York Mediale 2020 - People We Love


Jenna Luxon reviews her experience of this year's emotive York Mediale projects.

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Image by York Mediale, 2020

By Jenna Luxon

Six new art projects were commissioned this year for the 2020 York Mediale, a biennial arts festival that celebrates York as the UK’s first and only UNESCO Creative City of Media Arts. One of these projects is People We Love, an installation envisioned by artist Kit Monkman from the York based art collective KMA, that was intended to be exhibited in York Minster throughout November.

The installation is made up of five pillars each bearing one large, high-definition screen at eye level. On each screen runs a different loop of one to two minute videos featuring York citizens sitting alone, in silence, looking at a photo of someone they love.

Inspiration for this project was found in the book The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen by Laurence Sterne, published in York in 1759. The book contains a blank page for the reader to imagine, draw or write about a person they love.

Filming for People We Love took place back in September in SPARK York, a location chosen in part because of its ‘artsy’ reputation and also because of the ease with which it could be transformed into a filming studio space, says Senior York Mediale producer Georgie Saunders.

Seventy videos make up the original reels used in the installation, although the intention was that visitors to the exhibition would have been able to film their own video in a pop-up booth that would have then been added to the exhibition.

Each participant listened to a meditation before being left alone, in silence, in the studio to look at the photo they provided of their loved one. The image was projected in front of the camera lens, meaning that as a viewer of the final installation it appears that the person in the video is staring straight down the camera at you. One of the many who got involved with the project was our Travel Editor, Lauren Craig.

Whilst some of the videos saw people sat with fairly neutral expressions or a gentle smile, there were other more heart-wrenching examples. One video for instance, saw a man slowly break down throughout the silent video. Beginning expressionless, you saw tears begin to pool in his eyes as the video went on before he silently sobbed on the screen in front of you.

Viewing the exhibit, there is no way of knowing who each participant is looking at. Whether that person is dead or alive or what the nature of the relationship between the two people is or was.

This not knowing is exactly what artist Kit Monkman had hoped for with the project, speaking about how to some extent all of us as humans are stuck in our own heads trying to understand each other. Having empathy and trying to understand what someone else is going through and piece together their story is, to him, not only the point of love but in many ways the point of life too.

The five screens are positioned so that the viewer can either stand back to see them all at once or move in to stand directly in front of one pillar and focus on just one video at a time. To look at someone, even a stranger on a video, directly in the eye is a surprisingly intense and emotional experience. It isn’t often that you have the opportunity to really look and study someone else and at the same time not have them be looking at you.

Work first began on this project this time last year. Yet despite being conceived before the coronavirus pandemic, the installation has since taken on new meaning in light of the current climate. Since Covid, we stare into cameras and onto screens possibly more than ever before, and yet how often do we really look at someone as we are encouraged to do in People We Love. Despite our familiarity with videos of one another, truly spending time just looking at someone is still a rarity.

From the Minster’s perspective, director of the York Minster Fund Neil Sanderson speaks about how the theme of love fits in well with the religious calendar – All Saints Day and Remembrance Sunday both fall in November. The five pillars are positioned in front of the Heart of Yorkshire window in the Minster, providing an interesting contrast between the video portraits as the popular modern-day medium for storytelling, and the stained glass window behind that would have been the storytelling art form at the time the Minster was built.

There is hope that the People We Love project may be able to go international in the future as conversations are already underway with the US. For information on how the project is adapting to meet the latest COVID restrictions see https://yorkmediale.com/events/people-we-love/