James Smith introduces his use of PubPub as an interfacing tool for a broad-ranging creative project, featuring port communities in the British Isles and the artists who define them.
Martin Crampin is a visual artist and has exhibited across Wales and internationally. Martin was part of the ‘Creative Connections’ team of the Ports, Past and Present project, which commissioned writers and visual artists to explore the history and culture of the five port towns and the journeys made across the Irish Sea. Here we learn a bit more about that process.
SG Let's just start off with — since we heard from James on this topic last time — I think we'd love to hear your perspective on:
MC The background to the artistic work is that we commissioned 12 artists and writers to make work responding to the different port towns. As soon as you categorize people, as artists or writers, those categorisations break down and the distinctions are misleading. So we've got writers who illustrate their work, artists who are film-makers, a writer who has produced a radio play, and collaborations with musicians. There’s quite a crossover anyway, so we used the term ‘creative practitioners.’ As such, the commissioned work was very diverse. Some of it was quite multimedia, some of it was mainly digital, we had a brilliant artist who made a digital animation from charcoal drawings that were destroyed in the process of making the animation. So there's a terrific range of things.
The point of the website was to explain who these people are, and to present the work that they did for us on the project. There's really very little uniformity in any of this. Some of them gave us lots of writing about work in progress and we were able to document their thoughts and ideas behind the work they made. In particular, Marged Pendrell, the sculptor who made a flotilla of boats, wrote thoughtfully about the process of making those boats and related works. Because the work was initially commissioned in 2020, most of them had to delay because they couldn't do the necessary community engagement they hoped to do. Marged made the boats on her own from the autumn of 2020, and left the community engagement until later. So she wrote her thoughts and inspirations up as a blog, and we probably thought that more of the others would do that as well, although none of the others did in the same way, except perhaps our charcoal animator, David Begley, who set up his own Facebook page on the work. We didn't prescribe a pattern for any of the other practitioners, although we tried to encourage them to send snippets from work in progress. This has been a continual challenge of the site: as everybody is so different, there's no kind of uniformity. We have tried to present the work as best as we could using what they supplied to us.
The other thing is that within the digital suite of material, there are different parts of the project on different platforms. Initially we started putting the material from the creative practitioners on WordPress, before we moved it to Pub Pub. At the same time James was using Omeka to publish our heritage stories, and some of the writers’ work was first published on Omeka (mainly poems and short prose pieces). We didn't want to unnecessarily duplicate the work on both sites, but we did want to point to that material from Pub Pub. We've also produced a couple of publications: little booklets of poetry and collections of stories. All of these form different outputs of the Creative Connections strand of the larger project, in parallel with the different kinds of work being made.
We are now finishing up the project this month. What I'm hoping is that the Pub Pub site will be a portal: a website from which it will be possible to go and find these things. Some of the outputs are on the Digital Repository of Ireland, including the films and PDF versions of the publications, and James is doing a brilliant job of archiving all these things properly. So yes, so the Pub Pub site will have these tentacles into these other sites as well as what's actually on the site itself.
SG It seems really important to use or create a platform that will last. It sounds like the funding that you have for this project was public money. (Martin: Yes, it was.) So the rest of the project needs to be kept public.
MC Yes, James is the best person to talk about that. He's been putting the archive on the repository, and there's another online public archive in Wales called the People's Collection. This is being done by another colleague, Rita Singer, and the People’s Collection is a very general repository that anybody can put things into. It's rather vaguely organized, but we have two national repositories that the work is being put onto, making it discoverable in those national collections. The work on the Digital Repository of Ireland has DOIs allocated to each of them to ensure that they are sustainable and accessible into the future. The hope is that this site is a fairly sustainable platform that hopefully won't suffer too many disasters, or be susceptible to the choppy seas of our digital waters.
We started with WordPress, and there are concerns about how sustainable and vulnerable the plugins are over the longer term. Obviously, the Pub Pub site isn't as complex as some of the WordPress sites that I have built. But it does a lot of the things we need it to do, and where it doesn't we've been able to link to other sites. In my view the best websites are an entity in themselves, but have useful links to other sites for more information and related material. For example, there's a large mural, full of really interesting detail, and James has made a huge file of that available online, and this is linked so that you can navigate to it, although it is stored outside Pub Pub on the DRI.
It sounds like it's a portal, but also a place where people documented their process.
MC There's a degree of narrative for each of the artists. So it's structured around the 12 creative practitioners, and for each of them there is perhaps some work in progress, then the finished works. Not all – there was one artist who didn’t want any of her process to be seen.
