Who Needs A Spin Doctor? Volume 2

Reversed perspectives

The group drove out to Sefton Park in South Liverpool to carry out some experiments. Looking through the headsets, the distant shrubbery was suddenly right in front of our eyes. Hands held up in front of the face appeared to be miles away. Skies became foregrounds and the earth appeared nearer than the blade of grass upon it. Rocks and boulders flipped into hollow concave forms and caves bulged and protruded. The years we had all spent looking accounted for nothing and offered our brain no assistance in understanding what we were seeing.

In a Paris studio between 1960-62 Swiss-born artist Alfons Schilling created a mechanised turntable and produced the first acknowledged spin paintings. In May 2003 I invited Alfons to Liverpool to develop some work around visual perception for the community webcasting project tenantspin. Alfons was 69 last year and the three participants – JM, KH and MR – were 72, 71 and 56 respectively and all high-rise social housing tenants. We were interested in working with an artist of the same generation as the participants and as tenantspin is conceptually tied to an older generation this meant a more experienced artist. 

Alfons worked with the participants and myself for three days, introducing us to his thoughts on visual perception and some of his devices such as the homemade viewing glasses that completely reverse perspective.

The whole event in the Park was filmed as the participants reacted to the unfolding explanations. The prism lenses used in the headsets for example came from tank periscopes found by Schilling in Czechoslovakia. Whereas normal perspective operates with a vanishing point at infinity, where did this reversal have its vanishing point? Deep within us? On a bright and sunny day in the Park, Alfons and the tenants joked that we could almost start a new religion with this model of re-seeing.

On the penultimate day of his visit tenantspin webcast the film along with a direct discussion between tenants and Alfons, unmediated by FACT n1 or any other artistic agency. The webcast took place in the Box studio of the recently opened FACT Centre, with a studio audience of six people and a crew of three other tenants.

The project with Alfons created a series of thoughts and memories in the tenants’ heads. Looking through those glasses was something that had to be experienced first hand. It was difficult for the webcast to be as intimate, electric and raw as the afternoon spent in the Park. Rather than producing an institutional or public product, the experience with Alfons was instead a series of investments in people. Unanswered questions. Situations in which participants are trusted with new possibilities.

A linear participatory project such as tenantspin is fuelled by investments.


Why we took a walk in the park

tenantspin is a project of experiences and investments, experiments and commissions, live webcasts and documentaries, elderly social housing tenants and artists, parks and arts centres, institutions and new groupings.

It is also one high-profile element within FACT’s Collaboration Programme and has for over three years been dealing with how best to represent itself to a wider public.

FACT – and the FACT Centre – have also been learning to accommodate valuable non-gallery based activity such as tenantspin.

A brief history of tenantspin


1993, Liverpool. The city’s original tower blocks are deteriorating. On the whole they are badly managed with insufficient resources for the isolated communities. The Government establishes the Liverpool Housing Action Trust (HAT) to oversee a regeneration programme. Sixty-seven of the city’s towers vote to enter into the 12-year scheme.

 1993, Copenhagen. Rasmus Nielsen, Bjørnstjerne Christiansen and Jakob Fenger form the artists group Superflex.

1999, Copenhagen. Superflex collaborate with ex-Real programmer Sean Treadway on a “Superchannel” webcasting event in “Gallery 1%”. A “Superchannel” is a branded webcasting system with chatroom function. The majority of the Superflex output is preceded with the phrase Super- and identified by the use of the colour orange.

1999, Liverpool. FACT establishes The Collaboration Programme (CP) as a means of connecting artists with real social situations and groupings of people towards the production of new works using film, video and emerging media. Maria Brewster is appointed Curator of Collaboration.

Early 2000, Liverpool. HAT Community Development Manager Paul Kelly chats with Maria Brewster about the need for new and innovative participation tools for tenants. She sees a possible role for Superchannel.

Mid-to-late 2000, North Liverpool/Copenhagen. FACT commission Superflex to pilot the first UK Superchannel in the city’s oldest tower block, Coronation Court (built 1956). The new channel webcasts infrequently but creates a lot of interest. It is based in the 10-storey high block and shares a room with a hairdressing salon. FACT assist with technical training and content development. Elderly tenants are introduced to webcasting. One tenant in particular, Olga Bayley, sees the possibilities.

