• Intervening in the fabric of a historic building image 1

    Image: 'BlindSpot' (2015) (Still from moving image work) Tim Shore. Photo: (c) the artist

  • Intervening in the fabric of a historic building image 2

    Image: 'BlindSpot' (2015) (Still from moving image work) Tim Shore. Commissioned by The Workhouse, Southwell (National Trust) as part of New Expressions 3

Intervening in the fabric of a historic building

BlindSpot - The Workhouse, Southwell (National Trust) and Tim Shore

New Opportunities Award artist Tim Shore and National Trust property The Workhouse at Southwell had a very short window of time in which to realise BlindSpot, a moving image work. The challenges of creating a work in a fragile historic environment were balanced with opportunities for staff to see an evocative building in new ways.

Budget: £4,000

Artist Tim Shore developed a proposal to collaborate with an industrial heritage site to create moving image work exploring time and the working day.

Part of the New Opportunities Award (NOA) strand of New Expressions 3, the project transferred to a different heritage site late in the programme, overcoming a series of artistic and practical challenges in the process.

Working with the fragile fabric of a historic building

At The Workhouse, Southwell, the team regards the building itself, which retains fragile original paintwork and windows, as the most important object in their collection. Working in such a delicate historic environment meant that conservation staff were involved at all stages of the collaboration.

‘There are massive constraints within the building’, says Tim. ‘You can’t attach anything to the walls. There are very limited power points. There’s no electric lighting on the upper floors. Not being able to put anything on the walls was quite hard. We also had a huge problem trying to black out the windows (for the film projection). Nothing could be attached to the window frame or glass – a lot of it is original glass’

Fiona Lewin, Conservator at The Workhouse explains: ‘From a conservation point of view, trying to plan when to get the installation physically into the building was a challenge. And of course Tim had his own tight timescales, working with different people to make the different elements as well. It all had to be done very carefully. It seemed like it was going to be quite a small installation – and it is – but the impact on conservation just in terms of getting it in was bigger than we anticipated. So it’s been quite a learning curve for us – you’ve got to expect the unexpected’.

A fresh start, a building rich in history

Through conversations with The National Trust, The Workhouse at Southwell had emerged as a new partner for the artist, following difficulties with the original project.

Tim explains, ‘It was like a brand new start. The moment I walked around the building and talked to the team, it became obvious that I couldn’t transplant the work to date from the original site to The Workhouse. The building is so rich in history. I found myself wishing I could do time travel and have an initial period of development with The Workhouse’.

For the team at The Workhouse, it was useful that the artist could share with them some of the ideas developed with a previous heritage partner: ‘I think it was really useful’, says The Workhouse’s Alison Cross, ‘that Tim came in with some photos, some thoughts from the earlier project, and we had a sense of what he might be interested in’.

Adapting to challenges

The late start with a new heritage partner meant that the artist had to think carefully about what could be achieved in a timescale that had become very contracted:

‘On that first visit (to The Workhouse) you have millions of ideas about the space and after about a week of calming down, I thought: “I can’t do all this in the time I’ve got… At first I wanted to make something tangible, but I had to pull back from that because I would need a lot longer.

‘Walking around the site, you understand that time spent here is completely intangible. There’s a sundial that an inmate made on the wall in the exercise yard to try to be able to tell the time of day. That spurred me to develop a piece to capture the passing of time in the building’.

The work became BlindSpot.

Working to a contracted timescale

Whilst moving the focus to a new heritage partner was a welcome new beginning, the need to develop a project from scratch in three months affected what could be achieved to embed the commission as a collaboration with the property, and in particular with its volunteers. This challenge was felt by both artist and property.

Tim explains: ‘It wasn’t so much a collaboration in so much as we talked about what the work was, it was more about how we realized the work. I would have liked to have had more of a dialogue with the volunteers. And I think that was fundamentally because of the timeframe. The team were really supportive’

Fiona agrees: ‘If we’d had more time we could have arranged for volunteers to be in the room with the artwork, to explain the concept a bit more. I personally really like what Tim’s done, but because I was with him as he developed it, I’ve had more time to understand what he wants to achieve, whereas a visitor just passing through doesn’t have that time. It would have been good to have a volunteer on hand, on entry’.

Opening up new perspectives

Working with Tim Shore as he developed his work has shed new light on The Workhouse for its staff.

‘I now know what it’s like at five o’ clock in the morning in the Workhouse!’ reflects Fiona. ‘I’m never in at that time, and I realized how lovely it was - paying particular attention to the light, slowing down. The artwork has helped us to learn more about the building ourselves’

Alison agrees: ‘You do see the building in one particular way quite quickly. Having Tim here is almost like a mini form of curating – having someone pick out things they think are most important and having that play out. It’s useful when I’m thinking about enriching our visitor experience - thinking about it in a different way’.

Audience response

The Workhouse team explains that, as such an evocative space, the site has a powerful impact on visitors, but it is sometimes an uncomfortable one. This seems to be reflected in audience responses to BlindSpot: Some visitors connected very deeply with the work.

62% of visitors saw a link between the artwork and the historic building and 56% felt that the artwork opened up the building in a surprising way. Audience comments included:

‘Very atmospheric’

‘I used my childhood bedroom window in a similar way’

‘Really thought-provoking and haunting’