Sophie Hope and Lee Simmons, discussion about Birthday Projects
Sophie Hope (SH): Maybe you could start by giving an introduction to why the birthday projects?
Lee Simmons (LS): I got the idea that on my birthday I could do a bit of art without all the other stuff that usually goes with a project, like applying for funding, getting permissions, advertising etc. but just making work because I want to without really having to justify it in the usual way. I think the first one came about through sitting and thinking what I would really like to do to celebrate my birthday and decided to make a piece of art I’d had on my mind for a while. I did it and thought it was a nice way to celebrate and the work that I do is quite chronological, so I do pieces, which remind me where I was, who with, what I was thinking about at the time. As it’s evolved it’s between friends, every other year; and this year I decided to have a party to communicate the work before doing this year’s installation. There have been other pieces on my birthday that aren’t biannual too.
SH: Can you tell me about, or give me an example of one of the birthday projects?
LS: Cold Blow Lane. I’d been thinking for a while about the tunnel next to my house and how I’d like to do a piece of work there. It’s where the term football hooliganism was first coined, there used to be big fights in this tunnel, Millwall football club is just around the corner. I’d been walking through this tunnel for years, and at night it can be quite spooky.
Sometimes I play on things that seem sinister and enhance them to become theatrical and almost fairytale like – exaggerating it to a point that it’s not spooky anymore but more filmic. So I decided to carpet the tunnel with golden glitter and pink flowers.
It is quite an aggressive space, and with friends, who brought gold glitter and pink flowers as birthday presents, we turned what was an aggressive space into a really beautiful environment. The cars when they go through the tunnel fly through, the noise is exaggerated because of the echo, there’s no pavement for a lot of it and it can feel really dodgy. This time when cars came through they were slowing down trying to see what was going on, the headlights lit up the glitter while they also crushed the flowers – so there’s that mortality element to it too.
A friend came along by chance on her bicycle, and thought it looked like broken glass so was like ‘oh here we go’, expecting to be mugged or something, but then when she got closer she was like ‘oh it’s really beautiful’ and really enjoyed the tunnel being all gold and shiny. Flattening the flowers in the path of the cars was another element to it that is intentionally based around mortality.
SH: In terms of the spontaneity of the project, getting up on your birthday – ‘I’m going to do something uninvited, off the top of my head and explore something that I’ve been wanting to do… ’ is there planning that goes on before your birthday?
LS: Yes there is a certain amount of planning, but not a lot. So for this one I’d got a stash of glitter and flowers myself, and had invited friends to arrive at a certain time for that or later in the pub, as well as arranging for a few of us to actually make the work. So we knew what time we were going to make it and everything.
On another piece we knew that we were having a reading group at my house, so we did that and had people arriving in time for the reading group, or later to make the art, knowing we would be making the work afterwards so were prepared to be having a late night.
On another one I’d been drawing throughout the year images of balloons at the foot of the Thames, and thinking about the Greenwich foot tunnel, trying to get permission to do a piece there and not really getting anywhere with it in terms of a yes or no. In the end I thought I’d just do it myself and self fund a small intervention, 33 balloons, and I had two friends help to make the work. Walking the balloons from New Cross to Deptford, then on to Greenwich and spending the day together.
A lot of the time it will be an idea which I’m brewing, carrying around in my head but haven’t found the right time or place for, maybe administration is getting in the way so I’ll be like OK I’ll just do it as my own piece in my own way. So the last one was the balloons and this year’s Red Line, that’s an idea that’s been brewing over the course of the year – that I’ve been carrying inside me but haven’t really found the right situation to do it; but it fits as a birthday project.
SH: Tell me more about the Red Line, where does the idea for that come from?
LS: This came about from the recent events in Syria, when there were the chemical attacks and people were saying, “where’s Obama’s red line now?” I found myself feeling a bit traumatised, sort of secondary trauma with all the images of the children; I came up with a little poem about a dusty red line blowing on the breeze, then I started doing work with red dust in the studio, drying out red flowers and using the dust of the flowers. Then I thought that I’d like to make a really big line out of those materials; so just taking an emotion and then doing something with that. I was feeling really powerless, looking at all these tweets going along, all of this information, you don’t know what to believe. Ultimately lots of people have died – it’s disgusting that the international community is feeding the flames but not doing anything to put them out, on all sides; and people are dying and it feels quite suffocating. The way that I know to respond to something like that is to make art, so I started working in private around that, developed the red line, had ideas for a few locations and decided it would fit as a birthday project; no gallery agenda, funding agenda; it is what it is, only the people who make it with me, and who are passing by will see it and that’s fine – just a very natural thing to do.
SH: Can you say a bit more about that relationship between having an emotional response, and picking up some materials and making something. Because you also work as an art therapist, is there something in that transaction, in the emotional and the physicality of the materials? Are you making something to process those emotions?
