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Newcastle based artist, writer and blogger Iris Priest is currently one of AA2A artists in residence at Northumbria University. Here she talks to Andrew Bryant about art as an impulse, the driving engine behind CANNED, the magazine she edits, and the binding nature of language.
Andrew Bryant: You are currently an AA2A artist in residence at Northumbria University. Could you tell us about the scheme, how you got into it and what it's like?
Iris Priest: AA2A is short hand for the Artists Access to Art Colleges project (a bit of a mouthful!). It is a national scheme throughout England which matches practising artists with Higher and Further Education Institutions. Essentially AA2A is a two way exchange; artists are given a studio space and access to facilities and resources whilst the institutions acquire (for the period of the residency) professional artists and creative practitioners with the working knowledge they have of being an artist in the 'post academia' world. I heard about the scheme because a couple of friends - Peter Ashley Jackson and Andrew Wilson - were artists in residence at Northumbria University in 2010 - 2011.
Currently 32 colleges and universities are subscribed to the scheme (the full list is available on the AA2A.org website) and prospective artists have to apply directly to their host institutions of choice. Based on my application I was fortunate enough to be chosen for interview and then desperate enough to make it through! It was a valuable ordeal though, having to present my case for a residency to a panel of staff, students and arts professionals... Pretty much immediately upon entering the interview room I became aware that these were all people I would be accountable to and this cemented my conviction.
The residency has been wonderfully consolidating and completely terrifying! It has been unparalleled in terms of the access to resources that it has afforded me (including a print studio that makes me dizzy just thinking about it!) and has encouraged some new and exciting directions for my work as well as some valuable critical perspective. However I have found it hard to come to terms with the context in some ways; having a full time practice which frequently takes me out of the studio means I haven't established as many of the hard-won rapports with staff and students that I had initially hoped to develop. It has been a fantastic experience to engage with the visiting artists programme though - often getting lost in the library - and to deliver my own talks and workshops to students (receiving a mixture of excited and baffled responses).
AB: There's a video interview with you in your blog. You talk about the idea of 'immanence' and the artist as 'bridging worlds'. Do you think art is about pointing to unknown possibilities or espousing a particular kind of world that you would like to live in?
IP: First of all, I don't think it is a case of 'either or' as this might infer a false polarity... I think art can be about either, both and none of those things.
What makes art unique from other forms of communication, I believe, is its potential to undo the explicable, the finite and the tangible and to, as you say, "point to unknown possibilities". I think that language keeps us bound to a world of fixed concepts; a world divvied up into signs and signifiers whereas art doesn't have to occupy the same space or rules of language. It can be (or can conjure) the ineffable, the contradictory and the in between. For example, often art may take the objects or structures of the visible world and - by undoing or volatizing them somehow as in the work of Richard Rigg or Mona Hatoum - may shake our preconceptions, point towards alternative ways of seeing, or stir something inarticulable.
Is art about "espousing a particular kind of world that you would like to live in"?... I suppose much of art is inherently about this because as artists, and as people, we often try to make the world more like how we want it to be. I, for one, am prone to be seduced by the utopian ideals espoused by the work of Joseph Beuys or Rirkrit Tiravanija (however unlikely I know it to be that direct democracy will ever be achieved through art making). I do think that there is a serious danger here (in the utopian project, an argument which has been pitched since the age of the Romantics) i.e. there may be a danger of losing sight of reality. If artists use art in the same way therapists use 'positive visualisation' - as a projection of what we want reality to be - then there is a chance of becoming soothed by the reverie, by the fantastical possibilities offered by art, and failing to question or practically apply those ideals to the real world - to the world outside the studio and gallery, to the space of the everyday.
I can't remember who it was (probably Adorno?) who said that art should make people uncomfortable. I wouldn't go so far as to agree with that in every instance as I do believe there can be real value in occasionally getting 'lost' in art and idealism. However, I do believe art should be about posing challenging questions on the nature of reality, of our preconceptions and situation, rather than simply a mesmerizing divergence from those.
AB: Alongside your practice as an artist and writer you edit the magazine CANNED. What is the driving engine behind the publication and how does it fit into your practice?
