‘We are much more interested in making work that draws people in, rather than saying, this is what you have to think.’
International residencies have formed an important element within Bik Van der Pol’s practice over the years: Glasgow, Auckland, Vancouver, Amsterdam, Saratoga, Berlin, Stockholm, Leeds, New York, Budapest. In this respect they might be thought to represent the ‘nomadic’ artist, travelling the world in pursuit of the next (funding) opportunity. They are, however, highly alert to the potential dangers of such arrangements, especially if the resulting work itself involves a question of site-specificity, or site-sensitivity.
‘The work is about expectation—it is not didactic. People come and they expect something from the work—what is it, what does it mean? Some people are disappointed that we don’t tell them what to think. It is more like holding up a mirror. What is happening in this situation—or not happening? We are setting a context for action, which may or may not happen. Our work is about taking responsibility for your choices.’
The Cove Park residency just completed was not part of the CCA exhibition deal that initially drew them to Glasgow, but once it appeared, they decided to incorporate it. Unlike many of their previous residencies, this one involved being on-site for an extended, two-month period (in other instances, the residency may have involved a two day visit to the site with research being done back in Rotterdam whilst maintaining contact with the place). Cove Park was also unusual insofar as they would be considering the new work arising from the residency in relation to the ‘old’ work that would provide the core of the CCA show.
As usual, then, they produced a plan, knowing that such plans are often discarded once the reality of the situation becomes clearer. They engaged in discussions with a range of people at CCA, investigating the building, its function, its organisation. Maybe they could make some kind of intervention here. But pretty soon they decided against this: they didn’t want to be problem solvers. So they would travel back to Cove Park to think again, passing the Faslane peace camp each time.
They were also extremely interested in the dynamics of the Glasgow art scene, similar in many ways, they thought, to the situation back home in Rotterdam. In particular, they were interested in how the energy and ‘edginess’ created by Glasgow’s DIY, artist-run, grassroots tradition, could be maintained. How could it resist becoming institutionalised, co-opted by authority; how could it resist succumbing to its own mythology? Cove Park thus became a convenient base from which to investigate these questions: convenient, paradoxically, because of its distance. The weekly meetings at the CCA continued: the presence of the peace camp grew stronger in their thoughts. Being at Cove Park, they felt, was like being in a military zone: everyone was watching everyone else. So their ideas shifted again.
Perhaps the work should be about the peace camp. How has it developed and constituted itself as a community over its 25 year history? How is this community manifest in material structures, such as architecture? In short, how is the community bound together? And why is it that the camp still looks temporary after 25 years? Discussions began with those involved with the camp, and Bik Van der Pol’s ideas started to develop. They worked at it for several weeks and then it dawned on them:
‘We looked at the peace camp and, though this may seem very harsh, we thought there is no development there whatsoever in the language of activism. We thought they could have been there for two days or 25 years. From a distance it looks more or less the same, and while activism can still function in this way, it also moves on to incorporate mobile phones, the internet and so on.’
Not only did the peace camp seem to offer no model for the development and renewal of activist strategies – the adaptability of activism to changing circumstances – they were also worried that they might end up by ‘exoticising’ activism. The fact that Glasgow Museum of Transport had bought one of the caravans from the peace camp served only to increase their doubts. This change of plan, however, was not seen as a setback. Experience had taught them two things: failure is always a possibility in any project, and thus a contingency plan is necessary (in this instance they had a selection of previous work around which to structure an exhibition if all else failed). Any project has to be driven by a sense of urgency about the situation in hand – sometimes you can search too hard for an idea, forcing it for the sake of convenience.
The peace camp may not have offered a suitable model to explore the idea of the development of activism, but it presented a very good model of DIY strategies. So it was back to CCA and the Glasgow art scene.
‘This is what interested us about the Camcorder Guerrillas [who are based at CCA]. What they are doing is very interesting because they think about the question of how to communicate their issues through the media. You can certainly communicate through the medium of the peace camp, clothes and banners, and we’re not dismissing that, but you can also communicate your issues through making documentaries and distributing them through channels that are there for all of us. You can distribute them on DVD, for example, or on YouTube.’
More conversations, more discussions with artists, writers, critics, administrators, and so on. Then it clicked: energy and change are developed and maintained through the circulation and exchange of ideas. The results of the residency would take the form of a publication that would provide a platform for local research, and for the dissemination of a variety of perspectives. Additionally, Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (also based at CCA) were approached, and agreed to be filmed as they spent a day discussing their ideas and developing a soundtrack. The freedom from habitual ways of thinking offered through improvisation, and the opportunity to work as a small creative community, were key elements for Bik Van der Pol, as was ‘the handing over of tools to others’. At last, they had found effective ways to address their central concerns:
‘If there is nothing, how do you do things? How do you organise yourself? How do you create a community and a basis to work together? How do you establish connections and chemical links to produce something interesting?.’
John Calcutt is a writer and lecturer at Glasgow School of Art Bik Van der Pol: It isn’t what it used to be and will never be again, CCA, Glasgow, 10 October-21 November