The Derelict Sensation

"a dialogue betwen past and present": the derelict sensation exhibition at the former Midland Grand Hotel, St Pancras, London

– curator’s notes ... by Gillian McIver

Valentina Floris

Curating an exhibition of mixed media site-responsive work by different artists in a semi-derelict, Grade A listed space was never going to be an easy task. The plethora of rules and regulations pertaining to the listed status, combined with the delicate condition of much of the building, particularly the fragile upper floor, meant that any trusted protocols and procedures that a gallery curator may have to hand must be thrown immediately out of the window. Fortunately, experience and imagination together combined to make the process if never easy, at least achievable.

With The Derelict Sensation, Luna Nera developed the project in conjunction with Grand Productions, an organisation aligned to the owners, London and Continental Railways, concerned with holding events in the St Pancras building, and a website thederelictsensation.com, which showcases writing and photography about derelict spaces. Grand had managed commercial and corporate events in the space, but no art exhibition, while derelictsensaton.com was interested in making a live event to break out of the "virtual" environment of the web.

In curating the exhibition I, as curator and simultaneously member of Luna Nera, knew that in an environment so sensitive and with a timescale so short, it was imperative to choose artists who had experience of working site-responsively and in non-traditional environments. It was important to find artists who understood how to choose space, how to respond to the space, how to create work that would be able to be set up and run in the space with minimum fuss and – given the tight budget – to do without the technical support a gallery would provide.

Berlin-based artist group T.R.O. and Jenny Brockmann of organisation OrtKultur understood this imperative well, based on their own experience of working in Berlin’s derelict industrial spaces. These artists, together with Luna Nera, provided the guiding structure of procedure, and the other artists selected were able to follow their lead.

In this way the project was collaborative in a way group shows rarely are. While each artist created and presented their own work, the experience of being together in their overwhelming yet very restrictive space meant that the artists needed to communicate and work together to create a collective environment of wonder. The tightness of the theme “the derelict sensation” also served to concentrate the attention of the artists, to help them focus their work and allow all the artists to negotiate the relationship between their works and those of the other participants. The result was a unity that overcame the jumble that is the hallmark of most group shows.

Bringing in a professional lighting designer to “tie together” the whole show was the most crucial decision, yet one that was made almost at the last minute. The designer came in when the show was already completely developed, and so he was able to design based on the actual structure of the space and, based on the work that was to be installed, the atmosphere that needed to be created in each of the spaces in the hotel.

The difficulties with the building were many: the provision of electricity on the upper floor was inadequate to supply the audiovisual equipment that was required, so a temporary install was required. The time frame was also extremely difficult: four days altogether for installation of works, exhibition and removal.
Difficulties overcome, the two-day event attracted over 1,000 visitors – which must be some kind of record for a show that did not feature any “big name” artists or use any paid advertising. The success of the project lay in the collaborative attitude of the participating artists, to create an integrated, atmospheric live art event which the visitors felt from the moment they entered through the port-cochere. The title of the show was “derelict sensation” and so the aim was to create a multisensory, lived, interactive experience out of a little-known, cobwebbed derelict building.

Attracting so many visitors form a jaded London public was an achievement. Much of this, it must be said was down to the fact that the exhibition offered the unique experience of being able to enter one of the most mysterious buildings in London. Every person who passes along the Euston Road, or travels via the adjacent stations, must have wondered what is that enormous red Gothic building? But the place has been mostly closed to the public since 1935.

Opening this unknown and unknowable urban site to the public via art opened up more than the building. It opened up the dialogue about the city and change – people suddenly saw the Kings Cross area as it might once have been more than a hundred years ago, before urban blight descended like a filthy cloak, obscuring the past glories of the railway age. Gazing out onto the Euston Road from the Ladies Smoking Room, which featured an audio installation by Thunderbolt and a painting installation by Derek Szteliga of T.R.O., offered an opportunity to stand for a moment on the fault line between past and present. From the window, one could see the cranes and huge machines rebuilding the area into a showcase of architectural regeneration and post-modern transport. Inside the room, one heard the murmured conversation of 19th century ladies, and in the corner of the eye, a huge painting of the underwater interior of the Titanic – symbol of modernism and hubris.

While urban renewal is a feature of life in the modern city, it is all too often experienced passively by the citizens, who see cranes on the skyline and earthmovers rumbling, but have little other contact with the transformation. Yet a sense of ownership of the environment, a sense of familiarity with the cityscape, is essential to a feeling of belonging. Dispelling the anomie of urban life is one of the tasks and responsibilities of the contemporary artist. As the 19th and 19th century artist’s job was to re-present the environment back to the aristocratic or capilalist owners of the land, the contemporary artist’s job – in a liberal democracy - is to involve and invoke the relationship between the citizens and their city.

©Gillian McIver 2004 All rights reserved email

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