Stef Bradley came along to GYM JAMS and this is what she saw…
On Saturday 24th September, digital artist collective Re-Dock descended on Howe Bridge Leisure Centre in a high tempo clash of art and sport. Not normally used to exercising much more than my big mouth, I’d not stepped foot in a leisure centre since school trips for an obligatory 10 minute game of squash and the promise of a McDonalds’ drive-through reward on the minibus ride home. It seems that these sports centres have changed a lot in the last decade though. The Disneyland of leisure centres, Howe Bridge is a treasure trove of fun with climbing walls, a skatepark, BMX bowl, an intimidating soft play assault course, retro arcade games and even their own irresistible, cuddly mascot bear! There is definitely an argument that the designers were fans of Fun House and not even the most puny of weaklings could fail to enjoy flexing their triceps here.
Challenging notions of art on a pedestal, GYM JAMS is a project designed to engage visitors in artistic experiences outside of traditional arts spaces, raising the question of how a leisure centre could become a place to experience art and exploring how technology can be used to bring together people, creativity and sport- essentially, an experiment in what mayhem ensues when the trusting management of a leisure centre allow a group of artists and technologists to take over.
Ambitious in design, the day was packed with high-energy creative activities, boasting a drumming and soundbeam workshop with More Than Words, a robot-themed games tournament, choreography from Dance Manchester, as well as a pop-up screening of 80’s dance classic Breakin’ curated by Liverpool Small Cinema’s Sam Meech – dressed the part, like an extra from Michael Jackson’s Bad,in a room doing its best to channel the stage at First Avenue before Morris Day and The Time.
— Re-Dock (@re_dock) September 24, 2016
Undoubtedly, the highlight of the day was The RoboGames: a competitive tournament of robot-themed activities, which even featured a game of electronic tag in the centre’s BMX bowl. Here, familiar sports day tropes and playground games were distorted into unfamiliar territory, as participants suited up in large coloured buttons, repurposed from school- issue PE cones, which could then wirelessly register when a participant was tagged by a member of the opposing team. All this was designed to sync up with an animated scoreboard, an arresting visual detail which sadly didn’t make it beyond the makeshift workshop floor we’d staked out behind the reception desk- an occupational hazard, I’m told, when working with an unpredictable medium like digital technology. However, this did not detract from the overall fun of the event as participants still found new and creative ways to make use of their workout space, under the watch of a floating robot named OLO, fashioned from a weather balloon.
Kudos to organisers, Hwa Young Jung and Neil Winterburn, the attention to detail in the planning was impressive, from The RoboGames’ distinctive pixel logos, to the theme music composed by Alex Germains, as well as the energetic sports commentary provided by Dave Mee and Dan Farrimond, dressed in their Match of the Day finest. Not to mention Re-Dock’s roping in of expert pals across Liverpool’s digital community from Does Liverpool to LJMU’s Graphic Arts department. Like any great team sport, this was truly a group effort.
When asked about the creation of their art and their focus on encouraging audience collaboration, I’ve once heard these artists remark that their work could be described as “just fancy framing”, a modest comment that doesn’t give due credit for the skill involved in the design of activities like these but one that does reflect their belief in co-creation of work with communities, where- rather than producing artworks in isolation- they act as facilitators of artistic experiences who invite participants to engage as collaborators and co-creators. Put simply, the kind of art that Re-Dock produce is often one that occurs through participation, where technology is not merely functional but can also become art when audiences interact imaginatively with this media.
Though the rise of Fitbits, exercise apps and the increasing use of digital media within competitive sport, many gym users are already comfortable with technical interfaces, so technology is not necessarily out of place within this context. However, through GYM JAMS, Re-Dock have attempted to shift the axis of expectation when visiting a space like a leisure centre, using innovative digital inventions and encouraging community participation to open up creative new ways for visitors to approach exercise and make use of this workout space. A far cry from the vapid squash courts of my youth, the result is a day of creative sports that not even the most seasoned couch potato could resist.