Yesterday, I took part in a performance art project that I didn’t quite expect to be a part of and it had quite a profound effect on me. On a macro level, it made me reflect on the power of haptic art. On a micro level, it made me ponder on the issue highlighted by the performance. It was about an issue I hadn’t really thought about before and taking part made me think.
A couple of weeks ago, University of Wolverhampton AA2A artist-in-residence, Jayne Murray, asked for a few willing helpers to aid her in the carrying out an active part of her current project 'Four Flags for Chapel Ash'. While at the art school, she has been looking into the impact of the Wolverhampton ring road, a political move by Enoch Powell in the 1960s, has had on the people and the infrastructure of the city. She has been doing a lot of research at the City Archives where she has found some fascinating images and has been relating her research to the process of printing and socially-engaged art. She needed to turn her research and her art into an active performance. She wanted to engage with the locality.
So I offered my services, being the generous soul I am. If I am honest, after replying to the email, I forgot all about it. On the day of the gathering of volunteers, I had a very busy schedule including a meeting first thing in the morning with the external examiner, another meeting at lunchtime about an art exhibition I am taking part in, and a two-hour drive in the late afternoon to look forward to. As I arrived at the art school that day, I vaguely recalled that I’d agreed to do ‘something with flags’ at 11am at somewhere in Wolverhampton I didn’t know, a place called ‘Chapel Ash’.
Shortly after 11am I rushed to the agreed meeting place. I was late to meet with Jayne and the other volunteers and I was feeling rather flustered. I apologised profusely for my tardiness, but thankfully, all was good. Jayne handed me a flag. My flag depicted a number of repeated words but with one word predominately displayed: fragmentation. The flag also showed a portrait of Enoch Powell.
In total, Jayne had printed four flags. Each had a different predominant word (for example, another read ‘hierarchy’) and a different image related to Jayne’s research on the impact of changes to infrastructure and pollical decisions made in Wolverhampton in the recent past. To find out more about Jayne’s project please visit her website. After we had all been handed our flags, myself and the other three volunteers marched off to the middle of the ring road just outside the art building. I still wasn’t sure at this point what we were going to be doing. However, I found myself just enjoying the act of carrying a flag and being part of something that felt important.
We marched together towards Chapel Ash, which is the location of a roundabout which is the centre of the ring road built in the 1960s. We stopped when we reached the oddly empty centre of this large roundabout.
Jayne told me that her work is mostly about encouraging social dialogue and engaging people in the topics that she is highlighting. I felt a sense of privilege to be a part of this. As we stood in the empty, ironically pleasant and green space of this roundabout, waving our flags at the passing traffic, I felt a change in me. I felt an importance. I felt as if I was engaging with people, albeit people who couldn’t see me (they could see my flag) and people I couldn’t see (I could hear their cars). I stood and waved my flag vigorously and pondered what the people seeing my Enoch flag would be thinking as they paused at the roundabout to examine this odd flag appearing in the corner of their eye. I heard a few toots of appreciation or acknowledgment and this made me smile and wave more.
We were also noticed by on-foot passers-by, a few of which stopped to ask us about the purpose of our flag waving. There is something about people with flags that resonates with the general public. The flag is either a sign of importance, power, or protest. It can be any of the three. I felt an element of each as I waved my flag. I felt as if I was protesting and I felt a surge of strong feeling for the cause, something I had not previously considered. I also felt a sense of importance. The flag is an extension of the arm, a colourful, metaphoric extension of the strength in the arm. I was waving at the masses, they were noticing me. And finally, I felt important. I felt bigger than I am. I felt as if I had some sort of authority to carry and wave my flag.
The passers-by who spoke to us were very positive about the project. Firstly, they wanted to know what we were doing. Then, they wanted to know why. And finally, they offered their own opinion on the issues we were highlighting. They engaged with us. That was the point.
An elderly gentleman explorer, originating from an Easter European country, told us over and over again, in a very gentle voice ‘we live in the slums, we should communicate, we should help each other’. This was his message. He wanted this message to sink in with us. It was as if he was passing on a message from some otherworldy place.
Another passer-by had popped down from one of the office buildings which overlooked the roundabout. His colleagues had seen our flags and sent him down to find out what we were doing. He was also very open to hearing about our project. Ironically, we supposed that he might have emerged from the tax offices that loom above Chapel Ash.
As we finished waving, and marched, flags held high, back to the art school, I thought to myself that however many or few people we had been spotted by today, it didn’t matter. They all had an experience from the event, some profound, some fleeting, yet we all had an experience and that is where the value lies. For me, the experience was quite profound. I had volunteered my time, yes. However, turning it around, I felt like I had been chosen and I felt grateful for that.
There is definitely something very moving about being a prop in an art project. I know that those who took part of Jeremy Deller’s #Wearehere project expressed a very similar response after the event. As a volunteer, irrespective of the cause, you do feel quite special.
So I say thank you, Jayne, for making my Tuesday a very memorable one this week and for giving me much to reflect upon and think about, in terms of the issue raised and my own art practice.