Out of the two designs Davin and I produced during my research trip to Kansas City one was successful. We developed ‘freedomination’ in response to a brief to produce a billboard design that responds to ideas of freedom, set by Red Contemporary Arts in Hull. The billboard series are part of Hull2017’s Creative Communities Programme. The organisers asked: What does freedom mean to you? What does it look like to you? Does freedom really exist? Is freedom allowed to be expressed? Is freedom an understood word? Utopia?
Our design addresses these questions by problematising the notion that freedom is a neutral or intrinsically good thing. We ask: whose freedom? Are we all equally free?
To accompany the billboard we proposed a performance that underpins the ideas behind the design. The participatory ‘soapbox’ performance encouraged members of the audience to get on a soapbox and make a speech on any subject. As individuals expressed their freedom of speech it became increasingly difficult to hear what they were saying, demonstrating the concept ‘freedomination’. The soapboxes were also different sizes, suggesting that the benefits of freedom aren’t enjoyed equally.
With the help of friends, organisers, and city of culture volunteers we took over a street corner in Hull and turned it into a temporary speaker’s corner. I read a script (manifesto!) written in collaboration with Davin, and then read my own soapbox speech about the colonisation of the public visual realm by commercial advertising. Despite initial reluctance members of the audience got up and shared their views on a wide variety of social issues. The conversations continued long after the performance ended.
Performance Saturday 23rd September at 3pm. Corner of Spring Bank and Freehold Street.
Since we initiated our collaboration Davin and I have had numerous Skype conversations about the project and the ideas we’d like it to address, but not what we would produce and how we would do it. We have overlapping interests but use different materials and have very different visual styles. Anticipating that finding a visual form for the collaboration might be difficult we hoped that time spent working side by side in Davin’s studio would ease the process. With the support of a grant from a-n I travelled to Kansas City in July to develop the collaboration further.
Davin and I had already identified a mutual interest in working in the public domain, so we started the process by finding two competitions for billboard designs that we could work toward. Each competition had a theme, providing us with a conceptual parameter to help us develop ideas quickly.
Both designs aim to evoke ideas of citizenship and social responsibility. We talked about the refugee crisis, the racist rhetoric of Brexit, and Trump’s openly xenophobic travel ban. Nationalist self-interest has become a rhetorical norm. We wanted to question these ideas without being didactic or polemical. We agreed that debate was important.
Our first design alludes to tourist adverts and the concept of freedomination. We describe the concept as ‘Freedom and domination appear to be mutually exclusive concepts. We aim to draw attention to this binary and expose / explore a grey area in between. The freedom to act without restraint can oppress others. As John Stuart Mill (may have) said “The right to swing my arms in any direction ends where your nose begins.” The freedom of companies, markets, and governments to act as they please can impinge on individual’s rights. The idea of freedom is evoked paradoxically by those in power to go against the best interest of others. Loss of freedom could be the price of inclusion and citizenship. Exclusion can also be a freedom.’
For our second design we used the visual language of airline safety instruction cards to explore the idea of citizenship further. We wanted to blur the distinction between self-interest and social responsibility, making it unclear who is helping whom.
The process of collaborating resulted in unique designs that neither of us would have produced as individuals. It also generated more ideas for interventions, residencies, and exhibitions we can work towards in the future. I look forward to developing this fruitful partnership, an enjoyable way of working that also invigorates my own practice by pushing me out of my comfort-zone and toward different styles, materials, and a refreshingly new visual language.
I have known Davin and admired his work for a number of years (http://www.davinwatne.com). In 2012 he showed some of my work in ‘Look Attractive’ a group exhibition of international artists at UMKC Gallery in Kansas City. In 2015 he created an artwork to be displayed in commercial advertising spaces in Cardiff City centre as part of my ‘Consumer’ project. The concerns of our practices intersect in many places and so we decided to collaborate on a project that centres on our mutual interests in advertising, media images, and the politics of representation. Because both the UK and USA are going through times of extreme transformation and disruption Davin and I felt that it is the right time to work together to explore these changes.
We began the collaboration via skype, discussing mass media imagery and the use of social media in political debate, and set up an instagram account (https://www.instagram.com/hard_stop/) to act as a visual essay examining the rhetoric of mass-media. We hoped it would be a place to exchange images & ideas to explore how images communicate, persuade, and seduce.
The name Hard Stop came from a trip to Nottingham Contemporary to see The Place is Here exhibition. I attended a panel discussion about Art, Activism, Race and Social Justice in which the use of ‘hard stop’ was discussed. Hard stop is a method used by police to bring a vehicle to a stop, often by shooting the people inside. The idea of bringing something to a violent halt resonated with me. In The Arcades Project Benjamin writes that progress is mythologised under the sign of predetermination. The ‘ideology of progress’ naturalises the idea of the current course of development as an inevitable trajectory of capitalism that cannot be altered. The political consequence of the naturalisation of progress is conformism and passive acceptance of the status quo. In the nineteenth century the development of railways came to symbolise progress. Benjamin writes ‘Railroads were the referent, and progress the sign, as spatial movement became so wedded to the concept of historical movement that these could no longer be distinguished’ (quoted in Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, p. 91). Marx used the locomotive as a metaphor for revolution; however, Benjamin countered the equation of progress with movement arguing that revolution would take place when the locomotive stopped: ‘Perhaps it is totally different. Perhaps revolutions are the reaching of humanity travelling in this train for the emergency brake’ (ibid., p. 92).
For Benjamin, the crises of ‘modern time’ are not moments in which violent change might take place, but where existing power structures will be held in place. Benjamin equates ‘modern time’ with movement and acceleration, but it is a type of movement without progress and a relentless pursuit of novelty that conceals lack of change. Contrary to its representations in terms of speed and movement, progress is characterised by suspended animation and the maintenance of social power structures. Progress is immobile and eternal. Real progress will take place when transiency ceases.
In a world characterised by alt-truth and continuous communication via social media we desperately need time for reflection. With this in mind Davin and I appropriated the term ‘hard stop’ to signify the possibility of bringing to a halt (at least momentarily) the deluge of information we receive. Under this moniker we hope to create interventions in the public realm that cause pause for thought and invite viewers to critique the images they see.
This collaboration is supported by a travel bursary from a-n The Artist Information Company.