Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie: Bata-ville
Jane Watt speaks to Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie about their practice, the Bata-ville project and working with Commissions East.
Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie both studied printmaking at Edinburgh College of Art in the late 1980s. They moved to London to undertake postgraduate study at Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art in the early 1990s. Since leaving art college they have each developed their practice as individual artists, but have also regularly collaborated on projects that draw on their complementary experience and skills in performance, installation, digital media and film.
Their unique working relationship allows space for individual concerns and projects, as well as support and development of co-authored work. This balance of mutual respect and understanding has enabled them to build up a portfolio of commissioned and self-initiated small- and large-scale work, as well as allowing them to expand their roles as artists to curators, producers and facilitators.
Through working together Pope and Guthrie have been able to experiment with innovative uses of new technology in artistic practice. One of their first collaborative projects A Hypertext Journal in 1996 is an early example of artists using web-based media as an artistic tool, and the internet as a live public exhibition space. A Hypertext Journal is a twentieth-century version of Samuel Johnson and James Boswells eighteenth-century record of a journey to the Western Isles of Scotland.
Following the success of their early collaborative work, Pope and Guthrie developed their own web domain www.somewhere.org.uk in 1997. Somewhere allowed an online platform for Pope and Guthrie to expand their collaborative ideas that attempted to expand notions of live events and new technology, as well as to engage with new, and sometimes geographically disparate audiences.
This idea was taken further several years later in 2002 when Pope and Guthrie developed their most ambitious collaborative work to date: TV swansong. This large-scale project involved commissioning eight artists projects including works by Graham Fagen, Jessica Voorsanger, Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich. Broadcasting from Blackpool Ballroom to Sutton on Sea, the project culminated in a live one-day webcast.
TV swansong was a self-initiated project, therefore, it was not under the umbrella, or management, of an established arts organisation. Pope and Guthrie soon realised that they could not manage the organisational, financial and legal aspects of a project of this scale as individual artists. Practical issues such as insurance, managing a budget of £250,000, and project management of eleven artists meant that they needed organisational support. In line with the self-initiated nature of the art project, Pope and Guthrie set up an artist organisation called Somewhere. Thus the online platform for their artistic and philosophical work shifted from a virtual presence to a small, but fully functional organisation with a team of technical collaborators with freelance PR support from Ceri Hand and a freelance project manager Georgia Ward.
Following the success of TV swansong, Pope and Guthrie decided to set up Somewhere as a not-for-profit organisation. In order to make this shift, they sought advice from Artquest and used Charity Law Services to help with the legal paperwork.
In 2003 Nina Pope was commissioned by Commissions East to make a temporary site-specific work in East Tilbury on the Thames Estuary for Thurrock Councils Arts generate programme. On her initial visits to East Tilbury, she was struck by the strong presence that the Czech shoe company Bata has in East Tilbury, and after further research discovered that there had been many Bata villages not just across Britain but also worldwide. East Tilbury in the south east of England, and Maryport in the north west, were influenced by a 1930s model developed by Bata in Zlín, South Moravia in the Czech Republic. The shoe factory in East Tilbury is still operational, but on a much reduced scale, the one in Maryport is no longer operational.
The original project brief outlined a self-contained project in East Tilbury with a limited timescale. Pope had more ambitious ideas in mind. Through her experience in working on large-scale self-initiated projects with Guthrie, such as TV swansong, Pope had the confidence to pitch a more ambitious multi-stage project that included Guthrie as collaborative artist, who lives within travelling distance of another Bata location, Maryport in Cumbria.
Pope was aware that there was a limited budget for the project, and proposed that their organisation Somewhere would help Commissions East to fundraise for additional costs that the larger project would incur. Somewhere would then co-manage the project with Commissions East. The fact that Pope could back this proposal up with a track record of successful large-scale innovative projects meant that she was in a stronger position as an individual artist to suggest this departure from the smaller scale brief.
Due to the new need to raise additional funds, Bata-ville was broken down into three stages: the Travel Agency a performance/installation by Pope in East Tilbury during November and December 2003; the Bata-ville Coach Trip to Zlín in September 2004 choreographed by Pope and Guthrie; the Bata-ville film of the coach trip which is planned to be screened in 2005. This three stage approach allowed the installation/event Travel Agency in East Tilbury to take place under the original brief. During this stage and in the following few months, fundraising, planning and negotiations took place with Commissions East for the subsequent stages.
