Hailing from Black Country in the west of Birmingham, an artist by the name of Liam Smyth is enjoying his residency in Semarang. He’s amazed by how the communities can be so close-knitted, which is not the case in his home country.
“In the UK, the community is not very close-knit. It’s very hard to communicate ideas to a small group of people. The neighbours won’t talk to each other. So the idea of spreading knowledge and stories between these people are very hard to do,” said Liam.
Liam continues, “While in Indonesia, you can walk down most streets at most times of the day and you can communicate with a vast group of people, spreading stories from individual to individual. The sense of community, the friendliness, and openness have been phenomenal and really an eye-opening experience.”
Liam—who’s also active in Creative Black Country, a three-year campaign which aims to make the most of the creative talent in the Black Country—is in Semarang as one of eight UK artists who was selected by British Council to do residencies in Indonesia. He’s hosted by Hysteria, an art collective in Semarang concerned by issues of the city, the youth, and the community.
For his residency, Liam tries to introduce digital technology to the community; something he’s also campaigning in the UK. Liam has even created laser woodcut signs that have augmented reality capabilities; which can be seen here.
“Arts and societies, in general, need to be comfortable in working with digital technologies and future technologies. I’m very intrigued in understanding whether different cultures and communities in Indonesia will respond to the same software that has become quite freely available in the UK, and the different ideas that could possibly emerge from working with the people who are very fresh to this sort of new approach,” explains Liam.
We talked to Liam about many things, from his early interest towards art to the things he learned from his residency in Semarang.
Tell me a bit about yourself. When was the first time you got interested in art? Who got you into it?
Well, my interest in art started at very early age, from my family. I just thought it’s a very fun way to interact and make sense of the world, really.
If I’m not mistaken, you came from Black Country. How does that place shape you as an artist?
Black Country is a unique space. It’s largely forgotten about, in the larger, cultural landscape in the UK. But I think that sense of humility and sense of humour definitely come through to me as a person and the way that I work.
How do you start as an artist, and how do you develop as an artist along the way?
Well, I studied illustration at university, but really my development happened afterwards when I graduated. I was a little bit disillusioned by the lack of diversity in the art establishment and I felt that it was time to increase participation and inclusion in the arts.
What triggered you to start implementing augmented reality technology to your work?
Augmented reality is a really interesting tool. It allows an artist to be non-invasive in their approach to working with communities. It is also a very interesting way that audience can then interact with the artwork. They can choose how, when and where do they want to interact with the artwork.
Creative Black Country is very interested in opening the arts to different audiences, particularly young people. We thought that augmented reality was a very interesting way of allowing young people to consume culture in new ways. We try to be radical in our approach as much as possible and augmented reality seemed like a good first step in exploring smart technology and future technologies.
How does augmented reality change your approach in making art?
Augmented reality offers the opportunity for artists to respond to buildings, communities, and spaces in a non-invasive treatment. It allows the audience to interact with the artwork in their own time, how and when they see fit. And that really does open up new opportunities for how artists are placed within the world in the wider context.
Do you have any expectations toward the residency in Semarang? Do you have any target in what you’re trying to achieve in the residency?
I think with all projects it’s really important to keep an open mind when first approaching a new community and a new culture. So, I try to be as responsive as possible, and I definitely think that that creates a more meaningful project in the long term.
How’s the city of Semarang treating you?
The city of Semarang is treating me very well, thank you. The food is fantastic. The weather takes some getting used to but you get there in the end. And it’s just a very multi-cultural area, just brimming with culture and different sights, sounds, smells. It’s a very inspiring place to be.
In a way, residency is also a method to learn about a city. In your case, Semarang. What do you learn from your time there?
I was very intrigued by the social problems that are faced by the residents of Semarang, and how Hysteria worked with residents to find solutions in creative and powerful ways. So that was definitely a very eye-opening experience, hearing about different cultural issues that I’m used to.
Did you already have something in mind about what you’re trying to do, prior to your arrival in Semarang? Or did you have to immerse yourself in the city first in order to determine your plan? Can you describe your plan of work for the city and how did that come about?
I definitely wanted to immerse myself first before I made any sort of decision. That can be quite an unnerving approach for a lot of people. But to think on your feet and to react in the environment that you’re working in, I think it’s important for any artists or arts producer when they’re hoping to create something that has sustainability and longevity in the local area.
How do you wish for the city of Semarang to implement your work?
Well, I hope that this is the first step in many people understanding that arts, and particularly digital arts, can be for everyone. And that it’s not as daunting of a prospect as it may have first been to start experimenting with different technologies. That sort of collaborative approach, melding arts and digital is something that I hope will be further explored by people at Hysteria and Semarang.
Do you have any obstacles in your residency? And how did you overcome them?
I think in such a short period of time, it’s very hard to grasp everything when it comes to working in a new area. But I think there were some differences in approach, in terms of how you would work in the UK compared to how you work in Indonesia. It’s also a very male-dominated space, which is unusual in the UK, particularly in the arts. That took some getting used to for a short period of time. But I think everything was manageable.
Any thoughts on Hysteria as your host?
I think that Hysteria is a very inspiring organization to work with. And I am very pleased that that was the organization that I had my residency with. There was a lot of crossover with how Hysteria and Creative Black Country are focused. But there are obviously different social issues that we’re trying to combat. But definitely, there’s a lot of lessons that I’ve learned and look to take back from Hysteria to the UK.