An interview with Peter McCaughey, WAVEParticle
Graham Ross FRIAS RIBA of Austin-Smith:Lord interviews Peter McCaughey, Lead Artist at WAVEparticle, who led Scotland’s contribution to the Venice Architectural Biennale in 2018.
Q. COULD YOU EXPLAIN THE BACKGROUND TO WAVEPARTICLE; YOUR PHILOSOPHY AND APPROACH IN ARTS PRACTICE AND KEY PROJECTS THAT BEST REFLECT THIS?
A. “WAVEparticle is an artist-led organisation set up to explore the opportunities for integrating art and artists into the world beyond the confines of the gallery and museum, and in ‘discussion’ with certain dominant traditions of 20th century fine art, traditions rather allergic to the idea of function. We explore the contested role of the artist as a contributor to the processes of building and rebuilding places. I’m interested in how things function. How we fix things. And how we stop some things in their tracks.
The philosophy is best explained through a few projects. The Outdoor Museum, Helensburgh (2015), delivered in partnership with architects Austin-Smith:Lord, responded to the decision that over one hundred bollards were to be placed around the town square as part of the creation of a shared surface – we transformed bollards into plinths. Local dialogue, expertise and input were a cornerstone of the project. Over a two-year period, we organised a series of lively, convivial days to invite local people to be a part of it all, and to gather together artefacts and stories about the town, that are surprising and revealing, celebrating how any place is a Venn diagram of overlaps and shared history. The work aimed to connect the town to itself, to its surrounding areas and to its residents’ influence upon the world. The Outdoor Museum proudly displays a collection of reproductions of treasured objects, of local, national and international significance, brought forward or nominated by local residents and organisations in the town. The project prepared the plinths for over 100 other additions, and this year sees a new set of additions organised by the townsfolk themselves.
If the Outdoor Museum celebrates tactics of engagement and permissioned, negotiated practice at one end of the spectrum, we also explore intervention and cultural hijack as tools to open up encounters around liminal thresholds at in-between times. Sites to date have included city underpasses, a cinema due for closure and, in transition, a set of tower blocks at the time of demolition and the space between trailers in mainstream cinema.
An early example of this, The Festival of Borrowed Light (1996), with artist Stephen Skrynka, activated the underside of Victorian glass paving lights across Glasgow, using light-switching systems, projected images, sound and embedded objects. This required access to basements across the city – 36 sites, including banks vaults, cinemas basements, undercrofts of derelict buildings, restaurants, pubs and jewellery shops. All were accessed and activated, often involving complex negotiations with hosts. Unannounced, the work appeared without warning, street by street and then stopped after two weeks. A wilful disruption of the day-to-day. The work engendered a sense of playful curiosity and broke up habituated patterns of behaviour as people stopped, intrigued. It was essential for success that the work was unexpected, that it worked in the liminal spaces between the ordered and the chaotic, the familiar and the unfamiliar.
These days WAVEparticle regularly collaborates with others to produce new processes, events and objects focussed on re-thinking how the places we live in, and the systems that regulate our lives, move to a more creative, connective model.
The interventions, like Borrowed Light, have been joined by negotiated, brokered processes, often within the system – regional government, council bodies, as a regular team member with architectural practices like Austin-Smith:Lord and in long-term relationships with local community groups.
The most recent example is The Happenstance, Scotland’s contribution to the 16th International Architecture Exhibition, Venice 2018. We responded to Grafton Architects theme of Freespace by building a freespace. We didn’t illustrate ideas about Freespace, didn’t make an exhibition about freespace – we made a freespace in the garden, at the heart of Palazzo Zenobio – inviting all-comers to build new possibilities together for the freedoms we urgently need to claim – focusing on the event nature of live situations and exploring how we can intervene in our own lives and the circumstances that shape us. The Happenstance encouraged everyone into a vital relationship with the built environment, using play as an active agent within the process of rethinking and reclaiming Freespace.
