Individual commissions – Trip the Light Fantastic, Jane Watt, London Borough of Islington

Theme: a temporary commission for a long-term programme

Trip the Light Fantastic, Jane Watt, 2010.Photo: Byam Shaw and the artist

Trip the Light Fantastic, Jane Watt, 2010, Archway, LB Islington, London.  An Alight commission by AIR at Byam Shaw School of Art, University of the Arts London (UAL), in partnership with Islington Council.  Photo: Byam Shaw and the artist.                   

Best practice in: research, development and testing of art works for realisation in response to a particular location.

Key facts and figures

Site: Archway, LB Islington, 2010

AIR (Byam Shaw School of Art at Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design, University of the Arts London) in partnership with LB Islington

Funding source for commission:
Transport for London, LB Islington North Area Committee, LB Islington Recession Fund, Arts Council England Grants for the Arts (total circa £30K) with in-kind support from LB Islington and University of the Arts London.

Artist: Jane Watt

Project overview
Although a major transport hub with 2,000 daily buses bringing 15 million passengers a year and 6.9 million annual tube visits, Archway is isolated, undefined and resistant. At its centre is a modernist development with an ongoing anticipation of ‘regeneration’. It has a vibrant working and resident population that is ethnically and economically diverse and often fragmented.

AIR (Archway Investigations and Responses) is a projects studio based at Byam Shaw School of Art in Archway. AIR encourages both students and professional artists to explore and investigate Archway, and supports the resulting range of site responsive interventions they propose. As a consequence of this long-term commitment to creating challenging and innovative artwork, a partnership with LB Islington Archway Town Centre Manager was forged to deliver Alight, a series of temporary commissions for the area around Archway Tower.  Research for commissions began in 2008 and the Trip the Light Fantastic took place during the dark winter months of 2009/10.

The Archway Tower is a distinctive local landmark, loved and loathed in equal measure. The area immediately surrounding the tower and the tube station is challenging for residents, local businesses, workers, commuters and visitors, particularly at night when it is gloomy and foreboding. Alight is a long-term series of temporary and participatory artworks that explore, reveal and animate this place with light.

The strategy for the Alight series recognises the aspirations of the local authority to encourage a public re-appraisal of Archway, the aims of the Archway Town Centre Manager to increase footfall in the area, and the intentions of AIR to create extraordinary real-time exchanges between artists and the communities of Archway.

Light was chosen as a medium that could address, literally and metaphorically, both the scale of the site and the ambition to bring delight to Archway. The artists’ brief was kept deliberately open but with a proviso that detailed research and testing should be carried out in the area as part of developing the work.

Aims of the commission

  • To provide artists with time and support in developing relationships with a place and its communities, in order to propose and realise meaningful site responsive artworks.
  • To encourage creative connections and a more optimistic sense of place among local residents, businesses, workers, students and visitors.
  • To shift public perception of Archway from a transport node to a destination in its own right.

Commission description
Jane Watt’s Trip the Light Fantastic drew on a long period of research in Archway, beginning with her investigations into the much-missed Gresham Ballroom.  This research led to her discovery of the deep-seated enthusiasm for dancing held by many Archway residents, workers and students. The artist subsequently photographed over two hundred local people dancing in their offices, shops, living rooms and dance classes, and then installed forty huge translucent photographs of these dancers in local office and shop windows. At night the images were lit by ambient light emanating from within the buildings. Alongside the photographs three simple beams of pink light lit up some of Archway's darkest corners. Local dancers, groups and passersby were invited to perform in these pools of light at six public events that included tango lessons, street dance performances and a disco. During the period of installation in the winter months of 2010, the lights remained on each evening inviting spontaneous performances from passers-by.

Trip the Light Fantastic has made a striking contribution to the rich public archive that is being created by artists working in Archway with AIR. It has developed significant new conversations across Archway and demonstrated, locally, at borough level, and beyond, the further opportunities that exist for creative interventions in Archway. Trip the Light Fantastic was a magical work that surprised and delighted a huge number of people during a cold and long winter:

“A wonderful event – there seemed to be an implicit understanding that this is not going to come back – sad but beautiful in its uniqueness.”

“A great way of reviving community spirit and detaching yourself from stress and worries. Do you have to take it down?”

“Trip the Light Fantastic punctured the humdrum of everyday life.”

“It’s been great meeting different people involved with many styles of dance, and also enjoying watching and listening to people’s reactions.”

For Jane Watt the commission process has been a unique and valuable experience:

“It has encouraged direct engagement and testing out ideas in the site.  The commissioning team has encouraged an approach that maintains continual critical reflection and aspiration to make a work that resonates in the streets of Archway, and hopefully beyond. This particular way of working has expanded my approach to working in the public realm, and the realisation of the large scale work has extended my engagement with community, as well as made a significant development to my temporary public realm portfolio.”

Key factors for success

  • The open-minded approach of the Archway Town Centre Manager and her willingness to vest trust in the professional capacity of the commissioner and the artist, to draw out the particular and distinctive qualities of Archway through the commission created a strong platform for production of new work.
  • Transport for London provided seed funding to allow the commissioning of paid development time in the preceding winter. As a result Jane Watt was able to uncover a diverse network of dancers, to get to know local people who would go on to participate in the final work, and to test the spotlight concept. This ensured a strong and realistic proposal that then secured funding to realise the work.
  • Byam Shaw School of Art, Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design and University of the Art London gave active encouragement to AIR to build a public engagement programme in the locality in which the school is situated; the school recognised the educational value of the programme of work for student engagement and the contribution it makes to professional development for emerging and established artists.
  • Close collaboration between AIR, LB Islington Arts Officer and Archway Town Centre Manager resulted in very effective liaison with local communities and ensured a clear strategy for addressing advocacy, promotion and technical realisation of the work. 

Anna Hart