Blog: Tom Higham

The creative director of media arts agency Mediale on public art that uncovers the hidden faces of our cities

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“Whatever our differences, however much we don’t know, empathy begins as an act of imagination.”
Kit Monkman, 2021

In 2017 I was lucky enough to be able to get the job of developing a major media art festival in York. Not New York, old York. There were (and are) some really exciting things going on in York as those of us who live in and love the city will know – an excellent university, decent galleries, strong independents, particularly cafés and restaurants, but for those living outside, a vibrant contemporary city full of art and technology perhaps isn’t the first thing that jumps to mind when you think about it (cream teas, churches and history, anyone?).

One of the relatively few things I did know about art in York before I arrived was that Kit Monkman was, and is, an absolute national treasure. Kit founded KMA over 15 years ago and has been making nationally and internationally significant digital art ever since.

Ever since starting Mediale, I’ve been desperate to find a way to work with Kit. He hadn’t made a KMA work for a few years and had somewhat put the project on ice. He’s told me since that he wasn’t quite satisfied with the way the work was going and was seeking a different direction. KMA’s work was often of huge scale, involving multiple projectors, huge sound systems, and sometimes even, cranes.

How often do you form a deep, emotional connection with a stranger? If you walk around your village, town or city today, you might notice how busy, how distracted, how lonely we all are. Whether it’s social media, the internet more broadly, low wages, a spiralling economy, very few would deny we’ve been through a tough few years, and perhaps we could do with a bit more connection in our lives.

The project explores the invisible transaction between a person, a piece of art and that emotion which bonds us all – love

It’s in that context, the context we are all living in, that Kit started to come up with the idea of People We Love: the idea that political, bold, works of huge power might just be possible in seemingly much more subtle ways. The project explores the invisible transaction between a person, a piece of art and that emotion which bonds us all – love. The project is disarmingly simple. Multiple high-definition screens show a video portrait of a citizen of the city you are seeing the work in. A familiar stranger. Each person is gazing at a picture of someone they love. A picture you never see. I can’t describe the emotional power of the work in words. I can only encourage you to see it when it lands near you. It’s an emotionally engrossing, heart skip a beat, imagination engine.

From People We Love in Pittsburgh earlier this year, following the York show
From People We Love in Pittsburgh earlier this year, following the York show

Kit is interested in ego – the ego of the artist, and how to remove it from the equation. In People We Love, he’s made the work completely, and only about the connection between a member of the public, who has chosen to sit and be filmed, and another member of the public, who views the work. In that connection, between those two individuals, that’s where the art is, and it’s a unique experience for everyone.

The project began before any of us knew the dreaded C word. Covid made showing the work (which was ready late summer 2020) more than challenging. We first installed it in York Minster, incredibly excited for the public to see it, only for a second national lockdown to close it after three days. However, we were lucky enough to be able to bring it back in 2021, and the work has just gained more and more importance in the wake of what we’ve all been through. We all spent so long apart from our loved ones, trapped in our homes or unable to visit vulnerable friends and family. Many of us turned to Zoom, and tried our best to connect with those we love in little 2D rectangles on a screen. A lot of us are now dealing with loss: lost time, lost friends or family, lost connection. People We Love is a meditation on that, which might just help you reflect on and process what you’ve been through.

Art and technology can be combined to make us feel, make us reflect, and inspire us. We’re so proud of People We Love, and its power as a work that relies on no bells, whistles, or whizz bang. The work has just finished showing in downtown Pittsburgh, USA, where it was received as a huge success, and next it will tour Europe, heading to Denmark in the Autumn. We hope to show the work again in the UK, and it is building an incredible archive of, or portrait of, cities and communities in 2022.

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