Thu 31 Oct - Sat 2 Nov 2019

Due to popular demand, we’ve extended the deadline to apply for the Connect! competition until 5pm this Friday, 27 March.

Today we’re talking to artist Alinah Azadeh about the thinking behind her giving-and-receiving event idea.

Your Connect! statement implies you like the idea of enabling people to break down the barriers between strangers in a public place. Given that some people find museums and galleries intimidating, how do you intend to make visitors feel comfortable taking part?

Museums at Night is an audience-centred programme, so that is a good starting point. Using the spaces in the venue to create the right ambience, framing and animating the journey through the space, the way the ‘gifts’ are produced with people beforehand or set up on the night, as well as giving people clear permission and instruction on the night to play with the idea of giving and taking as a central part of the work is key.  Intention is everything.  

The event is supposed to be full of mystery, intrigue and a playful amount of risk and will be set up along these lines, so I will work with the venue that wins me to see how we can be true to this. Museums and galleries are there for us to discover ourselves and the world anew in what is on display, and this event is adding another level into that experience, activating audiences in an unusual way, whilst celebrating the generous gift that these public venues provide – free access to a common, cultural capital.

What sort of venue do you think would be ideal for this kind of project?

It is a pretty flexible idea in terms of site. Ideally, I’d like to work somewhere with a diverse range of spaces so the event can operate at a number of levels. I’d also like a place with a collection or theme that lends itself to creating ‘gifts’ in response to it easily, that fire contributors imaginations and make audiences think in a different way about what is already on display or reframe the histories it is presenting. Collaborative pre-production work is key to this.

A group of colourfully dressed people around a burning book

Alinah’s Burning the Books installation (c) Cristina Pedreira, courtesy Urban Dialogues

Reading your statement I imagine lots of small, intimate but meaningful interactions happening between strangers in the winning venue. Is this an end in itself or would you want to prolong, document, and develop these relationships?

I like the ephemeral nature of the idea, but there is scope for people to leave traces of the interactions and gifts they received and gave – we could link into social media for people to both suggest beforehand and respond to afterwards, or leave traces in the space afterwards. They could also be built into the gifts themselves, if that is what the givers decide.

When I did this at Fabrica last year, I was still receiving emails for a few months afterwards as to how the gift had been ‘used’ by the person I gave it to – as some of the gifts I gave contained an (optional) instruction for monthly use, for a year such as poetry books and blank postcards with stamps. Although I told people explicitly I expected nothing in return, people often felt a desire to give something back, thus highlighting the nature of the project and its questions around gifts, social exchange and generosity, like Is anything really random? Is a gift ever free? What does it really mean to be generous? Isn’t there a return encoded into most gift in some form, and isn’t this the natural way of things, to enable human beings to exchange and reciprocate?

The word and concept ‘anonymous’ has a particular resonance now in relation to hacking, the digital world and social media, does your practice give people a chance to perform an important statement that combines the public and private?

I hope so! I have done a number of projects in public venues where audiences were invited to anonymously ‘perform’ in this way, sometimes with very personal data or narratives becoming part of a very public work. I know if it is framed well and the existing material is inspiring, it works and people start to step into the collectivity of the experience in a sometimes startling way. They find themselves emboldened to connect/ contribute and are challenged to receive without anything being expected in return – this is counter to the way we have generally been socialised!

I have asked audiences to both add to spaces in museums (Bibliomancer’s Dream, The Gifts) and take objects away from the space to keep (All is not Lost) but these were all over a period of weeks or months. This event is like a fast-tracked version, where we are materialising a temporary new collection (some of which only one person will ever log or see) and then de-materialising it together, almost as performers within a collective work where every interaction, object or word exchanged is what makes it all breathe.

How do you react if you get given a gift you don’t like, or one that tells you the gift-giver sees you in a very different light to the way you see yourself?

That depends on what is given and why! Sometimes I do keep things that don’t ‘fit’ me in a secret box and then gift them later to other people who I know will really appreciate them, to keep the gift going.

Interested in bringing Alinah to your venue for Museums at Night this October? Find out more about taking part in the Connect! competition here – you have until Friday 27 March to send us your pitch!

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Thu 31 Oct - Sat 2 Nov 2019