"Who needs a spin doctor?" - reflections on the 'DOCTORS OF SPIN' event at Tullie House, Carlisle as part of encompass 99.
Twenty young people are dressed in pale blue surgical gowns. They are wearing 3D glasses and moving around in deep concentration as hardcore sounds shake the foundations of Tullie House Art Gallery & Museum in Carlisle. It's July 1999. It's the Doctors of Spin.
Terry Bennett, the curator at Tullie House, approached me in February 1999 about the Encompass project. With five whole months thereafter (of phone calls, meetings and e-mails) to plan a five day spectacle, Doctors of Spin, it is perhaps no surprise that two professionals delivered such a unique, complex and enjoyable event. However, an abiding memory from Doctors of Spin is the look of shock and wonder from both participants and visitors. They hadn't seen or heard anything like this before in a gallery.
This begs some questions - when sitting down to discuss a link between a group of young people and a gallery, to what does one refer? What has gone before? What are young people expecting from a visit to a gallery? What is the context for this work?
The main factor that allowed myself and Terry to work well together is that we were both convinced that the context could come from within 'Fine Art' rather than from 'art education' in itself. Terry spoke of the early happenings and performances by Jim Dine and Claes Oldenberg: "In one lecture Oldenburg had demonstrated how exciting but also how dangerous it can be to present live art in a public context. Within the gallery there is an institutional surround which largely neutralises the dangers in performance" (i) .
I mentioned the previous projects I had done with some young people from the Raffles estate in Carlisle which had referred to a context wider than the city, namely performances and artworks by George Wyllie, Andrea Zittel, Damien Hirst and Bill Drummond.
We spoke of performative interpretation as "a great asset in terms of transforming the art gallery from a temple of quiet contemplation, an exclusive arena, into an open-to-all, everybody can play, let me share my experience, what's it all about anyway debating shop. Workshops and meet the artist days are useful but the one-day, one time slot event does not encourage repeat visits, or engagement over time. It fills only a partial need on the part of an audience to really participate in the meaning of an artwork or an exhibition. The advantage of a performative interpretation is that it can take place over time" (ii) .
Thus, Doctors of Spin gradually evolved as an informative five-day performance which drew influences from further afield.
We were also joined in our interest in word play and puns, which would become a crucial layer in the overall conconction - doctors of spin, spin doctors, early learning centres, spinning records and so on. Professionals have to be excited and obsessed by every detail of the whole. Otherwise we cannot expect anyone else to be interested.
Terry and I took the project very seriously. We thought hard about it. What follows is written almost one year on from the event. Extracts from this text will be presented in a lecture on public & community art at the University of Illinois at the end of April. As mentioned, it was equally as important to look beyond Carlisle as it was to meticulously relate the project to the immediate surroundings.
The basic idea behind Doctors of Spin was to take one work - a Damien Hirst spin painting - from Tullie House's July exhibition, Fun de Siècle? (iii), and add layers to it through an audio-visual experience for groups of young people.
Stage 1 was to ensure that the young visitors immediately felt comfortable within the space. Stage 2 was to make the activity self-explanatory enough to allow immediate involvement. Stage 3 was to set the activities at the far end of the Gallery so that everyone had to repeatedly walk through the Fun de Siècle? exhibits. Stage 4 was to pace ourselves, using the five days to gradually build up relationships between the participants and the artworks and Stage 5 was not to plan Stage 5, but to stay open to improvisation and adaptation.
July 1999. As one entered the Tullie House Gallery, to the right was a large partitioned wall, blocking out most of the show and immediately ahead was the large Damien Hirst spin painting (iv). Entering and turning right, the length of the gallery stretched out ahead. At the far end, the high gallery walls had been opened up to reveal a reset area filled with our movement and sound. We covered the floor and set tables up in a welcoming U-shape (like the entrance to Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art). Terry Bennett: "Visually, what is presented must be as exciting to see as the exhibition which it accompanies. If possible, more so" (v). In this carefully devised arena we would spend five days producing spin paintings.