LS: Yes I think it’s powerful, because you’re actually doing something, even though… I don’t know, maybe, between the emotions and the materials… what happens in the transaction in-between? Umm I think it’s going from a place where you’re maybe like what can I do? How can I move past this feeling, or this sense of total disempowerment, grief, or anxiety, whatever it is that’s going on in response to an event… going from being in that place to actively making something, I think you can process whilst making and then the feeling of just putting something out into the world that communicates something of your response…
Red line isn’t my feeling, I don’t feel like a red line, but my ideas of people who couldn’t breathe, like with the poem… I was imagining people just having the life sucked out of them, they can’t breathe, a huge amount of grief around, and this morphing dusty red line that’s coming from the international community engulfing people. That red line is about there not being international intervention to support the revolution and against Assad, but that red line is also present in fuelling whatever is going on with Assad. I don’t understand politics enough to have a clear view on what’s going on, or ideas about what should happen, but I know that what is happening is clearly not right and it’s the civilians that suffer. That was the thinking behind that piece, but then the idea of actually making a beautiful installation that’s also giving recognition to that situation and those people, I find that quite helpful, it seems like quite a helpful thing to do, as an artist, as a person, not ignoring. At the same time if I go and get a big gun and join the Free Syrian Army I don’t think that’s going to help anybody either, if I go and protest against the war, and therefore intervention – well I don’t think that’s very helpful. But just trying to understand, trying to think about, and communicate those thoughts; that’s the most useful thing I can do. The art therapy work alongside that I can really see the results of, where you’re directly, actively helping people.
The artwork is very much in the head, very metaphorical and needing to do, so how much is that a political statement or just fulfilling my own need to make something? With the art therapy though, doing the two things together seems to work.
SH: With the Birthday Projects, there’s still an audience, other people who interact with that, they’re not your patients – they’re strangers, friends, friends of friends, passers by; there’s still an interaction even if they’re just taking glitter home on the soles of their shoes, there’s still an interaction with the work that you’ve put out in the world. That’s a transference of emotion and processing, politics, fear, bloodshed. That’s something you’re processing and putting out there, and other people are then engaging with it. I’m wondering if you’ve had any feedback from the people engaging with your work in situ? And during the act of doing, I’m wondering what their responses have been.
LS: One of the people involved said that he really thought we formed a team, he’d not met the others before, but by the end felt he knew them really well. So the act of doing and making something was quite bonding and creates a community in that sense.
People generally seem to enjoy the work and I like that they can enjoy it on different levels. If people want to ask questions, and know the history of the idea and where it comes from we can go into that; but most of the time people don’t ask. They just seem to get what they want from it and that’s enough; maybe the birthday projects have that lightness to them where there’s not the pressure of it being art in a gallery, something to be understood and might make people nervous if they don’t get it. It’s got that fun-ness and spontaneity, “Oh I’ve done it for my birthday”, and that seems to be enough a lot of the time; which is quite refreshing really.
SH: In the projects you’ve said that you’re making something beautiful, with an undercurrent of danger, and I’m thinking about how other people might encounter that. Do you feel like you’ve got the right balance in the interventions, or public manifestations, with the glitter and the gore, or the death and the life: if these are complimenting enough, or confusing enough? Is that something that’s in your mind?
LS: With the documentation it doesn’t come across so much, but in the situations I think it does come across. For example, in the Greenwich foot tunnel the balloons were floating through the tunnel and up the stairs to the outside, but they were also bursting in the tunnel, which echoed throughout the tunnel sounding like gunshot. From one end of the tunnel you can’t see as far as the middle so this could generate fear but then once someone gets close they see it’s balloons, so there’s always this double edge.
SH: It’s like you’re giving yourself those parameters, or excuses, to do the projects that you want to do without having to conform… you have the safety valve of the birthday projects as a testing ground, sometimes using a pseudonym. I’m wondering if you have other safety valves to create this space? You have your 9-5 job, where you have to be responsible, but then you also do these… is this a way of keeping it going? No matter what happens I’ve always got my birthday where I can do what the heck I want, do you have other mechanisms or safety valves for creating that sort of space?
LS: I find painting is helpful, it creates a really good slice out of reality where you can explore and be free but without a lot of admin / planning etc. around it.
What do you think of it all?
SH: I think it’s really interesting, having a structure, where there’s a window for you to really think about things you already wanted to think about. I’m interested in where the outlets are, whether that’s politics or an intervention – it’s going to be a personal take on the world, and there might be a therapeutic element but it goes beyond boundaries and a specific context. So it’s spewed out by you but then becomes something else. I’m thinking about the boundaries between your profession as an art therapist, artist, and skills in that area, and then how you live, how these all inform each other but have boundaries too, in the mind there are seepages.
When we were in your studio earlier you were talking about one of the big paintings that you started work on after having a really bad day – so that was spontaneous, but with the working and re-working of it, then it become something else and starts to mean something to other people as well.
LS: Taking that painting for example, I think where it becomes interesting to other people, is when there’s been that spewing out, but then coming back to that painting in a different mood on a different day, and developing the piece from a more objective and technical place.
The conversation went on to discuss different influences.
Tamir Addadi, Ola Stahl, and Kajsa Thelin were mentioned as being a wonderful inspiration and support as friends and artists in the early days.
The Birthday Projects are a series of situations and installations by artist Lee Simmons. Taking place every other year to co-inside with the artist’s birthday, ‘The Birthday Projects’ are a series of occurrences and installations made in public spaces.
This years event will include remnants from the birthday projects of 2011, 2009, 2007, and preparatory work for ‘Red Line’, a new work which is due to take place in Brazil on December 20th 2013.
Photographs and residue of helium balloons, powder paint, glitter and flowers aggregate to form both a party and retrospective of the artist’s work. This year’s party will start at 7pm, Tuesday 10th December and the exhibition/party remnants will open the following day, 12-6pm.
Music will be provided by DJ’s Tom Richards, Nadine Martin, and Robin Allison.