muf architecture/art

Juliet Bidgood notes

Creative Collaborations 3 or Mayhem? June 14, 2000

Juliet Bidgood, MUF, Any Day Now

Juliet works on the urban scale of projects and in their material resolution. She is the lead designer on Shared Ground, the regeneration project for Southwark Street that pioneered methods of working with existing communities. She led the team in the competition-winning the Car Free London proposal. As part of the muf-initiated Scarman Trust ‘practice to policy, Juliet devised The Restless Youth Club, a user generated 24 hour access to existing under used amenities.

muf is a collaborative practice of art and architecture committed to working in the public realm. The practice was formed in 1994 by artist Katherine Clarke and architects Juliet Bidgood and Liza Fior.

muf’s ambition is “to embed enlightened and enduring interventions that address both the physical and social fabric of the urban environment and extend the potential pleasures of public space by making room for speculative dreaming and imaginary thinking.”

muf’s process of design development makes space to value the desires, imagination and skills of those people that live, work or play in a given area. The organisation seeks to establish effective means of consultation, negotiation and collaboration to enable it to research existing situations and to give a precision to the realisation of the proposals.

The practice is experienced in extending the collaborative process of working to include the client and client constituency or user/audience, as well as experts in the subject area of the proposal.

What forms can collaboration take? What effects do the collaborative processes have on other kinds of work you can make? My talk is entitled “Any day now ..” because it is intended as a snapshot of the work in the studio now and how the projects I will demonstrate are linked through our collaboration together. So I begin with a slide of our lounge where this collaboration takes place.

Main themes of my presentation:

Work with cultural institutions

Work concerned with landscape and geography

Work to do with funding providing space for young people

The Museum of Women’s Art project, 1994 was a model which encouraged the client to put their hand in and move things about the model.

Preoccupation with linking the look of the highly visual experience of spaces with the experience of movement grew in the next project bid for Walsall Art Gallery. Our proposal for making the building fully accessible, involved the lines of elevation being described as lines of negotiation. It was conceived that the elevation should negotiate or mediate between the art gallery and town.

This idea of wider links between an institution and its social and physical geography was developed across a range of projects for the Walsall Art Gallery.

Artist Katherine Clarke later made a video called ‘Illuminate’ in collaboration with a social entrepreneur who wished to improve contact between young people and the people she worked with in an old people’s home. Fragments of people’s romantic reflections in relation to the town were recorded at a local festival and projected at the annual Walsall Illuminations. A billboard was shown outside the Walsall Art Gallery at the end of the project commending all the people involved.

This is one trajectory in time, which shows the development of certain types of collaboration. Another project to house a Roman Mosaic in St Albans which was running in parallel at muf with the Walsall video, shows how the two influenced each other, one dealing with a town’s geography and history and the other a town’s geography of romance.

Our proposal for Southwark Street was to enliven the space on the (sunny) south side of the street. Artist Katherine Clarke made a video, which conceptualised the idea of a ‘Shared Ground’ by editing together the desires of the residents and users of the street. Using Thames Shingle and concrete, cast in situ, the pleasure of walking on a street was explored with the geometry of the pavement. The pavement has swollen to reclaim part of the road.

The third strand, to do with funding began with a commission from an Austrian gallery to create a work about water as a metaphor. Our response was resolved through a series of conversations within the studio, but broadly we became interested in what water meant, how it was used and what for. We gave the artists’ fee to a charity called Woman Aid to repair pipes to the water supply to Armenia. Images of the pipes that were in disrepair were shown against the distressed interior of the Austrian Gallery.

This work precedes our proposal for the local zone of the Dome. We wanted to make a series of projects around the country in real locales and then bring back duplicate pieces to the Dome deploying the budget outside of the exhibition. It was a critique on the idea of focusing so much energy and resource on this central site in London. The project was eventually rejected by the client, but we developed a relationship with the Scarman Trust, which aims to enable democracy at a local level. Their ‘Can Do’ project invited ‘Can Doers’ to apply for small awards to make changes to their locale. The play strip was devised with Elaine Bill as a template for how to make a playground for her own and other local children on a modular basis, adding a new strip each year to realise her larger ambition. Daniel Rogan wished to make more space in his area of Birmingham for young, disaffected men. An audit of current local authority provision for young people and a parallel audit of where young people were hanging out, was drawn together as a critique of existing facilities.

Questions for Juliet Bidgood

Q (from artist): The process of collaboration seems to have given your work a moral conscience. Was that deliberate at the outset, or something that happened because of collaboration, making you want to extend the collaboration to your audience?

A: More a part of the way we work response to any brief is a series of questions which then need to be researched to find answers to them. For example if the brief is to ‘improve’ Southwark Street, on who’s terms will it be ‘improved’ so we need outside input to answer that question.

Q (from architect): Has the collaboration worked for muf because the projects are kept simple. Projects that are very complex could easily go drastically wrong if there is a weak link in the collaborative chain. muf has obviously achieved a lot, do you think it is better to collaborate on simpler projects with low risks?

A: Not sure. It seems risky to us. The skill or expertise in good collaboration relates as much to how you respond to things going wrong/not to plan.

Q: It seems the quality of the art projects has to equal the shelf life of the building.

A: I really enjoy the idea that the artwork the video work – makes space conceptually for another kind of building to come along later. These different time frames for different works I find exciting.

Q: Do you think that because clients feel they cannot comment about art in the way they can about buildings and architecture, artists can get away with more than an architect can, and therefore your practice can be more creative because of involving artists as you do?

A: Certainly I’ve always thought that our Southwark Street work went in a different direction because Katherine (the artist) did not ask pragmatic questions like “would you like a tree, or a car“what is your wildest dream scenario, your wish come true and where would you like to be in 5 year’s time?”

Q: How did the idea of the shoreline on Southwark Street come about?

A: Our response to the site, you always had a sense that the river was near, but you couldn’t see it.

Q: So not from a member of the public saying “I wish I had the river by my front window”

A: No, the things people told us had indirect influence, not a straight or literal interpretation.

Q: I’m interested in today’s title “Merger or mayhem”. I wonder which word best describes your collaborative process?

A: Both in the sense that the merger or the meeting is highly negotiated, but sometimes there is mayhem. I’ve tried to show you different ways in which we work, allowing us to use our different visions.

Q: How do you involve users in your work?

A: We try to involve the people who live and work in an area. We try to find ways to listen to what people say. The Birmingham work showed how much real expertise about their own situation people have, which seems self-evident when you find it out, and you wonder why nobody else has found that out already.

John Lyall: Malcolm Miles said that people are experts on their own city.

Comment (from a psychologist):Stephen Hawkins has said recently he doesn’t care what people think or feel, he is interested only in scientific truth. I think that is an untenable position. Surely the ultimate use of any project must be its starting point, and the real meaning of collaboration is involving the ultimate users right at the start.

Q: How much practical input is there from you and your colleagues in the making of the products?

A: It varies. We make the videos ourselves, some projects are conventionally produced. We work with artists and craftspeople on some making, and contract builders for others.