At the rear middle a local young DJ was commissioned to provide a thumping soundtrack for the Doctors. He bedecked his table with a Union Jack and began spinning. On the remaining tables we set out fifteen little 'spin painting machines' (purchased from the Early Learning Centre - a name we liked), a pile of surgical gowns, corporate name tags ('colour mixer', 'spin doctor' or 'curator'), 3D glasses and, in the central floor space, a larger spin machine.
This central machine was ingeniously constructed from an electric drill and wooden box by Dave Chapple and Sharon Woods, two local artists who were paid as project assistants. Its industrial roar mixed with the bass-heavy sounds throughout the spinning. It's size also meant, as some of the young people realised, that it could be used to spin onto other objects such as T-shirts (how can art leave the gallery?) and 12" vinyl records (spinning onto records while records were spun). Nothing was left un-spun; a Demis Roussos LP sleeve was spun and the young person stopped halfway through so that one Roussos eye was left peeking out. Fantastic experimental art.
The young people entering understood immediately what was going on and took over the gallery for those five days. Some noticeably blossomed and began instructing newcomers as to what to do or what might be possible. A group of 34 students from New Jersey turned up and joined in; our young spinners filled them in and became Spin Doctors. Two art educators from Utrecht School of Art in the Netherlands visited and understood immediately. We stepped outside the cauldron to discuss the project. Throughout the days Terry and I would do this, travel from noise to tranquillity to assess how it was going in different environments.
The young people noticed that as hundreds of little spin paintings were produced they considered some to be 'better' than others. What did this mean? They realised that the Hirst, made by the same technique, was actually quite striking. Why? Choice of colours? Speed of rotation? Sheer size? The title? Or was it more about who had spun it?
What if we spun while wearing 3D glasses? What if we spun two at a time, one with the right hand and one with the left? What happens when you make decisions that are not quite in control? "Paint faster than you can think" as Alex Katz once proposed (vi). The music kept thumping away.
We looked constantly at the exhibition, at all the 'quiet' works, at David Shrigley's Diana - English Rose photograph and wondered about the opposite of this project - a silent one. Muted and mournful. Participants are padded, movement restricted, no noise at all from any objects or outside elements. What type of art may evolve? How would we communicate?
Others took their spin paintings and began constructing 3D objects. Strange lunar modules and insects evolved. One spin was cut in half. It looked like a Dome. We built pop-up versions (Pop-A-Domes). One young person from Raffles became Jackson Pollock and dripped and spun away in blissful concentration.
Others were invited by Terry to become 'curators' and put together a selection of their favourite spin paintings. Someone else began arranging the larger spin paintings but instead of a straight line it became a wavy thread crackling across the back wall - visually stunning. The creative juices were flowing.
There then followed a remarkable moment for us. Nine freshly made spin paintings were selected and attached to the Gallery wall two feet from the Damien Hirst painting. This is where the project's theoretical discussions had begun and Terry's dual role as both Tullie House employee and Spin Doctor enabled this spur of the moment move to happen. This was performative interpretation in action. Theory became reality. For a short period, nine young people, aged 12-16, exhibited next to Damien Hirst.
A partially blind lady visited and sensed something different was happening - for her the sounds made perfect sense when looking closely at the spin paintings. When the music stopped, the space was immediately returned to a white cube and the young people lost a little interest. Which is in a sense how we planned it. Many works in Fun de Siècle? emitted a kind of laid back attitude that young people only seemed to relate to with music on.
We were visited by an eccentric American tourist and given his detailed theories about constructing the ultimate inertia-free spin machine that responded directly to the bpm of a piece of music. Local artists and council workers visited and stayed.
We had tapped into something very basic, something that the Early Learning Centre understands, something that Damien Hirst understands and something first stumbled upon by Alfons Schilling in the sixties (vii). Spin paintings bridge a gap between abstraction and realism (and thinking back, that young person's adaptation of a Jackson Pollock approach seems even more pertinent); they represent a meeting of science's centrifugal forces with the very personal decisions we as individuals make. Fate against self-determination.
