|art.description.project||MK Gallery is an Arts Council’s National Portfolio Organisation public gallery and a ‘Plus Tate’ institution (one of 35 galleries across Britain designated as a partner of the Tate Gallery for the purpose of exchanging programmes, ideas and skills). MK Gallery has an international reputation for commissioning and showcasing important contemporary art projects. MK Gallery’s curatorial programme consists of high quality, innovative and thought-provoking contemporary art from around the world with an emphasis on participation, debate and building relationships between artists and audiences. MK Gallery is, therefore, committed to commissioning artists to make temporary work for different 'offsite' locations in and around Milton Keynes.
MK Gallery is one of three successful applicants in 2016 to received funding within the Ambition for Excellence programme of Arts Council England. This funding was used for the CityClub public programme through which MK Gallery commissioned Freee to produce and activate Citizen Ship (with a project budget of £40000). Citizen Ship was a prominent element of a city-wide programme of arts and culture that implemented innovative strategies of social engagement and critical processes of place making.
Formed in 2004, the Freee collective has recently exhibited at Beirut 2014, Istanbul Biennial, 2013, Pratt Manhattan, New York, 2011, Liverpool Biennial 2010; Culturgest, Porto, Portugal, 2010. In 2011 Beech, Hewitt and Jordan established the journal Art and the Public Sphere (Intellect). Whereas art’s social turn has developed various techniques for engaging with publics (ranging from facilitating the extraction of ‘content’ from their experience, to manipulating participants to produce the artist’s signature work), that are usually judged in according to the ethics of the artist, the Freee art collective reject both conviviality and antagonism in favour of social processes of agreement and disagreement within constructed platforms for temporary public spheres.
With the initial idea of constructing a portable publishing house to travel to various locations, host conversations, stage workshops, make artworks and publish them, Citizen Ship was an artwork that was part ice cream van, part laboratory, part kiosk, part studio, part flat pack sculpture, part meeting place. Citizen Ship took the form of a travelling ‘kiosk’ made out of bus shelters (designed by UK architect Sean Griffiths) that engaged with audiences and communities across Milton Keynes, providing the facilities and infrastructure required to turn passers-by into members of a public sphere.
Through open and intensive workshops, groups of local people worked together to develop shared demands and publish these through the production of text based art. Using workshopping techniques designed to make participants feel at ease in expressing their opinions to one another the artists foster a non-aggressive environment of open exchange that establishes solidarities as well as developing consciousness. Collective text works are published using media and technologies such as T-shirts, badges, banners and placards, magazines, newspapers, songs, chants, declarations, chalk boards, graffiti and shouting.
Uninvited participants were drawn to the project by the visual presence of the ‘kiosk’ on the street or square which was decorated by political slogans from the artists and previous participants. Discussions about the existing slogans led to activities in which participants wrote their own slogans or adopted those already in play and producing objects such as badges and vinyl prints that expressed their values to other members of the public.
The Citizen Ship, however, developed participatory practices that focus on the political character of participatory encounters. New techniques and new platforms for collective activity are required for this and therefore the project was propositional and experimental. The Citizen Ship set out to address practical problems on ‘how we can live together’, and to interrogate existing notions of art, publics and participation with the aim to exceed them - to bring to the fore art’s potential for enabling political and social organization. This broad aim was addressed primarily by attempting to find models for participatory action which neither creates consensus, manages or co-opts people, nor stops at the provocative level of staging conflict and dissent with an antagonistic public.||sv