Archive for the ‘public art’ Tag

Square Root of Instagram

In 2006 at Channel 4 (London) I commissioned a mobile-centred website called Big Art Mob. It enabled users to publish photos of Public Art (from sculptures to graffiti) from their mobile phones. In other words, it was basically Instagram 4 years before Instagram was invented. It was created with digital all-rounder Alfie Dennen (father of We Are Not Afraid) using a photo-publishing platform he had developed with partners named Moblog. I had been experimenting with Moblog for 18 months when a TV project about Public Art (The Big Art Project) came over the horizon and it struck me as an ideal place to apply Moblog technology.

The main difference from Instagram is that Big Art Mob’s photos were not in square format.

Today I went to see the Klimt / Schiele exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. I have been a big admirer of Schiele since I heard about him from David Bowie on a radio programme around the time Lodger was released (1979). At the time the Austrian painter was little known outside cognoscenti circles (eg the Marlborough Gallery in London). I was taught a little by Frank Whitford at Cambridge who wrote the Phaidon monograph on Schiele. And I won a travel scholarship at Girton to go study his work in Vienna around 1984. Last year while working at ORF in Vienna I got to do a bit of a self-shaped Schiele tour to mark the centenary of his death which I wrote about in On The Trail of Egon Schiele. I even had a stab at a Schiele in a painting class I recently attended locally:

adam gee copy of egon schiele painting

The exhibition was excellent, bringing out the contrast between how and why Schiele and his mentor Klimt drew. Along the way it reminded me of Klimt’s distinctive adoption of the square format in his portrait painting. Which got me thinking about which other artists went square.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I is a painting by Gustav Klimt, completed between 1903 and 1907. The portrait was commissioned by the sitter's husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a Jewish banker and sugar producer. The painting was stolen by the Nazis in 1941 and displayed at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt (1903-1907)

Klimt’s famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is 1.38m by 1.38m. It was commissioned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a Jewish banker and sugar producer, husband of Adele. The painting was notoriously stolen by the Nazis in 1941 and displayed at Schloss Belvedere in Vienna, until being returned by the Austrian courts to Bloch-Bauer’s heirs in 2006 at which point it found a new home in New York. It is considered the zenith of Klimt’s golden period. It uses Klimt’s trademark technique of cropping the figure top and bottom to create a pillar through the canvas, here set slightly right to allow the bulk of the patterned dress or aura to balance the composition.

Square and portraits reminded me of the excellent Hockney exhibition at Tate Britain last year. The square format works particularly well in the double portraits which were the beating heart of that show.

My Parents 1977 by David Hockney born 1937

My Parents by David Hockney (1977)

The emotionally resonant My Parents is 1.83m by 1.83m, even more epic than the Klimt, yet with the most down-to-earth subjects. Each parent occupies their own half in a very different way – attentive mum, square on, in her own space; pre-occupied dad, at an angle, overlapping the furniture – subtly capturing the difference in parent-child relationship.

Hockney was born on 9th July 1937, eight days before my dad. Nine days later another German Jew, Gerda Taro, died in Spain. She has the tragic distinction of being the first female photojournalist to have been killed while covering war at the frontline. This evening I started watching My Private War for this year’s BAFTA judging, starring Rosamund Pike as Marie Colvin, a latter day Taro. Recently, also for voting purposes (BAFTA Documentary Film chapter), I watched the feature documentary Under The Wire, likewise about the life and death of Colvin (killed in Homs, Syria by an Assad regime air-strike). Taro was killed during the Spanish Civil War in a tragic accident involving a reversing Republican tank.

republican woman 1936 gerda taro

Republican militiawoman training on the beach outside Barcelona by Gerda Taro (1936)

Taro was another stand-out squarist. She was partner of Magnum photojournalist Robert Capa. (Capa was introduced to the world by Picture Post in 1938, where my maternal grandfather worked. The Hungarian Jew, who famously lived out of a suitcase for most of his adult life, co-founded the Magnum photo agency with Henri Cartier-Bresson and others.) I saw Tara’s first ever US solo show at the International Center of Photography in New York in 2007. Capa picked up the habit from Taro and there are a number of square photographs attributed to Capa which are widely thought to actually be the work of Taro.

