration and privatisation are to your practice? Have you explored or come across these issues before in your previous works? Do you find any coherence between these and the research you’re conducting in the Window Space?
CWT: One of the things that I’m definitely interested in is to produce a sort of response to mundane structures that act in the background but that we don’t really notice. These kind of super-structures are actually really powerful and influence the way we behave and think. That was something I was exploring in a kind of physical way in some of my early works when I was picking up details of architecture structures in gold, and working outside the gallery spaces in unexpected areas. But then with my more recent work, I was thinking a lot about willpower. We’re being told that we should take personal responsibility for the kind of situations we are in; so, for example, if you smoke you’re denied certain treatments from the NHS; if you drink then you automatically go at the end of the list for a liver transplant. But through this there are social issues that aren’t being addressed and fixed and therefore the government turns to individual responsibility as a way of evading its own responsibilities. Rather than looking at the situation holistically – and seeing that people smoke and drink at times of stress and high anxiety, and then understanding that poverty, insecure housing and uncertainty in one’s future cause high stress and anxiety – the individual is blamed for their behaviour, and circumstances. So instead of investing in proper measures to eradicate poverty for example, they just say that poor people should go and get a job, or work harder, or budget properly, or whatever – that by changing their individual behaviour, they will be better off, when of course, this is unrealistic, and ignores the complex political and social structures which have led to these choices in the first place. So it’s about ingrained problems with the structure, which instead are framed to look like individual choice, or willpower.
So in this piece titled “Willpower” I was using smoking as a metaphor. It consisted of a big picture of Kate Moss smoking, that I deliberately decided to position in the smoking area of the ASC studio building. If we think that it’s all about willpower to quit smoking, we’re wrong. I remember in 2002 the government banned the advertisement of cigarettes in all print media, magazine and billboards. I saw that as a recognition that it’s not just about willpower. Because if it was, then the state wouldn’t need to ban the advertisement of tobacco. ‘Cause it would make no difference. Advertising clearly has a very powerful effect on people – which is why they wanted to ban it – and why political parties spend millions on it, come election time. I was trying to pull out this contradiction. Personal responsibility is the mantra of our current neo-liberal age. Because if you say that it’s all about personal responsibility then the state doesn’t have to take any responsibility.
And I think all this ties in very closely to the debate around private and public because part of the creep is that people don’t really recognize whether the space where they are sitting or eating their lunch is a public or a private one, as I believe there’s a general lack of interest in knowing that.
SS: In terms of privacy in the space, how have you been personally dealing with that so far, while working inside the Window Space?
CWT: It is a very strange project, and it’s very weird being asked to occupy the space as a studio and then create work in it. Sometimes it’s just very odd, I mean people can just look at me (!!!). Yes it’s true that some of them pass by without paying much attention, but on several occasions some others have knocked on the window. Then especially in the evening with the lights on it all becomes just so visible and you almost feel under the spotlight. Anyway, I have tried to ignore it sometimes but I’m still working on it.
SS: Sometimes it takes a while to familiarise with a new surrounding. But I am very confident you will find your own response to that. Thank you Charlotte for having shared your point of view. It has been very enriching.
To find out more on the project, please visit http://www.limitaction.co.uk
Stefania Sorrentino (Rossano, Italy) graduated from La Sapienza University of Rome with a BA in History of Art, conducting research into the art market, specialising in auctions and their link with the primary sector, mainly represented by commercial galleries. What most fascinates Stefania about Contemporary Art is its new unstable definition(s) of identity and otherness; its ‘power’ to raise questions and leave them open to a diversity of interpretations. Stefania is also interested in Conceptual Art and the idea of unfolding a narrative behind the merely physical presence of an artwork. In March 2014 she co-curated the exhibition Ambivalent at the Bankspace Gallery, The Cass, in London. From May to September 2014 Stefania worked as gallery assistant at the waterside contemporary and Fold Gallery in London.