Beacons: An interview with artist David Boultbee

Beacons is a project about hope and love right now when perhaps we need it most. Lancaster Arts is working with the students at Lancaster University and artist David Boultbee to create a unique happening that will be broadcast on campus on 12 March 2021. 

In 2019, David worked with Lancaster Arts on the project ‘Magic Islands in Space’, a commission for  Light Up Lancaster and jointly produced with More Music. Have a look at David Boutlbee’s work here. 

Last month, Danielle Ash, Assistant Curator for Lancaster Arts, invited David Boultbee to talk with  four student volunteers who have been acting as Ambassadors for the project; Chloe Adshead, Goda Gikaitė, Sara Banyai and Zoi Mantziou about his work in Beacons.

At the end of this transcripted interview is a video of the conversation and we recommend  listening to the video at the same time.

Chloe Adshead: What most excites you about the Beacons project?

David Boultbee: I think several things. Overall, it’s an opportunity to work with someone I haven’t worked with before. It’s always really interesting to visit new places and is the best part of what I do - work with new people, meet new people, make new contacts and connections. I’ve done quite a lot of work in Morecambe. I’ve done some work for Light Up Lancaster but haven’t actually worked at the campus before so that's great.

Also, it's an opportunity to try out new ideas and it's been great working with the Lancaster Arts team. What's really nice about a commission like this, is that quite often with commissions, you write a proposal in response to a brief and then you’re quite bound to it, which has its advantages, but also means that, as you kind of get to know the project and the project team better and the site better, there's less room for adaptation along the way. Whereas with this, because of the way it’s been commissioned, it has really grown out of visits to the campus, talking to people, discussing the project, which means that we've been able to do something which we really think is the best project for this time and this place. It’s the best way to work and it’s super exciting to have this opportunity. 

Sari Banyai: And, based on the first part of your answer, what inspires you to work with people and communities to create artworks that explore and engage with places and spaces?

David Boultbee: I think it's really important that artworks reflect what a place is about. The temptation as an artist is to go in and sort of assume, well not assume that you know, but kind of make the artwork about your reflection of that place and how you respond to it. And my sense is that risks being a bit dull because who cares what I think about the campus? What matters is the people who use and inhabit the campus daily. I think that’s absolutely critical and my experience of working in this way is that the magic and the ideas are generated from these kinds of conversations and visiting somewhere. And understanding why people are there and what they think about it and then the artwork can reflect that. That’s a much more engaging way to work. It’s certainly a lot more fun from my point of view.

And you know, I’m always really struck, because, I visit a lot of places, and I said this to Danni previously, even places that you know when you explore them from a creative point of view, when you're researching a project, you look at them in an entirely different way and you notice details. We walked through the Spine (on a site visit) looking for railings that were three or four stories high because they were a nice canvas for my position of the speakers for the project. So, you're looking at the space in a totally different way, than you would if you were just normally traversing it. You're forced to look up. When you look up you see all the things that maybe people don't necessarily see. They're not things that are part of the architectural language of the space for example. 

And you see the sky behind the buildings. You see the sunset and all these bits. I'm always really struck that you can notice yourself, how your relationship with somewhere changes. If you think back to when you first arrived at the campus. You arrive, there’s an emotional sense attached to that feeling, and you tie that to places. Like, the first time you drove up the hill or the first time you arrived at the Spine. 

And then, when you look at it now and it's somewhere which you know well and which you regularly inhabit if you’re still on campus, your feeling about that place is totally different. I just find that fascinating. I think there's something really interesting in that.

A lot of what I do is about trying to create these kinds of unexpected encounters in places, so that people are strongly encouraged to slow down and take that moment in the space and do something or see something or experience something in that space that they wouldn't do normally. I can then share some of that changing feeling about somewhere. 

Goda Gikaitė: I really like that idea. There are currently a lot of students, a lot of people stuck in one place more or less because of the pandemic. Art or just a change of perspective can really help to see the place and spaces differently.  I just want to ask, why did you choose students as your co-workers and as the main audience of this artwork for Beacons?

