The art of creating moments people will never forget
HELEN MARRIAGE’S public art brings people together for the fun of it
Particularly in modern, 21st century life, we’re tempted to believe that everything runs to a timetable. If the train is 10 minutes late, it really matters. We get terribly agitated about the world not behaving. But what I think is that nobody’s life is measured by routine. You don’t remember every day you got the No. 38 bus to work. The things you remember are those special moments when you fell in love, or your kid was born, or you were chosen for the school play, or got a promotion. You remember those moments. And along with a sort of transformation of the urban landscape, what we’re interested in with our company, Artichoke, is interrupting the routine and creating shared joy where people have a memory. And based on the response, we’ve managed this with Lumiere, David Best’s temple in Londonderry, or with The Sultan’s Elephant, which we paraded through London in 2006.
W e have a track record now, but many of our projects were rejected for years before we could mount them. And I’ve evolved an understanding of why people say no. It’s fear, mostly, and not wanting to be accountable. Let someone else decide. And although there are no real shortcuts around it, what I’ve found is that if you say something is happening, and I need you to help me, people assume that some other authority has sanctioned your right to do this. Somehow, engaging people in a task rather than seeking permission unlocks the whole thing. They don’t so much say yes as stop saying no.
T he most interesting example in The
Sultan’s Elephant project was the bus planning manager of the London buses. He said, “I’m not moving the 38 bus for you and a bunch of Frenchmen.” Resistance, resistance, resistance. And over a series of strange and personal incidents, we finally wore him down, and he became the project’s biggest champion.
When we sent the bus that the little girl [really a giant marionette] rode around in, to be modified in France, t he French company phoned me afterward and said, “We can’t drive it back. It’s not a road-worthy vehicle. We can’t get insurance.” They cut the roof off, they’ve done various things. … So I called the [London planning manager] and said, “John, could we, under London transport, somehow insure this? Is there some big organization?” And he said, “I think I’m due a weekend in France.” And so this guy who’d been saying no, no, no, we flew him to France, and he and his assistant—they were planners; they’d been bus drivers years ago—they drove 350 miles back in this funny old bus with no roof, and then he took it back, and he rang me and said, “It’s a disgrace, that bus.” And I thought, Oh, my God. It’s really not road-worthy. And he said, “No, no. I just need to clean it.” And when we got it back it wasn’t cleaned: He’d had it completely repainted; he’d had the whole bus refurbished. It was his contribution to the project.
After the event, he disappeared, and I couldn’t find him for months. He didn’t answer his phone. Then about six months later I called him for some reason—I think we’d been nominated for an award—and I wanted him to come to the ceremony. He answered his phone at work, and I said, “Where’ve you been?” And he said, “Oh I didn’t tell you about the cancer, did I?” He’d been diagnosed with lung cancer three weeks before the event, and they’d said, “Hospital now,” and he’d said, “No, I’ve got this really important thing to do. I’ll come in when it’s finished.” And he did our event, he did this symposium, which he absolutely didn’t need to do, and the next day he went in and had half his lung chopped out. So his kind of commitment to what happened was absolute, completely absolute. Then he said this funny thing, he said, “As part of my professional development at London transport, I get opportunities to do courses and classes.” And I said, “All right, what are you doing?” And he said, “I’m learning French.” So while we can talk about affecting people on a macro level and changing the way cities work and whatnot, very often, the stories are very personal and individual.
I t’s also important that what we do goes away. Lots of people say, as they said about the temple in Londonderry, “Oh it’s such a shame. Why don’t you leave it here forever? It’s so beautiful.” But actually they remember it more because it’s gone. They were present when it went up, and when it burned down, and all that stuff.
The thing about the temporary is it’s that quality of, “Do you remember?” Just before we did The Sultan’s Elephant, there was this extraordinary moment, unprecedented, when a whale got lost and came up the Thames, and suddenly there was a whale outside the Houses of Parliament, and 100,000 people came out of their offices and stood by the river, just trying to catch a sight of this whale. I guess that’s sort of what we’re doing. We’re trying to create a moment where people go, “Do you remember that moment? I was there.”
“Somehow, engaging people in a task rather seeking permission unlocks the whole thing. They don’t so much say yes as stop saying no”
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