Thursday, 30 September 2010

Signage, pigeons and a right old party!

Last week I was lucky enough to take part in INTERЯOGATION: WEST BROMWICH which is a series of artistic investigations in response to the regeneration of West Bromwich; exploring the impact than one artist can have in one day. The project is run by Longhouse and lead artist Anna Francis and is based over four weeks, where each week different agents take part in missions which focus on a specific methodology - Action Research, Participation, Site Specific and Intervention. I was involved in the mission 'Site Specific' where our aim was to spend the day undercover as an agent to work quickly and responsively to a specific site and interrogate of the public spaces of West Bromwich.

Having never been to West Bromwich before and being slightly (okay, very) geographically challenged, it took a while to find my way around ... however I finally managed to negotiate my way to the meeting point - Stand F at the Central Bus Station at precisely 09:45 hours as I had been instructed. After surveying the target area from afar, I spotted the INTERЯOGATION agent (recognisable by his beret and moustache) that I had been instructed to meet who was discreetly reading a newspaper to blend in with the public. Little did he know however, I had come prepared with my own disguise for a bit of counter espionage ... a copy of The Times with two little eye holes cut out ... ah ha! Originally, my plan was to sit in the bus stop for about 5 minutes reading my spy-newspaper-disguise
nearby to the Agent (ideally I wanted him to notice) and then get up, inconspicuously stroll around and then approach the agent and deliver my code phrase ... wait for it ... at the same time throwing him with the fact that I wasn't really a member of the public but I had actually been spying on him, playing him at his own game! Anyway, in my head, it was a beautifully romantic notion that would be perfectly executed and I would ingeniously baffle the agent and at the same time gain spy notoriety for my clever game. In real life, however, things don't often go to plan ... particularly when they work so well in your head. Instead, I approached the bus stand with my disguise rolled under my arm and realised that in fact, the agent was leaning against the side of the bus shelter opposite the bins and a huge bus timetable and that all of the benches were quite far away ... and that it just wasn't going to work! Nevertheless, after faffing about in a split second of panic and confusion, I approached him (not so cool and composed as I had planned) and delivered the code phrase I had anonymously received the night before. After confirming my identity as requested, I then received a set of instructions that directed me to the INTERЯOGATION HQ where I deflatedly trundled along and was finally met by Agent Francis to brief us for the days mission.

After getting changed into my uniform - a beret, moustache and t-shirt (yey!) I then got acquainted with the three other agents on the Site Specific mission - Agents Cooper-Willis, Goodenough and Porter.
Throughout the day, we were each expected to carry out a project with a quick response in the INTERЯOGATION Zone which was located in the end of the High Street near the clock tower. We received a masterclass firstly by Agent Francis and then with Agent White who was our specialist mentor for the day which gave us an historical overview of West Bromwich and Site Specific artworks and a contextual overview and framework for the mission.
We had a quick tour around the immediate vicinity of the headquarters and the target area where I familiarised myself with the area and took loads of photos to document anything of immediate interest ...
taking in the view of The Public

There were quite a few things that stuck out for me - the amount of signage there was, from hand-made signs on market stalls to printed one on empty shop units; pigeons (and their poo) everywhere, particularly around the clock tower and statue at the end of the high street which were both things built to celebrate the town and also the bright red balloons that I saw which seemed odd in contrast with everything else in the town. There seemed to be a big paradox whilst I was walking around ... there was The Public, a £54m arts venue and then lots and lots of empty shop units and deserted areas.

From my initial research, I decided to focus on the positive elements of the town and to create a dialogue with the public that tried to find out: What is the best thing about West Bromwich? I asked participants what they thought the best thing about there town was and in return paid them in chocolate money. Many people struggled to find something positive, but they all came up with interesting things. I also focused on the pigeons by creating a sort of secondary project by placing them in different locations around the target zone to get people to think about and celebrate mundane areas of the town they would normally pass by.
I used the information that I collected from people to create adhoc signage from discarded bits of cardboard from some of the market stalls and placed them randomly along the High Street. Earlier in the day, Agent Goodenough and I also identified a common theme of celebrating West Bromwich and decided to collaborate at the end of the mission by holding a party so I also used this opportunity to advertise the party and hand out the invitations that we had made.
The mission became a multi-disciplinary approach, merging different projects so that they overlapped and influenced each other and also collaborating to create a more explicit project and way of creating dialogue with the public. By spreading the word of the party through signage, invitations and by telling all of the participants I spoke to, it was a great success, although some people were wary that we were giving away things that were free and promptly avoided us! We set up a table near the clock tower and had loads of food, sweets, drinks, party poppers and balloons and managed to speak to people quite easily about why they thought West Bromwich was a great place.

All of the information that we collected was put up with other documentation from the day in the wall space in the HQ where we were able to disseminate our findings and reflect on the days activities.
I was really quite sad when I had to take off the beret and moustache at the end of the day! I got such a mixture of looks from people - surprise, confusion, and suspicion and it kind of gave me the authority to do things that would be perceived a pretty weird, such as sticking pigeons all over the town centre or attaching signs to the back of moving trucks! I am planning a post interrogation intervention this Friday before the Interrogation exhibition and conference is open to the public at the Interrogation HQ to extend the ideas that I started so we'll see what happens ...

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