Public Art on Transit – A Conversation with Mariam Zulfiqar

Interview by Rosemary Heather and Yan Wu

The Palace that Joan Built, 2014 Mel Brimfield and Gwyneth Herbert
Live performance at Stratford station with East London Brass and Upbeat Choir
Image by Benedict Johnson.

This series of interviews takes an in-depth look at public art on transit. Artists face a contradiction when making art for public transit. Works can reach a very broad audience, but the chance for engagement is fleeting. Creating a work is further complicated by the conditions of display and the number of stakeholders involved. Artworks need to be long-lasting and/or low maintenance, while safeguarding concerns about the human rights and health and safety of passengers. As such, art on transit is a heightened form of the challenge faced by any artist making public art. In these conversations, art writer Rosemary Heather, and Yan Wu, Public Art Curator for the City of Markham, talk with three public art professionals about the complex job of helping artists make art for public transit. Mariam Zulfiqar speaks about the curatorial role she held with the Art on the Underground in London, UK from 2010-2015; Brad Golden talks about the work he did to bring extraordinary public artworks to the new TYSSE – the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension; and Ben Mills provides insights into how he ushers dozens of projects to completion as co-lead of Public Art Management, the public art consulting firm founded by his mother, Karen Mills.

Mariam Zulfiqar is an independent curator and commissioner. Mariam’s curatorial and research interests are diverse and include cultural policy, interdisciplinary collaboration, moving image, art in the public domain, discourses around public spaces and the history of ideas. As an independent curator Mariam worked with various arts and cultural organisations and commissioning bodies including Film and Video Umbrella, 1418 Now and Art on the Underground. She was previously Deputy Director and Chief Curator at UP Projects. Mariam has guest lectured at international and UK based educational institutions including Goldsmiths, the Royal College of Art, McGill University, Canada and National College of Art, Pakistan. Before returning to undertake her Masters, Mariam collaborated with the diplomatic sector on a variety of cultural exhibitions and events across the UK. In 2013 Mariam was the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Scholarship fund and invited to Barbados to undertake a two-month curatorial research placement. Mariam received a BA in Public Art & Design from Chelsea College of Art and Design and MA in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Art.


Rosemary Heather: To start, could you talk a bit about the work that you have done with public art on transit?

Mariam Zulfiqar: I was at Art on the Underground, the official public art program for the London Underground, from 2010-2015. Our team was small and while permanent commissions were happening around me, I was working primarily on temporary commissions. To give an example of the kinds of commissions I was doing, one of the small but monumental commissions is the Tube map cover. You can pick up a Tube map in any station, it is a small, leaflet sized piece of print and the cover presents a commissioned artwork every six months. I had an amazing time working with a number of different artists, Imran QureshiDaniel BurenTracey Emin and Mona Hatoum; they (and many others) produced a cover while I managed that project over the five years.Tube map covers presented at Piccadilly station. Image by Daisy Hutchison.Tube map cover by Daniel Buren, 2014.

What I always found really interesting about that project, was it’s a tiny small thing that you can pick up in the station and take with you, but it puts art into the hands of literally millions of people every year. It creates an experience where art isn’t this rarefied thing that you do when you go to the museum or the gallery. It’s something you pick up and encounter and it goes into your pocket, and you might scrunch it up and throw it away at the end, but you have this moment with it.

