What's on

Meet the artist behind our World Bench

We get to know Greyworld, the London-based group of artists transforming ‘public art’, as they launch a new interactive installation connecting The Bicester Village Shopping Collection.

“Public art is an interesting concept – for many people it’s a big bronze statue in a middle of a town or a highly polished rock perhaps,” explains Andrew Shoben, the founder of Greyworld, as he shows us round his London-based studio. “I’ve always found it completely bizarre. What does it say about the public?

“Our installations are primarily trying to put the public in the work; without them there is no work."

Perhaps best-known for its Trafalgar Sun project, which was launched over London’s Trafalgar Square on a miserable Monday in January 2012, to brighten up commuters’ mornings, Greyworld has built a reputation on creating magical, surprising moments in cities around the world.

The group’s interpretation of ‘public art’ exists primarily in urban spaces. The name, says Andrew, derives from their belief that the most fun in a city is found in the grey zones – the parts in between the places you eat, sleep and shop. “If you can create work there, you can tap into a well of creativity opportunity which is very, very exciting for an artist.”

Ahead of the launch of Greyworld’s latest installation, the World Bench, on Friday 6 November, we sat down with Andrew to talk technology in art, inspiration and why magic happens when you least expect it.

Andrew’s foray into the art world was encouraged by his family of creatives. With musical parents and an artistic brother, he jokes: “You don’t really fit in well in my family if you don’t create something, or at least if you don’t make a loud noise at regular opportunities throughout the day."

This musicality ended up influencing much of Greyworld’s early works, including Railings in 1996 and, later in 2011, the music box-inspired Clockwork Forest in Cumbria. “You know as a child you pick up a stick and you run it along railings, and you get that lovely sound? Well, we took a set of railings and we tuned them so when you ran a stick along it, it played The Girl From Ipanema,” says Andrew.

“As an installation it was exactly what we wanted it to be because, I suppose, in many ways it was what it wasn’t. It wasn’t a bronze statue. It wasn’t an area of the city marked ‘art’. It was a set of railings, but that moment of joy when you pick up that stick and suddenly discover the hidden melody, that is exactly what we want to be making.”

So why benches? It was pointed out to Andrew that he seemed to have an “obsession” with benches, having featured them in seven projects already. “I think the answer is this: to me the park bench is absolutely the most powerful symbol of urban life. You sit there and have your sandwiches during lunchtime. You meet your girlfriend there after work. When she throws you out of the house, you sleep on it. When you’re sitting in the park just trying to make yourself feel happy, you sit on that park bench and it becomes your home again and your moment, that little moment, again.”

If there’s one thing I hope for when it comes to the World Bench, it’ll be the gentle and simple act of sharing.

Andrew Shoben

Greyworld

For the group’s latest piece of art, in collaboration with The Bicester Village Shopping Collection, this metaphor is explored further with the notion that those very social moments can be experienced across Europe. “So I could sit here and happily chat, or not chat, with somebody who is sitting on a park bench opposite me – except they happen to be in Germany or Spain or Belgium or France or the UK or Ireland or wherever else it happens to be.”

The interactions continue to happen, but “in the most gentle of ways and across boundaries” says Andrew. “What we’ve done here is to create a community that spans geographic boundaries. How different are we? Are we the same?”

It’s about creating moments of humanity and, in 2020 especially, these simple moments of interaction take on so much more meaning – something Andrew is well aware of. “If there’s one thing I hope for when it comes to the World Bench, it’ll be the gentle and simple act of sharing,” he says. “And it might be local, it might be international, but it’ll be that lovely human contact. And that’s one of the things in this strange world that we’re living in at the moment that is sorely needed.”

Interview with Andrew Shoben

Art meets technology

All of Greyworld’s installations are made possible by technology; it’s a key differentiator but one that Andrew doesn’t place much importance on. “I prefer to think of the idea, to come up with a concept and then work out how to do it,” he adds. “So with World Bench, the idea is very clear; it’s about that meeting of strangers, on a park bench, across Europe, and not really about the way in which it’s achieved. Although of course it could not be achieved in any other way.

“The technology allows us to create certain kinds of projects like this but it’s not the art. The art is the installation as a whole, and the gentleness of that is paramount.”

But what exactly makes art, art? “Many people would call our work installation art,” says Andrew. “To me it’s very sculptural. But the interesting thing about these kinds of sculptural works is the sculptural elements really are the people sitting on the bench.

“We’re often asked, ‘What is art?’. An artist can call anything art and it’s impossible to argue with it. I think the better question is, ‘Is it good art?’ “For art to be good, for us, it needs to have some kind of emotional currency; you need to be able to feel when you use that work. If you can create a moment which is universally felt, then I think that’s great art.”

Discover the Greyworld World Benchproject across The Bicester Village Shopping Collection from 6 November 2020.