In this article I want to touch briefly on some of the words that have been vexing us as we have interacted with, and responded to, reactions of others using the phone kiosk in Holborn so far. It is the first in a series discussing the next phase of the Innovation Box intervention called Home[Not]Less Ingenuity.
We have noted some interesting complexities in negotiating the use of the phone box with other users. It has stimulated a number of involved conversations on how all space, especially public space, always has a politics and requires continous negotiations between users, users and objects and object and objects.
The story to date...
With the phonebook artwork first being damaged then stolen, with other items removed from the phone box or damaged, puddles of piss appearing regularly and sex cards coming and going it became clear that others were repeatedly using the box. Then there is the issue of the cardboard, which we quickly identified as belonging to a homeless man who uses the kiosk to keep it safe from the weather. Should we remove it or work around it? How can we install ‘kit’ in the box if it is going to get damaged or stolen? And the questions keep coming… A Facebook photo album provides a brief snapshot of the first two months of the project here.
Layering of space
What might surprise people not accustom to art interventions is how the project has becoming a fascinating insight into the layering of public space and how the different stakeholders navigate it. How this fits in with the concept of innovation will be discussed in other articles, for now I just want to reflect on some key words.
Did the arrival of the Platform-7 intervention create tension? It clearly bothered someone/people enough to initially throw the phonebook artwork to the floor, which was later stolen, and other objects have been moved, removed or damaged.
British Telecom (BT) is the custodian of ‘our’ red phone box, London borough of Camden is in charge of the highway so has, in some, measure of responsibility. Platform-7 presently has permission from BT and council to curate the Innovation Box project. Community and heritage groups often have a sense of protection for phone boxes, especially the K2, like the one we are using. Yet do the stakes of any of these entities equate to actual ‘ownership’?
If ownership of the phone box is difficult to define then it brings into question the idea of whose permission is it to grant use or types of use? Permission, ‘the action of officially allowing someone to do a particular thing; consent or authorisation’ (Google), is complex when discussing a space like a public phone booth. It is public but the idea of granting permission means by its very nature there is an ownership. Does Platform-7 now have the right to provide the homeless man permission to keep his cardboard dry? Platform-7 had to ensure suitable public liability insurance before commencing the project indicating that, in some form, it is liable for what takes place within!
So who has jurisdiction over the telephone box, Platform-7 because BT and Camden council have given permission? Does this give Platform-7 the right to remove the cardboard or the sex cards? There are laws but unless it is a serious crime, who will be enforcing them?
A cat sprays to mark its territory, a car park owners paint bays, and a developer will offer artist space as a vanguard to redevelopment and gentrification. Platform-7 marked out the phone box with signs and notices of what we are doing, at one point actually locking it up to protect the photos of Heather Ageypong. It is interesting that the sex cards distributor has begun to add the cards around our work rather that placing them on top of the poster and signs. Is this a sign of respect or sharing of space? The sex card distributor has a business to run and might see our project through the same eyes or possibly he sees it as good marketing for his/her own commerce?
Is the pee a marking of territory? The phone box states there is CCTV and the street has two other boxes so why use this box and not the other non-CCTV installed kiosks? And what about the punters for the sex cards and actual phone users, if such people exist, how do they view this space?
Politics of the project
These issues can have easy solutions; there are laws and rules that society have already agreed and they apply to phone boxes as much as any other ‘public space’. For an organisation like Platform-7, and for many artists, there are deeper politics at play. There are different stratas within the confines of the box, different users at different times all trying to go about their day in a way they want to.
Increasingly entrepreneurs are attracted to phone boxes as business premises. The sex industry has been involved in telephone boxes for a long period, and in itself an interesting line of inquiry. Is using the box as a toilet or storing cardboard motivations or need?
And what are our motivations, those of the artists and Platform-7 generally? Can these be deemed any more worthy, important, interesting than those of others?