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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Target audience: the dead. The sacred and Essex man
Animated, Summer 2001. There is nothing new in commissioning artists to make site-specific work and no matter how carefully chosen the artist or how tightly conceived the work, what might result could be rubbish. There are no rules says Anthony Roberts

The most recent upshot of this whole palaver saw a large white van screening abstract video work onto its back windows parked up outside the Vatican. How could such a context, such a truly magnificent backdrop as St Peter's Duomo, the full glory of Bernini's architecture be improved upon I mused whilst watching the effect. I was suddenly boomeranged back in my mind to the beginning and inspiration of this work - the answer was clear - get a bit of stone cladding up round the walls. What that Duomo needs is a bit of stone cladding and a satellite dish. 'Don't they want it to look pukka or what?'

You have to remember you see - I live and work in Essex.

There is absolutely nothing new in commissioning artists to make site-specific work. My own feeling is that we are often privileged to be in a position to ask people to make work -it is a very pleasant way to earn a living - asking other people to work! But it is also an inescapable fact that no matter how carefully chosen the artist or how tightly conceived the work envisaged, what might result could be rubbish. There are no rules.

People have very different experiences from the Year. But to my mind, its greatest strength was the absence of prescriptive outcomes. Here was a chance to cross over artists, to create a partnership from different disciplines and to have free rein over the spaces we chose to present the work. Here was a genuine chance to be radical, to be imaginative and to step outside from the accepted confines of presentation. The less strictures applied to the funding, the more creative we can be in conceiving the projects and conversely - the more risks you take, the more chance it has to go wrong.

I invited muf, an all women art and architectural practice (artists: Katherine Clark and Ashley McCormack) and Isabel Rocamora to collaborate. muf - installation and video specialists, a track record of making clever and beautiful site-specific pieces that respond to community, location, social issues... Isabel - an aerialist and choreographer, the artistic director and performer in Momentary Fusion, a company that had toured the world.

My intention was that each artists' practice would push the other into areas they had not experienced before. Isabel to engage with new technology, muf to include the physical presence of a body into their work. Sometimes this can stretch and engage the artist. And sometimes not. Risky.

I was very keen to take the work into unusual locations. To take fine art outside from the black box theatre spaces and galleries. Nothing earth shattering here either. But site-specific work often tends to celebrate the grand, the luxurious, the splendid. I was keen to explore the idea of taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar. We become so accustomed to our usual environment it never demands our attention. I was keen to take the everyday, the mundane, the normal -and to tweak or nudge it so that it suddenly alters your perception. In short - an attempt to make the ordinary appear extraordinary in some way. I wanted the work to be inclusive, generous and ultimately beautiful.

We rapidly learnt that choosing locations and being granted permission to work there were very, different prospects. We were very keen to place some work in Stansted Airport. Having spent half a day there with Katherine and Isabel I picked up the telephone. Here is what I wanted. I wanted permission to produce a site-specific installation piece created by a fusion of artists from different disciplines with an unknown content and an unknown duration, maybe featuring the live presence of a physical body and maybe not, using their response to this particular location as its inspiration. A man answered. I gave it my best shot. 'So where exactly do you want to hang your paintings?' I could feel I was losing him. He eventually suggested I put my suggestion in writing. This writing exercise proved me wrong - I was not losing him - the idea that the more I explained the more he cooled to it was quite wrong. He was not so much cool to the idea as frozen solid. No joy.

Similarly the graveyard in a Suffolk church. We liked it, we had ideas, we were keen. But we came up against the Canon. And the Canon was not keen. Phone calls and the most obsequious letter I have ever written did not change things. The Canon remained most emphatically not keen. I just could not convince him he wanted Isabel Rocamora hanging from the beautiful cedar tree in his graveyard.

We researched several sites in some depth. These included Felixstowe Docks (a tour from Debbie - she used to operate the cranes herself you know), Colchester Football Ground (Isabel's plan to plant a huge tree on the centre spot never got formally proposed to them ), Essex Second Hand Car Auction, St Mary's Graveyard, Rollerworld Car Park and Essex County Council Foyer. At the County Council we were hi-jacked by a woman councillor who marched us off to look at the oil paintings of previous mayors.

