Northala Fields, 2002–07. 165,000 lorry loads of spoil, bodies of water, and landscape, 27 hectares. Photo: Studio Fink

Practical Creativity: A Conversation with Peter Fink (Part 2)

Read Part 1 of this interview here.

BM: How did you develop your collaborative approach, which combines environmental design, art, and architecture, and what was your rationale in concentrating on public art projects?
PF: In the early 1980s, opportunities for artists to engage with projects out of the gallery system were few, and the public art movement was at its very beginning. With no textbook, I started to explore how to initiate, negotiate, secure funding for, and organizationally deliver public art projects. These early projects often incorporated opportunities for other artists, such as the Punjab Sculpture Symposium developed jointly with Avtarjeet Dhanjal, a sculptor whom I met while lecturing at Saint Martin’s. Twelve sculptors from Europe, Japan, and India created large-scale works on the University Campus in Patiala. One of the participating sculptors was Karl Prantl, the initiator of the first International Sculpture Symposium, which was held in 1959 in the St. Margarethen quarry in Austria. In the U.K., I organized and secured sponsorship for six sculptors to realize permanent sculptures at six different schools in Oxford. These experiences made me interested in exploring what would happen if creativity were more collaborative within a specific community context.

Needle’s Eye (1986) is situated close to the UN “Green Line” between the Israeli and the Palestinian communities in Jerusalem, within the grounds of an elementary school. The project, in addition to being a playground, is a commentary on divided communities. The contrasting language of the solid perimeter and the central triangular sculptural element suggests an unfinished dwelling as a “metaphor of two people, living separately in the same, yet unfinished, house.”

The experience of initiating and realizing projects around the world has demonstrated to me that, contrary to prevailing opinion, securing funding is not the primary challenge in making things happen. In almost every instance, the make-or-break challenge was putting into place clear advocacy, community endorsement, and effective implementation partnerships.

Shiva, 1980. Steel, 8 meters high. Realized as part of Sculpture Symposium, University of Patiala, India. Photo: Studio Fink

BM: One of your first large-scale projects was Steel Wave (1988–91) in Newport, Wales. What were the circumstances of its creation, what problems needed to be solved, and how satisfied were you with the result?
PF: In 1988, I was appointed as a town sculptor with the Newport Architectural and Housing Department, with a brief to develop ways of contributing to the public realm—and a relatively low level of client expectation. I got interested in the riverfront, which had been separated from the town center by a road-building program and had fallen into general misuse. The Council had started to investigate ways of bringing them together again, but an actual regeneration strategy was not yet in place. I proposed that the first stage of the riverfront vision should be a completely art-led project. At the heart of the proposal was a concept for a new riverfront promenade, centering on a monumental sculpture that would symbolize the importance of steel production and of the Newport docks.

From the starting point, with no funding and no agreement to proceed, it took two and a half years to complete. I carried out consultations to secure political and community support, reaching an estimated 30,000 local people. I toured the model for the art promenade to various public venues, including supermarkets, schools, factories, hospitals, libraries, and retirement homes. My focus was not on securing aesthetic endorsement of the sculpture, but on engaging people with the underlying regeneration strategy. I also spearheaded the fundraising, which included input from British Steel and 16 other companies, all of which jointly fabricated the sculpture.

Public art advocates used to note how the Grand Rapids Calder sculpture was used as a logo on the city’s garbage trucks; it was fun for me to see the Newport public transport buses driving around, emblazoned with a large graphic of my sculpture. As with all projects, this one had its funny moments. When I was informed that only I, and none of my family or friends, could attend the unveiling of my work by a member of the Royal Family, I said to the chief executive, “Watch my lips. If only I am invited, I will come naked, and the resulting chaos is on your head.” After a headline article in the local paper—“Artist threatens to come to his unveiling naked”—everyone I wanted to come received a crested invitation by express post.

Steel Wave, 1988–91. Steel, 14 x 35 meters, promenade: 185 x 45 meters. View of work in Newport, U.K. Photo: Studio Fink

BM: You are noted for your sophisticated approach to lighting, including the temporary Light Year (1992). How did that happen?
PF: The Canary Wharf Light Year project was a collaboration with performance artist Anne Bean that started when I cold-phoned Olympia & York property developers with a proposal to spotlight the first London skyscraper with a monumental light show. It took 11 months to develop and involved intense negotiations with many statutory bodies, including the Civil Aviation Authority, all of the London Airports, and the emergency services. The finished installation used One Canada Square, the tallest building in Europe, as an easel, supporting a huge, kinetic light-and-laser installation that could be seen over 40 kilometers away.

On New Year’s Eve, thousands of people jammed the public spaces at Canary Wharf, and all the way down the river, to witness the digital countdown on the western face of the tower. The revival of the traditional port-side, New Year fog horn salute, heard over three nautical miles away, contributed to the positive reception of the project by the local East End community. Acres of newsprint coverage, with a worldwide TV audience of millions, testified to the power of the event.

