We were told to “Stay Alert”. To be on the lookout, to keep our eyes peeled. “Stay Alert”, as though we were watching out for something that lurked in dark corners or hid beneath our beds. “Stay Alert”. But to what, exactly? As our collective screen-time ticked upwards - calling, texting, FaceTiming and face-covering - any remnants of alertness turned to distraction. Trapped within the four tight corners of a Zoom call, staring back at oneself, it was hard to feel anything but… distant.

Caroline Wilkins’ latest work, Contactless (2021), articulates that acute sense alienation. The work consists of a series of monochrome Lino prints installed with anti-climb spikes typically used to secure both municipal and domestic buildings from intruders. There is a feeling of disjointedness, akin to vertigo, that alludes to our personal and collective experiences of the past eighteen months. Surrounded by the outlines of a faceless crowd, the central figures in Wilkins’ works are veiled from us by screens; made to protect, connect and, ultimately, separate us. From public displays of gratitude to private expressions of grief, she hints at the control of our bodies by the body politic; played out through our own self-surveillance.

As with much of Wilkins’ work, the double-meaning of language plays a central role. “Stay Alert” now seems farcical, both an admission of guilt and an admonishment of responsibility by this government. As these prints from Wilkins take stock in the aftermath of this earth-changing event, they also look forward and ask questions of the viewer. Beyond the political slogans and in the wake of such tragedy - what lessons are there to be learnt? What should we really be alert to?

This reflects a central concern at the heart of Wilkins’ practice; a belief that the personal is not only political, but that is also pedagogical. Having previously studied Film, Video and Photographic Arts at the Polytechnic of Central London, Wilkins worked as a teacher, teaching Art and PSHE to pupils excluded from mainstream education and in an Alternative Provision Academy. After 25 years in the profession, she returned to a formalised artistic practice, and upon graduating from the Plymouth College of Art MA in 2019, her prolific artistic output demonstrating an ongoing commitment to exploring politics and pedagogy through printmaking.

Wilkin’s works regularly make reference to the human body; from the physicality of her analogue printing processes to the manner in which audiences physically engage with her installations. For Empty but full of Potential (2018), recently shown in ‘Ways of Protest’ at Elysium Gallery Wilkins created a series of seven Lino prints on cardboard boxes. Alluding to Shakespeare’s The Seven Ages of Man, each print represents a different body part, with the boxes forming a site-specific installation that changes formation with each iteration. The work presents a fragmentation of the body that mimics the atomization often felt by those passing through our social systems: from health and social care to education. Wilkins invites viewers to move around the boxes and the site, drawing their bodies in as part of a holistic process of corporeal restoration.

Participation is also key to Wilkins’ works, which regularly invite viewers to contribute their own thoughts and opinions. This is done through a process of questioning, offering humour rather than any notion of tidy solutions. In Liberating Language (2019), an installation based on Wilkins’ experience of teaching, viewers were asked to stand at a home-made lectern and contribute their favourite swear word to a handmade ledger. From this authoritative position, they were forced to question the power, control and sanctioning of language within educational settings, particularly in relation to children once they have been excluded from the educational system.

Whilst Wilkins typically works in monochrome, Lino and installation, her recent practice has seen her engage with colour as part of her burgeoning screen-printing practice. Armchair Protest (established in 2020) has allowed her to work in an agile and reactive manner, using hand cut stencils to make small editions of affordable posters that respond to urgent social issues. She also runs Redruth Press in collaboration with Tony Minnion; a mobile screen-printing operation that opens up the means of production to the wider community. Through workshops that promote accessibility and creative learning, Wilkins continues her ethos of allowing people to develop through making in a way that sits counter to current notions of remote learning.

In Contactless, we see a figure holding a placard that implores us to “Stay Alert.” One feels as though this could have been created in a workshop with Wilkins. Her work does not shy away from asking these hard questions of her audiences, or herself, but always does so with typical wit and generosity. Through a practice that utilises print to interrogate the pressing issues of politics, education and language today, she implores us to stay alert to that which really matters.

by William Rees

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