Forma: A Celebration of 10 Years
Louisa Elderton in conversation with Forma’s Artistic Director, David Metcalfe
Forma is changing form and shifting shape. It is morphing to find its place among the growing sea of London arts organisations, galleries, non-profit spaces and creative production charities that now flood the city. Despite currently celebrating its ten-year anniversary, Forma has always retained a relatively low-profile, not seeking to promote the ‘brand’ over and above the artist or project. It is perhaps, resultantly, a lesser-known organisation commissioning and producing projects by contemporary artists. Working to conceptualise and develop installations that fuse the visual arts, performance and music, it has initiated innumerable projects with international artists to create often innovative and immersive experiences for their audiences, both in Britain and across the globe.
Most recently working with Japanese sound artist Ryoji Ikeda to produce superposition at The Barbican (March 2013), which investigated the reality of nature on an atomic scale, Forma has also collaborated through the years with artists including Jane and Louise Wilson, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Cerith Wyn Evans and Carsten Nicolai (alva noto), pushing at the boundaries of artistic practice to enable projects that are characterised by their hybrid nature.
Louisa Elderton met with Forma’s Artist Director David Metcalfe to discuss the organisation’s anniversary and achievements, future projects and the importance of site-specific projects which engage audiences in an immersive experience, providing unexpected encounters that museums struggle to emulate.
LE: Forma produces projects that blur the boundaries between the visual arts, music and performance, enabling the crosspollination between these areas of the arts. What is the raison d’être of the organisation’
DM: Really, what we’re about is helping artists to explore new ways of working. The projects always take different forms, but generally, there is something new and innovative about that avenue for the artist. It might take the form of collaboration, working in a completely new area, engaging with new technology or doing something on a larger scale. There are certain themes or ongoing strands and elements that do seem to run through the programme - music is one, technology is another - but Forma’s raison d’être is really about being an incubator for projects by artists who are trying to do something new. It’s about the idea and seeing where that can go; the type of work that we do is often about crossing boundaries and pushing artist into new areas.
At the moment we’re developing a new project in collaboration with Artichoke, which is going to be a big outdoor interactive projection piece. We’ve raised money from the Wellcome Trust for it and it’s about enabling a dialogue between art and science.
What is the starting point for Forma projects’
Sometimes an artist will come to us with an idea for a project and we’ll put together a team of collaborators around that; sometimes it’s a more open-ended starting point. For example, the film/music piece we made in 2010 with the American filmmaker Bill Morrison and the Icelandic musician and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, ‘The Miners’ Hymns’, actually started because of an invitation from the brass music festival in Durham. Obviously the project had to have a brass element and the festival also wanted to use historical archival film material of miners from the area. So I decided to bring two artists together who had never previously collaborated. The direction of that project was something that we curated and that is often what happens.
For our current project with Artichoke and the artist Gina Czarnecki, the starting point has been Gina working with biomedical imaging technologies and different scientific departments that study biomedicine. The piece will be called ‘Eyes’, and it’s almost like a journey into the body through the eye. In this case, we’re bringing together a group of scientists who will use their contacts to build a pool of scientists who can support and feed into the artist’s work. The later part of the equation will be getting a composer to write some music in response to the piece, and then a programmer to develop the interactive aspect. That’s often how it works.
So it’s a developmental process rather than being fully conceived of at the beginning of a project’
Yes, totally. It’s a really collaborative relationship. It’s not like an artist comes to us with an idea and we say ‘here’s the money, go away and make it’. It’s a much more engaged process than that.
Site-specific projects that blur the line between art and life and that merge various artistic disciplines have become more common over the past decade - especially through organisations such as Artangel, who continue to break down the divide between art and life, and indeed, museums trying to operate in a more dynamic and accessible way. And yet, it could be suggested that art is still considered to be an expendable entity, which is discarded when budget cuts occur or school curriculums are revised. How does Forma view and approach the relationship between art and life in making and presenting new ways of ‘experiencing’ art’
The work that we produce tends to be very much engaged with the real world. One of the things Forma is concerned with is telling stories. For example, ‘The Miners’ Hymns’ and Lynette Wallworth’s ‘Coral: Rekindling Venus’ are artist documentaries really. And that even applies to our most recent project at the Barbican with Ryoji Ikeda, which is an artistic response to ideas relating to quantum physics. There’s generally a real engagement with subject content in the works we produce.
