Steve Messam: on installation

Steve Messam has been working as an installation artist for the last 18 years, specialising in large site-specific, temporary structures. In this article he explains why it pays to engage with the local community, how to make sure you are legally protected from misshaps and reveals how useful social media has been to spread the word about his work.

As an artist I create large-scale, temporary installations in rural landscapes. It’s my full-time job and as jobs go it’s not a bad one. I get to spend large parts of my time working in some stunningly beautiful places all over the world. From the outside it looks a very glamorous lifestyle – and at times it is, but the reality is that it didn’t happen over night and it takes a lot – and I mean a LOT – of work to make things look effortless.

I’m a bit of a latecomer to the art world. My background is in photography – I spent years as a freelance editorial photographer working for the weekend broadsheet supplements shooting restaurants and hotels as well as for the music industry – mostly photography live gigs from opera to death metal. Being a freelance photographer taught me a lot of the practicalities of being a full time artist. There’s no escaping the fact that it is hard work – it’s a very crowded market so you have to be good to survive. You have to take the business side of things very seriously and you get used to pitching to new clients, marketing yourself  and delivering work on brief, on budget and on time. You know that your reputation and career are based on producing strong work consistently. Most importantly you have to be very easy to work with.

There’s a lot of work that goes on to try and keep things going. I find that most of my work comes as a result of people seeing pictures of my work – online, in books and magazines or on TV. I try to make images of my work as accessible as possible and don’t really have a problem people sharing pictures on twitter or Pinterest – in fact I try and encourage it as it all helps spread the word. If people want to use images in books or magazines I have standard licences for those which I use together with an easy and sensible pricing policy. By keeping things clear and simple clients are much more likely to come back for more pictures in the future and they remember you for being easy to work with. I also work closely with marketing departments, and occasionally commission a PR company to promote my pieces effectively. Newspapers, magazines and television like good picture-led stories. If you can get them strong, interesting images that appeal to their audience they are much more likely to cover your story. A good PR company will have all the right contacts to make sure those pictures land on the right desks. They may even be able to convince a photo agency or the press association to send a photographer as their images are sent to practically every news desk in the world and can get you international coverage. Good media coverage not only increases the number of visitors and raises the profile of the commissioning client, but also raises my own profile and often leads to new work.

I try to keep my website up to date with projects as I go along and make sure I have strong images of the pieces on there. I have a Facebook page for keeping people up to date with my current projects as well as a managed mailing list. I tend to use my blog as a way of consolidating a number of ideas I’ve been thinking about – a bit like thinking aloud, and it’s also useful for giving people an inside as to how I work. Twitter is good for starting conversations with new people. Like blogging, it takes time to find your ‘voice’ and tweeting pictures can again draw more people to your work. A recent picture I posted caught people’s imagination, went viral, albeit on a small scale, and resulted in a piece on national radio on my practice.

A key element to my own work is its temporary nature. Most pieces are only up for two weeks at most. Some are only up for a few hours. For me this is an essential part of how the pieces work. I’m interested in how making very obvious interventions and interruption in the landscape and familiar places can change the way we look at a place. Temporary installations can also be made from more delicate materials, or make bolder statements in their location as anything built for less than 28 days doesn’t require planning permission. It’s also easier to get permissions to make work outdoors from landowners if something is only up for a short amount of time with the promise that it’ll be gone after a few days.

My work is always site-specific – it’s made specially for a given place. Living in a deeply rural area there just aren’t galleries, so being creative about where you show is part of the challenge. Showing work outside of a gallery environment is a completely different way of working. You also have to creative about where you find your work. Working with large temporary installations, selling the work just isn’t an option so you have to find alternative value in your work. A large proportion of my work comes from outside the usual art avenues – from regional tourism initiatives and local authorities looking for something to engage new visitors, to heritage organisations and venues keen to tell their story in a different and contemporary way. I also work with private businesses who are interested to learn how artists work and see what they do from a new perspective. The benefits of working outside the conventional arts system are numerous. While the client may have their own objectives that you will need to meet (for me this is mostly creating strong images to promote a place), the upside is that you have total artistic freedom to make the piece as conceptually solid and really push your practice.

Again, good communication skills are needed to negotiate the work and push the client out of their comfort zone. In many cases you are dealing with people who may have never worked with an artist before, so it’s imperative that you can understand their concerns and understand what they are looking to get out of it.

As installations my pieces work as part of and at one with their surroundings, landscape, history etc. as opposed to merely being objects in the outdoors. The work needs to be firmly embedded in its environment and I spend weeks researching before each piece. That’s done in a number of ways, from online searches and trawling libraries to walking miles of landscape in all weathers, but most importantly talking to local people. Nobody knows the practicalities of a landscape like those that work with it and in it. Being able to have conversations with farmers and landowners is an essential skill – not only about getting information and local knowledge but if you explain your work in way that makes it seem relevant to them and get them enthused about it too it all adds depth and context to the work.

