As a film-maker and textile designer I passionately believe in the power of light and materials to shape our experience of space, to shape how we learn, and to shape how we connect with ourselves and with each other.
On returning from my Churchill/British Council Travelling Fellowship I wanted to experiment with some of these ideas and to practise what I’m preaching in my book Made you Look, Made you Stare, by designing an installation to tell the story of my journey in 3D form.
Our London studio in Fitzrovia includes a wonderful Front Room and Gallery where we host events and mount exhibitions, so I was lucky to have a slot here to create a small but provocatively-formed series of installations which invites visitors to participate in a sensory experiment during their busy day.
One of the key threads that runs through the book is the rocky terrain between permission and prohibition that museums have to navigate. So I was keen to bring this core idea to life in my own exhibition through making and commissioning a set of visual interventions that would play with these ideas. Museums and art galleries compete on a daily basis for audiences who have an ever-increasing choice of immersive entertainment, but the need to protect precious objects from too many curious fingers means that museums have to work harder than most to engage their audiences in contemporary and meaningful ways.
As I travelled across the world I was struck by this inherent tension that museum-makers have to deal with and, while crossing the street in New York City, I had the idea that the celebrated WALK/DON’T WALK sign could be transposed to express this tension of TOUCH/DON’T TOUCH.
I commissioned a neon-sign which hangs in the window of the exhibition space, using this very familiar idea of the New York street sign but provoking a curiosity by transposing it into something much less familiar. Once through the door, the other installations are equally ambiguous and rely on the individual to react according to their whim…
Inside, the sound of a typewriter clicks away and animated type flicks across a white wall, expressing provocations from the book. Illustrations by Stephanie Sandall, also featured in the book, are writ large on the columns and walls and smaller extracts provide thought-provoking content for a sequence of laser cut picture frames that play on the key themes of storytelling, memory and museum-making. What does John Steinbeck mean when he says “If a story is not about the hearer he will not listen.”?; “Is the future of museums in an out-of-town warehouse?”, and “What is the relationship between story and the place in which that story unfolds?”.
All these elements provide a context for the main event. Working with my architect colleagues Dave Harris, Ashley Clayton and Harry Hewlett, I experimented with making a labyrinth from red rope. After many late nights modelling red thread, and finally realising I would need several thousand kilometres of rope to achieve what I wanted, we settled on some deliciously sensual ‘doeskin’ fabric. The idea was to create a piece that would visually and sensually interrupt the digital, head-driven space most of us inhabit in our city lives. The soft and tender feel of the doeskin on your face brings you quite literally to your senses; the repetition of the hanging strips plays with your visual perception, as you move so does your perspective and your very way of seeing is transformed.
The ambiguity of the neon ‘Touch/Don’t Touch’ sign continues as you approach the labyrinth. The rows of suspended fabric ask ‘do you dare to touch, to make your own way through or do you feel obliged to follow the implied route?’ Choose to follow the narrow pathway which opens up between the fabric strips, or allow your curiosity to lead you through the hanging strips in whichever way you please. The softness of the fabric makes this transgression seem easy and yet many people still confine themselves to the existing pathway.
I’ve entitled the piece ‘Détente’, because it evokes the sense of relaxation and loosening of strict formalities: the vertically suspended strips tease and subvert the tradition of the red velvet rope, while its repetition emphasises the enduring need for barriers and boundaries. ‘Détente’ also evokes the notion of ‘untented’, because the labyrinth resembles a tent-like canopy that has been fragmented, or broken down. The ordered geometry is still in place, but the spaces in between the draping fabric allow us to follow our senses, to connect with a moment in time and to move without constraint.
This piece is a physical expression of a core idea from my fellowship research that I feel passionate about. Although conservation and scholarship in museums must remain central to their purpose, there is increasing urgency for museums to be relevant to the communities they serve. To do this they must create connections with people and the human senses are a very good place to start that connection. Inspired by what I learned on the Fellowship, I want to re-imagine the very language of exhibition making, moving away from labels and glass cases and video screens towards a more playful, haptic and story-based design.
Alongside my own explorations I also commissioned fellow FCBStudios Partner (and Royal Academy-winning) model-maker Ken Grix, to create some chairs for visitors to sit and read. My brief to him was simple: ‘Explore the idea of ‘Touch/Don’t Touch’ and I want it to be made of soft red rope’. True to form, Ken disappeared into a cloud of material tests and modelling – and then taught himself to weave! First he made a small desk loom to test the model chair and then built a furniture-sized loom in the workshop on which he wove two beautiful pieces of red rope tapestry.
Ken’s rope chairs embrace this tension of 'Touch/Don’t Touch' by suspending the woven rope tapestries within a large steel frame. Designed to resemble a display case but without the glass, these structures dare you to break the taboo of that implied case and sit inside. The rope itself is soft and appealing to the touch, its woven design beautiful to look at and complex enough to make you curious as to how it was made. Et voilà! Two highly original pieces of furniture that look fantastic and that invite you to over-ride that tension – is it ok to sit inside or is it a work of art not to be touched?
Although playful, these installations ask some serious questions. I will be exploring these questions of permissions and prohibition, of story and connection and the metaphor of the red velvet rope in various collaborative projects across the UK.
1. Specially commissioned neon sign which plays with the familiar Walk Don't Walk sign in New York City but transposes the words to raise the question of permission and prohibition in museums and art galleries. © John Dawson
2. With the play of light and shade the soft doeskin textile almost takes on a structural, hard quality. © FCBStudios
3. The Front Room and Cornerhouse Gallery at FCBStudios, Tottenham Street, London. © John Dawson.
4. Experimenting with forms of display that reflect the audience back through the visual media. © John Dawson.
5. Giant illustrations drawn by Stephanie Sandall animate the Front Room of our London office. Extracted from the book, these illustrations take on a new life when physically connected to architectural elements. © FCBStudios
6. With the play of light and shade the soft doeskin textile almost takes on a structural, hard quality. © FCBStudios
7. Ken Grix, FCBStudios partner, model-maker extraordinaire and now weaver and furniture-maker, with his Rope Chair. © FCBStudios