Interview: Ingrid Swenson and Gemma Lloyd talk about PEER

Originally posted at meyouhoxtontoo.net

PEER consistently surprises by creating opportunities for artists to produce exceptional work in unexpected circumstances.
– Sir Nicholas Serota, Director, Tate

The Pier Trust was founded by Alex Sainsbury in 1997 and has been known as PEER since 1999. The gallery has been located on Hoxton Street since 2002. PEER is an independent organisation that commissions imaginative and ambitious arts projects by local, national and international artists in the heart of east London.

Martin Creed, Work No 203, Everything is Going to be Alright (detail) 1999. Commissioned by PEER

Dustin: Well can you talk a little bit about what informs the programming at PEER?

Gemma: At PEER we have a tendency of working with one artist on solo projects: you develop very close relationships with those artists. We’re genuinely dedicated to the practices that artists have and to give those artists an opportunity to work on projects that they haven’t had a chance to do before, or to take a risk. And I think it’s well known that when you’re invited by PEER you know its not just another show, its an opportunity to have a really fascinating dialogue and close engagement with Ingrid and myself. I think we absolutely strive to do the best in making the projects that exist on Hoxton Street fantastic, thought provoking and innovative. And they’re available there on the high street among all the other things that you see. Maybe it’s interesting to hear a little bit from Ingrid about the idea of the gallery in the expanded field in relation to that, and where PEER wants to position itself and go forward.

Ingrid: It’s just a sort of catch phrase. But I’ve just been thinking about the idea of the gallery in the expanded field, which is riffing on Rosalind Krauss’s notion of sculpture in the expanded field. I’m not trying to make any kind of grand theoretical claims. It’s not meant to be tricksy or clever. It’s just meant to be quite straightforward: which is how art can be part of daily life. Really it’s as simple as that, and how a lot of the smaller-scale galleries, that we’re often spoken of in the same breath, are quite hidden, they’re difficult places to find. And when you get there you’re often confronted by a door with a tiny little buzzer on it. And so this idea of art which is set back physically and psychologically from the street, it’s in this other space, and the idea of the gallery in the expanded field is that it is part of that space, it’s all one space in a way. How does the inside of the gallery impact the outside of the gallery? We are on a local high street with a very complex and interesting local community. Its got its own personality, if you like—multiple personalities. And so I think it is this idea of normalising something which is meant to be difficult and confrontational and I’m not saying that the work has to be dumbed down at all. I mean life is difficult so why can’t art be difficult.

Me You Hoxton Too Dustin O’Hara, Access All Areas, and PEER Participate,  2012

Dustin: Can you talk a little bit about previous projects and their relationship to the neighbourhood, or how PEER’s relationship to the neighbourhood has developed?

Ingrid: A number of the projects we’ve done have been off-site projects and that’s been a very important element of our program. The first one was by Martin Creed. This was followed by a joint application between the Shoreditch Trust and PEER to the Deutsche Bank’s ‘Art and Regeneration Award.’ And so the result of that was John Frankland’s Boulder Project. There are two boulders. There’s one in a park just up the road – Shoreditch Park– and another at Mabley Green. The one at Shoreditch Park weighs about 85 tonnes; it’s solid granite and it came out of a quarry in Cornwall. They are the result of a blast, they haven’t been manipulated by the artist’s hand.

John Frankland, Boulder, 2008. Commissioned by PEER and Shoreditch Trust

John Frankland, Boulder being picked up after blast, 2008

The Park Users Group wanted a fountain or something, but fountains get easily vandalised and trashed and they fall into disrepair, they’re very hard to keep up. So we had some meetings with that group and I had several conversations with John, and we proposed the Boulder Project. It is a very powerful feature of the park. Whether the granite boulder is interpreted by park users as a piece of sculpture or as a feature, is neither here nor there because ‘sculpture’ is just a word.  It’s something that people sort of gravitate towards. It looks totally ambiguous as to how it got there. It could have been a meteor that fell out of the sky, which is very unlikely.

John Frankland is a sculptor who uses a lot of ideas about material and scale in his work. He’s also a very avid rock climber. There’s a whole area of rock climbing called ‘bouldering’ and he’s one of many people who enjoy that. So we worked with local climbing clubs and with the schools and there’s a climbing club at the sports centre just at the edge of the park. So there’s a lot of hugely rich material that could be mined from this lump of granite that sits in the park. One of the local schools, the primary school on the edge of the park, did a fantastic project around the boulder with no consultation from PEER whatsoever. And so that’s only one of the off-site projects that we did.

Dustin: As someone who lives just down the street from the boulder, I see people climbing it all the time…

Ingrid: Yeah, it’s good; it’s got its own life now. 

Dustin: Yeah, the boulder is an interesting counterpoint to the common formal quality of public sculpture, which has little regard to the community surrounding it, and a week later becomes a monument to bird poop.

Ingrid: Yeah, they can be either ignored or loathed …invisible or just hated.

Gemma: There’s no announcement or any kind of card or plaque.

Dustin: The fact that it’s not identified as an artwork, as a sculpture, is one of its strengths.

