A debrief blog conversation between Letting Space's Mark and Sophie and artist Julian Priest.
Julian Priest’s installation for Splore was called Free of Charge.
Mark and Sophie from Letting Space, Julian Priest and fellow artist Trudy Lane were on hand for around 12 hours during Splore to process and engage with the public (the Splore community) one by one. Julian had created what looked like an airport security screening system, installed, appositely, next to the marvelous beach and an alternately muddy and sandy path on the way to a chill out area (the marvelous Portavilion from Cut Collective and Emma Underhill (Up Projects) and the ‘Hooha Hut’ (a DJ booth and drinks area).
People were asked to remove their shoes and any electrical devices, put them in trays and have them rolled through on a conveyor. Stepping onto a metal archway they were able to see their electrostatic charge reading and then, by way of depressing a black button on the plate with their right toe, discharge that electricity to a copper earthing rod. They became grounded.
Sophie: So for me, one of the biggest impressions I got from working at Splore on Free of Charge was the sense that people were happy to queue.
As a New Zealander and not a Brit, I have always prided myself on some degree of non-compliance with, or disruption of, the inevitable queues that form in Other People's Countries'. You two, Julian and Mark, both being born in the UK, may feel more affectionately about queues.
I mean, I know the punters at Splore had very little time pressure, could see that we were making some kind of fun/art, were still able to stand in the sun and talk to their friends and get through the line relatively quickly (making the queue more attractive), but I still find it odd that so many of them were happy to queue without understanding what we were doing. Most of them seemed to ask what it was all about only when they approached the machine and didn't seem to mind that they didn't understand. What if the machine was actually reading the status of their bank balances via the rfid wrist tags? What if, like the Skinny campaign onsite, we were a flimsy front for a greedy corporate?
OK, so there were plenty who didn't queue too, who walked on past or came in behind us to watch what was being measured over our shoulders, but they were in the minority.
Julian: There was certainly an air of compliance with the security apparatus there, but maybe it's gone so far these days that screening is becoming associated with pleasure - after all any international holiday experience starts with a security screening. Also I think people are attracted to queues - queues signify a group of people with about to be fulfilled needs. Then there was the 'free of charge' message scrolling across the screen which must have got peoples consumer instincts going as well.
I enjoyed the role of security officer and the official language that we adopted as the piece unfolded - 'step up to the plate please ma'am', 'please depress the black button with your right big toe.." . It was amazing to be on the receiving end of people's trust as a result of these formalities. The format allowed for really very open conversations to quickly develop with each participant. I loved the way people's expectation of your role pushed back on you and made you adopt security officer mannerisms. And then at that point when people understood that the screening was basically some kind of wellness procedure you suddenly got flipped from being an authority figure of the security apparatus to being some kind of health practitioner - and you'd be into conversations about the health benefits or not of being grounded etc, - you suddenly jumped from one side of state service provision to the other - hawks to doves.
Mark: I don’t think it’s surprising that people were so willing to queue. Its modus operandi at these things on arrival and to buy food and drinks surely? Though Splore I think is spatially generally so much freer and easier in terms of numbers and the glorious site. I agree Soph though otherwise - I was struck by the number of young people (disturbingly young girls in my experience there) who thought that they HAD to pass through the machine to access the next part of the site.
They seemed to be almost magnetically drawn to it… Sure, this is arguably part of the work – people asking as they encounter it “will there be repercussions if I’m NOT processed” – but it was as you say the willingness. An art installation people were troubled by their relationship too immediately – I loved that.
The air of big brother compliance was heightened nicely by the provision of those cashless wristbands, which allowed the vendors and not the customers to read what their cash balance was. I often joked with the punters that the machine would delete any cash on their bands - given their lack of control this was a joke that was maybe a little to close to the bone.
My immediate impression after leaving is also around people, but as to what a festival like Splore offers the visual arts. So often there’s such a vacuum of immediate response and conversation about artwork that is meant to be socially orientated that you put up in a gallery, or even in our urban projects. At Splore having to individually interact with 1000 people one by one as we did over some 11 hours of operation - talk to them, engage with them, having created a mechanism that allows you to process that number - was a very empowering and interesting experience as an arts producer. Beyond those ‘processed’ you also couldn’t stand anywhere near the work, even when not on, without someone within a few seconds approaching you and asking you WTF it was and whether it was good for you. They were relaxed, high, ‘free’, and feeling confident.
Then there were the 1000s more who just walked past and mused on its relationship to them – it really stuck out nicely against the beach and colourful flags as a piece of grey bureaucratic machinery, engaging but worrisome.
As you say the far scarier face of control was Skinny’s free frisbees, lilos and water toys – but given their huge visual impact I wouldn’t call them ‘flimsy’, they were pretty irresistible, clever candy in this context. Devastatingly effective - but useful at least.
Julian: Yes the 'Free' telco sponsored gifts were a good contrast - a reminder of the 'Free' we are normally sold. I liked the feeling that people would leave 'Free of Charge' with - I remember quite a few exclaiming 'Yes! I'm free of charge!' - they were free to go too. I hope we gave them something by re-balancing their electrostatics.
Sophie: By flimsy, I am meaning that Julian only had to ask the Skinny girl who was in charge of the campaign and she admitted it was Telecom who was giving away a host of plastic beach gear and tats tagged 'skinny' under this new brand. So you scratch the surface of these 'post-advertising' campaigns and find that one of NZ's largest companies is cleverly rebranding to a generation who doesn't do broadcast media. What I liked most about Free of Charge was that for the Splorers, it was odd yet candid: there were no hidden lures. We were offering an experience, Free of Charge.
A full gallery of images of Free of Charge and a short video interview with Julian with film of the work in operation can be found here.