Pigs Bladder Football – 2012 Open Weekend workshop

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Today I was among a group of twenty or so Cumbrian locals who turned up to the Pigs Bladder Football workshop run by artist John O Shea as part of the London 2012 Open Weekend.  We made history in Egremont today as we were the first people in the 21st century to make a pigs bladder football in the traditional way. Modern balls are designed by teams of engineers to exacting specifications yet in the past, crude balls made of materials such as inflated pig bladders were used. This unusual experimental workshop forms part of a longer term art project and it used the London 2012 platform to launch.
As a prelude to the hands-on activity, the workshop began with a special advance preview of a new short film “Uppies and Downies” (by Tim Brunsden and John O’Shea) which documents the Workington mob football tradition. The film was introduced by Joe Clark – Uppies and Downies stalwart and 2011 player of the series. The film is a graphic portrayal of a community happening and traditional game where thousands of men gather for a scrum with a ball in an event which can only be described as a frenzy of free expression. Joe Clark informs us that each ball  has a story to tell and travels a pitch that is mile and half long for a game that lasts as long as it needs too. The Workington game ran for over 6 hours and into the night.  Joe feels that ‘Allerdale Council should be embracing the game and keeping the tradition’. It used to be a festival event.
The hands on activity began with a live demonstration by artist John O Shea and an explanation of the types of pigs bladders and materials we could work with. The task was to turn these natural organic balloons into bespoke, customised footballs.  John had collected 3 types of Pigs Bladders from an abattoir and materials of wool, straw and helium to work with. We were all given plastic aprons, gloves and a face mask to wear and asked to work in pairs and groups of three. Each group then selected the type of pigs bladder and materials they wanted to use and then we all proceeded to try to make a ball.
The bladder has a small hole which you have to try to get the materials in too. We struggled with ours and cut a couple of inches off it to make a larger opening. We then stuffed straw in to ours and lots of it, over and over as we wanted to make the largest ball we could. Apparently they keep on stretching. Ours split at the neck so we ended up stitching it with string like you would an arm that was cut open and needed stiches.The bladders stink and feel rather disgusting but after a couple of minutes, you get over that and lost in the excitement and interest of making a ball. It feels rather gynecological at first and the territory ripe for ‘hairy ball’ jokes but as the bladder starts taking shape, and a football shaped object emerges, you just feel pride at making something, which in our case scored 10 out of 10 for function. We could actually use our specimen as a ball and we kicked it around and had a bit of a footie game.
When we had all finished making our balls, they were displayed on a line, strung up together on the line which was hung against an iron stained red wall. We have made an impressive art exhibition . Our ball was the largest and looked the most like a football.One group had sprayed their bladder gold to look and it like a xmas decoration (in the spirit of the olympics and going for gold?!). Another group put red and blue ribbons around theirs. There was a purple ribbon placed around one which looked like a turnip, a ball dipped in iron ore powder so it was red and a tiny little brown ball which looked like something you would use for table tennis. The specimens were different shapes, sizes and colours and most had function ie we could name a game that they might be good for.
John asked the group to give marks out of 10 for each ball and in three categories – function, creativity and presentation. The group judged each ball and my group’s ball scored the highest marks for function with 10 out of 10 but overall came in 3rd. Each participant was then given a London 2012 Open Weekend certificate for taking part.
The participants aged from around 10 to 70 and were all from the local area. I wondered why they came. They were not footballers it seemed but neither were they media art goers. Most definitely a new audience for the arts and for Abandon Normal Devices festival of  digital culture who are its producers.
It was a really fun and unique way to spend an afternoon and a well run workshop and excellent example of how artists can engage the public in their creative process. John O Shea is experimenting and searching for the best process for making a Pigs bladder football. He could have done this preparatory work on his own at home or in his studio but decided to involve others in his process which is a lot more fun for him and much more fun for us. I look forward to seeing how this project evolves.
Pigs Bladder Football is a serious arts project and certainly supports the London 2012 vision of like never before. The Northwest is fortunate to have a project like this as part of its programme for London 2012. Doubt any other region has anything like it or anywhere as unique a response to London 2012 as this.
The De Coubertin vision of the modern games as a marriage between art and sport was seen here in Egremont Today.
Photographs of what we made and the specimens themselves will travel to liverpool and be presented in a Pigs Bladder Exhibition as part of the 2011 edition of the Abandon Normal Devices Festival in Liverpool. Though the workshop and the project, the origins of our national game are considered from multiple perspectives and our 21st century attitudes to sport and art discussed. The organisers and artist hope that, through consideration of these “organic bladder balls” new games can be invented, proposed and tested.
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~ by Debbi Lander on July 23, 2011.

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