Changing Places is an exhibition currently touring England, produced by Film and Video Umbrella, which is part of our Arts on the Waterways programme. Mike Jones, Technical Manager at Film and Video Umbrella, talks about the challenges and rewards of presenting contemporary artists’ film and video in heritage buildings.
The first rule of going to see art in a gallery is that you can look but you cannot touch. And the same rule applies for heritage spaces, with regard to the objects and artefacts that they have in their keeping. In some of these spaces, the architecture and internal fixtures of the building are subject to the same injunction. You can revel in the atmospheric beauty of a perfectly-preserved historical location, but you mustn’t ever lay a finger on it.
This can present a problem when installing works of art in this kind of environment. If you can’t drill a hole in a wall, you can’t place a hook to hang a picture from. And if you were thinking of showing a range of film and video works, as we were intending in FVU’s touring exhibition Changing Places, a whole set of other problems would inevitably raise their head.
In the context of this year’s 70th anniversary of Indian Independence, FVU project curator Mariam Zulfiqar had carefully chosen a number of works by artists from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh that would help to illuminate a series of buildings (owned by Canal & River Trust and National Trust amongst others) that had historical links with Britain’s imperial and mercantile past, and its cultural and trading links with India. The light of the video projections (and evocative content of the video material) would, we surmised, help to dramatically transform the interiors. But the instruction was that we had to leave each space exactly as we found them.
The House Mill in Bromley-by-Bow, East London, was one location suggested by Tim Eastop, Executive Producer of the Arts on the Waterways programme. This tidal mill on the River Lea is not owned or managed by the Trust, it’s driven along by an incredibly enthusiastic set of volunteers, and their location and history made it a must to pitch the idea to them of being a host venue, and what’s more, to be the launch for the whole tour. Beverley Charters at the venue was a brilliant collaborator for the project, she knows the building inside out - which is handy when you need to know where not to step otherwise you are going end up going through a grain chute in the floor - and has a wealth of knowledge about the history of the Mill. It’s been there since 1776, so you have a great responsibility to treat it with respect, have minimal impact, and leave it as you found it. Every time I went back I seemed to discover another aspect to the building. It was on my third visit, I think, that Beverley showed me some of the upper floors – only accessible to the public as part of guided tours with strict limits on numbers – and straight away I just had to ask if we could install one of the works up there, and make it so you can only get to see it as part of a group tour.
The Roundhouse in Birmingham brought more challenges as a building in a pre-restoration state that had a Grade 1 listing, but had also been somewhat knocked about in a previous iteration as small scale workspaces where horrible partition walls had been thrown up with scant regard for the history and cultural value of the property. It also didn't really have much in the way of mains electricity when we first saw it. Again, there was tremendous support from both National Trust and the Canal & River Trust, and the importance of using the exhibition to reintroduce the Birmingham public to a building that had been ‘hiding in plain sight’ and overlooked for years was a key aspect of the collaboration. Rachel Sharpe, Visitor Experience Development Manager helped us through the multitude of health and safety concerns and much more, and Lizey Thomson, Heritage Advisor, West Midlands from the Trust steered a sensible course and told me which bits of the building were non-original so that we could hang seven projectors and five screens in two days flat for a three day show. I have to say this was pretty ambitious to want to show Bani Abidi’s multi-screen screen installation portrait of Karachi across multiple rooms on the top floor of the building, and the Feltech team (award winning systems integrator providing installation support for the project) needed all of their good humour and can-do attitude at times. The result was outstanding, and so many of the visitors to the show seemed to have story to tell or a memory of the Roundhouse as they walked back in through the door of the building.
Onwards to Ellesmere Port and the National Waterways Museum, and the first time I’ve been able to propose an artists’ video installation on a boat. In this case, Bigmere, a cargo vessel moored in the Victorian docks. As I was guided around the wide ranging site the first time by Zofia Kufeldt, Collections & Exhibitions co-ordinator and trying to work out where we could show works, as soon as I stepped onto Bigmere I knew it would make an effective and atmospheric setting, and that we could transform the experience of being in the hold of the vessel for visitors who climbed on board. Having recently overseen the final installation of the work, the result was even better than I’d hoped.
Following the launch of the tour at The House Mill, we started to hear some all important feedback from visitors. One of things that came back through again and again was that people were experiencing an amazing building – often for the first time – that the work seemed to appear almost like a ‘window’ that had been punched through the space, and that the fabric of the building itself became a frame to that work.
Look but don't touch, and maybe the work and the building will reach out and touch you.
Our guest bloggers all have a passion for our waterways, whether they are volunteers, staff or the experts we work with.See more blogs from this author