Questioning Dunkirk

June 25, 2010

Nearly 1000 people have now visited, revisited, contributed or responded to my interactive installation The Dunkirk Project in the month it’s been online. And so many people have asked me questions about it, that I thought it was time to post an update here.

The most frequently asked question is: when will I be exhibiting Thames to Dunkirk, my 17m long free-standing paper sculpture that forms half of the online installation? I will be showing Thames to Dunkirk in a nice big space later this year, and I will be posting all the details here. Meanwhile The Dunkirk Project continues online, with contributions and comments still coming in. You can add a response on any page or participate in any of the discussions started – some very interesting points have been raised and I’d love to hear your views. The River of Stories will form part of the gallery installation later in the year, so all comments or responses added now will be included in the paper river. 

About what set me off: the making of Thames to Dunkirk, and the progress of the installation is described in a nine-part work-in-progress blog hosted by Artists’ Newsletter, Towards Dunkirk, with photos of some of the making processes and a fairly frank discussion of some of the problems, as well as the inspirations. But also, see the next question… 

I’ve been asked why choose to do an online installation instead of a gallery exhibition?

First, I thought it a very interesting way to use the medium – to make a communal work on the internet, where people could contribute their own views or ideas easily, and add their voice to the collective story – instead of  just using the internet to show my own work. I have long had an interest in communal or interactive artworks or events. At the private view of my installation in the Southbank Centre Poetry Library in 2008, over fifty people completed with me Sea of Space, an artwork lettered on to the glass wall of the Southbank Centre’s very groovy new glass lift.

This event was very exciting, and generated a lot of interest among the participants, some of whom have told me that they will never forget it. But it was not without its difficulties: one contributor, a rather well-known artist who had come to the PV, said ‘How brave to let other people muck about with your work’ – and indeed, though most participants engaged wholeheartedly with the work, one person got a bit overexcited and defaced other people’s contributions with her lipstick – an unexpected and unwelcome intervention/sabotage. And though the result was really interesting and curiously fragile/expressive, it was not wholly appreciated by some viewers, who thought it ‘messy’. Just what I’d hoped for, actually, but never mind. Anyway, this experience fed my taste for something a bit more anarchic and uncontrollable than we’re usually allowed to do, and also raised some questions for me about the relative values of participants’ contributions, and how we judge them, about issues of transparency in process and interpretation.

All this led me towards developing the idea for an online interactive installation that would invite participation in making a River of Stories, layering fragments of individual stories from a huge collective event (Dunkirk 1940) in a inter-connected stream, where each contribution, whether eye-witness account, memory, anecdote or imaginative engagement would have an equal place, and where hidden, previously unheard voices would find a hearing, including those from outside the established archive, or the accepted or usual sources. I hoped to hear from gay people whose stories are only now coming out, from women who had participated or whose lives had been affected by the war, from pacifists, from people with a different take, as well as from people whose memories hadn’t seemed important enough for telling outside the family, and thereby to gather a very vivid and detailed picture of the phenomenon, that would engage younger people who weren’t there in an imaginative empathy and understanding. I think I can say that it has certainly proved enlightening about our inheritance of the continuing issues.

Second, it’s not instead, it’s as well. The online installation is just the start. In the gallery, Thames to Dunkirk will stand unfolded the length of the room, for the viewer to walk around, and the River of Stories will flow round the walls on a painted paper river, with postcards and cut-out boats provided for participants to add their own response directly – responses of all kinds, from memories and personal stories to imaginative connections and lateral thoughts.

I’m very interested in the view from here – how our great national legend looks in the light of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other pressing contemporary concerns – what we can make of our collective past, and how it shapes our choices about the present and future. Some of the most telling comments I’ve heard from people about Dunkirk are how their father’s experience ruined (or fulfilled) his life (and by extension, theirs) or how their mother won’t stop talking about it, or how they don’t see why we should question such heroism, or whether we have the right to re-examine the legacy or challenge the ‘established’ history at all. These are questions that affect everyone, pacifist or militarist, soldier, sailor, weekend cowgirl, feminist, artist, football fan. All of us are still affected by the legacy, so the scope of our apprehension and understanding must include this complexity and diversity. Dunkirk seems to me a myth that expresses so much of our national psyche, but also a story that involves so many issues of our own time – duty and individuality, how we live in society, our own freedoms and oppressions.

Mutinously I submit to the claims of law and order.

What will happen? I wait for my journey’s wages 

In a world that accepts and rejects me.


But, bearing in mind the lipstick, I have learned to expect the unexpected, and welcome unpredictable contributions, since the unprescribed can sometimes be the most enlightening.

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