IP: The impetus behind CANNED began, very simply, as a knee-jerk response to the lack of sustained, challenging, critical dialogue on art in the region. Along with Rory Biddulph (CANNED Co-Founder) we decided that we wanted to establish a magazine which could offer a platform for perspicuous and forward thinking critique from artists and writers at any and all stages of their careers but with an emphasis on promoting emerging voices and perspectives.
We always wanted the magazine to be a tangible entity and, whilst it exists as an interactive PDF online, that physical relationship between the reader and the magazine is absolutely crucial to the identity, ethos and assimilation of CANNED. In a way the development of the magazine has occurred through a direct dialogue between the printed page, the content and the readers' experience.
In terms of how it fits into my own practice, CANNED has been in complete synergy with the development of my work and concerns over the last twelve months. It has been a bit like a difficult child that has challenged me at every turn; questioning my means and reasons for doing virtually everything, disobeying just about all of my ideas and requests, and often tearing them up entirely! But this experience has been instrumental in forcing me to question my own relationship to art and writing and the ideals which I pursue both through my own work and through the magazine. Namely, it has shown me that writing and criticism are valuable as creative practices in and of themselves which do not simply serve to contextualise and explicate visual art (this assumes that writing always follows art's lead) but develop simultaneously alongside one another; offering a reciprocal dialogue where both forms can at once analyze, feed off and propel each other's development.
When we set up the magazine I don't think any of us realized quite what was going to be involved. Very rapidly we came to understand that it wasn't enough just to 'manage' a process through an open call to submissions but that, in order to cultivate a discerning and far-reaching exchange, that we had to take an active role in 'directing' or 'curating' those dialogues.
AB: I see from your blog that you are curating an exhibition with the Newbridge Project called 'Superconductor'. Could you speak a bit about the project and the show?
IP: Yes, I'm pleased that you asked about 'Superconductor'. In January this year I curated a group show at the NewBridge Project which ran for six weeks and brought together five artists (both regionally and internationally acclaimed); Matthew Donnelly, Ben Jeans Houghton, Ove Kvavik, Kate Liston and Edwin Li.
'Superconductor' came about through a confluence of different ideas and conversations but essentially I wanted to organise a show which underlined the essential role of art in connecting us imaginatively to the world in which we live and to one another. I saw 'Superconductor' as an opportunity - in parallel to what was starting to happen with CANNED - to work with four artists to enrich and propel a dialogue surrounding the role and possibilities of art.
I invited artists to participate in the project whose work I'd experienced first-hand and I think this is crucial; it isn't enough to see work streamed over the internet or printed in a magazine. Viewers need to occupy the space of a work, to engage with it directly. I chose artists whose work is often ineffable, contemplative and open-ended and which invites the viewer to take a more active role in engaging with the 'reading' of the work and the formulation of meaning. I feel extremely lucky to have had that opportunity to work with five very exciting, enlightening artists and I'm still unpacking the legacy of that show in terms of my own thoughts and concerns...
AB: In your blog you seem to be asking yourself what the value and purpose of art might be. Have you reached any conclusions as to the role of art in our society?
IP: You're right, yes, that's a concern at the core of my practice... And the simple answer would be no, I haven't reached any conclusions yet.
The less than simple answer, however, would be to say that I have started to think about the question a little differently... By talking about 'the role of art in society' we are already creating a (problematic) system of divisions where society is one entity and art is another within it. The whole concept of 'Art' as we are using the term* is a relatively new one which emerged during the industrial revolution of the 19th century and which has since been exported to other cultures and retrospectively applied to history.
I think that 'Art' is a natural impulse which has become culturally conditioned and rarefied. 'Art' is something which all children do but which is often lost, or transmuted, by education and societal influences. If I have any idea of what 'the role of art in our society' might be, then I think the answer might come about through exploding the question and from a better understanding of 'what art is' and 'what the roles of art and society are collectively'.
*i.e. 'Art' as the realms of the conscious production and reception of 'Artistic' objects, images and actions.
Iris Priest is an artist and writer based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She is currently one of AA2A artists in residence at Northumbria University. Recent articles have been published in Corridoor8 and a-n. Priest is also Editor of CANNED Magazine.
Read Iris Priest's blog SUPERCONDUCTOR
Andrew Bryant is an artist and freelance editor living in London
First published: a-n.co.uk April 2012
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