When The Space Becomes the Screen: A Research Laboratory and Public Outcome

Image by Aron Spall

This summer the CCRI doctoral cohort have been given access to the SHU managed project space at S1 Artspace at Park Hill. We have collectively curated a series of experiments and projects individually and collaboratively under the title ‘Whispering, shouting, touching, passing’. Within this programme a smaller group of researchers (Helen Blejerman, Roland van Dierendonck, Marika Grasso, Jackie Leaver, Tim Machin, Max Munday, Cathy Soreny and Aron Spall) put together When Space Becomes the Screen’, a two stage laboratory-exhibition centred around a collective interest in the possibilities of projection as a research and engagement tool.

Image Credit – Aron Spall

In early March we took a block of time in the space for experiments using ‘projection’ in the wide sense – as a mechanism for exhibiting images, as a way of producing images, as light and space. Technologies varied from the conventional – digital projectors, through the redundant – 35mm slides, to the cutting edge – projection mapping. Different approaches were trialled, with experimental, open ended ‘objects’ emerging from laptops into three-dimensional space. With projectors in situ, installations were made, dance performed, objects tested and collage was applied to walls as researchers from different backgrounds (our creative practices include dance, curation, materials research, AR, filmmaking, sound art, microscopy, neuroscience, photography, creative coding, painting and animation) worked alongside each other in an open ended, experimental, hands on way – with conversations ranging from the theoretical to the correct way to plug in a HDMI lead.

For many of us, the excitement lay in the production of these new ways of seeing our research. Not all of use are artists, not all these works would sit comfortably as a curated Fine Art show, carrying a weight of history and expectation. For most of us this was a testing ground for seeing our data in a particular way, exploring its boundaries and limits, understanding how it might work in a context one step from our research practices.

Image Credit – Aron Spall

From a personal perspective, as an artist and curator who has installed many film and video exhibitions, but not previously shown my own work as projected image, this process was very valuable – a supportive and nurturing environment where different kinds of experiences were pooled – benefitting from the expertise of a documentary film maker in thinking about the construction of narratives, whilst in turn being able to pass on my own knowledge of projection as an experienced, bodily way of encountering artwork.

This was a time for new learning for all of us as we butted up artworks that originated from diverse practices, negotiated sound and light leakage, darkness and illumination, movement and stasis and explored the possibilities of these, where overlapping views of projected images enhance rather than diluted the experience of these works. Beyond the challenges of the space (a converted 1950s garage, with ample top light and strong, brutal concrete architectural features) there were challenges in navigating the various institutional structures necessary to make use of the space – from borrowing AV equipment to technical support, to the specific access requirements of this (third party) space. These negotiations obviously informed the production of the work and (perhaps more importantly) in solving them together we have coalesced as a community of doctoral researchers in a way simply not possible in a Zoom classroom.

Image Credit – Max Munday & Aron Spall

We followed the ‘lab’ phase with a ‘public’ phase, 24-26th June, deliberately coinciding with Sheffield DocFest. Although taking the form of a public exhibition, it is interesting to reflect on what else this was. In particular the notion of the ‘public’, both as a ‘not private’ state, and as audience. To give some context, the SHU project space at S1 is set within the open-plan artists studios, which form both a key part of Sheffield’s art ecology, and one part of S1, perhaps better known as an art gallery – but critically not open to the public as a matter of course. At the same time the Park Hill setting is at once both a major landmark and somewhat out of the way of ‘walk in’ visitors. Finally, although DocFest might be considered to bring a large audience to the city who might be interested in experimental projection, the preponderance of city centre events and commercial industry focus might not have been a natural bedfellow for a doctoral research exhibition!

Our solution was to create our audience, through invitation and relationships (bolstered by some beautiful promotional material designed by Layla Gharib) inviting those we wanted to see the works (from supervisory teams to friends and relatives) and to consider audience both as in person visits and wider dissemination, with elegant promotional copy by Cathy Soreny, attention grabbing Instagram posts and reels by Max Munday (clocking up a tidy 1600 views over the three days) as well as a careful audio conversation between and around participating researchers and their works (thanks again to Max). In the end, we welcomed some 120 visitors over the three days, including (thanks to S1’s Joe Cutts) being able to bring DocFest delegates attending an event next door in S1’s Gallery space, and an afternoon of performances to finish the weekend.

Image Credit – Max Munday

A thread running through all of this was care – of the demands and needs of S1 as an organisation, of its tenants (mindful of the impact of a stream of visitors walking through a shared studio), care for our audiences (with vulnerable participants attending some days) and of each other – pitching in and picking up the jobs and organisation and care for our own well being during this still ongoing pandemic. There was also care for the work, with us guiding visitors around, helping them engage with the works.

And this engagement was real. Visitors were generous – with their time and praise: “I happened upon this show and it was a lovely surprise. Interesting work, rich with subject matter and research, authentic, intriguing and thoughtful” but suggestive of a wider impact – beyond the enrichment of our own practices.

Looking back, perhaps drawing together a community was our biggest achievement, new shared areas on a Venn diagram of over lapping relationships. Max Munday reflects: “I think the warmth and openness that everyone put into it helped to hold such a variety of very different works and themes, and made for a great audience experience. I think that last afternoon – that managed to engage people of all ages, with arts and non-arts backgrounds, local and international visitors, was a very special ending to it”.

‘Whispering, shouting, touching, passing’ continues throughout July and August.

Image Credit – Cathy Soreny

Written by Tim Machin