An open public space in front of a building, where a number of people are lying on the ground together.

Art in and with Public/s Conversation

A con­ver­sa­tion between Can Altay, Lumi­nara Flo­res­cu, Anna Hay­dock-Wil­son, Young In Hong, Susie Olczak and Ellie Shipman


In July 2023, we arranged one to one sessions for Rosie Bayliss, Luminara Florescu, Anna Haydock-Wilson, Young In Hong, Susie Olczak, Ellie Shipman and Anna Haydock-Wilson with Can Altay. Following their meetings, Can asked the artists to consider a provocation: Can artistic activity be a means to script (or generate) ‘public intimacies’?

The following is a transcription of a conversation between the artists considering that question, and the experience of making art in public.

Can Altay: We have had a series of one to one meetings to discuss your practice, but also wider issues around art in public space and how art both manifests and also acts and activates within public space.

While your work is distinct and very different, the conversations also raised a number of common questions: for example, what or who constitutes a public; choreographing the relationships between the actors of the public and public space; the role of artistic position; positioning of the artist and artistic agency; and not only working from within the art field, but also being open to learning from outside and at times contributing to or intervening in what's happening.

The idea of scripting encounters or facilitating processes was a common thread in your works. As artists who create moments where you encounter the artwork, or where you encounter others through the artwork; you move into a space which is within public space, but a different space. In Ellie's work, intimate moments are shared; and in Luminara’s work, the intention is to create a space that asks you to slow down and reflect, an invitation to enter an intimate space within public space. With Young In, there is an element of this again, almost as a parallel universe – another layer that starts making its own space within public space. And in Susie's case, it's the object that’s being invited to transform itself and be open to being inhabited and intervened by other living things as well as humans.

Throughout all your work is the drive to be in public space; but also create a much more intimate experience or relationship within or through intervening in public space. Can artistic activity be a means to script or generate public intimacies?

A sculpture crafted from pipes and water butts, presented in a gallery space.

Ellie Shipman: I think the idea of public intimacy is really interesting. It's not a term I would use to describe my work, but absolutely something I want the work to hold. Working with social practice, or any kind of process or experience with the public or in public, there are real moments of intimacy; but there's something about not saying it, because within intimacy is vulnerability. And maybe that's why, I flinch from the word almost; even though it's something that I love and want and nurture and appreciate.

Anna Haydock-Wilson: I feel that much of the work does exist in the field of intimacy because of the connection between people. The spaces that are created are often not very tangible, and they're not even necessarily visual or material; but they're more like a facilitated relationship between people who may not otherwise form connections. And they're often people forming connections within space, in my case, within city spaces.

Young In Hong: That makes me think of collaborating with other people, when we often enter a zone of vulnerability and risk taking. I think of risk taking because by working with different people, by sharing authority, and when this authority becomes collective, that's where you're in a shared situation. You have a different responsibility of understanding the other person.

Susie Olczak: There are also different kinds of intimacies, the intimacy we might have with another person, but also another space or material – the connection you make through touch, whether material or sound; or the way that we might experience these public spaces on different levels, and how they might allow for more or less intimacy, or allow us to interact with each other, the natural world or the built environment in different ways.

Also the different context of places and times. We all experienced a very different kind of public space during COVID with the demarcation of space, when tape was used to stop people going places and control space. I spent some time in Japan when I was an undergraduate, and remember experiencing a sort of reverse culture shock when I came back to the UK, as everyone intrudes so much more in your personal space in public here.

CA: For art in public, the main difference is that people don’t expect to see art, but they come across it. In the case of Susie's work, there’s a kind of intrusion almost into people's everyday lives. And in Ellie's work, you collect people's memories and experiences and expose them, which is another layer and another way of thinking about intimacy.

Young In, you mentioned the collaboration; creating an intimate space that is then manifested public space. You have no control over how that encounter is processed or experienced and there’s an interesting question in relation to putting ourselves out in the open as artists.

