Artist Joe Sweeney asks the public to leave a message for Europe. Good Trouble sat down with the artist to find out more about his two-part interactive public artwork.
Day after day, Brexit lurches closer. As a nation, we’re untethered, caught in a limbo of deadline extensions and a second referendum. A pithy take on outmoded British nostalgia, artist Joe Sweeney’s prints, sculptures and installations immortalise pre-Brexit Britain. His latest project, +44… Leave A Message for Europe, is a two-part interactive public artwork through which Sweeney asks, “Do you feel heard?”. Sweeney built a physical sculpture of a phone booth in Dungeness; the UK’s most south-easterly point and only desert, and with a purpose-built website [https://leaveamessage4europe.com/], Sweeney invites users to record a voice message for Europe — a love letter, meditation, or just a good old fashioned rant.
+44, Sweeney stresses, encourages free speech, not hate speech. The artist hopes that the website will become a forum to talk about Brexit, away from the social media. Scroll through the site’s audio archive and you’ll find messages for Europe from icons of British culture, among them artists Gilbert and George and designer Vivienne Westwood.
The audio archive is to remain open to collect messages between now and Brexit on 29 March which will live on online permanently and form the basis of a second time-based piece, to be displayed at Camden’s Cob Gallery later this year.
Hi Joe. How are you feeling about Brexit today? I’m exhausted.
Do you think this could be the most bureaucratic process ever in the history of the world? The further down the line we get, the more we see there is no clarity, no definitive right or wrong. Public opinion will always remain clouded because it changes wherever you go. This affects so many people and in so many different ways it can never be as simple as one option or the other, so in that sense I’m not really sure how you can make a viable deal. Reiterated by those shouting loudest who seem to be on the extreme ends of either debate. And this is really where the project comes from, it's a research project, aiming at documenting the voice of those not shouting loudest, in order to paint a very real, diverse and authentic vocal portrait of Britain at this pivotal moment in history.
I think this is the first participatory artwork you’ve made to date. Why did you choose to directly involve the public and your audience in this way?
I’ve always worked from the gestural, the idiosyncratic and every day interactions of mainly British life. This process of Brexit affects the whole nation, with members of the same family voting in different directions. It taps into a myriad of longstanding issues in Britain today, everybody has an opinion. I can’t think of any other moment in my life time that involves so many different people who could participate in such a research project.
It’s also the first explicitly political project you’ve undertaken.
The subject matter is political, but the focus of this project is on the human voice. Everyone has an opinion and I want this project to encourage them to voice it. My work focuses on interaction, this is the first time I’ve worked with the voice as it is, capturing its incomparable quality as a means of communication and understanding. Maybe my stammer is this basis of my obsession over the way we interact but I think creating a platform where you can speak without interruption on such a contentious subject is really important in documenting real opinion at this crucial moment.
Why did you choose the place the installation at Dungeness? What does the town mean to you as a Londoner?
I’ve been going to Dungeness my whole life; half my family is from Kent so I’ve spent a lot of time in that part of Britain. In many ways Dungeness serves as a perfect blank canvas, unlike an urban environment like London; it's free from association to existing programmes and agendas in order to encourage as diverse participation as possible. The sculpture is installed within a pub garden that backs onto the shingle beach and what could be more approachable than that? Dungeness is also the most south easterly point of the UK which points towards Europe and it's Britain's only desert. I wanted to create quite a dystopian image and considering its environment I don’t think you can get more dystopian than a nuclear power station in a nature reserve.
There’s a palpable tension between the voices of Romney Marsh’s local residents, many of whom voted for Brexit, and the remaining Londoners who’ll be sending in their messages online.
We’ve been contacting key figures from both sides of the argument. I don’t think this work holds any authenticity unless it portrays as diverse opinion as possible. The public paint the portrait of Britain, it’s my job as the artist to encourage as much widespread participation as possible.
Tell me about some of the voices — and opinions — you’ve captured so far.
It’s great that the project has had response from so many members of the general public so far. There’s been an excellent poem from Damian Corcoran, and a particular favourite of mine is by Suzanne Watts singing along to Let’s Stay Together by Al Green. It’s amazing how the disconnected voice note of a stranger can paint such a vivid portrait in your mind. There’s something very intimate about connecting with technology in this way.
You’re integrating the audio archive – or part of it — into a time-based piece which will be exhibited later this year. How will you go about selecting the voices for that artwork?
The basic idea is to overlay the recordings onto a time-lapse of the webcam footage in Dungeness. I hope to use parts of all recordings in some way, shape or form but I’ll have to wait see what unfolds throughout the duration of the project before I can make a decision. But the archive will always remain online as its own entity. To add your voice to the archive got to Leaveamessage4europe.com now!
Let’s have your message for Europe.
I want to talk about where we are going To know where we’re coming from Speak without interruption and listen to and from
Listen closely you’ll hear the sea The only thing dividing The only thing that’s free
Similarity in Humanity undeniably So come and leave your message And listen to the sea.
Words by Bryony Stone
Author account for the Good Trouble hive-mind.