In conversation: Alan Dunn / Phaedra Hardstaff / Steve Hardstaff / The Singh Twins / Elizabeth Challinor

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FOUR WORDS: WIRRAL is a continuation of Alan Dunn’s series that began on the Liverpool Media Wall working with Metal in 2016. This new iteration celebrates some hidden narratives around Spital, New Ferry and Port Sunlight near where Dunn lives on Wirral. He invited artists Malik Al Nasir, Singh Twins, Steve & Phaedra Hardstaff and Joseph Cotgrave to research the areas, chat with dog walkers and community activists and edit tales of Batman, A Clockwork Orange, teabags and the Beach Boys down to FOUR WORDS. Funded by Arts Council England, FOUR WORDS: WIRRAL will be brought to life through a new free Augmented Reality phone app designed by Field that will encourage us all to look beyond the surfaces.

You can check out their ongoing IB21 work here –

https://independentsbiennial.com/artists/associates/four-words-wirral/

Contact details:

https://fourwordswirral.com

Alan Dunn: @alandunn67 (Instagram), @alandunn67 (Twitter), https://www.alandunn67.co.uk/, alandunn44@gmail.com 

Malik Al Nasir: @malikandtheogs (Instagram), @malikandtheogs (Twitter), ama95@cam.ac.uk 

Singh Twins: @thesinghtwins_art (Instagram), @thesinghtwins (Twitter), https://www.singhtwins.co.uk, twinstudio@hotmail.com

Joseph Cotgrave: @josephcgv_ (Instagram), @josephcgv (Twitter), josephcotgrave@outlook.com

Steve & Phaedra Hardstaff: @phaedra_ada (Instagram), stephenhardstaff78@gmail.com 

ALAN DUNN:

What is FOUR WORDS: WIRRAL? What kind of work is the project doing/making, and where did the inspiration for it come from? Have you ever worked on something like this before?

 I like to work on long projects over many years – tenantspin at FACT for example was 6 years and the RAY + JULIE sculpture on London Road is 25 years and counting – so FOUR WORDS: WIRRAL is part of a broader project that I started in Liverpool back in 2016 and one that will continue. Each iteration uses some form of digital media to present FOUR WORDS statements (never questions) from a range of people in response to very specific themes. So far, I’ve used the giant electronic billboard opposite Lime Street to think about the month of January and hired a 30-second advertising slot on Channel 4 for works about the future, both projects developed in collaboration with Metal who are a hugely supportive agency we have. Contributors to FOUR WORDS have ranged from Turner Prize winners to former Liverpool FC players, a gardener, a priest, teenagers, a machine, a retired sea captain, art students and ancillary university staff. They’re all gathered here: https://alandunn67.co.uk/fourwordsportfolio.html

 FOUR WORDS: WIRRAL is the latest version and it emerged very early during the first lockdown. I lecture in Art & Design at Leeds Beckett University for part of the week but with that switching to online, I had more time in my studio which is in my garden to think about new ways of working and I wrote the ACE application fairly soon as I knew what I wanted: a version of FOUR WORDS that didn’t involve large numbers of people gathering to stare at a big screen, involving only artists with whom I could safely meet up with, as opposed to emailing ideas across the globe, and I wanted the ‘local’ to be the theme to explore ‘hidden’ narratives at a time when this hidden terror was devastating the world.  

How did you get involved with Independents Biennial initially?

 I was lucky to be involved in the first independent TRACEY in 1999 during which we hired a stall at Stanley Dock Market to sell artworks. When I worked out my project timeline, I realised FOUR WORDS: WIRRAL would be going public round about April or May 2021 so I approached the Independents to see if we could partner up on it. The independent Biennials in Liverpool have at times been incredibly energetic and almost wilder and bolder than some of the ‘main’ Biennials so it’s always a useful moment to see what’s going on in the region. Since first contact, I’ve worked really closely with Patrick and Laura and it’s been great to have been introduced to other practitioners I may not have met, such as yourself and the other hosts. Shortly after moving to Liverpool we started to meet – mostly at Bluecoat – artists from all generations and approaches and I genuinely think the region is great at that sharing of knowledge and support.  

How did you choose the artists you’re working with for Four Words: Wirral? What was the selection process like? What drew you towards their work?

