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‘It started with this magnificent rainstorm. I’d just got my first digital camera, back in the year 2000, and I rushed out to take photographs of these dazzling shapes the rain had made on the pavement. The photos came out really well, so I put them into a collection called ‘Don’t Look Down’. I suppose that was when I started really looking at the ground a lot.’
I’m speaking to Andy Hayes, who’s spent a lot of time looking at the ground recently. Andy is the mind behind Throwaway Lines, our latest exhibition, which is being assembled around us as we perch on a sofa in the corner of the main hall at Free Word.
Throwaway Lines is an unusual exhibition. At its heart is a collection of litter: discarded scraps of writing retrieved by Andy from the streets of London over several years. After taking these scraps to writers’ collective 26, litter became litterature. 26 scraps were paired with 26 writers, who each wrote something inspired by their throwaway lines. The resulting collection of stories was published at the project’s website, throwawaylines.org
The original scraps have now been framed, with magnificent creativity, by a group of designers who volunteered to bring the artifacts of the project to life. Each designer took both the scrap and its corresponding story for inspiration, and created a frame that tells its own story about each piece of litter.
I ask Andy what drove him to start collecting scraps of litter off the pavement.
‘It was actually the London bombings,’ he tells me. ‘That day I had to walk back from work in Smithfield to Waterloo, and after that I just started walking every day: it became something I really enjoyed.’ On one journey across Blackfriars Bridge in 2009, he came across a handwritten letter which marked the start of what would become a growing collection of discarded notes and messages. ‘It really caught my imagination: I thought it would be a great idea to tell the stories of all of these lost notes. I thought there might be a book in there. So I kept collecting, but wrote nothing – and that’s when I decided to take it to 26.’
‘Andy gave us a whole presentation about found objects, and we loved it,’ said Elise Valmorbida, who’s on the board of 26 and has been organizing Throwaway Lines with Andy. I asked what made the project so appealing to her.
‘There was so much theatricality to it. And the randomness: it was very important that all of the writers were assigned their scraps – they didn’t get to choose. Mine was a bit of biro scrawled on some paper that said “you have an oversized package”. You’re given something like that and you don’t know what to do with it. It’s not personal; you didn’t choose it. So you have to come up with something completely out of the blue from that starting point. It forces you to be creative.’
Writers were given complete freedom to interpret their assigned piece in any way they chose. Some are prose, some poetry. Some run to several pages, others much less, and as you’d expect from a random collection of litter, their subjects are eclectic: a casting call for Nelson Mandela; the anxious preparations for a first date; a search for an elusive panda. All the stories can be read at the project’s website, and there are hard copies available to read at Free Word, but the main focus of the exhibition is on the scraps of litter themselves, which have been interpreted by the designers who framed them.
Gill Thomas is one such designer, who was assigned a page with the mysterious phrase “Twist Stepper with Bungee Cords” scribbled on it. ‘Everyone’s interpreted the task in their own way,’ she tells me. ‘Some people have just responded to the scrap, and others have taken their cue from the story that comes with it. We both have the same starting point, but the writer takes you on one journey from there, and we take you on another.’
Just like the writers, the designers were assigned their scraps randomly, which was a more positive experience for some than it was others. ‘When Andy asked me to take part, I said “of course”!’ Gill tells me. ‘But then a while after I had my scrap I started thinking: “what have I done?” It took a few months: time to consider and change your mind a few times, but eventually I decided what I wanted to do. Some people have taken the throwaway theme and made their frames from rubbish, and some have commissioned professional model-makers. But I wanted something I could do in my kitchen.’
The frames are beautiful, and wildly different. There is a jigsaw puzzle, a wing mirror, a shrine-like cabinet of curiosities and an enormous hovering cloud.
Being randomly assigned a project has helped the designers creatively, too. ‘As designers,’ Gill says, ‘We’re used to working with restrictions – clients always have particular requirements we need to follow. It’s much harder to have complete free reign over a project – often you don’t know where to start.’
I ask Andy why he thinks the exhibition is appealing. ‘Because it’s rubbish!’ he declares. ‘It captures the imagination. And it’s also obvious when you come to see the show that everyone involved has had a lot of fun putting it together.’
‘It’s about noticing things,’ he continues. ‘All of the scraps were picked up from streets around here, so everything in the show is local. London is a rich treasure trove, and everyone misses so much of it in their day-to-day lives. I suppose we’ve tried to heighten the audience’s awareness of things. In conventional gallery spaces I always feel they’re missing something – it’s a cold experience. We’ve deliberately tried to give the audience something to do – things to read, to explore and to surprise them.’
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Susan Sheahan is the winner of the 2017 Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism, and is on a six-month residency at Free Word.
As a writer and critic, she contributes to The Observer and The Guardian, exploring visual culture, novels, …