'Oxford: What The Walls Say' - Reflections
For the last couple of months I’ve been working on a project commissioned by Digital Artist Residency and Museum of Oxford called ‘Oxford: What The Walls Say’.
Digital Artist Residency is a not-for-profit organisation run/curated by artist Tom Milnes. Museum of Oxford is the municipal museum based in Oxford Town Hall ‘dedicated to telling the story of Oxford and its people’ and my contact there was Museum & Heritage Community Learning Officer Kate Toomey. This was the second ‘digital residency’ DAR and Museum of Oxford had offered. The brief was to create a piece of work that could be hosted online as well as in the Museum of Oxford Gallery space that responded to the the theme of ‘Urban Oxford’. The work was to be part of a group exhibition called Urban Art that focused on street art / graffiti and included work produced by young people and community groups in Oxford.
I set up a correspondence with an ‘old schoolfriend’ of mine, Ivor Wanderlust, who lives a mostly solitary existence in rural Derbyshire. He’s fascinated by cities - not because of the people, who he mostly dislikes, but because of the buildings. He has a talent as a ‘Wall Whisperer’ meaning that he can divine the messages that architecture and buildings wish to express to the world. These utterances are often significant events that the building has experienced or witnessed, a person or people that it sees everyday, a comment on the world around it, a joke it would like to make, a wish for the future or expression of desire and so on.
In order to coax Ivor to Oxford I took a series of 360 photographs and began to gather ‘starter material’ for a Wall Whispering walk. This starter material was gathered through a survey distributed online and used in workshops with groups at Oxford Town Hall, including an Arts for All, Creative Writing and Searchers (researchers) group. The survey outlined the project and asked people what their favourite buildings/architecture in Oxford was and what they thought it would say.
My proposal was to create a series of videos (shot in 360 format) that formed a virtual tour of Oxford that could be experienced online / virtually but also as a self-guided walk using Augmented Reality and mobile technologies. After having seen the exhibition the work was to be part of I began thinking about how ‘word-based street art’ i.e slogans / tags on buildings and walls etc can be as important a part of the urban landscape as the more ‘accepted’ forms of visual street art like murals or stencilled political commentary.
I made a digital map from the responses to the survey, plotting each place/building and adding notes about what it might say. From this map I was able to draw a trail around the city centre of Oxford that would take about an hour to walk.
In late March Ivor met me in Oxford and we undertook the Wall Whispering Walk together, stopping at each of the suggested places to listen to what the building had to say. We documented the walk using my 360 video camera which helped us to blend in with the hoards of selfie-stick wielding tourists and loud-mouthed tour guides.
As a keen amateur poet, Ivor made a piece of creative writing from the notes produced by the Wall Whispering Walk. The poem is essentially a collage of the words and phrases generated by the research, structured in the order that they would be encountered on the trail, and lightly edited for aesthetic and literary impact. We filmed Ivor performing the poem in locations on the trail and created a 360 video of the reading.
Working with designer Ben Holden I also produced a pamphlet that included the poem, a printed version of the map, some background to the project and credits for all of the partners and contributors. I included Zappar codes in the map which means you can use your mobile device to access additional digital content. In this way the map can be used as a physical and virtual guide to Urban Oxford.
For the exhibition at Museum of Oxford I produced an edited version of the videos of both the Wall Whispering Walk and the ‘Oxford: What The Walls Say poem to be played as standard video on a screen in the exhibition. Alongside this was an iPad with the research from the project, including an interactive version of the map.
At the opening we ordered in a number of Google Cardboard headsets which allow you to watch 360 video in 3D using your own phone. I also brought along a couple of higher-end headsets that visitors could have a go with if they didn’t have their own phone to use. I also gave a talk about the project, explaining the background and process, that ended with a live performance of the poem by Ivor, accompanied by me on thumb piano. We also gave a performance of an alternative poem made from a Wall Whispering Walk of the outer areas of Oxford. Interestingly this was much darker and sadder in tone than the city centre one.
The audience for launch event was a roughly fifty-fifty split of people that had contributed to the project through the survey and ‘passive audience’ that had come along to find out about the project and residency as a whole. I was a little concerned, or at least intrigued, to see how the project would be received, especially by those that had contributed to it. There was a collective ‘suspension of disbelief’ required and I had some ethical quandaries about this. Although a lot of my previous projects have woven together fact, fiction, the real and the virtual this was one of the only ones where I had no direct contact with the individuals and groups whose contributions became part of an art work. I worried, then, that they could feel I was exploiting their contributions or that they might be alienated from the outcome.
The comments and feedback of the people who came to the launch, particularly those that had responded to the survey, put my mind at ease. Those I spoke to said they had enjoyed contributing and were aware of the conceit of the project from the beginning. Also, that they were proud to be credited as part of the poem’s collective authorship. I think Ivor’s delivery of the poem helped as it allowed the words to transcend the awkwardness of a constructed situation.
On reflection then, although it is a risky approach bringing humour - especially when derived from hoax or satire - into participatory projects, I found that the outcomes can be richer for it. There’s a tendency within ’social practice’ at present towards the utilitarian and factual which, whilst often appropriate and necessary, can overlook the transformative potential of the space of play and imagination. On the other hand I find a lot of ’socially engaged art’ that comes from a street theatre tradition embraces its detachment from reality to the point of depoliticisation. I am interested in art that finds a productive tension between these two poles: that has the capacity to resist instrumentalisation - whether that be as ‘social ameliorator’, as ‘harmless entertainment’ or, increasingly, a neoliberal conflation of the two. Oxford and Ivor have helped me take a step towards identifying where that point of interest might be.
You can find out more about the artwork and residency at the Digital Artist Residency page: https://digitalartistresidency.org/artists/andy-abbott/