The art of cre­at­ing mo­ments peo­ple will never for­get

HELEN MAR­RIAGE’S pub­lic art brings peo­ple to­gether for the fun of it

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - CONTENTS - Helen Mar­riage

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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