The last piece that I'm trying to put together right now, is a short narrative of the exhibitions that we curated. The work was exhibited in all of the different ports, and a couple of actual additional locations as well. I will have soon written up each of those exhibitions, how they differ from each other, because they had to be really site specific, since not all of the works could be accommodated in all of the locations either because the space was too small, or the technology wasn’t available, or some of the work was needed elsewhere, so all of the exhibitions were different. The story of the exhibitions provides an additional parallel linear narrative to the making of the work for the project.
SG Yeah. Is that narrative kind of like a timeline? And were those exhibitions at the ports themselves?
MC Yes, that was part of the brief to display all of the work on performance. The pubs on that page form a timeline of the programme of exhibitions.
Some of the work evolved along the way as well.
Peter Murphy wrote a radio play that was recorded and made available online. But then he gave readings at some of our events as well. We then invited him to perform the play with his sound recordist, who was also a musician, and came along with an electric guitar and an impressive collection of effects. Their performance of the piece was mesmerizing and I'd say perhaps the strongest event of the whole project. It was really extraordinary powerful. We invited them to perform it again, at our closing conference, and Peter Murphy explained how it was continuing to evolve as a live piece. I hope that, even after the project is finished, we might be able to link to a live recording of the play as a new version.
SG It sounds like a lot of these exhibits are artistic (no, what did you call them?) creative practices are adapted to like multiples. Either they're online or I guess they're on radio, or they're a performance. How are you (what's the word) revitalizing? revamping? and conducting that iterative process without the art getting stale (which is also not the right word). I guess what I’m asking is:
MC We didn't really anticipate the performance side of the commissions as much as we might have done. We did set out to record all that process, really, but inevitably you find there's all these sorts of things that you wished you had done and had had the time to do. The reality of it was that last year, we put on a series of five exhibitions, one month after another across countries, it was really very tiring, producing the publicity, arranging the displays, transporting the work. We all had other commitments to other work and other projects as well. At the outset I had expected that I would try to document the exhibitions online as I went along, but now, a year later, I’ve not finished and we are only a few weeks before the project comes to an end. There was a lot to document.
The idea of putting photographs of the exhibitions up online was to help to suggest how these works interacted with each other in the space. It’s simply a photographic record, nothing more complicated than that. We could have interviewed each other about the installation, and the decision-making about the arrangement of the work in each space, but we only had so much time to document each exhibition.
SG There’s certainly something to say about the temporality of a project.
MC I think I was always conscious of this. I've been exhibiting work in galleries and temporary spaces for 25 years. When the exhibit is up, you have this buzz, a private view and get really great comments. It's wonderful. And people really like it! Then you take the show down… and it's so sad. You always want to document your work whatever you're doing, but to try and convey the convergence of things with each other in a gallery space is important.
SG Right. You mentioned you had these 12 commissioned pieces.
MC We asked for expressions of interest from artists and writers to respond to the port towns. It was publicised through the Arts Council and social media in the local area. We were looking for insider and outsider voices, as people that come in from the outside might react or see things differently to those who were local, but those who know the places will bring their local knowledge as well. So we were interested in having a mixture of both. We had five port towns, and selected two for each, typically an artist and a writer. But as I said, those categories could be quite loose. We had an impressive response to the expressions of interest, 70 or 80 people that we initially narrowed down to 24. We then had to cut that in half for the final acceptances. In our final selection meeting we brought in a couple of external experts who discussed the proposals with the project team. For the second round, we asked for written proposals, and gave the applicants a small fee to do that. So we based our decisions on their proposals, and whittled it down to 12, having to discard a lot of really good artists in the process, and it was very difficult to turn such good people down.
We also developed a project app for town trails. Two of the writers were a couple of theatre makers from Dublin, and they made an audio tour of Dublin port on the app. There was another poet who interviewed people over the phone because she couldn't get to the port because of the travel restrictions (having found herself unexpectedly abroad). So she asked participants to walk around the town and tell her what they could see. It was a very responsive approach to the difficulties of being able to travel and those transcripts have been published on the app and on the DRI.
So in terms of commissioning these 12, we had two for each port town, and then we had two that we called Irish Sea artists. They responded to the Irish Sea as a whole as a connecting space between the two countries. So one was a writer who went on to write quite a big book that he described as a biography of the Irish Sea, and for the project wrote a series of prose pieces and poetry, that were variously published on Pub Pub, on the Omeka site, and in a small book. We also had a printmaker who made a set of postcards for each of the port towns.