These days I find myself photographing square by default. I’ve enjoyed using Instagram for years as a platform for photography only (none of the Stories bollocks or video). Initially it was an excellent way to syndicate your photos across your social accounts (when it was linked to Flickr – the monopolists must have disconnected on account of Yahoo’s ownership of Flickr I guess). Square poses its own compositional challenges which by and large I enjoy rising to – there are not that many shots I take which can’t be accommodated in the stable, equal-sided space. It encourages the use of diagonals which can be dynamic. Here’s one of my favourite of my square compositions:

statue of george orwell outside the BBC (New Broadcasting House, Portland Place, London)

Statue of George Orwell outside the BBC (New Broadcasting House, Portland Place, London) March 2018

The square is stable enough to carry the two dark figures on the right side. Orwell’s statue is characteristically smoking, hence the appeal of the BBC smoker – both are fag in hand. Of course Orwell like Taro was a graduate of the Spanish Civil War but he made it home to the BBC and to die in the relatively civilised surroundings of UCH (University College Hospital, established by two of my distant ancestors on the Picture Post grandfather’s side, and where both my boys were born). Orwell’s house (at 1 South End Road) is along the same road in Hampstead/Parliament Hill where my dad grew up. He was a child of refugees from Nazi Germany.

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear

To round off these square stories, Taro was given a funeral, attended by thousands, by the Communist Party of France. She was buried at Père Lachaise on 1st August 1937 (what would have been her 27th birthday) in a grave designed by Alberto Giacometti. On the tomb is written, in French and Catalan

So nobody will forget your unconditional struggle for a better world

Fast-forward to the summer of 2016 – an open-air display of Taro’s Spanish Civil War photos was included in the f/stop photography festival in Leipzig. Leipzig is where my dad was born in July 1937 in the shadow of the Nazi fascist regime, a swastika and eagle on his birth certificate. When f/stop ended, it was decided that the display would become permanent. This was partly financed through crowdfunding. On the night of 3rd/4th August 2016 (two days after Taro’s 106th birthday), the display was destroyed by being daubed with black tar-like paint. This dark act of destruction was widely suspected to be motivated by anti-semitism or anti-refugee politics. A further crowdfunding campaign more than raised the €4,000 required to restore the vandalised photos. The equal and opposite forces of creativity and destruction, light and dark, squared up to one another.

Be there and be square.

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I’m Feeling Lucky – The Story 3

tom watson mp on the phone hacking scandal at The Story 2012

To Thine Own Self Be True (Tom Watson)

I was in Rottingdean the other day with the Enfants Terribles when we passed a small shop called Serendipity. I asked them whether they knew what it meant and I ended up explaining it in terms of the Google ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ button (which I have to admit I’ve never quite got and always struck me as a bit of a lack of imagination on the part of the presser – it really isn’t difficult in the era of the Web to go on your own random or serendipitous journey).

The Wikipedia entry for Serendipity (which Google freakily informs me Aleks Krotoski shared on tumblr.com on 29 Apr 2011, Aleks having appeared at The Story #1 in February 2010) is one of its more charming entries:

Serendipity means a “happy accident” or “pleasant surprise”; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful without looking for it. The word has been voted one of the ten English words hardest to translate in June 2004 by a British translation company. [prime wikispam] However, due to its sociological use, the word has been exported into many other languages. Julius H. Comroe once described serendipity as : to look for a needle in a haystack and get out of it with the farmer’s daughter.”

Meanwhile, over on the other side of Brighton… towards Hove/Portslade my former colleague at Channel 4, Matt Locke, was busy putting the finishing touches to his The Story conference, like the programme for the day which was etched into bars of dark chocolate. When Matt started this one day gathering in 2010 it was a labour of love alongside his day job at C4. I thoroughly enjoyed that first iteration and recorded 4 things I learned from it on Simple Pleasures part 4. It’s interesting looking back at that entry today: the first thing I learnt was:

1) The best conferences (like this one) have only two outputs – Inspiration and catalysing Connections between people.

