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Quarry 2

Location: Betchworth Quarry, near Dorking, Surrey, UK

Artist: Lee Simmons

Overview

Q:2 created a performance, event and temporary installation highlighting environmental and landscape issues in a reclaimed chalk quarry in the North Downs. The project was developed over a two year period and culminated in a public event at the quarry which went on over three days.The work resulted in a large, dramatic injection of colour onto the face of the quarry, spectacularly applied by the local Fire and Rescue service, and also the colouring of 42 local sheep in red, blue and yellow, which were then placed to graze in front of the coloured chalk wall.

The project was artist-led and managed, and the artist Lee Simmons worked with a number of partners to make the work possible, including Surrey Fire and Rescue Search and Rescue Team, the landowner, Surrey Hills AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), and the farmer who owned the sheep. English Nature and Surrey Wildlife Trust were consulted with and provided information. Surrey County Arts gave the project initial financial backing, and Arts Council England South East also awarded funding.

Background

Lee Simmons often works on self-initiated projects, outside the formal arts infrastructure of the gallery and the commission brief. She enjoys stumbling across objects, processes and people that interest her, and fuel a period of research, and then develops works in an organic way, often creating strings of linked projects.

Q:2 - a large scale landscape intervention and performance - followed on from “Quarry Project” – a pilot project in Oxted Quarry, adjacent to the M25. The Oxted project involved nine artists performing an un-choreographed collaborative painting event using the three primary colours, applied using water pistols and paint bombs. Quarry Project aimed to explore the nature of the place, the contradiction of the aggressive mineral exploitation and the beauty of the exposed chalk, and also to raise questions about people’s perceptions of such a site.

The commission

Objectives

Q:2 was developed for a new site, close to the M25, adjacent to the A25, the Dorking / Reigate train line and visible from Gatwick flights.Betchworth Quarry is no longer a working quarry, and had previously been a landfill site; it is now grassed over.The effect is of a quite pristine looking grassy-floored, white-walled location, hiding previous intrusive processes and interventions.

In Q:2, Lee hoped to highlight activity on the land as well as the nature of the landscape itself, and so as well as planning to colour the chalk face, she worked with a local farmer and decided to colour his flock of sheep in primary colours. The sheep would be grazed in front of the coloured chalk face, creating a “superhighlighted” almost Day-Glo image of nature, a very bold visual statement, but also a comment on the artificial landscape of the chalk quarry itself.

The process

The artist needed to gain a lot of permissions and agreements in order to make the project happen, and in particular the environmental impact of colouring both the sheep and the chalk had to be researched thoroughly. The landowner and the farmer became helpful partners in the project, but there were still permissions to be gained from a number of agencies who had an interest in the site, including the local authorities, the AONB and English Nature (EN). EN were initially worried about the site, as rare birds had been known to nest in a neighbouring quarry, but a specially commissioned ornithological survey revealed that there was nothing of interest on the Betchworth chalk face itself.

The physical challenge of colouring the steep chalk face was met through working with Surrey Search and Rescue Fire Service– in a mutually beneficial arrangement, they agreed to colour the chalk as part of their training using abseiling equipment. They felt that the project would also assist with raising their profile generally. Their involvement solved many problems linked to safety, insurance and liability that artists often come across in working within the public realm.

A final, serendipitous partner was found in the local pub, the Red Lion, who accommodated the artists’ team for free for the duration of the 3 day event, and became a natural venue for informal discussion in the evening.

The work

During the three day event, the Fire and Rescue Service climbed down the chalk face from the top, applying the pink powder paint using sieves.The flock of sheep were driven up to the chalk and grazed there during the following days.A path was mown through the field and pink signs were set up to help people get to the site; a gazebo and tyres for sitting on helped facilitate discussion and prolonged enjoyment of the event.The Red Lion provided on-site refreshments.Anyone trying to find the site without directions had no difficulty, as a shocking pink wall alongside the main road had been created. Over 200 people visited the project over the three days and an artist/helper team of three worked on it.

A strong body of documentation was planned and assembled, including an invitation to an artist/writer, Ola Stahl, to contribute a written piece, the recruitment of a photographer for specific project photographs and the commissioning of a video. Crucially, Lee also set up a website about the project, but rather than a straight information piece, it was composed as a blog or online diary and so ongoing input, comment and discussion formed an organic virtual description of the work. Arts Council England South East have completed their evaluation of the project, linked to their grant award, and reached favourable conclusions about the work and how it reached its objectives.

The budget

The total cost of Q:2 came in at just over £10,000, including in-kind contributions. Fees for Lee and other artists involved totalled £2,200; marketing and administration totalled £1,000; materials at £4,490; and support in kind was valued at £3,125. The main sources of income were grants from Surrey County Arts (£2,000) and the Arts Council of England South East (£4,700). A further amount of income to the project was made through an exhibition and sale of photographs.

