Cardigan closed to the new after public art debacle

David Hedges surveys the wreckage after Cardigan votes to reject a major public art work

Cardigan’s 900th anniversary year in 2010 was to have been marked by the commissioning of a major work of public art, backed by Channel 4, with all the attendant publicity. The project collapsed into acrimony, and last month was brought to an end. Why?

In 2005 bids were invited for a competition to commission public art across the UK and Cardigan was one of only seven sites out of the 1,400 which entered to be part of the Big Art project. An initiative of Channel 4 and supported by a number of arts organisations, the competition was designed to inspire and create new public art and in the five years since it started new works of public art have been successfully commissioned in places like Burnley and St.Helens. Many featured in the TV series which aired last summer, but by that stage the project in Cardigan had already stalled. Unfortunately in 2010, Cardigan’s 900th anniversary year, there won’t be any Big Art celebrations because last month the project was brought to an end.

The project would have seen the development of an interactive artwork floating on the Teifi using sound and light. Designed by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, the project, titled Turbulence, would have involved 127 floating buoys moored in the river, rising and falling with the tide. The buoys would be lit with LEDs and loudspeakers and microphones along the quay would record the voices of passers-by, store them within the buoys and set off the lights. When the river became turbulent the voices would be played back.

It was designed to reflect on Welsh oral traditions of poetry and song creating in the artist’s view ‘a playful, participative platform that is activated by the natural cycles of the tide’. For me it was also an echo of a time when the quay was a departure point for many leaving Wales to find a new life across the Atlantic on the North American continent. Imagine the final shouts of good luck and farewell that would have resounded at the quay as families waved their loved ones goodbye for the last time – something the 900 year anniversary celebrations are picking up on, with contact from communities in New Brunswick in Canada, established by migrants who left Cardigan in 1819.

The project appears to have failed because it didn’t gain enough support from people in the local community who felt disenfranchised by the process. They found too many practical difficulties and insurmountable problems with an art work many found hard to understand.

Ironically the Big Art project set out to ask some questions about how ‘public’ public art is and how much influence local people have over what lands up where they live. Sadly the project process didn’t succeed but what’s worse is that nothing was rescued. Despite the efforts of some to ensure the town ended up with some positive result from the process, the town ends up with little to show for all the effort. Indeed some argue that the bigger failure is that the town will now miss out not only on regeneration investment for part of the quay but also more broadly for the town itself.

The plan had been to produce the art work and refurbish part of the Strand, alongside the river, to act as a viewing platform for the work in May or June, to coincide with some of the 900-year celebrations. However, the announcement by the scheme’s sponsors and partners pointed to the implications of the project’s demise:

“Even though the project would have brought with it the regeneration of the Strand quayside, as well as benefits for local traders through increased visitor numbers, the poll showed that these benefits are not likely to shift enough people’s views in order to produce a positive result in favour of the project.”

The local press reported the town’s Major expressing his sadness at the loss of a significant investment in the town’s regeneration while a leading protestor expressed his delight at the decision.

The project attracted opposition from the beginning with opponents arguing that the work would create a series of problems for wildlife and other river users, long term maintenance liabilities. Others said the funds for the scheme should be spent on other more pressing priorities for the town and that the nature of the work was ‘silly’. Despite efforts to respond to the fears of local people by adapting the project, concerns never went away. Whilst there were many who supported the idea, the voices of those who didn’t want it were loud enough to kill it off.

Cardigan loses the £400,000 project funding for the art work, and although efforts are being made to save the regeneration funding to improve part of the river frontage (reported as being £200,000) there’s a risk that this, too, will be lost. More generally, the town has signalled that it doesn’t easily embrace anything new and different – certainly when it comes to public art. It may be years before confidence in any kind of major investment in the town returns (beyond the supermarkets in the pipeline). But if the concerns about lack of community involvement were the reason for the project’s demise why didn’t the spirit of compromise save the project so that all of the regeneration possibilities, potential boost to tourism and more weren’t lost?

Britain’s record of embracing public art is littered with controversy. Often misunderstood as simply about permanent plinth-based solid sculpture in stone or brass or steel, we’re now much more aware of artistic interpretation of the world around us which is temporary as well as permanent, performance based, in both small and large scale and variously confrontational.

The work of Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley are well known for being sculptors in the landscape. They too have faced criticism and opposition. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer was hoping to become just as well known for his work in Cardigan. In the art world Lozano-Hemmer is a rising star with critical success at the Venice Biennale and works in many cities around the world as well as in the UK. If it had been completed it would have been a unique piece of public art in a landscape not known for much beyond the figures of icons (mostly male) from Welsh history.

What lessons can we learn from what happened? The journey to win and retain local support was long (as it often is) but lacked some essential ingredients such as the need for an inclusive, participative approach to community consultation. It could have been clearly stated that an international artist was to be given the job Instead, a flawed democratic process was put in train which meant that the local community was never able to take ownership of the work for itself –  a slow and delicate process.

It failed to join the short term availability of an international expert’s skills and interest with the enthusiasm of local people destined to live with the results of the work in the years ahead – beyond the 10 years the work was intended to survive. The risk of disinterest was never likely as protest kicked in early on. And despite the hard work to deal with the many and various concerns along the way, the end result is the Nazism of ‘no’. No is sometimes easier to say than yes to something new or unknown.

The risk to the town’s reputation – becoming seen as a place which appears small-minded, prone to philistinism and closed to the new – appears not to have been that important to anyone. Whilst it’s hard to know what kind of investment might have been lost altogether, its much harder to estimate the damage to the town’s reputation as a place to engage the local community’s interest, carry out large projects with community backing and produce genuine community led regeneration. Putting a price on this reputational risk is as difficult as estimating the numbers of new visitors which might have been attracted to stay and spend money in the town, the multiplier effect of the regeneration investment or the added attention that might have been drawn by positive media coverage of the artwork.

The leaders of other towns must look at Cardigan’s example, shake their heads and wonder why they weren’t given such opportunity to create public art in their communities. Let’s hope that some lessons are learned from the experience in Cardigan and that the town is able to recover quickly.

David Hedges is Director of the Cardigan based consultancy Cyngor Da

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