On artist residencies in workplaces

 Citizen Water Map Lab, Julian Priest, Common Ground Public Art Festival 2017. Image: Dionne Ward.

Citizen Water Map Lab, Julian Priest, Common Ground Public Art Festival 2017. Image: Dionne Ward.

Tracking a satellite in a tragic death spiral and getting to delete your personal information, or getting workers to not have to feel like they have to pretend they know what they're doing all the time - art and business and art and science: in this interview from the  Urban Dreams Monthly lunches at Toi Poneke Wellington in March we hear from artist Julian Priest and theatremaker Leo-Gene Peters (from company A Slightly Isolated Dog) about two very different fledgling Wellington residencies that embed artists in the workplace. 

Julian Priest at Thomas King Observatory, Wellington Botanic Gardens: “This residency came out of a conversation I had with Tamsin Falconer at the Carter Observatory about something we might do together. We had about 20 or 30 good ideas in this conversation and at one point I think I said: “Is there something in that little building at the top of the Botanic Gardens?” And it turned out it was being used as a storage area. So we went through a quite informal process and later realised it had the makings of a residency space.

“I was there informally for a couple of months late last year testing antennae, and then we started formalising the process and getting the building into a place where it could be used as a public space. Now I am artist in residence at the Thomas King Observatory. It’s been a very ‘Letting Space’ way of working. This is a quite small shed-like 1912 observatory with a beautiful wooden dome looking out over the city - it’s a fantastic place. What I’ve brought to it is an existing project, partly now being funded by the Wellington City Council Public Art Panel, that has been running for a number of years.

"It is an artwork called The Weight of Information. Basically, it’s a very small satellite which is put into orbit. I’m using a tiny two-centimetre satellite as material for a participatory artwork. The project was first launched in 2014 when I was living in Whanganui and we did about 20 different international events around this, the satellite launch, some involving schools, some in galleries. The satellite did get into space but unfortunately it malfunctioned and so we will launch again later this year.

“The observatory is the perfect place for this project because the satellite itself is in space – you can’t see it, it’s spinning around the Earth – but what you can do is track it. I am building a robot radio antennae in the dome and staging a series of participatory events called Meet to Delete. The idea is that the satellite is like a tragic hero in the classical sense who is unfortunately pulled back down to earth in a tragic death spiral by gravity, so he is trying to stay in space, trying to ascend by forgetting things. He collects information through sensors, getting in all the information he can and immediately erases it. He hopes by deleting all this information that he’s going to ascend into the heavens, in some kind of anti-rational transcendence. On Earth I’m inviting people to the observatory to shred their documents to make the world a little lighter.

“We ran these events before and people turned up with whatever personal information they wanted to let go of. It was kind of cathartic for people. They brought quite personal documents, including bank statements with someone’s first ever mortgage payments and someone else burnt four boxes of documents of the legal proceedings of their divorce. All going well sometime after July this rocket will again launch and the satellite will go into space and flawlessly work!

“It may sound silly but there is a serious edge to it. It’s not a science residency but its a project that aims to do speculative physics with social commentary and art involving the public.”

Leo Gene Peters (A Slightly Isolated Dog) at Creative HQ: “We became artists in residence at Creative HQ mid last year, when Stefan the CE there had a conversation with Brian Steele from Giddy Up about wanting an artist in residence. Since its been a pretty loose, organic process. We said that we really didn’t know what we would do and he said “Sounds good, let’s figure it out”. I’ve been in and out of the city so I’ve come back in and out and we’ve done little bits and pieces of work over that time facilitating revisioning they’ve been doing.

“It’s been a long term vision for us and our producer Angela Green - who is just finishing her MBA after years working in the theatre as an actor and in producing and arts management - to explore how arts and business can talk to one another. We need to have a meaningful crossover and relationship between art and business, because there’s not. So we’ve been dreaming about how we do that. The residency at Creative HQ is a perfect fit. It’s nice to get to know people and slowly connect, and now we’ve come back we are running a project with them where we are creating a professional development programme which is also a show, over eight weeks with their staff and different clients - different accelerator and incubator programmes.

“We kind of know what the form of it is going to be, we’re getting closer, but its a pilot programme for us and for them. We’ve had lots of conversations and they are very supportive and keen to see it as one aspect in the future of how they want their company to go – using creative resources, artists and different modes of working to grow and progress their own models. That’s it in a nutshell.

“We’re going to do a show in progress in May – whew! – in the little studio at BATS. The work is very conversational, so the entire notion of the work is that we come together and we have a show but we use the form of conversation as a storytelling tool as well as a way of meeting, evolving it as we go. So for the first half hour with you it may feel like we’re just having a conversation and then we find ways of incorporating material into existing structures. That’s roughly the form we are exploring as we do this residency.”

What might these residencies evolve into? Thinking ahead, thinking big.

