Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Ministry of Rules: Interview with Nikki Pugh

Last month, artist Nikki Pugh led an utterly charming, often hilarious community residency at the City Gallery in Leicester, UK. Nikki created "The Ministry of Rules"--a shadow organization that existed for one week during half-term break, staffed by visitors who served as "Inspectors" investigating, exploring, and poking fun at the rules that make museums and galleries go. I spoke with Nikki this week to learn more about the Ministry and their fun and games.

How did this project come about?

The City Gallery was mounting a contemporary art exhibition at the New Walk Museum called Play Ground, which featured artists who treat the gallery space as a kind of carnival instead of as an aesthetic temple. The gallery staff wanted half-term activities as part of their learning program and they invited me to lead these through what evolved into a residency format. The idea for the Ministry of Rules came from a desire to provide a framework as a jumping-off point for activities relating to concepts within the exhibition and my own art practice, as well as play and games in a wider sense. I wanted the details of the residency to be shaped by the people who got involved with it, so it needed a structure with an edge that could be pushed against in different directions.

What were the City Gallery goals for the project?

The staff member I worked with had in mind a particular feeling she wanted people to go away having--that kind of sense of community that comes when you've worked together to achieve something. I wanted, if possible, to really confront the ideas wrapped up in the exhibition's introductory text. But I also knew that I wanted the project to be emergent, so I had to be prepared to let this go if necessary.

I think that's what's most impressive to me about the project--the fact that every day's activities were determined by the visitors who'd come the day before. Can you explain how that worked?

I really wanted visitors to make this their own project and their own space; not mine. We had a corner of the gallery that was cordoned off as the Ministry's HQ, and you could only enter if you were a Ministry employee (my badge clearly marked me as a secretary). Most of my time was spent managing that threshold: providing the initial information and invitation; managing expectations of it being an 'easy' craft activity; helping people make their ID badges; and guiding them through taking their Inspectors' Pledge. Only then, as an official Inspector for the Ministry, could you could enter the space. “Come in, this is your headquarters now, yourinvestigation, you make the decisions.”

There was a large mind map on the wall with a prompt in the middle encouraging visitors to imagine a slightly distant future with no staff present to enforce the rules in galleries or museums. The Inspectors could contribute ideas about what that might happen as a result. We used those ideas as the basis for the daily activities in the Ministry.

For example, at the end of day 1, we had one thread on the mind map about what would happen if the absence of staff meant that no one would be there to turn the lights on. One inspector had written that if the lights were off, "you could get up closer to the paintings and smell them as well." This sparked our activity for day 2, where we invited Inspectors to make nose trumpets to amplify the smell of the museum. They made cones from construction paper and then went out into the museum to sniff things and record the smells on clipboards.

Every day had a pattern like this. At the end of the afternoon, volunteers and I would examine the mind map and we'd come up with an activity for the next day in response to what had been written. On day 3 we made memory machines, based on a couple of comments wondering how people would learn with no staff around and whether that meant we would forget about the past. On day 4 Inspectors made "top secret trails"--personalized maps of the museum--based on a comment about kids passing knowledge to each other. Interestingly, although Inspectors spent comparatively little time working on the mind map, it was a vital tool for us in making the Ministry an emergent process.

How did the museum staff respond to this experience?

There were certain anxieties before we started: I was an unknown face; the gallery was deliberately trying a new way of working with an artist; and there were relationships between the two hosts to be negotiated. All this on top of the emergent nature of the project and no one really knowing ahead of time what was going to happen. However, once we got going there was a real buzz as the activities started permeating the whole building.

For example, on Monday afternoon Inspectors were asked to make more interesting alternatives to all the signs and rules in the building. Once the new signs had been made, I challenged Inspectors to place them somewhere in the museum. I told them that outside our HQ we couldn't be sure if staff might be sympathetic to the Ministry of Rules or not, and therefore Inspectors should sneak their signs into position whilst no one was looking. The staff had been briefed in advance and they could decide whether to be friendly or not when they encountered suspicious behavior. The Inspectors' Pledge from the initiation process established boundaries of acceptable behaviour for when the activities took place in the wild and there were no reported problems. We left a lot of cardboard around the place over those 5 days and for the most part it wasn't tidied away.

Sounds like that's a great way to play with the idea of the Ministry being a "shadow" organization within the larger museum. How important was it for people to know they were part of something secretive as opposed to just openly invited to participate?

When I do school projects or pervasive games (for adults), it's really important to set that context of an expanded version of self to steer things slightly beyond participants' comfort zone. But in the particular context of the museum at half-term, I don't know if it actually was that vital. People were quite happy to come along and draw things and make things and do things. And the kids were often 5 and younger, so some of the Ministry ritual may have gone over their heads. However, in the particular context of drop-in activities in a busy museum at half-term, I don't know if it actually was that vital. People were quite content to simply come along and draw things and make things and do things. Also many of the children were around 5 years old or younger, so some of the Ministry ritual and specific reinforcing language I used may have gone over their heads. It wasn't that important that I wouldn't drop it or adapt it if it obviously wasn't appropriate!

I deliberately ditched the whole Ministry of Rules thing on the final day to try and see if it mattered or not. Instead of asking people to join a secret organization, as they approached the HQ I would appeal to them with something like: "Thank goodness! You must be the Museum Fixer Uppers! We really need your help!" positioning them as experts whose skills and assistance were urgently required.

I think that aspect was more important: soliciting their help and expertise. That kind of conspiracy and complicity is more important than the secrecy stuff.

Going back to the original goal of people working together in community, how did you keep from being the "go to" person who all the Inspectors looked to as the facilitator of their experience?

Beyond the initial orientation I deliberately distanced myself from telling people what to do. They were the Inspectors. We facilitated the entry into the fiction and the practical activity and then the Inspectors pretty much self organised, seeking out the materials they needed and settling into whatever space was available.

Over the whole week, there were only about two or three Inspectors (old and young) who would persistently come up and ask me "what do I do next?" For the most part people took it on themselves and went with it. That kind of became the main goal as the project found it's identity - conferring ownership of the events and the space. I was always mindful of trying to step back and let as much as possible come from and belong to the participants.

In truth, while that was very successful, I don't think we cracked the challenge of really getting people to work with each other across groups. On the last day, we very intentionally designed an activity that was intended to bring people together to assemble new exhibits out of an assortment of components made by the Inspectors, but even then people gravitated towards working on their own or within their own families. ID/name badges were used to help encourage group crossover, but I think that rarely happened in practice. In the end it was a community project in which participants contributed meaningfully and sequentially to the bigger idea of the Ministry, the content of the space and the actions being made, but they didn't necessarily collaborate directly in real time.

Thanks so much to Nikki for sharing her story. Nikki can be found on the Web and on Twitter, and she will be monitoring and responding to comments here on the blog this week.
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