The plan was to try and bring people across the sea to events, but in 2021 our events had to go online. But last year we were able to go ahead with all of our in-person events, and we did actually manage to get people together to meet, and make those connections.
MC Yes, it probably did. Lots of things become more digital generally. Certainly, the example I gave of the Irish poet who found it even more difficult to get to Pembrokeshire completely embraced a digital connection remotely. She made a couple of poems based on the auto transcription software, which rendered Pembroke Dock in a surprising number of ways (Paramedic dock, Panama talk, Timber dog…). She wrote little poems out of these different words. So that's a good example where it went more digital.
Jon Gower, who wrote about the Irish Sea as a cultural space, commented how his instinct was immediately to go visit places, but was forced to sit at home and read from lots of books. It was difficult for all of us, obviously, as we had planned to engage with the port communities throughout the project, but we were unable to go anywhere, it felt really difficult. We set up online coffee mornings to try and get people engaging with what we were doing, and make connections with what was going on in the ports.
SG Right. So as part as part of the proposals, what sort of guidelines did you provide? It sounded like a lot of the projects went in many different directions. So how did you sort of create the cohesion or uniformity out of out of all the art that they made?
MC Well firstly, there is no cohesion or uniformity. When we started, there was this sort of notion that the pair, either artist and writer or local and non local, would work with each other a little bit. But that didn't really happen as much as we thought it would because people couldn't be together anyway. We wanted people to respond creatively to the place – the ports – and the themes of the project, which centred on the links across the Irish Sea and encouraging people to come and visit these places, developing international tourism. But we didn't want to be too prescriptive. And you know, how do you ask a poet to turn a place into a tourist attraction? It doesn't happen like that. But artists can draw out the interesting and unexpected things, and there are so many different kinds of tourism, and reasons why people visit places: it's not just to go and see beautiful picture-postcard views. There’s the military history of Pembroke Dock, and other kinds of historical and cultural reasons that draw different people, like natural history or industrial heritage.
Some people surprised us, for example there was a poet whose work we really liked, and she also worked as a film-maker and a photographer. Her response to the place resulted in very large photographs that provided a really strong visual focus in our exhibition spaces (except for those that they were too big for!).
SG Yeah, it makes sense. How did you work with the artists about documenting and displaying their art, both in these exhibits, and then the online archive and resources?
MC Some took an interest in how their work was displayed online. One or two artists were very prescriptive about we displayed their work, and others didn’t mind very much. As I mentioned before, Marged Pendrell took a particular interest in the online display of her work and wrote extensively for the website.
With the artist that worked with the school and made the charcoal animation, he put everything on a big Facebook page with a whole series of posts and so we've linked to that. If we'd have had more time I would have liked to recreate more of what he put on Facebook in Pub Pub as work in progress. But there wasn't the time, and it would have just duplicated what was already there. But obviously we were concerned over the longevity of the Facebook site. In fact, one of the reasons why James suggested Pub Pub was because we thought we might be able to offer the creative practitioners more of an online community space, and kind of give them access to it and to use the site to be able to publish their own little mini websites. But we haven't had the time to make that happen.
SG I guess if the if the project is officially launching next month, then there’s still time?
MC We are now in what is termed our closure period, with all of our activities complete. It's kind of the tidying up and moving on phase having delivered everything already.
SG You said that got support from the Ireland Wales Cooperation program. So I guess I was wondering
MC James has been really excellent in thinking very carefully about how these digital resources stay alive. There's the strategy that I talked about earlier with the Digital Repository of Ireland and the People's Collection in Wales. And where we have links to other sites, we've been making permalinks to everything and copies of those pages. The Omeka site, with all of the heritage stories, has been very carefully organized and arranged so that it is sustainable. All of this has been managed by James in University College Cork dock rather than here in Wales.
Another of the projects funded by the program uses Omeka for the curation of stories, but they haven’t had the capacity to create anywhere near as many as we have.
SG Right, right. I guess another question I had kind of about the connectivity of the project: it sounds like there's a lot of like existing cultural resources, like institutions and museums and galleries kind of already around the port community.
