In late 2018, Exeter Culture launched a commission for an artist with a background in socially engaged practice to work with a community in Exeter.

The brief called for a creative practitioner with a track record of working with groups as part of their practice. We were looking for applicants who had worked nationally and/or internationally but also brought a clear understanding of small cities like Exeter.

Internationally renowned artists Bik Van der Pol were chosen, and the result was a film: Czigane: Not the Whole Story (2019) is inspired by the story of Czigane, a Siberian sledge dog that went on Scott’s 1910-1913 British Antarctic Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole, and whose skull and collar are part of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum’s collection.

In the film, developed in collaboration with the children and teacher of St David’s C of E Primary School and the National Meteorological Library and Archive, Bik Van der Pol explore the relationship between objects, images and language, ownership and naming, and global trade. The piece also adds to discussions around climate change as well as engaging directly with a selection of RAMM’s objects.

Bik Van der Pol

Bik Van der Pol is the Dutch artist duo Liesbeth Bik and Jos Van der Pol, who have worked together since 1994 as conceptual and installation artists.

Exeter Culture has an international outlook, and it's important to us that we can see the city in relation to other cities. Bik Van der Pol has worked all over the world, and will bring that international outlook to the city with this first commission.

Departing from the belief that cultural institutions and their legacies are as much made up of stories, ephemeral objects, subtle traces and violent scars, our process of working can be likened to a forensic investigation that examines, tests and actively exposes that which lies concealed in the folds of history, sparked by an understanding that much remains active yet unnoticed in the layers of the past. To resist amnesia, to avoid falling into the trap of repetition, conservatism or fundamentalism, people’s activities (which make and determine history) must first be consumed and digested to make progression and change possible.

Taking the archives of RAMM and MET Office as point of departure for our project, we ask what connects certain objects and pieces of information? How do they contribute to the construction of history, whose history, and who decides? And what is, has been and continues to be the impact of such a history in the present? Through our project we aim to unfold the relationship between objects, stories, and global trade, and their implications. We aim to involve communities of schoolkids, since they are the future.
— Bik Van der Pol


An interview with the artists

We spoke to Liesbeth and Jos about their practice, about place, and their experience of working in Exeter…

For many people in Exeter, your approach to making art – which can broadly be defined as ‘social practice’ – may be an unfamiliar one. Tell us about the way you work as artists.

Since 1995, we work collaboratively as Bik Van der Pol. From then onwards we have developed our work through different projects, sometimes also in collaboration with others from other fields of knowledge (designers, architects, scientists, researchers, writers). Working as a collective is a conscious political and artistic choice; an art practice does not develop in a vacuum, but manifests itself both in the framework of the art world, as well as in the socio-political milieu of our contemporary society. Moving away from the studio as a place of production, we took the artistic workplace itself – practice – as the format of research and production, and dialogue as its productive mode of development. Dialogue, as a mode of transfer, a ‘passing through’, is to be understood in its etymological meaning of ‘a speech across or between two or more people, out of which new understandings’ may emerge. In fact, we consider the element of ‘passing through’ as vital. It is temporal, and implies action and the development of new forms of discourse. Our practice is both instigator and result of this method.

How do you see the relationship between art practice and social change? What is the ‘job’ of artists or their work?

We aim to articulate and understand how art produces a public sphere, and create space for speculation and imagination; this includes forms of mediation through which publicness is not only defined but also created. Our practice is invested in the public domain at large – from the provisional and potential of the informal initiative, to the space of the political, information and media – that shapes our physical and psychological space through rupture and negotiation, driven by questions: how and in what ways can citizens access and participate in forming this space? How can art function as a ‘tool’ to generate forms of knowledge and what factors are influencing access or the lack thereof? How is a psychological experience of space affected by urbanisation, communication, exchange of information and mediatisation of politics? Who/what is (the) public? Who ‘owns’ the public domain, who shapes, who decides, who is listening? What can art do?

