words William WilesLurid colours, wonky mirrors and wiggly handrails ... public architecture under New Labour has adopted the design language of the seaside funhouse, says Matthew Darbyshire. The Vauxhall Collective artist's new installation at the Hayward Project Space is a broadside against the bright and brainless cultural buildings of the past decade, probing their fairground DNA. We spoke to Darbyshire shortly before the installation opened.
icon What got you thinking about funhouses?
Darbyshire It was based on Blades House, which had been referred to as a funhouse by some critics, although that wasn't the intent. It was an obvious leap. I spent a month or two walking up and down the South Bank and the hub, the Southbank Centre, and looking at all these public-access buildings like City Hall, the Tate, Coin Street Community Centre and around the London Eye, and they've all got this iridescent noughties palette of lime green and sexy pinks. There was a sort of plague of interaction and accessibility, quite positive social efforts to try and include people, but I am questioning these efforts. It is effectively a compromise on the artists' part and on the [part of the] curators if you have to fulfil these aims and objectives and fulfil other people's agendas. Like the Laban Centre, this dance school by Herzog & de Meuron in Deptford - it's all bright pinks, jutting-out architectural features, mirrored a bit like the "wonky room" in a funhouse, and it has an undulating floor in the foyer with a wiggly handrail. Then you go to Will Alsop's Palestra building in Southwark, and it's all like a big long mirrored wall, all offset mirrors making a distorted, fractured image not dissimilar to the mirrors in a funhouse.
I realised that I could actually start matching up real examples of this in architecture with their funhouse counterpart. More biographically I grew on the seaside in Felixstowe, where we did have a funhouse, which is really quite rare -you don't really see them much now. I managed to find a couple so I went off and had a look at them and photographed them, and then it was basically a matching-up exercise, matching features in funhouses to features in modern architecture.
image © Matthew Darbyshireicon In adopting the funhouse garb, are public and cultural buildings pandering to a need to entertain?
Darbyshire Yes, and I think it's happening in the wrong place. I've thought that for a long time that artists ... artists have the ability to do everything but I feel the duty to do nothing. It's become quite a common belief that artists are some sort of service provider or facilitator, a policy that is all very well socially but I think it's at the expense of any autonomy, self-exploration, speaking out, critique, dissent or any of the reasons I got involved in art originally. It meant that you had to be in sync with that sort of New Labour polity through some sense of play or interaction. And it was my belief with my work that it was about cognitive engagement rather than this need to participate and interact in a sensitive, tactile way.
icon Artists, particularly in public art, also have regenerative powers attributed to them.
Darbyshire Yes. Basically it's education, regeneration and entertainment, that's the direction it's going. And you take the project I did at the Tate [Panac, Tate Britain, 2009], contrasting the Palace of Culture in Warsaw and The Public, the arts centre in West Bromwich, and that was all about regeneration [in] quite a grim part of the country. When you get there, there's anything but art - there's all these sort of computer screens, that they haven't got the money to see through, these interactive experiences that aren't even working in the galleries ...
icon Also, being involved in a regeneration project means that you're in alliance with developers and some culturally quite unsympathetic organisations.
Darbyshire Now, when you hear that there's X million pounds of government arts funding available, it's through all these initiatives where you have to fulfil six things and meet three objectives ... so basically you can only get funding or a platform through facilitating, it's not like you can go off on a tangent and develop ideas independently, and the outcome has to be accessible. There's no opportunity for contradiction or confusion, it has to be very straightforward, and these are all things that have to happen in schools and community centres ... there are all these positive effects, but it seems unfair that it's falling on artists' shoulders.
image © Matthew Darbyshireicon It's interesting that you mention The Public because it does seem to be the obvious example of the "funhouse tendency" in public building projects.
Darbyshire It's sort of uncanny, and although it had its various sort of problems it really hit its sort of end just as the Tate show opened. That building does everything I'm trying to do - a bus fare to West Bromwich would probably suffice, you don't need to see my show, everything's already there.
icon You critique the involvement of art in regeneration, but your project has taken place under corporate sponsorship - have you found any conflict in working as part of the Vauxhall Collective, an arts initiative of Vauxhall Motors?
Darbyshire On a very practical level, these things can't happen without money ... and you're working with institutions that don't have any money. You're working with places that don't have money, so you have the choice, you can either fund it yourself or you [get funding from] the public, the Arts Council, which is really tricky and getting worse. Or you go corporate. Although the Arts Council has been happy to help, and has supported the project, there's no way you can apply for more than £5,000 nowadays, they told me, so you can't really make anything this scale. Vauxhall has enabled us to do it. It's been quite no-strings really, it's not like I've had to give interviews about the catalytic converter on the Astra or something.
image © Matthew Darbyshireicon What did you find in the funhouses on the road trip? How is that architecture reflected in the installation?
Darbyshire I happened to find a couple of travelling funhouses ... so it was an opportunity to compile a sort of checklist and I could then go out and look for things that match up in public buildings. [But] I didn't want the connections to become too obvious. For instance within the show, you'll see in fact a huge extraction duct coming out of the side of a hospital, and that became a slide coming out the side of a funhouse.
There are probably about five comparisons that are quite direct to set the tone, and [the rest] hopefully they require a bit more involvement to find your way to the equivalent. At one point the design was a funhouse, in the early stages it was a sort of maze-like corridor that you'd have to find your way through but I was starting to worry that it was becoming too much a one-liner, it was just making one remark - that in New Labour Britain architecture is like a funhouse - and that was the end of it. That's not really the point, because ... it's become more interesting and picked up its own momentum as a pavilion. It's taken beyond that initial idea and it's actually quite interesting as a survey and as a critique of this public architecture, interior design, graphic design - there's all these elements that are quite removed from just a funhouse.
Funhouse is at the Hayward Project Space until 12 July
image © Matthew Darbyshire