Stage 1: Travel Agency
Pope created her Travel Agency installation within the old, largely disused, Bata factory in East Tilbury. She recreated a strange world that was reminiscent of a 1950s technicolor film set. East Tilbury residents were encouraged to visit the agency during November and December 2003 and to contribute to the installation with their own Bata materials. They could also watch Bata-related films, and, most importantly, fill in an application form to take part in the next part of the project the coach trip to Zlín, the original Bata town.
The application asked for details about why the applicant wanted to come on the coach trip, what links they had to Bata and what they might contribute to the journey. The trip was oversubscribed and the final coach party was selected as ex-Bata staff and residents of Maryport and East Tilbury, and a small number of interested others.
Fundraising and management
Throughout stage one of the project, Commissions East along with Pope and Guthrie, were trying to secure additional funds in order to realise the coach trip and documentary film. This put additional pressure on the artists and commissioning agents, however, successful funding was secured from Arts Council England, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the European Cultural Foundation and Thurrock Council, with an in-kind contribution from the Czech Centre.
The coach trip would require a large amount of organisation as it not only had to be planned, and take place, but also had to be filmed for stage three the production and showing of a film about the project. Pope and Guthrie found the support from Commissions East invaluable: we had a fundraiser/budget manager, administrative support and lots more from their staff team. We then brought in our freelance project manager (who was employed through Commissions East) as an additional hands-on manager for the last stage. Although Thurrock Council put a small amount of funding in to this second stage, they remained pretty involved and interested in the project.
A co-production agreement was drawn up between Somewhere, Commissions East and Illumina Digital, who are the media production company commissioned by Pope and Guthrie to be involved in the filming of the coach trip to Zlín and the production of the Bata-ville film. Pope and Guthrie stress the importance of this type of contractual arrangement as it means that the artists and their organisational collaborators roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. In Bata-ville, this was important for the more complicated stages that were to follow.
Stage 2: Coach Trip
Popes principle role as artist in the Travel Agency had been as installation instigator and performer. The Travel Agency event had been orchestrated at set times and set days. On the coach trip, Pope and Guthrie were performing for ten whole days, with no break from their audience/collaborators. They were dressed in costumes and so were effectively in role all the time. As Pope remarked, the costumes helped us to inhabit a different space. We were like mirror images of each other and we mirrored each others movements. It was a bit like having a type of armour. However, in addition to the art performathon that they undertook, they also maintained their organisational roles, not only for the forty-five people, plus crew project manager, cameraman, sound man, crew assistant and Czech fixer that were on the coach, but also conducted an overall directorial approach to the filming which was crucial for the next stage of the project.
In retrospect, both Pope and Guthrie feel that had budget been no object, a slightly larger production team for the practical realisation of this part of the project would have been helpful. However, their clear understanding of each others working practices and complementary ideas and skills, together with knowledge of how group projects can work, meant that the trip was extremely successful in terms of engagement and artistic outcomes.
Guthrie explained that we envisaged the journey as a space to think about a shared past and future. We chose, somewhat instinctively, a phrase from one of Tomas Batas speeches for the side of the bus which read we are not afraid of the future in English on one side and Czech on the other.
Both Pope and Guthrie were overwhelmed by the generosity, commitment and enthusiasm of the people on the bus, as well as in the town of Zlín, and an impromptu stop in a working Bata factory in the Netherlands. This truly participatory work meant that the performance element of the trip did not have a live audience as such, but more of a live event in which everyone had a role to play.
Stage 3: Bata-ville film
The final stage of the project is the editing, production and screening of a film that documents the trip from East Tilbury and Maryport to Zlín. This way of working is new for both Pope and Guthrie. However, the shift, from a collaborative team of two, to co-producers of a much larger and more complicated process, seems to have taken place fairly naturally. They are, however, finding challenges in their perceived role as artists who are making a film. They wish to distribute the final film to local public screening venues in East Tilbury and Maryport, as well as at film festivals, arts cinemas, and possibly via a television broadcast. In positioning themselves as artists, they have found it difficult to tap into the support network that exists for filmmakers in the south east region. Undaunted by this, they are working with their executive producer and Commissions East to help with distribution and promotion of the film. At the time of writing, Pope and Guthrie were in the middle of editing the film. They hope to launch it in spring 2005.
Bata-ville has not only grown into a project that engages many individuals professionally and personally, it has also expanded Pope and Guthries working practices as individual and collaborative artists. They have been able to respond to the practical challenges that have arisen over the last two years not only through their own experience as a collaborative partnership, but also through their sensitivity to working with a large number of individuals with different needs, concerns and agendas. They understand the strength of their particular collaboration, as well as how to engage and work with other people in order to realise a unique art project which allows engagement on a number of different levels: as installation, event and film.
