RGB Screens and History Wall at the Horsebridge, September 2002
  by Angela Kingston  

Whitstable is a small town on the north coast of Kent. It is a propitious spot where people have worked, lived and more or less thrived since ancient times. (1)

The sea has provided in many ways. Fishing probably attracted the first settlers and it continues to the present day. There are traces of salt workings from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries. Copperas stones -- fossils torn from the seabed and delivered on to the beach by the tides -- were collected and processed for industrial use between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. The sea has also given rise to trading: firstly along the local coast and later with Scandinavia and elsewhere. And since about 1830, day-trippers and holiday-makers have been attracted, in greater and lesser numbers, to Whitstable as a seaside resort. Even now, though its heyday has passed, many people come for the yachting and as second home-owners.

If we could watch all of this from a great distance, with centuries compressed to fit into hours, we would see an accretion of tiny dwellings and commercial buildings, clustering tightly against the narrow beach. But we can see as well that this accretion can sometimes be threatened and even destroyed, as whole streets are invaded by sea water (in 1897 and 1953) or swept by fire (in 1869). More benignly and commonly, buildings are demolished to make room for new ones fit for new purposes.

Whitstable, like all living towns, ruptures from time to time because of the force of change and through occasional acts of god. But unlike other places its basic geography, too, can alter dramatically, as territories are claimed from, or alternatively surrendered to, the sea. In view of its susceptibility, flood defences have been built to protect low-lying streets in the old part of the town. To the visitor, the town feels both special and precarious. There is an excitement here and also a certain sense of watchfulness.

An area of Whitstable known as the Horsebridge is currently in a state of rupture or redevelopment. It is an important site in the town. Oysters, for which Whitstable is renowned, used to be brought ashore here, and the area became both a centre of activity and a focus for the community. The streets are close-knit and intimate: you are even, if you look around, introduced to people who once lived and worked here -- there are signs for Terry’s Lane and Bryce’s Alley, for example. In 1868, a Music Hall was built within the Horsebridge, its audience a mixing of local people and growing numbers of holiday-makers. Later, the Music Hall was extended to become the town’s Assembly Rooms, where dances were held. More recently, although beginning to deteriorate, it served for a time as a community and arts centre. Finally, this building and others next to it were demolished to make way for a development that will provide arts and community facilities, housing and commercial premises.

Watching from a great distance and with time speeded up, we see this accretion grow and extend and implode -- and eventually begin to take on a new form.

At an early stage, the artist Andrew Sabin was appointed to lead a team of artists to create art for the new development at the Horsebridge, both during the construction phase and for permanent inclusion in and around the finished building. When I visited in September 2002, their artworks took the form of subtle interventions during the transition from demolition site to building site. The artworks contemplated this moment of the tide, when
rupture turns into renewal.

The most visible components that autumn were sculptures that took the form of a wall and
two windows: as such, the art engaged with two basics of construction and habitation. The windows, made by Stefan Shankland with Andrew Sabin and known as RGB Screens, were made of red, green and blue plexiglass panels. They were set into the hoardings around the site and allowed people to see in. While I was there, passers-by -- typically fathers and sons -- stopped and pointed things out to each other. Building sites are always an attraction, of course, and the bright colours of the plexiglass seemed to acknowledge and play to this.

Looking through these coloured screens myself, I enjoyed the tidy piles of building materials (brightly coloured plastic conduits, metal mesh, metal rods) to one side of the site, and under my prolonged inspection the workmanlike order became somehow elaborated and ornamental. I relished, too, the careful orchestration of materials and labour that this spectacle conveyed.

Construction was at an early stage when I visited and restricted to one part of the development. It was a Saturday and everything was still. For a time, I found myself fixing my gaze on low piles of reinforced concrete -- part of the new foundations -- and I started to imagine it as an excavation. Perhaps I was remembering Roman archaeological digs, with their stacks of under-floor tiles? Instead of picturing rapid, industrious addition at the Horsebridge, I imagined painstaking extraction and analysis. Day-dreaming, I set the tide of events into reverse -- no doubt triggered by the sense here of the long inhabitation of this stretch of ground. (2)

But what I was really seeing, through RGB Screens, was one moment in the history of this site, in which deposits and accretions were taking hold above and below ground. I was
made conscious, however, that one day they too will be swept away by a new development and lost to memory. The other artistic intervention on the site, which took the form of a wall, was made by Andrew Sabin with Richard Bradbury, Stefan Shankland and Doug Brown. As its title, History Wall, suggests, this sculpture contemplates precisely this type of loss or forgetting.

History Wall was a large steel cage which housed careful arrangements of rubble and debris from the buildings which had just been demolished. It was divided into nine sections, each with a different character: one contained a mosaic of blue, maroon and yellow plaster fragments; another held neat strata of planks, poles and pipes; another had chopped up wooden signs which spelled out mysterious new mono-syllables; there was a section filled with typewriters and filing-cabinet drawers, and several others with arrangements of different kinds of bricks and blocks.

