Kelly Dobson. Initial sketch, 2015.

Uncommon Ground

Kirsten Lloyd

Kelly Dobson is figuring out how to build time machines. Coming from a family of mechanics and machinists she has a long-standing interest in technology and its impact upon everyday life. Her own career as an artist/engineer has paralleled the dramatic rise of personal devices that promise users special powers ranging from constant connectivity to a quick and easy memory boost. But even back in the late 1990s Kelly was quick to recognise that mobile phones and portable computers were usually geared towards a particular set of goals: devising innovative ways to harness individuals’ productivity and generating high-performance employees. In the belief that exciting things can happen between people and machines that aren’t driven by profit she adopts a different approach, designing personalised appliances that address everyday human needs. And so, though her time machines will probably take the form of vehicles, they won’t have flux capacitors. Rather their interiors will be designed to manipulate and queer time; speeding it up, slowing it down or even attempting to bend it. Understanding that people with profound learning disabilities can experience temporality very differently, Kelly will carefully engineer the spaces to respond to the specific rhythms and modes of particular individuals. She hopes that inside these machines more meaningful ‘meetings’ can be facilitated – in the sense of ‘a meeting of minds’, or ‘meeting half-way’ – by helping to create a common ground between their inhabitants.

This work encapsulates themes that kept recurring in my recent discussions with Artlink’s team of artists, namely the shape of time and the shape of relationships. What follows is an attempt to understand how the creative process is calibrated inside each project and how engagement with Artlink’s programme of sensory work has impacted on the artists’ own practices. I want to consider their diverse responses through these interlocking themes of time and relationships, subjects that push to the fore ideas like care, exchange and attention. From the start it has been clear that a different framework is required in order to understand the approaches of these artists. Not only are conventional art objects in short supply, but our usual conceptions of chronological or linear time simply don’t fit in this context. This raises a crucial question: what other frameworks of analysis are available? One answer could be that, rather than thinking about ‘production’ in the way that it is usually applied in industrial societies and the artworld (put simply, the making of ‘things’), it’s perhaps more useful to think in terms of ‘reproduction’, meaning the making of relationships and social fabrics.

Reproduction is an idea more usually associated with pregnancy and child-rearing, but it has also been extended to encompass the work required to create and maintain domestic family life (through things like communication, care and housework). What is the value of thinking through artistic practice from this perspective? For one thing, it orientates attention away from art products and towards relationships: emotional labour and the materiality of care are what’s important here. For another, it offers a different way to approach time. In place of shift time or project time (each with prescribed start and end points), reproduction opens up the idea of life-spans. This isn’t to say that Artlink’s work lasts for entire lives but rather that their work is durational – it’s allowed to progress organically rather than being shoehorned into set schedules. The experience of time is led by the relationship itself: sometimes slowed, sometimes repetitive, sometimes felt as bursts of intensity. Reflecting on particular works in more detail will help to describe what this means for the process of art-making. It will also show what their experimental creative approaches can bring to a consideration of ‘social practice’ more generally. Recently popular across the field of art, this type of work has prompted artists to intervene in the social fabric in a variety of ways; from setting up temporary schools or businesses to staging re-enactments of events from recent history. Though linked, Artlink’s methodologies can be seen to open up spaces for the questioning of this type of practice – spaces that are much needed in terms of contemporary art discourse in Scotland.


Laura Aldridge and Laura Spring have been working collaboratively with Artlink for around seven years. Though they have independent creative practices as a visual artist and designer respectively, experimenting with materials is central to both their working processes. In the context of their weekly workshops at the Cherry Road Resource Centre in Midlothian, this approach is taken in new, sometimes unexpected, directions. Focused around those individuals with some of the most complex needs – and therefore often the least opportunity for interaction – the workshops take the form of one-to-one or small group sessions. Yet, despite working with the same people over long periods of time, Laura and Laura often don’t know the medical backgrounds of their co-participants. Instead, they try to keep each relationship as open as possible, understanding that it will inevitably evolve and change over time, whether that be measured in months or minutes: an activity that clicked with a participant one week, may well fall flat the next. This might sound obvious but it is intimately connected to a fundamental respect for agency, a desire to keep exploring potential, and an attempt to even out unbalanced power dynamics. To that end the workshops are conceived as cycles of in-the-moment responses. Nothing is fixed or assumed.