You could say WAVE is responsible and professional; particle is underground and playful. In theory, WAVE exists to support particle, but I sometimes suspect that the really interesting dynamic is the other way around.”
Q. HOW DID AN IRISH ARTIST COME TO LEAD SCOTLAND’S CONTRIBUTION TO THE VENICE ARCHITECTURE BIENNALE IN 2018?
A. (Laughs) “When the theme of this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice was announced as Freespace, several friends, who know my practice well, got in touch and said, apply! So, I’m not an architect, not a curator, not Scottish, but apply! OK. Freespace.
In framing the theme of the 2018 Architecture Biennale, Grafton Architects took an inspirational approach that should have acted as a purge of the moribund aspects of the pavilion-dominated Biennale culture. The challenge to the field was clear – address the agency of architecture, at a time of aggression upon our freedoms, privatisation of our land, and regulation of our rights as citizens to move across borders, and through, the spaces at the edges of our architecture. What could Freespace look like? How would Venice respond if you built one?
I assembled a team of artists and architects whose practice spoke to these concerns. In Scotland, we layered this by building one cornerstone of the project around the Year of Young People – everyone on the team had made extraordinary, playful work with young people. We laid out a very ambitious approach at the interview with commissioners, Architecture and Design Scotland and the Scotland + Venice partnership, and when I look back, we exceeded everything that we claimed we might do.”
Q. YOU DESCRIBE THE HAPPENSTANCE (SCOTLAND + VENICE) AS BEING ‘LOVED LOCALLY, LAUDED INTERNATIONALLY’. IT HAS HAD A VERY POSITIVE RECEPTION. WHAT ARE THE ESSENTIAL OUTCOMES FROM THAT PROJECT THAT YOU THINK WILL INFORM FUTURE PRACTICE?
A. “Loved locally, lauded internationally – what a combination that is. That is a primary outcome and informs a desire, for evermore, to make something that can resonate in that way again. Why is that so difficult? Perhaps because of artificial separation between the local and the international – which I have to testify is reinforced by the cultural officers of the Venice Biennale, who actively barred us from listing the local aspects of our programme under the Biennale logo because… because it was too local.
Academically, culturally, bureaucratically, we still seem to disregard the local as a centre of value, knowledge and expertise. Everywhere I go, I assume that where I am is where it’s at. Everything I need will be there and, if you bother to look, the most amazing things will be going on.
This in fact was a primary rule of The Happenstance – our sense of freespace – the next person who comes into the garden at Palazzo Zenobio becomes the most important person in the Garden. This goes with our other manifesto, the art of the serendipiter – Expect To Be Lucky. However, the degree to which this oscillated was at times uncanny, so much so, that I began to refer to the Garden of Zenobio as the Garden of Epiphanies.
I think we will take these simple tools with us wherever we go now, and other similar simple principles, like the rule when we go somewhere – find a cultural connector, find another one, are they already connected? No. Connect them. Hey Presto! Already a more resilient infrastructure. Connecting Cultural Connectors.
I spoke often to the many architects and architecture students who came to our space and encouraged them to think about Architecture Plus (or as I began to call it the architecture in the expanded field – in direct homage to Rosalind Krauss). Without blowing too much smoke up their ass, nor this readership’s, I have to say I find architects have amazing brains – creative and mathematical at the same time. It’s then not such a stretch to ask for more, for an understanding that resilient infrastructure might be your opportunity too, that the performative intervention of building something across all its phases has huge potential, metaphorically and actually, to change the things around it. Again, Grafton’s description of the opportunity to address Freespace is worth reflecting on.
I have to say I feel a strong debt of gratitude to the Venetians who overcame their suspicions of the biennale culture and embraced The Happenstance, as well as the architectural press who bothered to come and see a collateral project, miles from the Giardini and Arsenale, and who understood the importance of not just ‘illustrating’ a freespace but activating one.