There’s also something very relevant around expectancies. There's always a certain discourse that runs the way we talk about our work and that almost frames or invites us to talk about our work. That discourse, of course, is always changing and is in flux, but I’m interested to hear that you don’t use the word intimate when talking about your work.

A metal sculpture in a garden, encircled by trees.

ES: I think social practice sometimes has to sanitise itself, depending on the project or the commissioners. I'm trying to move away from working as a participatory artist primarily working on commissions; I have a DYCP grant this year that's enabled me to shift slightly away from responding to commission contexts and self-initiating work.

It’s important that artists working with the public or in public space reflect on the framing of the work. Social practice needs to show its criticality and conceptual basis, so often it can be seen as an add on or as public engagement.

There’s also a responsibility in working with other people, particularly collecting stories or including other people's lived experience in your work. Often there's no structure to support artists who are working with vulnerable communities or people sharing challenging stories; and there’s a need to reflect on your own lived experience in that context.

CA: Often one is not necessarily equipped with dealing with certain situations or conditions of real or mental spaces that you enter and share with others. You have your own vulnerability as an artist and how you process that also becomes a serious issue. Luminara, you also address the condition of the artist and working conditions for artists.

Luminara Florescu: I've done a lot of work around burnout and really want to bring awareness to that through my own work. I've done training in safeguarding for participants, and I came to the point where I thought, hang on – where’s the safeguarding for me? I suffered burnout during COVID because I was giving so much, that’s when I started writing the Contract of Self Care.

Now in my work, I'm trying to make a cultural change, trying to bring the idea of looking after artists to organisations. I have seen some change and support from organisations; artists are allocating funding for counsellors and wellbeing practitioners within projects. It would be great for that to become normalised.

It’s important to find a way to share lived experiences with audiences or participants in public space in an authentic way. People might not feel comfortable in the space you're trying to… I don't really like the word script; it feels a bit controlling. You're inviting people to experience something that you hope to be an embodied experience. Some people might resist or feel uncomfortable; how do we deal with that uncomfortable feeling, that awkwardness?

A group of people sitting in a public space watching a multi screen film installation projected on the side of a historical building.

CA: When I was thinking about scripting, it was more in the sense of a theatrical idea of scripting, which is also partly an open space for interpretation - an open-ended process. I have doubts about whether it's really possible and, in some sense, all propositions play with that notion of control and letting go – how much control, how much letting go? I think it’s crucial to be aware of this, but also recognise one's authorship and take the responsibility that comes along with it.

Often practitioners are hesitant in claiming authorship and talk more in terms of a process that is open to other actors. I’ve noticed this through my conversations for the Ahali podcast, it’s very much embedded in the discourse and how we frame our conversations around work.

There’s also an initiation there, a decision to realise your work and create the environment for it to happen. This all involves degrees of control and actual authorship.

ES: I wrote about temporary public art in urban regeneration for my undergraduate thesis and touched on some of this; about artists providing a structure for engagement and collaboration. It comes up a lot in conversations around social practice; the role of artists and how much you reveal. There’s vulnerability again, and intimacy; there are boundaries and barriers and opportunities to navigate.

YIH: In the intention to share or create intimacy, you cannot control or intend precisely because there is always an interaction, and there are unpredicted outcomes, interactions or responses. How much, and how, that intimacy happens from the point of view of participants could be entirely different from what was intended.

CA: In a sense, each project builds a temporary community, but there is a time factor; how long does a project continue, how long does it linger in people's lives or minds, is there an expiration date for the works you’re involved in?

SO: I think a lot about time in different ways and make work that might change over time or respond to different times. I’ve been making works that are slightly rhizomatic or nonlinear, you're not quite sure whether they're starting or beginning; or works that might exist for a while and then be changed into new work, so you're not able to trace time within the work. The sculptural works have become like models for future worlds; and I've just finished a video with Emma Elliott, where we used repeated symbols throughout the video that reference time.

There are different types of time, time speeds up and slows down and never really feels linear.