2001 Liverpool. The High Rise Tenants Group (tenant representative body formed in 1991) agree to adopt the project, rename it tenantspin, and roll it out to all the sixty-seven city-wide tower blocks that voted to go with the HAT. The blocks have 5,227 properties and around 70% of the tenants are pensioners. First moving up in the air as young married couples in the 1960’s the community has grown old and isolated in tandem with their architecture.

2001-2 Liverpool/New York/London/Wiesbaden/Copenhagen/Malmö. Artist Alan Dunn is appointed as full-time tenantspin Programme Manager. Based in the Cunard Building on Liverpool’s waterfront alongside the HAT offices, tenantspin produces around 180 live one-hour webcasts developed with and for the tenants. The Radio 3 tenantspin commission SuperBlock is transmitted nationally. tenantspin travels to New York to participate in “Open_Source_Art_Hack” at New Museum of Contemporary Art and to Wiesbaden as part of the “40 Years Of Fluxus” exhibition. The Guardian and BBC World cover the project. Tenants mix socially with Michael Craig-Martin, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Réné Block.

Webcast topics include smart homes, sport, anti-social behaviour, fire safety and money. Amongst others, Bill Drummond, Margi Clarke and Will Self guest on tenantspin. Two audio CDs are produced by tenants and “The Chat Files” published to document the online dialogue during live webcasts. Commissioned artists include Graham Parker and Luchezar Boyadjiev and the critical seminar England’s Streaming is organised. tenantspin delivers training and inspiration to elderly community groups in Denmark and Sweden.

2003-4 Wood Street, central Liverpool. tenantspin relocates its studios to the new FACT Centre. The high-profile “E-Democracy Seminar” series of webcasts begin, exploring the grass-roots realities of the new technologies. Webcasts take place in front of live studio audiences. Guests include Lord John Birt and Lord David Puttnam. Shows are developed with the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, Liverpool City Council and anti-mobile phone mast campaigners.

Commissioned artists include Otto Berchem, Danny Hunt (Ladytron), Alfons Schilling, Adele Myers and writer Johanne McAndrew (Nice Guy Eddie). Webcast topics include CCTV, pensions, Kilroy, healthy water, The White Stripes, the paranormal, Buckingham Palace vs Buckingham House (a tower block in Sefton Park), licensing laws, Comic Relief, computer games for the over-50s, Restorative Justice, digital design, The Grand National, care in the home, credit unions, paperless business, crime and communism.

Compositions in orange

In total, around 200 tenants have been involved since 2000 with an average core working group of around 20-25. Webcasts have ranged from twice-weekly to one every 6-8 weeks. Online audiences have varied dramatically and proved very difficult to maintain. tenantspin is neither nostalgic nor a reminiscence project. The website receives an average of 30,000 visits per month.

Within FACT’s webcasting team we use the metaphor of camera direction. In the hands of a new group, the camera is turned back on the participants themselves. Look - here we are on the world wide web. Here’s what we believe in, what we like, what we do and here is our identity. That becomes relatively easy to ‘showcase’ to other people – it is a straight use of new technology to communicate existence and place to others. It can be presented as a conceptual postcard. Images + brief message. Able to be viewed passively. Webcasting is the postage stamp.

Without fail that novelty soon wears off and the time comes to turn the camera around and point it at the world. Then: here is what we think of this or that, here is what we think programmes should be made about, here is us talking with others rather than to them and here is someone with a completely different set of experiences from us. This turning of the camera transforms the production. The project is more of a facilitation of engagement, a provision of new platforms or in the phraseology of Superflex “a tool that you can use to develop social relations in your community”.n2 Concentration is focused on the dialogue and experiencing webcasting in this manner requires either eavesdropping or participation.

It is this second stage that institutions must now deal with.


Mind the steps (tangled web of institutional engagement 1)

The FACT Centre has no dedicated workshop, education nor reading room. It has only ‘public’ spaces, albeit with doors, in which community groupings such as the tenantspin participants can operate.

tenantspin uses The Box studio on the ground floor to webcast and train but it is equally important to see KH or MH advancing their editing skills in the Media Lab upstairs, or ST and MT in the kitchen. Or JC with her old friend in the café. And DA, JN, JJ and TM in the cinema. Or DL and JM singing and playing spoons in the bar on Opening Night.

