Victoria Jones talks to Richard Briggs, Sydney based artist and who's recently completed a T Projects public art commission at the Cherry Street Level Crossing Removal Project. Richard talks through the challenges of delivering a public art commission during COVID, which of course was an incredibly challenging time in a number of ways.
Victoria: Hi Richard, can you start by telling us a little bit about the Cherry Street project and how you came to be selected for this commission? Richard: Great to be here and discuss the project. I guess the first point of the call should be to explain - I'm an artist. I do drawings, line-based artworks, and in a range of scales, of urban life predominantly. I post a lot of these drawings online; Instagram is my social media of choice. From time to time, I just get enquiries "Do you sell your artwork? Do you do commissions?" Usually these are quite small scale and not so much in the public art sphere... but then I just got a message from you saying, "Hey, would you be open to taking some of your artworks and doing them on a really, really large scale for a level crossing removal project?” I didn't really know what a level crossing removal project was at that stage... Being based in Sydney I was not aware of the project in the Melbourne. So that's where the discussion started.
I think one thing I've always been interested in is how I can use my artwork to connect with the community - whether that be the community that I'm working in, or documenting or drawing, or whether it be to raise awareness about particular social and community issues. Using the artwork is a platform to get a message across about place, about what's important about the place, what's important for people and to enjoy. This was an interesting opportunity to explore this approach and use it on a much larger scale than I was used to. I’ve done murals before, but not to the same scale or within the public realm. Private commission murals up to 20 meters long, but certainly not to this magnitude in terms of the opportunity that would be integrated into a new public space. So, it was a really great opportunity. What I do is scalable and it's adaptable, so it was a good fit for the brief. Victoria: Was this your first major public art commission, how did you find that experience?
Richard: With my architectural experience, I understand the process and I've worked on large architectural projects with public art components. One thing that was really important to me, and something that I thought about a lot, was the fact that it was going to be permanent, in the ground, embedded in this public space, and the audience for the artwork… so the net was cast a lot wider than with past mural projects where the audience was a smaller and more selective. Whereas with this, I thought that it was really important that, whatever I ended up doing, it really needed to speak to as many people as possible. I started to think about how my drawings could be more universal, not be just directed at particular groups within a community, to be a more generic and encompassing for as many people as possible. That was really important to consider and the difference between working on a smaller scale versus a large-scale public art project. Victoria: Can you talk about what your proposed approach was to generate the drawings and then because of COVID, how this was adapted?
Richard: I essentially designed a process, as opposed to an artwork. Then the artwork would emerge from that process. The process was based on engaging directly with the local community, to deeply involve community in the process so they would engage with the artwork, become part of the story. For me it has always been a way of connecting with people, to have them involved in a process and to value the resultant artwork. In designing that process relied on face-to-face consultation and workshops, based in Wyndham.
Due to COVID, hitting just before we were about to start our process, we had to completely rethink how we would carry out the community consultation process. How can we do this?
We worked very closely with Wyndham City Council and the LXRP Communications team to create an online questionnaire using the questions I would have used as a basis in face-to-face workshops. But that felt quite dry and hard to really engage the community. It was too generic, so Wyndham City Council then gave me an extensive list of community contacts who I spoke to on the phone. I interviewed each and every, one of the people on the long list. I think in the end there was about 42 interviews, they were incredible, every conversation was fantastic, every conversation was very different. I needed as many different types of conversations, from many different types of people, different backgrounds, different aspirations, and understanding what's important to them within the local area. I pretty much spent a week on the phone, which was exhausting. For each conversation, I wrote probably about four or five pages of notes and did some little sketches, whilst we were chatting. The need to get around the COVID restrictions was actually really positive, and the one-to-one process was a really good in those very specific circumstances.
Victoria: Was this the first time that you worked with a design team to create an artwork? And can you tell us a little bit more about how that played out? Richard: It was the first time I worked with a design team of this size for a public phone artwork. Normally, when I'm doing murals, I’m on my own and do everything myself. So, this was the first time there's a whole design team including the art consultant to guide, which I think was totally invaluable, really great to have.
