Maureen Wards talk on The Pansy Project

The following is a transcript of a paper written and presented by Maureen Ward at the Liverpool Tate’s postgraduate research forum, where the topic under discussion was ‘Art of Protest’ in relation to this years politically charged Turner Prize.

The Pansy Project is a site situated and web based artwork, which interrogates issues around public space, citizenship and homophobia, revisiting locations where homophobia has been experienced and planting pansies. They act as a living memorial and antidote to this abuse and each Pansy's location is named after the abuse received. Rooted in the concept of experience and exchange, the artwork is intentionally ephemeral and transitory; a website documents the processes of the work and a blog provides a diary and general overview.

The Pansy Project’s next collaboration is with Homotopia Festival in Liverpool throughout November coinciding with the city hosting this year’s politically charged Turner prize, making today an ideal opportunity to explore its interdisciplinary potential and the dialogue it stimulates between queer theory, political activism, and contemporary art practices.

Today my aim is to plot the evolution of one artist’s journey towards activism, following the development of the project from its early autobiographical plantings, through its subsequent participatory events with different groups and audiences, to more formal and elaborate installations. I will introduce some of the ideas that have conceptually informed the artwork, and hopefully open up some fruitful lines of enquiry.

The work began as a response to a series of events experienced by the artist on one specific day, the final straw to a long standing problem. The events of that day precipitated the creation of what would become the pansy project.

The following words, taken from the PP website, highlight some of the early concerns and issues informing the artwork – location, public space, citizenship, social relationships, memory work…

Perhaps the tipping point was the fact that this catalogue of abuse happened all in one day: as Harfleet explains;

‘Over the years I have become accustomed to this kind of behaviour, but I came to realise it was a shocking concept to most of my friends and colleagues”

He became interested in the extent to which this intermittent but typical encounter affected him and to see if he could manipulate these feelings and associations, to change the memories connected to particular locations…

He goes on to say,

‘I became interested in the public nature of these incidents and the way one was forced into reacting publicly to a crime that often occurred during the day and in full view of passers by. I had observed the tendency to place flowers at the scene of a crime or accident had become an accepted ritual and I considered a similar response. Floral tributes subtly augment the reading of a space that encourages a passerby to ponder past events at a marked location, generally understood as a crime or accident; my particular intervention could encourage a passerby to query the reason for my own ritualistic action( my emphasis)

Appropriating a well known vernacular ritual, but feeling that it would be inappropriate to equate his own verbal abuse with a death or serious accident, he decided to substitute the wreath – metaphorically dead and bound to wither – to a living plant, a seed if you like imbued with the possibility of change, growth and optimism; remedy through positive action.

Regarding the choice of plant he explains,

‘The pansy instantly seemed perfect. Not only does the word refer to an effeminate or gay man: the name of the flower originates from the French verb; pensar (to think), as the bowing head of the flower was seen to visually echo a person in deep thought. The subtlety and elegiac quality of the flower was ideal for my requirements. The action of planting reinforced these qualities, as kneeling in the street and digging in the often neglected hedgerows felt like a sorrowful act. The bowing heads of the flowers became mournful symbols of indignant acceptance’. (my emphasis)

The symbol of the pansy in such a context represents an ‘othered’ figure – feminised ‘thoughtful’ man, le pensier who doesn’t ‘pass’ for straight, whose unwarranted flamboyancy is perhaps ‘asking for it’ outside of the safe zone of the village space. From its beginning there is a certain flirtation with queer theory, an implicit understanding of what queer might represent from within and outside gay culture and the possibility of utilising its potential, evident in the use of word play, and the disruption of the idea that in cosmopolitan gay-savvy Britain homophobia has been banished.

These aspects certainly caught the eye of Queer Up North, Manchester’s gay cultural festival, an organisation keen to use the pansy as their lead motif for 2005, recognising the paradoxical paradigm of discord and redemption it constructs. For QUN Harfleet created a series of events, participations and installations, this new context developing the original meaning of a private quiet protest on the part of the artist to a rather more ‘viral’ and public participatory artwork, one which as it interacts with an audience is changed and charged with wider social and cultural significance, whilst maintaining the personal experience of the process between the pansy and the participants.

In this respect one can start to see the influence of Gonzalez Torrez, whose work Harfleet acknowledges an admiration for. Here, as with subsequent community work at Margate and Camden, the work is all in the process, in the dialogue it creates with others and the altered space it creates in the public domain once they have been disseminated.

This first pansy day marked a development from personal and individual to personal and participatory but still rooted in biography and specificity. This experience was one that would inform subsequent projects as a benchmark.

QUN however already had a vision of the pansy as a more universal symbol and it took Harfleet a while to catch up to all the demands that were being made of this fledgling artwork. Here a recurring tension surfaced between the concept of the artist and the eagerness with which organisations want to own and develop the ‘object’ and embrace it as central to their visual iconography. Festivals are large machines with their own agendas whereas the artist was merely a recent graduate – the journey of the pansy project has been one of organisations seeing the activist/ political potential of the project and the artist learning to adapt to this to retain something of his original concept and the development of his own practice; ‘think global act local’ or ‘personal made political’.