History Wall was a commemorative piece which symbolically held on to an ordinary, passing moment, for the duration of just a few months. I saw passers-by pointing at objects in it, and heard them commenting on things they recognised. One man photographed his friends in front of the sculpture, creating his own memento of a day out -- and of a curious object he’d probably never see again.

The neatness and order of the History Wall -- its beauty, even -- connected strangely with the lush piles of building materials waiting to be used. Feelings of used-up-ness and long
past significance combined with those of imminence. I was reminded again of archaeological sites, with their padlocked cages of stone fragments which are held in the promise that they will be reassembled one day. I also thought about the final disposal, very soon, of the contents of History Wall -- and of the enormous quantities of waste that this type of development produces.

This, it turns out, is a preoccupation of Sabin’s. He once visited a land-fill site and it was, he says, “an affecting experience. It was a vast valley, with lorries arriving constantly, and bulldozers pressing the waste into the floor of the valley. It was a vast co-mingling of stuff.” The experience has even moved him to suggest that “landfill sites should be made into public places, with viewing platforms at their rims.” It is partly as a sculptor, dealing in raw matter, that he reacts with such passion to the scale of its disposal. He also responds as an environmentalist to how the waste we produce disappears almost instantaneously from our sight, diminishing our sense of responsibility for it. At Horsebridge he has worked to slow the process down and make it visible and a subject of contemplation.

History Wall follows on from other projects by Sabin and his colleagues. There was the C-Bin Project, in which basket sculptures were sited on shorelines in Picardie in North West France, in order to entice passers-by to lob in plastic and metal waste washed up by the sea. (3) Sabin’s sculpture, Bottle Tower, at the Ecos Centre, Ballymena, N. Ireland, was also devised to encourage recycling. (4) And this work continues: the permanent public art works at the Horsebridge, mentioned previously, will include experimental rubbish bin housings designed to raise awareness, as he says, “of the conflicting sets of emotions that the act of disposal can provoke”.

Sabin explained to me how he and the other artists deliberately selected commonplace
waste materials for History Wall: “Any material that wanted to show itself off had to be eliminated”, he said. A carved stone from the old Horsebridge ambulance station was rejected, for example. And ordinary bricks and breeze blocks were selected in preference to decorative bricks. The steel grid of the cage gave rise to an important effect, too: “it equalised matter, lowering the special, raising the ordinary”, Sabin said.

The waste on display had, finally, the status of dirt -- described by Mary Douglas in her remarkable book, Purity and Danger, as “the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements”. (5)

Yet what Sabin and his colleagues had done here was to take this dirt -- this matter which should, in the usual way of things, have been quietly removed from view -- and reinstated it, if only temporarily. They had deliberately disturbed the process of “systematic ordering and classification of matter” taking place before us on the building site. That this simple, and after all quite subtle, intervention caused many people in the town considerable upset (6) would suggest that there was further significance to this act that needs to be explored.

Earlier in this essay, I described Whitstable as a watchful place. I was responding to a sense of this small town being subject to the influx of strangers -- and of invasions by the sea -- and therefore needing to ‘gather itself in’. Perhaps there was a feeling of violation, therefore, when the broken details of former lives were displayed in the History Wall? To be involved with others’ dirt is an act of great intimacy after all. Was this why a jar of pink paint was thrown at the art work?

Many people who protested against History Wall complained that Sabin and the other
artists were not from Whitstable. They were seen as trespassers, people who had no right to be there in a place “where the lines of structure, cosmic or social, are clearly defined.” (7) As such, Sabin (and he was singled out for criticism) became what Mary Douglas calls a “polluting person”, who “is always in the wrong. He has developed some wrong condition or simply crossed some line which should not have been crossed and this displacement unleashes danger for someone.” (8)

The tirade against Sabin was concerned, repeatedly, with the cost of History Wall (which was modest) and with its claim to be art -- and with the idea that the artist had no right to make an artwork in Whitstable, amongst the debris and the raw new beginnings.

We must sympathise, for we all create systems and categories by which we live and which we defend. However, History Wall is important, as much beyond Whitstable as within it, as a stimulus which “enable[s] us to go behind the explicit structures of our normal experience” (9). It is as an anomaly, as matter out of place, that History Wall functions as art: like RGB Screens, it contemplates how we inhabit the world. We create and destroy unceasingly, the tide coming in and the tide going out.

Angela Kingston
Curator and writer

(1) The information which follows about the history of the town is from www.whitstable-museum.co.uk
(2) It turns out, in fact, that recent excavations uncovered Victorian sewers, wells and sea defences.
(3) See www.c-bin.org
(4) Other artists, too, have made artworks from waste in order to draw attention to social issues. Stuart Brisley, for example, did a sustained performance at the ICA, London, in the early 80s which involved him displaying rubbish he collected from the surrounding area; it included the waste of people living on the streets and revealed their appalling living conditions. In 1997 Lucy Orta organised a street kitchen in Paris, commissioning a chef to prepare meals from ingredients thrown away in the markets, which were given to passers-by.
(5) Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo, publ. Routledge, London, 1966, p. 35.
(6) See www.horsebridge.org
(7) Mary Douglas, p. 113.
(8) Mary Douglas, p. 113.
(9) Mary Douglas, p. 37.