Sunday, 1 March 2009

Public Art: can creative ambition be safe?

A tragic accident at a summer fair in 2006 raises important questions about creative vision and responsibility for public safety when exhibiting works of art that invite public participation.

A jury at Newcastle crown court has found the artist Maurice Agis, 77, guilty of breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 after his walk-through artwork broke loose from its moorings killing two women trapped inside and injuring 23 others. The survivors gave graphic accounts of standing on firm ground one moment and then, as the structure took off and turned on its side, of facing a sheer drop before tumbling down and bouncing off the internal columns as they fell.

The giant inflatable sculpture ‘Dreamspace V’, a honeycomb of brightly coloured translucent cells, was caught by a gust of wind that dragged it into the air and flipped it over. Two women fell from the highest point and were killed on impact with the ground. The jury are still considering two further charge of manslaughter of the victims through gross negligence.

Agis has a 40-year track record of making quality public art work. He developed his first solo walk-in sculpture, Colourspace in 1980, an award-winning installation described as "abstract walk-through spaces" which prefigured his work on Dreamspaces. I visited this smaller version at Clapham Common in 2001 and enjoyed walking through the psychedelic tunnels of pure, intense colour.

It was the artist’s ambition of increasing the size of the sculptures that seems to have greatly increased the risk for participants. The prosecutor argued that a suitably qualified and experienced engineer should have carried out proper calculations and tests on the design of the anchorage system. But what sort of engineer is qualified for such a scheme? Nothing else like it has been attempted before; the piece was an enormous 2,500 square metres, about half a football pitch.

This ruling has placed the responsibility for risk assessment on such projects with the artist, but artists are not engineers, they are visionaries who use their creativity to provide viewers with a new ways of thinking about the world. So who is ultimately responsible to assess the safety of interactive art works? What role do venue organisers have in assessing risk to public safety? Should the Health and Safety Executive be involved in such projects and what impact will that have on creative vision and ambition of artists the future?

Have you had experience of producing interactive sculpture and what is your experience of risk assessment?

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