Visual artist Frances Disley’s latest exhibition, Pattern Buffer, housed at Bluecoat until November, invites visitors into an atmosphere of tranquillity, contemplation and relaxation. Before lockdown, and prior to the exhibition’s initial opening in March, Jessica Phillips delved inside Pattern Buffer with its creator to talk about the importance of making galleries more welcoming spaces.
A beige and green room, late afternoon sunlight filtering in through floor-to-ceiling windows. Exotic – perhaps extraterrestrial is more apt – bromeliads erupt from a cream carpeted floor; moss grows lazily on the walls. Behind me, there’s a trickle of noise as someone lovingly waters the still-growing greenery. On a television screen a video zooms into the lulling motions of someone having their hair brushed.
This is FRAN DISLEY’s latest exhibition, Pattern Buffer, at Liverpool’s Bluecoat Gallery. Both a blend of classic science-fiction tropes and a celebration of self-care, the exhibition space itself is carefully curated to instantly lower an audience’s anxiety.
“Even as an artist I recognise that galleries can be quite uncomfortable places that are difficult to linger in,” Disley tells me. “I tried to realise what it is about these spaces that makes people feel anxious, and to puncture that barrier between the artworks and the viewer. The ambience was an integral part of that.”
She’s right. The exhibition, which spans two floors of The Bluecoat, doesn’t give off any of the stuffy, clinical vibes I’d associate with a traditional gallery. The beige and green walls have been interspersed with adhesive tape to create a grid pattern which opens up the room, and huge stickers to give the impression of standing inside a painting. The audience is no longer a separate entity – they become the art.
In this vein, Disley initially set up gaming tables around the room for visitors to play dominoes or complete a jigsaw, either solo or in tandem. The tables themselves had been decked out in felt, pleather, resin, to leave a tactile impression in players’ minds (though, for health reasons, many of the tactile elements of the exhibition have had to be amended. Most notably, it’s all quite ‘green’, from the colour of the walls to the plants growing freely about the place.
“I looked at studies into spending time with greenery, and how it can have a restorative cognitive impact,” Disley says. These studies found that urban green spaces can help lower stress in people on their lunch breaks, or even how just looking for a while at a green roof can boost mood. The bromeliads, a type of epiphyte whose native home is on the side of trees in the jungles of South America, have been transported to Liverpool to sprout from volcanoes of cheerfully coloured expanding foam, while the Spanish moss – or beard lichen, for obvious reasons – survives solely on the moisture in the air. “I like the idea that they appear exotic, that they can transport you somewhere else,” she divulges, “but they’re also representative of the transient nature of the artwork itself, and its ability to find a home in various hosts.”
Pattern Buffer clearly takes much of its inspiration from classic sci-fi, plants and all; Disley’s obsession with Star Trek seeps through into her artwork, and the whole space boasts an otherworldly feel. She aimed to create her own version of the Holodeck – a virtual space for hardworking Starfleet officers to unwind with a leisure activity. “They pick whatever experience they want, whether that’s skiing in the Alps or something completely different, and relax that way,” Disley says. “I love the idea of turning the gallery space into the Holodeck, and running my own Holo programme.”
“Most of all I want people to spend time together and have their anxiety lowered. I like the idea that people can socialise, play games, do something that’s completely comfortable while being completely alien to the gallery space,” she continues. “I’m an artist and sometimes I still stand in galleries wondering if I’ve spent enough time looking at a piece. I like the idea that someone could be so immersed that they take in the art in an incidental way.”
Disley’s affinity with artistic freedom stems from some of her contemporaries, namely post-minimalist Richard Tuttle, whose work focuses on bridging the gap between art, philosophy and life. “You could empty your bin in front of him and he could compose it in an amazing way,” she says of an artist who’s clearly left a mark on her, her voice taking on an almost wistful note. “There’s a fun and a freedom to the way he talks about art; rather than it being anchored in heavy theory, he values play and fun, which I find really liberating. Art is about not listening to the negative voices in your head.”
Disley’s return to her northern roots after a stint at the Royal College of Art in London allowed her to rediscover some of this freedom for herself, and her relief is almost palpable. “Everyone felt really stuck in London. It was all about controlling output, and there were loads of negative voices about doing your own thing. When I moved back to Liverpool in 2010, finding people at the Royal Standard just playing with stuff and having fun was really inspirational. There’s a sort of collective happiness when one of your fellow artists is doing well, which was liberating in itself.”
This is all very evident across Pattern Buffer. The created spaces is dedicated to lowering anxiety from the get-go, and allowing Disley to share this newfound freedom with her audience members.
We follow a trail of painted stickers to the second floor, where nature has taken over the window boxes and the space above. Between the quasi-terrariums, the slow curls of steam keeping them alive, and the greenery above our heads – all taken in the Palm House at Sefton Park – I’m not sure where to look first.
Prior to social distancing measures being introduced, there were plans for this space to become home to group guided visualisations, animal yoga sessions and kung fu classes. Additionally, twice a week, a huge quilt would be taken down from the wall for people to sit comfortably on, wrapped in fleece blankets to imagine themselves as air plants travelling through familiar countryside. The initial aims of the exhibition were to encourage socialisation and, despite the pandemic-induced changes to these tactile, communal aspects, Disley believes such activities are an integral part of self-care, or rather “group care”.
“I do feel like sometimes self-care can actually be a distraction from group care,” Disley admits. “It’s obviously important to offer yourself that kind of care if nobody else is going to do it for you, but I’d also like to encourage more group care, and to see more collective positive experiences. Here, you’re safe in a room with other people, whether you’re starting a jigsaw for someone else to finish or playing a game of chess together.”
My gaze is drawn to the videos playing on a smattering of screens around the gallery space. One features hair stylist Sheetal Maru and her model, who Disley met through Liverpudlian dance company Movema. “Seeing someone get their hair done is a big ASMR trigger,” Disley tells me. “I’ve always loved having my hair played with, and watching other people have theirs done feels like it’s happening to me. That’s why there are loads of close-ups of the French braiding, and why the camera lingers on the brushing. There’s no narrative structure but hopefully it’s a comforting relaxation aid.”
There’s something distinctly alien about the whole experience, but if Pattern Buffer achieves anything it’s this instinctive, almost foetal state of comfort, helped along by the incubated soothing white noise emanating from somewhere beneath our feet. It’s something best experienced in all its multisensory glory, in quiet companionship, or with a stranger spaced out at a safe distance. As I leave the gallery, I’m glad I got to experience it with the artist herself.
Pattern Buffer runs at The Bluecoat Gallery alongside Jonathon Baldock’s Facecrime until Sunday 1st November. This article was initially written prior to lockdown in March.