CA: It's not only nonlinear, but also curls in on itself so that you can simultaneously live in different time zones. Thinking again of contexts, for example Luminara has done a number of works in a former prison space, the dimension or history of a space unavoidably feeds into the work.

In public space there are always multiple layers of time coexisting, so it becomes about trying to work with those conditions of time in a sense. We are describing this very broadly, but different understandings of time is also a common thread.

SO: There’s a common thread in inviting the public to spend time in ways that they wouldn't normally do, or slow down their time and spaces, or connect with other people. These invitations ask people to reflect, it can have a societal impact in that sense.

AH-W: When you're introducing people to what we now call the more than human, temporality takes on another layer as well; you're also looking at the temporality of changing environment, and the non-sequential circular rhythms of things like tides or seasons or the behaviour of plants. In the built environment, things happen which are outside of our control. So, with that scary, risky thing that we do in working in public spaces or working with communities, there's elements of time which are really outside of our control. There’s a tension between what we can script or control as artists and the results of work that happens as relationships between people or between spaces and people.

People gathered in a large area under a flyover, next to four sculptures constructed of wooden platforms, timber poles and white fabric.

CA: The pre-clock understanding of time still very much exists. Time in relation to work also makes me think about the notion of closure. It's a very cliché question, but when does the work end, what marks the finalisation of a work, especially in cases that involve a durational aspect?

AH-W: With work in public space, you end your relationship sometimes, but it doesn't mean that the work doesn't carry on and evolve into other things as other people adopt objects or structures over time. I quite enjoy seeing the way other people interact in spaces I have created. But I struggle personally with finding my own authorship.

SO: I think it’s important that the artworks have their own agency. A colleague of mine James Fisher talks about the idea of artworks as being like cats. You leave the cat flap open, and they exist in the world and have adventures that you might not know about. Then they might come back and be in the studio or they might not, you never fully know. They have their own agency and their relationship with other objects and other people, other artworks.

You can control certain things when you’re in the studio making decisions, but at some point, the work will have an existence that you can't fully control.

CA: I love the cat analogy; I think that’s a very healthy analogy for artists in relation to their artwork!

ES: I'm about to undergo a process of herding my own cats and gathering evidence of my public and participatory artworks over the last 14 years or so for an exhibition. It's going to be so interesting to see what's happening with these things that have experienced a bit of life. With participatory works, exhibiting them as a standalone object, the end result of a process, creates tensions and complexities which I'm trying to resolve. I never thought of them as sculptures because they were just the outcome of a process.

A sculpture consisting of a wooded frame with rosettes made from face masks, installed in an area of forest.

CA: There’s an interesting process in looking back at your previous works. It may be a conventional retrospective sense of looking backwards, but it can also be a regathering or regrouping. And in those cases, how will or will the cats get along? And will you get along with them? [laughing]

ES: Maybe I should call my exhibition that: Will the Cats Get Along? I love that!

CA: Artist Kathrin Böhm, who was also a guest on Ahali, did an exhibition last year where she used the term compost and composting. She used the previous experiences of her work as soil or as a kind of composting process, not necessarily drawing boundaries between each work but merging them into one.

LF: I’ve realised that what interests me is working in an unexpected way in public space. I’m working on a film which will be presented where I live, a place that is rural and quite quiet. It will be interesting to see how people react.

I'm using breath as a tempo for the film, so people may go away with an embodied feeling. I'm very conscious of my audience here; I'm in an in-between space where I want to create something that is authentic, and I also want to play and take this chance as permission to really experiment and push the boundaries of my knowledge and practice. I want people to feel slightly uncomfortable.

CA: Authenticity is important; the etymological root of the word authenticity is one acting on their own authority. Something we discussed in our meeting Young In is the question of how the self changes, and how we as artists are in an ever-changing process. How do we reconcile that change and negotiate the expectancies of one's practice or people's perceptions of one's practice and then claim ground for changing ideas? I think there is a myth of consistency, and the expectation of consistency within one's body of work.