The idea of placing a project into a context that is relevant to its theme is critical. ‘The Miners’ Hymns’ was particularly interesting as the majority of people who came to see the performance had a connection with the mining history of the area in Durham. This was fascinating for us as it was a new demographic of people who we didn’t necessarily think would be drawn to see the piece; most of the audience was over 55, which is unusual for us.
At the moment we’re involved in something which presents a new way of working for us. It’s with The Beamish Museum, an institution that collects material from the North East - originally it preserved historical material culture objects dated up to 1919, but they’ve updated the collection so that they’re now collecting material up to the 1970s. In collaboration with the Beamish Museum, we’ve just put in a bid to The Arts Council which focuses on the East coast of County Durham, hoping to target the areas with the lowest 30 percent of engagement with the arts. If we do get granted the money, we will establish a three year programme of commissioning, developing and making really interesting projects in the area in direct consultation and collaboration with the communities there. It’s a different way of working in a sense, but directly responds to the place and blurs the line between art and life.
So, the relationship of the viewer as receiver and artist or organisation as creator is shifted, becoming more of an equal exchange, a collaborative relationship based upon dialogue’
In a sense, the viewer is actively part of the actual commissioning process. It’s through that consultation that we will decide about how to develop the projects.
And you will be galvanising communities, encouraging them to participate, to question and be actively involved, rather than just passively absorbing something’
We want to be part of raising aspirations in this area of Britain. Since the closing of the mines there have been attempts at pumping investment into the area through industry, but what hasn’t been tried is something more culture focused. I think somehow there’s a real appetite for something that is forward looking and not just backward looking at the industrial past of the area. I’m hoping we can help to shape that. It doesn’t have to and shouldn’t be patronising; it’s about bringing some amazing international artists into the area to do some exceptional work.
Forma creates experiential moments with its projects. Why is this important, and how do you feel it can actively make us question the ‘everyday’‘
I think it’s certainly the factor that recurs through all of our projects. You can always view documentation of a moment on the internet, but it’s never the same as actually being there. We’re always trying to initiate and produce projects that are actively immersive. For instance, while the piece we made with Ryoji Ikeda for the Park Avenue Armory in 2011 went totally viral on the internet - as we actively encouraged people to take videos - the piece itself was on for a very limited period, so probably received a total of around 10,000 visitors (as opposed to the hundreds of thousands of people who viewed it over the internet). The most common response online is that people wished they could have seen it live, as you can see that it’s an amazing experience, but you can’t actually feel it.
That’s often a frustration, thinking about how we can represent ourselves and the work that we do online, but you can’t really - you can only ever get a flavour as you need the physical and immersive experience of it. With Lynette Wallworth’s work ‘Evolution of Fearlessness’, this was a subtle, beautiful interactive video installation about survival and strength. It involves interviews with eleven women who are all political refugees and survivors of extreme situations; they’ve all had experiences of real hardship, but what comes through is this overwhelming sense of strength. It’s about being immersed but also having a personal and intimate interaction with the piece.
I think that’s when an individual can really feel a connection with a work: when you can experience it. Forma’s projects are always immersive in a very interesting way; they’re often large scale, but your experience of it is a very intimate one. In terms of how it might shift an experience of the everyday, I hope it’s something we achieve, that you see a project and it has a life-changing property and is something that stays with you. Great art really has that potential, to leave you changed and to shift the way you might see something, or even changes you because it becomes a part of you.
Museums such as Tate Modern and MoMA are becoming much more active in programming performance art, immersive experiences and participatory projects, and indeed in acquiring these forms of artworks. But to what extent do you think the architectural parameters of a museum might be restrictive for an audience in terms of how ‘open’ they are to receiving a work of art’ In what way might site-specific projects enable people to operate without preconceptions or expectations’
In a way, there’s something about a museum context that takes things out of the real world. It can become this constructed and sterile environment. Certain art pieces just can’t function within this context, and it wouldn’t make sense to do them in there.
For example the piece we did with Chris Watson was designed to be presented at the botanical gardens in Kew (Whispering in the Leaves). We had various enquiries from museums about showing this, but it wouldn’t have made any sense at all within this context. The idea of the sound installation is that you enter the garden space, which while being full of organic plant forms is of course a constructed and manmade area, and it is transformed into a living and breathing environment. Chris made two sound works portraying the dawn and dusk sounds within a rainforest in South America; each was 15 minutes long that ran on a cycle once an hour. People’s experiences of the gardens were completely transformed by that cacophony of sound, so much so that when it was finished it really heightened the artificiality of the space. It felt really weird as for 15 minutes you’d been immersed in what sounded just like a rainforest, and which then disappeared to leave you with what, by comparison, felt like a one-dimensional visual experience. The idea of transposing a project like this into a museum just wouldn’t work.
