Lynn Froggett: Public Art and Local Civic Engagement

Public Art and Local Civic Engagement will compare the legacy of two controversial public artworks which appeared in the small coastal town of Ilfracombe in 2012. Damian Hirst’s Verity – a 66 foot high bronze of a naked pregnant woman – towers over the Harbour, sword aloft (and as one blogger observed “appears to be marching on Ireland”) . With one side ‘flayed’ to reveal skull and fetus, she has been described as “pretty hardcore for the fainthearted” and also “quite traditional on many levels”. Conceived by the artist as a modern allegory of truth and justice, she has been loaned to the town for 20 years eliciting comments which range from “poor town!!!” and “Ilfracombe needs all the help it can get” to “Really Cool!”. The financial complexities of Hirst’s generosity have also attracted attention “so this is what you make when you have more money than God. Did he buy the town as well?”

By way of comparison, Alex Hartley’s Nowhereisland – an island made of land from the Arctic, accompanied by its mobile embassy – visited Ilfracombe for a weekend on its voyage around the South West coast as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. On its way from the Arctic, Nowhereisland had been declared a new nation with citizenship open to all. Preparations for its arrival began a year previously, involving several local primary and secondary schools. Nowhereisland’s visit was timed with a local festival, Sea Ilfracombe and the island was welcomed with a Citizens’ March, the Town Crier and singing choirs. The project website was running for the year before the south west journey and included 52 weekly resident thinkers, films and resources. 23,000, people from around the world became citizens of the nation of Nowhereisland and there were 2,700 proposals for the evolving constitution. All of this exploring the question at the heart of the project: “What if an Arctic island went south in search of its people?”

Nowhereisland attracted considerable national and international media attention. Emma Boon was quoted in The Daily Mail, “It’s absurd taxpayers struggling with rising bills are being asked to pay for a piece of the Arctic to travel around the south coast” , while the Arts Council justified funding as “inviting us to consider and debate some of the key issues of our time – including migration, nationhood, global responsibility, human rights and climate change

The quotes reveal the complex, cross-cutting issues surrounding the commissioning and reception of public art and its civic, intellectual, aesthetic, environmental, and economic implications. They raise key questions on the nature of cultural value and what kind of public art we should invest in: permanently sited works by celebrity artists with the potential to attract tourism and commercial interest to a town – or temporary projects which engage and provoke ideas on the quality of present lives and concern for the future. These issues can be researched by conventional methods: interviews and focus groups which access the range of public opinion. Our project will also attempt to understand legacy in terms of the ways in which public artworks create an emotional climate, and can affect the public imagination, asking questions that go beyond opinion: What thoughts and chains of imagery are set in motion by public art?; How far are these shared?; Are people able to see that things might be different?; Is the capacity for creative illusion enhanced?

To do this we will convene and record two very different kinds of public thinking process: a Citizens’ Forum which will debate and analyse in the time-honoured mode of point and counter-point and a visual matrix which will invite reflections and associations to images of the artworks. The visual matrix method is innovative and has been devised and tested by the Psychosocial Research Unit at the University of Central Lancashire to enable ideas to flow in a group setting, framed and led by images rather than words. It offers new ways to involve communities in the consideration of public art. This is the first time the Visual Matrix will have been used alongside a Citizens’ Forum, allowing us to understand the possibilities and limits of both methods, and which parts of the public imagination they reach.