This guest post was written by Mitch Miller, the artist who created the Artcasting Dialectogram

'The Bowes Museum' Artcasting Dialectogram, Mitch Miller, 2016
‘The Bowes Museum’ Artcasting Dialectogram, Mitch Miller, 2016

Dialectograms are graphic artworks that illustrate urban places and spaces, made in close collaboration with their inhabitants. The illustration we create is a mashup of maps, schematics, anthropology and comic strips to show the social, as well as the physical architecture of place.

The process of making dialectograms has taken me some odd places – tower blocks, subterranean Bingo Halls, derelict theme pubs, student occupations,  build it yourself adventure playgrounds and showman’s winter yards to name just a few. But whether it is a 100 year old library in Clydebank or a crumbling sports stadium in Edinburgh, the setting is general urban, generally gritty, and very specifically on and of the margins – communities that are overlooked, on the outside, or facing profound changes to their circumstances.

So the Bowes museum, just outside of Darlington, was a change on every front. Imposing, grand and 10 quid a pop to enter, this  institution  plays a central role in the cultural life of County Durham. The gig, as proffered by the Artcasting  team, was to engage with an exhibition of works by Robert Mapplethorpe. This is established, art world stuff (although Mapplethorpe was never more glam than when documenting various subcultures in New York).

But going a little upscale in the setting was much less of a problem than capturing the  thing Artcasting was really interested in… how were visitors to the exhibition using the Artcasting app? What places did the artworks take them to? How could that most purposefully of bland spaces – the white cube art space – be made interesting enough to anchor an artwork that is all about localized detail?  And where would I find the people to generate material with?

This last point is especially important to my process. Dialectograms are created through an adapted ‘design thing’ model. This is ‘thing’ as the Vikings understood it – a ding or place of assembly, where  various factions and interests could gather to discuss their issues.  In design it is a very powerful way of finding out what solutions are actually needed, and how local agendas shape these needs. Design things rely upon creating situations where people can assemble, discuss, debate and share. The drawing (which, by the way, you could seat a family of four around for dinner, and have plenty of room for side plates…) is in itself, a situation of this sort – in past projects people have literally argued over a partially completed drawing as to what should be depicted, and how.

So if I’m drawing a library, or community centre, this is fairly easy – get embedded in the location, get to know who’s who, and get people working with each other. But the ‘who’s who’ of artcasters were altogether more transient, their time at the gallery measured in minutes, rather than days.

So we set about creating opportunities to make a minute into a moment, where casters could stop and talk about the experience.  At the opening for the Mapplethorpe show I eschewed the free wine and set the drawing on an easel by the Artcasting desk.  At that stage it could hardly even be called ‘in-progress’ – just a very basic plan of the gallery. I waylaid punters after they had casted, explained what I was up to, and we talked in-depth about what they had cast, where and why. Just a few hours later me, my drawing (now covered in notes) and my  massive portfolio were on the train back to Glasgow, toe firmly wetted in the water.

But while this gave me a start, more was  needed. The Artcasting team shared the cast data. This was intriguing, but cursory – generally just a few lines and GIS point. So we arranged a return trip, this time to hold a workshop with Art History Students from York University.

It was interesting – these were bright, opinionated students coming firmly from an art historical perspective – perhaps a little too much. Clearly they felt obliged to ‘cast’ through the particular lens of their discipline, and to intellectualise their choices (though not always). This was fair enough perhaps, but it created an interesting contrast with the more personal, whimsical and free-wheeling stuff we’d got from the general public. One even remarked that it would have been easier had they been landscapes, which seemed just a touch…prosaic.

Still, in their comments went – it certainly made the range of feeling and opinion more diverse.  Laura Weatherburn, a photographer and producer who had recently moved back to the area,  gave me a detailed account of her Artcasting experiences that touched upon her childhood, professional life and feelings about photography – certainly the most in-depth of the contributions. I also talked with the Artcasting team on their thoughts on how the project went and gradually, the material came together.

Then it was all about getting the artwork done – piecing together photographs, sketches and interview materials and displaying them in the drawing. As with all Dialectograms, I drew out  the space first, then proceeded to gradually fill it in with text, diagrams and Comic strips. Unlike those other, The Bowes Gallery drawing was less  concerned with physical space than with headspace – what exhibition-goers were thinking about, or dreaming of.

Having said that, it was obvious that the place itself affected  how people responded  to the images, and then casting about them. People were channeling ideas from the exhibition texts  – for example, the ‘Renaissance’ feel and religious imagery of many of the photographs was echoed in the comments. Layout also had evident  effects on  where people clustered,  how they worked their way around the room and, perhaps, how they cast.

It was definitely a challenge. And it was  sometimes frustrating with the artcasts themselves, where I only had the anonymous entry to go upon. I rather wished I could have followed up on many of these comments and worked more closely with some of those who were willing.  Perhaps we could have created more detailed subsidiary  drawings of the Yorkshire Scultpture Park, or Grays College in Aberdeen that connected to the main dialectogram – like something of  a real world hyperlink. In the end the Artcasting project was fascinating, challenging and at times, perplexing – but the time we had together felt too short. But then again, I ALWAYS feel that way about a dialectogram….