Dreamspace V: A Complicated History in the Public Sphere

Maurice Agis (December 7, 1931- October 12, 2009) was a British sculpture and installation artist who had been creating ongoing attraction with his various site-specific installation work over the span of forty years. Agis’ eventual discontent with galleries and museums led to his collaboration with Peter Jones in which brought both artist to the creation of Spaceplace; the first of many ‘abstract walk-through spaces’. The ongoing project had drawn the involvement and work of various schools and art institutions all over Britain and became both artists’ signature interactive work that could be seen in various urban settings.

Maurice Agis

As mentioned above, the concept of this brightly coloured immersive and hallucinatory artistic intervention dates back to the mid 1960’s when both Maurice Agis and Peter Jones decided they were abandoning the restrictions and limitations of galleries and museums from their practices and created the first design of their air filled labyrinthine world which was initially designed to stimulate a visual and sensory experience for the viewer who participates in the walk through honey comb-like tunnels of vibrant colours and psychedelic sounds. Patricia C. Philips in “Temporality and Public Art” examines the diversity that public art can provide in regards to radical education and challenges the structures and boundaries of cultural and political institutions like museums and galleries. “Critics and theorists need to see this location as an opportunity rather than a disadvantage: public art can frame and foster a discussion of community and culture specifically because of its border conditions.”[1] By inserting this installation in the public sphere, Agis and Jones represent the public as a common place for visitors by rejecting the restraints of institutions and broadening interests for most.

After twenty years of success and collaboration with the installation project, Agis and Jones separated and parted ways with their own practices. Agis continued with a similar installation design then had his first solo project called Colourspace, which was first presented in London in 1980. When Colourspace was exhibited in the German seaside town of Travemunde in July 1986, it lifted off the ground, injuring five people. After the incident, the whole construction was reassessed and was further improved, developing into the new version called Dreamspace V.

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Agis’ creation Dreamspace V first appeared in 1996 as a commission for Copenhagen and was awarded £60,000 from the Art Council of England. From outside, the installation appeared as boldly coloured PVC pods that were all interlocked, forming a large three-dimensional shape. From the interior, Agis provided a dreamy, womb-like space for visitorsimgp1383 with neon coloured tunnels, light and ambient sound. Participants were asked to wear coloured smocks in order to blend in with the expansive, air-filled, plastic cathedral. The space was intended to be fun, a vibrant and accessible experience that any sort of audience could enjoy. Dreamspace V was designed as a space of celebration of his past decade’s work and akin to the sixties where his cutting edge psychedelic installation work was at its prime with the public’s interests at the time. A memory lies within the piece, reflecting to the beginning and most ambitious stage of public artwork that is now continuously evolving. At this point, moving from numerous towns and cities across Europe, the large inflatable constructions have been received with rhapsodizing enthusiasm by 250, 000 visitors.

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On July 22, 2006, Agis installed Dreamspace V at Riverside Park in Chester-le-Street in Durham, an area that is part of a three-part tour of Britain. The following day, after ten years of successful installation, Dreamspace V abandoned its moorings, soaring thirty feet into the air with thirty people inside. The art piece eventually collided with a CCTV pole, killing two people and injuring thirteen others.

Link to news report and video: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/7856121.stm

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Following the incident, Durham Police seized the remnants of the artwork and dove into a joint investigation with the Health & Safety Executive. A suspicion of vandalism was immediately suspected as the artwork had been slashed with knives two weeks previous. Foul play was eventually not completely ruled out and other avenues of investigation were explored. Theories around the weather were inquired as the warm air on that Sunday had caused Dreamspace V to become a hot air balloon as the structure had undergone safety checks by the health and safety committee in which consisted of Chester-le-Street’s police and fire service experts before it had been open to the public.

On November 29, 2006, Agis attended a police interview where he was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter. He was later released on police bail, pending further enquiries. On February 13, 2008, Agis was charged with gross negligence manslaughter and the trial was to begin on January 26, 2009. Agis was then convicted of breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, as the jury was unable to conclude with a verdict on the manslaughter charge. A few days later, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that there would be no retrial, there was no evidence offered against Agis. On March 26, 2009 Agis was fined £10,000 for the Health and Safety offences and five months later was reduced to £2500 on appeal.

Only six months later on October 12, 2009, Agis passed away and his ashes were split into four separate coloured pots; red, blue, yellow and green, much representative of his life long art practice. This then brings us to present day, where now the Colourspace V installation has been reclaimed and installed once again at places like music festivals, reaching out to crowds of drug-takers and music lovers, curated by Agis’ erstwhile partner, Peter Jones who now claims the sole creative inspiration for the idea. Controversy about the work has continued to problematize the simplest project as past goers are annoyed by the installations addition of performers and musicians filling the space and express it to be unnecessary guff. The installation, once an area of explorative meditation and self-reflection is now overloaded with other performances and crowded voids that take away from the work.

The notion of the public sphere and artworks that investigate it, is a great substitute to institutionalized displays of art, although it risks at times an adverse effect by different communities as being in the public, gives a limited chance of avoiding the work as appose to an institution that you chose to visit. Although Dreamspace V had it’s moments of success, in the public sphere, accidents do not just happen, someone is always at fault and on this state of affairs, when something publicly goes wrong, it has a significant impact on many lives, and our experience of public space.

Greg Dickinson in “Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials” explains that the development of public artwork was once seen as problematic as it was an abstract vocabulary that was difficult for many museum audiences to comprehend and completely foreign for public space as its functionality was questioned. Public artwork was later recognized as a renewal and innovative way of displaying art.[2] The public sphere is a powerful asset to the revitalization to the cityscape, representing a key characteristic to the dynamic of economy despite the many risks it holds in the public. In proposing Dreamspace V into the public sphere, Agis welcomed the project in a space where cultural values, social concerns and responsibility for maintenance are major priorities and although it was incredibly problematic with the unfortunate demise and injuries it caused and present problematic issues with it’s add-ons and reclamation, with its complicated history, the installation is still an on-going project and is enjoyed by the people of the public sphere.

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[1] Phillips, Patricia C. 1989. “Temporality and Public Art.” In Critical Issues in Public Art, edited by Harriet F. Senie and Sally Webster. Washington: Smithsonian Books,pp. 66.

[2] Dickinson, Greg, Carole Blair, and Brian L. Ott. Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama, 2010. pp. 91.

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