Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Field Trip to Milton Keynes

The Starting Point

It is late morning when our small community draws into Milton Keynes (MK); the day is grey, the location is at once familiar and absurd. C hands out copies of Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Star Maker’. The cover of the book draws us into its miniature galaxy giving out starting point as Stapleson’s protagonist emerges into a world of pavements, streetlamps, damp foliage and brightly lit windows shut out by curtains. It is from this non-place suburbia that the linear narrative is blown open, and a connection made.

Observations on a flattened grid

Driving through the city we fill up on boulevards and arcades, big grey sky, flat buildings (in planning--not one higher than the tallest tree), pedestrianised walkways and demarcated public space, routes for buses, for cars and for bikes. We’ve been researching the town for a few months now, pulling out those things we find to be of interest and trying to gather a comprehensive view of its early development. MK was built to accommodate vast overspill from London of the 1950s with its location deliberately equidistant to other major cities including Birmingham and Leicester so that it could maintain independence as a town in its own right. The town planning signalled a return to the ideals of the Garden City Movement. The movement, which was founded by Sir Ebenezer Howard, aimed to create planned communities surrounded by greenbelts. Each community was to be self-contained, consisting a balance of residences, industry, and agriculture. Garden cities would act as satellites surrounding larger cities, with easy access by train and road. Towns were promoted for healthy living and represent ambitions of social welfare, creating space for a whole measure of social life. Representative of this model are the tree-lined boulevards of MK and its even spread extending from a central malls. Yet as we navigate MK we develop an unease seemingly derived from a sense of placelessness, for there seems to be no middle to MK, rather a set of unravelling strips always running parallel.

MK Gallery

Our first activity is a trip to MK Gallery where Black Dogs have facilitated the project MK2 Survival Kit. The MK2 Survival Kit proposes skills of, and activities for, ‘survival’, to help us get by, once we have left earth and landed on the planet ‘MK2’. The accumulated information has been gathered through participatory methods creating a body of knowledge that takes as its centre point the town of Milton Keynes. The work presents 21st century ‘techniques’ that have allowed humans to entertain themselves and cites a wide encyclopaedia of activities including finger puppets, the internet, fancy dress costumes and modern art. The exhibition aims to question whether such life-skills will prove indispensable to the future generations of the new planet. Within the exhibition the here and now becomes somehow ruptured from its future, which remains light-years away, and simultaneously a bizarre accumulation of senseless activity, a place of recycled meanings and ideas.

…as is shopping centre as is hospital as is school as is business…

We enter a hospital-like shopping centre, an enclosed street area with shrubs and glass. A small Christmas town has been set up in the centre, hyperreal, a fantasy place enclosed within another. Over lunch we hold a quick seminar. The conversation focuses on progress through a model of enplotment. A question is posed: ‘is progress ideological?’ And following this: ‘Have we stopped being able to imagine the future?’ The discussion is informed by the previous exhibition and our research prior to the visit. C poses two final questions: ‘how do we approach this place? What is our method?’

Signs that stand

We are interested in the relationship between the urban planning, architecture and use of public art in the development of new towns. Public artworks provide certain cultural signage as to social and economic conditions in a geographic area and embed certain historical meanings into the fabric of a place. At the same time public artworks can come to stand as though totemic signs, fulfilling iconographic and monumental functions that are no longer representative of a specific place but as though signs for any place. R hands out map that delineates a circular route, a public art track through the town that allows us to take in some of the many public artworks of Milton Keynes. So certain works act to as signage of public spaces, demarcating leisure time through various iconographies of a satisfactory shared experience. These are mapped out across a city that is without a centre for example in Andre Wallace’s ‘The Whisper’, Nicola Moreton’s ‘The Conversation’ and ‘The Meeting’ by Nicolas Moreton. Other works deal with a kind of collapsed time or perhaps a slippage between different times that eschews in some way continuity as in Boyd and Evans’ ‘Fiction, Non-Fiction and Reference’, a painting taken solely from other references and so full of signs that it becomes hollow, or Wendy Taylor’s Octo which forms a snaking mobius strip in the centre of a pool of water--the absolute zero sign that conversely represents affinity. Then there are those incidental sculptures that are integrated into the place as though punctuating the town through a linguistic iconography of ‘church’, ‘street’ ‘bank’ and ‘shops’. These integrated works include Alan Evan’s ‘Church Cross’ and Tim Minett and Peter Sis’s ‘Bollards’. Then there are those sculptures that work to give over time to Milton Keynes, a veritable archaeology of sculptures with an ancient time of their own including Tim Ward’s ‘Acorns and Leaves’ and Bill Woodrow’s ‘Sitting on History’.

Observations Upon the Late National Embarrassment

Our tour ends, well nearly, with the concrete cows of MK. The cows, made by artist-in-residence Liz Leyh, became something of an unwanted icon for the town. The meaning was derived from a commonly shared misapprehension that the New Town would be built of concrete with minimal green spaces. In fact green space was integral to planning and developing the town. We briefly discuss how a mass experience of embarrassment creates a shared experience, creating through the negative a point where one can enter into a community?

‘A city in scale’

Alike to certain sculptures we experience in MK a slippage between times. A place that strangely eschews, through a lack of history and yet a combined mass of signifiers, chorological ‘order’ or forms of enplotment (as with another book from our reading list, Woolf’s ‘Orlando’). Here we are - referencing MK against our research, reading MK against itself, reading our method through the city, trying to find our way. As a planned whole MK was projected to true scale from models and as speed away from MK, the place as though in miniature as it falls away behind us; electric lights sparkling like so many distant stars in the darkening sky.

LEG Dec 2010