At the other end of the scale is a project I did in 2014/2015 with Mel Brimfield and Gwyneth Herbert. That project was marking what would have been the 100th birthday of pioneering Theatre Director Joan Littlewood. There was an initiative all around the country to mark this 100th birthday with Fun Palaces, which was an idea she had with architect Cedric Price, but they had never been able to realize that project. To mark what would have been her 100th birthday, theatres all over the country were coming together to essentially reinterpret what a Fun Palace could be now. We commissioned Mel and Gwyn as they had been developing an idea around Littlewood for a while and invited them to realise the work at Stratford station, which is one of the flagship stations where Art in the Underground presents commissions. It is located a ten minute walk from Theatre Royal Stratford East, which was the theatre where Joan Littlewood was based. It ended up being a huge project that manifested as a film, drawings, posters, photography and a three hour live performance at Stratford station. Gwyneth Herbert composed eight new songs that were performed with her band, East London Brass and Upbeat Choir. Six months later we had a screening of the film at PictureHouse cinema, which was five minutes down the road from the station, and then also a cabaret in Theatre Royal Stratford East. It was a way of presenting the project within the station, but also anchoring it back into the surrounding community. We worked with about 200 participants in total on that project. There was a very extensive period of research that the artists had done, and because it was a live performance there were a lot of rehearsals. In comparison to the tube map, you’ve got a completely different type of project happening. With the map, they print 14 million copies every six months, so it’s the biggest print run that an artist might get, unless they are doing stamps or money but then on the other end of the scale you have this enormous live performance that happened in the main thoroughfare where the Jubilee line comes in. The station staff told us that 58,000 people would have seen or heard that performance in that three hours. So, two examples of very different projects, reaching massive audiences but being delivered via very different mediums.

RH: That’s fascinating. You mentioned the audience numbers, and it’s quite a unique opportunity. Of course we know there are all types of art projects that could be considered public art—from monuments (historical and contemporary) on to more experiential or social-based works, but rarely does an artist have an opportunity to have an audience that’s that big—and kind of a captive audience. Did you have a way of measuring that, that could determine future projects?

MZ: In the time that I was working with London Underground, they had 3.4 million journeys per day, and we knew that there are certain stations, the gateways to London and intersecting stations are incredibly busy. We also knew that some of the outer stations are not so busy, but we never excluded the quieter stations. We always tried to have an expansive presence across the network because people are choreographing themselves in very different ways. Understanding the way in which the commuter uses each station was important, along with working with station staff to understand impact.

The audience for the work is made up of commuters, residents and tourists—who, for example, may not necessarily be in such a rush to get from A to B. Then you have families, and people with disability access to consider too. In terms of the audience experience, there was no one way of thinking about it. For measuring figures we could track how many people were coming through the station via gate line figures, but all those people don’t necessarily see the work.

On the Gloucester Road platform, for example, which is an empty, disused platform, we know people are going to see the artwork while they are standing around waiting for their train. You can’t escape the artwork that’s there, and some ambitious projects have been on that platform; a recent one was by an artist called Heather Phillipson.

Whereas Mark Wallinger’s Labyrinth is across the entire network, with one in every station and you come across the work in unexpected spaces in each station. New projects were not driven by audience figures, rather by site, context and audience experience.


RH: As the curator, you had the experience of past projects, and that must have been very important for your role in terms of being able to judge if the project was appropriate for this context. Could you talk a little about that?

MZ: Each station is unique and this provides different challenges and potentials. Thinking about the context, audience encounters and engagement are an essential part of my job as a curator but they’re also something the artists are also thinking about. Many aspects feed into what makes a project appropriate. How the work is created and why, and where it will be sited are all important.


Mark Wallinger, Labyrinth, 2013. A multi-part work installed in all of the London Underground’s 270 stations (as seen at, top to bottom, King’s Cross, Baker Street, Embankment, and Green Park stations). Commissioned by Art on the Underground. Photos: Art on the Underground.

Mark Wallinger’s Labyrinth, a permanent commission marking the 150th anniversary of the Tube, is designed for people to go up to the work, run their finger along it, whereas a project like Transporter by Harold Offeh, was created in collaboration with young people from West London. Both are presented in very different parts of the stations.

Again going back to the Mel Brimfield and Gwyneth Herbert’s The Palace That Joan Built, that project engaged academics that had been studying the legacy of Joan Littlewood, as much as it engaged people that remembered working with her, or young people who had never heard of her; in the end, 200 people fed into the project and it mirrored Littlewood’s own ideas on inclusivity. Parts of the project were presented in the station but also back into community venues which also mirrored Littlewood’s approach of taking theatre to the people.

