Visitor Review: Flow

Art Review of Flow by Louise Robson (Wigan Life Centre, 20th January–10th February)

Artist talk and celebration: 2nd February 4-5pm, Informal Q&A: 7th February 12-2pm

Probably not many people know this, but there is art going on at the Library in Wigan Life Centre. The mezzanine no longer houses reference books but is dedicated to contemporary art (though, aptly, some of the work has been sculpted from books), and an art installation has crept amongst the book shelves on the ground floor, though no one seems to have noticed.

Going through the upper entrance, there is no huge trumpet or banners and balloons to announce this advance in Wigan’s cultural standing. The first inkling I have of anything unusual, is the sight of a young woman, with a long brown plat, kneeling in a ‘cage’ at the top of the stairs. She has a tablet with a keyboard attached, and what appears to be an iPhone. She is concentrating on these devices. As I head past her, down the stairs, I glance across at the mezzanine where I see some matching ‘cages’ with displays on them. I walk around the corner, where at last I am confronted with a large monitor that finally gives me an idea of what is going on.

Flow by Louise Robson is an installation created as part of the Imago artist-in-residence development programme. I start to make a note of this but am instantly greeted by a very friendly and helpful lady called Charlotte who, I later discover, is coordinating this programme of art in the borough libraries. She hands me a leaflet and we chat for some time. I am the only person there, in a space that feels luxuriously vast now that it has been emptied of shelves and desks.

Charlotte tells me the book sculptures are nothing to do with Flow. They are by another artist, Kate Bufton, who will be having an event at Golborne Library on World Book Day. There are other displays by other artists in the room: one about the Wigan Boxing Day tradition of dressing up and going about the town, and another about what you would create for your town if you could make anything.

From what I understand, Flow is an installation that uses sensors, placed all over the building, to track the movements of people. This information feeds into different computers, which are programmed to interpret the movements of people and display them in a particular way - by putting coloured dots on screens. The idea is that the creation of the artwork depends on the presence and absence of people. Each small screen shows only the information from one computer, but there is one large screen, spanning the end of the mezzanine, which displays the information from all the computers.

I immediately take a closer look at the big screen. Hundreds of red, green and blue dots are scattered across a white background. Concentrations of dots of the same colour create splats of varying sizes. It looks Jackson Pollock-esque, without the pattern and texture. I don’t notice new dots appearing, but perhaps things are in stasis while the artist is at work, programming something new into the creation, up there in her ‘cage’ - Charlotte has assured me that Louise is there just to do some tweaks and is not a permanent part of the installation.

I believe there are four small screens in different locations in the building, though I am only able to find two on the ground floor. I search for them, aware that my every movement might be tracked by a digital spy. Though I keep my eyes peeled, I do not spot any sensors. It gives me a slight sense of unease, akin to paranoia, which we all must be used to nowadays, as we search the internet or spot a CCTV camera turning its mechanical gaze upon us. I find a screen near the lifts. It is attached to a ‘cage’. There is just a white background with a few hundred dots, mostly red and green. There is no explanation, just a screen. No one else sitting at the nearby tables seems to be paying the least bit of attention.

I move on and locate a second screen near the ground floor entrance. Again, there is no explanation and people rush by without a second glance. I realise the screen looks corporate. The dots look like part of a logo at this stage in the creation. I stop and stare to see if I can make any sense of it. There is no outline of the library to help. Suddenly, I get my eye in. For the first time I see dots appearing. They occur in separate flurries: a bleed of reds top right; a smattering of pinks in a linear fashion in the middle; a pitter patter of yellow bottom left; and so on. It’s like one of those eye tests for your peripheral vision. I notice new colours and shades on this screen. Perhaps I wasn’t being very observant before? There are more colours than floors of the building, so that can’t be what they represent. I can’t make out any sense or meaning from the dots. I wonder is it enough for art to generate questions and discussion but leave you bamboozled, or should there be more explanation?

I go in search of the two other screens. The library assistants only know about the two screens I’ve already seen. I search fruitlessly upstairs and then head out. It’s at this point that I notice two A4 posters, side by side, publicising the installation.

By Catherine Holgate

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