The same held good for #2 last year featuring the likes of a controversial Adam Curtis, writer Graham Linehan and photographer Martin Parr. I think I was too indolent to write up last year’s.

Connections, inspiration and creativity are the meat and two veg of this blog and what the Web is wonderful at catalysing. Straight after exiting Conway Hall yesterday I met up with Karyn Reeves who was waiting just outside, a statistician from Perth, Australia who specialises in analysing mathematical patterns around AIDS infection. Karyn is only the second person I’ve met in real life through having made contact online. The first was Sandra, a street art aficionado from Jaffa. Karyn writes a lovely blog about vintage Penguin books, which she collects and reads weekly, and I came across her in the wake of reading an old Penguin I picked up at random in my local bookshop, Black Gull, about the trial of Roger Casement. By chance Casement’s defence lawyer, I read, had his chambers at 4 Raymond Buildings from where my best friend now operates. What a tangled Web we weave. So Karyn and I headed back from The Story 3 to Black Gull where she picked up a few more P-p-p-enguins.

Meanwhile back at the start of the day… Meg Pickard of The Guardian, with whom I got into a lively online discussion at one of the earlier two The Story s about where The Guardian should gather their user-generated photos of Antony Gormley’s One and Other  (which we were discussing here and he was explaining here), kicked off the proceedings with a quick update from The Ministry of Stories, the excellent local children’s literacy project based in a Monsters Supplies shop in Hoxton and championed by the likes of Nick Hornby. Part of the ticket price for The Story goes to the now thriving, volunteer-driven project. It’s great to see such a thing burgeoning in Hoxton – when I was a teenager my step-dad would drive me past there on the way to Petticoat Lane where I worked on the market stall outside his shop, he’d point past some grim Victorian estate and say ” ‘Oxton, arse-hole of the universe, never go there, son.” How it has come on over the years…

Next up was Matt Sheret of LastFM in discussion with producer Simon Thornton of Fat Boy Slim fame about telling stories through the album form. Simon was the fella behind the brilliant remix of Brimful of Asha (way better than the original) as well as the marvelous Turn On Tune In Cop Out by Freakpower. The whole debate about the patterns of music consumption in the Web/On Demand age and the relationship between albums and single tracks is a fascinating one still, and particularly for me at the moment as I’m working on a development to do with a classic album with Bob Geldof’s gang at Ten Alps and Universal Music, very much shaped around a carefully constructed sequence of 9 great songs which may or may not now be a thing of the past (I take Simon’s side, but I would wouldn’t I).

At this point Channel 4 wove back in in the form of artist Jeremy Deller, currently setting up his one-man show at the Hayward on the South Bank and the prime mover of Artangel’s The Battle of Orgreave, commissioned and funded by C4. He sees the ’84-’85 miners’ strike as a critical moment in British history (it gets  its own room in his soon-to-open retrospective) and that programme/artistic re-enactment as a way of “exhuming a corpse to give it a proper post-mortem”. He spoke about how everyone of our generation remembers where they were when the miners took on ‘The Iron Lady’ (in spite of the fact I’d voted for her [Streep not Thatch] Meryl Streep’s apology [in the Miltonian sense of explanation/justification] for the strange politics of that movie at the BAFTAs the other night is still bugging me)  – my other half was up in Ayrshire making her graduation film about the miners’ wives with a dodgy old University of Ulster camera, while I was visiting my oldest friend at Baliol where a furious debate about how to support the strike was erupting in their common room, featuring toffs in donkey jackets as well as more grown-up, committed people than me, who was still relying on the likes of Joe Strummer and Elvis Costello to give me some political insight). Deller’s still- image only presentation was one of the highlights of the day for me, centred on one iconic photograph of a miner father and his glam rock showbiz son.

Next up, blogger Liz Henry who told the fascinating story of A Gay Girl in Damascus, a murky tale of hoaxing and fictional blogging (an area I find fascinating as an emerging writing form and which formed a substantial part of the now traditional annual Story lunch with Tim Wright and Rob Bevan, the former in particular much interested in this territory [and the person who taught me the value of the image-only presentation when I helped host the launch of his outstanding In Search of Oldton project at Channel 4 HQ a few years ago]).  I learnt a lovely new word too ‘Sockpuppeting’ – to comment on your own blog both positively and negatively as a way of stimulating interest/activity. One of the interesting facts that emerged was that The Guardian published the initial story without establishing proper (off-line) sources based on people who had actually met the Gay Girl in question in real life (shades of Karyn above and Tom/Emily below).

