Changing Stations: An interview with Ben Quash, Professor of Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London
Sacred events like Easter have inspired countless artworks, but for modern viewers, these works can feel distant. The art is beautiful, but much of its meaning is lost.
That’s what King’s College London’s Alight app is trying to change. Alight is a collaboration with the National Gallery and Calvium which gives users a new perspective on artworks that reflect “the sacred”.
Through Alight, users can hear insights from artists, historians and spiritual leaders, all sharing their ideas about what each piece is communicating. The app forms part of a global programme which launched in central London. It has since expanded to other major cities, including Washington D.C. and New York. New exhibitions and trails will appear in other locations in the future.
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In its central ‘Stations’ trails, the Alight app guides people through fourteen points in a major world city. These trails are modelled on Christ’s journey to the cross, and weave through sacred and secular spaces.
We spoke to Ben Quash – Professor of Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London and the originator of the Alight trails – to find out more about how the app brings the Stations to life.
Calvium: Tell us about the Stations of the Cross project, its purpose, and how it came to pass?
Ben Quash (BQ): It started in a conversation with the Jerusalem Trust – a funding body that supports a lot of media activity, including BBC TV programmes that explore art and Christianity.
My idea was to develop an app which introduced people to art collections in a new way. The app would help them to understand that these works of art are not interesting because they represent a history of art, but because they’re talking about important stuff: big questions about life, death, and faith.
Often the presentation of Christian art in galleries and museums sidesteps these questions and concentrates on the story of art, rather than the story of belief. The idea was that we’d have a series of trails that would take people through the collections and introduce them to the devotional impact and force of these works. To ask modern viewers to consider why this art was made, not just how.
Calvium was recommended to us because they have experience of creating trails across cities and through larger geographical areas, not just within a single setting. It opened up the idea that we could do more than a trail through a single museum – which we have done before.
At the same time, my colleague Aaron Rosen, was developing his own idea about the Stations of the Cross Trail across London. We discussed it, and decided it would complement the internal National Gallery trail we had already designed. We started to think about what we could do through apps, and how trails that move through cities might be more effective and interesting to people.
Calvium: Did you have any preconceived notions of what this app might look like or do, and what would have come out of the collaboration with us?
BQ: We initially thought it would be a souped-up audio guide, essentially. But an audio guide isn’t exciting – and galleries provide them, anyway. It’s reproducing a format which galleries are already producing.
Our initial unique selling point was the content, not so much the format – but with the app, we found the format made a big difference, too. There was the difference of content in that people were being invited on a pilgrimage, and then there was the new way of experiencing it.
It was a certain kind of art pilgrimage which encouraged them to ask questions that were bigger than ‘What’s the place of this work in the history of art?’ – actually connecting with quite an ancient practice of moving around a city in a way that was making you think about the journey of Christ to the Cross.
That released a new energy with the Stations of the Cross exhibition that was very exciting. I hadn’t anticipated that, but when it happened I thought, ‘Yes, this is a good use of the app.’
It demonstrated something new in the way galleries are thinking about curation. It broke the boundaries of the museum or the gallery. It made the boundaries more permeable. You blur the traditional dividing lines between sacred spaces, like churches or cathedrals, and ‘secular’ spaces.
People were moving through them all as part of a single experience, which you could make a sacred experience, if you wanted to. You could say, ‘I’m on a pilgrimage and I’m doing this because it’s Lent, and I’m following the footsteps of Christ through London.’ Or as a interesting exhibition that said ‘You can connect works of art and city locations in a new way’.
That, for me, was adventurous, and quite challenging: opening up the traditional distinctions between the different spaces and the different types of art.
Calvium: You’ve done this in a couple of cities now. How important is the actual place itself and how much thought goes into the city you’re showing it in, and the people that are involved in it?
BQ: It’s very important. We’ve gone to big cities – London, Washington and New York. These are world cities, although they are each very different in character. What connects them, is that they are iconic of ‘cityness’ in itself. They’re quintessential paradigms of what the modern city is.
The Stations of the Cross is patterned on an urban experience, namely a journey through Jerusalem: a city that’s iconic in its own unique, sacred way. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all look to Jerusalem as a sacred city.
We’re connecting the importance of a sacred city to the modern city. It’s a meaningful journey, where you’re transitioned from one point to another. But you’re not going shopping, you’re spiritually growing as you negotiate the streets of that city.
The interesting dialogue which opens up is whether modern cities can host the same kind of meaningful journey through themselves as the ancient city of Jerusalem, or are they just grids with nothing significant about them?
Many cities in the last 2,000 years have looked to Jerusalem as a model for how to be a new city in a new context. Rome, Florence, London to a certain extent, and many others, have all thought, ‘How could we be like Jerusalem and how, might we also, have sacred buildings and try and create a sense that this is a godly city, not just a group of people making money out of each other?’
Questions like that have been a part of the philosophy of urban life for centuries. What the app does is treat a modern city like the ancient pilgrims to Jerusalem might have treated an ancient sacred city. To see whether modern cities can be sacred places, as well as all the other things that they are, which are commercial centres, tourist destinations, etc.
Calvium: How does technology factor into this?
BQ: It immerses the user. You could’ve done something like it with a set of blue plaques on the wall, or markers on the pavement, but the sense of an immersive journey is something you only get when you’ve got the visual and the audio material that an app gives you. You can look at a map that’s connecting all this up. You’re not just looking at a map as a description of the city, but you’re in it – you’re engaged with it – whilst you’re hearing the voices and the music that go with it. You’re more connected through the immersive experience of the app than you would be if you were reading a text.
Calvium: Art is a subjective experience. Was there a concern about projecting what you want people to experience through the audio commentaries?
BQ: If you share different perspectives by people who are candid about offering a personal perspective, the user has permission to develop their own personal response too.
It’s not some expert telling you, ‘This is what you have to think about this work’. It’s somebody modelling a response, as a very personal response that they share with you. The implicit invitation in that is for you to come out and develop your own.
We’ve also avoided constructing the audio recordings as a lecture. We’ve done this by using forms of speech that ask questions. Springboarding from the works into imagining different ways that the world might be.
The Alight App is meant to be conversational in its style. We want people to feel that ‘this voice that’s talking to you wants to hear you talk back’. It’s meant to be a first word, not a last word.
Calvium: How does technology alter an ancient experience like religious faith? And also vice versa?
BQ: The visual experience, in religious terms, has been important for people. Seeing is something which people have long connected with the most ancient forms of religious devotion and worship.
New technologies don’t change a very ancient investment in sight as a means of deep insight but do facilitate new ways of seeing. I don’t see a discontinuity between the ancient and the innovative. What we’ve got is a new set of possibilities that have deep roots in ancient patterns of behaviour and experiences.
Calvium: And finally, what’s coming up next for Stations of the Cross?
BQ: I believe that Aaron’s got his eye on Amsterdam. And I’m talking with the Vicar of the University Church in Oxford who wants an Oxford one, which would be interesting, in a slightly different kind of city. An ancient university, rather than a capital.
We might run more than one in parallel, or start with Amsterdam and have Oxford. Detroit is another city we’d like work in. That would be a change of direction, because Detroit is a city in crisis. To take the Stations from cities that are prosperous and flourishing and do one in somewhere like Detroit, would be very powerful and very interesting.
Calvium’s work with King’s College shows how collaboration and app technology can bring art projects to life. Tell us about your idea: Call us on 0117 226 2000 or drop an email to email@example.com.