The new work I’m making for the National Railway Museum is called Play Revolution and it’s the next iteration of a previous work, Play Rebellion, that happened at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art 2019-20 (and this summer in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne city centre hosted by NE1).
Play Rebellion was a temporary exhibition that comprised 1m cubes that break down into different shapes that can be reconfigured by visitors. It was inspired by endless hours spent in soft play centres and outdoor playgrounds with my kids and the frustration we all felt at the static, fixed, primary-coloured equipment that allowed limited play opportunities. Play Rebellion aimed to open up opportunities for kids (and adults) to create their own playful environments with sophisticated shapes and colours that allowed them to experiment with form and colour, test their physical and mental agility, manage their own risk and meet new people.
Play Revolution at NRM is the next step in developing this work by responding to the museum’s collections and archives whilst fulfilling a brief that encourages all visitors, no matter their age, to ‘think like engineers as they design build, test and improve their creations in an open and active way’.
I’m excited about this project because it brings together two strands of my practice: on the one hand I love working with history, responding to archives and collections and rooting the artworks I make to the places in which they reside; and on the other there’s play and making artworks that are not just playful, but playable. And for this commission, it’s also an opportunity to dig further into the creative mindset, this time of engineers, to understand their working processes and how visitors might be encouraged to do the same. I’ll be discussing this more with my engineering buddy Ben in a later post.
The first step in developing this new work was to look at the displays and archives within the museum itself. My searches were broad-ranging from exquisite technical drawings and engravings of Victorian bridges to textile samples, train liveries, photographs and marketing materials.
For an artist, it’s a bit like being a kid in a sweet shop. There was so much stuff to look at, so many avenues in which to take the work, that it was almost overwhelming. I am grateful to Rose Mockford (Lead Interactive Gallery Curator) and the curatorial team as well as Peter Thorpe (Library and Archive Assistant) who indulged my explorations into the world of railways from the big stuff such as infrastructure, engineering and construction to the ‘soft’ stuff such as uniforms and badges, crockery, fretwork and signage.
Throughout my journey, common themes, designs and colours began to emerge and it’s these elements that I want to incorporate into the developing artwork, so that there is an immediate visual connection for the visitor that correlates the artwork to the museum and railways.
Things I particularly like and want to include in Play Revolution include the black and yellow stripes of warning lines and freight train liveries; the chequers of warning signs and flood level measures; the shapes of sections of beams and embankments, railway signals and lights; bridge design details such as arches and fretwork.
However, at every step of the way any potential designs have to be balanced with the manufacturing process of the foam shapes and what is or isn’t possible. As such, more complicated designs have to be simplified so that they can a) be fabricated and b) stand up to vigorous play over a long period of time. A good example of this was a zig-zag design found on signals and on train liveries (see figure i). In the end it was was just too difficult to get the points of the arrows to line up and would have required a different construction approach which involved gluing rather than heat sealing making the work more prone to damage. In the end we are looking to compromise with a simplified design that upholds the same design and reference principles but will be compatible with the fabrication process.
I’m looking at shapes, forms and colours within the collections and archives that will inform both the fixed and loose elements of the installation. All of these elements will combine with input from the young people from The Snappy Trust, my engineering buddy Ben and the manufacturers, feedback from visitors and the accessibility consultant to make an interactive artwork that offers maximum playability and flexibility, enables structures to be built that are big or small, complex or simple, and generate exciting colour combinations.
The archive is a treasure trove of delights which anyone can access. The museum library is open Thursday–Saturday every week and the archive by appointment via https://www.railwaymuseum.org.uk/research-and-archive/plan-research-visit