“Every story, however hidden, leaves a trace…”
A company specialising in site-specific, immersive experiences, Traces brings together contemporary art, theatre and design with old and disused buildings in order to reimagine the long-lost stories of the past. A collaboration between furniture and spatial designer Donna Walker and Talulah Mason, whose expertise is in sets and costumes for film and theatre, Traces has seen the pair produce critically acclaimed projects in a neglected indoor arcade and a disused Victorian pub scheduled for demolition.
This December sees the pair unveil their latest project: Lives, Loves, and Loss (3rd-23rd December 2016) at Fenton House, a seventeenth-century merchant’s house with walled garden in north London, now managed by the National Trust. On show across the property is work by 80 contemporary artists and designers that takes visitors right back to 1730 and a world of both luxury and tragedy.
Ahead of this latest project, we caught up with Donna Walker to find out more about working with historic buildings and what visitors can expect this December.
You both have separate practices – Donna as a designer, Talulah in set and costume. What made you want to collaborate and work together?
Talulah and I, although from different backgrounds, share a lot in common in terms of how we use objects to tell stories. My design background is concerned with the anthropology of possessions: how we can look at possessions as an indicator of an owner’s personality, history, life and interests; how possessions can be containers of memories to some extent.
Talulah uses objects within her set design to help tell the stories of the characters in a play or film, finding ways to suggest aspects of a person’s character through the subtle positioning of certain objects, the costumes they wear, or the scents we may associate with them.
When we met, we were both working for a renowned immersive theatre company. Talulah was assisting in the set design, and I was helping to build the props. I’d personally never been aware of immersive theatre before, and was completely blown away by the concept. When we began discussing our individual work and what interested us, it seemed to make sense to try and marry these two disciplines.
What was the original aim behind Traces and how has it developed across different projects?
There were a few initial aims behind the Traces project, which haven’t left us. The first was to present artists’ and designers’ work in an immersive way. We wanted to demonstrate just how diverse the creative industries are, and highlight the fact that everything around us is designed or made by someone.
Also, as I came from a designer/maker background, I was keen to offer artists and designers a low-cost way of presenting their work to both the industry and the public, as I knew just how costly some of these exhibitions could be for designers and makers. Some shows charge thousands for exhibition space, and galleries and shops often impose high commissions in the region of 50%.
Talulah and I also both share a love for historic spaces. We love going to events in unconventional spaces, but feel disappointed when the event holds no connection to the space itself. So, we flipped this concept around and rather than dictating a story on a place, we let that place tell the story. Of course, with a lot of research, some creative interpretation and a lot of beautifully designed and curated work by artists and makers.
What is the hardest part of working with old and disused buildings?
Probably the health and safety aspect, mainly because, although it’s massively necessary, it’s not as much fun as the creative aspect. Some of the spaces we’ve worked in have had unsafe electrical wiring, and so this needs to be resolved before we can operate. We also have to think about the fabric of the building, what kind of state of disrepair it’s in, and how we can ensure that the public will be safe in our space.
What is the most rewarding?
It’s got to be when the owners and the public arrive and see how we’ve transformed a space. Nothing beats the satisfaction you get when someone has previously seen the space and can’t quite believe how different it is!
One older lady who we contacted for research for our last show (which reimagined a 1930s department store) arrived on the opening night and was convinced that she could remember the displays we had just finished building as being the real thing. It was surreal!
A number of other organisations have been putting on arts events in unusual locations – I’m thinking, say, of Secret Cinema or Slate Projects. Why do you think this might be the case?
It’s not a new phenomenon, Designersblock for example, have been taking over unusual and sometimes derelict buildings since the nineties. And of course more recently it’s been the likes of Secret Cinema, Slate Projects, Punch Drunk, You Me Bum Bum Train etc. I think this way of working is usually down to a need for space. In London space is at a premium, and it is so difficult to find somewhere large and affordable. I think this is what has pushed the interest in these less conventional spaces.
The story of the building is inherent to what we do, and so it’s important that we find the right one.
Of course, there’s also the excitement of the public who like to attend events in less conventional spaces, as it may be somewhere they’ve not been able to access before, or maybe they’ve got bored of the confines of a theatre or gallery. Either way, I think it’s great – I’m always keen to explore somewhere new!
How much do you think about the ethics of responding to disused buildings with art projects (rather than, say, restoring them)? For example, there was a lot of controversy around the treatment of the Marquis of Lansdowne in particular…
We only usually get to take on buildings in a ‘meanwhile’ state, that is to say, in between the uses being changed. And for us, we are not simply using a building and putting our own story on it, we’re passionate about letting the building tell us what to do. So in some way, we are restoring it, if only for a short time, or restoring a lost memory of a place.
The Marquis of Lansdowne was no exception to this. The Geffrye Museum already had plans for the demolition of this space way before we approached the current occupiers (Designersblock) to put on our show. It was important to us that we tried to restore some of its lost identity, and helped tell the building’s story to the public before it was demolished. The campaign for ‘Save the Marquis’ approached us for our research and to share the stories we had uncovered, which of course we did, and we hope that it helped them in their campaign. However, the purposes of our events are to highlight the history of buildings and local communities, and to leave some kind of lasting legacy.
In a building with many layers of history, some of which may be recent or raw, how do you decide which period to focus on?
We never go into a project thinking we want to explore a certain period or era. We simply can’t, as we have to choose the period that we feel is most interesting in the building’s history. We start every project or proposed project in the same way, by doing a lot of research into the history of the building at local archives: checking through years’, sometimes centuries’, worth of archive material, trying to get to grips with the building’s usage and the previous owners and occupiers. When something presents itself as interesting, we dig deeper, until eventually we pinpoint what it is exactly that we’re going to start working on. The story of the building is inherent to what we do, and so it’s important that we find the right one. We never know what we may discover when we start looking, and we have decided not to proceed with buildings if we can’t find something we feel to be interesting enough. We absolutely love it when we find something which is in some way relevant to today. History tends to repeat itself.
What are your plans for Fenton House? How have you selected which artists to work with? What will be the highlights? What can visitors expect?
For Fenton House we’ve decided to take it back to 1730: a time when a family named the Gees lived at the property.
We have a large database of artists and designers that we have collected from going to various exhibitions, this always forms the basis of our initial choices. We’re always scouring design shows and art exhibitions, keeping an eye out for anyone whose work we feel could reflect a specific period but in a contemporary way. Alongside this we did an open call with the brief ‘Contemporary Georgian’ to ensure that we reach out to a new audience of artists and designers, people that we may not have come across before. And we commission new work from open calls, and also from artists and designers we may have worked with before.
Visitors can expect to be taken on a visual journey as they explore the property, hopefully inspired by the striking designs and artworks that bring to life the story of the Gees.
Lives, Loves, and Loss is at Fenton House, London from 3rd to 23rd December 2016. Book your tickets now!