Notes from a small town: Wednesday 22 April 2020

Until a few weeks ago I expected to be in Stockholm at this time, not just in Stockholm but at Supermarket Art Fair. Instead I find myself in here the small Swedish town where I live and work. Enköping might ’only’ be fifty minutes from Stockholm by train but it is worlds apart. Knowing that I ’should’ be in the city in the throng of the fair makes the lack of a vibrant art-scene (ANY art-scene) here even more acute.

This morning I am at work. I am putting together educational material and an activity pack for a temporary exhibition that opens in early May. My half time job as the local council’s Arts Education Officer is good – I like the work and really appreciate the regular income after years of working free-lance. The challenge now is making the shift from being very hands-on to producing digital content. It’s an entirely different way of working – one that I am not completely unfamiliar with, however I last worked on online projects twenty years ago and “we’ve all passed a lot of water since then” (as a friend of a friend says). Working for a Swedish local authority in the midst of a health pandemic is undeniably different from working with an overly ambitious internet start-up with initially endless venture capital funding at the height of the millennial internet bubble.

Do I believe in ’muscle memory’? Maybe that’s not quite the right question but somehow I feel the lack of Supermarket viscerally – my mind and body are reacting to not doing something that has become habitual. For the past nine years the fair has been part of my annual cycle, and this year that cycle is broken, it is no wonder that I feel some kind of … what is it that I feel? Am I feeling something like Mr Tumnus feels in Narnia – where it is always winter but never Christmas. Like Christmas, Supermarket is a much anticipated annual celebration, the planning of which is undertaken over many months. During those months an excitement builds and there is a longing for that day when all the various preparations come together. It is with both excitement and nervousness that I pick-up a copy of the magazine/catalogue that I have worked on together with Alice (editor) and Kathi (designer) – that feeling too is absent despite us having completed months of work with the exhibitor’s texts, as well as feature articles and interviews by a host of international artists, writers, curators and theorists. I miss holding the 2020 publication in my hand, and that initial quick flip through the pages to see how it looks before heading off to the exhibitor’s/pnp lounge where I can take a bit more time and enjoy reading familiar words. Familiar they might be, but seeing them in print, on paper, in the magazine, makes them real for me.

At six o’clock this evening I will watch the live stream of Alice, Andreas and Pontus marking what should have been the official opening of the now cancelled and rescheduled Supermarket Art Fair 2020.


Notes from a small town: Thursday 23 April 2020

It was good fun to watch the slightly shambolic live stream yesterday evening. And at the same time it made me all too aware of what we are all dealing with right now. Sweden is one of a very few countries where restrictions on personal movement are relatively lax. A group of artists were able to broadcast live from the streets of Stockholm safe in the knowledge that they weren’t doing anything provocative or prohibited. I wonder how it was received in countries were there are strict quarantines and curfews.

I missed the champagne.

Thursday morning I spent finding my feet with Supermarket’s blog. Making posts with the content we have received from this year’s exhibitors and artists is a great way to see more of their activities and to hear about their plans and projects. It brings home (literally!) the importance of having time and space to share things with each other.

Before heading off to the studio I spoke with friends in London. One of them works on education and community programmes for a couple of the larger galleries in London, she is furloughed at the moment. But what exactly does that mean when you are on a zero hours contract? With no end of the UK’s lockdown in sight it seems likely that she will not be given any hours over the summer which is usually a busy time with public tours and special events. Galleries, museums, and institutions appear to remain closed for at least the foreseeable future. Even the autumn term looks uncertain as even the galleries’ programme managers (with regular hours) have been furloughed so are not at work doing all their usual planning and preparations. I cannot imagine how difficult my life would be if I were still living in London.