Palazzo Zenobio, our base for the Scottish Collateral project, is a very special space, almost sacred ground to the few Armenians left there, who hold the history of the place deep within them. Venice, like Belfast back in the 1980s, is on fire. A population of 170,000 in the 1920s has decreased to below 50,000 – with the negative aspects of privatisation, tourism, the Grand Navi and, I have to say, in the eyes of many Venetians, the Biennale culture. This is what Giovanni Andrea Martini, President of the Venice Municipality, said about The Happenstance on the second last day of the Biennale, ‘Tomorrow is the closing day of the beautiful sharing experience between Scotland, with the tireless, inspirational Peter McCaughey, and Venice. It has been intense months where, since the opening of the pavilion at CA ’Zenobio, the interaction between artists and citizens has been addictive, sparkling. Scotland hosted in the garden of CA ’Zenobio… the entire city: citizens, associations, children, students, etc. And unforgettable deckchairs to enjoy outdoor cinema. And tomorrow we recover the threads of a beautiful relationship weaving’.”
Q. AS A PRACTITIONER AND EDUCATOR, YOU’VE EXPLORED THE INTERPLAY BETWEEN ART, ARCHITECTURE, PLACE AND COMMUNITY FOR SEVERAL DECADES. WHAT HAVE THESE EXPLORATIONS REVEALED?
A. “That it’s great to work in teams, and the bigger the better! In inner-city environments, which is my particular focus, the challenges are significant. I often think we are creating a vertical stack of wisdom and brainpower to compensate for the short horizontal of timescale in which places emerge or re-emerge. It’s an artificial, ‘unnatural’ compensation but it’s the best we’ve got when we can no longer wait three or four centuries for a wee place to turn into a big place. We trade a million iterations over millennia for rapid prototyping and live testing.
Inter-play sums it up. We need poets, anthropologists, planners and taxi drivers, artists, engineers, business folk and those alienated by cities to contribute. I deeply believe that the knowledge is there to fix ourselves, we just need to mine for it. I have no qualms in acting as an external agent between spaces, communities and specialisms. In-betweening, negotiating, provoking, mending. Peace and reconciliation theory is in my mind all the time, and the need to help the individual, student, or community to connect to themselves.”
Q. INSPIRATIONS. WHAT, WHO AND/OR WHERE INSPIRES YOU IN YOUR ART PRACTICE? AND WHY?
A. “Benjamin’s flâneur, leisured, pleasured, and peripatetic, seemed, and seems, all the more important in the encroaching battle over the privatisation of public space. A significant part of my thinking is concentrated on the inner-city, and the critique of the situationists resonates powerfully – from them I borrowed a number of tools, including the dérive and détournement (Guy Debord). The erasure of the commons and the attacks by successive right-wing governments on the idea of community has been countered in Scotland, and elsewhere, by inspiring ideas and tools around the devolving of power, ownership and planning processes that encourage the regrowth of community.
Also inspiring: Erwin Wurm’s one-minute sculptures; Allan Kaprow’s art of the everyday; Artist Placement Group, (Context is Half the Work), Latham & Steveni; growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles; the untrammelled play and inventiveness of children; my very loving parents who encouraged free-thinking.
Q. WHICH ARTIST(S) SHOULD ARCHITECTS STUDY AND BE AWARE OF, AND WHY?
A. “Off the top of my head, today, I’d say Marc Lombardi, for his ability to map complexity in a simple, elegant way; Tatzu Nishi, for his incredible hijack of civic space (statue works); James Turrell, for building spaces around light; Gordon Matta-Clark, of course, as the seminal anarchitect. That fantastic Fluxus card by Yoko Ono: Go to a City, Find an insect… The Harrison Studio (Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison), for The Centre for the Study of the Force Majeure, that brings together artists, scientists, engineers, planners, and visionaries, to design ecosystem adaptation works in regions around the world, that are nearing critical tipping points due to planetary warming. Katie Paterson, who, in a parallel way, collaborates with scientists and researchers across the world, considering our place on earth in the context of geological time and change.”