Your work depends on interactions with people and places. How do you approach a new city and a new community of people?

Our site-sensitive work consists of setting up the conditions for encounter as a process that allows for continuous reconfigurations of places, histories and publics. Each new project starts with a thorough investigation of the site or situation (for example a city, an area, a community, a collection, an object). We engage in a dialogue with an institution, local specialists and experts, text, visual material, archives, urban developments, histories and stories, and other information that shapes and has shaped a specific context. We often refer to our projects as ‘platforms’, ‘models’ or discussion pieces. This rather open structure enables us to generate a critical and open approach to existing and leftover spaces, to situations and configurations that can be ‘uploaded’ or activated with a ‘program’ through which past, present, future and the potential of a site can be explored, as a tool not only to question and observe, but to re-think, re-use, re-activate, and re-view.

Privatization of public space and of the public object creates a loss in terms of collectivity. In our part of the world (Europe), we are rapidly moving from social democracy towards global capitalism. An increase in the privatization of public property and services has lead to a loss of public space, while struggles over the definition of democracy are symptomatic of dramatic changes in the character of public life. As part of these developments, art is under pressure to reach a wider public. Next to that, there is an increasing gap between art forms that we would generalize as ‘practice taking the public into account’ and ‘practice taking the object into account’, and this becomes more apparent when privatization of both object and space go hand-in-hand. How are we to understand these dynamics in relation to public space and citizenship? This question needs to be engaged with to be able to determine how and where art is made to act and for what purpose. It is productive to speculate on how loss of public space relates to loss of the position of the artwork in the eye of the public. How capitalization changes communities, and its implications for the type of shared space, is not the focus of our work alone, but also a question for society-at-large. What art can do needs to be sharply articulated to understand how art can produce a public sphere. We need to question how the outcomes of time- and research-based collaborative practices play a role here and in what ways dialogue contributes to the shaping of public sphere. There is an urgency: the often temporary and dispersed appearance of performative work needs to be anchored, to critically question these practices in the context of the moral and aesthetic discussion on the role, position and potential of art in relation to public, the public good and public space. The public arena of critical artistic discourse needs a vocabulary for practices that don’t necessarily produce an object. The potential of artistic practices should not be formulated only theoretically. The outcomes of time-based, research-based, participatory and collaborative practices should define the art object in a new way; complexities should be compared with the results and methods in other fields to develop a thinking and doing that feeds back into both the art discourse as well as public understanding. We continue, through our practice – which we always consider as a form of learning – to explore these complexities and potentialities with the help of other thinkers and practitioners, to develop this further by creating public moments as stepping-stones that will include forms of field-work, publications, interventions, workshops, closed and open reading groups, and exhibitions.

As part of their research process for the commission, Bik Van der Pol visited Exeter Cathedral

As part of their research process for the commission, Bik Van der Pol visited Exeter Cathedral

Exeter is a foreign city to you but you have also made work where you’ve lived. What are the differences between being local and visiting artists? What advantages or challenges are there in making work that relates to where you live?

Coming from the outside may allow one to see sharper, to see other things and to see other connections. To create new perspectives on what is perhaps considered normal or taken for granted. Working on our project in Exeter and to create a new work in collaboration with RAMM, the Met Office and pupils and teachers from St David’s CofE Primary School would create relationships between these different institutions, their specificities and their communities. Our work will bring those together, and share this with the public of Exeter.

What kind of legacy do you hope your work will leave behind? For example, will there be new thinking, new skills or new networks?

We hope our work will create new connections, a new way of looking at history, to objects in the collection, to how one may think about objects differently, and tell those different stories.

Are there activities or processes that you plan to use in Exeter that you think could be usefully repeated or developed once you are gone?

We encountered people that are very skilled in their work, and that we are very happy to work with, and they are very open to that. Interest and curiosity we hope to share and bring forward, but we also think there is a lot of that in Exeter.