In practice this means that inhibitions have to be left at the door. Continually on the search for material ‘prompts’ which can set response cycles in motion, Laura Spring found that dressing up could be particularly productive, lending everyday encounters an unpredictable and slightly surreal twist. She began with the simple idea of finding out what would happen if a participant with a severe visual impairment brushed against something furry, only to reach out and discover that it’s an apron attached to a human body. The experiment eventually led to a fashion student being commissioned to make a range of costumes for everyone to wear. In this context, learning how to interpret responses and maintaining a sensitivity to reactions is crucial. Conventional signifiers don’t necessarily apply (for example laughter doesn’t always equate with enjoyment) and getting to know people’s individual languages is a long process. The workshops use materials to enable the development of alternative ways of communicating through lights, sounds, colour and touch.

The ability to remain alert and give the space that allows things to happen is essential to any creative process. Just as Laura and Laura use this knowledge in the context of their work with Artlink, experiences gained through the workshops in turn loop back to influence their own practices. In our discussions they were keen to point out that this doesn’t stop at an approach to materials, but extends further: ‘we’ve become more confident, freer – braver even’. In both spheres of their work, they appreciate that a minute can be as powerful as a two-hour long session, and that patience and perseverance are essential in the search for something meaningful.


Wendy Jacob is an artist fascinated by the interactions between bodies and the objects we use or the spaces we inhabit, from architecture and cityscapes right through to open landscapes. She often works with other people to help her navigate these interactions then develops creative interventions animated by apparently eccentric questions: what does it mean to walk through a room without touching the floor? To be hugged by a chair? Though based in Boston, Wendy is engaged in a long-term project at Cherry Road. The long-distances involved means that she spends intense spells at the Centre and relies upon on her close working relationships with support staff there. In this case her questions might be: what does it mean to work with someone who finds it almost impossible to communicate living in a country more than 3000 miles away? To collaborate with support staff who have no previous interest in art? To make a building sing?

To address these issues and to lay the groundwork for the project Wendy has introduced sound diaries with the assistance of fellow artist Miriam Walsh. In their pages, staff carefully log the vibrations and noises that resonate with Nicola and Donald, two young adults with high support needs who use the Centre. Their experiences of the building in which they spend so much of their time are notoriously habitual, each returning to exactly the same place day after day. Wendy is ultimately planning to create ‘songs’ for Nicola and Donald, pieces of sound that are inserted into architectural hot-spots in walls, on floors or along railings. Experienced through touch, they might inspire movement, perhaps across the room, down the hall or around the corner. For now though, the focus is on gathering appealing noises. Referring to the staff at Cherry Road as her ‘expert translators’ Wendy points out that Dawn, John and Kingsley are adept at reading and interpreting the nuances of Nicola and Donald’s individual gestures. Keeping the dairies demands close attention and active listening: hits so far include the clunk of the vending machine as it deposits a can of Coke into the tray and the swoosh of the hand dryer when it is turned on. While the staff amass a small mountain of useable information, the activity of collecting also becomes a way to create new types of exchange and conversation. Fresh insights and perspectives are being formed within these pre-established relationships and the everyday data within the diaries is coalescing to form surprisingly poetic portraits of Nicola and Donald.

Common Sense

Going beyond the visual and using sensory experiences as a way to try to reach – or inhabit – another’s space lies at the heart of Steve Hollingsworth’s practice. The immersive acoustic workshops he runs with artist Jim Colquhoun on a weekly basis are realised as joint performances with participants, enveloping them in an evolving sound which they are very much part of creating. ‘Even just using voice can be very powerful,’ he says, ‘I use amplification a lot. For a person to hear their own sound projected from across a room can be very liberating or unnerving.’ Like many of Artlink’s artists Steve’s approach to aesthetics bears a closer resemblance to the original Greek meaning than its more recent usages. Rather than focus on visuality (or even beauty) it referred to ‘things perceptible to the sense’ more generally. Dedicated to an understanding of art as a means for interaction, Steve is open to many formats and mediums in his search for the right kind of communication structure in a given relationship.