Late on Thursday afternoon, the eve of The Story, I met for the first time Anthony Owen, Head of Magic (arguably the best job-title in the business) at Objective TV, home of Derren Brown. We were kicking off a project to do with consumerism. Lo and behold within 18 hours he’s up on stage before me doing a magic trick and explaining the role of narrative within that art/entertainment form. Particularly interesting for me as the youngest Enfant Terrible has recently become obsessed with performing magic, daily learning tricks off of YouTube and practising them with his chums over Skype (before posting them back on YouTube and Facebook). Anthony singled out the quality of encapsulating “something we’d love to have happen” (e.g. being psychic, becoming immortal, etc.) as the defining characteristic of a great trick – so sawing a woman in half only to reunite the two still living ends is a story about immortality which also has the key quality of being sum-upable in a sentence.

Coincidence and serendipity came to the fore again in the afternoon when Emily Bell, formerly of The Guardian online and now teaching at Columbia (who I first had the pleasure of hanging out with on the panel of judges she lead at The Guardian Student Journalism Awards a few years ago, in The Ivy so clearly a former era) interviewed Tom Watson MP about the phone-hacking scandal whilst: Meanwhile across town… in Wapping Rupert Murdoch was entering the newsroom of the Currant Bun and sticking two Aussie fingers up at the British establishment and public, who momentarily humiliated him last summer, by announcing the impending launch of The Sun on Sunday. The audience was riveted by the recounting of events from both the MP and Guardian perspectives, and the interview typified the rich and perfectly balanced mix of contributions making up the day’s programme. Watson predicted that there was a massive PC/Data hacking dimension to the scandal still to break.

Vying with Deller for highlight of the day was Scott Burnham. The last time I met Scott was in the back of a Nissan Cube in which he was filming me spouting on about why I love London. At this year’s The Story he spoke vibrantly about design in the city and urban play through a classic tale of 7 Coins, the last vestiges of a beautiful public art project in Amsterdam. He told of the construction of a Stefan Sagmeister piece made up of 250,000 one cent pieces and its subsequent thoughtless destruction by dumb cops who were trying to protect the raw cash (still held as evidence in the police station). His conclusion was that we’ll always have Paris… I mean, we’ll always have Amsterdam… he means, we always have the story if not the creation itself. He took the 7 coins, painted blue on one side, out of his pocket to show me and the Royal College of Art’s Bronac Ferran as we chatted outside the hall during the tea break.

Also up in contention as a highlight was artist Ellie Harrison, author of Confessions of a Recovering Data Collector. She started her work focused on gathering everyday data on her life or ‘life tracking’ at Nottingham Trent university art school and then later at  Glasgow School of Art (where our host Matt once studied). An early such work was ‘Eat 22’ in which she recorded everything she ate for a year  in 1,560 photos. At the start of her talk she positioned herself firmly as a Thatcher’s Child (a resonant link back to Deller’s earlier session) and was sporting a Bring Back British Rail T-shirt (a campaign she champions, also resonant as my aforementioned best-friend above worked on that Kafkaesque privitisation). So food and beyond, Ellie’s obsession and the thread through her work seems to be with Consumption – she spoke about her development with great humour and insight (including into her own compulsions). From ‘Eat 22’ she went on to record all her everyday actions in a spreadsheet, in turn converted to colour-coded graphs, which is when the addiction kicked in. I was sitting in a brainstorm at an indie production company a couple of weeks ago discussing mental health and happiness when a colleague I have know a long time revealed he’s been keeping a numerical record of his mood on a precise scale of 1 to 100 every day for well over a decade, with the last five years available likewise in Excel form. So art/fiction are no stranger than life.