Alongside Pansy Day QUN arranged for two city centre installations, requiring around 2000 pansies to be specially grown. This image shows the installation by the main staircase and entrance to Harvey Nichols in Cathedral Square, at once the heart of Manchester’s regeneration after the bomb in ‘96, the City’s drawcard for tourism, a haven for footballers’ wives and wannabees, and interestingly or consequently possibly the campest straight space in the city!

For QUN the pansy project ticked multiple boxes – it brought a political dimension and a serious issue to a scene (in Manchester at least) which has arguably become mainstream and diluted; a glitzy glamorous party for the city’s enjoyment, a spectacle with little to say apart from merrymaking. Plus in drawing in two almost diametrically opposed institutions, the department store and the art museum (though there is in curatorial discourse a long acknowledged relationship there), the festival was able to make new cultural and audience links and increase awareness for its own programme outside of its natural target groups.

The City Art Gallery was the other large scale installation for QUN and an interesting challenge for a young artist. Ostensibly the link was the current garden exhibition including work by Derek Jarman, but Harfleet struggled to make a successful piece of work here. With 2000 pansies and the whole of the gallery frontage to decorate as he wished, Harfleet created a delicate single line of flowers around the edifice of the Victorian façade, surrounding and framing the gallery building in a blaze of pink. There are echoes of Buren in this architectural metaphor, inviting reflection on the relationship between artist and institution, visually arresting certainly but with little perhaps to add to the specific significance of the fragile but defiant pansy.

The most interesting thing to note is the motif of the thin pink line, which came to the artist after playing with several layouts across the gallery entrance. This allusion to the military thin red line is one that in many respects symbolises the contestation of masculinity that the ongoing project highlights. Here he wanted to create a ‘thin pink line’ that inferred a military association, suggesting that the pansies were symbols of a military front, each one going forth after the installation to be planted as symbols against homophobia. To the observer what initially seemed like a pretty summer display became ‘activated’ upon reading the sign by the main entrance, effectively ‘queering’ or altered this municipal space.

At this stage Harfleet was struggling to make something meaningful out of the opportunity presented to him by the twin bureaucrats of the festival and the city gallery’. The result is a visualisation of the relationship between artist and institution be it art establishment or festival ‘alternative’, whilst the military references comes into play later in Liverpool, where Harfleet is more genuinely subverting the discourse of the public space of the park.

At QUN Harfleet effectively opened up the project to community participation; though it wasn’t until CONFLUX in 2006 that he began planting pansies for others, for those that had been killed or seriously assaulted reflecting statistics he had come across in his research.

The Conflux Festival is so far the only non gay festival that the project has been involved in, the annual New York festival for contemporary psychogeography, the investigation of everyday urban life through emerging artistic, technological and social practice, as it is described in village voice. It was here that Harfleet noticed that the statistics revealed not so much verbal abuse or casual homophobia as a steep rise in violence attacks, and this marks the point where the PP begins to change from a personal artwork with participatory involvement to something more symbolic and overtly political in tone. It is perhaps appropriate that it was here tucked away in the streets with other socially engaged practitioners that the project was able to reconnect with its own conceptual framework. Here he was back in familiar territory, small scale and less institutional.Back home the project continued investigating these more serious themes, working directly with local community groups and the police to highlight cases of homophobically motivated crime and murder.

This year the pansy project collaborated with Camden LGBT group and IDAHO, international day against homophophia, inviting people to take part in a mass planting across the city.

100 pansies were planted in 5 locations remembering particular instances of abuse - each location representing a hub or focus for homophobic attacks - the artist took a back step as the work became ‘owned’ much more by the community group and participants. Members of the Camden forum read a list of statistics collected from police cases; the event supervised by the police who attended and accompanied the whole day’s activity. The artist planted one pansy only with participants planting the others in each hub: ‘live’ community activism, interaction with location being paramount, the public realm subtly changed and ‘queered’ by the dialogue between artist, participants, commuters and passers-by.

By the time the artist was invited to collaborate with the London lesbian and gay film festival this spring, Harfleet had caught up with his own politicisation; he was more experienced and more effective, more clear about the conceptual integrity of his site specific processes and more aware of the impact the pansy tended to have outside of the art world. This year's main festival image featured the pansy planted as a memorial for David Morley who was killed near the Hungerford Bridge on the South Bank in 2004 after surviving the Admiral Duncan bombing in Soho some years earlier. The area is a well known gay meeting spot and the police statement to the press confirmed that this attack was being treated as homophobically motivated until firm evidence that might contradict this emerged. Moreover, the public good will already afforded this popular and well known gay citizen meant the brutality and injustice of his death could not be brushed under the carpet, as so many suspected homophobically motivated assaults can be.