 As mentioned, locale was important but also that they are all mostly analogue and image-based artists whom I was asking to filter ideas down to four words only. I first shared an exhibition with the Singh Twins in Cologne in 1998 as part of the exchange and was lucky to meet Steve and Phaedra via the Bluecoat shortly after we arrived in Liverpool in the mid-1990s. Joseph was a student at Leeds Beckett and we had a few tutorials and kept in touch and I first met Malik when developing a major project around Gil Scott-Heron for Edge Hill University. I knew and trusted all of them but also knew I would be challenging them. I liked that each artist had a ‘backstory’ to their regular image/sound-based work and that I was kind of inviting them to bring that background to the foreground, perhaps to lay bare some of the structures behind their practice, like a series of x-rays that have become these little sculptures in your pocket.

Was the project always intended to be accessed digitally through phones? Was there ever plans for it to be a physical project? How come you decided to work in this way, & what’s the response been like?

 I work alongside Jonny Briggs from the Field design agency and we had chatted years ago about the possibilities of using AR to project onto blank billboards. I then noticed my kids and grandkids using the IKEA Place app that uses AR to envisage how furniture will look in your home before buying. And I have to say that, as a glasses wearer, tight VR helmets are always problematic for me so AR seemed to offer more possibilities based on the fact that most people already own the hardware. You can see how easily the idea for FOUR WORDS: WIRRAL then came together, fusing various wishes and possibilities, and I think I was also influenced at the time by having to support our Final Year students only months before their Degree Show – we all had to adopt a what-can-we-do-during-Covid attitude rather than bemoan what we couldn’t do.

 Once I raised the funds, I paid all the artists 80% up front, rather than the usual 50%, as we all suffered lost income. We met socially distanced at each place, and just walked and talked, before developing the ideas via email and phonecalls. I did the Port Sunlight tour and met with some community activists in New Ferry and every day I chat with other dog walkers in the Dibbinsdale about … stuff. And I think that’s been one of the good responses, that FOUR WORDS: WIRRAL feels like a people’s history of what on the surface can look like quite bland areas, and it includes some funny trivial moments like the Batman sticker battle on Gotham Road but also references to wider issues that were unfolding across the world as we worked on it. 

We also worked hard with the designers at Field to make it as user-friendly as possible, and to ‘soften’ some of the usual technical speak. If a particular model or year of phone struggles with AR, just try to find a family member or friend who can show you the project, that kind of thing. We also switched from a downloadable app to building the AR within the website to make it as easy to use as possible at any location, unlike for example the GPS-located Pokémon GO approach.

What’s it been like working with Independents Biennial so far as an associate? Have you had much support from the organisation?

 From working on the publication, website and launch schedule, everything has been crystal clear and nothing has been last-minute. There’s a sense that the team are excited by the projects and ideas and it would be great to see the Independents further increase its ambition in terms of commissioning and curating ambitious longer-running projects between the main events.

What made you want to run the project within the local community?

 Artists are often offered residencies or projects away from their own immediate community and it is actually quite rare to force yourself to find magic in the everyday and familiar. I realised that all the dog walkers – and I list them all with their dogs on the website – are a form of community that shares news, support, loss and laughter. We haven’t splattered the woods with posters for the project but are talking about it and spreading the word on it in a slow manner; the website is permanent so FOUR WORDS: WIRRAL can exist for a long time. The community around New Ferry exists with the memory of the 2017 explosion, which I heard from our house, as they try to bring together various building blocks for the next stage of their neighbourhood, and I was gladdened that the Port Sunlight tour now acknowledges the forced labour in the Belgian Congo connected with the company. We’ve tried to take all these complex situations and reduce them down to pocket-sized chunks. In this way, the FOUR WORDS project is as guilty as everyone else of adding even more stuff to the world (words, ideas, opinions, stored digital files) but I think we’re trying to add as little as possible of the more, if that makes sense?

Does this project differ from the kind of work you usually do?

 When I was an art student in Glasgow in 1990, I raised funds from the Scottish Arts Council to buy my own billboard which I located at an east end railway station I passed through every day and that I ‘curated’ for a year, presenting hand-painted artworks from students, writers, an aromatherapist and established artists. In many ways, I’ve been repeating and refining that project ever since. I always need to find new people to help explore new ways of presenting artworks in public settings and I learned a lot about animation for the Liverpool Media Wall and loads about AR for this project – not about coding, but about what works well in a weird screen-based public that is so very private.

 Having studied public and community art at Glasgow and Chicago, notions of site-specific and scale were important but suddenly AR on your phone allows the audience to dictate the positioning, size and context of an artwork. I think that’s a new area to explore, although a project such as FOUR WORDS: WIRRAL doesn’t have by nature that stop-you-in-your-tracks moment as the work is being held in someone’s hand. To see it, we have to stand shoulder to shoulder with someone, perhaps even 2m apart, and glance at a screen, the mediator between us and the real world.

