Artangel co-director Michael Morris talks about their remarkable installations and why the Roundhouse was the perfect place to create them.
Artangel works with artists to produce extraordinary art in unexpected places in the UK and around the world. They helped produce Rachel Whiteread’s Turner Prize-winning House in 1993 and Michael Landy’s famous 2001 work Break Down.
In the late 1990s Artangel set out a brief to produce three commissions at the Roundhouse with three sets of artists. These were Choreographer William Forsythe and Dana Caspersen whose 1997 work Tight Roaring Circle saw a world record-breaking bouncy castle squeezed into the Roundhouse’s iron pillars; Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s 40-foot spiralling structure, The Palace of Projects (1998); and Choreographer Alain Platel and Composer Orlando Gough’s Because I Sing (2001) that brought together choirs from across London for a unique choral experience in the round.
They have since returned to the Roundhouse to present a section of the project Longplayer, a 1000 year-long score that has been playing since 1999 in a lighthouse in London. Here we speak to Artangel co-director Michael Morris to find out more about these remarkable installations and why the Roundhouse was the perfect place to create them.
Artangel have produced work in a fascinating variety of places; from department stores to prisons, fire stations to lighthouses and even beaches. What is the process for selecting these locations? Does the idea always come first and the location chosen accordingly or is the location found first and the artwork developed in response to the space?
More often than not the conversation with an artist comes first and out of that conversation comes an idea, and out of that idea comes the kind of place that might shape the idea so it’s a sort of organic process that comes from the artist.
That was deliberately not the case in the 1990s when we decided to do three different commissions with three separate artists in the Roundhouse, something we’d never done before.
Why were you drawn to the Roundhouse in particular for these commissions?
We were particularly drawn to the Roundhouse because at the time it was a found space with no heating or water, inhabited by pigeons and a bloke called Reg who use to shoot them with an air rifle. It’s a space that works in so many ways on so many levels. I can’t imagine many artists going in there and being disinterested, it’s got such a presence.
The project was very particular to the roundhouse and particular to our relationship with Torquil Norman. He hoped by Artangel doing these three commissions, people would be reminded what a wonderful building the Roundhouse is. It was a way of saying we have a new idea and plan for the Roundhouse. Torquil just said go for it and so we began conversations with the artists.
And what was the process like when working with the artists? Did they come ready with their ideas or did the space impact on their artistic decisions?
The artists had no ideas, they were all entirely in response to the space – each artists came in and started developing thoughts. In the case of the Kabakovs, this happened quite quickly. William Forsythe’s piece went through a vast range of different iterations including an idea involving 30 performers who in the end we didn’t work with; it was very much trial and error. And the choir project, Because I Sing, really developed once we were confident there were enough hidden choirs in London to make the work viable. Each piece had a different path.
Alain Platel’s 2001 work, Because I sing, brought together amateur choirs from across London for a spectacular promenade performance with a sense of community at its heart. Can you tell us a bit more about where the ideas for this piece came from and what influence the Roundhouse had on it?
It actually came from Alain Platel identifying that the word choreography and choir have the same root. He’s always been interested in choirs and it’s because of that early idea that I decided to introduce him to composer Orlando Gough. He ran a choir at the time in the UK called the shout and was an expert on choral traditions both secular and sacred. We decided to make the process into a documentary. The choirs were so interesting and diverse and came from such different parts of London, it became almost a portrait of the city.
The culminating performance at the Roundhouse was done in the round. Everything we did in the Roundhouse was inspired by the circularity of it, the shape of it. I don’t think these commissions would have worked in any other place but the Roundhouse. The building was the constant theme between the three projects.
In William Forsythe and Dana Caspersen’s 1997 work Tight Roaring Circle, Artangel helped fill the Roundhouse’s Main Space with a giant inflatable castle that spectators were invited to bounce on. Can you tell us a bit more about the concept behind this installation (aside from it being a lot of fun)?
William Forsythe referred to the bouncy castle as a choreographic instrument, one that actually influenced the movement of the people on it; it made it hard to stand up straight. It was animated with a booming soundtrack from Joel Ryan underneath who collaborated with us on the musical composition. We didn’t programme performances for it because it was made for the public but it was as if every set of people that went on it formed a kind of choreographic ensemble, made to move in certain ways by the pneumatic nature of the surface. It was very hard to be still on it because the movements and the bouncing of the other people meant it had a momentum about it. When you look at films shot of it, it almost looks like a giddy disorientated ballet.
For all of our work at Artangel we usually like to test out the popularity of it on kids. We like to make all of our work good for kids. Tight Roaring Circle was my kids’ favourite Artangel project. It got into the Guinness world records for the biggest bouncy castle in the world.
Did the scale and structure of the Roundhouse present any challenges when producing this piece or did it allow more artistic freedom?
A Physical building always presents constraints – we couldn’t have made the white bouncy castle any bigger but that spurred the idea to make it just a little bit bigger so it appeared squeezed into the central iron pillars. This created a sort of comic effect like a cartoon castle bursting out of its confines. So we were definitely lead by the specificity of the building, the circularity of it and its unique nature.
The Roundhouse has been involved in an ongoing project originally produced by Artangel called Longplayer. Can you tell us a bit more about this project and why the Roundhouse was selected as one of the venues to host events alongside this piece of work?
We decided in 2009 when Longplayer was nearing its tenth anniversary to do a thousand minutes of the score live. Aside from the acoustics being great at the Roundhouse, again, there’s something about the shape of the building that made it perfect for this piece. Longplayer is a project that is circular; it was generated on the Tibetan standing bell, which is a circular brass percussive instrument and the score itself is circular in format, it ends in a thousand years but could begin again in a thousand years.
Why is it important for Artangel to take art outside the confines of a gallery?
Because I think you get a different relationship between the work, the place and the public. For us the public is always the final element – the way the public participates in a work defines it really. I think you get a broader audience if you’re doing something in a place that doesn’t have a label like ‘museum’ or ‘gallery’ or ‘concert hall’ – when you do it somewhere else, something occurs between the public the place and the idea.