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The contrast to the Great Exhibition of the North

The Great Exhibition of the North across NewcastleGateshead attracted millions of people to the region this year and was a celebration of art, design and innovation to promote economic growth.

In contrast to this, through an ‘alternative’ great exhibition, artists highlighted marginalised groups who were affected by austerity cuts. This was influenced by the research of Professor Laurence Ferry at Durham University Business School, who explains the project below:

“The key message to be conveyed was that transparency does not always lead to accountability for public services as this can become opaque.

The work was produced by artist Toby Lloyd as part of Those Northern Lights, So Pretty, a project instigated by Community Interest Company Dingy Butterflies for Gateshead Council's outreach programme during the Great Exhibition of the North. There were artists in residence in Saltwell Park, Gateshead, and Newcastle University’s Fine Arts department were also involved.

The artists captured views from marginalised groups and used this discourse to question what public services are, why they are provided, how they are delivered, who should do this, when it should be done and where it should happen. This is based on the Rudyard Kipling poem ‘I Keep Six Honest Serving-Men’. From this, six artwork posters were created that, through a colour blind analogy, show the public services becoming more opaque and the voices of the marginalised groups questioning each of the themes e.g. who, what, where etc. An exhibition of the work was at Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead from 15 September to 27 October 2018.

The series challenges us to think: “Do the services we consider as ‘public’ still function as they used to and how much influence do we have as ‘the public’ in how they are run?” Over the six posters, the dots become larger gradually distorting the text until it becomes almost unreadable, echoing the Ishihara test for colour blindness, which contrasts with fading voices of community groups who participated in the project.

The project is an example of art as social practice and as far as I am aware, is the first to draw on academic accounting research. The art is in the process of inspiring social movement, rather than in the final product.

Thank you to the participants who took part in the project and responded to the questions: members of Gateshead Clubhouse; The Comfrey Project, Gateshead Youth Assembly, Gateshead residents and the Friends of Saltwell Park. Professor Richard Slack has also been involved in archiving the work with me to maximise the impact of the research.”

More of Professor Laurence Ferry’s research can be explored via previous articles in IMPACT, Durham University Business School’s magazine. Read about the jazz musical based on the research of Professor Ferry, and Professor Ileana Steccolini of Newcastle University, here. You can also read about Professor Ferry’s journey into becoming a Parliamentary Fellow here.