Mixed signals

The Lost O, a public art project to commemorate the replacement of a ring road with quality public space in Ashford, coincides with the arrival of the Tour de France. But will the peloton be able to find its way through the chaos, wonders Fiona Sibley

This weekend the Tour de France, the world’s leading travelling circus on two wheels, rolls into town. As it passes through Ashford, Kent, let’s hope the athletes aren’t distracted by some curious goings-on designed to highlight the town’s changing highway heritage.

Ashford’s ring road, known locally and with no shortage of metaphorical connotations as the ‘concrete collar’, is to be removed next year. This is a bid to improve the public space in a town centre that – since the 1970s – has been strangled by a raised noose of four- or even six-lane traffic.

Making way for a new ‘shared space’ initiative, the ring road will be replaced by a conventional two-lane street designed collaboratively by engineers, designers and artists, which will give equal prominence to pedestrians and motorists alike, and create some ‘quality public realm’ in the process.

The Breaking Boundaries scheme, devised by RKL Consultants, has received support from Cabe Space, and it will become the biggest shared space scheme in Europe, a concept developed in the UK by urban design consultant Hamilton Baillie Associates.

As Richard Stubbings, head of the regeneration and project leader at Kent County Council, says, ‘Lots of people in Kent think of Ashford as the ring road. We want them to think of it as a cultural centre.’

Ashford’s bipeds can look forward to breathing a sigh of untainted relief in 2008, but there is minor cause for celebration now. A temporary public art project, The Lost O, is underway to commemorate the ring road and its imminent demise. With a £50 000 grant from the Arts Council, the action has been timetabled to catch the world’s eyes as the ring road Tarmac plays host to the famous cycling race before shuffling off its mortal coil.

Altogether, 11 international artists are making work to be sited around the ring road. What seems to group them together is a fixation with themes such as urban space, mapping, signage and the psychology of changing places.

Paying ambiguous homage to the concrete collar, Simon Faithfull’s video projections will capture the self-defeatingly circular movement of journeys on the UK’s ring roads, a theme often explored by the writer Iain Sinclair.

Moreover, the project is an opportunity for artists to turn the ring road into a playground of mischievous ideas, where everyday norms are disordered. This is commissioned guerrilla work, a pleasing paradox for The Lost O’s leading artist and curator, Michael Pinsky.

‘I wanted to use artists whose work is self-initiated, but put them in this environment where they have been commissioned,’ says Pinsky. Canadian artist Peter Gibson, aka Roadsworth, is a shadowy Banksy-type character who uses the language of highway officialdom – road markings – to protest at political shortcomings. His plan for Ashford is to celebrate the triumph of pedestrian over motor, with some subversive street painting.

Many of the works are likely to confuse and surprise the public by playing on the level of attention they pay to their street environment – and disrupting it.

This is precisely how US artist Brad Downey operates, by subverting the familiar system of signs and systems people use to navigate the city. His installation involves a pedestrian crossing control box that can only be reached by standing on someone’s shoulders.

Pinsky has erected a circular installation of traffic signs already removed from parts of the dismantled road (with the help of a road engineer), next to the remaining highway.

‘To me, road signs are beautiful works of design, but to most people they’re just orders or instructions. Where I’ve assembled them, they will become increasingly redundant as the genuine road signs will be removed completely. They will become a memorial to what was there before,’ says Pinsky.

The overall effect is disorienting, and the local press is having a field day, publishing complaints from enraged driving instructors.

It’s been quite a predictable struggle against bureaucracy. ‘I hope we’re paving the way politically for artists’ involvement in the public realm in the future,’ says Pinsky.

The Lost O takes place around Ashford’s ring road on 7-8 July, with some works staying in place for three months. A Lost O information HQ is located in the reception of Ashford School of Art and Design, Tufton Street, Ashford

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