THE SINGH TWINS

How did you get involved with Four Words: Wirral? 

By invitation from Alan.

What area of The Wirral did you research, and how did it actually influence and inspire your response? How does the work relate to the location? 

We focused on Port Sunlight Village and Brotherton Park/Dibbinsdale Nature Reserve. Port Sunlight is a place we’ve visited many times over the years and therefore know well. So at a time during the covid pandemic when we were shielding family members we decided to limit ourselves to online research for this particular location. We uncovered a number of 20th century adverts for Pears soap (a key product of Port Sunlight’s Leverhulme manufacturing industry) which betrayed a racist colonial mindset: one which effectively associated cleanliness with western civilization and promoted notions of white superiority. Our four word response (‘Pears For The Complexion’) picked up on a key strap line in some of these adverts. Our hope is that curiosity about the origin of these words will encourage people to google them in for themselves – leading them not only to discover a darker side of Port Sunlight’s history and think about subliminal messages in consumer culture but also to what extent the link between colour and racial hierarchy still exists today. For Dibbinsdale our research was carried out on location with Alan. It was our first time there and different features of the physical landscape evoked several responses. An open expanse of green grass dominated by a single oak tree evoked images in our mind of the quintessential English countryside often featured in films of 18th and 19th century literature. This inspired the words ‘Straight From Jane Austen’. The oak tree itself, firmly rooted in the middle of the field also reminded us of old depictions of treasure maps (where a large tree marks the spot). This inspired the words ‘Centre Of The Universe’. Our final four words ‘Stairway To A Heaven’ were inspired by the discovery of a flight of steps next to a tall tree which seemed to have a broken branch spiralling around its trunk. This reminded us of the visual and literary analogy (of the entwined trees) used in Indian culture for the human soul clinging on to the Divine Being. 

 Do you think the local community was an integral aspect to how you’ve created this work?  

Our interaction with the local communities was unfortunately very limited due to covid. But we did try to think about how different communities might relate to the spaces we explored. With Port Sunlight for example (which is a ‘pretty’ tourist attraction generally regarded as a showcase village associated with Lord Leverhulme as model employer and philanthropist) we decided to look behind this rosy picture and encourage people using the four words app to think about the politics of built environments like Port Sunlight which (being the product of an Imperial era and experience) have darker colonial connections that are often less widely known. For Dibbinsdale we wanted to highlight how natural environments are not just places of recreation and social gathering but also sources of spiritual contemplation and artistic inspiration.

What was it like actually doing the research? The general experience of exploring the place? 

The experience was both fascinating and rewarding. In the case of Dibbinsdale our research on location gave us the opportunity to finally visit an area we have driven by many times and often thought about (but never quite gotten around to) visiting. We genuinely found it to be a magical, beautiful place and felt some regret thinking about what we had been missing out on all these years! The pressure to step up to the task Alan set us, made us think outside the box and scrutinize the landscape in ways we might not otherwise have done but the creative process of formulating those responses also felt spontaneous and natural. Researching Port Sunlight Village online was an equally enjoyable but more academic, intense experience – one which was in keeping with the approach we often apply when researching and redressing political themes through our work. 

What’s been your own personal, general experience of working with Four Words: Wirral, and have you had much support during this?

At first it felt a bit uncertain and unfamiliar from a technology point of view as we didn’t know too much about the outdoor use of AR technology. But Alan has supported us throughout: explaining his concept; showing us around Dibbinsdale and engaging in conversation with us about its history and our initial thoughts about it; keeping us updated on progress and seeking our input on the final look of the digital element – which has been intriguing to watch unfold. We’ve been amazed to see how well the range of words selected by all the artists involved in the project not only express the complexity and diversity of the places they represent (both in terms of their past histories and what they mean to different communities) but also reflect the varying interest and practice of each artist. As artists whose work has always been about exploring hidden histories and alternative narratives through multiple levels of interpretation, we particularly identified with Alan’s idea for the project to challenge people to “look beyond the surface”. As a project developed during the covid pandemic we feel ‘Four Words’ is a brilliant example of how important the arts have been in enabling people to continue to engage with the natural environment and places they live. Both the process and the outcomes of the project not only demonstrate how creative collaboration is still possible but also just what it can achieve, even under the most difficult and challenging circumstances.