I spend a great deal of time looking at the sight-lines of a location and produce lots of mock-up images to see how a piece may look from each main approach and in different light. These are done either in photoshop or in good old-fashioned pen and paper. These visuals help me make decisions about colour and scale and are also used to keep the client up to date with how the ideas are progressing.

Remember, as a visual artist, visual communication is your strength so use it as often as possible to get your ideas across. Also think about the experience you are offering your audience. Work at scale and in the landscape can have a strong emotional effect on the audience in a way that other art forms can’t. Use that.

Once the context and aesthetic ideas are solid, the next challenge is the physical creation of the work. I try wherever possible to find technical solutions to create the works exactly as I imagine them. I quite like the effect of simple forms as visual disruptors, so that often means finding ways to hide all the structural work. I tend to do most of the engineering design myself, including the sometimes tricky calculations. Getting the engineering right is key to the illusion of simplicity. I’ve learnt through experience how to do a lot of the engineering maths, although when things get complicated I have a couple of friendly engineers I can consult and a local draughtsman draws up the technical drawings.

My works are often made from fragile materials so they need to be constructed in a way that ensures they survive the outdoor elements and still look crisp. Wind loading on large pieces is a real issue and I have to ensure that the piece not only stays together in strong winds but also that it’s safe for visitors and it isn’t going to fall down and injure someone. Works on water are always the most challenging from an engineering point of view. Not only have you got to keep them afloat, or not as the case may be, but also ensure they don’t float away whist still being able to content with fluctuating water levels. On top of that, water locations tend to be more exposed to the wind which also does different things over water than land.

Due to the technical demands of the pieces I tend to get a lot of items fabricated by specialists and do very little actual building of works. There are people out there who build all sorts of things on a daily basis and not only do they know how to do it, but will probably make it much better than you. It pays to find a good fabricator that you get along with. Working closely with a good fabricator can turn a great idea into something incredible.

Working outside has its own list of issues in terms of logistics, health and safety and public liability. Each project is thoroughly risk-assessed at the design stage and working in protected landscapes in particular requires additional attention to environmental issues. I always want my pieces to have as little impact as possible so that once the piece has gone there is absolutely no trace of it having been there. A good open dialogue with the relevant agencies and landowners is essential. The Environment Agency looks after lakes and rivers in England and their primary concern is flood risk. Special permits may be required from them when working close to flowing rivers and these can take weeks to obtain. Natural England looks after protected environments and Sites or Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). If you are thinking of working on or near a SSSI it is best to get a conversation going with them right from the beginning. Like working with any agency, it’s worth taking the time to find the right person within that organisation who can understand your vision and work with you to find the best solutions to any issues. With anything environmental, the solutions you come up with to address problems have to be proven to work. Do lots of tests to show the ideas are robust and reliable. It’s really difficult to undo environmental damage and it’s not in anyone’s interest to cause any in the first place.

I have my own public liability insurance (part of my AiR membership) which covers me in the event that something goes wrong with my pieces, but the client may have their own cover if it’s part of a bigger show. Check that your cover is sufficient for any terms and conditions of the venue. The National Trust insists on £10million cover for anything on their property. If in doubt, a quick chat with your insurer will ensure you have the right cover for the job. A method statement outlining each and every step in the installation, exhibition and take-down stages not only helps you get it clear in your own mind that you’ve thought of absolutely everything, but also assures the client and your insurers that you know what you’re doing.

Of course, not everything goes to plan every time. Weather conditions can delay things – it’s better to change the timescales than try and defeat the weather. Sometimes components fail or things don’t behave in the way you thought they would. These things happen. They’re part of the course of being an artist. Although I prefer it when everything goes smoothly, the fact that occasionally things go wrong is reassuring too. If you have a 100% success rate you’re not taking enough risks. Art is about pushing the boundaries and every so often those boundaries are bound to break if you push hard enough. As long as those problems are caused by risk-taking and not through ignorance or laziness, then you’ll be OK. Learn from them and move on. Your work will be stronger for it.

© Steve Messam 

Steve Messam is a landscape artist based in the North Pennines. He creates site-specific installations in rural landscapes across the UK and around the world. His often large-scale works aim to uncover the layers of narrative within landscapes and make visitors see familiar places in a new light. Until March 2014 Steve will be artist in residence at Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park, Scotland. You can follow Steve’s work closely via his blog, or on Twitter where he tweets as @rougeit.

Similar How to articles

Related opportunities, listings and Artlaw articles

Featured project

Artquest activity during the covid-19 pandemic

Artquest and covid-19 / coronavirus

Resources and artist-led projects responding to the coronavirus / Covid-19 pandemic This page is no longer being updated: for the latest links, advice and information, see our temporary new home page.… Continue Reading Artquest and covid-19 / coronavirus

Read more