In Engage 09 the late Terry Bennett (curator, Tullie House, Carlisle) spoke of performative education. For Terry the only true means of engaging people, or representing engagement, within an art institution was by allowing them to do things within that setting. There is no better advocate of engagement than engagement itself.

In September 2003 tenantspin was invited by Rirkrit Tiravanija to present the project within one of his Demo Stations. On this occasion, at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, we noticed the very clever and direct use of both first-hand engagement – our own presence delivering webcasts - and second-hand engagement such as the real putting green used the previous day by a golf instructor. By second-hand we meant the existence of tangible props and evidence that some exchange or participation had taken place.

Within tenantspin, genuine engagement is occurring throughout the institutional building. It is ‘forced’ into public spaces through the deliberate lack of sectioned areas yet at the same time it also becomes invisible because all evidence is removed. Each webcast is produced from a mobile production unit that is stored behind closed doors inbetween shows. Webcasts occur in The Box which has to be cleared for the arrival of either a cinema crowd - it doubles as a cinema - or another function.

Evidence is clinically removed. The question this raises is autonomy – can engaged practice be represented and evoked in such a manner within an institution that it can inspire and inform visitors even in the absence of active engagement? “You can’t, perhaps shouldn’t, fake encounters between real people in the name of art”. n3 But is Demo Stations proof that an institution such as Ikon Gallery is engaging with people or is it simply proof that an artist such as Rirkrit is? And was the presence of tenantspin additional proof that FACT is shoulder to shoulder with Ikon in engaging people? 

Or is it the absence of tenantspin the next day - no evidence was left - that is proof of a longer more sustained relationship with participants developed by FACT? That is, are we so confident in what we are doing that we feel no need to leave it out for the world to see?

The answer is no, not in that sense, but we as a team are currently looking at these very issues. It is from a complex tangled web that genuine structural and creative policies remain to be written.


Hi-storeys in the making  (tangled web of institutional engagement 2)

From another perspective, what is engagement with an institution? Is it a series of cultural and social withdrawals made by participants? Is it a visit to a space that is the polar opposite of their everyday? Or is it a visit to what is mentally and emotionally familiar? Are they – and here I mean tenantspin – really reaching the big wide world though FACT as a portal? Is it about being around such new potentials and huge possibilities? If so, what are those possibilities and what are the odds of reaching them? Is it a lottery or toss of a coin?

The FACT Collaboration Programme is a Commissioning Department rather than an interpretive education department. As such, living artists are central and investments in people are crucial. Investments in people over a long period of time displays commitment. It creates a more genuine and fertile environment into which artists are welcomed. The continuity is provided by the local participants rather than artists or exhibitions in the FACT galleries that change every six or eight weeks. It is a colossal but deliberate artistic freedom that CP can work with the same Superchannel commission and participants over almost four years.


Gotta have faith


Are the participants really reaching the big wide world though us? Is it about being around such potentials or huge possibilities?

Technically, webcasting is a very hit and miss science at present in the UK. It benefits from broadband but no company we have talked to will provide high speed connections within tower blocks that they see as populated by a generation who do not use the Internet at home. Or it requires a wireless connection but none of the tower blocks are geographically close to any kind of business with a server. Ideally people without broadband or computers could watch from their local libraries but the firewall security systems there deem this virtually impossible.

During live tenantspin webcasts, the only sure-fire way of us knowing who is watching is by referring to the list of names of those who have entered the chatroom. The Superchannel system is designed so that it is possible to watch anonymously and silently and we do know of people for whom this is the preferred manner.

We have noticed over three years of webcasting that, during live shows, the possibility that the whole world is watching is an extremely powerful factor. Even with no names appearing in the chatroom, the chance that a remote viewer – anywhere in the world – is hanging on every word is a strong driving force.

As, in the words of the City Council website, Liverpool shifts “from a seaport to an e-port”, this possibility of exchange becomes as high a value as real exchange. The potential to speak to the whole world remains powerful as a concept rather than a reality. Participants believe that this new tool is a round-the-clock direct link to the world. We have seen it on peoples’ faces. It is a kind of faith.