With projects like that, you also get a totally different audience - we had 250,000 people visiting over three months. People are not going there to experience an artwork; they are just venturing into a day out and then stumble unexpectedly upon a work. There is something so exciting about engaging non-art audiences and offering them something that is totally accessible and also transformative. So in this respect, I think there’s a real value working outside the museum context. These spaces are great for certain projects, and you need that environment for specific things - an artist can need that framework and support. But there is an expectation that goes along with experiencing work within a museum, and to limit art to that way of engaging people is disappointing - it’s just one way of doing it.
Forma is currently celebrating its ten-year anniversary, and has worked with Sam Blair to commission a series of films that explore your landmark projects. Could you talk about a project that stands out for you as being one of the most memorable that you have produced over the past decade’
It’s a difficult question because there are so many. But I think I would have to say it’s Jane and Louise Wilson’s response to Chernobyl, one of the more recent things that I’ve produced and which I thought was a great project.
This was a project that Forma initiated; I’d been invited by the British Council to visit the Ukraine and meet with various festival directors. I had a series of really great conversations with people in May 2010 where they showed me some amazing spaces. It was the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster and I came back to London and really wanted to do something that explored this moment in time. So I approached Jane and Louise, which could have been seen as an obvious choice taking into account their work in post-Soviet states, but I thought ‘let’s see where it goes’.
The conversation started out as an idea to make a photographic project. Within six weeks of my first visit, Jane and Louise were out in the Ukraine, doing what was going to be just a recce, but actually, they made a series of photographs while they were there that were incredibly strong. At that point we didn’t have any partners on board, it was just an idea that was developing and we wanted to see where it could go. Once they had come back with the photos, we had the idea of taking that further and we organised another research trip where we got the artists access to an amazing group of people who were actually there in Chernobyl at the time of the explosion in the 1980s.
In the national film archive in Kiev Jane and Louise found an amazing film that had been directed by a Russian called Vladimir Shevchenko - he died shortly after making it, from radiation poisoning. The other person who died wasn’t anyone else from the film crew, but a man back at the studio who physically took the film out of the camera to process the negative footage. They realised that the camera itself was radioactive - he was actually the first person to die, so it was incredibly radioactive.
Jane and Louise became really interested in the film and in this personal narrative and story, and we ended up finding a way to contact the surviving film crew to interview them. The artists spoke to a physicist who was working in Chernobyl at the time and who was the last person to actually leave the control room at the plant before the explosion. They also interviewed the guy who was a commander of a helicopter squadron pumping sand and water from above to contain the fire in the reactor. So they gathered these quite amazing first-hand accounts.
In the meantime, we raised money from The Arts Council and the project became a series of eight photographs called ‘Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum)’, an installation film called ‘The Toxic Camera’ and a sculpture by the same name which was a cast of the type of camera that was used in Shevchenko’s documentary. Jane and Louise’s film is in fact partly shot in the site outside of Kiev where the camera is buried alongside lots of other radioactive items - this is a secret site.
So this was an incredibly rich project and resulted in a really strong, and in many ways beautiful, exhibition that we presented at The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester in 2012. The photographs were originally shown at Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) and the exhibition grew as it toured so that the whole Chernobyl piece was presented at the Whitworth.
For me, what was really interesting about that project was this deep engagement with the subject matter. There are, of course, lots of artist who have made work about Chernobyl, but I think this is the most thoroughly researched in terms of the access and the stories that the artists managed to uncover. The film itself becomes a sort of fiction documentary - it is currently being presented at film festivals and was shown at the Rotterdam Film Festival earlier this year.
Ultimately, this is a great example of the work that Forma does; developing, supporting, facilitating and shaping projects and research as it grows, building upon ideas. I think it’s a challenging way to work as you’re not really sure which way it’s going to go, but in this case, it worked incredibly well.
Ryoji Ikeda - The Transfinite (2011) from Forma Arts and Media.
One of a series of short films by the documentary maker Sam Blair exploring some of Forma’s landmark projects. For the whole series visit the Forma website