STEAMhouse Talk
As part of the research project I wanted to do a talk with STEAMhouse, artists and arts organisations to find out how they have been creating work through Covid and what they are doing now we are coming out of the pandemic. On Thursday 24th Feb the talk took place, by co-incidence this was the day England came out of Covid restrictions. The speakers were Anne Forgan from Ludic Rooms, Becky Waite from Blue Coat art gallery and artist Pippa Hale. This was a really nice mix as Anne ran a festival outside with the public, Becky has been working directly with disabled artists and Pippa has been creating interactive, playful artworks. There was a really great mix of perspectives.

Anne from Ludic Rooms in Coventry began the talk. She focussed on Roam + Dwell and Random String, Roam+ Dwell was a series of workshops and art interventions through the summer and Random String was a festival that happen in November over a week. Previously Random String has happened with Warwick Art Centre with a symposium and artist events in Coventry’s empty shops and interesting spaces.

Originally Random String should have taken place in 2020 but this change to 2021 to fall in with City of Culture and to give them time to think and plan. Ludic Rooms is based at the Canal Basin in Coventry, where I used to be based. It is an incredibly amazing space with the only bit of water in the city, the 5.5 mile long canal. Coventry is landlocked, you can’t be further from the sea than here. Amazingly the Canal Basin isn’t regularly visited. Ludic Rooms wanted to bring the people to the Canal Basin and to widen Random String’s audience to the public.

Being at the Canal Basin worked well for running the festival during Covid. It is an outdoor space. Through the summer they ran workshops. There was endless hand sanitiser on offer, masks were worn and stickers were offered. The sticker idea I love, they had red, green and yellow. Red still feeling very cautious, amber for wary and green feeling at ease. What a great way to show how audience members are feeling. With objects the audience were interacting with they used wipeable surfaces and easily replaceable objects.

Random String took place in November, at night along the towpath for a 1km route with nine art works made for the festival in partnership with the City of Culture. Being at night, along the towpath meant the audience needed to be managed, it’s dark, bumpy and thin. The programme was created during lockdown were people needed to be kept in bubbles. This worked with the restrictions of the towpath, people where sent along in their groups and given distance. The artworks were placed so they didn’t create bottle necks. The artworks were mainly visual spectacles, they made good photos, they weren’t all interactive.

Poetry Bridge by Ludic Rooms in collaboration with poet, Mary Courtney was an interactive installation. Words selected by the audience appeared on a bridge in neon writing, it was brilliant. The texture of the bridge really added to the artwork. The audience selected the words they wanted by pointing, not by picking them out.

The second piece of work that was interactive was music which needed to be listened to. The festival was in a residential area so they would have liked to give out headphones to people to but they couldn’t afford to do this. They asked the public to bring headphones with them and there was a QR code to start the music. Anne felt this didn’t really work because not everyone brought headphones, you could listen on your phone without headphones or when you got home. Not having them stopped people needing to share and it did stop waste being created.

Anne’s closing statement is what has really stuck with me; Create an experience where the audience trust you. Ludic Rooms needed to communicate that these are strange times and we’re responding to them. Create conditions of connection. Make the experience worth the risk.

Becky runs Blue Room at Bluecoat in Liverpool. I feel very guilty to say that I’ve been to Liverpool three or four times and I’ve not been to Bluecoat. I will certainly go when I next visit. It is an contemporary art centre and working home artists. Blue Room is an inclusive art project with learning disabilities and neuro-diverse adult-artists. There are 4 groups and 40 members creating visual art and soon dance. The project Studio Me helps support individuals to develop their own practice and to progress to being a professional artists.

When Covid started the Blue Room studios had to close. The challenge was how to keep the artists connected and creative. This created Blue Room at Home. Which began by phoning members! This might seem surprising but not all members had smart phones, computers or tablets or would need support using them. Although their carers and support workers are incredibly supportive they have other tasks to do too such as getting up other residents, making lunch and doing personal care. This was a huge under taking! At first Becky and her team were making videos, this was timely and not well accessed if members needed help with the tech. Instead they created easy read packs and art materials were sent out.

In response to the tech issues Blue Room applied and received an ACE grant to buy 15 iPads with data chips. More easy read guides where created to show what to do when you get an iPad to getting on Zoom. I can totally imagine this situation, for some people this would have been like learning how to get to space. This alien, intimidating space was somewhere some carers didn’t want to go. Becky and her team had to do this with 40 members. I say Becky and her team, for a while this was Becky and one other as the rest of the team was on furlough. This also brought safe guiding issues, Becky had to write safe guarding protocol for using the tech and being in new spaces like WatsApp and get the users to understand these protocols.

