Plymouth, like all cities, is a place of contradiction. A significant port throughout its history, it was decimated in the second world war, and radically reconstructed with the wide boulevards of Beaux-Arts: planners imagined a city that would be spacious, clean and egalitarian. Today, it is a microcosm of post-industrial Britain: heavy industry clings on but growth is in new technologies, the service sector and ‘creative industries’. Growing commercial investment coincides – unevenly – with increasing public investment in the arts infrastructure. Meantime, the city is marked by extraordinary inequality: in some areas over 40% of children live in poverty.
It is at this sticky intersection of brazen optimism and shrouded insufficiency that ‘We The People Are The Work’ emerges. A partnership between Plymouth’s major visual arts venues, the exhibition is comprised of five new commissions installed across the city. With each involving varying degrees of collaboration with the city’s inhabitants, at the core of the work is how each artist navigates the complexities of ‘social engagement’.
‘Systems for Saying It’ is Ciara Phillips’ latest transformation of gallery into working print studio. At Plymouth Arts Centre, her own prints in nude, purple and checkered slate are installed amid sumptuous fabrics, while the walls are painted in disjointed panels of soft violet, cobalt blue and gun grey. Other surfaces are busily papered with scribbled notes from Phillips’ meetings with participating groups, including Devon Women Against State Pension Inequality and feminist punks Suck My Culture. Phrases leap energetically from the walls: “co-operative seething”, “unconfuse myself”, and “while you’re doing up the bathroom, some dictator might take over,” sowing seeds of potential and politicised works to be made over the period of exhibition. Phillips has previously described the silkscreen as a mediator, but it is she herself who acts as a kind of medium – less a facilitator than translator of voice into vision, intangible into the material, and perhaps, urgency into action. Like all mediums, it’s a delicate balance between generosity, autonomy and serendipity.
Chance encounter is the essence of ‘Advice from a Caterpillar’, in which José Antonio Vega Macotela & Eduardo Thomas revel in the occasion of Tim Burton’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (2010), partly filmed in Plymouth. Two local film extras are this time given starring roles in a two-screen video at Peninsula Arts. Stylistically, the films adopt the simple visual technique of Guy Sherwin’s ‘Man with Mirror’ (1976/2011) offering only brief clues to the identities of the figures who slowly rotate mirrors directed at the camera. Their accompanying narration knits and knots together Alice’s story, their imagined role in it and their ‘real lives’ in the city, a confusion of time and location. There is a sense of looking into a kaleidoscope, finding only refraction and reflection. It’s a gentle refusal to fix identity to place or engage community as if it were anything but chimerical. In the words of Alice herself: “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”
It is left to Claire Fontaine, a ‘fictional’ French artist, to refuse outright an engineered engagement with locals. In KARST, thousands of black twisted matchsticks persist in the form of the UK land mass, following a performative burning. In a city that narrowly voted to leave the European Union, the artwork speaks brutally of self-destruction, a disunited country, a Britain that bleeds from its edges and smoulders with forsaken people. The odour of smoke lingers, a bitter aftertaste. But having previously burned match-maps of the United States, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, it’s unclear whether the artist’s nihilism is borne out of lived experience or is merely stylistic, tapping into the aesthetics of the cynical alt-left. The gallery is steeped in the angry red neon glow of words borrowed from President Trump – ‘I AM YOUR VOICE’ – speaking to and of the impossibility of representation. Fontaine performs the political like an incantation but spurns the possibility of transformation: their artwork has the impotence of a tabloid headline – or a presidential tweet.
There’s more energy in the middle-aged punk who bounces off the concrete in a derelict bus station, in one of five filmed performances in Matt Stokes’ ‘More Than A Pony Show’. Installed on screens at strangely claustrophobic angles in Plymouth College of Art, the project is the result of the artist’s exploration of Plymouth’s DIY punk scene. Part-celebration and part-elegy, the musicians perform in odd locations: a storeroom, a side street and a cramped living room, all spaces that are music venues no more. While no doubt poignant for those who remember them – “Everybody’s got a sad story to be told” one singer laments – for the outsider what emerges powerfully is the vitality of the people and politics that remain: this is a city-in-rehearsal, loaded with anger and anticipation.
It is appropriate, then, that the final project, Peter Liversidge’s ‘Painted Signs for Plymouth’, escapes the confines of the gallery. Assembled as a ‘sign factory’, the installation at The Council House consists of a pen in which trained (and paid) sign-painters take requests from a bulky book compiled of conversations with Plymothians. Hundreds of words, phrases and statements, ranging from the eccentric to the militant (“Pay Carers to Care,” “Ask the Wind,” “The Fruit Not The Phone”), are selected by visitors to be painted on to humble cardboard placards. While your sign is being made, nearby screens replay archival television footage of historical protests in the South West. You leave, bearing one or more signs, a walking diffuser of conviction, aspiration and humour across the city: protest as speculation rather than spectacle.
‘We The People Are The Work’ is woven with understatement. The curatorial framing and commissioned projects aren’t exceptionally radical nor do they represent a conspicuous development of any of the artists’ practices; projects born out of strategic partnerships rarely take significant risks. Yet neither is this a case of paying lip-service to the social. At the scale of rumour and small acts of resistance, it is real preparation, even training, for the protests to come.