Tag Archives: urban space

Milton Keynes public art collection

Over July and August I’m carrying out a series of research visits to three UK public art ‘collections’ as part of my PhD fieldwork. The first of these visits took me down to Milton Keynes. This is a place I’d certainly read quite a lot about in terms of its cultural geography [1, 2, 3] but never actually visited before. Milton Keynes is famous as the UK’s largest and, for some, most successful ‘new town’. It was built in the late 1960s to a radical modernist design that has been described as something of a meeting between the futurism of American architect Buckminster Fuller and the romanticism of the English ‘Garden City’. For some its original design (led by architect and town planner Derek Walker) is still seen as visionary, one of the great unsung projects of British post-war design. For others the town is a characterless, ‘brutalist wasteland’ [4], and a ‘Mecca for roundabouts’[5].

Unusually in the UK, Milton Keynes is also a town that actively promotes itself as having a ‘public art collection’: the reason for my research visit. This is a collection that encompasses some 220 permanent artworks located across the city centre and its wider area. I was only able to visit a small proportion of these during my visit, concentrating on the works located in the centre of Milton Keynes that feature in the city’s official ‘City Centre Artwalk’ booklet.

 

Milton Keynes Artwalk Map

Starting from the ‘Theatre District’ this route led me in a looping circuit around the central grid of Milton Keynes. This encompasses the town’s main commercial, retail and civic hub situated between the parallel tree-lined ‘Boulevards’ – the romantically (paganly?) named ‘Avebury’, ‘Midsummer’ and ‘Silbury’ – and their intersecting ‘Gates’. For a visitor, and public art researcher, like me one of the most striking features of this route is the way in which the public art walk threads between outdoor street space and the interior ‘malls’ of its main shopping centre ‘The Centre: MK’ and the adjoining (now listed) ‘Midsummer Place’. Two of Milton Keynes most locally popular artworks are sited within these malls: ‘Vox Pop (The Family)’ and a small herd of Liz Leyh’s original ‘Concrete Cows’ (sometimes cynically described as a symbol of MK’s all-pervasive ‘concreteness’).

'Vox Pop (The Family), John Clinch, 1988. According to the Artwork Guide Clinch's sculpture 'celebrates ordinary members of the public rather than the rich and famous'. It was 'originally intended to show the diversity of people needed to make Milton Keynes a great city'.

‘Vox Pop (The Family), John Clinch, 1988. According to the Artwork Guide Clinch’s sculpture ‘celebrates ordinary members of the public rather than the rich and famous’. It was ‘originally intended to show the diversity of people needed to make Milton Keynes a great city’.

Concrete Cows

‘Concrete Cows’. These are the ‘original’ concrete cows created by resident MK artist Liz Leyh and local schoolchildren in 1978. These are now corralled around the remains of the town’s celebrated oak tree in the middle of the Midsummer Place shopping mall.

Other mall-based public artworks include a humorous bronze ‘book’ bench by Bill Woodrow (outside Waterstones), ‘Circle of Light’ by US born kinetic artist Liliane Lijn (a work which I was looking for but somehow managed to miss in my walk round), and a series of fantastical bronzes by British sculptor Philomena Davis. These are located in ‘Silbury Arcade’, alongside branches of Carphone Warehouse, Claire’s, and Patisserie Valerie. Together these mall-sited works are striking examples of the way the viewing (visuality) of public artworks is often enmeshed within the urban retail experience: an ingredient of urban visuality and ‘aestheticisation’ that has been specifically highlighted in reference to Milton Keynes [6].

'High Flyer' one of three bronzes by Philomena Davis. According to the artist these works 'depict man's fantasy with flight and escapism'.

‘High Flyer’ one of three bronzes by Philomena Davis sited in Silbury Arcade. According to the artist these works ‘depict man’s fantasy with flight and escapism, in particular….that come to us in childhood and adolescence’. According to the on-site label the sculpture is modelled on one of the artist’s own children.