I led on the staff engagement for the 150th anniversary of the Tube because the staff are a major part of how a transport network operates, but they are also another audience for the work we were commissioning. In this context, appropriateness is also about ensuring that the station staff are empowered to talk about the work and have ownership. I took almost a year to complete it all—270 stations on the network needed a visit.


Yan Wu: What fascinates me is how Art on the Underground considers transit as a space, a space to host and disseminate. You mentioned that commissions happen in two streams, temporary ones and permanent ones. The purpose of this interview series in part is to collect working models and ideas that maybe one day can be borrowed and reproduced here. In Canada, besides media screens and advertising spaces, the dominant model of commissioning art in transit is still to do with permanent works, very much like architectural elements. I wonder what kind of infrastructure a program like what you just described requires, in an administrative sense, and on the awareness level? A program that can live with the stations and the entire transit system.

MZ: Art on the Underground benefited from the legacy of Frank Pick, who was Chief Executive of London Underground. Frank Pick wanted people to have a very clear London Underground experience. He commissioned the Edward Johnston fontthe Harry Beck Tube map, the iconic London Underground logo and commissioned Charles Holden to make those beautiful art deco stations on the north end of the Piccadilly line. Art on the Underground was really operating under an enormous art and design legacy that the London Underground has in its foundation. There are Man Ray posters from the 1950s for the London Underground, they were even commissioning textile artists to do the seat fabrics. He was very mindful about branding and Art on the Underground continues that legacy of working with artists and designers.

In that sense what you are talking about Yan, is how to start a program from scratch? I would say, it’s not necessarily about borrowing a model that already exists, but it’s about looking at the situation that you are in, and the context you are in, and identifying what that context calls for and needs, and then building from there up, rather than importing a model coming in, because that model may not work. But if you go from the ground up and do a thorough analysis of the situation, and the context, and the site, and what it is that you are trying to achieve, you may end up building something that is entirely unique and fitting to your network.


YW: Right, very interesting how your program’s origins actually tied into the aesthetic movement at the time, which really was the driving force to make it happen.

MZ: Yes, and also I think every place has its own unique situational politics that’s playing out. Canada has its own politics in terms of the way in which it navigates politically with its own First Nations, and the way in which land is, compared to the UK, much more disputed. The dynamics of a post-settler nation need to be considered. I noticed this also in Australia as well. My sister lived in Australia for many years and I would visit there, and the conversations in those places are charged with a different kind of politics, and those politics need to be considered and inform any model you are creating. In that respect, what you will produce is a balance between the production of art and the production of something else completely. What kind of future are you trying to bring about? And how is what you are designing now working to bring about that future? In that context, the ingredients that you are working with are very different compared to what I was working with on the London Underground. And that’s how you will come up with something that is site specific and situationally specific, it will be unique.


RH: Yeah, I think the concept of ownership, because it’s public space, because it’s public transit, that’s a good premise to start from for a public art program in Canada. In the UK, contemporary art is very much a part of the popular conversation in a way it isn’t here. So we need to focus more on the task of developing the audience. And that’s why the infrastructure pieces here take the more familiar form of this idea of “art in public” rather than an ephemeral or temporary project.

MZ: I see what you mean about ephemeral projects, but I think people are open and receptive to good ideas, whether they are temporary or permanent. Both have their value, it’s a question of figuring out why one would have more value than the other in a given context.

I studied public art for my BA, and the history of how art ended up in the public domain, coming out of institutional critique, and the fact that artists wanted to be beyond the gallery’s limitations or the institutions limitations and were coming out into public space in order to make and present their work, which is a very interesting history applicable to certain geographical and political and historic contexts.