They look easy to produce but 'successful' ones - perhaps strong colour combinations, a real sense of motion or a balance between riotous clashes and calm blends - result from a set of sequential decisions. Throw in the lucky accidents, the unexpected twists and moves of colour, and one has artworks as complex in their conception as anything produced in quieter stiller surrounds.
Six secondary school pupils from Caldew and Trinity began to explore further through a written response to what was on display. Following a walk through the show with Dave Chapple and a chat about artists, they compiled a set of single words and sentences to be captured on video.
The roles of myself and Terry alternated through the sessions, viewing the trees and then the forest; being active participants in spinning before throwing in a question about one of the artworks in the show; spending time on a particular detail of display then going out to purchase some slower tempo records for the DJ to see if it had any effect on the whole Doctors of Spin event (mixing the M.A.S.H. theme into the soundtrack did bring proceedings to a halt).
A concern of ours was that Doctors of Spin would be seen solely as a good-time manual activity. The older pupils did begin to engage with the artworks on different levels, but only after we had laid an appropriate foundation. In the past I have done 'cold' workshops where people are asked to be creative two minutes after leaving their jackets in the cloak room, coming in from the cold to a controlled environment and being allowed no time to acclimatise.
The spinning as an activity would serve as a decompression chamber - a space to acclimatise. We decided that within this chamber, the acclimatisation would be achieved by being active (spinning - producing quality artworks into the bargain). This was our foundation. For the professionals, 'art workshops in galleries' are accepted events, but what about the seventy-one young Spin Doctors - how could they grasp why they had turned up, participated and stayed?
A couple of regional schools had been invited to send some pupils - schools with enthusiastic art teachers and an established relationship with Tullie House. These pupils could use the visit as an extension to their course work and see contemporary art in situ.
However, many of the participants from Raffles were on permanent exclusion from school. For most it was their first time in the gallery and their attendance owes as much to the contribution of the youth workers on Raffles, especially Julie Nugent, whom I had seen over three years introducing these young people to a range of new experiences. There is a wider question of how to reach those who have varying relationships with their local schools and on this occasion the partnership, developed over three years, with an independent youth project was crucial.
From the point of view of the young Raffles spinners, the event at Tullie House was one small but important part within a wider development. The experience is now added to their memories of a 1997 project I did with them on Raffles in an old warehouse when an even larger spin machine was constructed from old bike parts and a set of 4ft diameter paintings produced (viii). It had been inspired by reading a newspaper article on Hirst's early spin paintings. With Doctors of Spin we had the chance to take the idea one stage further by sharing a space with the 'real thing'. From that damp warehouse to Tullie House/ from the warehouse of 'Freeze' to the Saatchi Gallery.
One of the first questions raised when we sat down to plan the project concerned the context for events such as this. Doctors of Spin was successful because we created a context, or more specifically we created reasons for the young people to be in Tullie House engaging with art. We asked ourselves 'why should they come here?' and consequently they did not once ask 'why are we here?'
Alan Dunn, April 2000
(i) Terry Bennett quoted in DOCTORS OF SPIN - A Performative Interpretation For Gallery Week, report, August 1999
(iii) Fun de Siècle? - Irony, Parody and Humour in Contemporary Art, Walsall Museum and Art Gallery touring exhibition, 1998
(iv) Damien Hirst "Beautiful, Babies, Optical, Parsons Nose, Trembling Camera, Weird Shutter Release, Artistic Eye, Exploding Pig, Chainsaw, Sex Painting (With Two Small Pink Splashes)"
(v) T.Bennett, ibid
(vi) Quoted in" Sketchbook With Voices", p83, Eric Fischl with Jerry Saltz, Alfred van der Marck Editions, New York, 1986
(vii)In Paris between 1960-62, Austrian artist Alfons Schilling first began experimenting with Rotationsbilder, or what we now know as Spin Paintings, one of which was included in the"Speed" exhibition at The Whitechapel Gallery in London
(viii) Documentation of the spin paintings and other projects on Raffles can be seen at http://www.artcumbria.org/raffles/art.htm
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