Q. WHICH ARCHITECT(S) SHOULD ARTISTS STUDY AND BE AWARE OF, AND WHY?
A. “Artists – be aware of Diller + Scofidio for their collaboration across disciplines, their audacious Blur Building, and the newly emerging Collection and Research Centre for the V&A (with Austin-Smith:Lord). Catch Winy Maas for his inspiring ideas and visualisations; Zaha Hadid for her drawing becoming building; Gehry for Guggenheim Bilbao and the aspirational idea/myth that architecture by itself can lead meaningful regeneration. The idea/ illusion that the next thing we do can be a transformational project is worth hanging onto. Sneaking in a few outsiders – Patrick Geddes on planning, Thomas Heatherwick on engineering and DEVO for their… sorry, I drifted into favourite bands there…”
Q. COLLABORATION. YOUR PRACTICE CONTINUALLY COLLABORATES. WHAT IS THE ESSENCE OF EFFECTIVE CREATIVE COLLABORATION WITH OTHER ARTISTS, ARCHITECTS AND COMMUNITIES?
A. “Trust. Respect. A sense of playfulness and a desire to share ideas. A Venn diagram-type understanding of mutuality and difference – enjoy the overlaps, enjoy the differences, if possible, remain curious about where value lies in a project or a process – right through until the end. Be a leader when needed, facilitator when needed, foil, runner or support.
Within communities, self-organised groups and associations sometimes act as if in competition with each other. If you can balance your own aspirations with the hopes and ambitions of others then you can find the mutuality, this is the Venn diagram overlap. Things can be progressed in parallel without the rigorous parameters of perfect consensus. I’m interested in the G8 protests, where a degree of affinity allows different groups and individuals, with significantly different interests, to be in the same place, at the same time, pointing in the same direction. I often suggest to friends that the model for such collaboration in society needs to be built from understanding the ambitions, and ultimately the failings, of the left to organise itself to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War.
Q. WHAT’S NEXT? WHAT FUTURE DIRECTIONS ARE YOU LOOKING TO EXPLORE WITH WAVEPARTICLE?
A. “To continue to explore new processes around placemaking and collaborations across disciplines – 50%.
To consolidate the tools, we have developed in order to share them – this includes mentoring younger artists, to encourage them down the path we are wandering along, a two-way challenge – convince more artists to work in this way and more organisations to value and host this activity – 20%.
To let Particle rip – 20%.
Prison reform, educational reform, land reform – 10%.”
Q. WHAT ROLES CAN AND SHOULD ART AND ARCHITECTURE PLAY IN SCOTLAND’S FUTURE?
A. “Artists and architects positioning themselves as in-betweeners, engaging as ambassadors for ambitious change in these interesting political times; supporting the genuine desire in Scotland for devolved processes, land reform, community centred planning, sustainable energy systems. To be influential, inspiring and inventive but to do so they need representation – a city architect for each of our major Scottish cities, licensed to have vision and budgets to go with that. Similarly, artist-in-residence programmes across Scotland, encouraging a culture of creativity and innovation.
Graham Ross FRIAS RIBA
This interview was originally published in the RIAS Quarterly Winter 2018 edition. The interview extract can be viewed here.
To read ‘Expecting To Get Lucky – The Art Of Happenstance’, a blog published by Graham Ross in June 2018, click here.
Peter McCaughey and WAVEparticle regularly collaborate with Austin-Smith:Lord on a wide array of projects. These have included participatory planning and community-focussed regeneration projects such as (Y)our City Centre Glasgow and design charrettes. They also include delivering arts strategies and installations within significant public realm projects including Helensburgh Outdoor Museum and Bridgegate in Irvine. Peter McCaughey and WAVEparticle also led The Happenstance project; Scotland’s contribution to the Venice Biennale 2018 which showcased projects from across Scotland, including A Town Hall for All by Graham Ross and Austin-Smith:Lord.