In recent years we’ve been on a treadmill of commissions without time to reflect and seek new inspiration for works WE’D like to make. This blog charts our progress as we embark on a review of our practice, involving; a series of creative sabbaticals, in Penzance and Leeds; artist-to-artist & strategic mentoring; and website revamp. Thanks to an A-N Review Bursary and Arts Council England GFA support.
This morning we were here to generate ideas. We focused on portraits of people who intimidate us in our neighbourhood, and thought about how we could make this project look as weird as possible.
Our temporary home for our second self-prescribed creative sabbatical is one of the newly converted small ceramics studios run by East Street Arts, at Barkston House in Leeds. We’ve been here a week, and yes we’ve thrown a few pots (not at each other) on the potters’ wheel, and we now appreciate that ceramics has a kind of magic.
This afternoon my mind followed up the mornings work by meandering through possible cognitive interview techniques, trying to imagine what it would be to don the responsibilities and skills of a forensic facial reconstruction practitioner (or do we just employ one), via ruminating on a movement analysis report made with Alex Baybutt on Ryan Giggs’ goal against Arsenal in 1999 FA Cup Semi Final.
It’s hard to put a price on a day like today. Financially, we’re on about £90 per day as per our ACE budget. But that measure doesn’t really compare with value I’m feeling at the moment – we’re we’ve had a whole studio day to think, research, head scratch and develop on a bunch of self-generated enquiries not prompted by another. Time and space to wander are a valuable commodity, and I’m reminded of a tutor on foundation at Northwich College of Art in the late 80’s who declared something similar to the new intake I was part of.
Last week, we were asked to sort and put a price on second-hand bric-a-brac and clothes when we volunteered at the Emmaus project – a charity here in Leeds that helps the homeless, providing jobs and accommodation and support via secondhand retail and a hostel. Sorting through boxes of dead people’s possessions, we’re had to judge whether anyone would buy it (if not scrap), or imagine how much ‘you’ would pay for it (between 1p & £5). Sad to say there was not much ‘retail’ value in the stuff I sorted with lots of 5p plate’s, except for a beautiful deep purple hand blow vase (£3.50), and a 1930’s make-up mirror with curvy legs, a mint condition glass, and an authenticating dust patina (£1.50).
The artist Grayson Perry spoke of a patina of different kind during his Reith lecture last week. Whilst his pieces go for over £100,000 a pop, he spoke of the art world’s ultimate commodity to be bestowed on an artwork is a patina of ‘seriousness’, developed through a consensus of curator and critic validation and the good prices over time.
Seems that value is not all dictated buy how much you yourself put into it…
It became apparent during our conversation with Nina Pope that keeping a balance between self-directed projects and working to an invited or open commission, has been a long-term struggle for many artists, and will continue to be so. We’re not alone.
Nina is an artist/filmaker, who runs a collaborative practice Somewhere with Karen Guthrie. We’re talking about how Somewhere operates, and it’s one of several discussions we’re holding with artists over the coming months to help review our own setup. These will all be artists that appear to be further along their respective career path’s, and each has a wealth of individual experience, which we’d like to learn from.
It turns out that Somewhere themselves conducted a similar ‘review’ a few years ago, and like us they take on site-responsive projects and don’t have a studio-based practice (though this is something we’re beginning to establish). So we had a good discussion about: learning how to say no to offers because it’s not truly what you want to do; different ways of negotiating collaboration, managing the creative and admin workload; balancing family commitments with works ambitions; the importance of networking (we could all do more); the pro and cons of taking on interns, and how important it is to get the right person if your working with project managers, producers, techies, etc. She thinks it’s a beneficial process of learning and trying out new things, some of which stick, others morph or are dropped, and can help you extend beyond a feeling of complacency in your bubble.
We spoke of an ideal that we envisage for ourselves, where we’d have a producer who was an integral part of the creative process, who’d establish a lot of the groundwork for us to build on later – something we’ve seen with Tino Seghal. Nina wasn’t sure about this dynamic because as the artist you lose out not having a face-to-face experience through the lifetime of a project. Indeed she spoke of her joy of maintaining a connection with participants “The Fans” through twitter and blogs. Taking an audience of regular people with you – not curators, or other arbiters of taste – is to her an important part of the legacy of a project.
Nina houses Somewhere’s admin and archive at her London studio, whilst Karen lives elsewhere, with her laptop is her studio and she visits London regularly. They team up for research visits, residencies, get face-to-face as often as they can, but often deal with things over the phone. They have no fixed weekly work meeting, trying one out didn’t feel right. There’s is a close-knit practice, not suited to doing short, small projects. There currently programming The Floating Cinema, but the main focus of their practice is love of making films – there’s a super description of their Bata-ville project in an article here – and these can take years to come into fruition or just be shelved.
What’s interesting about Bata-ville is that it developed from an invitation to do a £5k public art project for the Council, when Somewhere said they’d help fundraise to make something bigger! Nina says they’ve had bespoke funding approaches for their 3 films so far, often writing dozens of funding applications in order to get the one’s that are successful. Different funding bodies have different distribution expectations, and distribution of films can be pretty frustrating. “If you don’t crack the fixed circuit, then your films is not going to be shown”, she says.
We left with a feeling of uncanny kinship, not only did we discover we live a few streets away from each other, but we’ve arrived at some similar solutions to situations with our practice and how to keep a healthy perspective on what it is that we do. It’s a coincidence, but Nina, like Rebecca, is part of a long-running [but different] all-woman artists group that meets monthly to have a good ‘moan’ about the state of things.