How do we represent such a faith in a manner that inspires and attracts others? In 2002 tenantspin were invited to Sweden to meet community groups from the Fosie area of Malmö. On the first evening, the Director of Augustenborgsgarden Bertill Nilsson mentioned to us that the community centre we were sitting in was called The House Of Possibilities. We immediately knew what that meant.

I believe that it is all connected. Rirkrit has props, Fosie has the name. The church presents painted altarpieces, frames from the story. Humans and books preserve the narrative. Jochen Gerz installed a street sign that said Invisible Monument Square. We are constantly looking around for examples of how institutions celebrate, accommodate and disseminate participation, engagement and possibilities.


How do we know about Jochen Gerz’ invisible monuments?

The FACT Centre has by its front door a suite of seven portraits produced by Amrit and Rabindra K D Kaur Singh. They represent seven individuals who have in some way helped to shape FACT, engage with it and steer it.

One of these individuals is Olga Bayley who was the elderly tenant in Coronation Court and very early supporter of the Superchannel project. Olga took Superflex under her wings and without her there would have been no tenantspin project. She enabled them to stay at Coronation Court during the early visits and also introduced them to the joys of beans on toast. She went on record as hoping that the Superchannel could be used by the residents to co-ordinate a campaign to ensure that they got the redevelopment they wanted. In many ways she set the tone, scope and patina of the project that we continue today. She clearly saw the huge political potential for tenantspin and saw it as a new activity in which to participate, socialise and laugh. Olga also saw but chose to ignore many of the Superchannel’s major flaws and limitations.

Olga passed away last August and the portrait is an important permanent reminder, a link in the chain of engagement.

These portraits are a good starting point when introducing an individual or visiting group to the work of FACT. They are of the scale of altar panels and symbolically laden. A small model of Coronation Court, a dated computer and the bird of communication float around Olga. The small text panel next to the seven portraits opens the door slightly but does not – as I am doing now – relay the full story.

Rather than the proposed redevelopment, Coronation Court ended up being demolished. The Superchannel as a communication tool was never going to be powerful enough to reverse or challenge a budgetary decision. Yet in its weaknesses we found other possibilities.


What’s it called?

Jochen Gerz worked with students at night to lift paving stones and engraved them with the names of Jewish cemeteries that existed in Germany at the start of the Third Reich before replacing the stones face down. All that remains is nothing except the street sign Invisible Monument Square. In absence, titling is crucial (Cage’s 4’33, Gerz’ 2146 Stones Monument against Racism, Saarbrucken), alongside memories, interpretations and genuine jargon-free reflections on what occurred.

Can an institution today accept such an upturned paving stone? Can participatory art become independent and autonomous without losing its integrity? And who are we trying to convince that we are engaging with people? Ourselves? Funders? Peers? Or those who we are not yet engaging with? If it is the last of these then we face a mighty and exciting challenge. How best to capture the spirit of the afternoon in the park with Alfons, the story of Olga, Gerz’ stones or the presence of Chris Watson?


Me convincing you: Chris Watson

The Collaboration Programme recently invited Chris Watson to work with a group of young people on a new audio commission. Chris is known to some of us as ex-Cabaret Voltaire and to others as David Attenburgh’s top soundman or Touch Records’ recording artist (Weather Report 2003).

Chris was in the FACT Centre recently with the young people – collating sound, editing, reformatting, transferring, listening back and analysing. Over the two weeks he managed to create an extremely positive buzz amongst CP staff around how he was working. Leaving aside the end results of the commission, his processes, investments and possibilities turned heads.

We noted his ease with participants, the reality and illusion of parallel learning that he created, his timekeeping and punctuality, patience and lateral thinking, troubleshooting ability and tolerance with cross platform operations, persuasive communication skills, confidence, methodical working process, passion, deep belief in what he was doing and in what we were doing, his ability to criticise for the benefit of the bigger cause, his need for the informal social time and, most striking, his willingness to make personal sacrifices for the project.


Normal perspective resumed

Since 2000 the Superchannel project has asked an enormous number of questions of FACT.

1 Why are we engaging people?

2 And why are people engaging with us?

3 How important is it to leave props or evidence? Or should we always clean up after ourselves?

4 How do you share the stories that go with/out the products?

5 How do you create a house of possibilities?
6 How do you represent faith?

Until these questions come directly from participants then we have a degree of space in which to bounce them around. The answer to the first two questions should unlock the next four. If we are all clear why we are all doing this then there is obviously some form of dialogue going on. And that dialogue can start to incorporate questions 2-6.

