PROBOSCIS is an organisation that employs the imaginative insights of art practice to address real-life social issues, not through commentary and hand-wringing, but in the development of practical tools for change. Over the past 20 years, they have established a range of strategies that harness and focus the creativity of those with whom they work.
Proboscis is based in central London and works across the UK and, on occasion, internationally. At the heart of the organisation are two people, Giles Lane and Alice Angus, who bring different but complementary skills to each new challenge. More often than not they work with other groups, agencies and communities in a highly collaborative way. This is not the hermetic notion of artistic creation by an isolated individual, nor is it the passing down of knowledge from experts to the uninitiated. Rather it is the stimulation of what they call ‘co-discovery’ – a journey entered into with others to undertake research, think innovatively and find concrete solutions. It is through such collaborative processes that Proboscis has been able to apply the sensibility and thinking of the artist to fields as diverse as community development, urban regeneration, environmental enhancement, medical research and the welfare of prisoners’ families, using the skills of anthropology and ethnography, visual art, literature, film, music and technologies such as pervasive computing and sensor-based mapping. The emphasis is on empowerment through participation; of building a shared sense of value and working together to overcome barriers in thinking that, at first, seem insurmountable.
This is Part One of the interview. To jump to Part Two go here.
Do you think of yourself as an artist?
Giles: Yes, but not as an artist who works within the mainstream art world or is even concerned with making works of art for consumption within the world of museums and galleries. I often describe my way of working as bringing the sensibility and creativity of artistic practice into unfamiliar contexts, situations and environments. My work is essentially collaborative, creating frameworks that bring people together to work co-creatively. I am as much a designer as an artist, as I devise and develop many of the ‘tools’ we use in our work. In bringing people into larger creative frameworks my role combines elements similar to being a producer and director in film, an editor and publisher in publishing, a technical manager in software/hardware R&D, a facilitator in community development, a strategist and tactician in policy contexts, a principal investigator in research. Somehow, it seems that the best way to describe how this melange of roles and activities can be held in one person is as an artist.
Alice: I also think of myself as an artist because, though my work strays into areas of design, craft and community engagement, I think the way I address ideas, questions, materials, concepts and places is probably best described as an artistic practice. Although Proboscis was founded by Giles it has also involved many other people, either working with us permanently or temporarily on projects, therefore much of our work is the product of the rich collaborations between the many people who have been involved and the different practices and skills we each bring.
Do you think an artist has a particular role or responsibility in the world?
Giles: Yes, in my experience artists are often afforded an extraordinary degree of agency to cross all kinds of different boundaries. This enables us to bridge different kinds of communities – be they ones of practice, of geography, of interest, or of conscience. This ‘license’ to work in all kinds of places and spaces with all manner of different people is both a great benefit to being an artist, while also carrying its own obligations and responsibilities.
Can you give an example in terms of the kind of projects you work on at Proboscis?
Giles: In some of our projects we have been invited in by local communities, or by ‘trusted intermediaries’ who work with them, to introduce our creative processes and practices. In our 2006 project, ‘Conversations and Connections’ (which was part of our five-year ‘Social Tapestries’ research program) we were invited to work with a local-housing residents group to help them devise ways of responding to chronic failures by their local authority to repair and regenerate their housing estate. As artists, we were able to introduce new ideas, tools and techniques that helped reinvigorate the community, who were suffering from ‘volunteer fatigue’ after years of neglect, which, in turn, gave them new perspectives on how to organise and share their knowledge.
In other projects, such as ‘Robotic Feral Public Authoring’, ‘Snout’ (pictured right) and ‘Lifestreams’ we have sought to inspire people to engage with technologies and to adapt them to their own creative ends. In these projects we were not focused on specific communities so much as demonstrating the possibilities for creative (as well as artistic) adoption and adaptation of emerging technologies. A feature of many of our projects has been the use of Open Source software, as well as the sharing of the technical know-how used in our work.
Alice, what do you think the role of an artist is in the world?
Alice: I feel we have the responsibility to listen to people so we can try to fulfil some of the expectations people have when working with us, especially in communities. Since part of what we do is about communication and questioning, then listening is part of our role as artists. The skills of listening are often dominated by visual culture, yet cultures of listening are crucial to cultural experience and understanding human relationships; from the intimate to the civic, local to international.
Can you give an example of a project in which listening was vital?
