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Paper Peace – Interview with Robert Montgomery

The last few weeks have seen a number of large-scale artworks commemorating the centenary of the end of the First World War. But when we remember war heroes, could we also be thinking about people who fight for peace? That’s the question being asked by Emergency Exit Arts as they launch a new year long project that seeks to celebrate peace and those who work to create it. Paper Peace launches today with the unveiling of a new mobile artwork by Robert Montgomery consisting of a peace poem, which will drive around London before setting off for four towns around the country where it’s hoped it will inspire local communities to unearth peace stories of their own.

Robert Montgomery is a Scottish-born, London-based poet, artist and sculptor known for site-specific installations created from light and text, as well as his 'fire poems'. We met him at his London studio to find out more.

Would you mind starting off by telling me a bit about the piece you’ve been building this week?

The piece I’ve been building is a light poem, which is a sort of philosophical reflection on peace, and the text is, well it’s kind of a poem… it’s not really a poem, it’s like a little set of reflective aphorisms in a way, and it’s just to give a moment to think about what peace is.

So, what does peace mean to you?

When I started thinking about the subject, I realised the thing we tend to miss is that peace is a doing word. Peace is not just this passive state, but actually you have to create peace, and then you have to nurture peace, and then you have to protect peace. And these are activities - they’re not something that happen by accident, and they’re not something you can rely on other people to do. So, it’s a question of education, the nurturing it takes; maintaining peace takes forgiveness and thousands of unseen acts of kindness, and that’s what the text I’m working with explores really.

And what drew you in particular to the Paper Peace project?

When I was a child, when I was ten years old, I was a Christian. I joined Christian CND and had the badge on my little anorak. I was always really inspired by the story of CND - and I also grew up in the west of Scotland close to Faslane where there’s a peace camp - which is like Greenham Common, and I was really inspired by the women of Greenham common and Faslane in terms of their meditation and dedicated protest, and I thought they were the most amazing people. I think of the women of Greenham Common and Faslane as sort of peace heroes, and it got me thinking about the idea of peace heroes and what that would mean because we know of lots of war heroes and we celebrate them, and we should, but peace heroes are not as recognised perhaps.

Can you tell us a little about the process of building you’ve been doing in the studio?

What I’m doing in the studio is first of all writing a poem and then doing a drawing of that poem that we make CAD drawings from, and then we cut letters out on a CNC machine, which you can see is a sort of big flat-bed saw that understands X and Y’s coordinates, so we can give it a line drawing and it can follow the drawing and cut shapes for us. The material that we’re using is recycled plastic, actually it's the first ever recycled PVC sheet that can be used like MDF, it’s made by a company called Filcris. I love the material because I’ve been working for a number of years with this very low consumption LED lighting that you can run from solar power, and I’ve been looking for years for a recycled material that I could cut letters from. We’re attaching the lights and letters to oak frames that then will get bolted on to the steel frame on the truck that will travel around the country and will leave London on the 12th of November and will go to Dewsbury, Stoke-on-Trent, Nottingham and Peterborough.

As the piece travels, the young producers we’re working with in each town and region will do their own peace research into peace heritage in their area, or beyond, and they’ll start to build up a list of peace heroes, which will become part of the People’s Peace Archive at the end.
We’re working with the Peace Museum in Bradford which is an extraordinary institution where they have an amazing collection going all the way through the 20th century of these graphic peace posters that I really love. They have CND posters I grew up loving, but also posters from Japan and Scandinavia and all across Europe and America, and they’ve got this great archive of peace art there and it’s a really great museum, I’m thrilled to be collaborating with them.

The lead partner on the project is Emergency Exit Arts, which is based in South London. They do a lot of work with young producers across Britain, and so that means the young producers themselves are the co-authors of what we do, so the art project is not just my art – my art is a very small part of it, just the beginning of it, it just kicks it off. The work that the young producers do over the next few years is going to be the most interesting stuff because they’re going to be putting together an archive that doesn’t exist of peace heroes, and they’re going to be commissioning other artists themselves to make work locally that will give the project a life. So, an important part of that is also the experience the young producers accumulate by commissioning artworks themselves.

What do you hope might be achieved by Paper Peace?

My hope for the project is that we think about peace in a slightly more diligent way. The text of the poem says: Peace is the dream of a shared human soul that we build every day with forgiveness and kindness and hope / a hundred years and the dream never ends / all our tomorrows are fragile/ the peace builders are heroes of kindness. On the 12th November it is a hundred years since the first day of peace after WW1. Of course, we haven’t had a century of peace, we’ve had a century where, hopefully, through acts of diplomacy and understanding we’ve managed to avoid all the wars we could have had, but we've also had a century of conflict and many wars. But I wonder what it takes to build a society where we can avoid all wars, and that ambition is clearly still quite far away from us.

I think the society that could achieve a world free of war will have to be a society with a much richer ecological commitment to preserving the health of life on the planet, because undoubtedly, the ecological crises that we’re about to encounter over the next 50 years due to excess carbon consumption will cause geo-political strife that could very easily become the driver of conflict and wars. And so, I think it’s a very urgent question that when we think about peace for the next 100 years we make a commitment to reversing the ecological damage were doing to the planet, because if we don’t we’ll be in a situation where we have climate crisis and food shortages, and these things aren’t going to be great for peace. We are 100 years from the end of WW1 but I fear we are in a much more fragile moment than we think.

To find out more about Paper Peace, visit eea.org.uk