YIH: There was a flash mob piece I created in particular where the outcome was something that I didn't expect. My presence was less visible than in other works – it was in the hands of the participants to complete the work and although there was a structure, the outcome depended on the participants. I felt really insecure, but the work changed my notion of art making enormously. In a way the audience becomes the participant, and the participant becomes the audience.

ES: The myth of consistency is so interesting. As participatory artists, we have a unique freedom. I’m outside of the commercial art world; but I think we still, as artists or creators, experience immense pressure to make the same type of thing again and again, something that's recognisable as our work.

CA: There is always a kind of expectancy and, bluntly, a return of investment in relation to art objects; but it’s not necessarily true that this is not relevant to participatory or social practices. Once you do a certain kind of work, people approach you to do similar work with them in their context.

The institutional frameworks that define certain practices are also ways of maintaining that consistency. I also think that we are all human and so it should be okay to change as well. It’s an ongoing question, I personally am not that consistent kind of person, so always face that conflict. I also admire artists who are dedicated to a singular practice, there’s something remarkable about that.

AH-W: I’ve thought about this quite a bit over time. I'm full of admiration for artists who have a seemingly singular type of practice, but I also feel that we're all different; and maybe if you're not seen as an artist that people expect to do the same thing, it gives you the freedom to try out different ways of working. Often when we collaborate with others, it changes our work; it becomes something that's between people rather than what we originally intended, and that's an exciting thing.

Can Altay
Can Altay’s public projects include: open recording studio spaces such as MÇPS (Istanbul); “Loughborough Records Present Presence” (Loughborough); usable sculptures and networked objects such as “Inner Space Station” (New York) and “Distributed” (London); and critical emancipatory propositions on existing formats as in “The Church Street Partners’ Gazette” (London) and “PARK: bir ihtimal” (Istanbul). Altay’s works have been exhibited at institutions such as Walker Art Center, PS1 MoMA, Hessel Museum of Art Bard College, ZKM, MAXXI, Artists Space, Van Abbe Museum, SALT; with solo shows in Bolzano, Istanbul, Utrecht, London, Berlin, Bilbao, Bristol. Can Altay participated twice in the Istanbul Biennial. Other biennials his work was shown include Havana, Busan, Gwangju, Marrakech, Yinchuan, Çanakkale, Taipei, and Thessaloniki. He is also running the podcast ‘Ahali Conversations with Can Altay’ focusing on the future of cultural production. You can currently see Can Altay’s work as part of Coventry Biennial 2023, which takes place across Coventry and Warwickshire between the 6th October 2023 until 14 January 2024.

Rosie Bayliss
Rosie Bayliss graduated from UWE Bristol with a BA in Art and Writing in 2022. She is a visual artist and writer working mainly with painting, text manipulation and kinetic sculpture. Her practice draws upon cartoons, fairy tales, social media and online identity. In her work, Bayliss aims to isolate moments from pre-existing narratives, freezing and flattening them both in time and in form. She hopes to encourage audience creativity by making malleable work that is open to alteration: folding paintings, rewritable text and moving sculptures. Bayliss is concerned with how we read and interpret images, and is increasingly interested in scale and action as a means of challenging how narratives can be read.

Luminara Florescu
Luminara Florescu is an artist, curator and artist mentor based in rural Somerset. Her art practice occupies the intersection of art, advocacy, and activism and is deeply rooted in her lived experience as a disabled and neurodivergent artist. Florescu graduated from Kingston University with a BA (Hons) in Fine Art. She has created short films for Channel 4, and her artist book Noble Offerings is part of the Artists Books collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Luminara Florescu is the co-founder and leads the pioneering Art Behind Bars programme in partnership with Shepton Mallet Prison. She has been awarded a number of grants and commissions from Arts Council England, a-n The Artist Information Co., Open Mental Heath Somerset, Somerset Art Work (SAW) and Somerset Film for projects including the Freedom Learning project, And the Children Shall Lead- Giant Board Game, B-Wing exhibition, Contract of Self Care, Rest As Protest and most recently Social Gardening (The Mind At Rest).

