Reflections of a wayward artist/writer on the role of art and the artist in society.


NewBridge Fieldwork ::: Berlin ::: September 2012

NewBridge Fieldwork is the first part of a new project and collaboration between The NewBridge project, (Newcastle upon Tyne) and Berlinerpool (Berlin). The intentions of the project are to promote and develop new links, networks and conversations between these two regions and art scenes. Along with Will Marshall and Will Strong (Directors of The NewBridge Project), Thomas Whittle and Arnaud Moinet (artists) I will be travelling to Berlin for 10 days to visit a number of artist run spaces, studios and organisations.

One of our project aims is to facilitate direct engagement, participation and exchange between creative practitioners and organisations, allowing a much greater scope for possibilities, dialogue and widening audiences (rather than relying entirely on these happening remotely). Specifically, I am interested in the possibility of initiating artist/writer exchanges between Berlin and Newcastle which may manifest in a number of ways such as residencies, new collaborative projects and articles (possibly for CANNED Magazine).

As with any scientific/anthropological fieldwork I have been defining some perameters of my investigation in the form of research questions. However, I am in no way limiting myself to these questions they are merely a platform for beginning the investigation…

Q1. What is the role of Art in the larger social ecology of Berlin and its politics?

Q2. What (if any) creative projects in Berlin are addressing real-life problem solving such as changes in the environment and sustainability?

Q3. Are their creative practices and collaborations happening outside of the traditional gallery/artist studio in Berlin? If so, which have been succesful and why?

Q4. How are artists/ creative practitioners in berlin funding their practices? e.g. through Gallery representation, government/other funding, part-time employment etc?

Q5. What is the relationship between art and critical writing/discourse in Berlin? What publications and literary projects are there?

Q6. What do artists working in Berlin consider is the role of education in Art? e.g. how necessary is it? What is the relationship between the art school and practising artist?

Q7. What existing opportunities and infrastructures are there currently in Berlin for artist/writer exchanges?

I am not necessarily looking to answer all of these questions but they provide a starting point for my enquiry, one which I hope is relevent to my own work, the larger arts community at The NewBridge Project and in the North East as well as to the ongoing investigations posed by CANNED Magazine. I will be keeping regular updates on our progress as the investigation gets under way…


With the Launch of CANNED Magazine Issue 3Collaboration, Exchange and Collective Action (May, 2012), I’ve had a lot to think about in regards to the role of art as a locus for exchange, conversation and, occasionally, political action. Working on the magazine – in terms of negotiating with writers, artists and galleries – and through our real-life events (artist talks and A NewBridge Enquiry) has been an exciting conversant process with ideas and perspectives exchanged, challenged and constantly developed. I’m looking forward to pushing these dialogues further both through the collaborations we invite in the pages of CANNED but also through establishing more of those real-life events and opportunities for artists and writers, advancing the dialogue between the North East (and the NewBridge Project) and other cities and scenes, further afield, from Bristol to Berlin and many others…

This week I was fortunate enough to visit Leeds and meet the organisers of both The Woolgather Art Prize and Jon Wakeman from East Street Arts at the Patrick Studios. What was profoundly striking about these meetings was the huge enthusiasm and altruistic spirit of all the individuals involved in these organisations. Woolgather (John Slemensek, Annie Nelson and Chris Woodward) are a boisterous, bright-eyed group of artists who met during their time studying Fine Art at Leeds Met and established the group as an artist’s collective, working together to realise larger, more ambitious projects and initiatives. In its second year the Woolgather Art prize has extended its remit from representing a purely Leeds-based group of artists to one of national scope. Exhibited in the The Loft, an empty city centre venue of vaulting ceilings connected by Victorian staircases, the show includes a huge variety of works from Mike Ballard’s psychedelic, auto-destructive record playersecreted away in a kitchen of industrial proportions to Topical Jungle’s Working Progress (Expansion Scheme) – an organic ‘ideas bank’ for potential new art works and collaborations. The works on display all show a refreshing level of dedication and accomplishment from emerging artists and from the organisers who’ve taken the model of the art prize as both a means to support and promote emerging talent but also, perhaps, as a subtle critique on the notion of ‘value’ and particularly the hierarchy of competitive ‘value’ eschewed to art by its various institutions and commentators.

