The formation of QuARTet and Tow Path Eye

This is a bit of a retrospective entry, about an art event that happened in the summer. The art collective, called QuARTet that began with that event though, is ongoing, and will continue to grow. Although my role in QuARTet isn’t directly relevant to my MA research, it runs alongside it and in fact, it could be argued, spurs me with my personal research.

Last last spring, one Tuesday morning, I found a small note on my studio table that read: ‘Come and see me at some point today, I have a project you might be interested in. Mac’. Mac was (at the time) one of the MA students, studying a year ahead of me. He still exists, by the way. He’s now a graduate MA student and artist-in-residence. We have a shared interest in common, Mac and I, and that is drawing. Drawing plays a large part in his art practice and it has always been a massive part of mine. I was intrigued by the note.

Going back further, to February last year, the MA students (myself included) were visited by staff from the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. They gave a presentation on the history of the Ikon and various projects the gallery was involved in at the time and looking to in the future. During their talk, they mentioned the Ikon canal boat, or the ‘Slow Boat’ as they call it, upon which they allow artists to run small projects. At the end of the talk they told us that they were open to proposals for a creative use of the boat. The offer was casual. 

The Ikon Slow Boat

Mac had, at that time, as he sat with the rest of us listening to the talk, had a light bulb moment. He went away and thought about it for a couple of months. And then he approached me about his idea (via the note) to see if I would be interested in taking part. His idea was thus: him, myself and two other MA students would come together as a new collective. We would write a proposal to use the Ikon Slow Boat over a two-day period. We would invite people (passers by on the canalside in Birmingham) to participate in a community art project. We would lend the passers by a camera and ask them to take a photograph of anything that sparked their interest. The image taken would then be projected, on board the boat, onto a white piece of paper, via an overhead projector. The participant would then be invited to draw the projected image onto the paper and ‘create’ their ‘own’ piece of art. We would then exhibit all of these pieces of art inside and on the outside around the boat. The boat would act as an art studio and gallery. It would bring art and the community together. It would bridge the gap between the art world and people of the world. That was the idea. 

Mac’s investigation in the project involved looking into the relationship between the traced image and the ‘subject’ (i.e. the artist, i.e. him). This had formed a significant part of his research to date. He argues that the traced image, drawn in this fashion, although drawn by another person, has his index on it, or, his stamp. My interest in the project was about the process of creating images of ordinary ‘things’ and the choices made by the people taking part: whether it be a canal scene, buildings, each other or their shoes.

We wrote the proposal, met a few times, came up with a name ‘Tow Path Eye’, revised it, agreed upon it, sent it off and waited. We didn’t have to wait for too long.

Very quickly we received an answer from the Ikon: yes, let’s do it, why not? I confess to being very surprised to get that reply. I didn’t think they would say yes.

The next step was to meet with the Ikon staff one very hot summer’s day at the Ikon Gallery. We brainstormed ideas, discussed funding (there would be very little from the Ikon) and the practicalities of the project. We set a date: 11-12 August. A few of the original details of our proposal changed: the boat wouldn’t be moving now (we had wanted the boat to glide down the canal but this is too expensive), we would provide snacks, we might try to invite community groups (we were unable to do this due to time constraints), and we would have to find funding (we wrote to the Dean of the university and he came good).

The poster

Then we had some t-shirts made. We were to wear them during the two days.

The two days of the project went very smoothly. We hired the equipment from the university for the two days and took it all down to the centre of Birmingham (between the four of us, we just about managed). At 11am on Day One, just as we finished setting up inside the boat, we started recruiting passers by. We didn’t have too much trouble persuading people to take part. If anything, the opposite was the reality, very few declined our offer (except those on the way to the Sealife Centre). We managed to gather drawings from locals, tourists, children, parents, groups of friends, random single passers by, grandparents and lone wanderers. By the end of the two days, we had a lot of interesting drawings, all, arguably, with the stamp of the idea generator: Mac McCoig. I’m not sure how much of my stamp was in the drawings. But my interest and future research was definitely energised by the choices of images: my favourite being a pair of shoes of course.

The boatman drawing on the boat

This project, was to lead to another, this time I was approached by an act of serendipity, which I will write about next.

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