Feedback and reaction

Q:2 attracted very strong reactions, particularly from local residents.Consultation, marketing and advertising had not been as widespread as the artist had hoped.This was the result of a number of partners having partial involvement and the difficulty this generated for the artist to have control over planning a co-ordinated strategy.Consequently, for a number of people, the intervention into their local landscape was completely unexpected and rather shocking.Where they had not received any information about the project, it was also not clear to many people that it was only a temporary work, and therefore much adverse reaction was based upon the expectation that this was a permanent feature about which they had had no choice or consultation.

The artist's blog illustrates some of the more difficult issues and comments that the artist, having set up this conduit for communication, had to deal with. Although Lee had done a great deal of research and preparation particularly into the environmental aspects of the project, reaction focused on the possible damage to what was perceived as a “natural landscape” and also the welfare of the sheep. Without access to this information in advance, many people found it difficult to believe that such a striking intervention could have no adverse effects.

In reality, a number of organisations concerned with the project had done mail outs about the event, and Lee attended meetings in advance with organisations such as AONB over a period of two years running up to the event. In the days just before the event an article ran on the front page of the local paper. However, a large number of people were not reached by this publicity, hence the scale of the reaction. Following the event Lee participated in radio interviews and attended the local Parish Council meeting to help communicate facts about the work and dispel inaccurate rumours which were circulating about the piece.

Key issues

  • Working in the natural landscape

    One of the key issues arising from the project was the contrast between many people’s perceptions of the landscape, and the reality of the landscape history which Lee had sought to highlight. A quarry is the result of a brutal intrusion into the surface of the land, and in the case of Betchworth, the hole had then been partially backfilled with rubbish generated by further human activity. Yet interference with what was in reality, a manufactured landscape, was greeted with indignation that “nature” was being spoilt or damaged. A number of the responses to the work also included reference to “our” quarry, “our” landscape, and “my cliff”, and the degree of ownership felt by people who lived nearby was very strong.

  • How much consultation is enough?

    Much of the adverse comment and reaction to this project was a result of people either not knowing about the project at all, or not knowing enough of the detail. As mentioned below, an artist-led project will always suffer from not having as much administrative support as a project commissioned by an organisation, and so logistically, Lee Simmons may never have been able to talk to or write to enough people to avoid much of the reaction. However, the press strategy suggested by one of the project partners did not generate very much lead-in publicity and in hindsight, it would have been better for the artist to work out a fuller campaign of publicity with a number of partners. But this must always be balanced against the time needed to develop the work itself and is a clear problem for self managed projects.

  • The burden of artist-led projects

    Many artists prefer to initiate their own projects, to explore issues that really interest them and relate to the development of their practice, rather than work to a brief someone else has set. In most cases however, this results in a heavy burden of management, organisation and administration, without the support of a commissioning organisation, or an appointed project manager.

    Lee Simmons found the workload enormous in developing this project, and also found that without the leverage of a commissioning organisation behind her, some of the partners in the project did not deliver on promised activity or assistance. This kind of occurrence is compounded as the lone artist/manager/administrator has consequently less time to chase things up. The benefits of working on a self-initiated project need to be very carefully weighed up against the potential disadvantages, and the effect this can have on the project.

In conclusion

Lee Simmons found the project a steep learning curve, but feels it was the right way to go about the work, despite some of the difficulties encountered. If she initiated another project of this scale, she would like to have a project manager or artist assistant, and perhaps a dedicated marketing person, but these are difficult resources to find when a lot of income to a project is in-kind. If there had been wider communication about Q:2, the debate may not have been as strong, which she feels was a very important part of the project. She sees her work very much as a trigger for discussion:

“…that’s why I do the stuff I do…the aesthetic is an excuse to bring people together…to talk and ask questions…”.

Ola Stahl, the artist and writer who provided a critical essay on the piece for the blog, also felt that the nature of the debate around Q:2, and what it exposed, was the most important factor within the project:

“I think the strongest point of the project is the way in which it intervenes into the ways in which different notions of 'ownership' (economical, social, political) constitute and construct the 'nature' of a 'space'. The project, it seems to me, points out that even though a space may seem 'natural', composed of 'natural qualities', it is always composed of several layers of meaning that function socially, culturally, economically, politically in various different ways, including the setting up of boundaries of inclusion and exclusion ('this is my land')…it seems to me that the fiercest critics of the project only managed to do one thing - they represent how 'space' is subject to various levels of ownership, how it is never public, how these people feel that they have the right to the land, the right to the very idea of the land…”

Q:2 was created with great difficulty and stress on the part of the artist, yet it succeeded in firing debate and reaction on a major scale. It’s an intriguing illustration of the advantages and disadvantages of artist-led versus organisation-commissioned work in the public realm.

Further information

Download the 2008 booklet (Adobe Acrobat document 53.01 MB) on the Q:2 project. This booklet is an evaluation and factfile on the project written by the artist Lee Simmons.

To find out more about the artist's work go to: lee-simmons.com

 

© Copyright Hazel Colquhoun, 2007

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