Eleanor Bickers talks with the three founders of the Bounds Green based art collective.
The meaning of cypher is a germination of cryptography and characterisation; it can refer to an encrypted message or a blank slate. The two definitions somewhat prevail in a locally run public arts program situated in Bounds Green, North London called Cypher BILLBOARD. A radical response to commercial advertising space and a backdrop to platform artist’s work, the decision to continue Cypher’s branding from its predecessor Cypher Space makes complete sense within the context of its purpose.
Behind the board are three London and Wales based artists Holly Graham, Amba Sayal-Bennett and Erin Hughes, who combined their disciplines in printmaking, drawing, and marbling to produce a peer-to-peer tactile conversation in real time that is greater than the sum of its parts. The result is underpinned by Holly’s research into the way memory and narrative shape collective histories, Amba’s study of research methods crafting boundaries between what is present, what is manifestly absent, and othered, and Erin’s slow method and combative approach to handcrafting rendered images as a way of having a direct relationship to the world around us. Having all graduated from the Royal College of Art, their collective disciplines are shared with other artists to create a diverse dialogue as a rebuttal of the source material, via the billboard, events and workshops with Bounds Green residents.
I sat down with Holly, Amba and Erin via the virtual ether to discuss the origins of Cypher BILLBOARD, the artists commissioned in this year’s run, and the implications the program has had on the local community of Bounds Green.
Eleanor Bickers: Cypher BILLBOARD began in a different guise under a discussion group, Cypher Space in Berlin. When did it seem necessary or apparent to magnify this more intimate dialogue into a tangible and commercially available concept?
Erin Hughes: I had a loft space in Moabit in Berlin with László von Dohnányi and Emma Papworth. We transformed the space into a gallery and hosted a number of events and critique sessions, and invited Holly and Amba to do a show there.
Holly Graham: When Amba and I went over and did the project with Emma and László in Berlin, we decided to do it as a dual show which would tour to London to a project space that was attached to Amba’s studio at the time. We did it as part of Art Licks Weekend and that was really fun working across this one extended project.
An opportunity then came up. A friend’s dad is an artist turned property developer and had been building houses on a patch of land in Bounds Green that had a billboard on it. He mentioned it to me as he wasn’t keen on letting it out for commercial use and thought it could be used in an alternative way. It made sense to collaborate with Erin and Amba as we had worked really well together previously, and we invited two other artists whose work we thought would respond well to the space. It was very much an opportunity to seize the space and see what we could do with it.
EH: We wanted to continue with the Cypher branding. It was originally László’s idea as a cypher is a rapid cyclical concept and is often used in rap to describe freestyling. We liked the idea of the rapid changing space so we wanted to continue this.
HG: That made a lot of sense in the context of your crits that you were holding, that idea of a rapid flow of creative interventions bouncing off each other and their response. We liked the idea of a changeover and a space that would generate a conversation. The events we attached to the artworks were a really big part of extending the conversations and carving a space for critical dialogue.
EB: This rapid cyclical nature of the billboard and the commissions you do for that almost alludes towards a response to commercial advertising; with adverts changing all the time and trying to capture our attention in a consumable way. It seems to be a bit of a resistance to that as well as feeding into your wider ideology of the project.
ASB: This relates to László von Dohnányi’s billboard Zombie Print where he was using screenshots from different google street view perspectives of the board. He cut them out strip by strip and re-pasted them to create the artwork. He was talking about the speed in which you encounter and consume images and having these physical, tangible ways to re-engage with them as a way of slowing down. So the way people might engage with the Cypher BILLBOARD is a slower encounter: there’s always more you can find out, differently to a commercial image.
EB: That translates to other things we see such as slow fashion, and that people do need to take a step back and start thinking a little bit more rather than letting something else think for them and alter their behaviour. With the Bounds Green placement, was it totally opportunistic or did some of you have a connection to Bounds Green already?
ASB: Weirdly my dad grew up around there, and on the pub that’s next to the billboard where we hosted one of our talks he was like ‘Oh this is where I had my wedding reception for my first marriage’. It’s quite weird returning to an area that has such a different context.
