Anne-Marie Atkinson’s ‘632700’ aims to bring overlooked voices back into direct view. Commissioned by Photo Fringe for their tenth edition festival in 2022 Real Utopias, the work brings together excluded perspectives to imagine new futures. For Atkinson, utopias are about ‘how we are constantly making the world’ and ‘how people evaluate themselves and their relationships within it’. Gathering contributions from people with learning disabilities, and the people who work with them in supported studios and day centres, Atkinson collaged photographic and visual responses to the festival’s theme. Although the open call for submissions was circulated internationally, Atkinson also worked directly with groups in Leeds through the organisations Pyramid and Hamara.
Photo Fringe supports early-career photographers and lens-based artists, showcases new talent and enables people to enjoy and experiment with photography, developing new ways of seeing together. The ‘Open Digital’ commission challenged artists to propose innovative, participation-led projects which would utilise digital technology as a means of audience engagement. Although during the festival ‘632700’ was presented as a projection at Brighton CCA, the work primarily exists as a web app so it can be accessed directly on a computer or mobile phone without the need for a gallery.
Since 2013, Atkinson has collaborated with and worked alongside people who have varied learning disabilities. Utilising her wide networks, Atkinson gathered responses in person and online, asking her contributors two fundamental questions: what thing that you have now would you offer up to a ‘real utopia’? Secondly, what thing would you want to see more of, or have more opportunity to be with, in this ‘real utopia’?
Atkinson edited 120 contributions from both learning disabled artists and abled persons who support them, assembling the digital pieces into an algorithm-driven web app. When ‘632700’ is launched, a carousel mechanism begins perpetually rotating, launching random image combinations to create a moving visual. The numeric reference in the title is the number of possible collaged permutations. Viewed on a computer screen, the design of the digital animation is quite simplistic. Digital cut-outs appear centred on a circular frame that provides a soft, stationary geometric boundary, which acts as an anchor. This simple concept subtly allows the eye to rest on a fixed focal point. Inside the circular shape, animated images contrast against the cut-outs. The background is modulating but incorporates transitional fades with vertical scaling.
During the project build, Atkinson, together with producer James Wreford from Black Shuck, developed an algorithm with a randomisation element applied against various parameters. The framework consisted of four variables: an abstract frame, a central landscape, a portrait, and an object. Image banks for these variables were populated from the contributors. Atkinson carefully edited the images so that some cut-outs appear smoothly collaged, while others are awkwardly placed, even to the point of becoming dissonant. Atkinson notes that the concept of a real utopia is ‘forever moving’, meaning that ‘some new relationships are thrown together which are clumsy and lumpy’. The deeper meaning of the work is revealed when viewers understand that the design is deliberately crafted to allude to the subtle awkwardness that some individuals experience in navigating our current world.
The animated collages produce an array of colour, motion and shape that juxtapose portraits, landscape and hand-drawn images to create different environments, moods and textures. Atkinson opted to place each visual asset in the same location across the permutations, and to have only four images visualised at a time. The artist considered alternatives – including the layered, aggressive population of the screen. However, the selection of four carefully balanced assets makes the project rotate smoothly. Led by those contributing to the project, the artist sacrificed control of the images used. Atkinson also placed trust in the algorithm after programming it to control how the permutations appear. Occasionally repetition occurs, or the combinations are erratic and haphazard, but there are also unusual outcomes and pleasant surprises. The many possibilities for real utopias emerge as the animation cycles.
There are several rates of movement in ‘632700’, some images change at double rate, providing a quick, snappy exchange. The half-rate motion of the background fading and enlarging gives the impression of breathing. This momentum is overshadowed by the quicker cuts of person, shape, colour and landscape across the screen. The movement of the four elements takes place between a static piece of brilliance: the circle. It provides a soft guiding arc within the collage, touching each design as it enters the stage. Atkinson explains that the circle ‘provides a sense of the world, it connects people and gives us a sense of a utopia’.
I initially chose to view the project before reading about the process of making; my interpretations moved between the simplistic and sympathetic. It felt awkward, yet it communicated something complex, nostalgic and heart-warming, both maternal and paternal, that probed at my emotions. When I began to analyse what Atkinson had created through collaborative and participatory involvement, the experience became one of layered meaning. Digital designs can frequently over-deliver by utilising slick code, which lends itself to processing bottlenecks, especially when the models are applied against other criteria. Here, the artist instead favours the movement – and sometimes clumsiness – that is essential to collectively imagining futures. The image banks can be modified or added to in future, suggesting that the legacy model design has been well formulated for subsequent iterations.
There are many works, projects and designs that address the concept of utopias, but Atkinson has provided a platform for disabled artists and those who work with them to communicate their interpretations in an unpretentious yet nuanced model. The power in Atkinson’s design is that the collective involvement of artists and carers has been showcased in a radically unique fashion. It is a rare thing for a caregiver to be granted the same platform as a disabled artist, this project combines their experiences wonderfully. Integrating the artist’s decision-making strategies with algorithm design, the project captures the structure and essence of Atkinson’s utopia while communicating the hopes and emotions of the contributors.
Michael Orr is a creative and audio producer, with active interests in imagery, printwork and writing based in Preston, Lancashire.
‘632700’ is included in Leeds Artists Show, Leeds Art Gallery, until 30 April 2023. It can be viewed in the Henry Moore Lecture Theatre on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays until the end of the exhibition. ‘632700’ was also exhibited at Project Space Plus, University of Lincoln, from 20 to 28 March 2023. The ‘Open Digital’ commission was offered as part of the 2022 Real Utopias festival and was supported by Artfund.
More information about Leeds-based arts collective Pyramid can be found here.
Anne-Marie Atkinson in conversation with Jo Offer, Brighton CCA, 8 October 2022.
‘Exploring the place of learning disabled artists in contemporary art,’ Venture Arts, 24 February 2021.