Playing a game of 6 degrees of separation is infinitely engaging and surprising. With this game usually there is a target person as the end point but I have no such ambitions, only that the journey be unexpected and interesting. Each person I meet I ask to refer me to another and broker an introduction so the spread – geographical, and conversational reaches beyond what I alone could plan. I was delighted when Gill Hedley suggested the artist Alasdair Hopwood and facilitated an introduction. Over the summer I travelled to London to meet Alasdair, currently a Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow, in the Wellcome’s new Hub space.
The Hub at Wellcome Collection consists of arrangements of desks and surfaces which promote dialogue, formal and informal furniture, a large table, different types of spaces for different types of activities, juxtaposing colours – the antipathy of a workaday office. It’s possibly on the way to being an ideal studio if such thing exists, large and light with space to breath and room to think. The hub houses a specific research group and additionally other Wellcome Fellows can use also the space facilitating further cross discipline conversations. In his role as a research fellow Alasdair uses the Hub 2-3 days per week with the remainder of the working week spent at his studio in Fulham. At the centre of Alasdair’s practice is dialogue, listening, questioning. From our conversation I can see why he is an Engagement Fellow for Wellcome, his conversation is reflective and targeted with an openness to questioning what he knows.
Hub is a word increasingly used, and particularly creative hubs have become part of our contemporary vocabulary. By definition it’s the central part of a wheel, rotating on or with the axle, and from which the spokes radiate. It’s also a place or thing that forms the effective centre of an activity, region or network. It’s no surprise then that so many hubs exist or are in development, it seems that segregated working in certain sectors possibility isn’t the most productive. Where research and innovation are the central focus interdisciplinarity is increasingly seen as a pre-requisite for the encouragement of symbiotic relationships.
Once settled in comfy seats in the kitchen area, I started our conversation by asking Alasdair about how he works and if a dedicated spaces comes into his practice. He talked about how having a space outside of the home had become increasingly important, aiding his ambition of trying to find the healthiest way to work. The studio he has in Fulham is 5 minutes from home facilitating an ease of access usefully delineating between home and work life. Within his practice he draws upon a variety of ways of working, so it’s logical to extend that variety to the spaces he works in. Different spaces facilitate different ideas in Alasdair’s practice, processes, serendipitous events and conversations all feed into the mix. There are times when he can imagine working without a studio, being without a dedicated workspace, embracing the a nomadic work style with laptop and ipad, settling into cafes and restaurants.
Alasdair talks about how for some artists life and work are so intimately connected (and he remembers being like this himself) that work and home time slide into one another. Working at home can easily take any person over the threshold of working full time, but with so much of art practice unfinished until it is shown or shared with an audience it can become dominant to such an extent that it can feel as if one can never escape it. Alasdair has found having outside spaces in which to work facilitates his working in a more effective manner, “work is work and home is home”, as far as this is possible for any artist. Alasdair is very clear in his articulation that such boundaries and professionalism are important mechanisms to prevent becoming enslaved to practice, much akin to any other self employed person on some levels. When at the Hub it’s the brief chats over coffee that Alasdair has found to be really illuminating – the incidental can be as productive as the formal ‘sharing’ which may involve presentations. Alasdair is keen to explore how learning methods from arts education; the critique, tutorials and seminars could be used within this type of setting. Being able to say things which may sound basic, or to admit uncertainty even when the contributor might feel they should know better, could all be part and parcel of being at the Hub as it would be in an educational setting.
When Alasdair started at the Hub, he just wanted to listen and get involved in conversations and think about how he can fulfill his role beyond that of a conventional artist in residence. Rather he sees his role as contributing to the discussions, introducing speakers to the staff at Wellcome, from artists through to scientists, around topics of health and sustainability. He admits to not making any art yet and when he says it, it does feel like a bit of an admission but actually it is his very presence within Wellcome that has an artistic influence. He comes from a place of being an artist with all the training, knowledge and questioning that includes. At the core of Alasdair’s practice is a history of public engagement activities spanning a 20 year period which allows him the opportunity to share his ways of working around trying to communicate complex ideas to a general public.
I asked Alasdair about working in and across two spaces, at Wellcome and in his studio, and if his work is separated through different activities in different spaces. He replies “it’s all meshed together at present”. Within research and project development activities his main tool is a computer, such devices continually facilitate multi location working, encourage ideas and influences from unexpected quarters. Currently he’s writing a feature film and so working in different environments is having a positive impact, all the variety in conversation feeding the fictional world he is creating.
Alasdair is thinking about what he can bring to the scientific arena at Wellcome and to see where it leads. Informed by some research I had undertaken into a talk Alasdair had given I probed him about the role of the artists in a scientific setting and if indeed The Hub was a scientific environment. I am surely not alone when thinking about what science looks like to be envisaging test tubes and bunsen burners, these objects are not present in the Hub for this is a different kind of model of scientific enquiry so how does it work? Alasdair explains how the Hub is focused on cross disciplinary collaboration, the starting point is always an engagement with scientific enquiry and then what emerges from that engagement is where he considers it starts to get really interesting. Artists have been engaged to reflect on certain aspects of scientific enquiry such as ethics and mediating research to the public in interesting ways, critically reflecting upon it, in addition to trying to find the human voice within an enquiry.
The Hub method of providing a centre of activity, bringing together voices from different professional backgrounds is perhaps rare within the places where artists traditionally have their studios. Artists don’t as yet feature in research parks, or within university departments as standard and continual features and so opportunities to generate connected and innovative thinking are unfulfilled. Within The Hub at the Wellcome Collection connections are nurtured and developed and ultimately, we hope, result in far reaching in-depth enquiries and scientific developments with positive impact.