“It’ll be like where the Hobbits live: there will be food planted in the streets, there will be more water around and we will all be unified and happy with who we are.”
No, this isn’t Boris Johnson’s vision of the UK after Brexit but a description of Stratford-upon-Avon in 100 years’ time as revealed through a giant future-seeing pair of giant binoculars.
You may have noticed two giant pairs of interactive binoculars popped up in the town centre on the weekend of 6th to 8th September – one on Henley Street and one on Waterside opposite The Encore pub. They were part of an innovative community art project put together by artists from creative company Anagram as a result of a collaboration between Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT) and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) to mark the 250th anniversary of David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769.
The installation was called I See the Future and is what might be called a bold piece of playful public art. It seeks to offer insights into what it’s like to be a local resident in Shakespeare’s home town and what the future might look like 100 years from now… After a peek into the binoculars on Henley Street following the launch ceremony on Friday, the opening sentence above was how SBT’s head of knowledge Paul Edmondson summed up the hopeful imaginings of what our town may look like a century on from now.
What happened when you looked through the binoculars – and saw either up Henley Street or across the river – is that the filters in the lens lent a filmic quality and over the view skipped a series of drawings by artists from Anagram – the creative design company who devised the installation – and by local Stratford people, whose recorded voices tell of their visions for the future. These range from Hobbit-style shires to Mad Max/Waterworld-type scenarios.
So how did the project come about? “SBT and RSC wanted to do a project over the Garrick weekend that was playful and was about the town and the people,” begins Anagram artist Amy Rose as she and her colleague Amaya Dent joined Herald arts at Friday’s official unveiling. “At Anagram we are interested in looking at unconventional and playful ways to provoke – to ask people big questions and for them to be able to think about things in an unselfconscious way,” says Amaya. “Rather than looking to the past we decided it would be great if we thought about how we could galvanise a conversation thinking about the future. We also really loved oversized things!”
So where did the idea of the giant binoculars come from? “We’ve done things in the past where we’ve played with size,” says Amy. “So that might be making large things incredibly small. The concept here was making an everyday thing incredibly large. We’re always looking for a hook – what questions do we want to address and how are we going to do that? So when we think about the future what’s a great symbol that would spark a conversation? It would be an object that can see.”
In order to get local input Anagram ran a series of workshops, and took up residence in the RSC pop up shop at the old Crabtree and Evelyn shop on the corner of the High Street. There people were encouraged to contribute drawings and record their voices to describe their visions of a future Stratford. “It was essential to make the project accessible to everybody,” says Amaya. “At the moment the world feels unstable, and so to give people agency in the conversation – to invite them to think about what they want – is important.”
It’s a sentiment that is also important to both the RSC and SBT who commissioned Anagram after jointly applying to Watershed’s Creative Producers International programme and Arts Council England to fund the project. The RSC’s director of events and exhibitions Geraldine Collinge tells Herald arts: “I See the Future carries on from the kind of provocation that Garrick gave us 250 years ago – what is the town and where it is going? This is a contemporary take on that.”
Joining in the conversation, the SBT’s head of creative programme Louisa Davies agrees: “This project is about the town rather than Shakespeare. I think people might expect us to only do things around Shakespeare – but this shows how important being contemporary and relevant is to both organisations. “It says we can all be visionaries. Garrick created this event – someone’s home town had never been celebrated before – so the message is brilliant people can come from anywhere and something great can happen. Stratford was transformed by a moment in history… so this is kind of saying to people what’s next? That’s what I love about it – that provocation at the heart of the artwork.”
Which visions conjured by local people stand out? “That we are all equal – that there’s no homophobia or racism – only tolerance and equality and that we can all be who we want to be,” says Geraldine.
Final word to Louisa: “There’s so much negativity at the moment, and so I love the optimism – people talking about connecting, planting trees, closing the town to traffic and stopping climate change.”