Whilst I left my meeting with Woolgather feeling enthusiastic and with a renewed vigour for working with others, this was tempered somewhat by the amount and extent of exceptionally bad art I also came across during my stay… Whilst I won’t illustrate my vitriol with names or venues, I’m sure it’s enough to mention that if I see another Karla Black imitation hanging sculpture of plastic bags or am asked to read another 32 page publication in order to qualify a vacuous show of throwaway, reappropriated ideas and materials (which takes all of 5 minutes to generously observe and disseminate), I’m going to cancel my subscription to Frieze, make a pyre of my sketchbooks and take up extreme golf. I find it exhausting as a viewer and an artist whose given up her art-making time in order to write about other people’s art to be assailed by so many unconsidered and/or histrionic gestures. Perhaps I’m a bit jaded because my own artistic practice has been subsumed by writing but, nonetheless, I think there’s a serious issue here about how viewers and writers are used by an artist or organisation… as happy consumers… As I wandered around the galleries and art spaces of Leeds I found myself, on several occasions, cursing the whole establishment and questioning the fundamental necessity and validity of art at all… I wonder if the only way I can be honest in my critiques is to stop accepting commissions and only write about what I think is good art? …Hopefully these feelings will be quelled with the next great show I see but, for the time being at least, I’m just going to watch Herzog films, feed the goslings in the park and read about ship building until either ‘absence makes my heart grow fonder’ or I build this schooner in time for my round-the-world yachting adventure…



As one of the lucky recipients of an ‘Artists Bursary’ to attend the State of the Arts Conference 2012 I had applied precisely because the intentions of the conference seemed to epitomise my own concerns I went to the conference with a great feeling of purpose: to represent our region and the artists and writers I have had the good fortune to meet and work with both here and nationally through CANNED and to act as a channel for some of the conversations, ideas and possibilities presented by the symposium – bringing these back to the North East. But what I left the conference with was not a sense of accomplishment, positivity or of conversations to continue (though I did meet some lovely people and was bowled over by Robert Wilson’s pre conference lecture at RNCM) but rather a profound feeling of confusion, under representation and deflation.

I think what set my unease growing into a fully blossoming voice of dissent was the innate contradiction at the centre of this event “Putting artists at the heart of the discussion”… This frequently cited ethos just took on a hollower and brittler timbre when it became apparent that not a single key note speaker of the day would be an artist; then when, in the breakout sessions, comments and questions from the audience were fielded but not responded to cultivating the atmosphere of a frustrated ‘speakers corner’ rather than a reciprocal discussion. Epitomised, in my experience, when Sir Richard Leese who was chairing Artists and a changing society in the morning calmly said after a round of concerned, dissenting or impassioned comments and (unanswered) questions from the audience:

Let’s put an end to all this negativity.”

Whilst we were constantly reassured that everything from the event was being captured and that somehow these comments and our voices would be readdressed in the future, the morning’s panel discussion seemed to destabilize the certainty in that assertion: Liz Forgan, when asked by Kirsty Wark about the effects of the impending further cuts to ACE said:

…Well Ed (Vaizey) knows that I’m really worried about the implications of the next stage of cuts which the arts council has to do, which is to its own administration…My worry is that, unless its worked out very carefully, what’s going to be threatened is the creative relationship between the arts council and the artists…”

(No volunteered response there from Ed Vaizey note.)

Following Liz Forgan’s comment Sally Lai (Artistic Director, Chinese Art Centre) was very positive in talking about the need to support and protect the ecology of small organisations who form a crucial bridge between the arts council and artists. Whilst this was a strong point and I was glad to hear it at the time, the reality we would experience of the day (myself and many of the artists I spoke to) was that there was a real rift here between artists and those organisations… . At the conference were many Directors, Producers and Chief Executives all with great energy and enthusiasm for the arts… But there was no scope, in the organisation of the conference for artists and those rarefied individuals to meet, to talk, to exchange ideas and experiences. There was no opportunity for artists and organisations to converse in two different languages… but meet somewhere in the middle.

