Freee at Wysing

For their new commission at Wysing, the Freee art collective took generosity as exemplified not in acts of charity but in those divisive acts that make us vulnerable to public scrutiny such as taking a stand, saying what you believe and going public. There is nothing more generous than sticking your neck out and giving your opinion, especially when it is an unpopular opinion.

With this in mind Freee scripted an elaborate series of ceremonies to be acted out on the streets of Cambridge in which the artists and a select group of invited ‘witnesses’ renamed a selection of the city’s streets along a route from the Court to Kings College.

Revolution Road: Rename the Streets! temporarily occupies the streets of Cambridge with the names, anecdotes and legacy of those 18th century activists who were inspired by the French Revolution to engage in radical political movements in the UK. Following the complex, detailed account of this period of Jacobin radicalism by E.P. Thompson in his book ‘The Making of the English Working Class’, Freee retell the stories of Richard Parker, the unwilling ‘Admiral’ of the ‘Floating Republic’ of the Nore, Daniel Isaac Eaton, one of London’s leading radical publishers during the 1790s who endured a sequence of trials in 1793 and 1794, on charges of publishing seditious libels, and Richard Fuller who was apprehended and condemned to death for giving an inflammatory address to a member of the Coldstream Guards in 1797.

The renaming ceremonies, which took place in one day in August, took the form of an unconventional tour through residential, educational, retail and civic areas, with musical instruments being played along the way and all participants wearing homemade ‘liberty caps’.

The script divided the participants into ‘chalk-holders’ and ‘witnesses’, the former responsible for writing the new names of the places on a blackboard held near to the existing place name; the latter responsible for acknowledging the renaming and proclaiming their assent to the new name in a spoken exchange amounting to a secular christening.

The witnesses played an absolutely central role in the performance. Not merely its audience or its participants in the ordinary sense, the witnesses had a similar function to godparents at a christening or witnesses at a wedding ceremony. The fact that there was no physical or permanent alteration of the street names (the renaming was performed – primarily through acts of writing and speaking), it was essential that the acts were remembered, seen and ratified by ‘witnesses’. In this respect, the video and photographic documentation of the ceremonies becomes an extension of the role of the witnesses.

By inviting Wysing staff to be the witnesses for Revolution Road and embodying their difference from mere passersby by supplying them with red ‘liberty caps’, Freee create a mini, temporary counterpublic in honour of arguably the first fully-fledged counter-public sphere in British history. Radical Jacobin groups such as the London Corresponding Society offer a blueprint for this kind of gathering, fired up with illegitimate political goals and cemented by ceremonial and costume.

Revolution Road: Rename the Streets! is made public (for a second time), in the form of two billboard prints, one on the wall of the gallery the other on the wall of the reception area, and a video documenting all of the renaming ceremonies. A pamphlet containing the entire script will also be available for free during the exhibition.

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