Leo Gene Peters: “I’d like to be making with Creative HQ in partnership for the rest of our career. That’s what I’d like - working in partnership as much as is useful for us and them, and so we can also roll out programmes on our own. I’ve done a lot of work with communities over the last 20 years, lots of youth focused stuff, with refugees and we worked in residence with Hospice for a while, which was beautiful, mindblowing. To me that work is about how we use what we do to give us different kind of places where we can reflect, celebrate together and meaningfully connect. Where we can sit together, sit with our loneliness and not be ashamed of it – about how we are all lost. That is so useful for me and that we can do that with a pretty cool, progressive group. Its lovely to just feel them shift a little bit, to feel the plates shift in the way people listen to each other.”

Julian Priest:  “It’s probably the most productive space I’ve been in in Wellington. I think it’s something to do with it being a beautiful place, with amazing support. We haven’t got a financial arrangement yet but the support of the crew up there is fantastic, a very generous organisation. In terms of the future, it’s very unusual for me to be in residency because I never go to them these days. I used to go on short ones, but with a family it’s harder to find the time. There are some fantastic overseas art/science residences, like with the Hadron Collider, at the South Pole, with the ESA. So a residency that I can do in the city is a real treat.

“As far as the observatory goes, while I would love to stay there forever my vision for it is more as a site for other people to be resident. This is the crash test dummy phase for whether the Thomas King could become a permanent art/science residency space. I don’t think there’s another permanent one in New Zealand (there are a couple of short term art science residencies of which SCANZ is the best known). It’s a really good site for it because there’s the Botanic Garden for the life/ science side, the Carter observatory with the physical sciences and astronomy and its public science communication agenda, then there’s the Metservice just down the road, and it’s almost on the Victoria University Kelburn campus.”

It’s the ability to model vulnerability with strength. Of modelling that process of risking and it falling down and then asking why did it fall down.

On the tension between being given a space you’re able to do what you wish with, as a form of social generosity and working with an organisation with a need for outputs, structure and giving back value.

Leo-Gene Peters: “We’ve been dreaming and thinking about this kind of residency for... well I mean we were resident at Downstage Theatre before it fell over. And while we there we were exploring how we could work with people there. So we’ve always been about the outcome. Like, how do you frame it so that its outcome focussed? How can you speak in a language that people in the corporate world know what you’re on about? We’re still working out how we do it. How we can be practical and specific and responsive enough.

“These guys (Creative HQ) get it because they’re agile, but it’s still them saying “can you send us your blurb, its due on Thursday?” The thing is we can, but its just trying to articulate it. Ultimately I want to say “just come” - that we’ll take them through our process, but I’m not sure if anyone will turn up. If they don’t know what they’re doing they’re apprehensive. And of course if you’re trying to sell a programme to someone, they want to know an outcome.  It’s about how you respond to the specific needs of a specific group.”

On the odd situation of being in an office and going up to people going ‘Hi, I’m your artist in residence”

Leo-Gene Peters: “Well in this instance they’re used to this kind of stuff, they really like it. Some of them come up and introduce themselves to us. But it is a question of how you interrupt their day. Like they’re in the middle of that email they have to send because their deadlines up and I come up. So it’s constantly feeling out how we do more of that - because its useful to break the day. Not to mess with people, but to to take a moment before we move onto the next thing. Its working out how you propose it.

Julian Priest: “In terms of immediate value we’ve been trying to get the building fit for purpose. We’ve been looking at how to renovate so it can be activated again, because it hasn’t been used for quite a few years.”

“Using an organisation as material. I’m trying to imagine what that might look like in some some other organisations, like a government department where you’re messing with the bureaucracy slightly!

“My works often have this participatory structure but while there’s no script they are authored. For instance this one we did up in the Hutt in the water festival Common Ground, we built a public access water testing laboratory. People would bring water samples in, and we’d test them together and build a map of local water quality. So I was acting like a scientist and I got everyone to put lab coats on and be scientists and do some science, do some micro-biology. But I don’t think I’ve ever done that within an existing organisation. At the observatory it’s been quite informal and is evolving, but it’s more physically like trying to start a new business or gallery space together. We’ve just been cleared for public use and we’re now in the process of starting to invite people in.”

Leo Gene Peters: “At Creative HQ they’re interested in the creative problem solving. In being able to revision the thing or shift process drastically, on a dime. To risk something. And then fail, and be okay with failing, and then go ‘Cool, how do we evolve’. That’s the thing I think they like about us. They want to work differently.

“I pitched it once to them as a moment where we’re vulnerable together. It’s like the story of me walking into the first session I ever ran with Creative HQ going to myself ‘they’re all going to figure out I’m a fraud!’ And I’m like “Outcomes” and “KPIs” to them, and then I just stopped and went to myself ‘you’re not doing that’. So we started playing games and they were reticent at first and then really got into it. It’s that moment of being able to go “I don’t know what I’m doing. Has anyone else been in a moment where they don’t know what they’re doing?” And people, say, yeah, all the time. We pretend all the time.

“So, they’re really excited by that I think – the ability to not have to pretend that you know what you’re doing and figure out how you do it together. It’s the ability to model vulnerability with strength. Of modelling that process of risking and it falling down and then asking why did it fall down.”