MC For the exhibitions, the problem we had was that the not all of the ports had public gallery spaces, so it was quite difficult to find venues. A little over a year ago we weren’t even sure that we could exhibit the work in a formal way in each of the ports. At Holyhead, for example, we had a great gallery space that we had been able to secure, but with the others, we weren't quite sure we could exhibit work. We were able to use a library space in Pembroke Dock, as they had little gallery space there, which had been closed during COVID. During this time it had been used for storage, full of tables and boxes, but they were happy to clear it all out and reopen the gallery for us. Then we had a theater in another town and we exhibited work in the foyer spaces. We had to reimagine how things worked in these different kinds of spaces, which had different restrictions on the kind of work that could be displayed. In the theater in Fishguard we had the three big photographs of that town, but we couldn't fit them into that space. So we arranged another exhibition in the same town where we could get the work shown in a commercial gallery. In Dublin, we had a big temporary space, which wasn't a formal gallery, but it was used for large displays and events.
We talked about difference and the lack of uniformity. The exhibitions were another example of that lack of uniformity, and we had to be responsive to the places that we had at our disposal and think on our feet when installing the work. In Rosslare, in the south-east of Ireland, we couldn't find any suitable interior spaces at all. So we made these big information panels and hung them outside in the memorial garden.
Going back to your question about the buy-in of those places – some places took a real interest in the work, such as the Arts Centre that provided the gallery space in Holyhead. They're having a big revamp of the building, with funding to redevelop the site. And they're going to be the beneficiaries of the project because we've got some physical work that we want to leave in the port towns as a legacy. So they're going have some of that work in perpetuity. We’re trying to place some of the sculpture in various indoor spaces in the town as well.
SG You’re describing like the challenges of of setting up a gallery space: my mom works at an art museum and she's always working with the artists that have these traveling exhibitions. The artist has a vision of what their art needs to look like, and then they get to the space and they're just like, “oh, no, it's not gonna work here at all.” So I understand what you mean about needing to adapt to the physical space.
MC There's two others that work with me here at the Center. And we co-curated all of the shows. We would have an idea of where we would put things, but when it came time to actually put things in place we sometime had to reconsider. For example we had two films, and I like the films to be shown projected on the wall, to escape from the aesthetic of a television. but we could only do that in one or two cases and had a variety of screens, which could be quite large and would dominate a certain place. So we had to think about what goes around it and how people sit and watch the film, how they listened to it – with speakers or headphones – and it can change the way things work.
SG So we talked a little about the in-person exhibits, but you also described an app.
MC The community engagement hasn't been as strong as we hoped, because we were unable to do it in-person for that period during COVID. We learned to do more digitally, but the inability to be in the same room – or in our case out in the wind by by the sea wall – meant that we couldn’t deeepen our connections with the community as we had hoped.
We targeted heritage organizations, cultural and gallery spaces in some cases, and the volunteers in the maritime museums and those sorts of places. We've tried to make them aware of the project and what we wanted to do. It was the other members of the team that were focussing on the app, but three of our creative practitioners created content for the app, which proved to be a useful medium for their work, and will help it to live longer. In Pembroke Dock, Kathy D’Arcy’s ‘Cloud of Voices’ will ensure that community voices will be found on the app by visitors in the years to come. That was thanks to a collaboration between creatives and different team members, especially James.
Now that we have all the content online, there's still the opportunity for communities to respond to things and make use of them in new ways.
SG Yeah, that makes sense. It I mean, part of the point of doing these community spotlight is to bring the community together focus on on this again and to keep building the connections.
MC We talked about the transience of the exhibition and the performances that happened in those places. So hopefully the Pub Pub pages will serve as a reminder and a reference point for the exhibitions that have moved on and subsequently dispersed. The website documents that, which people can see in perpetuity, and that seems important in terms of legacy.
We also produced an anthology of the work, published in time for the first exhibition. We have images, introductions to the individual port towns, we got the set of postcards …
One of our writers produced a book of folktales – tall tales – as the writer describes it. He also worked with a film-maker and produced such a beautiful film, with a lovely, haunting, soundtrack. The film was screened several times, and is now online, and the book is archived too on the DRI. So even though you might have one of the books, which might become a collector's item, the content and design is still there in perpetuity for people to go find online.
SG Alright, that's really cool. Was there anything else that you want to mention about this project that I haven't asked about?
MC I’m just looking at the Pub Pub site, and James has got a drop down menu, with a link to the Digitial Repository of Ireland and the People’s Collection, with all of the content from the project. So that's there.
We've got an introductory section with artist profiles, and then there will be another one which will say exhibitions. That's what I have been working on today.
SG Well, maybe maybe in that case, I'll let you get going and keep this momentum to finish. Thanks for talking with me!
MC It's lovely to meet you. Thank you.