Anna Haydock-Wilson
Anna Haydock-Wilson is an artist and filmmaker. She has worked with youth, community and arts organisations for over 25 years across London and the South West. Her collaborative practice investigates the intersections between the natural and built environments and social equity. Anna holds a BA in Fine Art from the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL and an MA in Independent Film & Video from the School of Media, The London Institute. She works across a variety of media including painting, sculpture, performance, poetry, dance and printmaking, as well as live art and video. Recent collaborators, commissioners and funders include Arts Council England, Exeter University, UWE, University of Bristol, We Are Possible, Bristol Refugee Festival, Spike Print Studio, WEVAA and Bristol City Council bringing together to devise community action on climate change impacts. Place Portrait at Spike Island is a collaboration with four younger artists exploring the multiplicity local neighbourhood to create a gallery based installation.

Young In Hong
Young In Hong is a visual artist working across the mediums of textile, drawing, installation, sound and performance. In her work, unique inventions in sound and movement combine in new ways with investigations of the image; its history and its reinvention. This can be seen in the way she incorporates found images that document the human cost of Korean modernisation in the movement of living bodies and in how her textile work invents new iconographies for our time. She is interested in the potential of the artistic sensibility to uncover stories hidden underneath the surface and traverse different languages to propagate a shared sense of ‘equality’ that cuts across generations, nationality and species. Young In has presented work at among other institutions: the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul (2019); Arnolfini, Bristol (2019); the Korean Cultural Centre, London (2017); Turner Contemporary, Margate (2017); Block Universe Festival (2017); La Triennale di Milano (2016); Grand Palais, Paris (2016); ICA London (2015); Gwangju Biennale (2014); and Museum of Arts and Design, New York (2011).

Susie Olczak
Susie Olczak is a multidisciplinary artist with a focus on sculpture. Her work has been shown across the UK and internationally, and she has participated in residencies in Finland and Panama with La Wayaka Current. She has been commissioned to produce public artworks by BBC Scotland, Charles Saatchi at the Big Chill Festival, and the National Trust; and has produced works for The Institute of Astronomy, the Fitzwilliam Museum, and Cambridge University. Olczak was a bursary award winner at the Royal Society of Sculptors, and in 2019, and has presented work in the Ingram Collection Purchase Prize Exhibition, Standpoint Gallery and Hestercombe Gallery. Susie Olczak is co-founder of Conscious Isolation. She is a lecturer in Fine Art at University of Gloucestershire, and has been a visiting lecturer at Goldsmiths University of London among other institutions. Olczak is a freelance artist educator, working at the University of Cambridge Museums, and is a member of Space, Place, Practice research group with Bath Spa University.

Ellie Shipman
Ellie Shipman is a visual and participatory artist whose practice is concerned with concurrent states of being and the process of drawing out shared commonality between them: hope and fear; isolation and togetherness; the domestic and the public; grief and joy. The liminal space where these states rebuff, align and overlap is explored, shared and reflected on through multimedia artworks using found objects, textiles, drawing, audio and installation. Ellie is interested in what it is to be a woman; the experience of birth and new motherhood as well as notions of community; sustainability and anticipatory mourning for climate collapse. Her works are often site specific, participatory or interactive - including people in research, process and product. She studied BA Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art and MSc Sustainable Development at UWE. Ellie is an Associate at Spike Island and member of Spilt Milk Gallery. Commissioners, funders and partners have included: Arts Council England, We the Curious, The Vietnamese Women’s Museum, Pump House Gallery, The University of Bristol, Historic England, The Royal Shakespeare Company, Wellcome Trust.

This conversion was part of a series of online workshops that looked at working in and with public/s; from holding space for participation and collective practice, to support structures and manifestation of process based work. Part of the West of England Visual Arts Alliance (WEVAA) programme, find our more here.