Light Year, 1992. View of installation at Canary Wharf, London, U.K. Photo: Studio Fink

BM: You began Northala Fields (2002–07) without funding, in a semi-derelict, 27-hectare site in West London. How, and why, did you develop this project?
PF: Northala Fields is a park, as well as Europe’s largest example of Land art. The Borough of Ealing, which commissioned the project, acquired the neglected land in 1997 but lacked sufficient funds for its redevelopment. I worked in collaboration with architect Igor Marko and ecologist Peter Neal. Together, we have demonstrated that creative design can be self-funding and can deliver clear community and environmental benefits. The development of the park involved me in an extensive two-year, initially unpaid, public consultation process, working with an estimated 5,000 people, through which local residents became the park’s biggest supporters. I have experienced, in many variations, how the prevailing design-consultancy model, while professing to be multidisciplinary and collaborative, frequently blends everyone’s efforts into an anonymous and often conformist result. Central to success of Northala Fields was our creative interaction based on the ethos, “Many minds are better than one.”

Arguably the most significant feature of the design was the construction of a new landform on the site, built out of construction rubble from development projects around London, including Heathrow Terminal 5, White City, and Wembley Stadium. The controlled deposition on site generated eight million dollars of income, delivering the whole project at no cost to the taxpayer. This approach to recycling also shrank the ecological footprint of London by avoiding 165,000 lorry journeys, several hundred miles long, to outlying landfills. The new landform solves a number of site and development issues. It provides a dramatic vehicular gateway to and from West London, mitigates the impact from the adjoining A40 (particularly noise, visual, and air pollution), offers new recreational opportunities, and creates new habitat through new topography.

Clearly defined routes support recreational uses and activities in the new neighborhood park. A network of primary and secondary paths connects with the adjacent open spaces in Countryside Park. Playgrounds are located along the central spine of the park, along with open meadows and semi-formal planting and seating areas for more contemplative activities. Water is another major feature, with a network of six interconnected fishing lakes, a model boating lake, and wildlife ponds, streams, and wetlands.

The design focused on increasing the ecological value of the site with a range of new habitats. Additional woodland was added around the perimeter and within the site to increase the diversity of the existing woodland. Meadow and grassland types dominate the development, while water and wetlands in the form of new watercourses provide opportunities for flora and fauna that were not previously present.

As with all projects that take a long time from inception to completion, a crisis is never far away. At Northala, everything was proceeding efficiently with 100,000 lorry loads of soil already shaped and six million dollars of income deposited into the client’s account. Then, the winning party of the local election decided to use that money to fund projects in locations where their voters resided, totally downgrading the completion of the park. Not understanding the deep and genuine community investment in the project, these politicians were shocked to their core when more than 1,000 residents, led by me and a local priest, publicly protested in front of the Town Hall, demanding “their money back” and the completion of the park as intended. These politicians had never had to face normal people of all ages and backgrounds united, and in such numbers. To their credit, the strength of the argument transformed them into big supporters of the park. Through this, at times, very confrontational process, they, as politicians, began to understand that projects such as Northala Fields exist in a longer context than that of a single election cycle.

Northala Fields, 2002–07. 165,000 lorry loads of spoil, bodies of water, and landscape, 27 hectares. Photo: Studio Fink

BM: You have formed a number of organizations over the years, including MAP Productions in 1991, Art2Architecture in 1996, FoRM Associates in 2006, and Studio Fink in 2013. Do these organizations give you a measure of control over your destiny?
PF: With each project, the organizational and legal framework has evolved. MAP productions was the first iteration, formed by me and my collaborators to give us legal and insurance cover when undertaking the Canary Wharf project. Looking back, I realize the extent of the risk we took. The timescale was insanely short and complex—it was not at all surprising that we hardly slept for weeks.

Art2Architecture was conceived by myself and Igor Marko to explore collaborations between artists and architects. As an idealistically driven company, we developed many interesting projects and involved ourselves in different forms of advocacy, while falling out of step with many of the newly established public art organizations—they found our independence of thought and action difficult to incorporate. Form Associates, which was developed in response to the demands of large-scale projects worldwide, explored interdisciplinary practice combining art, architecture, landscape design, and ecology. After several decades, all the partners realized the need for change: Marko started Marko and Placemakers, and Rick Rowbotham returned to landscape architecture.

Studio Fink, my latest venture, does not employ anyone; it works through a loose network of collaborators in different parts of the world. Studio Fink focuses on developing temporary and permanent projects that highlight the role of artistic creativity in our cityscapes. The temporary projects include a half-mile-long play installation in Moscow, visited by 70,000 people in two weeks, and the transformation of a Renaissance plaza in Bergamo into a garden-like Piazza Rosa, which was visited by 250,000 people in 16 days.