Exploring beyond the polished spaces of the shopping mall the outdoor streetscape of Milton Keynes felt like a very different material and visual environment for public art. Away from the brightness of the newer retail and leisure developments this is a less manicured and much more worn space. One that is open to the elements and that feels both concrete and green. The aesthetic here would seem to echo that of the sculpture ‘court’ or the ‘sculpture park’, albeit often on a pocket scale and in a rougher urban form. My public art route took me through a number of such spaces. A rather neglected public seating area/walkway between a branch of Wallis and one of the main Boulevards held an energetic (‘Vorticist’ inspired?) bronze by Michael Sandle: the radically titled, ‘A Mighty Blow for Freedom:****the Media’, while a trio of abstract and colourful sculptures by artist/designer Bernard Schottlander dominated the dried out summer lawn and patio of the park leading up to the City Church.

'A Mighty Blow for Freedom: ****the Media', Michael Sandle, 1988. The Artwalk Guide tells me that the work is a twist in a well known film company logo, here replacing the famous gong, with a man swinging an axe into a television.

‘A Mighty Blow for Freedom: ****the Media’, Michael Sandle, 1988. The Artwalk Guide tells me that the work is a twist on a well known film company logo, here replacing the famous image of the gong sounder with a man swinging an axe into a television.

Two sculptures from the '3B' and '2M' series. Simple forms which, according to the guide, are a play on the artist's initials: BMS.

Two sculptures from the ‘3B’ and ‘2M’ series. Simple forms which, according to the MK public art guide, are a play on the artist’s initials: BMS.

'The Object' Dhruva Mistry, 1995-7, tucked away in its own pocket 'sculpture park' near Milton Keynes Gallery.

‘The Object’ Dhruva Mistry, 1995-7, tucked away in its own pocket ‘sculpture park’ near Milton Keynes Gallery.

Beyond this artwork and once through the strange under-croft of the motorway Milton Keynes centre opens up into green space proper – Campbell Park and its outlook to the wider rural landscape beyond. This too contains a number of sculptures, many of these dating from the 1990s but also some newer works commissioned as part of the Campbell Park Public Art Plan . The latest of these is the ‘MK Rose’ the final artwork I visited as part of my Milton Keynes public art fieldtrip.

The ‘MK Rose’ by Gordon Young is designed as a new communal and commemorative space for Milton Keynes. It is a physical ‘calendar of days’ represented by 105 pillars each dedicated to a different day of celebration or commemoration, some national and some local to Milton Keynes.

The ‘MK Rose’ by Gordon Young is designed as a new communal and commemorative space for Milton Keynes. It is a physical ‘calendar of days’ represented by 105 pillars each dedicated to a different day of celebration or commemoration, some national and some local to Milton Keynes. The work was commissioned by the Milton Keynes Cenotaph Trust and the Milton Keynes Parks Trust.

References:

[1] Massey, D. & Rose, G., 2003. Personal Views: Public Art Research Project.

[2] AMH, 2006. Public Art in Milton Keynes Street Survey.

[3] Basdas, B., Degen, M. & Rose, G., 2009. Learning about how people experience built environments,

Learning about how people experience built environments – Dr Begum Basdas, Dr Monica Degen and Prof Gillian Rose

[4] Voices, P. et al., 2015. Concrete bungle : Exhibition of history of Milton Keynes fails to capture flawed urban experiment Milton Keynes deserves more than a PR version of its futuristic roots. , (July).

[5] Independent, S.T., 2015. Derek Walker : Architect and planner who designed Milton Keynes dies aged 85. , (July).

[6] Degen, M., DeSilvey, C. & Rose, G., 2008. Experiencing visualities in designed urban environments: Learning from Milton Keynes. Environment and Planning A, 40(8), pp.1901–1920.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under public art, research visit, Uncategorized

Photographing public artworks: signs of ‘affiliation and affection’?

Photographing 'Couple on Street', Lynn Chadwick, (1984), Canary Wharf Public Art Collection, London.

Photographing ‘Couple on Street’, Lynn Chadwick, (1984), Canary Wharf Public Art Collection, London.