When you're on your own, you ask yourself a thousand questions whether you're doing the right thing? Or whether it's the right way that the artworks developed etc. It was really positive to have the wider team to help you move through and navigate the artwork development. Everyone offers different input, whether it be from a technical point of view, a creative point of view, a design point of view or a maintenance point of view. That was really beneficial and added an extra layer of coordination.
Victoria: There are a lot of downsides due to the pandemic, but there were also positive aspects. We began to think differently about location, in this case the location of fabricators and suppliers. It was suggested by a member of the team that these drawings could be carved into the stone paving overseas. You and I were initially deeply hesitant, but that worked out really well.
Richard: I think it goes back to being flexible. Things change, the goal post keep changing as a project moves from stage to stage, whether it be from a budget point of view, scope point of view, fabrication point of view. In this instance, it was a fabrication point of view which was also linked to the budget. It was a case of sending off the files and let's see what comes back on the boat.
There's that an inherent risk in that process and not being able to control that risk because you weren't part of that fabrication process, that was quite difficult to relinquish. But again, just coming back to what's going to happen. Let's see if we can get the best outcomes, that level of approach, that flexibility, responding to changing situations over the life of a project is really important. Victoria: Another aspect that is crucial is collaboration - public art is not delivered by one person. There are so many people involved and those people have to come together to make it happen, get on the same page and be driving in the same direction. Richard: Exactly. I think one thing I would say is everyone is striving for the same goal, they're all on an equal playing field. The landscape team, yourself, the project manager, even the presentations with the Urban Design Advisory Panel were great. I really enjoyed that engagement with the wider team because people could jump in and offer their areas of expertise to help move the project forward and get the best holistic outcome. Victoria: I'm so proud of your particular commission for Cherry Street, because it's so site-specific to the people in the place. Without telling the story, explaining the community consultation process, people may not necessarily get that as they walk past it/over it. Richard: Yeah, exactly. An aspiration with any artwork I do, every single line has to carry a meaning. That's what I always aspire to achieve. The aim of the artwork is to try and encourage people to stop and look and think about what they're looking at. Victoria: My next question is about fabrication. Can you tell us more about this process and the lessons learnt? Richard: I think maybe one thing from that is understanding the value of sampling. Continue to sample and sample. You don't get it right the first time and understand the technical requirements and the maintenance requirements etc. Understanding how can you retain the magic of the design intent? That's really the most important thing throughout the fabrication process - these drawings which were done derived from a conversation, pen on paper, then into the computer, then into the software which was then delivered to a factory overseas. Understand and accept you're not going to get it right the first time.
Victoria: You are definitely a stone carving expert now! Richard: Yeah, I actually learned so much about some of the properties of granite…
Victoria: Can you talk about the need for strong clear communications and positive relationships with a number of people, including the client, the architect, the creator, and the fabricator. Richard: Absolutely. I mean that's so important because as we've talked about, as a project evolves, conditions change, scope changes, the goal post keep move. As a team, holistically, collectively, you need to adapt to those changes, the way that you adapt to those changes is to have a clear communications. Victoria: So, you've learned a lot from this project. What's next for you?
Richard: The process that I designed for the Cherry Street project is a process that can be applied to any community and will always have different outcomes because every community is different. I've been working on a project recently in Sydney, using this exact process where I spent three months in the local community in Marrickville. Again, the conversations formed the basis of what I went on to draw. I've got another mural to do which is 50 square meters of wall drawing, which is the collection of stories which I've gathered in the community.
I'll be working with the Royal Randwick Hospital in New South Wales health and to do like a suite of drawings for one of the new hospital buildings.
I'm doing a massive public artwork up in Newcastle which is part of new residential development and working with artist Jade Oakley. And we're working with some amazing fabricators and working with a blacksmith to turn my drawings in to steal effectively.