BM: How have you approached your ongoing Coronado Bridge project in San Diego?
The San Diego Coronado Bridge Lighting project is a programmable LED lighting installation, powered from sustainable energy sources, which will create a unique aesthetic identity for the 2.12-mile-long bridge. Illuminating the bridge will celebrate a recognized San Diego landmark while creating a distinctive signature artwork for the region. As a part of our competition submission, I put together an interdisciplinary team that included Mark Major from Speirs and Major Associates, along with Buro Happold engineers—all of whom have practical experience in large-scale lighting projects.

This is a project that requires considerable patience and constant attention to the pace of development, as well as management of the multi-agency oversights and community involvement programs. Since the proposal in 2005, perception has been shifting from a purely aesthetic art project to one that will take a central role in the future regeneration and transformation of the San Diego waterfront. In this context, the bridge lighting is seen as an unequivocal expression of aspirational confidence in a period when the full economic impact of the infrastructure transformation of the waterfront is yet to take place. The lighting of the bridge is a key initial driver of the urban planning context.

San Diego Coronado Bridge Lighting, 2005–ongoing (scheduled for 2022 completion). Photo: Studio Fink

Last year, with the Arts and Waterfront Activation Department of the Port of San Diego, I completed a successful outreach program in local schools. The participating schools represented different neighborhoods and very different socio-economic backgrounds: from Monarch School in Barrio Logan, which teaches only pupils officially classified as homeless, to Coronado High School, where the pupils have a high degree of existential security. The workshops explored ideas about how art can improve people’s lives and deliver a difference to communities. The creative ideas behind the bridge lighting were introduced, fostering a broader discussion about the role of the arts in our cities, and about the teamwork required to realize such projects. In the practical workshops, students were asked to form groups, with the brief to construct a four-meter-long bridge between two chairs in 35 minutes, using fluorescent materials such as drinking straws, tape, and paper. Then, the lights were lowered and the curtains closed, so the students could make their bridges glow under ultraviolet LED torches. Finally, they were asked to shoot videos on their phones. One of the teachers later emailed about the enthusiastic response: “Fabulous in every way yesterday! The kids were so pumped after the event, still talking about it this morning.”

We also did a three-hour-long session in the Children’s Museum, working with two- to five-year-old children and their parents. The result was truly surprising in its free-spirited atmosphere, focused concentration, and creative engagement. We collected many of the paintings created by the children, who initially wanted to keep them but instinctively understood the attraction of their work being seen and enjoyed by others—thus encapsulating the spirit of the bridge lighting. The San Diego Coronado Bridge Lighting project exemplifies Studio Fink’s mission to explore the role of artistic creativity in our cityscapes, and its capacity to become a catalyst for economic, social, and environmental sustainability.

San Diego Coronado Bridge Lighting, 2005–ongoing (scheduled for 2022 completion). Documentation of local school outreach programs, San Diego, CA. Photo: Studio Fink

BM: Although your work, on the surface at least, betrays little of a personal signature, I imagine that your childhood has colored your imagination. What are your early memories, and are any of them formative?
PF: My early memories have an almost Fellini-like filmic quality—a myriad of overlapping clips that range from visceral evocations of shooting guns at all-night, summer camp defense exercises in communist Czechoslovakia to the surreal experience of attending a summer party at Buckingham Palace with my aunt when I was seven, chasing the English Queen’s corgis, and being told off by her. I recall my unwillingness to wear the communist youth uniform, as my friends did with pride; although I did like to wear a cowboy outfit. I also sharply remember the sense of excitement about real sea water brought in a Coca Cola bottle from my trip to the English seaside. The real and the mundane can, in a different context, become a magical gateway to a different reality.

My early life was deeply affected by the unspoken traumas endured by my parents. My father lost all of his family in the Holocaust, and my mother metaphorically lost hers, separated from it by the Iron Curtain. The pressure of the communist terror in the ’50s, felt by my parents’ generation, was initially hidden from me. For example, only when I was in my later teens did my father reveal the hidden truth of the yearly Christmas ritual that I so loved, of the two of us taking a tram through the deserted, snow-covered streets of Prague and visiting people unknown to me. Only then did I understand that his insistence on me taking my teddy along “to share our adventures” was, in fact, a safe way of delivering money to families with fathers or mothers in prison.

Art in general, and painting in particular, became the fulcrum through which I tried to make sense of my early life, and the quest for making authentic sense of this journey still drives me today. When I read Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism for the first time in the late ’60s, my childhood and my journey in art started to make larger sense. Arendt understood that a tsunami of lies isn’t aimed at getting people to believe what the propagandist is saying. Rather, it’s to induce chronic disbelief, or an indifferent shrug. Who knows what to believe? Who cares? What is truth? She writes, “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”