Civic is an outdoor and indoor exhibition of billboards and posters, presented across three galleries and 260 feet of commercial advertising hoadings. Thirteen dedicated billboards along the side of the River Wear look at different aspects of the politics and poetics of making images in public. The work by photographers and artists from Britain and Germany asks: “What are our responsibilities and contributions to civic life? What value we attribute to the idea of ‘the public sphere’? What are the purposes of ’public life’ ?”
There was a time when getting a contemporary art work onto a billboard site was a cutting edge activity. In 1972, Daniel Buren, with the assistance of Jack Wendler, occupied half of an advertisement for whisky hoarding in Picadilly Circus with purple stripes, and the art Richard Cork heralded it as the dawn of a new age for public consumption of progressive art. Richard Hamilton caused a controversy in 1992 with a billboard project to protest against the complacency of the BBC in the first Gulf War – especially as the project was sponsored by the Radio Times.
The main site of Civic in Sunderland is the development area of the former Vaux Brewery. During the last decade, while nearby developments at Gateshead Quays have been built, the land has been in limbo, the subject of a wrangle over usage that would affect the whole character of the city centre. Just as these issues appeared to be resolved the collapse of the speculative property sector set the scheme back again. Civic has its own manifesto that goes beyond the conventions of the ‘art led regeneration’ debate to ask “What are the responsibilities and roles of artists when the promised regeneration does not show up?”
John Kippin, organiser and participant at Civic, is one of the most thoughtful and consistent artists when it comes to the relationship of site, history and politics. His body of work documenting the relics of the occupation camps and at Greenham Common, as part of an anti-nuclear weapons campaign, have become relevant as global tent cities again emerge as a form of protest.
Mike Collier’s Street Flowers – Urban Survivors of the Privileged Land, is displayed on a 10 x 20 foot billboard near the Vaux Brewery. The text consists of colloquial names for flora seen close to the Vaux Brewery site. HUGGABACK – Tufted Vetch; TWADDGERS – Bush Vetch; WITHYWIND – Honeysuckle; BULLISTER – Blackthorn. This information was ‘collected’ on the 1st June 2011 on a walk around the old brewery site and the riverside between the Queen Alexander Bridge and the Wearmouth Bridge in Sunderland.
At Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, a sequence of monumental photographic prints examine the recent resurgence of interest in the romantic landscape in artists’ photographs. At the Reg Vardy Gallery, over 80 artists present posters of their work to create a survey of recent tendencies in image production. At The Place, seven photographers examine what it means to inhabit a post-industrial city.
The project is initiated as part of the University of Sunderland ‘Civic Arts’ programme, and organized by the Photography Department, in conjunction with Folkwang University of the Arts, and the North East Photography Network.
Northern Gallery For Contemporary Art, 28-30 Fawcett Street, Sunderland, Tyne And Wear SR1 1RE
Civic – various sites Sunderland City Centre and NGCA until 13 November 2011
Images: John Kippin, The Poor Are Always With Us, 2011; Mike Collier, Street Flowers – Urban Survivors of the Privileged Land.