David Boultbee: I mean, it's the obvious thing to do at a university, right? It’s obviously a big part of it, but I think beyond that, especially at the moment, this work is in some way about the Covid situation, but we didn’t want to go down the route of being a standard response to Covid - about isolation and restriction. In a way, we wanted it to be more authentic and really talk about looking forward and there being a light at the end of the tunnel and really reflect what people felt about the campus in relation to the current situation, as opposed to what people can’t do, or the politics, or fear or the confusion. It felt like a much more interesting thing to investigate. I think that sentiment can then be translated to any plan when you’re away from somewhere for whatever reason. It’s maybe got a bit more longevity that simply a reflection of 2020 and 2021.

Goda Gikaitė: What new approaches to making art have the restrictions imposed by the pandemic encouraged? Has the pandemic encouraged you to change your creative process? 

David Boultbee: Honestly, not a great deal, I mean obviously we’ve had to meet on Zoom a bit more than we might have done previously, but we’d always video conference because it’s a couple of hours round trip from Manchester where I am up to Lancaster so we were already doing that sort of thing. Obviously, we’ve had to be working in a Covid-safe way when we’ve been on site and working together.

Any project comes with restrictions. Whatever you do. There are always things to think about around public safety and accessibility, and practicality and scheduling, and budgets, and so this has had some restrictions that we maybe haven’t encountered before and have had to be quite agile because the situation has moved so quickly. We’ve seen that as being just another thing that needs considering in the context of this project. I’ve done loads of projects with unusual restrictions. Everything’s got its quirks and something which is unusual or different. I think it just fits into there really. I always think it’s better to try and crack on with things and not feel hard done by, by the things that you can’t do but focus on the things that you can do. If you could do anything, if you had an unlimited amount of time and money, you probably wouldn't do anything because you wouldn't know what to do. You’d have nothing to frame your thoughts. I prefer to see these things as something to force you to be innovative and to think through better approaches. 

Sari Banyai: I think it’s so great that you’re positive at this difficult time when we're facing so many challenges. Do you think there's something that you learned throughout the pandemic that you would like to apply to your art in the future that under normal circumstances, you would not have encountered?

David Boultbee: I think, from my point of view, I've been very fortunate throughout the pandemic and I’m really conscious of this, that I have been able to continue working. Professionally, it hasn’t had a massive impact. I’m conscious of how fortunate I am to be able to say I’m in that position which is far from some people’s experiences. 

The pandemic has come at the same time as Brexit. What I’m reminded of is this overarching sense of polarisation and binary viewpoints, particularly in the UK and I haven’t been able to leave the UK for the last year or so, but there seems to be little appetite at the moment to talk about grey areas and I tend to see everything in terms of spectrums. You know nothing is black and white, ever. There seems to be a pressure to distil everything into a binary debate so you're either pro or anti-Brexit or you think the government hasn’t done enough to protect lives and is just concentrating on the economy. None of these things are straightforward and there's no real right or wrong answer. I'm just really conscious of that. I think that’s something I’ve become very aware of during the last year. It's something that I’d like to look at, creating some work in the next few years that I’ll begin to distil into something which might evolve into something that underpins the narrative of some of this stuff to try and emphasise spectrums and the importance of spectrums. 

Goda Gikaitė: You’ve talked about some new concepts and ideas that you might plan to work on later. I wanted to ask regarding this project, is this more of what you have been doing previously, or is it distinctive from what you usually do with collaborating with other people? Is it common for you to collaborate with other people and audiences and work with students, or is it more distinctive from your previous artworks?

David Boultbee: Well, I guess two things. In terms of working with other people, with groups and co-developing work in that way, that's a really essential part of what I do. It’s fairly obvious to me that the work I’m most proud of comes out of the collaborative process that seems to have the most value and the strongest narrative and sits best in the spaces where it was created so either co-developing something or from a period of working with people to get to that point. So that's not new. I can't work in another way, really. I think it’s crucial, in some way, shape or form.

I think the other thing is that ideas don't just appear and then disappear at the end of the project. There's lots of waves of ideas going on and at any one time a project lands at a point when those waves intersect in a certain way. I think there are things in this project, which are things I’ve explored previously, and things which I will take from this period of exploration and move into future works, but ideas do in some way all sit together, almost like I can look backwards and see that synergy. And of course, what happens is that they all intersect at different waves at different times, so you end up with a really unique piece of work which is so special for this project. This project captures that intersection of time.

Danni Ash: Yeah, it definitely feels like the Beacons project is doing that, even having this conversation on Zoom in the middle of a pandemic, still trying to make something happen, it does feel very of the time. We don't know yet how people might want to interact with the project but there's something really honest and present about what it’s trying to do now. 

