Joanna Jowett speaks to Helen Stratford and Idit Nathan about Further Afield, a new series of sculptures sited around the Upper Lake at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP).
[JJ] Both walking and play are at the centre of your collaborative work ‘Play Anywhere Now or Never’, exploring how performative and playful acts can encourage a deeper or alternative engagement with the environments we inhabit. Your work has previously manifested in a digital output, including most recently ‘Play The City Now or Never’app, inviting audiences to explore cities via playful prompts they navigate through on their phones. I am interested to hear more about how your two micro-residences in 2017 and 2018 at YSP led to the creation of your first series of sculptures and a move away from working digitally in response to site.
[IN] The project grew organically from both of those residencies. To start with we were invited to gather groups and just play. We conducted ‘walkshops’ where we invite people to walk around the site with us and use cards and dice, adapt well known games and invent new ones with us. Asking people to explore and talk about their memories of play was our starting point. There were a few options that we could have developed; one was to create a new version of the app and another was a mobile art object that could be taken around the site. We were interested in how we might move away from live performances and be able to leave something for all visitors to experience. A permanent object was the preferred way forward and for us we were quite surprised but excited to create something permanent within a landscape for the first time.
[JJ] The sculptures appear dotted along the path that loops around the Upper Lake in a complete circular walk. The distance between the sculptures and the playful nature of discovering them as you turn a corner, almost treasure seeking, felt very intentional. This playfulness and the act of walking is clearly important in both the making of the work and the final visitor experience. How did you come to decide on how and where the series of sculptures would be situated?
[IN] I believe that this was the first time that both the curatorial and learning teams at YSP had jointly commissioned a new work. Improving health and wellbeing was at the heart of the commission, which was new for us. Walking has always been an important part of our individual and collaborative practice. YSP actually discovered us through the Walking Women Conferences in 2016 organised by Live Art Development Agency, but this commission is the first time we have overtly addressed the positive health and wellbeing aspects of walking.
[HS] The choice of site was made collaboratively with the team at YSP. We wanted to encourage people to visit an area of the park that isn’t always explored. We liked the idea that the work is partially hidden within the undergrowth and embedded in the ground. The people we walked and worked with really loved the whole Park and their enjoyment of it really came across. The path around the lake gave us the opportunity for visitors to have to ‘seek’ the works and discover them along a trail. Although there is no fixed start or end point, they can be experienced individually or in any order.
[JJ] The height and the bright colours used in the sculptures makes them stand out in the landscape and undoubtedly appeal to children. Making work with and for all generations is something that comes across strongly in your collaborative practice. How do you use play to start these conversations?
[IN] At some of the walkshops we had three generations present; many were families who had visited YSP before. We find that play creates a democratic space that is non-hierarchical. The walkshops open up conversations about games, ways of seeing, and through those we experimented with and homed in on certain prompts, ones that were universal and cross-generational. It is so interesting to see the children in the groups we worked with take the lead, as they are the real experts of play of course!
[HS] We chose the prompts for the sculptures that people really got the most enjoyment out of. Some we had previously used in an urban landscape had very different implications or results within such a green park space. Through each of our artworks, prompts are created or re-written each time in response to site. For example, when you ‘walk backwards with your eyes closed’ on a woodland path, what you can hear and feel under your feet and how relaxed you are is quite different to that of a city. Switching on people’s senses is key to the work we make. How can we get visitors to experience the site in a new or unusual way? How might they start to ask new questions of their surroundings?
[JJ] Over time, the wood of the railway sleepers will age and become embedded in the landscape of the park. Can you explain how you approached choosing materials, knowing that the work will be on the site for the next fifteen years?
[IN] We knew we wanted natural materials and liked the idea of the sleepers, and it felt important to be reusing something. We took inspiration from some of the objects within the Don Pavey exhibition that was displayed in the National Arts Education Archive, housed on the YSP site. The shape of the sleeper was inspired by old fashioned children’s counting blocks.
[HS] A previous iteration was the same shape but fabricated in metal girders. We gradually realised that it was becoming something else, more like the permanent notices, and it was clear metal was not going to work. We liked the idea of them weathering, even things living in them, or them becoming inhabited by moss over time.
[JJ] There is a subtle yet clear critique within the prompts, riffing off some of the Park signage. ‘Touch With Care’ is the sixth and final piece of sculpture in the series, yet to be installed (delayed because of Covid). The series invites visitors to reconsider engagement, from looking at signage such as ‘please do not climb or sit on the sculpture’ to situating the work and allowing them to weather into the landscape. Your prompts and sculptures respond to the tension of whether people can or can’t engage with these very public artworks. How far were you allowed to bend or subvert the rules and where did you draw the line?
[IN] Our work has always been about challenging the rules, and there is always one card in each of the walkshops about subverting the rules of a place. We’re particularly fond of ‘Touch With Care’ and it was such a shame that it couldn’t be installed, but it should be on site with the other pieces in the not too distant future.
[HS] ‘Touch With Care’ plays with a lot of the things we’ve explored in earlier work: what it is to play in public space, who owns public space and what you can and can’t do within it. We encourage people to be ‘critically playful’ through our work, to not break rules but question them. This project continues in that trajectory, where we look at the ‘rules’ of the place and cast a critical eye on them. ‘Touch With Care’ takes on more layered meanings following the pandemic too. It is both referencing the site and the sculptures within it, but also what it means to ‘care’ (for ourselves, one another and the environment) and the implications of human touch, whether we are craving or fearing it. Further Afield is an open invitation to the visitors. Whether people perform the actions or not is irrelevant really. It is the raising of the questions and making people consider those instructions within that environment that really interests us.
Joanna Jowett is a writer, artist and producer based in Leeds and is also co-director of Copypages.org, an artist’s publishing platform.
This interview is supported by Arts Council England.