HG: It was very much a case of ‘This site is here, let’s see what we can do with it’. Something we’ve been trying to build upon is an awareness of the fact that the three of us aren’t from that area but are really keen for it to be a project that is rooted in its locality. We’ve done a lot of work with Bounds Green School. We’re really keen to get the neighbours on board and as a result we have generated some great relationships with the residents, which resulted in some of them hosting Cypher BILLBOARD events in their own houses. It’s been a really nice project in terms of it creeping beyond just the billboard itself.
ASB: Even thinking about planning other projects with other artists and doing more community engaged activities there’s a lot of chat about being parasitic and going into an area then doing something and just leaving. It’s quite important that the billboard is changing and it’s constant. Anything we do, we need to be building on relationships that are there so it’s more sustained.
HG: A lot of the time it’s just the site, it’s not like having a gallery space where people come into the space and talk to you. Often we’re not physically present; the image is there and speaks for itself. On the occasions of the events, often we do them behind the billboard, but we did one event where everyone was located directly across the road facing a stage as we had a performance on the platform. That was really amazing in terms of people passing by and chatting to us. Lots of people are really aware of the project but haven’t had the chance to speak to someone about it and ask questions.
EB: In your Skelf podcast with Mark Beldan you talk about the billboard being this space that allows alternative engagement with visual content as opposed to what we receive everyday. From talking about the locality and sustainability of the project, do you do anything that has more of a regional and digital presence? How do you merge these dual ideas?
HG: The last run we did was a collaboration with online space Skelf. They term themselves an online project space and that was an opportunity to draw out conversations within the work to a digital space that is accessible from anywhere. We’re also interested in the links between the billboard as a public space yet it’s actually a privatised space that is usually commercial. Similarly the spaces of the internet feel incredibly public but are actually privatised commercial spaces. That was an interesting forum to draw out conversations that were present within the works and inject back into them.
In light of COVID and not being able to have live events, we had the idea of working with a local community-based radio station to help to extend the work. So that’s when we reached out to Threads with the idea of reaching beyond but maintaining that local connection. We have been discussing the possibility of regional projects, but these are quite early on in the conversations.
EB: More recently you started integrating sound with your visual mediums through your Threads show. Can you talk about the relationship between your visual and sonic mediums through the artist’s work and how this creates a different meaning?
HG: It’s quite open ended in terms of the briefs we’ve given the artists. It’s an hour long audio segment for Threads and it could be anything. I think all of the artists will take it in slightly different directions which is really interesting. We did some adverts with North London Cares who are a group we have worked with previously on a workshop in response to one of the previous billboards we had up. We reached out to them again for this run with the mention of the radio show and we did some workshops which thought about the form of the advert and the form of a radio ad, so they devised radio ads collaboratively, thinking about things they have enjoyed over lockdown. It’s interesting thinking about how the format of an advert can shift across mediums.
EB: It sounds like education is a little thematic in your 2021 editions?
HG: Working with different groups and inviting people to respond to or get involved in reading the work has been something we’ve been quite keen on throughout. The workshops and events are something that has grown across the different iterations of the programme and it’s a case of building relationships locally, repeatedly working with the same groups. We’ve worked with Bounds Green School a couple of times and this time it felt it was a nice opportunity to have their work on the billboard as they have already been introduced to the site, so now we’re turning it round to ‘what would you do?’.
ASB: This one was selected via an open call. They put together such a beautiful proposal. Part of the brief was to make a billboard artwork in collaboration with students from Bounds Green School through the workshops. Arieh and Ed sent a collaborative proposal looking into how the wind can be depicted or captured and linking mythological examples. They collected real and live data from the site using an anemometer and they housed the electrical components in this really beautiful bird box which is laser engraved with the four wind gods. It involved working with the students to create these fantastical wind machines and they visualised them in this hyper 3D rendering software to create a wind farm. The radio segment took live data from the site using methods of sonification from sounds the students had made, to retranslate the wind data.
EB: On the Threads show Arieh and Ed talk about the possibility of entering new interpretations of thought via advancements in wind technology which they have mirrored to this idea of new ways of thinking after the industrial revolution. I don’t know how close you were to their project but what are your thoughts on the way technology is changing and the impact this has from an artistic point of view?
EH: I think wind is a really interesting metaphor to use because it’s all around us all the time and it’s quite difficult to grasp, and that’s how I kind of feel about technology and how it’s seen in art.