Commissions East is the visual arts development agency for the east of England and is based in Cambridge. For eleven years it has initiated, facilitated and supported a range of temporary and permanent visual commissions and projects in the east of England and beyond. Commissions East not only encourages clients, such as public and private organisations to commission art for the public realm, but also supports a limited number of innovative projects that are conceived and developed by artists (see www.commissionseast.org.uk for more details about particular projects). In addition to managing commissions and initiating projects, Commissions East supports the professional development of artists who live, or work, in the east of England through a programme of seminars, training and mentoring.
Commissions East was appointed by Thurrock Council in 2003 to facilitate a programme of public art commissions as part of Arts Generate an Arts Council England East initiative that pioneers new approaches to regeneration through the arts and creative industries (see http://arts.thurrock.gov.uk for more information). East Tilbury and the Bata Estate were considered potential sites for art projects because of their rich history and architectural heritage.
Working with Pope and Guthrie
In 2003, Commissions East and Thurrock Council appointed Nina Pope to work on her proposal Bata-ville for East Tilbury. Commissions East has worked with Pope on a number of projects before including A Public Auction of Private Art Works (2001) at Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire. Commissions East has also worked with Pope and her collaborative partner Karen Guthrie on a commission for Cinema City in Norwich.
Commissions East points out that Pope and Guthrie are excellent communicators who can work with a wide variety of different people. Therefore, when Pope proposed to expand the project to a much larger programme of work that would involve Guthrie, as well as residents from Maryport in Cumbria, East Tilbury and Zlín in the Czech Republic, Commissions East and Thurrock Council welcomed the new, larger project proposal.
However, Charity Green of Commissions East admits that the prospect of raising so much money was daunting. She points out that one of the challenges of the project has been dealing with a patchwork of seven funding bodies. Each of the funders has different application, monitoring and reporting requirements, and this amounts to a lot of paperwork and administration. It has also made budgeting more complicated as some funders are very specific about what they will and wont fund.
Role in Bata-ville
Once Popes proposal for Bata-ville had been accepted by Thurrock Council, Commissions Easts role expanded from facilitating the client in commissioning an artist, to helping the artist to realise her ideas in practical, as well as creative, terms. This included organisational elements such as fundraising, project management, financial administration, employing sub-contractors and marketing. However, particularly in the second stage of Bata-ville, there were particular challenges in terms of organisation, both for the artists and Commissions East. Green explains that the build up to the trip was a remarkable feat of planning and logistics, as we had to arrange insurance, transport and accommodation, whilst keeping in touch with all of the passengers. Fortunately, we enrolled the assistance of Georgia Ward who has worked with Pope and Guthrie before, and who dealt with a lot of these tasks. We tried very hard to unburden Pope and Guthrie from mundane concerns, but sometimes this was not possible as their input was vital.
Bata-ville is not a typical public art commission; notions of scale and geographical location are challenged; the usual roles and responsibilities are blurred as the audience become performers, artists become film directors, and commissioning agents temporarily become film crew assistants. What is clear is that its success is largely due to the commitment and tenacity of everyone who became part of the project.
Update November 2006
Since its premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Bata-ville has gone on to screen at SXSW in Texas and many UK cinemas and arts venues. Most recently a Czech-subtitled version has been shown in Zlin and Prague. Since Bata-ville, they have continued to work with film, making a short documentary Lifesize Lilliput as part of the Grizedale Arts project Seven Samurai, based in the village of Toge in Japan. They are currently editing their second feature length documentary Living with the Tudors, due for release in early 2007.
An edited version of this profile was published in the November 2006 Good Practice publication Negotiating your practice.
For more information about Pope and Guthries work visit: www.somewhere.org.uk
Commissions East, St Giles Hall, Pound Hill, Cambridge CB3 0AE, +44 (0) 1223 356882, F: +44 (0) 1223 356883 www.commissionseast.org.uk
Artquest, University of the Arts London, 65 Davies Street, London W1K 5DA, +44 (0) 20 7514 2984 www.artquest.org.uk
First published: a-n.co.uk January 2005.
Updated November 2006.
Post your comment
No one has commented on this article yet, why not be the first?
To post a comment you need to login
© the artist(s), writer(s), photographer(s) and a-n The Artists Information Company
All rights reserved.
Artists who are current subscribers to a-n may download or print this text for the limited purpose of use in their business or professional practice as artists.
Parts of this text may be reproduced either in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 (updated) or with written permission of the publishers.