Back to that white van
Most appealing to me was the car auction. I had been irritated for some time by people who wanted to deny the stereotypes of Essex man and Essex woman. We must use the arts - so it was claimed - to destroy these myths - to strip away that ridiculous veneer and reveal the cultured people we are. It was my role, as I saw it, to put that ridiculous veneer back. I duly invited muf and Isabel to make a piece of work located in an Essex second hand car auction.

By now, I had become more practised in choosing my language to gain entry to and the cooperation of various site owners. I am sure they never really-understood what we wanted to achieve - but they let us in.

Here was a world completely outside the experience of our usual realm. We felt completely self-conscious. This was a very male environment. A world of shell suits, fags, ready cash, white socks, gold jewellery and aftershave. To me these people all seemed like caricature car dealers. I felt uncomfortable because I was in an unfamiliar situation. I did not know or understand the conventions. I am sure we must have looked like caricature theatre and gallery types to them. I began to muse on the differences between the gallery and here. Perhaps we could swap caf_s for the day. The menu in the gallery caf_ goes to bacon sarnies and milky tea and the auction sells lentil burgers and yoghurt.

It was decided to engage directly with the activity by buying a van! A big white van - and then to re-present the van over the following three weeks as an evolving piece of conceptual art.

The back windows became the screens for video display, a ladder was welded onto the side and Isabel eventually performed a piece that was related to the movements on the video. Naturally, this intervention created a great deal of interest - and became a talking point between the regular dealers, who we began to know, and ourselves. What we found is that people would start by talking about the van, the performance etc... and then move on to talking about themselves, their families and the artistic things that surrounded their lives.

We were also granted permission to lower one of their regular flags (this place was surrounded by huge company flags) - and in its place, we flew a woman's black dress.

In the process of making this piece of work we realised we had created, almost as a by-product, a portable display box for video. Wherever you can park a van, you can screen video work. All those difficult pleas to gain entry to sites completely circumvented in one fell swoop. We have subsequently taken the van to Hull, Cambridge and Rome!

We eventually made work for three sites. The car park by Rollerworld was chosen for being adjacent to the railway line. The idea being that by designing work to be viewed from a passing train you were forcibly restricting the amount of time which was available for the viewer to consider the work. About 15 seconds. A huge shadow of Isabel seemingly floating in space was projected onto the wall of Rollerworld.

The last location was St Mary's graveyard in Colchester. Here a series of monitors were placed amongst the gravestones. They showed a busy rush hour scene from Liverpool Street Station. The urgency and clutter of the rush hour set against the stillness of the engraved stones. Mirrors cut to shape of the tombstones gave strange reflections and Isabel performed an ascension into the tree. The installation was conceived as from dusk until dawn. To become visible as night descended and to disappear as the sun rose.

As I struggled heaving the heavy TV monitors in at 6am it struck me that I had not seen a single person pass through the graveyard after 2am. I put it to Isabel later and she explained - this part was for the dead.

A theme which emerged which drew the work together was the physical presence of the body and the suggested presence of the body. The empty dress - a bizarre unexplained intrusion into a male world; the projected shadow, a shadow cast but with the physical presence which created it absent; the graveyard - the anonymity of long dead people set against the representation of other anonymous people, their images stolen and represented in their absence.

Year of the Artist was set to mark the millennium. Two sets of artists have been brought together at a specific time in a specific locality to make work. Neither had any knowledge of each other before this project.

Watching this collaboration produce the work was fascinating. I was witness to meetings where ideas were thrown up, thrown out, politely avoided, grabbed, mangled, developed or ditched. I must confess to some enjoyment when one party suggested something that met with complete and total bafflement by the other. It was not that they did not agree, it was as if someone had suddenly slipped into fluent Urdu - it was completely and utterly incomprehensible.

The immediate legacy of the work gave rise to two more projects. The van went to Rome where we worked with video artist Theo Eshetu in presenting the work. At midnight one night we took the shadow projection of lsabel and started projecting onto Bernini's statues on a bridge across the Tiber. Hit and run art.

In some senses, the work created was playful. In other senses, it was profound. There is no law that says you cannot do both. There really are no rules.

Anthony Roberts, director, Colchester Arts Centre. Contact +44 (0)1206 500900. Email

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001