Alice: An example of this would be the project ‘Hidden Families’, where we collaborated with the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway University of London on their project (funded through the AHRC [Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK] Connected Communities program) working with prisoners’ families to understand what difficulties they experience and what changes could improve their situation The project also had the effect of raising awareness of the issues faced by families with a relative in prison. The agencies Action for Prisoners’ Families and NEPACS [The North East Prison After-Care Society] who also support families and prisoners were project partners. Participants were involved from early on to define aspects of the project and decide how they wanted to tell their stories. They contributed to booklets, postcards, conversations and a wall collage gathering experiences of the practical, technical and emotional issues people face. I brought together the stories, experiences, with a series of my sketches, into a digitally printed textile hanging based on the idea of a patchwork quilt for the NEPACS Visitors’ Centre; participants also requested a version for the prison Chapel. Now, Action for Prisoners’ Families have several versions which they use for their training, education and work raising awareness of the hidden issues families face. From the start we made space for listening. Without it we would not have be able to create a project with the sort of outcome described by Cath Chesterton.
“The visitors who told their stories are very proud of the work and the fact that they can see their work put to good use.”
Cath Chesterton, NEPACS
How do you see your role?
Giles: As I mentioned above, my role is usually as the initiator of larger creative frameworks that involve our team at Proboscis, working along with partners and other participants. I often scope out the opportunity for the framework, develop the creative partnerships and identify participants. I also become deeply involved in the design, production or adaptation and usage of the creative tool set we’ll use. I facilitate some of the groundwork and engagement, but my role is frequently to hold the ‘big picture’ and keep the whole project steered on course rather than focus too closely on detailed aspects.
Alice: I would say that my work involves me in listening to, researching and telling stories; shedding light, commenting on or seeking to change things by being in contact with the world. This artistic process is a language or set of skills that I feel able to use. I hope it can communicate in ways that go beyond the spoken word or written text. I enjoy the fact that it has the potential to encourage people to tell their own stories.
Can you give an example of a project that worked by moving beyond written text or spoken words?
Alice: ‘Storyweir’ was a research project that resulted in new temporary public art. It was commissioned by PVA Medialab and Bridport Arts Centre ExLab 2012 with the National Trust and the 2012 Cultural Olympiad in the county of Dorset. The project worked with local communities, geographers and earth scientists on the Jurassic Coast at Hive Beach. It tapped deep into the cultural traditions of coastal dwellers, harvesting tales and recording conversations over several months from geologists, fossil hunters, sea swimmers, local people and visitors to the beach, to reveal the complex intertwining of humans and geology at the site. The resulting works in video, audio, textiles and drawing brought together elements of these stories in ways that encouraged others to tell their own. One of the works – ‘Storyweir: The Story has Holes’ , a sailcloth structure embellished with silhouettes inspired by the stories told – was set up like a sundial facing south, above the beach (pictured above). It acted as a meeting place and the invigilators and rangers found that it became a catalyst for people to tell their own experiences of the area and for children to play imaginary games.
Have you always worked in this way?
Giles: Looking back to when I first started work around 1990, I have always worked this way, but it has continued to evolve. Collaboration is the focus of my artistic practice as well as the being the essence of Proboscis’ ethos. Following our curiosity and diverse interests means we frequently change direction, entering into new fields of collaboration and exploring opportunities to work with different disciplines and communities. Through Proboscis we are continually exposing ourselves to new kinds of ways of working, new contexts and new challenges. Our creative disciplines and activities also evolve: we have worked in film, social research, technology invention and innovation, traditional crafts, publishing, design and so on…
Part 2 of this interview is here.
Images (from the top):
Portrait by Alice Angus
Still from a short film made by participants in the ‘Lattice::Sydney’ project led by Proboscis and ICE (Information and Cultural Exchange) in 2008. Working with artists and public in Western Sydney, this project explored approaches to creatively transforming cities.
‘Snout’: Proboscis collaborated with inIVA (Institute of International Visual Arts) and researchers from Birkbeck College’s Pervasive Computing Lab to design and build two carnival costumes (Mr Punch and the Plague Doctor) each of which was fitted with environmental sensors and LED displays. Using free social software tools, a website was created to present the sensor data mapped against other local knowledge (drawn in via RSS feeds) and contextual data about local health, poverty, education and so on drawn from the Office of National Statistics.
Booklet and storycubes from ‘Hidden Families’: working with prisoner’s families to understand how information is provided to families with someone in prison, what difficulties they experience and what changes could improve their situation. Proboscis collaborated with the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway University of London on a ‘Call to Action’ project (funded through the AHRC Connected Communities program), with participation by Action for Prisoners’ Families.
Installation from ‘Storyweir’: inspired by the traditional weir (a method of catching fish in a tidal area) the project encouraged local residents, geologists, archaeologists, coast-watch volunteers, swimmers, kayakers, National Trust staff and volunteers, tourists and a fisherman to share and collect stories about the area as a way of thinking about human and geological time.