Patrick Mateer

From Hull to Senegal: The legacy of the Electric Fence

An art installation that was commissioned as part of Hull UK City of Culture 2017 has gone on to be displayed overseas.

The Electric Fence was one of 60 projects funded through Hull 2017’s Creative Communities Programme, designed to celebrate, nurture and support local talent.

Bold and confrontational, the installation was a response to hate crime and was particularly poignant during Hull’s year in the spotlight as it coincided with LGBT 50, a series of events celebrating 50 years since the start of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK.

The installation premiered at Hull Minster during Hull 2017’s Freedom season, before going on tour, first to Scunthorpe’s 20-21 Visual Arts Centre and most recently to Dak’Art 2018 – Biennale of Contemporary African Art in Senegal.

We caught up with artist Annabel McCourt to find out more about the legacy of Electric Fence, including her collaboration with Kenyan-born artist Wanja Kimani, who is based in the UK, who devised a performance in response to the installation especially for Dak’Art 2018. 

From its debut in Hull to Senegal (via Scunthorpe) tell us how your journey overseas happened?

I received the most exciting invite from the British Council, to present the Electric Fence and my wider artistic practice, to a delegation of international curators to coincide with their visit to the Turner Prize in Hull.

It was during this visit that I met Wanja Kimani. She said she wanted to see and feel what it was like to stand inside the fence – so we both stood in the middle together. The whole visit was a remarkable experience, with some extraordinary art people from across the globe, all so receptive to the work. But it was that moment, standing inside the fence with Wanja, that I knew something interesting was going to happen – I just didn’t quite know what!

Wanja – whose work deals with issues such as cultural affiliation, identity, separation and commemoration – later contacted me to say that she’d love to work together to devise a performance around it for Dak’Art.

How did you get the Electric Fence, all 690kg of it to Senegal?

Hull 2017 was instrumental in making this happen, generously funding the incredible bespoke cases, which ensured that Electric Fence could make the epic journey to Dakar (via Dubai) safely and arrive in one, (well four) pieces, without even smashing the lightbulb for the lamp!

Renowned UK-based international curator Simon Hedges is the driving force behind the tour. His wealth of art-world knowledge has made the impossible possible. As you can imagine an artwork weighing 690kg isn’t going to fit in an overhead locker.

Our deadline meant that the only option was to fly the installation over, not enough time for shipping. And as we later found out, not enough time to clear customs in Dakar, meaning we couldn’t get our hands on it until two days before it was due to exhibit!

You can see our adventure and race against time on Facebook. It involved chasing around Dakar, with help from the British Council Senegal, the Ambassador, Simon Hedges and an angle-grinder… a great title for a novel or new Netflix series!

The Electric Fence was born from a Creative Communities grant as part of the Hull 2017 programme. Did you ever imagine that you would be taking your work overseas as a result of this grant?

I knew that the work would capture the imagination and I had always thought that it had the potential for an exciting legacy, but not this exciting!

Where did the idea for the project come from?

I created the piece in response to a shockingly homophobic speech by an American preacher who said all lesbians and gays should be locked in an electric fence and even if you threw them a bit of food every now and again, they’d eventually die out because they can’t breed.

But it’s open to interpretation. The fence questions borders and boundaries, are we being kept out or is something trapped within?

How did Hull respond to Electric Fence? Have you had a similar response in Scunthorpe and Senegal?

The audience reach far surpassed any initial expectations or projected figures – over 30,000 interacted with Electric Fence. It also featured widely in the media from Britain’s City of Culture on the BBC News Channel to as far as Poland and Australia.

The work was incredibly well received at 20-21 Visual Arts Centre with one visitor describing it as “challenging, thought-provoking, unsettling product of genius”. I always love exhibiting at 20-21, it’s a world-class gallery in an unexpected location. A real highlight of exhibiting the fence there, was the fact that I was able to screen all of the films I made of the fence being developed, manufactured, tested and best of all Your Fence, a film I made with the fabulous volunteers and visitors to Hull Minster.

The real icing on the cake was that I was able to convince the brilliant Dominic Mason from 20-21 Visual Arts Centre to accompany me on the adventure.

Where will the Electric Fence be travelling next? What are your future plans?

My initial plan was to take the fence to all of the towns and cities twinned with Hull and I still really like this idea – the fence was ‘born’ in Hull and embodies the very spirit of Hull 2017, so this seems like a natural choice. However the work seems to have taken on a life of its own and one which is almost out of my control!

There are some very exciting plans in the pipeline and discussions around remarkable locations… there’s just the small, or rather very heavy, matter of moving 690kg around the globe. I have joked about 3D printing my work in the country I will be exhibiting in, but instead of learning from this experience, my new project will be vast in scale, bold and provocative!

Alongside Hull 2017, I would like to thank North Lincs Council, British Council Visual Arts… not forgetting the lads who carried the cases into the building for us.

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