In the final months of 2017 artist Julia Vogl spent time with our wonderful volunteers, finding out just what made them tick. Through workshops, interviews and a volunteer shift thrown in for good measure Julia got to know this remarkable community.
The themes in the exhibition were developed closely with the volunteers and the volunteering team, creating a body of work that explores the Hull 2017 volunteer experience and reveals why they wanted to step into the blue coat.
We spoke with Julia to find out more about her upcoming exhibition Grains of Scandalous Blue launching at Humber Street Gallery on 20 Jan.
Tell us a bit about your practice.
I describe myself as a social sculptor and I’m very interested in bridging communities through colour, installation and community, whilst getting people physically involved with the space that describes them. The work can reveal the underlying values of a community to others whilst engaging the viewer.
How have you applied this to your upcoming exhibition Grains of Scandalous Blue?
Grains of Scandalous Blue was really exciting for me because I got to use multiple approaches and try some new stuff as well. Before starting a piece of work about a community you need to know who they are, so I did some sessions with volunteers, asking what their experience was like and what they wanted the rest of the city to know about them.
We then turned that into a workshop that I delivered in November – the results of which can be seen in GRAINS (Jars of Time).
What did volunteers have to do in this workshop for GRAINS (Jars of Time)?
Everyone brought a jam jar from home – which was unique to them – and then had to answer some multiple choice questions about their relationship to Hull 2017 and volunteering. Each multiple choice answer was paired with a coloured sand and they had to fill their jar with the colour that represented their answer.
In the exhibition, there’s going to be close to 700 jars of coloured sand: a data visualisation of the volunteer experience. They got to have some fun, do some thinking and have some tea and cake, unpacking what they’d answered with other volunteers.
So, it was more of a social discussion – and now that discussion can continue at Humber Street Gallery.
You’ve gathered collective and individual accounts of being a volunteer – how did you do this?
I was trying to collect hard data and soft data – the act of connecting with people over coffee and cake was great for collecting anecdotal soft data, and getting first-hand accounts of their experiences.
I also worked with the Hull 2017 volunteer team to collate 55 pieces of data about the volunteers. This covered everything from what the average shoe size is to who is fluent in another language. I’m covering the entire walls and floor in colour that represent these statistics so when you come in you’ll be flooded with colour.
If the jars are about creating a social sculpture and creating a rich experience for volunteers while they were considering their time, this section of the exhibition (Scandalous Blue who are you?) is more for the public to come in and get a sense of the physical experience of what it is to be a volunteer and to better understand who those individuals are.
They’re not just people in blue coats. These are people that speak multiple languages, have interests in lots of things and are extremely passionate, generous and warm people. I want that feeling to come across in the space.
You mention that your work has a central focus on community. What have you learnt
about the volunteers on a communal scale?
On a communal scale, I’ve been really awe-struck with how many people have described this experience as life changing and that, to me, resonates with the fact that everyone has felt open and safe with each other.
They are a self-selecting group of people that have decided that they want to spend their time giving to Hull and has created a security, safety, friendship and trust amongst all of them. I think this is rare to see in a group this large, which has been really inspiring for me.
I’ve been deeply impressed with how they have impacted Hull as a city. Their collective power has made the city feel safer and proud. People go up to them and they feel safe, children have even been taught that if they get lost they can find someone with a blue jacket – that’s incredible.
And on an individual level?
On an individual level, everybody has different reasons for why they became a volunteer and how they have been impacted by this experience.
Some say they volunteered because they wanted to get away and do something different. It seemed like it started as something of a distraction, but it became the thing they couldn’t wait to do more of. People felt that it introduced them to new skills too. The masterclasses have changed the way people approach their careers and their life going forward and that’s incredible.
We had one woman who explained how her life was falling apart. She felt really unsupported and was struggling to find any meaning in life. She started volunteering and it’s completely reinvigorated her and helped her shed her past – she describes volunteering as saving her life.
What do you hope to achieve with this exhibition?
The last component of the exhibition is to get visitors to wear a scandalous blue jacket. The most popular female name was Sue, and the most popular male name was David – so we’re inviting people to come along and be a Sue, be a David. I’m hoping that people will get a sense of what is it to be a volunteer and encourage people to be more active as a citizen in Hull.
This exhibition is about showcasing diversity within a community, celebrating the individuals and properly acknowledging them as a group.
And have the volunteers inspired you personally?
Definitely! I think it’s very easy to say “Oh, these people came and they did a few hours. They made events happen.” But they really made events happen. I’ve heard that from countless organisers, artists, volunteer staff and 2017 staff that this year would not have been what it is without them. To me that’s really inspiring, that people can come together and change a whole definition and attitude of a place.
That’s really affirming for me because it’s something I’ve always wanted to believe in, but thought maybe it was a naïve thing to think. The volunteers have proven that with a lot of hard work you can achieve this.