This week I’ve come across two blog posts about the pros and cons of taking photographs of objects in museums. This has nudged me to put down a few notes here about my own reflections around people’s attraction to photographing public artworks beyond the confines of the museum.

From my own street observations over the years and recent scannings of the internet and social media for images of public artworks from the Newcastle-Gateshead ‘collection’ (the subject of my current PhD study) it would seem that taking a photograph of, or posing for a photograph with, public artworks is almost instinctive. With a camera, or smartphone, in your hand when you encounter a new or striking piece of public art it seems the obvious thing to do (if, that is, you are photographically inclined).

Could this stopping to take a photograph be seen as a primary signal of audience engagement with a public artwork, an object which may more typically be seen only peripherally while passing-by on the way to somewhere/something else? Could the short moment taken to do this be the longest time anyone deliberately spends ‘with’ the work? In public space it seems that photography could be a more acceptable public behaviour than other more physical forms of interaction with these objects. Although sited without barriers (and watchful gallery staff) we may not feel free to touch, or even to walk round, step back, go close to these objects, as we might be tempted or indeed expected to do when encountering artworks in a museum or gallery. In the urban public realm I’ve rarely witnessed these kinds of ‘looking at art’ behaviours outside of a formal public art tour.

‘Powerless Structures Fig. 101’, Elmgren and Dragset, The 4th Plinth, London, 2012-13

Photographing ‘Powerless Structures Fig. 101’, Elmgren and Dragset, (2012-13), The 4th Plinth, London.

So why do people take photographs of public artworks? What does it indicate about a person’s relationship to these objects? What do people do with or get from these images they have taken?

In the latest of his blog series ‘Tilting at Windmills’, Ed Rodley suggests that rather than taking photographs to document the objects they have seen, museum visitor’ photography, and the subsequent sharing of that imagery e.g. via social media, is a representation of their ‘affiliation’ with the chosen object and with the institution of the museum. For Rodley these photographic acts are ‘underutilized and under-appreciated’ by museum professionals, who are often more concerned to control visitor photography than to encourage it.

Visitor photography and its relationship to the museum experience is also the subject of Jamie Glavic’s recent post ‘Reflection vs. Collection’ on the Museum Minute blog. This is written in part response to a recent research study (by Linda Henkel) that suggests that taking photographs in the museum actually prevents rather than assists visitors in remembering the objects they have seen. As Glavic writes, Henkel has labelled this phenomenon the ‘photo-taking-impairment effect’. Interestingly though, Henkel’s study did find that when people began to explore objects with the camera further, to photograph specific details, they did retain a clearer memory of the object. Glavic notes that Henkel’s study only investigated the effects of the act of taking a photograph, not what people subsequently did with or thought about the images they had made.

Do Rodley and Glavic’s posts and Henkel’s findings reflect what happens beyond the gallery? Outside the museum, in the ’public realm’ we are generally freer to photograph the artworks we encounter than we are in the museum/art gallery, although there are sometimes similar concerns, and occasional controversies, around copyright infringement and security issues. (In my own work I have been stopped several times from taking photographs of public artworks on the Tyne and Wear Metro by its security staff, for example.) Can we take these ‘posings for photographs with public artworks’, ‘selfies’, Flickr portfolios and crowdsourced online public/‘street art’ directories as signals of ‘affiliation and affection’ with the artworks represented? Or are these images perhaps more like trophies of time and place (a more simple visual statement of ‘I was here’)?

NOTES AND REFERENCES

Ed Rodley is Associate Director of Integrated Media at Peabody Essex Museum, Boston (USA). He blogs at Thinking about museums. Jamie Glavic is Strategic Projects Coordinator at Ohio Historical Society (USA).

Rodley, E. (2013) ‘Tilting at Windmills, Part Three’, Thinking about museums, 8 December. Available at: http://exhibitdev.wordpress.com/2013/12/08/tilting-at-windmills-part-three/ (Accessed: 08.01.14).

