Co-DB were invited by Whitechapel Gallery to devise and deliver a set of workshops in response to the Elmgreen & Dragset Exhibition ‘This is how we bite our tongue’ as part of their Schools programme.
The exhibition featured a specially commissioned installation, entitled The Whitechapel Pool, which transformed the main gallery space into a disused swimming pool, provoking ideas about civic space - how everyday places are shared, used and valued, and how that has changed over time. The installation established a surreal vision, a familiar setting made strange by its placement in a gallery and its apparent ruination. It asks the viewer to look at this setting afresh, and think about its value and meaning.
This presented an exciting opportunity to combine two of our passions at Co-DB: facilitating cp-design workshops and creating interventions which transform the use of space, public or otherwise, raising questions of who it is for and how it is used. In 2015, the Pop Up Parks van roamed London, stopping to create temporary play parks on public pavements, uncovering opportunities for play in the most ordinary public places, and encouraging people to see the city through a child’s eyes.
At these workshops, the participants were local school groups ranging from year 4 up to year 12. We started off with a presentation, introducing Co-DB and a few of our projects. We wanted to make a direct parallel between their ideas and our work - empowering them to be designers. The presentation included a group discussion about public space, what is it and who is it for, asking them to consider environments they use everyday.
Then we handed over to them.
We set a design challenge - to propose a spatial intervention for their school, and gave them a palette of fun large scale materials with which to represent their ideas. We asked them to imagine how things around them could be different, and what that would feel like. How could they be adjusted so that they function better or were more enjoyable for people use them everyday.
It was great to see their imaginations explore the possibilities of how their school environment could be different, from the hanging sofa in the reading corner to the recycling zip line and the volcano stress reliever (both educational and a tool for relaxation).
After that we took them into the exhibition to experience the installation of the Whitechapel Pool. We asked them about what they could see and how it made them feel. It was a challenging art work, unclear what was real and what wasn’t, where the ‘art’ started and ended but the kids seemed unfazed with lots of observations and questions for us as workshop leaders. My favourite was the observation that it couldn’t have ever been a real pool because their were no drains!
The second design challenge was to imagine how the disused pool could be reinvented and re opened for as a public resource.
Working in groups, they shared their ideas and coordinated their efforts. They came up with a huge variety of imaginative concepts, and made installations and models which represented their ideas. These included an indoor pet park, kids play centre and giant sling shot.
It was really important to us that we met them as equals, legitimising the power of their imagination, adding weight and value to the amazing ideas they came up with. We asked them to have big ideas, and to think conceptually. At the end of each exercise they presented their ideas to the group, communicating their proposals with confidence and pride.
We deliberately chose materials that would allow experimentation - materials that are not ‘fine’ or ‘valuable’, materials that invite rough and free work, encouraging them to work quickly and get their ideas down without worrying about making something ‘beautiful’. The materials were large in format, allowing them to make large pieces or devise freestanding structures. The materials were varied - different textures, types and colours - giving a big and dynamic vocabulary of parts for them to interpret, ascribe meaning to, and re assemble.
It was an amazingly rewarding experience and I hope that the children who came got as much out it as we did!