Obviously the project is running as part of Independents Biennial, have you had much contact with/support from that organisation? Have they has much involvement with your own work? 

Our point of contact has only really been Alan who has been extremely supportive and motivating throughout.

STEVE  HARDSTAFF 

How did you get involved with Four Words: Wirral?

Alan Dunn invited myself and my daughter Phaedra to participate in the project. Initially this was to be a collaboration but we decided to research separate geographic areas and work individually (partly due to the Covid 19 crisis), coming together on technical/digital aspects of our work. I have known Alan since the late 1990s when we both participated in the Bluecoat exhibition, ‘It Was Thirty Years Ago Today’, a re-thinking of the iconic tableaux on the front of the Peter Blake/Jan Haworth ‘Sgt Peppers…’ Beatles LP sleeve. Phaedra was also involved in this. Alan and I have subsequently remained in contact, most recently hosting a joint lecture on record collecting obsessions at the Williamson in Birkenhead.

What area of The Wirral did you research, and how did it actually influence and inspire your response? How does the work relate to the location?

I concentrated on Port Sunlight Village with one piece partly referencing an event in New Ferry. I am a Port Sunlight resident and have close links with the Port Sunlight Village Trust; I was interested in exploring some of the anomalies of this situation, also accessing some lesser known Village information. Thus the work looks at Lever Brothers product and the darker side of its manufacture; the war memorial re-imagined as an icon of Gospel music; ‘Surf’s Up’ in New Ferry and Pete Burns, the popular music icon brought up on Bath Street.

 Do you think the local community was an integral aspect to how you’ve created this work?

Yes, the local community was certainly an integral aspect of the work with folk from all areas of the Village consulted regarding the viability of ideas etc. It was important to me that the work was/ is not regarded as overtly political in content by fellow residents or the Trust. The ‘darker’ side of Lever’s activities are recognised in the Village and dealt with by the Trust via their publicity, tourist events and exhibitions. The ‘music based’ aspects of the work reflect my long term involvement as a designer in the music industry and as a researcher in early American popular music.

What was it like actually doing the research? The general experience of exploring the place? 

The research was very much influenced by the lockdown situation and the emphasis was ‘on line’ more than I would normally be used to. Walking round the local environment looking for different or hidden aspects of the ‘well known’ was in turns frustrating and invigorating.

What’s been your own personal, general experience of working with Four Words: Wirral, and have you had much support during this? 

This has been a total departure for me particularly in terms of media. Alan has been ‘on the end of a computer’ for help and advice throughout the process and although we’ve not been able to meet up as a group, the artists have shared their work/ideas via Alan all through the process.

PHAEDRA HARDSTAFF 

How did you get involved with Four Words: Wirral?

I was experimenting with a lot of nature based photo-montage/collage imagery on Instagram, Alan liked these and invited me to be part of the project.

What area of The Wirral did you research, and how did it actually influence and inspire your response? How does the work relate to the location?

I researched the Dibbensdale nature reserve and surrounding areas from a horticultural, historic and geographic perspective, aiming to ultimately respond to the spirit of the place.

Do you think the local community was an integral aspect to how you’ve created this work?

I didn’t actively engage with the local community, not directly visiting the site but I did investigate archived social media threads of former residents from the old children’s (and the later) reform home, and also news stories about controversies surrounding them. I also read the film script for the Owl Service that was filmed in part there and also at Poulton Hall; the original illustration for Alan Gardner’s book somewhat influenced my design for the piece ‘Playing Owls with Flowers’

What was it like actually doing the research? The general experience of exploring the place?

During Covid for me access to the area wasn’t possible, so it mainly took the form of online research and memories of my historic connection with the area.

Reference to the skeleton of a secret garden in the grounds of what was the old Brotherton Estate was informed by a ranger led talk I attended a few years ago which left me fascinated.

The nature reserve horticulturally is a gold mine and a truly beautiful haven for birds and wildlife which aside being an ancient woodland, has many points of historical context including the river Dibben itself which acted as a boundary between Saxon and Viking settlers on the Wirral.

What’s been your own personal, general experience of working with Four Words: Wirral, and have you had much support during this?

Alan was truly wonderful and had a lot of patience with me. It was interesting to see the other artists responses to the project some of which are brilliant and of course I worked closely with my dad on some of the images which was a rare thing and lots of fun.

Obviously the project is running as part of Independents Biennial, have you had much contact with/support from that organisation? Have they had much involvement with your own work?

Not directly no.

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