Plinthed

Fourth Plinth July 2009 029

This morning, I finally got my chance to stand on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square for an hour. I know the Twittering classes are getting increasingly inured to some of the cliches of “plinthing” (in nothing else, Antony Gormley’s project has invented a new verb), such as nervous cries of how weird it is to be up there, but each individual who gets desposited on the plinth comes at it afresh with their own responses. Whatever you think you can expect from watching others do it, it’s all very different when you’re inside the experience. For many, I’m sure it’s a joyous thing to do, a chance to do something attention-grabbing for a while. I can’t say I found it a very comfortable hour, but it is a rewarding experience.

The first thing every plinther will notice is how well organised the operation is. Five teams of staff make sure everything is on schedule: they conduct interviews, make tea and coffee, take photographs, provide security, drive the cherry-picker that replaces one plinther with the next, and generally keep a relaxed atmosphere going around the place. Mostly hidden away in the big green control centre at one edge of the square, they make sure that things go smoothly, one effect being that as soon as you’re left behind on the plinth, you feel bereft of guidance. You have a slice of time and space (that’s not a metaphysical statement – you have 60 minutes and 10 x 4 feet) and nobody’s going to tell you how to fill it. The plinther preceding me had built an excellent CCTV camera outfit, and spent her hour hidden inside it, videoing the passersby. A nice mockery of the surveillance culture, and a nice visual paradox to see the official cameras capturing the big cartoony box capturing the goings on in London. The organisers didn’t bat an eyelid as she climbed into her box and stepped onto the cherrypicker – clearly, by this stage, they’ve seen it all.

I put my little digital camera on a piece of string and dangled it over the edge, fishing for photographers. Several people immediately got the idea, and started taking pictures. Unfortunately, I must’ve given the camera a knock when I pulled it back up, because it was broken after about 10 minutes of photographing. I wish there had been much more of this stuff. I’m especially fond of the word “plinth” written in string:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I had hoped the fishing for photographers would fill up my time more – it was fun to see people run with it, and it felt like a positive way to connect. Trafalgar Square is so familiar that I’d be interested to see if anyone could come up with a new perspective on it. So, I was left with my thoughts and my notebook. Needless to say, I didn’t write very much. I left a message for the next plinther in a Moleskine notebook, in the hope that it would get passed on to the next and to the next, and so on for as long as possible. If people didn’t want to write in it, they didn’t have to – I wouldn’t want to eat into someone else’s plinth time, especially if they’re wearing a monkey suit and struggling to hold a pen. All I wanted was to leave something behind that could connect from One to an Other. I spotted it on the plinth several hours later,  and I think I saw Kath Burlinson, whose hour of bodypainted dancing has been one of the plinth’s finest to date, holding it, but have since lost track – I wonder where it’s gone to now: let me know if you think you’ve spotted it…

Fourth Plinth July 2009 030

In a previous post, I bemoaned the critics’ (and non-professional observers’) tendency to reduce discussion of the plinth to the question of “is it art?” At the best of times, life and art don’t divide themselves from each other so starkly for it to be a pertinent question. There’s no tipping point where something becomes quotidian enough to stop being art and becomes a facet of life. One & Other is an ongoing project, and its accretion of detail to fill out a vivid picture of Britain’s attitudes to public art (which I suspect might turn out to be the real point of debate) is far more meaningful than any one participant’s contribution. If you’ve watched a number of plinthers, you will probably have noticed how upbeat the whole thing is. Almost nobody has used their hour to enact anything menacing, macabre or melancholic. Given the chance to do something creative (although creation is not essential to it – simple presence is the defining element, to my mind), Britons have opted to be boisterous, vivid and positive. This is a work with an unwarranted, but not unwelcome happiness at its core. Maybe that’s what riled a lot of critics – One & Other has none of the qualities of earnestness or expertise that critics of contemporary art usually require. That predictable refrain about the project becoming a highbrow Big Brother is hardly necessary, not least because it’s not highbrow, and because, unlike Big Brother, One & Other can still posit pertinent questions about the public’s relationship with cameras, the internet, celebrity and fame. Just look at the multidirectional exchanges of images, from photographs of plinthers, by plinthers, and the multi-angled perspectives available to its spectators. This is most obvious in the looks of recognition between people photographing each other while in the camera zone of the live feed:

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more about “People Photographing Each Other“, posted with vodpod

For myself, being on the plinth accentuated an ambivalence I feel towards being on camera. As invested as I am in visual media, I can’t help noting the changes they bring about in my own demeanour – an awkward care over my movements, stifling self-assessment of dialogue, made worse by deliberate, clmsy attempts to conceal these traits. Perhaps that’s a harsh self-critique, but it’s not a novel statement to say that cameras don’t just record stuff: they monitor and shape its outcome and interpretation. Add that to the snappily edited mediation of the live feed, with the Sky Arts team often trying to squeeze some kind of narrative about space and duration from the damn thing, with shots that follow what plinthers might be looking at, or sometimes what they’re not noticing (I certainly couldn’t have been aware that the camera was zooming to an extreme close-up of my notebook to point out that I’d hardly written anything). And from the moment you climb aboard the cherrypicker to spend 60 minutes surrounded by cameras and microphones, you can feel the mechanical mediation silently working away at you.

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more about “Plinth Tech“, posted with vodpod

You know that superstitious feeling you get that someone is behind you, staring? Well, it’s a lot like that. You can’t know who’s watching, or where, or what they’re thinking, but the Panopticon effect makes you modify your behaviour a little. Or maybe that’s just me. Some people thrive on that pressure, or shrug it off, but I can see why dressing up as a character might have been more comfortable – you can displace your anxieties onto a fictional version of yourself. But my raccoon costume was at the laundrette that day.

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