Q&A with Keith Harrison, Winner of Jerwood Open Forest 2016

Joyride is a new work being developed for Staffordshire’s Cannock Chase Forest by West Bromwich-born Keith Harrison. As the winning entry of Jerwood Open Forest 2016, a collaboration between Jerwood Visual Arts and Forestry Commission England, Harrison has received a £30,000 commission to develop Joyride throughout 2017. The project will draw upon the distinctive context of Cannock Chase Forest and the industrial legacies of Birmingham’s former Longbridge car plant through sculpture, light and a performative procession.

Harrison’s practice prioritises material and making processes, often developing work that can be physically engaged with and that pays acute attention to its site and context. Now based in Plymouth, the artist has shown in exhibitions at the V&A, mima, Camden Arts Centre, National Museum Wales and internationally in Japan, Denmark, Spain and Canada.

Anneka French spoke to the artist to find out more about the project.

installation-view

Installation view, Jerwood Open Forest 2016, Jerwood Space, London. Image © Hydar Dewachi

What drew you to the Jerwood Open Forest commission?

When I was first shown the open invitation to apply by a fellow studio holder at KARST,the statement noted that the forests were open to ideas. This was compelling. I had also previously been part of Jerwood Makers Open 2011 which led to a whole new series of experimental large scale works involving sound and clay, so the possibility to work with the same organisation again in a new and challenging setting was a big draw for me.

Can you tell me more about the development of your initial proposal for Joyride?

I immediately had a place in mind – Cannock Chase – which I knew as a child, driving out in the family Austin Maxi from the housing estate in West Bromwich where we lived. I arrived at the subject of joyriding which had begun when, on the way to my studio in Plymouth, I came across a burnt out vehicle. The driver had tried to leave a car park through an underpass but had not seen the bollards blocking the way. Shortly after, I visited Cannock Chase Forest again for the first time in a number of years. The size of the car parks around the visitor centres in the forest and the ‘no cruising’ road signs in the surrounding area confirmed a complex relationship with the car. Initially, I was thinking of ways that an alternative route might be taken through the forest, including the production of a series of BMX mud jumps using a local mud/clay mix but on my first visit it was clear that these bike trails already existed within Cannock Chase and clay was not a material found in the area. So, in the period leading up to the interview stage for the final shortlisting it was the combination of a car, a ramp and a launch that took hold and I hoped it might be an exciting and unexpected proposition in the context of a forest.

The idea of connecting the car to the end of vehicle production at Rover became an increasingly strong element of the work and led to a research visit to the British Motor Museum at Gaydon to see the last car, the Rover 75 saloon, to come off the production line at Longbridge in 2005. My mother and grandfather worked at the Longbridge car works and my first car was a gold Rover 25, so there were multiple personal connections.

I wanted to link the two places together so I proposed that using a locally sourced clay, a full-size replica of the last Rover 75 would be built on the site where the car factory once stood and then processioned from Longbridge to the Tackeroo site at Cannock Chase. The Tackeroo site was about finding a combination of a flat stable ground within the forest to construct the ramp with good access by car and foot. Ideally the event will take place at dusk and, like a drive-in movie, the public will be invited to witness the event through and in their vehicles with the attending cars illuminating the event through their headlights.

From the interviews with the Jerwood Open Forest organisers myself and four other artists, Rebecca Beinart, Magz Hall, David Rickard and David Turley, were invited to develop our proposals further over a six month period. These culminated in a final panel interview and a show in and around our proposals at Jerwood Space, London.

How has your upbringing in West Bromwich permeated your work? How does ‘the forest’ fit with this very different kind of landscape?

I think the experience of growing up in West Bromwich on the Bustleholme Mill estate has influenced a number of more recent works, including the collaboration Bustleholme with Napalm Death at De La Warr Pavilion in 2013. The estate I grew up on was a place hemmed in between motorway, canal and railway, and Cannock Chase was the nearest wilderness that we could get to by car. I was only six or seven years old and in my head it was all a bit mixed up with West Midlands Safari Park and tigers and grasslands but it stayed with me as a special place. The forest was the antidote. I think it still has this role as a place, sanctioned and unsanctioned, for people to go to escape in all manner of ways and the car is often the means to that end.

Your proposal has been selected as the winning entry. What does this award mean to you?

The award is hugely important to me as it provides the financial means and institutional support to realise the most ambitious work I have proposed to date at a place, and from a place, that have a strong personal resonance with.

How are you approaching taking your work from a proposal to what sounds like a complex and relatively experimental public sculpture and series of events?

The transition of the work from proposal to realisation is undoubtedly going to be a huge challenge involving two main sites and the co-ordination of numerous people and simultaneous activities. But the chance to bring all these elements together in a public arena provides the energy and impetus. It has already resulted in a number of very inspiring meetings with individuals and organisations who will be involved in the production of the event and I hope the subtitle of Joyride, a ‘collective action for a new perspective’ reflects a willingness to allow the pooled knowledge and resources of volunteers, participants and audience to inform the project in unexpected ways.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently developing a proposal with Stoke-on-Trent Libraries for the next British Ceramics Biennial and also plans for a nationwide tour of a ceramic sound system.

Joyride will launch at Cannock Chase Forest this autumn. Jerwood Open Forest was established by Forestry Commission England and Jerwood Charitable Foundation with support from Arts Council England.

Published on New Art West Midlands, February 2017.

 

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