When John Loudon first designed the Arboretum Park in 1839 he did so with great intent to encourage the people of Derby to gather, meet, and enjoy a green space in the centre of this industrialised town. The profiled landscape and meandering walkways were created specifically to describe a place to visit and relax; not an area that was simply a thoroughfare. In 2015, the Arboretum Park finds itself at the centre of the most multi-cultural area of Derby, in a time when simple pleasures are nostalgic, screen time is essential, being part of nature and connecting with people in an open space is the preserve of the very young or the very old. It’s a place where dozens of languages can be heard breeding distance, distinction and suspicion. Loudon’s vision of people interacting with nature, sitting as part of it, breathing the oxygen from this urban lung is something that needs to be re-imagined; a space where people can re-discover something about their life, about what it means to be part of a community, to break down barriers….to question boundaries.
The Arboretum Park in Derby, for those that even know that it exists, has a reputation. This pioneering jewel which should inspire freedom is more associated with anti-social behaviour and drug-taking. The undulating land, a deliberate act of landscaping, with the mighty trees pumping out life, are a foil for the police and a haven for the surreptitious. Perhaps, after 175 years it is time for people to stop for a moment and try and re-gain the space in many small ways.
Six resident artists were engaged as part of this programme to develop new works, and to engage with people from across the community and explore and encourage them to think about this theme. The Artists were from different backgrounds and perspectives, and approached the task with a variety of ideas, media, and philosophies. The Art was there to bring people together, to inspire them to relate to the subject in a way that they had not previously considered, to feel part of something, to gain a sense of pride with being linked to the Park, and, to change behaviours, perceptions and outlooks.
Jane Smith first moved to Derby in the late 1980s when she came to study at the local college as a jewellery designer. She was born in Belfast, and spent 20+ years experiencing the “Troubles” through the most difficult of times; a place where the differences causing the tensions were invisible. People lived in fear of mentioning their name, where they lived, what school they went to, their religion; doing so would create a toxic distinction. For Jane, the notion of boundaries, and the consequences of conflict are at the heart of much of her work and she is highly tuned to the value of developing interaction and trust between communities.
Her piece, which was structurally based on the fountain in the Park, involved children formally and informally from different schools, ethnicities, and upbringings, drawing their own images on a large white piece of fabric. They were allowed to draw what they wanted, where, they wanted, and how they wanted. For some, who were passing by the Orangery, they weren’t sure if they were allowed to join in, whether they had to copy someone else’s work, whether they had to keep to white spaces, what the rules were for expressing themselves – all “Invisible Boundaries”. Through the “white sheet” each person could see what had been done before, be intrigued, ask questions, try to understand what the “artist” meant by their drawing, build on ideas, and feel part of the collective of known and unknown people making a sculpture. The painted sheet was then cut into strips and stretched to create a decorated spiral signifying the interaction of our diverse community.
As people walk through the Park, they seem to be unrelenting in their adherence to the norm of staying on the paths – occasionally corners are cut off as slightly quicker routes are established but rarely do they venture right across the green – bound by “invisible”, “Keep off the grass” signs. Ivan Smith, one of the artists, wanted people to think about where they were walking, and to get them to follow a different “desire” line. His art installation was a series of poles, connected by bungee rope, which tried to direct people onto different pathways. His role as the artist was not just in the material design but to observe how walkers interacted with his piece, have a conversation about the questions it raised and see the responses.
Children were most intrigued and wanted to “play” with it…to be part of it. Adults tended to be more wary, they defined more rules without asking, they created their own boundaries when they didn’t exist. In itself it was a metaphor for how people behaved, not just in the Park, but in life. When I was talking to Ivan there was a group of school children passing by, led by their teacher. The children looked on, with curiosity, the teacher was not interested – even when invited. An opportunity was missed, but for the teacher, she was surrounded by so many “invisible boundaries” that it restricted an openness to new possibilities.
Ivan’s work, whilst, challenging norms, raises questions…would I have walked through it had I not spoken to him? Probably not….but why not? Interestingly it can help inform the Park management about aspects of the modern design and promote ideas for improvement.
There is nothing that tells us to stay off the grass, only our own rules – some people feel more comfortable that way – but there is a real opportunity for freedom of movement that many are choosing to avoid.
Good Art makes you think, it causes emotion, it challenges you, it can be deep, and thoughtful in ways that are not always immediately obvious. It can affect people with subtlety, and with elegance. There are no real rules to Art, indeed no boundaries, it isn’t always a picture to hang on a wall, or a sculpture to stand in a public place, it doesn’t have to be realistic, or permanent…it can be a transient feature that had an impact for a short period and was consumed and disappeared. Those who expect something that conforms to their own personal orthodoxy, are restricted by a narrow world view and are creating their own “invisible Boundaries”.
Whilst I don’t profess to understand the full complexities and value of this project, the only way to start to appreciate something which isn’t an everyday experience is to, metaphorically, “ walk on the grass”, “paint on the painted areas”, “change the daily direction” – and confront the routine “Invisible Boundaries” which pervade our lives and create tension, suspicion, animosity and a cocktail of negative emotions. Perhaps Strutt could see that this emerging industrialised town would suffer if it did not have this boundary-less park to dissipate the barriers created by the modern age. Over the decades that true vision has been lost – and if a glimmer of that can be seen through this project then that would be a successful start point for the people of Derby to re-gain the space that was a gift, and take back the freedom and enjoyment of this very special place.