IF you could build a 21st Century Eden, what would be on your wish list? Nottingham installation artist John Newling is posing this question throughout July in his city-centre residency in St Helen’s Square, York, culminating in a series of public events over the next week.
As the first part of the PH1: Artists in Place project, curated by the New School House Gallery, John has set up a market stall as his temporary studio with a series of four sculptures of Adam and Eve, the family, the environment and the Fall of man in gilded Elastoplasts reminiscent of religious relics. These have acted as trigger points for conversations when asking York citizens and visitors to construct their contemporary paradise.
"I wanted to ask people what they really wanted in their Eden," says John. "'Why is it that as a species of seven billion beings, we're intent on knowingly bringing about our own extinction, hell bent on self-destruction? Why are we so reluctant to address the causes of problems, focusing on the symptoms instead? We cover up the cuts and very quickly forget what caused them, hence the Elastoplast imagery in my sculptures."
Over the first two weeks of July, John and his research team approached members of the public in St Helen's Square, armed with clipboards. "They were asked questions about governance; ownership; transactions (whether you want currency in your Eden); the environment; wellbeing; and the 'End'," he says.
John quickly gathered a picture of the new Eden: a quiet world, full of rollercoasters and loving animals, with a giant duck pond where people fed the ducks all day; a self-governed land where people all have the same worth, everybody feels equal and the trees secrete alcohol.
"Quite a lot of people have said that their idea of Eden is York now; that's cropped up at least once a day," he says. "Others have been more poetic, like one man who wanted to live on his own cloud, and plenty wanted to be a benign dictator with no national government. Only a few wanted a materialistic Eden, and that's very encouraging "
John has collated hundreds of responses in the past week, feeding them into works he is now creating for two performances. On Monday, in 21st Century Eden: Words Into Ash, he will be joined by fellow performers at 7.30pm to present a selection of the public's wishes from the residency. On Tuesday, in Ash Into Soil, he will conclude his project by reciting more of their thoughts in the New School House gardens at 7.30pm.
"I'm also keen to condense people's wishes into a single sentence, which might then evolve into a large-scale text sculpture that encapsulates York’s wishes for the rest of the world," he says. "I may use a street-cleaning process called reverse graffiti, in which I'd place a stencil created from blocks of text , nearby each of the four sculptures, and as the dirt of the street comes off, the words are left behind. Those texts will then disappear under five million footsteps."
Next week's performances will be preceded by a public forum tomorrow from 6pm to 8pm at the gallery in Peasholme Green, where John will share some of his 21st Century Eden observations, leading into an informal discussion of the Common Values identified by John and his team.
"These are times when common values are looking in directions away from the haste and greed of our late 20th century selves, towards a state where value is no longer sliding exclusively towards capital and moving more towards wellbeing and the new necessity for better understanding our environment; a kind of emerging ecology of values," he says.
John has enjoyed spending this month in York, on top of his earlier Common Values project in the city last year. "The more I get to see York, the more it feels like an island," he says. "Not that it's separated, but it is walled and is so distinct as a city. There's no other place like it, and that makes it more like an island. The research has shown that people's common values in York are completely different to what the Government thinks are common values are."
That leaves one more question for John? What would he want in his 21st century Eden? "After years and years of flat-out hard work, my studio is now my Eden," he says. "I live in a fairly big house with a studio in the cellar and other creative spaces in designated rooms. In the morning I'll have a coffee and a cigarette, and then I'll go to one of those art spaces, maybe making a sculpture in the cellar, or writing in another room or growing plants in another."
• John Newling’s 21st Century Eden sets in motion the six-month residency project, PH1: Artists in Place, curated by Paula Jackson and Robert Teed, the project's artistic directors and co-directors of the School House gallery, with support from Arts Council England.
PH1 York will investigate the social impact of long-term, collaborative artistic residencies in the heart of the city. Next up, artists Delaine and Damian Le Bas will provoke conversations about Roma gipsy traveller life through a city- centre installation in September and October; poet and visual artist Stevie Ronnie will engage with the Castle Museum’s collection in his residency at the Eye of York in November and December; and printmaker Catherine Sutcliffe-Fuller will combine traditional and state-of-the-art printmaking techniques to document the changing urban landscape of York between now and next January. You can follow the project on Twitter @PH1York