Megan: See that funny mushroom-shaped thing? It’s one of the Blackwall Tunnel’s air vents. So where we’re standing is the start of The Line and the beginning of the Thames Path on the south–east of the river. The first work of art is “Here” by the artists Thomson & Craighead.
Richard: A road sign that reads “Here 24, 859” – what does it mean?
M: It’s the distance you’d need to travel if you were to loop the Earth’s Meridian and return here. If you just kept going, you’d have to travel 24,859 miles to get back to this point.
R: Are we on the earth’s Meridian line now?
M: Yes. We’ll cross it at various points on the trail. Then when we take the cable cars over to the north side of the river to Cody Dock we’ll be smack bang on it. We called the walk The Line because it broadly follows the path of the Meridian. It wouldn’t be possible to follow it entirely because the rivers don’t flow in a straight line.
R: The Meridian line is the division between east and west, isn’t it?
M: Or brings them together. Having lived in London all my life I’m really interested in how the city’s shifting towards the east. The idea of linking the Olympic Park with the Millennium Dome via an art trail came about after I met Clive Dutton, who’s co-founder of the project, in 2012. He was head of regeneration for Newham council at the time. Clive’s brilliant – he’s really energetic at getting things done.
R: So was it you that pitched the idea to him?
M: Originally I was calling it Inside Out. Rather than commissioning new works of art, the idea was to use existing ones; to get them out of storage and display quality work outside – open, free and accessible to everyone. Bringing it to the towpaths made sense because they’re pedestrianised, cycle-friendly and family-friendly. The project’s about shining a light on the waterways too.
R: How do you protect the pieces?
M: We’ve installed CCTV for each one, which is monitored remotely by a security company. See that ship over there? That’s a piece by the sculptor Richard Wilson made in 2000 for the Millennium celebrations called “A Slice of Reality”. We want to highlight works that were already here too. So few people know that the Wilson is here or that there’s a Gormley around the corner, despite these works being created by two of the most influential British artists. So we’ve then introduced the Thomson & Craighead work and Gary Hume’s “Liberty Grip” further along the path, along with 11 others by artists like Sterling Ruby, Martin Creed, Abigail Falls and Eduardo Paolozzi.
R: How easy has it been working with the local councils?
M: For the most part they’ve been great, especially Newham. It obviously helped that Clive understands the infrastructure and the politics of dealing with them. I thought, rather naively, that the public paths are owned by the councils. It turns out they’re not.
R: Who does?
M: On this side it’s Greenwich council, but over in the Docks the land is owned by a mixture of Greater London Authority, ExCel, Siemens; then along the river it’s the Canal and River Trust and the Lea Valley Regional Park. So we’ve been dealing with lots of private companies and businesses. Some got the idea immediately and wanted to help. With others, there’s that mentality: what’s in it for me?
R: Was it difficult to raise funding for it?
M: We launched a crowdsourcing campaign on Spacehive, which is like a philanthropic Kickstarter, in February 2014 and ran it for seven weeks raising over £140,000. We haven’t received any public funding, but admittedly we didn’t push for any. I came up with the idea for The Line two years ago and started working on it 18 months ago. If we’d relied on public funding I don’t think we could’ve been so nimble.
R: The time you’ve done it in does seem remarkable.
M: I tried to open it last summer, which didn’t turn out to be very realistic. I almost killed myself in the process. I don’t know what I was thinking. I just live on optimism. Oh, here’s the Gormley, “Quantum Cloud”, which was commissioned for the Millennium too. You can see the elusive figure hidden in it depending on what angle you’re standing at.
R: Do you classify the works of art along The Line as “public art”? It’s a much-maligned genre.
M: It depends. A lot of works of art are introduced into the public realm because property developers have to make a cultural contribution to the local council in order to get the go-ahead. So it’s an obligation rather than a philanthropic act. And inevitably with public art people love it or hate it. But it’s all part of the conversation – encouraging people to look up from their mobile phones and interact. All the newly installed works on The Line are temporary gestures; they’re borrowed for two years so they’ll change continually. Giving people something that changes continually gives them multiple reasons to visit.
R: I guess The Line will also provide a neat connection between the Dome and the Olympic Park once the Olympicopolis cultural hub opens in Stratford in 2018.
M: It’s about joining up the dots, isn’t it? I was having a conversation with someone recently about the National Gallery and discovered it was built on Trafalgar Square because that location was perceived as being equidistant between East and West and so equally accessible to the rich and the poor. So we were wondering, where would that point be today?
R: There’ve been some studies on this and, apparently, it lies somewhere between Waterloo and Elephant and Castle.
M: Really? So today we’d build the National Gallery on Elephant and Castle? Well, there’s an idea. The East has some fantastic institutions already – The Whitechapel Gallery, the Chisenhale – and once the Olympicopolis opens it will have branches of Sadler’s Wells, the V&A and the Smithsonian all in the Olympic Park, further evidence that the centre is shifting eastward. And here we sit under the cable cars bringing both sides of the East End together.
R: You know, I’ve never been on them!
M: Come on, I’ll pay you on.