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Planning with playpower

Through my recent work, I have been exploring the contested role of the artist in the process of building and rebuilding ‘place’, Peter McCaughey

I regularly collaborate with artists, architects, urbanists, engineers, writers and community activists. To do this as effectively as possible, I established WAVE/particle, a small organisation set up to support and direct a team approach to large-scale arts projects. WAVE/particle employs artists, writers, filmmakers and others. WAVE earns money, which particle spends. WAVE is grown-up, responsible and professional; particle is wilful, underground and playful. I say that WAVE exists to support particle (my self-directed practice) but I sometimes suspect that it’s actually the other way round.

The following are notes to a talk I gave at the Glasgow Charrette. The talk was to fellow participants: architects, landscape architects, lighting designers, key Philips staff, cultural contributors, and the team from the AJ.

Peter McCaughey, artist and charrette facilitator

25 points on playful masterplanning

1. A source: Glasgow’s first Poet Laureate Edwin Morgan’s poem A City, in which we view Glasgow as an unfolding film. From Collected Poems (1996), published by Carcanet Press. You can see a film of its reading here

2. Various maps, including my father’s hand-drawn maps and Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination were shown in an appeal for a subjective, personalised city map.

3. Film still from Forbidden Planet (1956), directed by Fred Wilcox. This was cited to raise issues of futurology, technology, imagination and outcome.

4. Blade Runner (1982), the American dystopian science fiction thriller, directed by Ridley Scott, emerged in the charrette as an attractive dystopia, a future noir that still shapes our desire for the city. Glasgow Barrowlands as Blade Runner’s fish market, anyone?

5. Images from Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures (erwinwurm.at) encourage the playful spirit of working together, testing, failing, rebuilding, that underscored the success of the charrette, and lamenting the time to play in the architect’s and landscape architect’s busy working life.

6. Images from the charrette suggested that lamps used in streetlamps are swapped for spotlights. Images from Sans Façon doing exactly this across the world (limelightontour.blogspot.co.uk). The point being - look where play gets us -trust those playful instincts!

7. Images from the lighting workshops and drawings, exploring re-landscaping/lighting the area around the famous Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow. Teams, banned from their computers, produced fantastic drawings and collages. Get back to drawing!

8. A memory of my work, triggered by Rory Olcayto’s invitation to speak at this charrette based on a workshop we did together at the Strathclyde Winterschool in 1994. That year, in response to Cowcaddens Underpass - a dark, forbidding tunnel about 20m long - I shot footage of people passing through the tunnel during the day and projected the footage onto a screen, installed (without permission) from wall to wall and roof to floor, across the centre of the tunnel, at night. The screen was hung in sections so that citizens could pass through it. As they did so, they walked in front of the projector and their actual shadows joined the projected silhouettes.

9. Who The Fuck Are We To Masterplan A City? An attack on the tendency of strategy to remove the body, and prioritise a few minds over the many. An advocation of an affinity of tactics instead, where rhizomatic design processes full of consultation are
the norm.

10. For Wave (1993), I organised the filming of the demolitions of Basil Spence’s Queen Elizabeth Square tower blocks in the Gorbals, Glasgow, from 14 vantage points. That evening, 10 synchronised video projectors relayed the edited imagery from the detonation, onto the top windows of an adjacent derelict mill, 300m from the site. The work was occasioned by the publication The City As A Work Of Art, organised by Andrew Guest to place architects and artists in dialogue. In the talk, I paused to underscore the relationship between think labs, like this charrette, and publishing, as the half-way house to realisation - so many works from the hypothetical City As A Work Of Art actually got made, such as Stephen Beddoes and Chris Stewart’s lighting of Glasgow’s water towers.

11. In addressing a charrette on lighting a city, it seemed appropriate to show The Festival of Borrowed Light (Peter McCaughey and Stephen Skrynka, 1996). Victorian glass paving lights across Glasgow were activated with light-switching systems, projected image, sound and embedded objects. This required access to basements across the city - 36 sites, including bank vaults, cinemas, derelict buildings, restaurants, pubs and jewellery shops were accessed. Unannounced, the work appeared street by street, and then stopped after two weeks. It was an integral aspect of the success of the project that the work was unexpected, that it worked in the liminal spaces between the ordered and the chaotic and the familiar and the unfamiliar; that the whole impact had to be greater than the sum of its parts. This was raised as a challenge to lighting designers - how do we imagine switching systems that are iterative, intelligent, unpredictable, responsive, rather than static or lazily kinetic?

12. Various lighting interventions - and some balaclavas - made with Ben Parry at the Architects Association in April and May. See more here.

13. Alerting the charrette group that WAVE/particle has just been asked to devise an art and lighting strategy for Laurieston. Over the next five years, 23 railway arches will become part of this work. See more here

14. Discussing place-making, participative practice and opinion research, I often remember the words of friend, artist and designer Hugh Pizey, on consultation: ‘You take all the wonderful, individual, iridescent opinions and positions, you put them in a big pot and you mix them together. What do you end up with? Brown sludge. How do we move beyond stupid, statistical data analysis that crushes the nuance into a generalisation?’

15. To know a city, throw a dart at a map. Go to where it lands. Apply an oblique strategy as a research method.

16. The Context Is Half The Work

17. The Naked City, a psychogeographic map by Guy Debord.

18. How to approach the wonder of fireflies illuminating the dark night, on the path to the village of Carpineto, up from Salerno, in Italy?

19. In answer to how to build participative practice around lighting projects, I showed Speed of Light by NVA.

20. My own practice has been concerned with notions of site and time specificity for over 20 years and I regularly argue for the temporal and fleeting nature of such work (and at length in a recent publication Cultural Hijack, which charts and rethinks the role of artist intervention in our cityscapes). But practice that has transience at its heart, places a lot of faith in our errant memories and the political power and social reach of cultural osmosis. In rethinking my own assumptions as artist and educator, I’m driven to explore my thinking about the limitations of these systems and how to negotiate new process in relationship to remembering, re-activating, making permanent the ‘Landscape of Memory’. In response to this scratchy irritation, I proposed and made Psychic Dérive for a DIY Festival in 2009. This was a process of negotiating a way of remembering and re-activating the ‘experience’ of site-specific and moment-specific works and events that I didn’t want to be forgotten.

21. The International Peripatetic Sculptors Society - another tool to free up our relationship to living in and making up the city.

22. I have a great commitment to the idea of the artist as an in-betweener, an interpolator, translator and mediator between complex, specialised bodies of knowledge - engaging, distilling metaphors, creating new ideas and enlightenment through the ability to find beauty, inspiration, joy and humour. The more elements, the more complex the system. The more complex the system, the more spaces between. I look for these ‘gaps’.

23. Polebender: wherever I find myself, I keep an eye out for bent poles and damaged signs. When I find one, I adopt the Polebender pose - inserting myself into the narrative of the fucked-up city, as the vengeful destroyer of urban signage.

24. My son is now 10 and still reminds me every day of how to be in the world.

25. Faced with such serious concerns, can we ascribe serious playfulness as the remedy? I argue: yes.

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