One & Other

Photos of “Plinthers” taking part in One & Other by Garry Knight (Flckr)

“It is a spyhole on the nation’s secret mind, incidental fragments of humanity that weave together into a rich and  glowing mosaic…What puzzles me is why this great swathe of humanity – some weird, some dull, ordinary or  mundane, some with strange views, others kindly – all leave us with a feeling of warmth and empathy.” It wasn’t  written as a description of Antony Gormley’s mega collaborative public art project One & Other – which finished  yesterday, when the last of the 2,400 volunteers, Emma Burns, came down from the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square  after her Hillsborough Memorial piece – but it could have been.

The quote is in fact from a ten year old Radio Times review by Polly Toynbee of  Video Nation, which I was co-producing at  the time (having set the project up – with Chris Mohr – back in 1993.) It came back to me as I was pondering why One & Other and Video Nation (during its BBC 2 heyday) feel like they have something in common – despite their fundamental differences.

One & Other: Art, 2,000 participants, Random selection, Brief Participation, Public Space, Spectacle, Live, 24/7, Digital.

Video Nation: Documentary, 50 participants (at any time), Selection, Long-term participation, Domestic Space, Speech, Recorded, Broadcast schedule, Analogue.

One & Other has been much discussed – is it art? is it good art? etc etc. It’s certainly a stand-out piece that’s put art right at the heart of UK culture for the 100 days it’s been running – this blog offers a photographic record. I’ve been enthralled by the parade of inventive, thoughtful, stoical, earnest, subtle, funny, brave, poetic, and yes – sometimes dull, sometimes baffling – performances offered by the ‘plinthers’. ( And how interesting to see how pervasive ideas from performance and conceptual art have become. ) I’ve been entertained by it and moved by it, at least by the impression I’ve gained from seeing it when I went to Trafalgar Square in August, when I’ve visited the website, but mainly through watching the weekly Sky Arts show. The images of spectators in the square and the traffic to the website suggests that lots of people have felt the same.

In his farewell blog entry Gormley describes One & Other as a ‘portrait of now’.  The idea of creating a collective self-portrait was also behind Video Nation, and later behind the Capture Wales digital storytelling project that I was involved in. But more importantly what all these projects have in common is the fact that, within clearly defined parameters, the participants have been in control of how they represent themselves. The ‘plinthers’ were invited to use their hour on the plinth/stage as they wanted,  to create ‘an image of themselves’. We invited Video Nation contributors to show us their world – ‘through their own eyes and in their own words’. Polly Toynbee went on, “This is not about observing people as jokes or “characters”, turning them into figures of fun as docu-soaps do. It’s about letting the camera climb inside people’s skin to see the world through their eyes.” As the Video Nation project evolved I began to see the recordings less as documents and more as performances of certain truths that the participants wanted to share about their lives. Despite the audience gaze, they felt like the subjects, not the objects, of the exercise.

Reflecting on One & Other at the project’s end Gormley suggests that the plinth “provided an open space of possibility for many to test their sense of self and how to communicate this to a wider world.”  That works as a description of participatory media too – as the “open space of possibility” that is self-representation. It seems to me that for the spectator it can be affirming simply to bear witness to that testing, undertaken with commitment, with sincerity. (Anthropologist Michael Wesch is doing really interesting work on this. Check out his commentary on Gary Brolsma – the original You Tube star.)