A view of post-industrial Middlesbrough. In the foreground is a piece of wasteland with the words I miss you, painted in large blue letters against white, on a wall. Two figures are sitting close together against the wall. In the middle ground are railway tracks and some contemporary urban buildings. In the distance is the transporter bridge and a clear evening sky dotted with clouds. Warm light and long shadows indicate that the sun might set soon.

Middlesbrough Art Weekender:
Three Commissions

Dominic From Luton, I Miss You, 2021. Image credit: Joanne Coates

John Ayscough, Dominic From Luton and Theresa Poulton in conversation with Steve Spithray.

Middlesbrough Art Weekender returns this month with a new theme and a renewed sense of vigour as the art world returns to some state of normality. The flagship cultural arts festival aims to be free, inclusive and accessible to all, with a number of venues showing works by both local and national artists as well as the Weekender’s trademark outdoor trail of artworks through the town centre. This year, all works sit within the broader theme of reimagining the area’s industrial past whilst supporting the present and looking to the future. I caught up with Edinburgh-based John Ayscough, Newcastle’s Theresa Poulton and Dominic From Luton to discuss their submissions, the serendipitous positivity that connects them and their take on the ‘care and repair’ of their three outdoor works.

Steve Spithray [SS]: Can you tell us a bit about your works and how they came about? 

John Ayscough [JA]: My piece was proposed more than two years ago so it’s actually a pre-COVID piece. The text is ‘We Walked out of the Wilderness’, and it originally referenced a piece in a Middlesbrough newspaper from the 80s when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, a black and white photograph of her holding a little handbag, walking across a wasteland. So, it was really a response to that – to kind of twist it 30 years on into something a little more positive. And now, after COVID, it’s taken on a bit of a life of its own.

Dominic From Luton [DFL]: My piece is called ‘I Miss You’. It was originally going to be neon but much smaller and nuanced. Then Liam [Slevin, Auxiliary curator] stepped in and offered this amazing wall to the left of the Auxiliary. It’s 23m long by 3.5m high which is going to be scraped back to matt sky blue to match the [legendary Middlesbrough nightclub] Bongo as the ground for four sets of text saying, ‘I Miss You’. And big!

Theresa Poulton [TP]: Mine is titled ‘Build Bridges’. It’s the first time my work has been in a public space. Aesthetically the colours are quite bold. There is a foreground and background. I work with refugees and asylum seekers, so I was questioning lots of things politically and about to start a series of works that were bridges so when I saw the call out and thought of Middlesbrough and its bridges, I started to look at the word and its broader meanings. I decided to come from the angle of emotional infrastructure and building bridges and making connections.

SS: The works are all broadly positive. Was that a conscious act after so much negativity in the last eighteen months? 

DFL: It’s a question about the importance of possibility in art, at this time, right now in the public realm in Middlesbrough…

JA: I have a problem with galleries and often find them unsatisfying and elitist so, working outdoors, on the street, has always been important to my practice. I don’t think it’s important to be positive, however, when you are looking for opportunities as an artist, I think it is very difficult for galleries and organisations to promote works in the public space which don’t have a positive message.

SS: Are the commissions you receive supportive of your preferred work then? 

JA: Not really. The street is completely egalitarian. Do we need to be positive? The simple answer is no but, on this occasion, it seemed it was the right thing to do.

John Ayscough, We Walked out of the Wildnerness, 2021. Image credit Joanne Coates

DFL: I think as an artist there are very few things we have complete agency over in our lives. There is a pressure on organisations, commissioners and funders that trickles down to artists. At the moment there is a pressure for things to be, in a neoliberal sense, positive.

SS: Politically there is a feeling that there will be this great outpouring of relief and celebration as we return to normal and, in that respect, there is a push towards positivity. 

DFL: It’s a positive act that these commissions were seen through by the council as there was a point where they weren’t going to happen, and I think that is very positive in itself.

SS: Do you think the infrastructure and support networks were there to handle such a crisis? 

DFL: These ideas are two years old; that doesn’t mean they are any less valid now, but it’s almost been too much time to work on things. That’s an aspect that people within art centres and commissioners are finding difficult. 

SS: Because seen through the pandemic lens, the pieces have taken on different meanings?

JA: My piece will have a very particular resonance with people that see it but [the pandemic] has changed my work.

DFL: My dad died in January, so a very simple message has taken on greater meaning for me, but that might not be important for some lad walking past eating a bag of chips on his way home from a night out. I always work towards putting things out there that have layers. What you are invited to take ownership of is something purely visual. I like the Warholian idea that you have seconds of people’s attention, so you can take these pieces at face value but there is still space for the imagination to work. There is a positive ambiguity about all three works that will stand up.

JA: They are all bittersweet… 

SS: There is a sense of continuity about them… 

TP: They are all outdoors and you aren’t going to have accompanying descriptions, so we aren’t responsible for visitors’ perceptions of the work. They will bring their own positivity and negativity to the pieces.

DFL: The work is made with a certain intention but once it’s delivered to a gallery, or wherever, you have to let go. This is even more the case in the public realm. As an artist you retain this singular relationship to the work but there is a much more scaled-up sense of physical detachment in the public realm, and it’s a dynamic I like.

TP]: On the surface they are not obviously challenging but the backstories and narratives that matter to us are. They are texts and typography but also physical acts. 

Theresa Poulton, Build Bridges, 2021. Image Credit: Joanne Coates

SS: Which leads nicely to my final question about care and repair, and the longevity of the works in the public realm… 

DFL: I accept it might be defaced.

TP: The aggression and opposition in vandalising a work…

JA: If you work in the public domain you have to accept that people are going to have a reaction to it.

DFL: For me it has to be documented the moment it is finished and then what happens after is beyond my control but there is a tangible and obvious sense of public ownership. There is no threshold to cross for the viewer. There is such a purity in that engagement.

JA: We’ve had this massive debate around the Edward Colston statue. The question of what is public art and what are monuments is really interesting. My piece is big, and neon is pretty robust but chuck a brick at it and it’s fucked. Would I then ask for it to be fixed? I probably would and, here’s the rub, is that my ego that wants that piece repaired?

DFL: John, allow yourself some ego, you’re an artist!

Middlesbrough Art Weekender takes place across multiple venues in Middlesbrough from 30 September to 3 October, 2021. 

Steve Spithray is a writer based in Middlesbrough.

This interview is supported by Crystallised.

Published 30.09.2021 by Lesley Guy in Interviews

1,315 words