Glavic, J. (2013) ‘Reflection vs. Collection’, Museum Minute, 11 December. Available at: http://museumminute.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/reflection-vs-collection-a-new-report-looks-at-the-effect-of-picture-taking-on-remembering-the-museum-experience/ (Accessed: 08.01.14).

Henkel, L. (2013) ‘Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour’, Psychological Science, XX (X), pp. 1-7, Sage [Online]. Available at: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/12/04/0956797613504438 (Accessed: 08.01.14).

Leave a comment

Filed under public art, Uncategorized

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

I was introduced to the work of William H. Whyte  in Jamie Allen’s Media in Public seminar series at Culture Lab last year. I wanted to include a reference to Whyte’s work here both as an interesting public realm observation study and as an example of ‘unobtrusive’ visual methods in action. Working primarily in New York City, Whyte was an influential advocate for the design of ‘sociable’ urban spaces. Whyte is best known for his detailed observation study of daily pedestrian life in New York City, particularly in the public plazas of central Manhattan  in the 1970’s-80’s. His work was the inspiration for the establishment of the New York based Project for Public Spaces, a not for profit urban design and educational organisation dedicated to helping communities create and sustain positive public spaces in the City.

This short film by Whyte made c.1980 provides an entertaining and stylishly retro visual summary of his research approach, ideas and findings based on his work on the New York City  Street Life Project, including (for my own research project) a particularly relevant section reporting on pedestrian encounters with public artworks (including di Suvero’s Joie de Vivre, Dubuffet’s Groupe de Quatres Arbres and Nevelson’s Night Presence). You’ll have to watch through or skip to the end to find this.

References:

Whyte, W. H. (1998) City: Rediscovering the Centre. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Auckland: Doubleday

Whyte, W. H. (1980) ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’, in  Orum, A. M. and Neal, Z. P.(ed), Common Ground. New York, Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 32-39.

Leave a comment

Filed under reading, research methods

Urban space observation in Prague

Photo of piazza

In looking for examples of visual methods in action I came across this study by Temelová and Novák in the online journal Visual Studies. Here the authors reflect on their experiences of undertaking a ‘micro-scale’ investigation of neighbourhood life in a regeneration area of central Prague. Focusing on ‘structured observation’ methods and a variety of visual recording and reporting techniques (including photography, mapping and spatial diagrams) this study might potentially offer a useful test model for examining daily-life/everyday interactions between people and public art in NewcastleGateshead, or at least some starting points for considering how such work might be carried out.

In their study Temelová and Novák bring together a number of interesting threads or ideas in the consideration of public space, which may help me to think about the context in which public art works are encountered:

  • (Marinotti, 2005) categorisation of city users e.g. as inhabitants, commuters, service users, business people
  • (Gehl, 1989) streetscapes as a stage or ‘scene of action’ for necessary activity (e.g. shopping, waiting for a bus, walking to work), optional activity (e.g. strolling, looking, resting), or social activity (e.g. play, conversation)
  • (Lefevbre, 2004) daily rhythms of public space, including people, traffic, commercial activity, sounds and smells.

The article goes into quite a high level of detail about the researcher’s observational techniques, which involved the setting up of three ‘observation stands’ which were visited by the research team three times a day for one hour each, at fixed times morning, lunchtime and early evening, on weekdays only from July-September 2008.

Map location of observation stands

Diagrams of observation stands

The scene was then observed four times (4×10 min slots) during each hour. Researchers used forms to record or ‘code’ people and their activity within specifically defined physical areas within the space. People were recorded in three main categories based solely on what could be ascertained from their physical or outward appearance: socio-economic (e.g. managers, workers, homeless people); ethnic group (e.g. gypsies); demographic (e.g. the elderly, teenagers, or parents with small children); or as ‘other’ e.g. tourists. Activity was recorded under two main categories: ‘passing through’ or ‘spending time’.

Jana Temelová & Jakub Novák (2011): Daily street life in the inner city of Prague under transformation: the visual experience of socio-spatial differentiation and temporal rhythms, Visual Studies, 26:3, 213-228

Leave a comment

Filed under research methods