The drive back yesterday took 8 hours and we didn’t get home until after dark. Provided plenty of time to think on the happenings of the three-weeks well spent in Penzance, St. Just, and on-and-off the coast around Lands End.
We designed this sabbatical to offer an antidote to an uneasy feeling that’s developed with our practice. Now this isn’t a grumble, but our recent years have been dominated by invited commissions where the parameters are pre-defined (engage with this locality, with this type of work, with this budget, by this date). Whilst demand for our work is positive – as can be the problem-solving mentality that comes when responding to commissions – the imbalance left us with no time or resources to think about what we would really like to make. We feel we’ve lost a sense of where WE are in the work and the excitement for what we are making.
Our time hosted by The Newlyn Gallery & The Exchange was the first of two creative sabbaticals, both undertaken to counter that ‘uneasy feeling’, with the second in Leeds hosted by East Street Arts in October. Three-weeks in each place to reconnect with our work, give our minds and bodies a chance to wander, and come up with some insights that might form the basis for some future works.
So did we create a fertile, welcoming space for those new ideas to arrive? Well, we tried to balance time and space in the studio for creative insight, with activities, encounters, and unexpected and unusual experiences the local area can provide.
At our studio at The Exchange we kick-started our creative juices with various Divergent Thinking tasks, discussions and writing exercises. We also continued drilling down into our past works to rediscover what interested us, and one thing that seems to be a preoccupation for us is breaking things down; analysing and detailing the social, economic, or environmental systems of a place; and believing that when we break something down into its constituent parts we can understand it better and also, possibly, put it back together in a subversive way. We’re also thinking about expanding our visual work, and putting together exhibition proposals allied to public projects, whilst keeping participation at the core of our practice.
Outside the studio, we could have easily filled our time with the abundant tourist offerings. Instead, we felt it important for us to get more of a sense of people and place, so offered free labour to various people and organisations including: a lobster fisherman, Bosavern Community Farm, Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network, and The Women’s Institute. There was also a pole dancing class (not a Women’s Institute initiative), and a morning spent underground with a former miner at Geevor tin mine learning about how they used to work. It’s not that we we’re relying on these activities to inspire an idea, rather that by being open to new experiences encourages flexible thinking which would then help trigger new insights. Some activities that didn’t quite come off were: a day with a professional dog walker, a day at the National National Coastwatch Institution lookout on Cape Cornwall, smelting in Geoff Treseder’s workshop, and volunteering at the Food Bank.
At the end we held a crit-style sharing with locals and artists, during which we introduced various ideas in their early stages (and certainly not perfect) including; an audio piece on decomposition looking at body-time-environment; The Song of The Sad Wind (Film? Score? Performance?); Portraits of Street Harassment; and Research Drawings of iconic and everyday actions and situation using some kind of notation. Some of these ideas excite us more than others, but it’s great we’ve got more than one; they’ll feed off each other as we work on them.
We’re encouraging ourselves to keep loose and undecided. So let’s see how we go …
Spent the day lobster fishing off the Cape Cornwall coast with local fisherman Stephen Tregear. He’d accepted my offer of a free hand for the day, as long as I was fit enough and with the understanding I was working on his his boat at my own risk.
Every summer he runs about 20 strings of 10 lobster pots. A days work consists of pulling up, harvesting, then bating 10 of these strings (100 pots), and putting the catch in his store pots. Today he also wanted to move some strings to safer spots – there’s harsh weather coming in. The ocean was already a bit ‘floppy’. Normally he does the job single-handed, but my job today was to board, stack, and bait the pots; sort the catch; and cast the strings back out. (As an artist my job was to was to have an experience outside of my norm, which this 5 hour trip certainly, physically, did).
Once launched from the slipway Stephen gave some quick instructions on how to work safely; keep a low centre of gravity, a wide stance, and all ropes and pots in front you; how to handle lobster and crab, and what’s undersized and unwanted. How to open, clear out and bait up (herring or white bait) the 3 different types of lobster pot. Finally, how to work the outboard if he happens to fall in.
Navigating between hauling up the strings there was not much talk. The engine, the sea and wind put paid to that. What talk there was revealed Stephen’s depth of knowledge of this environment, and the skills he’s developed to earn a living from it. The tides, the tin mines, geology, history, and especially the lobster/crab habitat 60 feet or so below. I ask how he knows where’s best to lay the pots? It turns out that he’s dived much of the seabed here and knows that lobsters prefer a rocky habitat stretches of sand they can burrow into. It’s as if he’s got a mental map of the sea floor, knowing the spots where the ever-shifting sands could collect. On the boat, (or the giant wobble board) he multi-tasks with an efficient, nimble dexterity honed over 40 years on the job, that put my clumsy attempts into stark contrast. I like to think I improved with practice, and after I’d lost my breakfast to the Atlantic.
There’s no picture to accompany this post. The oil skins, life jacket and thick rubber gloves, combined with the shear hard work and the ‘flop’, made it impossible for me to reach into a deeply buried waterproof pocket to pull out my small snapshot camera. There were moments I wished I could of taken a picture. Fishing off the coast of an industrial heritage site, with the old tin mine chimney stacks and engine houses as if hewn out of the cliffs and the sea spray hanging in the air make for a pretty amazing daily work backdrop. Can’t find a picture of this on google.