Art on the big(gest) screen
INTERVIEW: CIRCA Founder on the art lighting up cities each night
“I believe in the power of ideas and when this fell into shape I knew it had to happen”
In this edition:
- The Big Interview
- The Hot List
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The Big Interview
When was the last time you went to Piccadilly Circus? If it’s been a while (and if you’re a Londoner then that’s very likely) then you might have missed that the famous neon advertising have had a glow up in recent years. In 2017, the new Piccadilly Lights replaced the previous patchwork of screens with a single LED digital screen — the largest of its kind in Europe. But that’s not all. Since 2020, it’s been broadcasting art too.
Arts organisation CIRCA (The Cultural Institute of Radical Contemporary Arts) was born during the COVID-19 pandemic. Founded by Josef O’Connor, it began showcasing digital art on the new display at Piccadilly Circus between 2020’s lockdowns. Artist Ai Weiwei was the first to collaborate with CIRCA, but other big names to follow have included Marina Abramović and David Hockney. The usual advertising is paused for three minutes every day, at the same time, when the screens become a ‘digital canvas’ for these artists’ work. The daily showtime for 2023 is 20:23.
Over the past three years CIRCA has expanded, and its innovative digital commissions are now also shown in Seoul, Tokyo, Milan, Los Angeles and New York. Hong Kong made its debut on the list this year too.
For this week’s interview I’ve spoken to Josef O’Connor, CIRCA’s Founder and Artistic Director to find out about the global growth of this exciting organisation, and asked how it raises its money, and how they convinced the Dali Lama to sign up.
Hello Josef. CIRCA was established in 2020. Why did you set it up?
I’ve always been intrigued by untapped potential and finding ways to circumnavigate gatekeepers or find new ways to communicate ideas. One of my earliest projects back in 2008 involved transforming an empty retail space into an exhibition space on Carnaby Street. This came about after walking through the city and enquiring into the unit. I think it’s important to be curious and to always remain excited and inspired by the next project or the next idea. This is what keeps me motivated and CIRCA is really a product of this approach to life.
When I first reached out to Landsec, owners of Piccadilly Lights, nobody up until then had used the screen as a platform for art and culture. The request I made was to use the screen for one evening. This was two years before the pandemic and involved working through several decks and proposals which ultimately shaped and reinforced the project into what it is today.
It wasn’t until the pandemic struck that we were fortunate to benefit from the drop in advertising at that time which ultimately created a window of opportunity for the project to receive its trial run. It's rare for corporations — especially FTSE100 companies such as Landsec — to give people like me a chance and I think that's one of the most beautiful things about this project. I learned first hand what it means to be a ‘start up’ because it all started from nothing. Just an idea.
The Piccadilly Lights are clearly at the heart of each CIRCA commission. What is it about this iconic site that attracted you to use it as a canvas?
Piccadilly is more than a destination. It means something to everyone. We all have a Piccadilly memory or story and that’s a powerful starting point for creating or even presenting art because the place ultimately informs the commission. I was inspired by the kinetic nature of the architecture and how the change or rotation in brands and new forms of technology (neon tubes, plastic casing, etc) could almost tell the time by simply looking at a photograph. This ultimately inspired the concept for CIRCA as a project about the art of our times. How do you see the world circa 2020, 2021, 2022 and now 2023? I knew that in order for the project to really resonate and become part of the fabric of the city (like the Changing of the Guard) that it needed to happen at the same time every day. When I realised that 20:20 was also 8:20pm on the clock, it all connected together. Ultimately I believe in the power of ideas and when this fell into shape I knew it had to happen.
It was always important to me that the platform was never used as a tool for self promotion. It should never feel like an advert. This presents artists with a challenge to present ideas in such a short window of time, whilst also respecting a code of conduct that limits what can and can’t be said in the public space compared with a white cube environment. Tony Cokes was able to broadcast Elijah McClain’s last words ‘I can't breathe’ as he was murdered by the police because he removed the vowels, etc. I love working with artists because they never cease to surprise you and always find ways to challenge and work around the rules. This is what pushes things forward and what ultimately keeps the project alive. It has to mean something. It has to say something and it has to do something, otherwise what’s the point?
You launched with possibly the most famous artist in the world, Ai Weiwei. How did you get him on board?
We’re fortunate to have worked with some of the most incredible thinkers of a generation and that is one of the greatest privileges. Aside from the artists, we have a Council chaired by Sir Norman Rosenthal who ran the Royal Academy of Arts for 30 years and together with Erica Bolton, they helped guide me through the early days of the project. Without them there wouldn’t be CIRCA and their generosity of time and knowledge is something I will hold onto forever. I’ve learned that community is at the heart of every cultural project and I think it is this purity of vision and also the fact that we redistribute so much wealth via the #CIRCAECONOMY initiative that inspires so many people to participate.
And last month you had the Dali Lama - tell me about how you secured his Holiness to take part?
