This is Human was a pioneering collaboration between Project X, a group of 11 emerging artists aged 18 to 25, that HOME invited to take over its building throughout August.
The arts centre worked with local arts organisations within a mile distance of the venue to recruit the 11 young creatives from a wide variety of disciplines. The final group of actors, performers, dancers, scientists, musicians and poets were given free rein of HOME’s entire building, and had been planning the takeover for over a year with guidance from lead artist Kate Bradnam.
In case there is any doubt over what could be expected from such a bold project – This is Human – among its many elements, included everything from an interactive computer game called Weasel Nation, devised by Dominic Bennett and Pat Farrell, where the public had to stop a weasel takeover; to a programme of film screenings curated by Lucy Grayson that showed life in all its many aspects. This Is Human was a project with a difference and with heart; not afraid to tackle the fundamental and wide-reaching concepts of ‘life’ and ‘humanity.’
Among the other commissions, ReTreat took the form of a fully immersive, multi-sensory ‘womb’ located on the stage of HOME’s main theatre, which visitors could exit via a slide into the front row of seats. Curated by artists Joshua Wilkinson and Teniola Dowie, ReTreat invited audiences to relax in a place of comfort and contemplation, and was accompanied by a free programme of mindfulness activities. This theme of inclusion and play reoccured throughout the other artworks in This is Human, which explored what a traditional arts venue can do for people and the community. The project saw the team reimagine traditional spaces such as the ‘gallery’ and ‘theatre’, and create a socially engaged programme designed to demonstrate the potential for breaking down barriers within an arts setting.
The artists clearly were not afraid to put themselves into the artwork either, as shown by the photography series Us, which featured portraits by David Fawcett of each member of the Project X collective. These portraits told a story of each young person’s background, interests and inspirations, both as individuals and artists. Poet Isaiah Hull responded to the portraits in an accompanying publication featuring a series of short poems that reflected upon a year of collaborating and working together as a group, as well as the individual Project X members.
Hull also developed the concept of Occupy, a continuous event that took over HOME’s main gallery space. Here, three giant puppets, created by groups from local arts organisations were housed; each reflecting unique group identities outside of the collective. These three colourful characters were dominated by a final fourth large scale, interactive puppet with no identifying age, sex or birthplace. This character was named ‘Atlas’ by Hull, with the thought that if the mythological heavy weight was suddenly relieved of his earthly burden, he would just ‘be.’ After carrying the weight of the whole word and all its people past and present, he would no longer belong to any identifiable race, religion, age or gender.
For Hull, this in turn led him to reflect on the nature of artists and what is expected from them. Hull is interested in breaking down the idea that the role of the artist or the poet is defined by his or her actions or creations. He wanted to return a sense of humanity to the artists, poets and musicians of this world and, similar to Atlas, let them ‘just be’. This, he feels, is vital in order to create. Atlas was on strings that could be pulled by any member of the public walking past, which Hull intended as a bold statement on the way artists are often made to operate.
The effect of the puppets in the gallery was eerie; partly due to the abandoned and unsettling quality that motionless puppets often have, but also partly because of the sparseness of the space. The gallery was presented with no art on the walls, occupied solely by puppets that were only animated when members of the public engaged with them.
Fortunately, however, a series of events and performances were also planned to occupy the space. At the launch event a puppet procession accompanied by drums encircled the building. The movement, vibrancy and celebration of this performance, followed by the puppets’ return to their stagnant and inert positions, was a powerful reflection upon the nature of art and the gallery space. It spoke with clarity and, as with the rest of the exhibits, it spoke directly to the heart and humanity of its audiences.
This is Human embodied a new spirit of opening up the gallery space to engage with young artists and new audiences. In this spirit of innovation, invention and collaboration, HOME succeeded in demonstrating what can be achieved through working in alternative ways and, in the process, created a new workable model for other art organisations and venues to use and develop in the future.
This is Human, HOME, Manchester.
3 – 31 August 2017.
Emma Bosworth is a writer and Press & Media Assistant at Venture Arts, based in Manchester.