Current Concerns (from 2002)
WSI used to be well known for large-scale outdoor spectacular events taking the form of public ceremonies and rites of passage. The 1984 publication 'Engineers of the Imagination' spread the ideas and the techniques across the UK and internationally. The techniques were absorbed more readily than the philosophy. In time, work that was previously considered radical has become absorbed into the mainstream, often at the expense of form over content. 

Apart from the annual Lantern Festival in Ulverston - which still provides a training ground for new or younger artists in large-scale public spectacle - we no longer do work of this kind.

WSI remains concerned with the radical aspects of contemporary celebration, public and private ceremony, and the necessity for art to connect with people and their lives.

In the tradition of the philosopher poets, we're trying to look beyond the surface reality - the media, the imperatives of the market economy - to the generators of ideas, feelings and relationships beneath. This is fraught with hazard and its own illusions. Nevertheless, we believe that there is a reservoir of untapped energy available in the natural creativity of all people, including artists, whose skills and talents are under-used and over-exploited.

Our current concerns are:

Rites of Passage

From a special event such as WSI's major public requiem for the fishermen of Grimsby who lost their lives to German U-Boats to a tiny memorial for a friend, or the celebration of the promise of a lifelong partnership, or the naming of a new child - these occasions remain fundamental to the experience of being alive. Subverted, often with the best of motives, by funeral directors, style magazines, or registry offices, in the name of convenience, fashion, or bureaucracy, we can so easily find ourselves out of control over even the most significant passages of our own lives.  WSI seek to help take back control over the life events that matter - from the ones that our culture still marks (births, marriages and deaths) to the ones that have become invisible (such as becoming an adult).

The artist's role in this can take may forms - celebrant, catalyst, shaman, minister, master of ceremonies, maker of symbols - in support of the people whose natural desire is to make a unique occasion resonate with personal and shared meanings.

Art and Local Regeneration

Ideas ripple out across distances, but we all live somewhere particular. Although we work nationally and internationally, our base in Ulverston provides a natural field centre for work with communities. A programme of unique local festivals, an award winning building, a positive relationship with schools, local government and local business - these are some of the byproducts of the relationship between WSI and South Lakeland.

The annual Lantern Festival (the first of its kind in England, now in its 22nd year) offers a festival of light, a gathering of the community to celebrate before the dark days of Winter.  The Spring festival of flags, designed by local children and artist Shona Watt, decks each particular shop in Ulverston with a unique depiction of its trade.

Ulverston, like many market towns, has struggled in recent years with out of town shopping and changing public tastes. Recently, however, there has been regeneration, with good craft shops, galleries, cafes, restaurants and a delicatessen opening up. Ulverston people are beginning to aspire to high quality and the hand made.

We support the aspirations of local people to improve their environment and to celebrate their lives. We engage with local development groups and we encourage a radical approach to change. 

The Nature of Work

What is the proper relationship between work and art?

In his book 'The Art of Work' Roger Coleman (artist, thinker and co-founder of WSI) argues for -a fundamental reappraisal of the quality and importance of satisfying work as a means of enhancing the lives of the many, rather than the few-. He sees the history of art as -no more than the history of skilled work-.

We agree.  As 'Engineers of the Imagination' (the title of our 1984 handbook) we have worked with all manner of trades and professions in ways that take conventional work skills away from standard production processes and put them to creative use.

We are interested in the potential everywhere to move beyond the homogenous quality of world markets to the added value of the particular - making objects that are beautiful, interesting, stimulating, useful, appropriate, potentially affordable, and found only in one place, and where the maker has enjoyed the process of making.

This harks back to the ideas of Ruskin and Morris, but with a contemporary awareness of the illusion of 'golden ages' and a greater urgency in a world of over-production.

Where and what is the contemporary vernacular,  the imaginative use and transformation of the ordinary materials in your locality to something special, imbued with time and place?

After foot and mouth a new Lanternhouse exhibition 'Picking up the Threads' brought together farmers, makers of felt, rugs, and wallhangings, photographers and installation artists to celebrate the enduring virtues of vernacular materials to express the values of the local and distinctive, and the necessity to maintain a way of life where work, environment and habitation are a daily pleasure.

The Value of Stories

Narrative remains the most extraordinary powerful way of connecting apparently unconnected ideas and events, facts and feelings. WSI works with groups of artists to create distinct, original, individual images around shared ideas, and combines the images to create transformations: a focused iconography with a power to tell stories that matter. 

For the millennium we created SAND, an installation, an environment or garden of contemplation with images and sounds. We had imagined it would be useful or fun to have a keeper of the garden, a wise fool who would tell stories inspired by SAND. In fact, we found that the images and sounds, connected only by space, began to tell their own stories - different stories depending on who was watching and listening.

With DEAD, our Year of the Artist exhibition, we offered artists the opportunity to make highly personal objects for funerals - each one contributing a strand of imaginative narrative to a common theme encompassing both grief and celebration.

In a world where conventional psychological narrative has been mined to exhaustion by television, and where the alternative is presented bleakly as the death of narrative, these simple, imaginative stories remain at the heart of our work. 

And Anything Else

These concerns are not exclusive, but they give a powerful signal about our current focus and direction. We always carry the rider 'and anything else' because the nature of art is its unpredictability. Where next? .Who knows?

Still, by now it should be pretty clear what we're not about - self-referential work, deliberate obscurity, gloss over substance. We're also less interested these days in the work for which we are perhaps best known - street carnival, pyrotechnics, large scale spectacle - particularly where the search for truth and meaning is obscured by pretty lights and dancing colours.