EB: I guess when I was listening to the show it came as less of a discussion and more of a statement. It left me thinking about how they maybe left the sonification exercise to answer that question. You don’t always need verbal discussion to talk about how something can be progressive and that’s what interested me about their installment. Can you talk about any commissions you have coming up, your 2021 line up and what artists you are featuring?
ASB: The first one was László’s “Zombie Print”, then Arieh Frosh and Ed Compson’s “How Can We Catch the Wind?”. Next we’ve got Siddhi Gupta and Kat McGrath who are part of a collective called Migrants in Culture. They’ll be doing an interactive map looking at the hostile environment in UK higher arts education. They’ve done a series of workshops to inform and create this interactive map. I think it’s going to exist as a QR code so people can add to it, write notes and make comments throughout the display of the billboard artwork. After that it’s Languid Hands who are an artistic and curatorial duo who are currently doing a residency at Cubitt. They’re still figuring out what they are doing but it’s centered around abolition.
HG: They’ve got a couple of different project strands that they continue to work on and respond to so it will probably connect to one of those. They were talking about it being quite connected to their strand called “Towards a Black Testimony”, a filmwork containing archive footage and a voiceover. They invited other artists to make work in response to the film which continues the dialogue. For the billboard they are thinking about the site being used as a space for a protest. They are considering themes that are quite complex around ideas of abolition and are wary of oversimplifying quite a complex and nuanced conversation, so are thinking about ways that they can do that and then expand on some of those threads in their text which will exist in the [Cypher] publication at a later point.
Following that it’s Ryan O’Toole Collett who is the final exhibiting artist in the series. Initially he was thinking of quite an ambitious project, collaborating with young people in the area to make a short feature film, but COVID has made that quite challenging.
ASB: It’s possibly going to be a collaborative poem passing between local residents at different ages, almost like an exquisite corpse.
HG: He’s really keen on it being cross generational, a whole sway of different age groups. For this run we’ve had a much longer lead time than we’ve had for previous projects. Partly due to funding and then COVID shifting things back, and then partly because we chose to extend the run of each edition from one to two months. So by the time of Ryan’s exhibition, he will have had two years to consider what he would like to do.
EB: How did you navigate this project through the pandemic? I guess the main thing is what learnings have you taken from this experience and has it altered the way you might approach the billboard in the future?
EH: I gave birth the day before the first UK lockdown so I haven’t been travelling so much to London. I’ve been able to run and manage Cypher Billboard via zoom, so I haven’t seen any of the physical billboards this run unfortunately. In the future I think if we decide to do other runs on other sites across the UK we can continue with this format, it shows it can work and we can do a lot of this programme online, such as working with Threads Radio as an alternative to having physical events. So far I’ve been amazed by the results and the way artists explored different approaches with the audio format. I think a lot of people love listening to podcasts and radio these days, maybe now more than ever.
HG: Also realising that it’s COVID-safe as a project because it’s outdoors. You don’t have to have a gathering necessarily to experience the work. One of the challenging elements we’ve found is figuring out how to navigate the rapid changes of school closures, safeguarding issues online, and how to deliver those workshops. Ed and Arieh did amazingly to communicate the changes. We know we can work adaptably in the future if need be in terms of group collaboration.
EB: I’ve read before about the inaccessibility of exhibition spaces in the art world. Maybe there’s this new hope for a wider group of artists to work in the digital space where we can unlock new ideas and new skills. With Cypher Billboard it’s already an alternative space and kind of overcomes that already. What do you think about this type of inaccessibility?
HG: It’s something we talked about from the beginning as being a space that was outside a white cube and being accessible in a different way, in terms of how people come across the work. It’s very much a space where you can choose how you engage with it and read more into it if you like. For us as artists it’s about making the most of the opportunities that we stumble across. Carving out a space where we can try out things, experiment and also invite other artists whose work we are interested in to try out the space. We’ve been able to apply for funding for the subsequent runs and pay artists more which has been great. It’s enabling us to share and spread resources amongst other artists which is a nice peer-led way of doing things rather than knocking on the doors of gallery spaces and asking to be let in, or relying on commercial sales, which is also precarious. Not that one piece on a billboard can sustain you financially for very long but it can build towards something greater!
