In-Conversation / Andy Abbott

Associate artist Andy Abbott is working with In-Situ to develop a conversations around the Future of Work in Pendle.

He talks to us about his research so far with young people, working in virtual reality as a medium, and his most recently completed project, Lutopia.

Augmented technology is becoming a huge part of our lives and widely used in schools and colleges. In-Situ Associate Artist Andy Abbott is working with virtual reality to create a new and innovative way to start conversations about the future of work within the borough.

In-Situ was invited by Pendle Borough Council to start the conversation about work in Pendle, and its future through a series of films of Pendle manufacturers. Having created these, Andy has now started a series of exploratory workshops, which will continue into next year, where young people, Pendle residents and entrepreneurs can discuss what they think Pendle’s future is.

The outcome of this project is dependant on its process and how the vastly developing technology of virtual and augmented reality will be used. We look forward to seeing how the project develops in 2020.

Photo: Lee Smillie

Can you tell us a little more about your practice?

Recently I’ve been describing myself as an ‘interdisciplinary social engaged artist’ as that gets closer to what I do. The outcomes of the projects I do really vary and include events, publications, sculptural outputs, festivals and video games.

The constant throughout is a co-production method where I do a lot of research and have conversations with people as the starting point. It gives me a sense of the place I am doing a project in and feeds into the final form the artwork takes.

The particular interest I have right now is with digital immersive technologies like VR and augmented realities and using those as a tool for connecting people and place.

The last project I did was in Luton where I created a VR video game called Lutopia. All the characters and content were developed with the people of Luton through workshops. I think that’s a fairly new or novel approach. Although it’s giving people this virtual experience – they put on a headset and they’re playing a game – it’s actually got a really deep connection back to that place. The hope is that players think about how they could take steps towards the Luton they’re in now towards this idealised version that they experience in the game.

I’m using the same sort of technology, 360 video and photography, to create a virtual experience that explored at the future of work in Pendle.

What Makes Gipton Interactive Sculpture (2019), Photo: Jules Lister

How did you come about the idea of using virtual reality technology?

I started doing art as an escape from the world of work and the factories, which is what I was doing in Leeds when I was 18. I decided I’d had enough of that and I wanted to go to art college and see how it would work out.

Then when I started developing my own practice and projects I found myself replicating what I was doing in those factory jobs! I used to do hands-on projects using everyday materials and manual labour. I had a critical view of new technologies and people not having ‘real’ experiences. I was pretty much against the type of digital artwork I make now.

Then over time, I’ve softened to the idea that the march of progress with technology is going to happen. So I started using digital technology, in particular in Hidden Wakefield [an interactive sculpture Andy made as part of a commission for Wakefield Arts Project archived here: https://wakefieldartspartnership.org/andy-abbott-blog/)

I realised that I could achieve this engagement with people using augmented reality in a much more efficient and effective way and that opened my eyes to using that technology. People were flocking to this sculpture like ‘Oh great it’s an iPad!’ but then having really interesting conversations.

There’s still a novelty around that technology that breaks down barriers for people engaging in art. You’ve got to have something that people want to do and technology is good for that.

Photo: James Islip
Lutopia Demo (2018) Photo: Andy Abbott

Tell us more about the Future of Work in Pendle project?

It’s a bit of an extension of Lutopia and my other projects.

I found that framing conversations as a game was a really nice way to get people to think about their future or the future of Luton in a completely different light. They weren’t focusing on the problems as much as the ways forward,

So the Pendle project has come out as a bit of a development from that and the interest of what the future of work could be. 

It links in with loads of stuff that In-Situ are doing, like Pendle 2050, that Paul has been running as part of the intercultural programme, in particular with schools, and having a lot of conversations about the future of Pendle.

In-Situ were also invited (by Pendle Borough Council) to make a series of video portraits of employers and organisations within Pendle with the idea that they would be shared with young people in schools and open up some ideas around career opportunities in Pendle. I was working for In-Situ at the time and when we received the offer and proposed we do it using 360 video and Virtual Reality. 

We’ve made 5 videos of different work places with those organisations in which they give a presentation of the workplace and the career paths available within their organisation.

As it’s filmed in 360 video it gives a real sense of what it’s like to be in that place which I think is a distinctive thing about VR technology at the moment. It gets you much closer to the experience of it.

VR Still: Silent Night, image courtesy Andy Abbott

Why is this important for Pendle now?

Pendle has historically been a really important place for changes in the way people work from agriculture, to industrial work and beyond. There are loads of challenges around employment and what’s going to happen to young people in terms of what skills will they need and the relationship they’ll have with work. Pendle also offers loads of opportunities – there’s a lot of diversity here and an interesting mix of rural and urban which is interesting in terms of work/life balance. The council appreciate the urgent need to have the conversation and I think In-Situ is a welcoming place to have it.

In-Conversation interview by Megan Chapman with Andy Abbott

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