In that respect, I think the Tube sort of becomes this really interesting space, coming back to this idea of “public”. Because the London Underground, yes, it is accessible to the public, but the stations are closed after certain times. Public does not mean it’s just there and accessible all the time. It’s also not free to use. There are all these things that sort of make it sit somewhere between public and private. It’s publicly accessible but it’s privately managed and run. There are all these complex layers in how one gets their head around what “public” really means.Wrapper by Jacqueline Poncelet. Edgware Road station. Image by Tierry Bal.

And I think this idea of contemporary art having a developed audience… in my experience I found people were incredibly receptive to very challenging ideas. I was always really mindful of the fact that I’m highjacking someone’s view. I’m intervening in someone’s eye line, and I have to be really thoughtful about how that intervention happens, both for the audience, but also for the artist. Somebody could be having a terrible day, somebody could be having a great day, you just never know—with 3.4 million people, that’s 3.4 million moods you’re navigating. And then there is the one artist who I am working with. So, there was a lot of balancing that needed to be done around this notion of “public”, and this idea of public space and who gets to have a voice and be present.


YW: I just think about the transitory nature, and think about how durational work can happen in a place, because you cannot control the attention span, you know maybe they give you one second a day…

MZ: Even that, I’d be happy with! [Laughter]


YW: So, thinking about durational, time-based work, and how it unfolds in this kind of environment.

MZ: Two good examples of that are The Palace That Joan Built—the film was an hour long and we had a structure on the mezzanine floor at Stratford station, and the film was just playing for six months on repeat every day. But then within that duration, I’ve got to think about the station staff member who is there for eight hours and has to listen to the same thing again and again. The customer might whizz past it and see a second of it, but the station staff members might call me up and say “I think I’m going to lose my mind!” I always used to imagine that people coming off the train walking past the moving image, let’s say they were a minute different every day, they’d see 60 minutes of a film over 60 days but in completely the wrong order [laughter]. I liked to reflect on how people reconstitute the work given their own engagement with it…

I worked on a project called the Canary Wharf Screen that was a really large screen that we had at the far end of the Canary Wharf Station, which is an incredibly busy station in the middle of the financial district of London. The thing with the Canary Wharf Screen that was lovely was that as you got to the escalators to go down to the Jubilee Line, it was right there in front of you—you couldn’t miss it. I saw people going down and occasionally come back up and walk around and go and sit in front of the screen and watch a film for a couple of minutes.

We invited several different partners to come and program; Film and Video Umbrella were one, the BFI (the British Film Institute) were another, I think Animate, and they all had three-month slots to program what they wanted to program. That’s a really good example of a fleeting experience—you are on the move and the work is on the move too.

Then you’ve got other examples. I did a load of platform-based presentations. I worked with a school in North Harrow…the London Underground had commissioned 100 artists to mark the 100th anniversary of the London Underground symbol, called the Roundel. They had 100 works of contemporary art and we were putting those works in various different frames that they have all over the Tube network. There was a school close to one of the stations in North Harrow and we approached them and asked if their students wanted to be in a group show. We had the students work and the artists work all printed in the same kind of format where you couldn’t tell the difference between the professional artist’s work and the student work, and that was presented on the Metropolitan line. There you have again a situation where you are travelling through several different stations and seeing these frames on the platforms as the doors open and close in front of you. And you’re on the move and the work isn’t. And you could pass that same artwork every day again and again for a year. So that idea of moving—you’ve got a moving train, a moving passenger, and a potentially moving artwork, as well; or, you’ve got a moving train, a moving passenger, and static artwork. I think they all produce different outcomes and different experiences, and different encounters, as a result.


Interviews conducted by Yan Wu and Rosemary Heather on November 11, 2020 as part of Markham Public Art’s Becoming Public Art: Working Models and Case Studies for Art in Public, a nine-week virtual summit presented by the City of Markham in partnership with ART+PUBLIC UnLtd. Framed by current discussions happening at the intersection of contemporary art, public realm issues and urbanism, the summit features working models and case studies that address the challenges and opportunities faced by those working in this constantly evolving field.

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