Heavy with History

An interview with the artist Blue Firth about her exhibition in the Architecture Space at the Royal Academy of Arts in January 2013

‘Sound is a good place to start’ remarks Blue Firth as we sit down outside the RA restaurant to discuss her spring exhibition in the adjacent Architecture Space. Exhibition may not be the right word, for what Blue is envisaging is actually a ‘playful tweak of the space’ that she describes as a ‘hinterland between two buildings’. That ‘hinterland’ was formed in 1868 by the Royal Academy’s erection of its Main Galleries 4.25 metres to the north of old Burlington House on the site until then occupied by its gardens. For over a hundred years the gap was open to the elements, gradually colonised by various lean-to structures, before it was cleared out by Foster + Partners and turned into circulation space for the new Sackler Wing of Galleries in 1991, thus also creating the sloping area now known as the Architecture Space. 

Before and after graduating from the RA Schools in 2011, Blue’s practice has been concerned with ‘thinking about how people will encounter the work ... [and] subverting the idea of diverting someone’s attention’. ‘Everyone knows I love a ghost’, she says, recalling her memorable 2010 work, VIGIL, which saw willing participants engage in a quasi-scientific investigation of (alleged) paranormal activity in the RA Schools. ‘As soon as you enter somewhere which is or was haunted ... the way you interact is completely different because there is that expectation something will happen’.

While ‘VIGIL was made as scary as possible’ (‘we thought it would be amazing to have a pig there’; an idea that VIGIL’s participants were perhaps thankful went unrealised), the Architecture Space poses a quite different proposition. It’s not enough, Blue notes, to say ‘look at this’ and just ‘point out the architectural nuances of the ham and cheese between the bread of two buildings’. Instead, Blue intends to heighten the Space’s already existing architectural characteristics, ‘to jolt the person entering the space out of what they are expecting’.

The Stone Tape

We come back to the idea of haunting but of a quite different kind, inspired by the work of parapsychologist, T.C. Lethbridge and popularised by the screenwriter Nigel Kneale’s TV play, Stone Tape (1972). The theory holds, as Blue describes, that ‘architecture is like a tape, constantly recording – it retains history’. This is not just in the physical sense, for example in the residue trapped in layers of paint on a wall, but a psychological one too in the ‘sense of prehistory, ancientness, otherness’ conjured by the raw, visceral qualities of texture. It is this feeling that Blue aims to spark by introducing further fabricated texture to the brick, stucco, polished stone and glass already on offer in the Space, hoping to ‘tamper with its history’.

Blue has spent a lot of time ‘thinking about the idea of textural noise being similar to stone’, and she sees unplanned noise and interference as having much in common with physical texture. A ‘new façade’ for the Space’s north wall, generated via digital distortion, will, Blue notes, suggest the ‘falsication of the original, the ancient faked’. Continuing the theme, a ‘moiré effect on windows above the Space... will see things move around you as you move through, giving a sense of disorientation despite everything being at’. And returning explicitly to sound, visitors will be greeted by a ‘hidden audio track, which you can only access in a given space. It will live there, and give a heavy feeling that it is a space with history’.