Questions 3-6, the sharing of participatory art practice, should be an artwork or commission in itself. Otherwise it is a marketing exercise.

This essay has been commissioned to reflect upon some of the ways in which a project such as tenantspin has impacted upon an institution such as FACT. Commissioned writing is one of the better answers to the questions of how to represent engagement.


An integrated public transformation system

Art institutions have a responsibility and obligation to engage with people and to reflect, accommodate or evoke that engagement. Flexibility is required. In the mid-1980s Glasgow School of Art responded to the increased interest in non-gallery practice by enabling David Harding to initiate the Environmental Art course that took young students into new areas of presentation and distribution.

Where tenantspin is playing a powerful role as part of FACT’s Collaboration Programme is in the manner in which it is influencing other public institutions in terms of their flexibility. The Liverpool HAT is looking to create a piece of permanent public art linked to its redevelopment of the Sefton Park tower blocks.

1993-9 pre-tenantspin. The HAT exists with a very small-scale arts programme (eg localised photography projects). Other UK HATs such as Stonebridge and Castle Vale push on with FM Community Radio Stations.

1999-2003 during tenantspin. The HAT are now confronted by tenants who have reversed perspectives in Sefton Park, have webcast from the FACT Centre and removed all evidence before retiring to the café or who have recently travelled to Copenhagen to debate webcasting with Superflex. 

The possibilities have multiplied. At the time of writing, the HAT are swaying towards a proposal from Olaf Nicolai. The proposed artwork is a new bus route from Liverpool city centre out to, and then around, Sefton Park.


This is the end

The Liverpool HAT as an institution has known that its physical end comes on 30 March 2005. It is attempting to make a dramatic statement of engagement. In having its ‘institutionalism’ removed, it has been forced to lay the foundation stones for longer-term possibilities out there in the world. If the new bus route is realised, then tales of tenantspin and institutions’ non-gallery engagement with people can linger on in a double-decker. Engagement will be autonomous and self-evident.

The bus becomes a nice metaphor for new brave manners in which institutions are encompassing participatory art.

Yet crucially that bus will also be seen simply as a bus and approached as such. We can foresee the possibility that someone stands at a bus stop in Liverpool city-centre and sticks their hands out to halt this bus and are in a way summoning (for their own needs) an institutions’ engagement without realising it. For they want to travel to Sefton Park where some tenants once reversed perspective. And perhaps they know this because one of the tenants mentioned it to someone else. Or they read about it here.

We must engage people because we believe in doing so, that they have something to offer the art world and because we trust them enough to invest in them. We trust them with sets of new ideas. People are engaging with institutions because new ideas are of extremely high value and they are engaging because new ideas can be experienced individually, in groups of three in the Park or in packs of bus passengers. Many people who cross the institutional threshold to participate in tenantspin do so as part of a self-educational push or because it is a reason to leave their flat. Others believe that real political change can be made and others do so because they are 84 and nothing else as genuine is being offered to them.




The Foundation for Art & Creative Technology (founded 1998) is dedicated to inspiring and promoting creativity through film, video & new and emerging media forms.


Superflex (2000), ‘What Superchannel can provide’ in Supermanual – the incomplete guide to the Superchannel, FACT, p4


Wilsher, M (2004) ‘Rirkrit Tiravanija, Demo Station No 4, Ikon Gallery’ from Art Monthly, Feb 2004, p24



Alan Dunn is an artist and Superchannel Programme Manager for FACT in Liverpool. He has been involved in participatory practice since joining the committee of Easterhouse Arts Project in Glasgow in 1987 and studied murals within the Environmental Art Department at Glasgow School of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. He has organised a series of major billboard projects including Bellgrove (1990-1), Liverpool (1999) and Honour (Rio de Janeiro, Bergen, Liverpool 2001-4) and is founder of the cantaudio CD label.

His article Who Needs A Spin Doctor? in engage 09 documented a series of Spin Painting projects with some young people in Carlisle. The text hinted that the spin technique was a good metaphor for engaging people; the apparent lack of expertise required yet the high skill levels involved, the fun, deep concentration, instant satisfaction, context, physics, colour theory and numerous split second creative decisions.