Running the sessions on Zoom came with challenges; the time it took to run a session and plan a session, the members being on time, the information needed to get the users onto Zoom and materials the members needed to have on hand. We all know these are hard things to do after all becoming Zoom users in the last two years.

Becky and her co-worker ran four sessions a week and members could attend as many as they liked. Before they could visit the Blue Room once a week, this was definitely a positive. All the members learnt new skills from never dreaming of participating in a Zoom session to running one. Becky and her team learnt how to run a good Zoom session. Some of the members really shone in Zoom where they might be quieter in the Blue Room. Different members got to meet each other, in the Blue Room different groups would be in different spaces. They got to meet and work with National Artists.

They had 17 months online and came back to Blue Room in August 2021 after lots of risk assessments. The members are raring to go, they have a new confidence. They are having social sessions now too where they are showing work created at home. They are no longer running Blue Room at Home but they are running some online sessions for all groups to get together and share ideas. From having Blue Room at Home has meant that when there was Storm Eunice on Friday they met online instead, previously the session wouldn’t have happened. Becky likes the idea of running Blue Room at Home for artists across the UK but this needs time and funding, something for the future.

With the restrictions being lifted today Blue Room is still following the adult social care protocols, this is to keep safety measures in place. This might take some explaining to the members as the world outside is now different. I think this is a really interesting point, not everyone feels the same. I am certainly still a mask wearer in busy spaces but I know not everyone feels this way, this can be stronger than I do or less. This is the case for all spaces. If we remember what Anne says, make it worth the risk and create trust with the audience. This is what Becky is doing, she’s offering an incredibly exciting programme with amazing opportunities in a safe space for everyone.

Pippa Hale is a an artist from Leeds who creates playful artworks in foam, iron and neon. She enjoys to co-create and takes inspiration from place, culture and heritage. Pippa came to play after having her children in an urban environment. Pippa had the opportunity as a child to climb trees, roam and explore. With her children they could visit the park, soft play or the sculpture park (with keep off signs). They couldn’t experience free play in the same way she did. Pippa researched play and then began creating free play experiences with her art for everyone.

She created Play Rebellion for the BALTIC Centre For Contemporary Art from Oct 2019 – February 2020. It was created from 16 foam blocks and allowed for limitless creation, the audience became the sculptor by moving the blocks into their own creations. The BALTIC encouraged all visitors to join in, which gave everyone permission to play. Some adults felt uncomfortable with this, they had a feeling of expectation. This is because play is programmed out of us as we grow and art becomes something that is judged and marked. I’ve seen this so many times myself and I really try and make my work as inclusive as possible to encourage everyone to play.

Play Rebellion wasn’t effected by Covid as it closed just before the first lock down took place. What was effected was it’s ability to tour. It had been extremely successful at the BALTIC, family visits where up and the cafe takings were 40% up. Because of the timing the tour hasn’t been able to yet happen

Play Heaven was Pippa’s next commission for Left Bank Leeds which opened in 2021, again Pippa was lucky with the dates. It opened when there wasn’t any restrictions in place. Play Heaven is 8m long by 4.5m, an inflatable beast. Play Heaven is a site-specific installation co-created with locals.

Left Bank Leeds is based in a former church building so Pippa referred back to Biblical texts for inspiration. There she found a quote from Christ saying we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven (Luke 18:15-17, Matthew 18:3). So Pippa asked the locals to draw their ideas of heaven, these were colourful and free flowing. From the drawings Pippa created prototypes from plasticine before her finished design that was then created by Inflatable World in Nottingham. Working with Inflatable World was interesting as she had to think about height restrictions, clearance zones and how her shapes could be created into an inflatable. Alongside the inflatable are loose parts for little people to interact with.

Throughout Pippa has been lucky with dates. The co-creation started in summer 2020 when restrictions were reduced, the sessions could take place as planned and it has been open with limited restrictions apart from during December when Omicron was most active. Her next installation will open in 2023 in York’s National Railway Museum.

I asked Pippa about her creativity and if she’s had to make any considerations in her work around Covid. Pippa explained that she always has to work to the commissioner’s health and safety protocols with making large installations but she hasn’t been asked to specifically consider Covid.

If you think about and look at Pippa’s work it really is a fun, spectacle that you want to jump into and get involved with. It is worth taking that risk that Anne spoke about at the beginning; it is so special and would be such a treat to play within that it is worth the risk. The institutions she is working with are building their trust with the audience so they know they are safe.

After all of my research, listening today, watching audiences and the thinking I’ve done I believe we need to let the audience lead. Whether or not restrictions are in place all audience members need to feel safe. They are taking a risk to see artwork whether interactive or not, let’s make it fantastic, playful and a real spectacle for them to experience in surroundings that they can trust and feel safe.

I’d like to say a special thank you to Ruth from STEAMhouse for organising today and an extra special thank you to the three speakers.