An installation of 3000 pansies was planted delineating the bins, bollards and bench legs from the Hungerford Bridge to Waterloo Bridge, where the Festival is housed at BFI South Bank, a subtle intervention that though at first glance appears to be celebratory municipal planting along the famous promenade becomes upon further inspection unexpectedly poignant, each pansy marking a geography or landscape of abuse that normally remains unseen by the general public. In this installation the oppositionality of the space as main thoroughfare for London’s commuters and tourists by day, and dangerous gay meeting point by night, two separate worlds co-existing in one location, becomes symbolically entwined and visually reconnected.

The South Bank installation was maintained for the length of the film festival whilst at the weekends the artist handed pansies out to passersby to mark their own experience of homophobia or otherwise engage in sociable exchanges of ideas and as Bourriaud puts it, ‘tiny revolutions in the common urban and semi-urban life’. To him Art is the place that produces a specific sociability. It remains to be seen what the status of this is in the set of “states of encounter” proposed by the City’. Similarly the pansy project relies on the forging of relationships and social encounters to activate the pansy’s subtle shifting of space, through the creation of Bourriaud’s ‘micro-communities’ and ‘momentary groupings’ where they might never ordinarily meet.

The festival used the image of the pansy as its central motif on the cover of the programme and on bill boards across London. In its own words, ‘This collaboration has created a beautiful image that enhances the original concept of cultural endurance, thus making it an appropriate symbol for the festival as a whole’. The significance for the project is that again its status is central to a festival yet necessarily outside the programme. It adds a visual and political dimension to the festival, acts as a catalyst for debate about issues relating to the status of gay citizens and the city that often lie under the radar, and draws in audiences and agencies who might not otherwise find an obvious way to collaborate.

The pansy project is currently involved with Homotopia the annual Liverpool gay cultural festival, creating a series of participatory events in the city centre and an installation to focus attention on the recent findings of the Stormbreak report, commissioned jointly by the city council and the police service.

‘Memorial to the Unnamed’ in the city centre’s St John’s Gardens, a one time cruising ground, will use around 2000 pansies to create a diagonal pink line cutting across the park. The juxtaposition of this temporary, delicate installation with the grandiose monumentalising of the Victorian public space couldn’t be more emblematic of the story of the pansy project.

Here the project turns its gaze onto the often contrasting and conflicting nature of the park as variously public space, site of national memorials to war heroes, and a transgressive parallel history as long time cruising area, where a different type of masculine identity is played out. The British park especially in cities carries a multitude of meanings, being places of both enjoyment and danger, a liminal space for many different recreations– there is a mythology surrounding the Liverpool gardens details of which the project has found hard to pinpoint or verify but which nonetheless informs the general atmosphere of repression within which the Liverpool gay community lives - and the planting of 2000 pink pansies is a living memorial to citizens of Liverpool who have lost their lives by the simple act of transgressing the rules of ‘acceptable’ public behaviour.

The hitherto subliminal association of the pink pansy with the red poppy, metaphor of a specific construction of masculinity, here becomes obvious and direct, developing further a recurring military motif, the thin red line of the Crimea, a national emblem for bravery and resistance. In this new context the project has responded to the location with a return to that idea of resistance – in this instance to intolerance and homophobia. The pansy, pink, fragile, indignant, introduced into the context of a public space dedicated to commemorating heroism and sacrifice, invites us to consider the rights and fortitude of another type of masculinity or citizenship that shares this space, one that differs from the heteronormative, but valid nonetheless. It maps a topography of abuse and flags this up for inspection and discussion.

Final Thoughts –

The PP is an artwork and performative act, a contestation and reclamation of symbolic and geographical space, a challenge and a protest to the constraints imposed by the heteronormative assumptions of everyday life, but with a redemptive positive power…in this respect it is inspired and informed by both queer theory and psychogeography, concerned as it is with citizenship and social space, and the ‘subject’ in relation to the social – the community and its norms, seemingly often beyond one’s own control.

Today marks the first time this artwork has entered the art institution. Although rooted in conceptual art practice, the project operated and developed outside of the gallery, preferring participation, situations and encounters, providing the dialogical space away from Bourriaud’s commodified, late capitalist society. In his words,

‘The artist embarks upon a dialogue. The artistic practice thus resides in the invention of relations between consciousness. Each particular artwork is a proposal to live in a shared world, and the work of every artist is a bundle of relations with the world, giving rise to other relations, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum’

Artworks that are made in a relational framework, rather than the orthodox frame of the gallery, as public encounters or interventions, can find that subsequent accessing and communicating of this work becomes something of a challenge, disrupting the centrality and finality of the art object within aesthetic discourse.

A pertinent closing thought might be - if the gallery is to remain a relevant formal space, in effect become the ‘agora’ of contemporary society, how might this type of engaged work communicate successfully to a wider audience?

October 2007

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