Our curatorial theme for CIRCA 20:23 is on ‘Hope: The Art of Reading What Is Not Yet Written’ and I couldn’t think of a better person to launch the year than His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I was fortunate to make contact with Damdul Topden who runs The Tibet Hope Centre in Dharamsala and together we reached out to His Holiness’ Office. 20% of the proceeds from each #CIRCAECONOMY print by the Dalai Lama will be donated to the Hope Centre and is available on our website until 31 December 2023.
Right now you're collaborating with Anne Imhof, whose work can be seen each day at 20:23 each evening. What is this work about?
We first worked with Anne back in December 2020 when she created a work titled ONE for us to present on Piccadilly in the countdown to midnight, when Britain officially left the EU. It was a special one off 10 minute commission before Patti Smith launched CIRCA 20:21 with a New Years performance. Working with Anne and her studio is always a really special experience filled with moments of unexpected serendipity and meaning. The way that ONE came together with Eliza Douglas whipping the waves of Normandy whilst the lyrics ‘in dark times will there still be singing’ played in the background still gives me goosebumps. It means more today than it did then. The work we are showing this month, called YOUTH, coincides with the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (on 24 February) and we have collaborated with Anne to launch an edition of 24 mixed media works to help raise funds for UNICEF and aid its mission to support children affected by the ongoing war.
How is CIRCA funded?
I’m passionate about finding ways to support CIRCA that doesn’t rely on traditional models. We have never applied for funding from traditional routes such as the Arts Council England because I wanted to see if we could stand on our own two feet as an organisation. To me that's the ultimate goal. Instead we have developed an ecosystem that revolves around print sales and partnerships. Last month we launched a print subscription service which enables people to receive our monthly #CIRCAECONOMY print. Each ‘collector’ receives a plexiglass box we designed which doubled up as a box frame to show off the prints. We’re fortunate to now have a daily presence in over 7 different countries which provides an unparalleled level of audience and reach and I’m always looking for new ideas and opportunities to generate funds that ultimately enable us to continue doing what we do.
We describe CIRCA as ‘for profit, with purpose’ and in March 2020, following our collaboration with Serpentine to present Yoko Ono, we were in the fortunate position to donate £300,000 to the United Nations CERF following the sale of her IMAGINE PEACE print. This level of donation is an exception for an organisation of this size but we felt compelled to do so following the invasion of Ukraine. That being said, my hope is to continue using the CIRCA platform to continue collaborating with and helping others — especially at this challenging time for the arts. We have also set up scholarships at Goldsmiths, and we award an annual prize of £30,000 as part of our ‘CIRCA Class of’ which helps lift up the next generation.
Which other artists can art-lovers experience on the Piccadilly Lights this year?
We have a very special collaboration coming up with Laurie Anderson in March, and the brilliant Jeremy Deller in May. I’d like to do something with ChatGPT but haven’t figured out how just yet.
Will CIRCA be coming to more screens around the world?
This month we’ve presented for the very first time in Hong Kong on the side of the SOGO department store. I would like to explore how we can develop a stronger presence in developing parts of the world and not just focus on the major capitals. Looking further ahead, I would like to develop a stronger focus on education and using art to guide greater societal change and that can only be achieved by inviting our programme into more parts of the world and working more closely with local talent to create a global dialogue. That’s the vision.
Anne Imhof YOUTH runs every evening at 8:23pm at Piccadilly Circus until 28 February
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The Hot List
maxwell museums’ curated round up of what’s new to see, do, watch, read and more - from the UK and across the globe.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Opens Friday.
It's been one of the most anticipated art exhibitions of recent years — but finally, the blockbuster Vermeer exhibition is here. And according to the art critics, it's been worth the wait. 28 of Johannes Vermeer's surviving 37 paintings have been brought together from seven countries around the world in the largest ever show of Vermeer’s work.
Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance
V&A, London. Opens Saturday
The Renaissance master gets his first major UK exhibition. One of the greatest sculptors of all time, many of these works have never been seen in Britain before. A highlight is Donatello’s early marble David, which he made when he was in his 20s.
Valentine's at the Museum
Natural History Museum, London. 14 February 18:45-22.30. £37
This Valentine's Day, take inspiration from the natural world, and join the Natural History Museum’s scientists as they delve into love in the animal kingdom. From salsa classes to science stations, there’ll be plenty of after-hours antics to get involved in, plus a fully stocked bar and even a live harpist serenading you by the stegosaurus.
Illuminated River Official Boat Tours
Thursdays or Saturdays 21:30, until March 2023
Last chance to see the the Illuminated River project from the water at night. Lighting 9 bridges on the River Thames between London to Lambeth bridges, internationally-acclaimed artist Leo Villareal has used the latest LED technology to ‘paint with light. Join official guides on board as they take you on an evening boat journey, and learn all about these great landmarks of London.
Grayson Perry’s Full English
Available on All 4
Artist Grayson Perry has turned his gaze to what it means to be English. Perry wants to know if there is a shared identity that binds us together or if “Englishness is just a fantasy that is keeping us stuck in the past?” And, this being Perry, there is an artistic endgame. He asks everyone he meets for an object that sums up their relationship with Englishness, which will form part of a new exhibition.
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