We've had a great question come through from Zoe, one of the volunteers who’s not able to come today. She says, “pass on my admiration for his conception of such an inspirational project and transforming it into something great. This will make the campus seem more alive these days. I know that the students there have the desire to feel less alone and more involved in something”. In response to that, there is a question, she says, “do you feel like it's an artist’s responsibility to act in the current situation that we’re in and is Beacons an answer to this darkness right now?”. Big questions!

David Boultbee: It’s very kind of you to put it that way, but I think this project originated as part of a series of intensive team discussions between a lot of people. I think that’s why the project feels quite strong and settled and appropriate because it has emerged from a collaborative process and from being present in the space to see it.

Is it an artist’s responsibility to respond to this sort of time? That kind of cuts to the core of the purpose of art. I suppose I can only speak for myself. My work isn’t overtly political. Not because I don't think work should be or can't be, just that's not really where I find myself speaking from. I deal much more with feelings about places and relationship to space. In that way, I’m not sure that I do feel that there’s a responsibility to respond. What I do think, is if you do respond, I wouldn’t criticise anyone for doing that in any way, if that is where your work comes from. The only responsibility is to make decent art and do it well and make stuff that has a purpose and that people respond to. That’s where the responsibility lies.

Is Beacons part of an answer to a darkness? Yeah, hopefully! I think it’s part of a response. The artwork itself isn’t that. It's more about what the artwork evokes in people, which is the response and what's important. The artwork, watching some students perform on top of buildings with megaphones, isn't going to isn't going to change anything in itself. But if experiencing that has some effect on how you feel about the campus or whether you’re there to witness it or see it remotely through a recording or you know that your message has been sent to campus and there’s that connection, then hopefully that has some relevance to people. It's never going to be the solution, it can only be something that contributes to that in a small way. 

Goda Gikaitė: Do you have any plans for the future?

David Boultbee: At the moment I’ve got another two projects on the go. I’m doing a program in Blackburn called The Great Accelerator where we're working with early career artists to help them develop the professional skills around creative practice. So often creative practice at art school is about creative expression but there’s a whole bunch of other stuff that goes with that. The practicalities such as: risk assessments, doing your accounts, applying for and running projects, and marketing. It’s all these other bits that have to support what you do. Usually, it's tough to learn this on the go so that programme is about trying to help these early stage artists to get some experience around that and develop their practice more effectively.

And I'm also doing a project with The National Science and Media Museum in Bradford. We did a project last year that was part of Sonic Futures which looked at the work of Delia Derbyshire. I don't know if you know, but she is one of the early pioneers of electronic music and she worked at the BBC on a radiophonic workshop. And this was before electronic music really existed. They used to record everything on tape and then spring out tape, slow it down, speed it up and physically cut it and Sellotape it back together again to make original samples. She did the sound production for the Doctor Who theme tune. She used to use a lot of everyday objects to create these samples. 

So, we made a machine which allows you to play with the sounds of everyday objects and it makes rhythms based on everyday spaces. It takes a photograph and finds the lines in the photograph and uses that to make a rhythm and then you can use your sounds within that to create your own loops. It’s online so you can be making your own loops and then someone can join you from maybe the other side of the world and jam with you. We're looking to carry that out this year as part of an exhibition which will take place at the museum later this year.

Please join us for the live Beacons broadcast on Friday 12th March at Lancaster University. 

About the Beacons Ambassadors

Chloe Adshead is an MA English Literary Studies student passionate about the power of art to bring light in dark times. She loves hoarding books for her future library, and hopes to one day defeat the Duolingo owl. 

Goda Gikaitė is studying Marketing Management at Lancaster University and is an active member of marketing, philosophy and cheerleading student societies. She’s always seeking opportunities to attend improvisational performances and experimental productions and exhibitions.

Sára Bányai is a second year Theatre and Creative Writing student from Hungary. She’s keen on making life more colorful through art and fashion and hopes to contribute to a more sustainable and open-minded future.

Zoi Mantziou is an MA student in Arts Management at Lancaster University. She hopes 2021 will give her the opportunity to meet classmates in person and make some great memories together before the academic year is over.

Find out more about Beacons here or email 

Posted on 8th Mar, 2021