Familiar Strangers

Familiar Strangers
Tamsin interviewing passengers on a Connex train during her Year of the Artist residency. Photograph: Hannah Barker.
Familiar Strangers website

Connex London to Brighton Trains, May 2001

Website: www.tamsinwilliams.com/familiarstrangers

The Familiar Strangers website is the resulting culmination of stories from my residency on the trains. It is a network of true train tales collected from commuters, passengers and staff. These I recorded as either written or spoken stories whilst on the London to Brighton Express trains.

I am curious about British reserve and the idea that a silent community exists on trains. As Artist in Residence on Connex trains during May, I actively engaged with passengers on the London to Brighton Express. I aimed to explore passengers’ experiences, memories and observations. I had a t-shirt printed with ‘artist in residence’ on the front and the website address on the back inviting people to: 'share your train stories with me’. Connex sponsored the cost of five days unlimited travel between London and Brighton.

Connex staff and friends were invited to email me train tales, and these were designed to resemble tickets and exchanged with participants’ spoken stories. I experimented with various methods of interaction, casually introducing the project to neighbouring travellers, or walking through the carriages distributing flyers whilst explaining the project. Sometimes I’d walk with the refreshments trolley saying “Coffee, tea or stories!”

I discovered gangs of very sociable commuters in the buffet cars and on the lively 18.06 from Victoria I was welcomed with my Mini Disc recorder. Here, commuters drank bottles of wine, volunteered tales about wild buffet car parties, runaway trolleys and doing the conga along East Croydon platform. They were keen for me to create a commuting drama series which would be “far more gripping than Big Brother!”

Familiar Strangers website

This residency was an opportunity to allow a place and people to be absorbed into my artwork and a valuable space to experiment with new ways of working. Considering I was a potential target for criticism about the arts and public transport system it was encouraging to find people were open to the unusual idea of an artist in residence on a train. Initial amusement was frequently followed by curiosity and enthusiasm. The role of artist as spokesperson became common to Year of the Artist Residencies and successfully positioned us at the centre in raising people’s awareness about our art practice.

Familiar Strangers was part of a series of eight artist residencies in public spaces across South East England during Year Of The Artist in 2000. The residencies were organised by Magnetic South. Magnetic South is an artist group of twelve digital artists based in South East England.

Text published in AN Magazine, September 2001
Residency funded by Year Of The Artist
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