Towards A Common Language was the first of our participatory exhibitions. It resulted from an Invitation by Peter Moores (one of the Blackie's co-founders) to be part of his exhibition 'Magic and Strong Medicine' at The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Magic & Strong Medicine (curated by Norbert Lynton) was itself the first of Peter's bi-annual exhibitions.
The Blackie decided that its contribution would be a week-long exhibition which would offer people the opportunity to create works.
Its inspiration came from a very early Blackie summary of its purpose in which it sees itself as a Bridge between artists and communities. The summary starts with the words "Democracy cannot exist without a common language, and we don't have a common language." Hence the title of the exhibition.
When people arrived they found a variety of 'works' - all rectangular, of various sizes, and made up of blank paper, blank board, and blank canvas. These works - were hung around the walls of an exhibition space in a large gallery. The blank works were displayed against a black background, and a black border ran round the floor of the room at the foot of the works. The works were hung and lit with all the care of 'completed' works (balancing the weights, sizes and textures of the blank pieces against one another and against the black backÂground) - and the exhibition was accompanied by Japanese woodÂwind music broadcast from a sound system. The arrangement, at the opening of each day, had something of the formality and pleasure of an oriental garden.
On the floor under each blank work, and the same length as the work itself, was a black box. Because these boxes were black they tended to fade into or be absorbed by the black background and black floor border. In each black box were artists' materials appropriate to the work above.
People visiting the exhibition might choose to enjoy the austere and geometrical "black-and-white garden" (with the black border providing an aesthetic frontier for the viewing of the pieces), or to open a box and set to work, or play, to 'complete' a work (in which case the black border acted as a paint-and-work cloth to protect the floor). Works 'completed' were then replaced by 'blank' works.
Without the black boxes the exhibition of blank works on the walls of the gallery would have existed withÂin a well established tradition of the contemporary arts as a valid gallery statement. The addition of the boxes (necessarily and discreetly followed by the addition of staff to service them and a 'shop' for additional materials) began to take the exhibÂition into the newer tradition of the community arts.
How it Worked
Strangely, given how things turned out, one of the initial concerns was whether people would actually turn up and want to paint. In fact the pre-publicity, including direct mailing, for the Exhibition resulted in a queue of people waiting for the Exhibition to open.
People queuing to enter the exhibtion
From the beginning there were waiting lists for the work stations. It turned out that there were solution to this which we had not thought of. Some people decided to share a 'canvas' - in some cases working on one picture and others simply divided the canvas in half. Some works were created by families others by people who met at the exhibtion.
Family and friends sharing canvases
Such was the demand that we also found ways of increasing the number of stations, allowing young people to colonise the floor and a spare table. so we started with 15 work places and ended with 18.
People approached their works very differently, some came and completed a work in one go, and others returned on a daily basis to complete works. Some people completed more than one work.
Works ranged from the complex to the simple - in running the exhibition we never commented on the work only on the materials and their usage.
Although adult visitors outnumbered children nevertheless many more children than adults wanted to create works. One of the tasks of those running the exhibition was to ensure that the children left spaces for the adults, This was achieved by working on a ratio of 2 children to one adult, so that at any time at least a third of the works were being created by adults.
A lot of the peole who visited were very happy just to watch other people paint - sometimes very closely.
People completing a 'work' were able to take it away with them. Any works not taken away were taken down (and put on display in 'poster racks') and then replaced with a further blank 'piece'. Visitors could not only watch people paint they could also choose from the works not taken home by the artists.
Poster rack containing completed works
People leaving the Exhibition with thier works
Over the week 3,475 people (2,144 adults and 1,331 children) visited the Exhibition and 943 people (301 adults and 642 children) created works. In all 692 works were taken away, posted on or delivered on request.
The Exhibition took place in the Education Room of the Walker Art Gallery. Admission was free. It opened from 10 am to 5 pm every day except Thursday (10am to 9 pm) and Sunday (2pm to 5 pm). 22 - 28 October 1973.
A choice was made to provide materials which would or could be used by 'professional' artists.
The various work stations had blank works appropriate to the materials in the black boxes, The works were drawing paper, water colour paper, Daler Board, and canvas. The materials in the boxes included drawing materials (pen, ink, charcoal, pastels) graphic materials (Letraset, coloured transfers, rulers), and painting material ranging from water colours, gouache, modern acrylic paints, to oils. alongside appropriate brushes.
Each Box contained a card explaining what the material were and how they should be used. If you ran out of materials, or needed something not in the Box then there was an artists' materials 'shop' in the gallery where you could go for help and advice.
In what was to turn out to be a feature of all the Blackie's participatory exhibitions at the Walker, we set out to get materials donated or at the very least at a concessionary rate and in the process formed what turned out to be long term relationships with a huge range of companies to whom we owe everlasting thanks.
So the Exhibiton was made possible by donations from Letraset (UK) Ltd. (London); L.G.Harris & Co. Ltd (Bromsgrove) ; Hamilton & Co. (London) Ltd. ; Winsor & Newton Ltd. (London); H.Blyth & Co. Ltd. (Manchester); Clarke Pennington Design (Liverpool) ; Colyer & Southey (North) Ltd. ; (Manchester) ; Douglas & Walls Ltd. (Liverpool) ; Samuel Heap & Son Ltd. (Rochdale) ; Leighton Advertising Ltd. (Liverpool) ; Northern Design Unit (Liverpool) ; Rockware Glass (St. Helens) Ltd. ; T.J.Hughes & Co. Ltd. (Liverpool) ; United Glass Ltd. (St. Helens).
And materials were supplied at concessionary rates by The Daler Board Co. Ltd. (Wareham) ; Geo. Rowney & Co. Ltd. (Bracknell) ; Aquatec (London) ; J.Davey & Sons (Manchester & Liverpool) ; Oriana Fabrics - Armitage & Rigby Ltd. (Warrington) ; Blacklers Stores Ltd. (Liverpool) ; Liverpool Central Libraries.
The leaflet which was mailed before the exhibition set a challenge with the question - who is an artist? A bit like Spot The Ball.
The dual facts that Towards A Common Language was part of Magic & Strong Medicine and a unique exhibition, resulted in extensive press coverage.
The Exhibition was devised by Bill Harpe and Dave Rickus and staffed by them and Tony Agate, Chris Brown, Paul Brown, Mary Copple, Bill Drummond, Wendy Harpe, Matthew Ignacio, and Jym Mac Ritchie. And of course with the help of the staff of the Walker Art Gallery some of whom also did works through the night..
George at work during the wee hours