A bench is somewhere to sit in a public space; to eat your sandwiches or wait for a train; read the newspaper; call or text someone. Spaces on benches usually fill up in a set order – It’s unspoken bench etiquette. Unless they’ve arrived together, people will only sit on the same bench once other benches are taken. Then it will probably be one at each end. Only if there’s more demand, perhaps at a busy railway station, or a park on a sunny day, will someone sit in the middle. Mostly people on benches don’t talk to each other either; they look straight ahead. But sometimes conversations start up while people are resting in these transitory spaces; paused between worlds. This has all changed now, of course.
‘On the bench’ has a few meanings. It can be a term used for a magistrate, or a substitute at a football match. In the urban dictionary it’s slang for ‘between client engagements’ at work. Maybe from the Old English Benc, or Old Norse Bekkr (dictionary.com) the word bench has been around a long time. Tink’s Bench is both artisan and rough-looking, like something you might find at the back of an old shed. It reminds me of a saw horse, or the donkey easels we sat on at art school for life drawing classes. One important thing is, unlike many municipal benches, it’s portable. So Tink can take the bench places and sit on it. I remember the first time I heard that bus stop benches were made sloping, so people couldn’t sleep on them, I couldn’t believe people thought that way.
It takes courage to start a conversation with strangers, unless you’re asking the way. To sit and invite people to sit beside you is a great idea, but I’m glad it’s not my job. Tink can talk to anyone. They can start a conversation and before you know it you’re laughing and seeing the world in a different way. That would make someone’s day. To me Tink has a gift for it, boldness and humour and bravado. They listen well. You’d end up telling them about your granny’s knee operation. For a few moments you’d share something more than just talking about the weather or when the next bus is due. When I moved to London from the country many years ago, I learnt to shut myself off so people didn’t talk to me, especially at bus stops, tubes and train stations. Tink has done the opposite. They have opened up the possibilities.
There’s something about sitting beside someone and looking ahead, like on a car journey, that allows people to talk more freely. Maybe it’s the lack of direct eye contact. Tink’s Bench is perfect for this. The conversations had with people have created layer upon layer of shared moments, personal anecdotes and human stories that have made brief connections across time and space, gender, age, race, class, and experience, neurodivergent and neurotypical. Looking at photos of Tink talking to people on the bench pre lockdown, in a shopping centre with Christmas decorations in the background, you can see how comfortable people feel. Now, it looks like history; a scene from a time when strangers could sit together and share a story without fear of spreading the virus. Tink’s bench invites intimacy, and social distancing has disrupted this. The bench is too small to sit two metres, or even one metre apart. This gives Tink’s Bench an added poignancy and its role as a work of art becomes deeply profound.
I look at photos of empty London benches and they seem to epitomise the isolation of lockdown. Now, more than ever, people need to find ways to talk to one another. We need to share something of what it is to be human.
Sally Baker has an MA in Poetry from Manchester Metropolitan University. She teaches poetry for the WEA and works for The Reader.
Liz Helman is a multi-disciplinary artist, working in time-based media.
She is London based, self-taught and with no formal training as a composer. As a multi-disciplinary artist, Liz has always had an interest in ambient music and sound art as a form of expression. Her work, both visual and sonic, is a response to place and environment. Sensitive to how these energies make her feel, she is interested in the subliminal and sonic exploration of these experiences. By walking the streets, and experiencing different levels of sounds, she begins her process with field recordings, making immersive and mesmerising drone based compositions that explore layers of sound and texture. She very much likes working organically, following the thread of the sound to its ultimate destination, which she likes to think of as sonic alchemy.