Lyn Gardner on A Portrait Without Borders, which premiers in Hull’s Freedom Festival September 2020.
The handprints found on cave walls in Spain and Indonesia are estimated to be around 40,000 years old. These earliest known artworks speak to us across the centuries, reminding of the human urge to make our mark and leave something behind. To say “we were here”.
Kaleider’s A Portrait Without Borders, which arrived in Hull this week as part of Hull’s Freedom Festival, the annual boundary-busting, cross-artform event which this year is taking art and provocation directly into people’s homes across the world, offers a similar opportunity to leave our own small trace on the world. It arrives at a time when social distancing keeps us apart and has upended the idea of community and shared public space.
Physically located in the UK on Hull Truck’s empty stage in an empty auditorium but conceived as a global act of participation and solidarity, A Portrait Without Borders invites members of the public to take selfies and submit them via a website. The selfies are then drawn by robots on the empty walls of the theatre creating giant murals bringing together strangers from across the world. At a distance. The public are able to watch the robots drawing via a live stream, and those who submit selfies are sent a copy of their robot portrait to print at home. A reminder that they were part of something bigger; that they did indeed leave their mark.
Led by Seth Honnor, Kaleider has always been small, agile, networked and responsive. It creates projects that do not fit into any art-form box, which are almost always participatory, and are startling in the way they make us engage with the world and interrogate our own responses to it.
In The Money, which played in Hull’s Guildhall last year, the participants have to decide under time pressure how to spend a pot of money. Unless there is unanimous agreement the pot rolls over to the next night and next group of people. The result is fascinating– full of reflection, angst and high drama–as the piece becomes an active demonstration of negotiated power, and the processes of decision making and working together.
Another on-going project, Pig, previously seen at Hull’s Freedom Festival, where it created quite a stir, is a provocation in outdoor public space and takes the form of a giant plastic hog with money visible inside. An LED message tells us it is a community fund. The public are invited to contribute to the fund and/or open and spend or distribute the money as they see fit. Like The Money, it puts its faith in the individual and community to come to a decision, to self-organise and think about who is part of the community, who isn’t, and who does and doesn’t police them.
One of the things that defines these projects is that they test the assumptions we make about human behaviours, and the way the world works. They challenge the existing structures and make us look at things a little a differently. They always implicate the audience while holding them in a place of safety. Honnor talks about the work being “sticky”, it adheres to the audience in different ways. Even those who shrugged and walked away from Pig may have found themselves talking about it that evening over the washing up. It sets up an itch.
These are projects that are themselves different, and if that means they sometimes find it difficult to get traction with funders until those funders have had a chance to experience them for themselves, perhaps Kaleider’s moment has come under lockdown and its aftermath because we are all experiencing a different way of living.
A Portrait Without Borders was originally conceived as a street artwork called Robot Selfie in which the robot could draw everyone or be programmed to select individuals to draw on the basis of different characteristics, perhaps gender or age or skin colour. Something that of course AI does every day in our surveillance society where in cities people have their photograph taken hundreds of times a day without even realising it is happening. Pass through an airport and you are profiled and like all profiling it has inherent biases.
Robot Selfie will indeed manifest in street settings when the pandemic is over, and as Honnor says, it has an inbuilt politics that can be dialled up or down. But in its current manifestation A Portrait speaks to a sense of community and solidarity at a time when people are being kept apart. The mural comprising portraits of the living are a form of celebration, but one that is ghosted by the galleries of the dead that have been seen on the front pages of newspapers during the pandemic. It highlights the vast difference between emptiness and absence.
The portraits will exist on the walls of building that the pandemic has made off-limits. Technology will make them visible in the same way it has kept us connected during lockdown. But Portrait also raises questions about public space and publicly funded spaces such as theatres, how it is accessed, who owns it, who can go there and feels comfortable there, who can leave their mark there. It speaks to all sorts of issues around accessibility and diversity and who our cultural spaces serve and what and who they are for.
In placing those whose images have been drawn by the robot together in silence in an empty building, Portrait reminds that while how we might have experienced the pandemic will be very different, depending on circumstance, that we have lived through something and experienced it together. It is a marker.
You can take part in A Portrait Without Borders in Hull by going to portratiwithoutborders.com/hull
Portrait is in Hull until Sunday 6th September 2020, after which it will move on to Northern Stage in Newcastle.