In the wake of the exhibition of his decade long project, “Urban Songlines” on view at the Tate, St. Ives, I sat down with Dutch artist Allard van Hoorn for a conversation about art and its relationship to public space. By designing collaborative participatory choreographies for architecture, urban structures, and public spaces, using music, scenography, and dance, Allard van Hoorn encourages us to find novel ways of connecting, using, experiencing and listening to public spaces, examining notions of inclusion, becoming, and belonging.
David Van Leeuwen: How did you come to be interested in public space and the relationship of art to public space?
Allard van Hoorn: I guess I wasn’t always an artist, in my youth I followed a path dictated by my environment. And, at one point I felt like I wanted to develop a personal relationship to the world. Quite quickly, I felt that the point to start is public space because that is where I had to learn. I had to step out of my door and feel and see and look at the world in order to be able to relate to it. So, my idea was to investigate public space by doing some interventions in them. I remember the very first thing I brought from Holland was a roll of duct tape and that coincided with the date I moved to Barcelona, Queen’s day. There was a free market in the streets of Amsterdam, and kids and grownups tape a few square feet in the sidewalk before Queen’s day, which is a giant garage sale, and they occupied that space with the tape. When I arrived in Barcelona, I imagined I needed a studio, so I found one in an old factory and the studios were only divided by the beams in the ceiling, so it was kind of open space. I was in the space for a while I was thinking about how to relate to the studio but at that point I had no idea what to do with the studio. I eventually decided to reproduce what I saw last. I taped the circumference of that square space that was mine. I would put the cross in it as people in Amsterdam would do for Queens’ day. I put the words on the wall that people put in it saying ‘occupied’. This is a reserved space. And two great things happened. I left for a week and came back to the space. First, the neighbor on the right-hand side had pushed an empty shopping cart containing a blank white canvas into the space and it was sitting squarely in the space, very invitingly, saying: “create something, do something.” An empty canvas, a void, a starting point. The neighbor on the other side had drawn on the wall with an arrow pointing at my space ‘sin trabajo’ which translates in Spanish into, ‘without work,’ the literal translation is jobless, unemployed. Saying, “hey if you don’t do anything with this space you may end up unemployed.” I thought it was amazing that just me doing a contemplative passive exercise with this space for myself as a thinking exercise led to two strong reactions from my neighbors. I thought this is fantastic, if I go out, I might find more reactions. From that moment on, I started to do interventions in the streets, public space.
I wanted to see what possibilities would open up if we listened to spaces like buildings and bridges instead of just inhabiting them. I think our hearing is 360 degrees. It is baked into our memories and it largely guides our attention.
Many of your projects involve sound. How is sound important to your work and to public space?
I got very interested in the idea of how to work with public space and sound after reading “Songlines” a book by Bruce Chatwin in 2008. I was struck by the technique of aboriginals to translate their public space, their landscape, by singing the shape in language and in tone. As it was explained by Bruce Chatwin, it was a threefold method in relating to the land. Firstly, it is a sonic map that you get to learn when you are born. So, when the aboriginal mother is pregnant and she feels the first kick she marks the ground and the tribal elders assign a stretch of land from that point on to the horizon that is the songline that they learn to sing – the songline passes throughout the entire continent, which may involve twenty languages, of which they might only speak one. The tonal structure of the sung description of this landscape allows them to envision how the landscape will look like without knowing the language, and they travel based on these sonic maps. Secondly, they relate to the land in a spiritual way. And the third is a sense of management and taking care of the land to maintain balance.
Yes, I learned that I was super interested in sound being a representation of public space. More than half of the people I know live in cities. I wanted to see what possibilities would open up if we listened to spaces like buildings and bridges instead of just inhabiting them. I think our hearing is 360 degrees. It is baked into our memories and it largely guides our attention. There is a lot happening in public space, we mainly listen to it subconsciously, but active listening can open up new avenues of understanding places.
Allard van Hoorn, 063 Urban Songline (Another Hurling of the Silver Ball) | Latitude: 50.204794° N – 50.214926° N / Longitude: -5.482636° W – -5.493938° W, 2019. Tate St. Ives, United Kingdom. Photographer: Kristin Prisk. All images from same series.
In the St. Ives Feast Day tradition of ‘hurling’ a small silver ball is chased through the town as part of the celebrations. You have re-imagined the small silver ball into a larger one that is a mirror of sorts. I have always liked the idea of the artist putting up their mirror to the world. Was this your intention?
