The City as Playground

Loeb Fellow ­­Helen Marriage invited co-director and co-founder Nicky Webb of Artichoke Trust in London to the GSD to delve into the creative and institutional process of producing public art. The spirited pow-wow is part of Marriage’s curated series on frequent Friday afternoons titled "The Power of Cultural Disruption.”

Marriage and Webb revealed a behind-the-scenes look into the process of an Artichoke production. First they could not avoid the elephant in the room—"The Sultan’s Elephant--the largest-scale transformation of a city that Artichoke has yet produced.

Presented in 2006, The Sultan’s Elephant is a story about a 20-foot tall young girl who lands in a space capsule into the middle of an unsuspecting city. A great Sultan aboard an elephant, complete with traveling entourage, follows her exploration of the city. The mechanical beast is just shy of 40 feet high and weighs 42 tons. The visitors experience London like any tourists, respecting the changing of the guards and roaming the streets.  The girl even rides a double-decker bus through Friday night rush-hour traffic. 

Behind the magic that drew an alleged 1,000,000 spectators was the French company Royal de Luxe. Their team of 115 people worked together with a UK production crew of 150 more.

Marriage and Webb spoke about the challenges of navigating differences among the players required to create a production of such elephantine scale. For example, the Event Planning Manager for London Buses had to approve re-routing buses, a diversion usually only granted to state functions. Webb described the incredible bond and commitment that formed over the course of the project. Bus route planner by day, the extraordinary John Gardner dove headfirst into the project in order to facilitate logistics of mobility. For example, Artichoke proposed having the girl ride around in the bus, as many of the double-decker London buses had just been de-commissioned. Why not retrofit one for a huge mechanical puppet?

Gardner really went beyond the call of duty, not only fetching the bus from Paris, but driving it back to London during his holiday. He gave the bus a new paint job and outfitted it with a sign boasting, "Elephant & Castle,” an actual London tube stop. The little girl saw London from the top deck of the bus as any visitor to the city might. Marriage and Webb’s discussion implied that this story was one of many--of people from different backgrounds who joined the production, not only through bureaucratic hand waving, but also through true creative engagement.

"One & Other” was a project at a different scale—that of the city square. The project, conceived  by British artist Antony Gormley, enabled UK citizens to get up and speak, do, paint, jump and disrupt as they wished on the empty Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square.  The 2009 project ran continuously around the clock for 100 days, giving 2400 people the opportunity to do whatever they pleased for an hour each. Performances ranged from wedding proposals, poetry readings and the Full Monty (uncensored) to more serious content like social and political commentary.

Marriage and Webb spoke about the necessity of being clever in order to secure funding, market and generate support for public art. They launched an unconventional marketing campaign to recruit "plinthers” and convinced one of the popular radio soap operas in the UK to weave the story of the project into the daily plot lines. News of One & Other thereby reached 8 million listeners, gratis. Thus, the producers were able to choose by lottery from a robust list of 35,000 applicants who wanted to represent their part of the UK on the plinth.

Both projects are aimed at stirring the imaginations of citizens to perceive how things can be different. Both One & Other and The Sultan’s Elephant hover around a theme of scale and connectivity. The Sultan’s Elephantmade a visible, temporary dent in the scale of London’s city fabric. One & Other reached millions through the power of singular voices that together weave a tapestry of collective identity.  

Watch a video of The Sultan’s Elephant

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