Interview with Heather Ackroyd & Dan Harvey

FlyTower by Heather Ackroyd & Dan Harvey
Address: National Theatre, Lyttelton, South Bank, SE1 9PX
Dates: 10 May - 17 June

Interview with Heather Ackroyd & Dan Harvey

AM: What does the National Theatre mean to you as a site? I've read that it tops both lists of the 'Most Hated' and 'Most Loved' buildings in London.

HA & DH: We like the fact that the building is controversial. The Lyttelton Flytower to our minds is the most iconic architectural structure in London. It is completely enigmatic. Like a massive sealed vault. Denys Lasdun the architect talked about urban landscape, and apparently was inspired by burial mounds, along with geological strata, hill terraces, recessed spaces. The concrete is like bones. The building has platforms and terraces and people look as though they are on stages.

AM: How did the idea for this project develop?

HA & DH: We had ideas about working on it back in 1991. We were approached by associate theatre director Katie Mitchell in 2003 and she was working on a version of Strindberg's Dream Play - she asked if we would be interested in growing the tower (Heather worked with Katie as a performer in 1995 on a Strindberg play for RSC.) Water was key logistical problem, last May the project was postponed, it had been scheduled to open September 2006, because of anxieties about drought orders being implemented. In fact, the NT for decades has been pumping excess floodwater from the basement into the drains, the water was analyzed, found to be fine, and pipes laid and a pump gets the water up to us on the FlyTower. The NT is using this water now for secondary purposes in the building - flushing loos, washing machines, dying fabrics. Saves them quite a few thousand pounds a year.

AM: The work is very ambiguous and conjures up many conflicting references. It makes me think of the 'guerilla gardening' movement but on a grand scale. Something about the groomed look of the grass also recalls a quintessentially 'English' tennis lawn. I find it tempting to see this work as foreshadowing a time in a post-human future, the result of man-induced climate-change, when nature has taken over the city's fabric and turned it back into organic matter. How do you see the work now it has been realised successfully?

HA & DH: We see it as seed and clay, water and light. Elemental. It is a messy, physically exhausting thing to do. Lawn is an established sod-based medium. We don't describe our work in this way. The seedling grass is altogether lighter, gravity defying. We work with the seed and first shoot. We never cut the blades. It eventually succumbs to decay and death. On one level, it acts out a simple transformation of the concrete structure, it is playful, living, subversive. But there is a subtext to the work that suggests the epic drama of climate change that is unfolding before us. Some of the seed we use has been prepared by scientists for its drought-resistant characteristic. For when the climate gets too unpredictable.

Our large architectural works challenge the building mass and subvert expectations of a familiar growing medium. The work presents the viewer with a shifting landscape of colour, growth, texture, tonality, decay and degradation. It presents an abstract canvas that perceptions and preoccupations can be projected on.

There is something about the fragility of the work, a thin film of vertical life, that provokes questions. It is a catalyst. A perverse form of horticulture.

A book written in Victorian times called After London deals with a dystopian view of the city after an apocalypse when roads are cracked by weeds and brambles. But we don't hold interest in the dystopian fantasy. More inspired by current thinkers and activists who are challenging existing paradigms and provoking new thinking and ideas.

AM: Do you feel your work is in dialogue with Antony Gormley's figures on the surrounding buildings?

HA & DH: The postponement until this May caused the clash with the Gormley installation. Any work that happens in the exterior space will be subject to conflicts, be they environmental or otherwise. The Lyttelton stage has been made exterior, and something is being played out. The Gormley figure on our artwork draws polarised responses, but it is part of the conflicting and ambiguous references you mention. Given the context of the NT it seems ironically relevant. Ambition, territory, cultural clash, environment, man. Theatre or life in the making.

AM: How does it work making art as a duo? Do you ever disagree?

HA & DH: Of course we disagree, but we never take each other too seriously.


Heather Ackroyd & Dan HarveyFlyTower2007

Heather Ackroyd & Dan Harvey