A trip on the London Underground can, at times, feel like an assault on the senses. The close proximity of other human bodies aside, much of this bombardment is visual, with advertisements screaming out from escalators, across platforms and on the trains themselves, all desperately trying to capture our attention.
The experience can be an overwhelming one, particularly to those sensitive to predictable, generic advertising, of which there is sadly much to see. In amongst the visual gloom, however, is the odd moment of brightness: a poster stating simply ‘I Think I’m Being Watched’ stands out, as does another, in dayglo geometric lettering, which announces that ‘If You Don’t Like Your Life You Can Change It!’.
Both these posters, by artists Anna Barriball and Mark Titchner respectively, form part of the Art on the Underground programme, a series of exhibitions and projects that are curated for stations by an in-house team at London Underground. Until recently called Platform for Art, the programme has been running in its current form only since 2000, but it builds on a heritage of art and design that has long been part of lu’s history. Though we may gripe about endless signal failures and unpleasantly stuffy journeys down in the tube, rarely is a bad word heard about the Underground’s stylish and cohesive design system. This includes Harry Beck’s famous Underground map, and the iconic roundel (a symbol that is 100 years old this year, an event that will be celebrated by a large project curated by Art on the Underground), but also a history of working with contemporary artists. Much of this was pioneered by Frank Pick, head of lu in the 1910s and 1920s and of London Transport in the 1930s, who standardised the visual style of the Underground and also commissioned posters from artists including Man Ray, Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland.
Today’s Underground art programme actually evolved at the behest of artists. “Gloucester Road station is where this manifestation of Art on the Underground began life,” explains Tamsin Dillon, head of the programme. “I think the space was spotted by some eagle-eyed artists who noticed that there was this redundant platform that wasn’t even being used for advertising and suggested that it could be used for art exhibitions. At that point there wasn’t a policy developed or a vision in terms of who we should be inviting, or whether the works should be specially commissioned – I think they just responded to artists coming to us.”
The programme has grown considerably since then. While Gloucester Road remains one of its key sites, with large-scale exhibitions and installations taking place in the station, artistic interventions now take place all over the Underground. Artists have wrapped tubes, used the announcement tannoys and created artworks for the cover of the tube maps. They have also worked with London Underground staff on various projects, with an upcoming work by Jeremy Deller involving both train drivers and the announcement staff on the Piccadilly Line. “Jeremy has come up with a booklet of quotes by the famous and not-so-famous – aphorisms – and staff will be invited to use those in their communications with customers,” explains Dillon of the artwork.
Other new projects reach out into the communities beyond the stations. Serena Korda, whose work is often inspired by local and personal histories, has created an artwork for Stanmore station, at the end of the Jubilee Line. Korda draws on the area’s history as home to an outpost of Bletchley Park, which was famous for its codebreakers who deciphered German messages during the Second World War. The artist created a Crossword Club for local residents, who assembled puzzles that represent the different communities within Stanmore that then became part of an artwork displayed at the station. Over in Stratford, Art on the Underground is also developing an ongoing art programme with residents in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympic Games (for which Stratford is the key station), with artists Alan Kane and Lucy Harrison creating the first two projects.
With several of Art on the Underground’s projects taking place in what would traditionally be seen as advertising spaces, the question of how Dillon and her team negotiate space to show the commissioned works is raised. “The benefits of this programme do have to be balanced against needing extra revenue [via advertisting],” she admits. “That’s why it’s important for us to have a good relationship with the advertising people at lu. There will always be advertising, but it’s also about that link with the heritage of lu, and the building of a new one, and that people actually find quite a sense of relief by seeing art instead of advertising, and them recognising that. In that sense the programme is good pr for the Underground. We do actually sit in the marketing and communications directorate, and that very small budget is our core funding. They can easily justify the benefits of doing that – I think we’re incredible value for money!”
Alongside working closely with the advertising team, Dillon is also bound by the restrictions of London Underground in terms of what can be displayed. “We have to get everything signed off and agreed at the appropriate level. Everything has to comply with the guidelines that also apply to the advertising companies, so that’s our basic benchmark. But in terms of the design of everything, that has to be signed off by the design guru over at tfl who protects the brand.”
As to the content of the works, “the rules are many and varied,” according to Dillon. “As long as it doesn’t offend people, or is racist, has no nudity … although sometimes we try and reinterpret that. We always have to have a discussion. In terms of the materials that we use they have to be compliant with quite rigorous health-and-safety standards, and they have to be non-combustible. It’s quite bureaucratic and that side of things is quite a challenge, it’s quite tedious.”
Despite these restrictions, the Art on the Underground programme manages to be continuously innovative, and above all is very rarely boring. It has introduced thought-provoking contemporary art to audiences who may have previously expressed little interest in it, or had little experience of it, and it has shown how interesting and effective art can be, outside of the confines of a conventional gallery space. Among the many new projects that are planned for the future is a series of permanent commissions for certain, as yet unannounced, stations. “Because of this huge investment programme that’s happening on the tube at the moment there’s a unique opportunity to commission permanent works,” says Dillon. “Delivering permanent works when there’s nothing else happening can be excrutiatingly expensive, but if we can plan to make it happen at the same time…. So we’ve got two or three projects that will come to fruition over the next three to five years. They are quite large-scale projects and they are by artists that I think people will feel it’s important to have a permanent work by in London, in the public realm, where there currently isn’t one.”
Being literally in public view doesn’t come without its difficulties however, and Art on the Underground projects have occasionally been the subject of debate. The team welcome commentary on the projects on their website however, and Dillon stresses that most of the feedback to the works is positive. Speaking of Anna Barriball’s I Think I’m Being Watched poster, she comments: “We have had a lot of positive responses to that. And we get a lot of people asking for the posters, but we did get one person writing in saying ‘I don’t want to be reminded that I’m being watched, thank you very much’.” Often some of the harshest critics are the lu staff themselves, however. “It’s really important that the staff become involved so that they become advocates of the programme as well,” Dillon continues. “If they get a chance to be involved in a project it really helps. But obviously sometimes the response can be quite polarised. Brian Griffiths’ project at Gloucester Road has been one that’s been quite debated, within the staff and outside…. But our feeling is that we’ve made them engage with it, and we’ve made them think about their surroundings again in a way that they wouldn’t have.”