Gemma Cairney’s says her new TV project is “genuine collaboration – there’s not a nasty competition element”.
Gemma Cairney has experienced plenty of ups and downs and “quite a lot of injustice” during her 10 years of working in broadcasting.
The 36-year-old presenter says that “having experienced my own hardships being a woman and being a woman of colour in a sometimes very cut-throat industry”, she now feels a responsibility to do her research about the representation involved in a project before saying yes.
“I would advocate for asking who is making the programme as well as what the programme is. Og, ‘Who is watching it? How do they find it? What does it make us all feel and want to do once the programme finishes?’” elaborates Cairney, who was born in Birmingham and is known for her work on BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 6 Music.
Her latest project, Landmark, is a poignant seven-part series exploring the power of public art, which is airing on Sky Arts.
Across six regional heats in England, Skottland, Wales and Northern Ireland, 18 artists compete with each other to create the UK’s next major landmark.
Each episode sees host Cairney, plus expert judges Clare Lilley (curator and director of programme at Yorkshire Sculpture Park) and Hetain Patel (visual artist), visit a different local area where a celebrity guest will join them to help root out the best artistic talent.
The winner of each heat gets to pitch a final national landmark with a budget of £250,000, while the final prize is life-changing – the overall winning artwork will be housed in the City of Culture for 2021, which is Coventry.
The famous faces involved in the judging across the UK are broadcaster Mark Radcliffe writer and poet Benjamin Zephaniah skuespiller Russell Tovey playwright Denise Mina, singer-songwriter Charlotte Church, and Game Of Thrones star Michelle Fairley.
“I couldn’t really believe that this was happening when I first got the email,” confides Cairney. "Jeg var som, ‘This can’t be real! We’re celebrating artists, I’m working with experts in their field, and being asked to be part of an entire series about so many things that I’m interested in.’ And it’s a genuine collaboration – there’s not a nasty competition element.”
The episodes see artists working across mediums varying from ceramics and bronze to LEDs and inflatables, and Patel – who grew up in Bolton – notes how, as well as there being such a diversity of practices involved, “no-one thinks like each other”.
“Clare and I got to visit the artists in their studios, and that was such a privilege, to be able to see people in their creative process, and often at times when you wouldn’t typically have people in there; when you make stuff, you tend not to invite people in at such early, crucial stages.”
Lilley is keen to highlight the “sheer engineering involved” in the pieces of art too.
“To see these people finding solutions for mad things, and then how they handle material and the decisions around which materials to use, how they built their teams – because sculpture always needs a number of people to create work, particularly if it’s going to withstand the elements and be outdoors for months or years on end – was fascinating to us. There’s always something to learn.”
Cairney revelled in being around her co-stars and talking about the art world and art history. But it was also eye-opening travelling to the different regions that make up the UK.
She says: “It’s very eclectic in terms of the history in different places, what the industry might have been in a place, someone’s lineage, someone’s story, the struggle that they may have overcome – whether that be deeply personal or something that’s collective in their areas.”
At the end of each heat, we will see the landmarks unveiled to the local community, who will then deliberate on which piece best sums up their area, alongside the judges. It’s a big decision on their hands – after all, the winner of the series will get to build and create a permanent national British landmark.
“The members of the public gave it considered, intelligent thoughts, and they brought their personal experiences into that, which hopefully we’ll see because some of them were in tears, and really revealed themselves,” reflects Lilley. “That’s something that I’ve seen public sculpture does a lot; people just have conversations.”
At points during the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us have witnessed a real sense of community, with neighbours supporting each other and finding common ground – and public art is undoubtedly another powerful tool in bringing people together.
The inspired creations made throughout Landmark demonstrate the different ways people can express themselves, their identity, and pride in where they’re from.
“I definitely felt that each place we were in had a completely different feeling to the last place that we’d been in, and for interesting and mostly positive reasons – it represented the multiculturalism and the diversity, even of landscape, not just people,” suggests Cairney.
“One of the really beautiful things for me was to see how these artists were in competition with one another, but they were really lovely together,” follows Lilley. “They didn’t see each other until the reveals happened and they saw one another’s work and there was this really genuine sense of support.
“There was a kindness that floated through the whole of Landmark. I really learned how a crew comes together around a series like this, and how everybody has to give their all to it.”
Discussing his experience filming, and Patel enthuses: “The thing that I probably took for granted after a while is, touring around with Clare and Gemma, you’re not necessarily [always] on teams that are like that – where you get on, you have different expertise, you’re learning all the time and it makes it feel not like work.”
Landmark is airing weekly on Sky Arts (Freeview Channel 11) and streaming service NOW from Monday September 6.