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The man with the golden gum

During February 2013, Emma Sandon-Hesketh, Research Development Manager, and Alison Naylor, BT Editorial Assistant, went to meet David Henckel following his recent appointment as UCLan Artist in Residence. David is a Preston-based artist whose practise explores instances of unintentional collaboration between people, with a particular focus on the detritus of contemporary urban life.

David, when I say “artist in residence”, all sorts of images come into my mind – none of which are probably what artist in residence means. What does it mean, for you?

I suppose it means lots of different things depending on the situation, whether it is in a gallery or in the community, and in this case it happens to be artist in residence in the research department of the University. So that leaves it fairly open in terms of what I might do

So it’s a sort of a licence to interact with and represent different research areas?

Yes, I think so! Currently I’m looking at the work of the solar physics group and the astrophysicists at the University, it’s an opportunity to do some of my own research and see what people are doing and what really interests me, and then how I might go about working with them on a piece of public art which creatively interprets their area of research.

David Henckel

Presumably this is with a view to making the art appeal to different people in a range of different ways and mediums?

Yes - a lot of the work I do tends to be multi layered in terms of how people might approach it, so I am interested in making work that could be seen as an everyday event, or a ritual, that you can walk up to it and not notice as art, all the way through to completely engaging with it as a piece of art work.

Before we focus in on what you are currently doing, perhaps we could go back a little and ask about your background, particularly the Golden Gum Project?

I did my BA in London at The Slade School of Fine Art and then I came back to Preston because I was originally in, or near Preston.

At the time, I was mainly painting, and I was looking for somewhere to make screen prints, and so joined ArtLab which runs out of Victoria Building, which was a really good way to meet other artists in Preston. This led to the AA2A Scheme, which is Artist’s Access to Art Colleges – and that gave me a year to go into the print making department whenever I wanted and make work. The technicians (Tracy Hill & Magda Stawarska-Beavan) are both practising international artists, and I became good friends with them. It was easier to meet all the people you needed to meet, and to get on with what you were doing; unlike in London where there are so many people all trying to do the same thing. From that, I started talking to people who were doing their MA and that led onto me thinking – “Actually, I would quite like to do my MA here...” So I did an MA in Site and Archive intervention, with Professor Lubaina Himid and Charles Quick. It’s fairly unique to this University in that they have two Fine Art pathways. One is studio practice, and the other is site and archive which basically means on site in the public domain, or it could be in a museum, or perhaps looking at an archive of buttons or badges and investigating that and seeing how you might intervene in that or how you could interpret that– discovering what it is that interests you. My work was starting to go that way, and I began to look at the traces and residues of every day actions by people. I made a relief print from a large table which was full of cuts and scratches where people had cut paper to size, or cut stencils out – and so over fifteen years of accumulated marks you get this collaborative drawing which no-one realised they were making. After that, I started to look for other things which were similar, which led to looking at the gum around the streets. Years worth of people walking in and out of a building, maybe smoking a fag outside, chewing some gum, dropping it on the floor before going in, or spitting it out as they leave – building up this pattern. Originally, I painted the gum bright pink but then changed to gold to get people to notice the pattern that was there. Then, I started looking at it as sound in conjunction with art, music and science. Very manually and intensively, I mapped the flags outside the building, taking photographs throughout, then scaled them and entered them into the computer, putting crosses on every bit of gum to map that space. I met Jon Aveyard (music practice) and Dan Wilkinson (music production) and we decided to map the coordinates and give them a specific frequency based on their position in the space. We installed movement sensors around the space so that as people wandered through, they would trigger those sounds relating to their position. With technical support from Leon Hardman and some financial support from School of Art, Design and Performance and the Research Development Office we had everything we needed to make the installation work. We did a test run at the Lancashire Science Festival (organised by Dr Joanne Heaton) which was actually my MA show.

Some people, once they realised what was going on moved around it and tried to play it in different ways, even dancing around it

You were awarded the MA Stars award. Can you tell me a little about that?

That is Axis contemporary art, one of the biggest on line contemporary art resources. Every year, they go to about twelve different institutions and pick who they think is the most interesting of that year’s MAs via the MA show. Last year was the first year that they were looking at UCLan and Lyndsay Taylor, Curator at the Harris Museum & Art Gallery put me forward and wrote a piece about the work.

As a result I have an MA Stars page and one year’s worth of subscription. I applied four years ago but got turned down, so it was nice for them to approach me this time!

The Transit of Venus project has links with NASA. Can you tell me how this came about?

I live near Moor Park which is the site of the Horrocks Observatory (Jeremiah Horrocks was the first person to accurately predict and observe the transit on 24 November 1693). After a bit of research I found that the next transit was coming up in 2012, and thought it was worth exploring further. I met a composer from Colchester called Julia Usher, with links to Much Hoole where Horrocks observed the transit. Julia was keen to meet with people at UCLan to collaborate on a piece of work for the transit and a team was formed. I was, at the same time, making a beer to celebrate the transit, an ‘In Certain Places’ commission to create a piece of temporary public artwork for The Preston Guild 2012. In relation to that project, I had been going to the church in the Village of Much Hoole and speaking to the Vicar, warden and people of the village.

It wasn’t possible to see the 2012 Transit in the UK because it happened overnight here.

Along with Professor Chris Meigh-Andrews we came up with the idea of creating a digital link between Much Hoole and Hawaii where NASA were observing the transit. The idea being that we would project their images in front of the altar in the church and send back the audio and images from the church where a saxophone / clarinet duet, which Julia had composed about the transit, would be performed. Thereby tying together the two locations and also linking them historically.

It was also one of ten locations profiled on NASAs website and available to the rest of the world. Titled – Venus in Sole Visa, it was a wonderful collaboration between UCLan physicists, musicians, NASA, the community and the church- which was packed for the occasion.

It seems that this represents a wonderful medium through which to achieve one of the University’s aims, which is to increase inter-disciplinarity and collaborative working across a range of different areas

Yes, very much so. As artists, we talk to each other all the time, and for me, one of the most important things about the ideas that you have is to keep talking about them rather than keeping them close to your chest. The more people you speak to, the more opportunities that may not have occurred to you previously, or on your own begin to surface. Often, better than how you had originally conceived them. So, getting people to speak to me and share ideas is key to the success of what I am currently doing. The Sun at Night project for example has come out of looking at what the solar physicists are doing and collaborating with them and other departments in the University such as Games Design, Computing and Engineering, Fine Art, Architectural technology and Music Production. I’ve carried on working closely with Dan Wilkinson and Leon Hardman, and we are looking at creating an installation in the covered market. This will be a 12mx6m cylindrical projection screen in the centre of the market showing a film which represents one year’s worth of solar imagery which will, incidentally, include the transit. The sun will rotate very slowly around the cylinder, rather like a lighthouse or a lamp shade, linking back to Moses Holdens 19th century public lectures on astronomy using magic lanterns; a contemporary equivalent to a piece of Preston’s Astronomical history. There will be a soundtrack to go with this event and we will also be producing an augmented reality App to go with this, called ‘sun in your hand’. We will look at how the audience change how they move through the covered market. Again, an art form which actively engages the public.

It sounds as though the University campus is a kind of Pandora’s box for you, with all the potential collaborations?

Yes, it’s fantastic. There is potential for all sorts of exciting collaborative projects. I look forward to them!