set-aside – a Sky.l.Ark project

set-aside is a new artwork proposal by Sally Labern and Bobby Lloyd of the drawing shed (originally put forward to the ArtAngel Open in 2014). set-aside is created on the ground within an urban soup kitchen and an island community and in the metaphorical ‘mile high’ space above city and sea. Working with the Alauda Skylark’s complex song, its stranger-neighbour dynamics, and the rich voices of the homeless and activists, asylum seekers and birders, Labern+Lloyd will explore through film, sound, social media and text, the critical need for the ‘set-aside’ in the C21st fracture of the [un]civil. Without making visible the dissonance on the ground, this ‘imaginative’ mile high space cannot exist.


set-aside is a Sky.l.Ark project located in ‘spaces above’ that form an arc across the sky and metaphorically replicate the Alauda Skylark’s ‘mile high’ space – for things heard but not seen, seen but not heard, where humanity can be held in mind, where fear of the unknown is suspended, and the question is open for imaginative possibility, absorption, preoccupation and collaboration.

The east London soup kitchen has fed the homeless each night for twenty years and is threatened with relocation to a hostile environment at the edges of the borough; the local MP’s response is to advocate ‘triage’ not campaign.  Nearby, purposeful clearance of undergrowth on the common land at the edges of the skylark’s nesting ground prevents homeless people from sleeping there. Close to a lighthouse on an island off the Dorset coast is a prison recently repurposed as a detention centre for failed asylum seekers awaiting deportation. In the words of their local MP, ‘it’s still a place for incarcerating people, just different people, with no threat to local jobs.’ This is ‘the uncivil’.

The common land is home to the largest population of skylarks in East London; nearby, local people take their campaign against the closure of the soup kitchen to the high court. The patches of ground carved out of crop fields by island farmers so that birds such as skylarks can nest are visible beneath the lighthouse, itself inhabited by a disparate community of individuals who find freedom of expression through the arc of the birds as they map their paths between continents, creating maps of experience that echo a human diaspora. This is the ‘set-aside’.

And just like the skylark’s birdsong at breeding time, the work is a call and response across communities, extending the enquiry to the edges of the known where the poetry of this work hits the discomfort of the prosaic and bounces up into the mile high space.


Labern&Lloyd have become parallel researchers alongside post-doctoral scientist Dr Elodie Briefer who has studied the skylark’s song, carrying out analyses and playback experiments in the field and amassing considerable material as a powerful resource. At one hundred metres high the skylark bird cannot be seen, while its voice can be clearly and distinctly heard. The song is described in terms of dialects (geographical variations) and complexity (ordering of acoustic units). Skylark males produce one of the most complex song among songbirds; geographical variation exists (dialects): in a given patch, males (neighbours) share several sequences of syllables in their songs, whereas males settled in different patches (strangers) have no sequences in common. Using playback experiments (broadcasting songs with a loudspeaker), Dr Briefer has also shown that dialect allows birds to recognise their neighbours and differentiate them from strangers,  reacting with low aggression to neighbours, compared to strangers (‘dear-enemy effect’). Re-organising syllable sequences within the song, she has tested how fragmented it can become before the bird no longer recognises its own voice – just two seconds of reordered syllables played back to the bird leads to a ‘stranger’ response.

Skylarks nest on the ground, and for Labern+Lloyd this is the grit of the project where the collisions of experience, ideas and form take place. Labern+Lloyd will collaborate with documentary film-maker and photographer Sebastian Sharples to collectively research and capture footage and edit film for new works. The artists will draw upon their own extensive work as socially engaged artists on housing estates, homeless housing projects, post conflict zones, refugee camps, transit centres, inner-city refugee programmes, HIV/Aids centres, Traveller and Gypsy sites. They will explore both the perceived and real fear of danger within communities which itself creates neighbour-neighbour, neighbour-stranger, stranger-stranger dynamics between people – this questioning and exchange beneath the mile high space feeding directly into the work.


Labern&Lloyd will create a series of works in both inhospitable and aspirational ‘set aside’ spaces situated in two communities within the UK and held at the edges of city and sea:

  • A Soup Kitchen close to the housing estate in east London where the drawing shed has had its base since 2009, where a growing community of people silently line up for an evening meal, making visible for just one hour a day the local levels of poverty and homelessness. Here, Labern+Lloyd have volunteered, watched closely and joined with local housing organisations to think through the law and the human response.
  • A Bird Observatory at the most southerly point of the British Isles on the Isle of Portland, Dorset, a decommissioned lighthouse with its glass domed light space still intact, where Labern+Lloyd have already to begun work and develop relationships – noting the thousand skylarks landing unexpectedly on the island last winter, logged by the bird keeper as ‘refugees’, as well as the nearby Verne prison now detaining asylum seekers.

Potential ‘other’ communities of interest will surface – voices challenging, beautiful, dissonant, unheard. Like the ‘set aside’ necessary for the nesting skylark’s safety, they are hard spaces to find, have to be fought for or literally opened up. These may also become new sites for contemporary art works.


Grappling with the [un]civil, and the set-aside, Labern&Lloyd will use sound, film, social media and text to create new works which open up questions that make possible the imaginative and the uncomfortable. Labern&Lloyd will ask, how can the song be re-choreographed, re-sung, relocated; how can the ‘set aside’ be re-formed, the civil reinstated – what is its shape?

Made in dialogue with both locations and communities, the works will be shown in the local, on-line, on radio, as projections and across the UK:

– Sound using recordings and playback, cut-in and cut-out text, including sound recordings from Dr Briefer’s extensive archive.

– Film made with film-maker Sebastian Sharples.

– Twitter – a ‘scored’ performative space (a form developed by Labern&Lloyd in E17 2012-14, and for the Text Festival Bury, 2014), embracing dislocation across the ether, inviting others in, asking questions that have always needed to be asked.