Notes from a small town: Friday 24 April 2020

Much smoother uploading of blog posts! Though there are some ’curious’ aspects of making each post – once you choose a ’cover image’ it seems that you can’t change or edit it. This was an issue when I selected an image that had too low a resolution for some screens. The image looked fine, if a little oversized, to me but the artist was not really happy – and I certainly didn’t want to present a poor quality of their work. The situation was resolved by creating a new post identical in every aspect except for the cover image, and then quickly uploading the new version and deleting the older version.

I spent the afternoon at the studio – all too conscious that being able to go to the studio is something denied to many artists living under lockdown in various countries. Over the recent weeks I have found myself working on new series that has been on my mind for quite some time. I am working with second-hand menswear again, specifically business shirts and ties. Shirts have featured in my practice for more than twenty years now. Not always but often second-hand, the shirts have include those that I wore in my first job after art-school, those of my partner, boys school uniform shirts, and donations from friends. But mostly they have been anonymous second-hand shirts sourced in charity shops. I like not knowing the history of the garments (both the shirts and ties), signs of wear on the collar and cuffs of shirts, creases left where ties have been knotted reveal traces of another life. Together the garments and I collaborate to create something new. The current series combines shirts and ties into a single work, previously I have made pieces with either shirts or ties. I am excited by what is emerging and it feels good to working with these materials again after a hiatus of a few years.


I wonder if my return to something familiar is a response to conditions in which we all currently find ourselves. My life here in the small town is pretty socially isolating at the best of times, with the government’s coronavirus guidelines and my own wish to avoid contracting the illness I feel even more remote than usual. While this is not necessarily a problem in itself (I am good at entertaining myself and always have too many projects on the go), The further reduction of what was already limited interaction with other people does affect me. I am grateful that technology affords meeting-up with friends both here in Sweden and the UK via Skype but it is no substitute for sharing real time and space with the people that I care for. Perhaps that sense of material absence is what made me gravitate back to the shirts and ties – literally the fabric of my and other men’s existence. The hours spent unpicking and re-stitching seams, handling garments that other men have handled is perhaps the closest that I dare permit myself to close physical contact. The closest that I come to finding comfort in the company of strangers.

Hours pass in quiet work, the Swedish spring days become longer and longer. A little before seven o’clock in the evening I begin to feel hungry. I lay the separated sections of shirts on sheets of tissue paper and roll them up, place another sheet of tissue over the ’emblem’ pattern laid out in ties, put the pins, tape-measure, scissors, needles and thread back in the sewing box. I switch off the work-light, lock the door and cycle home hoping that a friend’s internet connection has been restored and that we can share an evening together – me in Enköping, her in London.


[This post also appears on the Supermarket 2020 Art Fair website as part of their social media week.  The fair was scheduled to take in Stockholm 22-26 April, it is currently postponed until an as yet unspecified date in early autumn.]


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It’s been an enjoyable and productive week at the studio. I had a day-in lieu and that in combination with Easter Monday meant that I was only in the office for a half day on Wednesday morning. If only every week could be like that – without any detrimental impact to my income obviously! Some of the artists that I know in Britain are also finding themselves with more studio time than usual. Their Facebook and Instagram pages are heavy with the quarantine fruits. Others are finding it much tougher with postponed exhibitions, cancelled workshops, and creative blocks in the shadow of the current situation. Not to mention those who are now having to home educate their children and/or getting used to having their partner also working from home. For all my anxiety about Sweden’s laid backed response to the coronavirus I am relieved that I am able to go about my ’non essential’ work without restriction.



