Designing hoardings with a difference

Artist Isobel Manning has been involved in an exciting project to transform the hoardings of the developing Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) Sight and Sound Centre, supported by Premier Inn, into an accessible art installation.

The hoardings conceal the site of what was previously known as the Italian Hospital while construction is underway. We spoke to Isobel to find out how she engaged with local families, children and young people to create something special for the design of these hoardings, around the theme of ‘seeing differently’.

How would you describe your work as an artist? 

I’m interested in collaboration and participation, so I'm keen to involve others in the production of my artworks. I have done quite a lot of participatory projects in museums and galleries working with children and young people. I think I find that most inspiring because they bring lots of new energy and ideas to the projects. I see my work as creating a platform that other people can be involved with and contribute their own ideas to. 

How did you collaborate and develop your ideas for the design of the Sight and Sound Centre hoardings?

I started by developing ideas for what the initial workshop would be, taking place at Queen Square Fair, which is a lovely event that happens every year in the summer. It was a very relaxed day, outdoors, with local families making their way around various stalls and events. I provided a range of different materials with the aim of encouraging families to develop some kind of optical device that would help them see in a different way.

There were tubes, mirrors, transparent materials, glasses, 3D glasses – loads of different things that people could play with. I wanted them to think about how their view of the world could be changed or distorted by different materials.

I then used the optical devices they made to photograph the original building. I managed to get some quite beautiful imagery of little architectural details – the Italian Hospital is a Grade listed building with lots of lovely touches. And I liked the idea of a hoarding acting as a screen to something with little peepholes revealing what it might be. It’s a bit like peeking into the past, but you're peeking through in a way that's slightly distorted by the optical illusions that people have created. It also relates to the idea of viewing the building differently, reimagining it with fresh eyes. 

How does the theme of your work relate to the Sight and Sound Centre?

The Italian Hospital was started by a man who made looking glasses and lenses, which seemed like a perfect connection to the idea of it becoming a centre for children with conditions that affect their sight and hearing. That inspired the idea of families creating their own ‘lenses’ through which to look at this building and the original site.

I really wanted to preserve the beauty of the original building and celebrate its interesting history, and it’s particularly apt that it’s connected to vision. 

I love the idea that we all see differently and that's why I like working in a collaborative way. I think it’s important to think about what it means to see and to find ways of seeing through the eyes of others sometimes too.

Are the ‘peepholes’ at different heights for different ages of children? 

Yes, and they're all star-shaped. There are lots of stars on the original building and on the surrounding architecture. I was thinking about how I could make the little peepholes look exciting from a distance. From a distance the hoardings form a large collection of small stars, like the sky at night. But each star, when you get up closer, reveals hidden details and an explosion of colour.

To connect the stars, there are drawn constellations that plot a variety of abstract forms. I thought it would be fun to encourage passers by to find their own meaning in these constellation drawings. What looks like a mountain to one person could be a pebble to another.

Why is it important to you to make that artwork accessible to people with sight loss? 

I think it's as much about it being accessible to people with sight loss as it is about other people recognising that people have different visual capabilities.

I think it’s really important for children and young people because currently they're still coming to the main hospital nearby, and the hoardings could be on their route, so it's a way of familiarising them with that site, making it feel like it's for them, and conveying that it's a special, unique place that's been designed with them in mind.

Hoardings are a really nice way of marking a territory or giving a sort of map. I've got a son who's 16 months old and there's a house nearby with a pebble-dash wall – it's always his go-to. He feels his way along the wall and he's really excited about the idea that he can touch that wall and it has a different feel to the other walls.