EB: It almost seems like you’re building your reputation more organically. I like this idea of this responsive chain of artists working through something that’s very local, a bit like an allyship. I’d be really interested to find out more about your practice as artists on an individual level and how this feeds into Cypher’s ideology.
EH: I think that’s a great opportunity to talk about the exhibition FAKERS. We’re all practising artists ourselves and that show for me exposed my personal preferences in terms of other artists’ work who make things. The show is like a play on words of female makers and also artists who use imitation materials, fake reproductions of marble, plastic laminate, wood vinyl and things like that. I like a lot of handmade stuff in art; I like the physical relationship of taking things into your own hands. So I make collages that are quite labour intensive, cut out from my own hand marbled papers. I’ll use that as my own palette and cut out different sections for the collages. At the moment I am depicting Welsh landscape images that I found online; ‘remediating’ to use a László von Dohnányi term that we spoke about. Remediating is interpreting digital images through a handmade process.
HG: I think it’s also worth saying that the billboard strand of Cypher BILLBOARD has been a main project which we’ve done a few times now and will hopefully continue to do. But there are a lot of other offsite elements such as FAKERS and other shows that have been brewing away and will hopefully manifest at some point. I guess it’s like a curatorial framework for us to collaborate through.
There’s some overlap in terms of interests in my practice and the billboard. My background is in printmaking and is about replication, duplication and the circulation of images. The billboard format and the structural platform is something that is quite interesting to me in terms of the circulation of images and print as it is used for advertising. Something that’s so pervasive that often we don’t even see it because it’s all around us.
ASB: My practice is more drawing based and I make sculptures. When I worked with another artist called Ralph Hunter-Menzies for the billboard run we did, Crazy Talk, I was thinking about graffiti and inscription practices as an interface between public and private messages. That’s something we expanded upon looking at in the Dateagle article that we wrote together called “The Viewer, The Reader, The Heckler” looking at different levels of engagement and the agency of the viewer from a more passive to a more active participation with the images. I always think about this Cypher stuff as more of a collaborative practice and I found it much easier to be more proud and enthusiastic of the project as opposed to being more critical of my studio work.
From personal interests, when I was at Goldsmith’s I was really interested in methods. We started out using the billboard as a place to test our own work but it shifted to showcasing artists from a more curatorial perspective. But it would be nice to do something for us, because we’re creating opportunities for other people, so we thought why not do a residency. Erin wanted to do a show around artists working with stone called “Marble Matters”. I was reading about the slow movement and its methodology, so we went to Dorset to have a stone carving retreat to think through some of these ideas so we created a workshop during the residency which was really nice because we hadn’t had that extended time together. Truth be told this show has been kicking for years now, so it’s going VERY slowly.
EB: Collaboration has become even more important over the past year, before we were quite self absorbed within our own work and the fractures of our society have realised the power of cooperation. I want to touch on something you did a while back as Cypher Space. There was a round table document between yourselves and Bridie Hindle discussing the idea of the backdrop talking about how it is this neutral engagement allowing an amalgamation of ideas to be introduced. Did this concept play a part in the introduction of the billboard, building upon and foregrounding a blank canvas?
ASB: When I was at Goldsmith’s I was doing a lot of studio visits with my peer group. I went to visit Holly and we realised there were a lot of themes and crossovers in our work. One of the ideas was thinking about the backdrop in various ways, not thinking about how something is a neutral space but rather it’s an active player. I actually hadn’t thought about it in the context of the billboard so that is quite coincidental.
EH: It was the first show that we really did together and it toured. We did a show in Berlin then took “Backdrop” to London as well. We were looking at the backdrop in really different ways. Holly was looking at Harry Jacobs’ photography collection and how he was documenting Afro-Caribbean families. I was using plastic laminate of fake marble, wood and other materials to make a horizon for my collages.
ASB: I was looking into these quite strange digital environments and the movement through these digital scapes. In Berlin was the first time I met Emma Papworth and we connected to each other’s work and ended up doing a collaboration in the show that came after that.
EH: Coming from living in Berlin for four years and then going to London the difference in advertising is what really stood out to me and the reflection of the city. In Berlin adverts were quite centered around young people drinking beer but in London there were adverts for energy pills and mattresses because everyone’s tired. Those thoughts around advertising were very much in my head coming to London so the billboard was a very exciting opportunity as we were talking about creating an alternative to these adverts in London as a respite to this backdrop.