The same traits of adaptability, attentiveness and responsiveness are required for his intensive work with individuals. Echoing Steve, Artlink’s Artistic Director Alison Stirling describes the overall aim as an attempt to gather a range of different perspectives ranging from family members to medical professionals in order to find a way into the world of someone with profound learning disabilities. She evocatively relates this to the marine adventurer Jacques Cousteau’s forays into uncharted territories. ‘How does a person with such extensive brain damage perceive the world?’ she asks. ‘Everything is clearly very different, senses are often exaggerated – sometimes it might be terrifying at others it might be very beautiful – details become incredible. But these alternative understandings of our shared world are ignored, or, if they are paid attention to, they are medicalised. The question is: what can we all learn about the world and ourselves if we find a way to communicate?’ This is the deceptively simple idea that underpins all of Artlink’s experimental work as well as Steve’s practice. Currently he is working with care staff, parents, add job Dr Bob Walley and add job Dr Gordon Dutton to create a sensorium which can be interacted with and controlled by the individual they are working with, enabling him to actively create new types of experience. Placing equal value on the contributions of each group member in this way raises fascinating questions around creative production and the making of artworks. Steve readily acknowledges that the challenges he has negotiated through his experiences with Artlink have made a substantive impact on his own practice, opening up the possibilities around collaborative approaches and encouraging him to move into performance and music to create durational projects that unfold through time.

Curating Care

These three brief examples reveal a distinctive mix of pragmatism and creativity. Yet every single artist that I spoke to emphasised the unique nature and value of Artlink’s relationship-driven approach – it’s clearly impossible to conceive of these individual projects as entirely separate entities, rather it’s far more illuminating to think about the infrastructure and ethos that underpins and connects them. To end, then, I want to consider what keeps these projects alive. Or, in other words, how are they reproduced? Artlink’s staff may not refer to themselves as curators but it’s a particularly useful descriptor in this case. The root of the term is ‘curare’ meaning ‘to care’, and, while today this usually means caring for objects in a collection or arranging them on the walls of a gallery, it has also historically referred to those who care for people, their lives and communities.

Here are two ideas then: curating-as-care and curating care-full art projects. One of Artlink’s biggest successes has been to develop a funding model that can support durational artistic experimentation, giving relationships the time to grow and the experience-based knowledge gained to actively inform long cycles of work. Wendy Jacob put it best in her description of working in Cherry Road: ‘Time is understood very differently here,’ she said. ‘Progress is measured in minute increments. Moving quickly is not possible. In order to do anything meaningful in this context, it is critical to have time for ideas to slowly incubate and develop’. Providing this is certainly not an easy task in today’s funding climate where the outcomes of temporally fixed projects have to be defined in advance: open-ended responsiveness is a difficult attribute to build in. Supporters’ and funders’ trust is absolutely key here, it’s only from a position of understanding and shared beliefs that the necessary momentum can be generated to realise adventures and build pioneering working methodologies.

In the coming years it looks like love and care will emerge as hot topics in the discourses surrounding fashionable socially-engaged art practices. Yet the majority of these works follow a common model: at the invitation of a major art institution an international artist realises a temporary project that partners with local Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in order to engage variously deprived or vulnerable ‘non-art’ communities. The significant issues around this type of practice are being vigorously debated elsewhere. What is perhaps more interesting here is to consider the ways in which the mainstream artworld would have to be reconfigured in order to engage seriously with Artlink’s work. Is it possible to envision an art field that can embrace process and duration, value dispersed models of authorship and think alongside projects that effect long-term change in ‘slow time’? What do their experimental methodologies mean for the future of artists, artworks, curators and our understanding of care as both a concept and a practice?

It’s worth remembering that valuing care and relationships in such a crucial way is not simply an ethical issue – in a context where care-givers are routinely devalued it becomes an evermore political one. Within such a complex, pressurised circumstances producing well-informed, practical and radical interventions is an urgent task. Here art’s previous claims to autonomy and its aversion to functionality feel incredibly outdated. Yet, if the moment of ‘art’ is hard to pin down in the care-full interactions that Artlink curate, this is does not imply that it is absent: on the contrary, it remains the driving force. When we are asked to imagine buildings that sing, machines that warp time and a device that can give someone – perhaps for the very first time – the ability to alter their world, it’s important to remember that these are not simply ideas but that they will exist in concrete terms in the very near future. They are durational creative responses that are committed to showing that significant artworks can be useful and, at the same time, invite us to think about our relationship to the world and those around us in different ways. Through shared authorship they explore how art and care can be orientated towards genuinely emancipatory goals.




Kirsten Lloyd
Is a Lecturer in the School of History of Art at The University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on late 20th and 21st art and curatorial mediation, including lens-based practice, participatory work and realism. Recent publications include “If You Lived Here… : A Case Study on Social Reproduction in Feminist Art History,” in Feminism and Art History Now (I.B. Tauris, 2017) and a co-edited special issue of the journal Third Text on Social Reproduction and Art (2017). She is the Academic Lead for the University’s Contemporary Art Research Collection. See