Gemma: Yeah, it just allows it to exist and be taken as it is.

Bob and Roberta Smith, Shop Local, Dad’s hair salon sign, 2006. Commissioned by PEER

Dustin:  Absolutely. So can you talk a little bit more about the local shopkeepers sign project?

Ingrid: That’s by Bob & Roberta Smith. The signs reference a tradition of 19th, early 20th century sign painting. There are lots of ghost signs, as they’re known, around London and every city in the world. There’s a fantastic one on Kingsland Road near the Geffrye Museum about the Piano Manufacturers. So it was really about celebrating the sole traders and it was kind of a ‘two-fingers up’ to the large influx of big corporate shops that completely wipe out the little guys. The idea was kind of political with a very small ‘p.’ And again there’s this tremendous ambiguity about the work, there were five signs, for local shops that don’t exist anymore; ‘Ron’s Eel and Shellfish’ sign on the canal. ‘Ron’s Eel and Shellfish’ doesn’t exist anymore because Ron retired two summers ago. The sign is a souvenir, a record of the history of Hoxton Street. There’s ‘Dad’s Hairdressers’ on the side of Hoxton Works. And again, Mr Ellison, who is Dad, an Afro-Caribbean hairdresser, has retired so that shop doesn’t exist any longer. But I think that sign is safe because of its location on Hoxton Works. And then there’s ‘Hoxton Electro-vision’, which is on the side of the building here, next to the Post Office. None of the signs say “This is an artwork by Bob & Roberta Smith.” Bob & Roberta Smith have not signed them. And none of the signs say PEER. So they are completely on their own.

Dustin: So can you talk a bit about PEER Participate? How that fits into PEER, and it’s relationship to everything that we’ve been talking about in terms of the programming?

Gemma: A lot of smaller galleries now have a strand of education and outreach work. And PEER was doing that in a more fluid way. But in 2010 we were awarded support from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to run a two-year pilot program, of education and out reach activities in the local community. The first two partners on board were St. Monica’s RC Primary School which is on Hoxton Square and Bridge Academy, which is a secondary school just on Laburnum Street. For the last two years artist Maria Amidu has been working with children from St. Monica’s, and we just recently held a showcase of work by 37 children from the After School Club called Dolphin Loves Disco.  And what’s really interesting is those children have visited PEER quite a few times. They’re very familiar with PEER and they walk past and are very confident about coming into the gallery, they know Ingrid and me. Often their parents are a bit more reluctant, but the kids pull them in.

Maria Amidu and St. Monica’s RC Primary School, Dolphin Loves Disco, 2012 Project commissioned by PEER Participate

Maria Amidu and St. Monica’s RC Primary School, Dolphin Loves Disco, 2012 Project commissioned by PEER Participate

And then this year with Bridge, we’ve been working with an artist called Emma Hart who’s actually worked with the teachers and not the students. The art department staff were interested in doing a project together to understand a little bit more about themselves and what they wanted to do, and what their mission should be as an art department. Emma’s been working on the idea of a manifesto, a series of manifesto statements that stresses the importance of art education, which is at threat because of the e-baccalaureate system. The manifestos will become is a series of six stickers that make bold statements about the importance of art education, which we’ll disseminate to local secondary schools around the area. There’s also been various other smaller groups that we have worked with, including an Over 50s Beginners Art Group just up the road, and students with learning disabilities based at Hackney Community College just across the road.

Emma Hart and art teachers from Bridge Academy, 2012. Project commissioned by PEER Participate

Dustin: So where do you see things going?

Gemma: All of the people we’ve worked with are keen to continue working in some way. We have to maintain those relationships, build on them and see what’s possible along the way.

Ingrid: Obviously the idea of the pilot is you test things out. And we’ve tested a bunch of stuff out. We’ve learnt a lot. It has to be led by what works and what’s successful and what people will get the most from.

Dustin: How do you determine what is successful? How are you assessing that?

Ingrid: When people say ‘How can we think of ways to carry on doing it?’ That’s good evidence of something being successful. St. Monica’s, who have had two years of an access to PEER, those kids may be people who wouldn’t normally have access to contemporary art. But because they feel quite confident about coming in here, or if they happen to see us on the street and say hello, I’d like to think that those kids will continue to have a sense of ease with PEER and with art. And as they grow older art might become a significant part of their creative learning, or enrich their life. I’m not saying that art should make you happy; I’m saying that art can make you think, just the way that listening to a piece of music, or reading a story can. There are sections of the local community which may not be otherwise inclined to go and see contemporary art. It was quite interesting with the kids taking bouldering classes during the Shoreditch Festival two-three summers ago when the boulders first went in. One Saturday afternoon, three of the boys who were signed up for the class didn’t show up, and so we got a bit annoyed about that because it’s not a right it’s a privilege to have your free bouldering classes on a Saturday afternoon, and to not turn up is a bit naughty. But then it transpired that these boys had taken themselves off to the Forest of Dean, or somewhere like that, because they’d heard that there were some boulders that could be climbed. That was amazing! Because they thought, “Well, we’ve done this one. Let’s go and find another one!” And that’s how you measure success, I think.

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