Last year artist Stuart Semple’s campaign against anti-homeless bars on benches inspired Bournemouth Council to remove them – now he’s recreated the bench for his new show.
Semple has rallied against hostile design in his art for some time. But in his look back at two decades as an artist in Dancing On My Own: Selected Works 1999-2019, he will be using cuddly toys to create a new bench that will banish the memories of Bournemouth Borough Council’s “design crimes”.
Even Professor Green was outraged after seeing Semple’s campaign to remove the bars that were placed on the bench in early 2018. After the rapper and pal Max Murdo went down to the Dorset town to remove them – and a 27,000-strong petition also shouted about how they blocked rough sleepers from lying on them – the council finally caved and removed the bars. The local authority even took the bizarre step of sharing a YouTube video of engineers cutting the bars in the dead of night.
Now, Semple will be showing off a new bench at the Bermondsey Project Space – and he told The Big Issue he is still revelling in his victory against hostile designs.
“It was brilliant! It was so cool to see them remove the bars,” he says. “What’s weird is their attitude to the whole issue of homelessness and rough sleeping seems to have shifted massively over the last year or so. They just can’t be seen to be like that anymore or people will come down on them like a ton of bricks. So slowly, slowly, they are getting the message.”
Big shout out to Bournemouth Bournemouth council for their latest Design Crime. This latest piece of hostile design is…
In the wake of the campaign, Semple set up hostiledesign.org to allow others to call out other design crimes in public, even selling stickers to highlight offending items.
He then followed that up with a large-scale project in the US city of Denver, which included an emotional baggage drop at the main train station and a huge smiley face ‘squished’ between two buildings at the 16th Street mall.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
The idea is to make spaces we all inhabit more welcoming and happy, insists Semple.
“It’s vital. It’s the thing I care about most. It’s about freedom, isn’t it?” he says. “And public spaces for the public, which includes everyone. And it’s not for shopping, it’s not for commerce. It’s actually for the public to connect with one another and experience a moment.
“I think that art can really help, particularly strangers in these situations and dissolve some of the prejudices we have and open things up a bit. That’s what I want to be doing now.”
The new show – Semple’s first London show for five years – offered the artist a chance to look over his past works and take stock of his unusual beginnings as an artist.
Semple became reclusive after suffering severe anxiety and mental health issues as a youngster that was exacerbated by a near-death experience following an allergic reaction to a sandwich bought at a service station.
From there his only avenue to the outside world was through art he made and sold on eBay, allowing him to build up a network of friends across the globe over the internet.
In 2006 that transitioned into an offline career when a chance encounter with Uri Geller led to him selling his first painting to Blondie icon Debbie Harry.
And Semple admits that conquering his mental health demons has allowed him to offer support to fans who get in touch with him.
“My beginnings sort of show the power of the internet really, to bring people together and connect,” he says.
“It is definitely a mixed bag but it can do a lot if you are isolated and to be able to connect to people who have similar things going on was a bit of a lifesaver for me really.
“I’m surprised that – because I’m quite open about what has happened to me – people do write in quite a lot. I try my best to connect with them and point them in the direction of help. I’m not a therapist or anything, there’s only so much I can do, but at least I can say I know what it feels like as well and it can get better.”
Catch Stuart Semple’s Dancing On My Own: Selected works 1999-2019 at Bermondsey Project Space from 9 August – September 7