Featured Artists: Hato for Liverpool Biennial

Liverpool Biennial, Arriva Space Bus
Liverpool Biennial, Arriva Space Bus

Space Bus: Hato and Childwall Sport and Science Academy

Liverpool Biennial 2016 launching in June 2016 as the Number 79 Bus on the Merseytravel network.

Word and Pictures by Patrick Kirk-Smith

In 1977 NASA launched Voyager, and in 2012 the craft entered interstellar space. We’re not a science website, so I don’t particularly understand where that is, but it’s probably a long way away. The purpose of the mission was to explore the possibilities of communication with other life, intelligent or otherwise, that shares our ever increasing universe. It manifested itself in a gold vinyl, and a set of instructions, featuring a coded language based on a hopeful understanding of DNA. Thirty-nine years on, we’ve not had a reply.

But with the tentative hope of one in the future, Liverpool Biennial, creative team Hato and a group of inspiring Year 7 students from Childwall Sports and Science Academy, bring us a new experiment in coded linguistics. The team have developed a code which will be displayed on the side of Liverpool’s route 79 bus for the next three years.

Hato, the creative group steering the project, are a design practice based in London and Hong Kong whose clients have included The Biennial, V&A, Tate, Urban Outfitters and Facebook. They’re not just out to create fashionable design though, or to be eye catching, they seem dedicated to actively engaging people in the creative industries, with a recent trend of usable apps and interactive design for iPads and websites.

In 2015 they worked with the school to create their Dazzle Island, following on from their creation of Digital Dazzle, their commission for 2014’s Biennial, which allowed users to create their own online dazzle ship and learn about the history of the dazzle camouflage technique.

The new code itself, developed with a helping hand from Hato specifically with a future-Liverpool in mind, is intended as a nod to NASA’s Voyager 1, and the Golden Disk currently floating through space in the outer-something-or-other. I will not cease to be an advocate for this bus, or the ideas behind it, so I’d like to introduce it formally by dispelling a few phantom issues that misers might find, and explaining why they are in fact positives:

It’s hardly rocket science:

This project isn’t intended as rocket science, it is intended to translate and predict how we develop as a culture. NASA developed a language and signage system that relied on the universal structure of DNA to explain the location of Earth. Childwall Sports and Science Academy aren’t communicating with extra-terrestrials, they’re communicating with themselves, and us, in the future. It’s not a new language, but an anticipation of how our own might change into something more pictoral. For a good example of how this theory has worked in the past, see Otto Neurath’s Isotype study, which we mostly know as road and transport signage these days.

Are we just meant to guess what each symbol means then?

No. Unless you’re Alan Turing or a hobbyist codebreaker the code can be found in locations around Liverpool, and on the bus itself. The students from Childwall want the bus to be understandable, but obviously not part of our normal lives. And while it’s unlikely you’ll need to learn this code by heart for the sake of the alphabet’s future, unlikelier things have happened. After all, Back to the Future got more than a few things right.

What if the bus gets damaged?

I unfortunately don’t have an answer for that one, but quite honestly, I doubt it will. People tend to have a quiet respect for difference, so I can’t see this bus being one with suspect puddles at its rear, or the faint smell of soggy chip wrappers lingering. It’s a bus that is intended to bring communities together, rather than put up new barriers.

All those reasons out of the way, this project wasn’t simply about putting some stuff on a bus, it was about putting a Year 7 class at the helm of the Biennial, even for just a short time. Press views being what they are, and particularly with a company as large as Arriva, this was basically one long photo opportunity, but the excitement and pride of the students shone through and was visible far beyond any nervousness they might have felt with all the marketing coordinators floating around looking for press.

It was clear to see that they were proud, maybe even a bit smug (deservedly) at their achievement, because it’s a huge responsibility to put on them, working with a design group as established as Hato, for a festival as famous as Liverpool Biennial. But, with all the humility and diplomacy of a practicing artist, they were just happy they’d had the chance to work on the project. “It’s a good experience for us to learn how to crack codes, and for other people to crack them for us,” explained Aaron Metcalfe, a student of Childwall Sports and Science Academy.

The Arriva paint technicians even gave them the opportunity to paint their own bus panels to take back to school with them – which is going to make parent’s evenings at the school the envy of every other school in Liverpool during the Biennial.

Key to this project though, was the cooperation of Arriva, who have handed over creative control to the other parties with confidence. Their Regional Marketing Manager, Mark Bosworth, explained why they’d given up their busses for the festival, but was mostly just excited to see it on the road, “We want to promote bus travel, but they almost become invisible. To do this with such striking transport reminds people we’re still there.”

Polly Brannan, Liverpool Biennial’s Education Curator, insists that education is key to this year’s Biennial. And she’s absolutely right, with this group of students heavily involved in two of the key features of the festival, having worked with both Hato and Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s film, Dogsy Mabone.

The reason we get so excited about these projects – the dazzle ferries, the spinning trees, the busses – is that they carry on and become part of our everyday landscapes once the Biennial is over. As far as visitors to the city are concerned, there will be bigger names to contend with, but few of them will achieve the lasting impact this bus hopes to. Over its three year course it will travel on various routes and, I’m told, be regularly driven by one of the students’ fathers. A man I’m sure is going to struggle to contain his own pride while driving around in his daughter’s bus.

The other two busses, from Ana Jotta and local artist Frances Disley, will be on route by the beginning of the Biennial, and seem to have the Arriva technicians fairly terrified, so quite what they’ll have in store is anyone’s guess, but it sounds like, if nothing else, they’ll be head turners. The Portuguese artist, Ana Jotta blurs the boundaries between art and life, so probably didn’t sleep for a week on being told she was going to have a bus for a canvas.

Launching in the first week of June, Space Bus will be the first of three Arriva busses, commissioned by Liverpool Biennial, and also the first art work to hit the streets before the festival’s official launch on July 9th. If you happen to live near Childwall Five Ways, I’m incredibly jealous of your new commute.