Text by Charlie Clark
For over 400 years, the Historic Chatham Dockyard in Kent has been a pioneer of industrial and architectural technology, employing tens of thousands of artisans in its time. In more recent times, the Dockyard has seen a new kind of technological pioneering, with members of the public climbing through a suspended biomorphic structure made entirely of tape.
This installation is part of the latest venture led by experimental dance company AΦE, who made the Dockyard their home in early 2022. AΦE are known for incorporating cutting-edge technology into their performances, becoming associate artists at the University of Kent, where they launched A+E lab. This project is the company’s new digital and cultural hub, and the Historic Chatham Dockyard is its home.
AΦE have a strategic and pragmatic approach to this new hub, stating its three key strands of activity: the creation and touring of innovative work through AΦE ’s productions, the delivery of community and artist engagement programmes related to technology and culture, and the presentation and curation of high-quality work including artistic residencies.
As part of this last strand, AΦE’s curatorial platform, ALT*Festival, invites other world-class artists to the area to present new, experimental works at the cutting edge of art and technology. For this year’s festival, which took place in spring earlier this year, the company invited award-winning architectural collective Numen/For Use to bring their ethereal, interactive installation TAPE to the Dockyard.
Known for their minimal yet dramatic scenographic designs, collective Numen/For Use are well-practised in creating theatrical environments made to be interacted with. Always ready to be inspired by new architecture and design, the A+E Lab team immediately thought of them when planning their dockyard site curation. Their installation, TAPE, is conceived as a parasite, attaching itself to different architectural hosts and locations. Previously built and installed at galleries like Palais de Tokyo in Paris, it was the perfect way to bring modern creativity into the historical site of the iconic No.3 Slip, a 185-year-old grade 1 listed building in the Historic Dockyard Chatham.
Having a less developed arts scene compared to larger cities like London or Brighton, the collective wanted to ensure the installation would be accessible and engaging for their audience in Medway. Numen’s expert use of everyday objects and materials, from blue tubes to adhesive tape, make for accessible yet visually stunning artworks. Continuously drawing inspiration from natural organic construction techniques, TAPE extended an invitation to the public to venture inside and explore the installation’s expansive cocoon-like structure—a creation that seemed to sprout from the very framework of the building organically.
Working with the local community, the structure took over ten days to build, the team stretched the tape exploring its intensity and flexibility and how the tape weaved together and switched into systems of lines and nets, which ultimately formed two-dimensional skins, spatial organs, and biomorphic shapes for the public to experience. At the same time as bringing an impressive work of contemporary art to the area, the collective were also keen to share skills, teaching those who helped build the work.
The next phase of the installation, after the build, is the audience experiencing the work, which they can do from both outside and inside the cocoon. Then, the third and final phase is re-using the material, which gives a new life to several local community arts groups, such as Mess Room and Nucleus Arts. Looking ahead, AΦE are trying to bring inspiring people to the A+E Lab at different events such as Artists in Residency, Choreographic Coding Lab and AΦE’s own new productions. Putting community and education at the heart of their dockyard residency, the company invites school kids to meet the artists, learn about their processes and work, and show them that with passion, anything is possible.