Preloaded I have known since they were born, as I worked with founder Paul Canty, as well as Rob Bevan and Tim Wright, on a game called MindGym way back when. Paul’s colleague,  Phil Stuart, and writer Tom Chatfield talked us through the game of self-discovery, death and philosophy they made for Channel 4 Education – The End.  This rounded off a fine day, alongside Karen Lubbock and Jeremy Leslie on mags and Karen magazine in paricular, ‘a magazine made out of the ordinary’, and a lively turn from Danny O’Brien on josticks, hacking, anarchy and the universe. And where can you go from there…

Stefan Sagmeister installation 250,000 coins

Among these 250,000 are 7 coins with a story

Now that’s what I call blue

by Jaume Plensa

Photograph sent to me today by director Mike Christie of Carbon Media

Dream by Jaume Plensa created through Channel 4’s Big Art Project

See Dreaming the Dream

Adult Learners’ Week 09

Adult Learners' Week

AdultLearnersWeekFolk, here are the website addresses for the projects demoed:

Big Art Mob www.bigartmob.com Public Art

Landshare www.landshare.net Landsharing and growing food

Picture This www.channel4.com/picturethis Digital photography

Empire’s Children www.channel4.com/empire Family history

Embarrassing Bodies www.channel4.com/bodies Health

Medicine Chest www.medicinechest.info Traditional approaches to health

Adoption Experience www.channel4.com/adopt Adoption

Skin Up

The Big 4

The blue wrap came off. The Big 4 saw the light of day. A real buzz was released into the air around the Channel. Big Art, bold creativity.

The Minister for Culture Margaret Hodge unveiled the 40’ high figure four based on those much admired idents on Channel 4. On the approach to the Channel’s Richard Rogers designed headquarters in Horseferry Road (London SW1), the 4 stands three and a bit storeys high. The structure forms a figure four only from a particular angle, just like the on-screen idents masterminded by Brett Foraker. The concept of the TV graphics is that the four only comes together for a fleeting moment. So, strictly speaking, the Big 4 should be viewed walking by, no stopping.

The structure has been skinned by leading British photographer Nick Knight. He is the first of four artists to tackle the task over the coming year. His approach: skin the figure with images of people’s hearts – from the outside. White skin, black skin, brown skin, the patchwork that is modern Britain. Stand in the middle and you can hear the beating of a heart.

In three months it will be the turn of Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, and then the marvellous Mark Titchner. The last skinner will be the winner of a competition run in conjunction with the Saatchi Gallery.

The Big 4 celebrates 25 years of Channel 4 Arts and the launch of the Big Art Project – an innovative, bold cross-platform initiative involving a 4 part documentary series from Carbon Media, the commissioning of 6 new works of public art across the UK – from Beckton to the Isle of Mull, and the first comprehensive map of public art in the UK in the form of the Big Art Mob – a mobile blogging initiative where people photograph public art they know and love and send it from their camera phone into a visually led blog and a Google Map mash-up, the Big Art Map.

Today I had a meeting at the Public Monuments & Sculpture Association with its Chief Executive Jo Darke to make sure the Big Art Mob complements what the Courtauld Institute-based research project has been doing. We (Jo, me and sculptor Nick Pearson) had a fabulous chat in a tranquil corner of Somerset House animated with passion for public art. What I so love about this interactive commission is it’s so adaptable to partnership initiatives. From arts & disability groups to the Arts Council, from Kew to specific creations like Aluna, Big Art Mob is an easy, accessible way to record, explore, enjoy, engage with public art in all its forms.

The day before the unveiling Montreal-based Mexican-Canadian multimedia artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer revealed his idea for the Big Art piece in Cardigan on the Welsh coast to the local community. Home of the first Eisteddfod, hub of the oral tradition; point of departure for America in the 19th and early 20th centuries; Lozano-Hemmer has really got under the skin of the place and distilled in a work based on buoys floating just off the river bank, collecting and projecting back the voices of the local population and interested people beyond.

There’s 2,800 job cuts being discussed at the BBC today. That’s over three times the size of Channel 4. What the Channel lacks in bulk, it makes up for in size of ambition, degree of creativity and scale of idea. Sometimes it’s good to be the underdog. Between Saturday’s unbelievable England rugby match in Paris and yesterday’s unveiling of the Big 4, I’m totally c!h!a!r!g!e!d.

