Exploring and commemorating themes of exchange, Layla Khoo

The year long residency allows me a fantastic opportunity as an artist to not only spend a sustained period of time working on the project, but also allows the necessary “down time” between research trips and working days to allow the research and information and ideas to filter through and formulate into possible responses, rather than having to rush to find an answer. A key element to my artistic practice is finding ways to interpret historic narratives and show their relevance to contemporary audiences. This project is a perfect opportunity to do just that – to look at the fascinating and rich history contained in just one street in Middlesbrough, and explore how this relates to the present day.

My original interests for research were spectacularly broad – unsurprisingly given the amount of narratives that are possible to follow from the built environment and the activity which has taken place on Exchange Square over the years. I have been able to work alongside Grace Redpath, the researcher in residence, in exploring the many paths from this starting point. This research has taken place at Tees Valley archives, uncovering the blue prints and original minute books detailing the reasoning behind, and every step of the process to create the Royal Exchange Building. This then extended to exploring the British Library to find further information on everything from the community groups created in relation to the iron and steel industry, to the philanthropic work of some of the leaders of industry, to the chemical make up of the scoria blocks made from iron slag. I have explored the Dorman Museum’s incredible collection of bricks, blocks and pottery of Middlesbrough with the expert guidance of the curator. I have spoken with other artists exploring the material properties of the scoria blocks, and to members of the community who recognise both the industrial blocks and the fine Linthorpe pottery as key elements to Middlesbrough’s history. Whilst Grace’s research and mine have focussed on different specifics, there has remained a common thread of an interest in material culture shared by us throughout.  

Middlesbrough Bricks, The Dorman Museum, Middlesbrough.

The next (and final) element to my research will be to reach out to members of the local community to explore two further questions. Firstly, I would like to hear from Middlesbrough residents (especially the younger generation) what Middlesbrough means to them now – what identifies the place, how would they commemorate it in the post industrial era? Secondly, I would like to explore charitable and philanthropic work which is taking place in Middlesbrough now. I believe that this work would be most productive by my reaching out directly to individuals and groups rather than hoping they will come to me! I am hoping part of this research can take place as a participatory activity on Exchange Square. These two final elements will allow me to finalise my plans for the art installation which will amalgamate my findings into something which can hopefully live on beyond the scope of the project.

And so to the final art work! Whilst the details of this are still being left open to be informed by what remains of the research, the overall work is starting to take shape. The work will be participatory in nature – only really coming to life when interacted with by the viewers, and will focus on the theme of exchange and legacy – the recurring factors throughout my research so far. I hope that by opening the installation over the Middlesbrough Art Weekender there will be opportunity for as many people as possible to take part in the work.