Originally, when I was invited to St. Ives to see and learn about the town, I learned that it was previously an active fishing and mining town and that there was a close-knit community that was more and more broken up by recent tourism. These cute houses are rented out as holiday homes to tourists whose presence has gentrified the area pushing older communities into the suburbs. The sense of community, social control, helping each other out seem to have been lost to a certain extent. For me, the idea of supersizing the silver ball felt like a tool for self-reflection in relation to the sense of community gentrification; the slow-moving, seven-foot-high, very reflective ball became a rolling mirror through public space that allowed participants to see each other together in the landscape. What kind of choreographies would they design? How would they reimagine the function of the silver ball if they had control over it, and how to connect to the next community? We organized workshops with the different communities, the boat rescue, the scouts, the rugby players, the soccer players, the salvation army, the apple orchard, and any other community that wanted to collaborate. We invited them to design their own workshops together with me and the Tate team, and to see how they wanted to use that reflection, that ball, that mirror that rolls through public space as a way to reconnect and discuss the idea of community sense in their town.
Guy Debord speaks of the re-humanizing effects of participation. How do you view the value of participation by the audience and collaborators in your works generally?
In general, participation and collaboration is something that develops while you are doing the project and its kind of a feedback system. A feedback loop into the system. Buckminster Fuller had this design science implementation model where feedback is essential. Continuous feedback loop into the original system. The more they form, and the more we get to the day we all perform together and activate this thing in public space. People give more and more feedback, feeding the project itself, until the last day the last hour, even to the very last minute, something changes because somebody gave this very insightful input into the system. So, the system is open. I think it is essential that the spirit of the project has a life after the artist came and activated it in a certain community. I try to create projects where the local community has as much ownership as possible if not entirely. So, I am just an instigator. Their participation is the activation of the artwork.
Upon watching the video of the performance it is clear that there was a large turnout from the St. Ives community. What was it about the project that resonated with them?
The feedback I got was that people had a lot of ownership over the project. They came up with the choreography for their own parts. For example, they have a ritual where they beat the grounds with a stick to wake up the apple trees that takes place in the community orchard in February, the event is meant to stimulate a good harvest. It was their idea to beat the silver ball as a community tool to wake it up and wake up its senses, and its connection to the next community. As the apple-orchard group handed over the ball to the skate park community, it was a rekindling, reintegration of the communities, meeting each other talking with each other in that landscape in the reflection of the ball that allowed a wider conversation. So, it was an open platform in the end.
Are there artists or thinkers that have influenced your ideas about art and its relation to public space or the value of public spaces in general?
Well, I already mentioned Richard Buckminster Fuller, Bucky. He has been an early inspiration for me. I see his creativity and his discovery and research into the relationship of man in the special and mechanical world was an exercise that ended up in useable and tangible objects such as architecture and vehicles. What I learned from this practical approach to art is that we can create tools that function in communities to spark conversation or incite change. There are artists like Pierre Huyghe, that have done projects that don’t seem like art performances because they are placed out of that context yet again in the public spaces where you don’t expect them to be art. For artists working with interventions in public space, this also goes for Christo and Jeanne Claude, is that the audience extends beyond an art audience. When you are in a white cube or in a museum, you have preconceptions about art. When you encounter something in public space and you do not have to know anything about art and when you can interact with it differently. I am interested in art and artists who allow meaning to be created by their audience or users; the openness, that void where you have the chance to put in your own meaning, your own creativity is what enthralls me.
A renowned architect once said that what would define the greatest architects, would be how they interacted with space. How do your ideas of space relate an architect’s idea of space?
Architecture has to be more than the function alone. The form must invite certain other aspects that are common to our lives, like rest, mediation, reading, or concentration for work environments, etc. This is something quite separated I feel, and that is why I often introduce dance in buildings because I see dance as somewhat of a polar opposite to architecture, which is regarded as one of the highest physical technological achievements of society. Where architecture is static and rigid in its power, dance, through movement, creates and changes space. If the body moves in public space it choreographs the space, it cuts it, it pushes it. The body can manipulate that space. In a sense, the body is a very tiny movable, self-controlled piece of architecture in public space. Then these two are opposites on the spectrum. To create architecture came from the body and walking. As the book, “Walkscapes” by Francesco Careri, explains, the very first architectural interventions in public were common paths between groups in the landscape creating a line in public space and together with dance they were the first two ways of creating architecture in space.