Points of Contact: Touch the object!

Alinah Azadeh is an artist, writer, mother and former Camden resident. For Love Camden she has reviewed Points of Contact, on show at Swiss Cottage Gallery until 1 July, 2017.

Cubes, created over 40 years ago by the artist Carl Heideken, is a delicately drawn series of twelve cubes, silent, floating in space on a single piece of white paper, darkening in density down the page with each row. To the artist who was asked to respond to the drawing, it arouses intrigue; ‘inside each box lies a secret, maybe even a mystery …disappearing into a cloud of mist’. To the young boy who was asked to respond to both the artwork and the artist’s words, they are an interactive game with very specific rules, only to be played in the forest by two people, called Twelve Wooden Boxes, Six Chances, where you only have six chances to find the prizes (including little figures called ‘special people’).

Points of Contact at Swiss Cottage Gallery, 2017 (c) Love Camden

This last response reminded me immediately of my 9-year-old son who is constantly inventing new games with simple elements and objects (inspired by digital gaming no doubt) which he plays in his head while walking along the street or with anyone who is willing. It also reminds me of my own experience with looking at objects and images in galleries and museums (where ‘Fragile, Don’t touch!’ was everywhere. You did not feel the warm welcome in such institutions which you often do now). Those formative moments of free association then led to sketches, travel and the desire to make art myself and have it be in museums and galleries for others to see when I grew up.

Here lies the magic of opening up the interpretation of artworks to children and young people - via artists, different media and new technologies - to bring to life art that is otherwise out of view and can easily be forgotten. The idea of a box containing lost treasures underpins Points of Contact, an exhibition at Swiss Cottage Gallery which shows the fresh, innovative and playful ways in which The Camden Art Collection is being brought into a closer ‘point of contact’ with children in the borough. Cubes is an example, alongside works by artists such as Derek Jarman, Victor Pasmore and Patrick Caulfield. The process of the project is as engaging as the exhibition and provides a blueprint for working with collections nationally via the Museum-in-a-Box model, especially in large collections (like the British Museum) where so much work is kept in storage and never seen.

Points of Contact at Swiss Cottage Gallery, 2017 (c) Love Camden

This is how it worked; eight artworks were selected from the collection as a starting point. I would like to see a lot more gender and cultural diversity in the works that are brought to light in this way in the future, but each of those selected for this project has obvious potential to trigger very imaginative responses and were clearly carefully chosen. Artists were then asked to respond to them, either via poetry, sound or storytelling, and these responses were recorded. Finally, a 3D printed copy of each work was taken - together with the artist’s responses - and used to compile the Museum-in-a-Box. This was the starting point for engaging over 100 children in creative workshops run by Esther Springett of Quiet Down There and George Oates and Charlie Cattel-Killick of Museum in a Box in libraries across Camden and at Great Ormond Street Hospital (via GOSH arts). The workshops captured the children’s comments, poems, stories, soundscapes and visuals through audio and video, which are both included in the exhibition via audio chips embedded in postcards of the work, playing in the space through a vintage style amplifier - and with simultaneous video projection on the wall.

I enjoyed guessing what the clearly intriguing storytelling prompts were referring to; ‘If you could step inside this painting, what would you hear?’ (Hampstead Road III, Francis Quesnel, 1979).  ‘If this sculpture came to life, what sounds would it make?’ (Cat, Ainslie Yule, 1975). ‘How do I move? What shape am I? What do I do by day and by night?’ The personification of the images and sculptures and the Camden-based focus of some of the works clearly gave the children an added possibility for connection and creative response.

Points of Contact at Swiss Cottage Gallery, 2017 (c) Love Camden

As an artist working with objects, collections and inclusivity, I loved discovering each layer of meaning which had been subtly and poetically laid onto and around these artworks, and which is quietly revolutionary in its vision of democratising objects in hidden collections and archives and putting touch-based interaction – and therefore a more powerful relationship – into the hands of future generations. Go and see, listen in -  and have your own imaginations triggered by the works here. My favourite was one child’s response to Barred Portal (Tony Mott, 1970’s); ‘When you go through the door, if it lets you, it takes you into its mind’.

The artist facilitated workshops had clearly inspired the children, validated their perspectives and enabled the capture of some moving and vivid emotional, sensory and narrative responses to the work. Points of Contact is a fine example of how, with the right tools and the willingness to collaborate, value and embed non-expert responses to art in their displays, we can all increasingly join minds with artworks, their history and all the stories that grow up around and with them and us.

For more information on Alinah and her work go to her website!

For more information on this and other exhibitions, have a browse around our exhibitions page!

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Supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.