The result? I am making a new series of works which have been floating around my mind for several months if not more than a year (or two). The glitter has temporarily (?) been put aside and I am working with second-hand men’s clothing again: shirts and ties. Each shirt gets deconstructed, it is the two front panels that I am interested in. To remove these in their entirety requires unpicking more seams than I had imagined, and these seams where stitched to be durable. I am fascinated by the way in which the various pieces/panels are attached to each other: narrow interwoven folds hide raw fabric edges, unpicking them reveals that seam allowances are folded and stitched on both the ’wrong’ and ’right’ sides of the component pieces. The shoulder seam is such that the bulk of the fabric sits on the shoulder rather than fall down the arm. The side seam folds backwards, the yoke is a double thickness of fabric. The stitched themselves are short and tight. It can be tricky to get my ’quick-unpick’ under that first stitch. And before that I have to try and remember the best order in which to work. It is hard to express the sheer delight when I find that ’sweet-spot’ that allows me to draw a thread running from the hem up the side of the body and down the inside of the arm. I think that different manufactures follow the same procedure for making up a shirt, I just haven’t quite got to the bottom of it. I am enjoying this kind of ’reverse engineering light’, what I am calling learning by undoing.

The secrets of ties are also being revealed to me as I extract interfacings and remove labels and care instructions. I am very curious about the construction of a tie: there are three distinct sections joined with two diagonal seams that eventually will sit on the back of the wearer’s neck. I assume that this construction enables the tie to follow the fabric of the shirt collar and lie flat in the fold.


I have re-configured the furniture in the studio, the two work tables are now parallel with each other with just enough room to stand or sit between them. One table is high enough to work at standing, the other sitting. This works very well, it feels easy and efficient to move between the tables. Repositioning both tables closer to a larger window was no bad decision either and I am sure contributes to making time at the studio more pleasurable – why did that take me a year to figure out?


Thursday evening I chatted with two directors of the Supermarket Art Fair about my suggestion for inviting exhibitors, staff, and volunteers to post a ’snap-shot’ of what they are doing the week that they should have been at the fair (22 – 26 April). The discussion made me realise that I am not used to being actively involved in Supermarket. For the last eight years I have worked ’passively’ – I wait to hear when the texts are ready to be proofread, I proofread them. Sometimes there is a bit(!) of back and forth about particular texts, phrases or words but that is quite different from proposing and discussing something at a more editorial level. After some brainstorming we have come up with a framework and soon Alice will get in touch with everyone to let them know about it and to tell them how to send us their posts. It’s exciting and it feels good to make a pro-active contribution.



As I was about to close the Skype window a friend in the UK sent a message asking if we could have a quick chat as she had just received an email from one of the museums where she works on education and outreach programmes. The chat was not so quick but relatively quick for us – we can spend hours on Skype! The email let her know that she was now furloughed until the end of the calendar year. She had already been told that there would not be any work over the summer, she was however imagining that schools projects would resume after the summer holiday. Now it seems that she should be prepared for a considerably longer period of rest. The museum pointed out that the future was hard to predict and that things might change which we interpreted as there being a chance of an autumn programme. Interestingly it was not just her and her zero hour contract colleagues who were furloughed, it was also salaried project and programme managers. Our chat ranged from immediate worries and wondering if working as a fruit-picker was a viable option to questioning how museums, galleries and other institutions are going to fare in the aftermath of this pandemic. Is it over dramatic to be concerned that the expected national debt together with predicted economic recession could see severe outcomes for both commercial and funded arts?



In my role as Arts Education Officer with the local council here I am having to adapt and find new ways of engaging with people. This week I have been putting together artists’ kits for families to come and collect as the activities that I had planned for the Easter holiday had to be cancelled. The kits include materials as well as suggestions for activities that can be done at home, there’s also the encouragement to share pictures via social media. Some of the activities are about keeping in touch with other people too – making a postcard to send to a friend or relative, and making something to put in a window so that neighbours and passers-by see it for example. I am also having to think about how my work with schools can be achieved ’remotely’. All of us in the Arts and Culture team are now exploring ways in which we can do things digitally as our traditional methods are untenable in these times of social distancing and self isolation. Any feelings of excitement are more than tempered by the acute awareness of why we are having to find these alternatives.

See me promoting the artists’ kits here

I hope that the artists’ kits offers entertainment and distraction – giving young artists and their families some fun and enjoyment over the coming week.