#seeingbidspaces Episode One

MA Major Project – Evolving Practice

“Re-seeing Public Art”

Episode 1 in the visual participation element of the project : getting started.


As part of my Major Project I made the decision to test out the potential for expanding my theme of re-seeing the city of Birmingham and its particular accent on public art into visual participation.

These blog entries will follow progress and outcomes from the project.

Whilst not being experiences at all in this area of work, I embarked on some research looking at practitioners such as Penelope Umbrico http://www.penelopeumbrico.net/ and Wendy Ewald http://wendyewald.com/.

The premise for my engagement proposal was for the public to look and re-look at public art.  Art in public spaces.  There is a good precedent in Birmingham for the commissioning of pubic art over three centuries.

A was delighted to receive sponsorship from Colmore Business Improvement District (BID) in Birmingham city centre for the purchase of 5 compact cameras and SD cards which have been loaned into the project.  The BID also paid for the launch event on 13th February over lunch.

The launch was oversubscribed.  An invitation out to the BID database achieved a response in 15 minutes of the email being sent out.  This clearly demonstrated a powerful desire for photography in place making.  The launch event involved becoming familiar with the project as part of my MA studies, familiarisation with the cameras and an illustration of my images of public art in the city.  I also asked them to sign a form about personal safety, camera care and releasing their work to allow the BID and I to use imagery for our own, none commercial purposes.  We also discussed the fact that this is the vanguard group working with me for the first time on such a venture, so feedback would be welcome during and at the conclusion of the exercise.

The initial group of 24 people set off on a two week mission to engage with the city in their own time.

A meet-up in one of the main squares in Birmingham was held on 21st February.  8 people attended and we talked about experiences and observations to date, practicalities and how to handover the imagery.

Despite the British weather being consistently dull since the project began the group talked about what they liked about looking at public art and what they were seeing.  I encouraged them to exploit the selective qualities of wet surfaces to increase shooting even when the light is dull as the even light from cloud covered skies and the rain on surfaces can provide for interesting views.  Many wanted to extend the project to looking at architecture which we all thought was a good idea and we entered into a debate about the decoration that adorns the Council House and its friezes and caryatids.

A number of the group had used their phone cameras more than the issued cameras for several reasons; convenience, there being too few cameras to share and because they felt less self conscious using a camera phone than any other device.  One person had taken the SD card and placed it into his own camera.

The discussion was drawn into an area about being ‘seen’ as photographers, how people react, the subjects being viewed and I encouraged thinking about the audience, thus highlighting the subject/photographer/viewer triangular relationship.  This led to a brief discussion about the ethics of shooting people and in a moment ‘owning’ their image/face/person.

We had a debate about art out in the open and whether it should include in its definition railings, street furniture and things ‘applied’ to buildings. 

A number said the Antony Gormley “Iron Man’ was liked because it was modern and created controversy locally.

We talked about the historical and hierarchical nature of public art on pedestals (such as Queen Victoria in the eponymous Square) and the Gormley piece which is rooted directly into the surface paving.

The request to keep the cameras for another week was agreed.  We also came up with the hashtag #seeingbidspaces for use on Instagram to allow the project to exist visually and persist after the cameras were returned with there cards for me to download. Several people asked for a workshop to learn more about photography and that has been set up too.

I was able to hold a Skype discussion session with Anthony Luvera on 17th February 2017 (www.luvera.com and  http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/story-1-by-anthony-luvera) who has great depth of collaborative photographic practice.  He spoke about the practice and theory of visual participation and the process of making provoking ideas thoughts and challenges.  He put a deal of accent on the process of making (people) rather than the output (imagery).  He felt that is was important to document the meeting sessions with any participatory group.  he recommended a blog to share inputs.  His advice was to make sure as the ‘leader’ of the idea one loosens up as to process and expectations by having many conversations, being attentive, talk about some photographs, give the project a title, avoiding dictating a process.  As the leader you are a kind ok mediator or stage director, place the participants into the limelight.  He recommended two books

Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook. Helguera, Pablo. 2011.

Photography and Collaboration: From Conceptual Art to Crowdsourcing. Palmer, Daniel. 2017.

I was able to apply some of this learning at the group session on 21st February (hence this blog).

I shall be posting the next episode as the project journeys into its next phase.