EB: Your work as artists clearly does trickle down into other trajectories of your work even if it is subconscious. With the billboard do you think that it would have had the same impact if you did it in Berlin?
EH: The more we’ve done the project in Bounds Green the more it’s been about working with the locals. In Berlin you get a visa for two years and a lot of people come and go; it’s very transient. In Bounds Green it’s a much longer term close-knit community. People have been there for a really long time, it’s a different kind of community. That’s changed how we’ve worked with the site specifically.
EB: Along the subject of Bounds Green School, do you think working with kids has educated you in any way. What have you learnt from that kids can provide us that us as adults can learn from?
EH: We had workshops with the Bounds Green School students aged 8-10 and then we had a workshop with learning disabled people from Stars Young Adults and the elderly. The kids were really enthusiastic and interactive and there’s not many opportunities in our age group to engage with them. I personally preferred working with the group of learning disabled people, it really moved me. The staff were amazing and the group were really supportive of each other and communicated in different ways to make sure everyone was getting heard in the room.
ASB: Erin was leading a marble workshop and the kids at Bounds Green School were quite territorial about their work and I was wondering if it’s because of how they are assessed at school. It’s interesting how that translated into the workshop. With the group from Stars Young Adults it was very collaborative, maybe they are used to doing things together more: that was one of the starkest things that came through. But some of the kids at Bounds Green School are so creative and I couldn’t believe what they came up with. Holly you were saying when you were listening to one of the students describe his piece for the wind turbine…
HG: It was amazing, it was so in-depth and layered. I thought they’d just been using collage to layer images that would do the trick, for example putting images of bins as rectangles to form the pole. But the bins were there because he was thinking about recycling, there was a pumping heart to move things around and the bees were flying out of it because they are healthy for the environment. It was so obviously well thought through. I’ve been super impressed by their imagination. It relates back to what you mentioned El, how do you describe complex themes or difficult ideas and ensure that everyone’s getting it particularly with subjects that can be emotionally challenging.
We had a session where we visited one of the billboards which had artwork by an artist called Jennifer Martin where she was talking about ideas around UK immigration policy, the hostile environment and the violence of that system. Speaking to children about those ideas, we were thinking about how we were going to have those conversations with them when planning. But actually, young people are so in tune with things and you can really underestimate how well children can take on board issues and get involved with the conversation. I’ve felt really encouraged that there are some great young minds whirring away and I shouldn’t underestimate their capacity for engaging in these sorts of conversations.
EB: I think art is an amazing way of opening up people’s minds to alternate ways of thinking. When you were talking about the children wanting to have the names on their work and something being theirs, that is kind of how we’re brought up in an education system, so being able to break down those barriers is invaluable. Who would you like to see on the billboard in your next run?
ASB: We’ve got such a big list, it’s such an issue!
HG: We’re aware of wanting to have a balance within a run. We’re really aware of being women in an art world that often disproportionately undervalues women’s work. So we’re interested in gender representation and different backgrounds when programming. With the open call we were interested in artists applying who had a local connection to the area. We have all these things in mind as well as the practices we are involved in. But also we need to be mindful of the conversations artists are having; we don’t want to have something too similar on the same run and it should be spread out. It’s hard with the open calls as often there’s loads of great people and we’re trying to work out ways of extending an invitation. As artists we know how much time goes into pitching and we want people’s work to feel valued.
ASB: For this open call we gave people individual feedback which was the first time we did it and we got a really positive response from the artists. I think that was a nice addition to the open call this year.
HG: It can feel like you’re throwing your work into a black hole sometimes and we don’t want people to have that experience.
Mapping The Hostile Environment in Higher Education by Siddi Gupta and Kate McGrath will be live on Cypher BILLBOARD during May and June 2021.Cypher BILLBOARD is supported by Arts Council England.
Eleanor Bickers is an electronic music enthusiast and writer based in London. She runs the Biodegradable Soundsystem series on Threads Radio, exploring the symbiosis of written, verbal, and sonic communication. In her spare time she often finds herself DJing, raving, and imagining alternate realities. You can find her on Instagram: @lnr_dj