Art and Soul of London

Urban Chiaoscuro


Had the pleasure yesterday of two inspirational encounters with London-inspired artists.

At lunchtime photographer/artist Emily Allchurch visited Channel 4 to talk to any interested parties about her work. This was at the invitation of Andrew Webb, the Picture Editor in Channel 4 New Media’s design unit who had first met Emily working together in the Tate’s shop. She focused on her new exhibition ‘Urban Chiaoscuro’ currently at the Frost & Reed gallery in St James’s.

The exhibition is inspired by the fantastical Caceri d’Invezione drawings (c.1745-1761) by Piranesi, intricate architectural constructions of prisons of the mind.

In recent years Emily has focused on reconstructing old master paintings and drawings by seamlessly collaging contemporary photographic components in Photoshop. Hundreds of layers of photoshopped elements – individual details photographed from very particular angles to make the perspective work – result in smooth, painterly transparencies displayed on thin lightboxes, the size of an art gallery painting.

A little later in the afternoon I pulled by Frost & Reed’s to see the works in the flesh. They typically take three months to create. In real life all that masterly craftsmanship is even more evident in the painterly, surreal qualities of the luminous images. I bumped into Emily again at the gallery and had a chance to chat a bit more – I was saying how what really struck me in her images was where she had (re)created fantasy, impossible environments – for example, Bruegel’s Tower of Babel and some of the more labyrinthine, Escheresque Piranesis.

Emily featured in the excellent BBC4 series Digital Picture of Britain. In the episode I saw of that she recreated a Whistler nocturne viewed from Battersea Bridge using images taken on a mobile phone (that was part of the challenge of the series – each photographer ended up with a high-end digital camera, a high street one or a mobile phone by luck of the draw). It was only in the wake of participating in the series that Emily switched from film to digital.

Despite being born on Jersey, Emily is clearly turned on big time by London, which, as a major league Londonphile immediately elevates her in my eyes. There’s an interesting element of fear in her works which stems in part from having to hang out alone in the dark recesses of the city to get her raw material. It manifests itself in the photographs as references to surveillance – cameras, tannoys, signs, warnings. Yet for all the anxiety there’s the joy of discovery.

When we were looking together at one of her Urban Chiaoscuros made in Paris, I spotted one of those mosaic Space Invaders. Emily didn’t know what it was and I was able to explain to her that it’s part of a long-term public art project with its roots in Paris – something I found out when I posted one on the Big Art Mob which I’d come across round the corner from St Martin’s art school in Kingsway.

Which brings us neatly to the second inspiring encounter of the day, as I’m hoping to feature this artist and her work on the Big Art Project and she posted her first image to Big Art Mob from St James’s Park where we had our meeting.

Laura Williams was introduced to me by the Creative Accountant (Sydney Levinson). She is slowly but surely creating an amazing public artwork, Aluna, a lunar clock which is destined to land on the north bank of the Thames opposite the Millennium Dome at the site of the old East India docks.

The huge sculpture indicates the movement of the moon around the earth and the flow of the tides using LEDs built into its recycled glass curves.

Aluna is designed to reconnect us with a slower, more natural flow of time – much as can be gotten from the allotment where I’m writing this post from on a Blackberry, having just eaten a very late raspberry off my neighbour Maurice’s bush. And just to be neat about things I’ll pause for a moment to go and get a late blackberry off our fence…

…Yum, had three but they’re pretty much done now for the year, they’re mostly rotting on the plant, covered in a yellowy fungus or something. Ah nature, dontcha just love it – one big restaurant.

Now where was I? Ah yes, close to the Meridian in East London. Laura is also truly inspired by London and the Thames. The lunar clock is, naturally enough, tidal powered, sitting on the bend in the river with one of the fastest tidal flows. The artwork will be driven by turbines in the river which will generate surplus electricity to sell back to neighbouring houses making the whole thing self-sustaining.

So between Emily and Laura, the ol’ creative batteries were certainly recharged yesterday, ready to plug in to Medicine Men and Fourmations and all the other interesting creations coming over the horizon in the world of Channel 4 Factual interactive media.

Pictures courtesy of Emily Allchurch

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