So being an artist, let me break out in some behaviour which would not be welcomed at a SOTA tea party and say that – whilst I was very grateful to be there and to hear some exciting speakers and meet some wonderful, dynamic and creative individuals – I feel like it was a wasted opportunity.


I believe it is our duty as artists to act out, to disrupt the status quo, because this is the only way anyone ever really examines what it is made of. I think we should not only keep asking challenging questions and making troubling statements but I also think we should take real and direct action. Although the likelihood of artists organising SOTA13 is slim to none, I would like to propose it as an action to work on. Who’s with me?

What Matters? A film commission for the Arts Council’s annual State of the Arts conference by artist film-makers straybird (Becky Edmunds and Lucy Cash) featuring Jeanette Winterson & Hofesh Shechter


Q1. Why did you decide to become an artist?

Q2. Why did you decide, after realising what it’s really like to be an artist, to CONTINUE to be an artist?

Q3. And, after discovering what it’s really like, why didn’t you decide to become a teacher, a politician, a doctor, a scientist, or something else instead?

Q4. Can art really affect social change?

How many of us at some time (or even all the time, every day) have asked ourselves one or more of those questions. Skirting through a few of the recent blog entries on Artists Talking I am offered a plethora of reasons for a person’s engagement with art; as a form of enquiry, as a way of (sometimes surviving) life, as a lens/new perspective on the world, as a way to communicate and to initiate dialogues. Of course there are many reasons why we take up (and stick with) art. But it isn’t easy. Aside from the financial hardship, the pain of the unheated studio in winter, the uncertainty and the mountain of rejection letters there is also that persistent, yet all pervasive question of why?

Earlier this week I went to see the film Aung San Suu Kyi – Lady of No Fear at the Tyneside Cinema. Watching that documentary about one courageous ladies’ dedication to democracy and freedom in the face of governmentally institutionalised, violent suppression of the people of Burma, I found myself wondering why am I not doing anything worthwhile?

Well, maybe I was being a little hard on myself. But none of the projects I am working on are changing anyone’s social conditions, or petitioning a fight for freedom… “Maybe” I thought (as I often think) “Maybe I could learn medicine and join Médicines Sans Frontières? Or go back to university and study whatever it is you need to become a charitable project manager?”

As we exit the cinema into the cold air of a damp Newcastle night time, I am reminded however that A). I could not afford to go to University and, even if I could, B). I do not have the qualifications required for studying either Medicine, Languages or even Project Management. But, what I do have is a Degree in Fine Art, a Rogets Thesaurus and a community of dedicated and like-minded artist friends and colleagues. If politics truly is personal then that is where we have to begin. With the personal, with what we know, with the here and now of our immediate social and cultural conditions.

And this is where this blog begins, with a realisation that what I’m doing is worthwhile and an intention to make it more so.

Next Steps

With the next edition of CANNED we have decided to look at Collaboration, Exchange and Collective action both as a theme but as integral to the ethos and intentions of the magazine.

On the AA2A residency, I have begun to establish an open source Library of Ideas (meant to challenge the hegemony of the artist genius and to encourage the free exchange and collaboration over ideas).

Finally, I am curating a show at The NewBridge Project called SUPERCONDUCTOR which explores many of these ideas and intentions.

Whilst I hope these developments don’t mean abandoning my visual practice entirely* I am more confident to pursue them without worrying too much about what’s happening to my visual practice in the mean time… I don’t know whether Art can create social change (though projects like Orsay Commons & the Zero Dollar Laptop Project might suggest an answer) but I’m going to give it a damn good try finding out…

*(I still intend to use the print studio at Northumbria to do some lithography – making artist books etc)

11 for 2011 Artist Films (Iris Priest) by Turning Point North East