I want to use my beady little eyes of a laboratory mouse to stare back at my fellow mammals… what kind of livable world are we trying to build?
Donna Haraway

Last weekend I went to a Northern Arts and Science Network conference in Leeds. The theme was “Dialogues” and the conference aimed to “provide an insight into the varied types and modes of discourse and conversations that are currently emerging from combinatory areas of arts/science research and collaboration… How do collaborations of arts and science manifest themselves?” Given that I am going to be collaborating with a scientist come September, I thought it would be useful to attend.

Following the keynote lectures, the afternoon was devoted to breakout sessions with a wide variety of themes. I attended “Visualising the Invisible” in which Karen Heald (visual artist), Susan Liggett (fine art lecturer) and Rob Poole (psychiatrist) came together to discuss a recently funded project which will seek to present new perspectives into the effects of anti-depressant medications. The aim of the project is to explore the way that patients perceive surrounding stimuli and how this changes once medication has begun. In collaboration with Karen, each patient will make short videos before, during and possibly also after the medication process.

Interestingly, this group was adamant that this project would not constitute a form of art therapy. Karen stated several times that she saw her work with patients as a collaboration of equals, not as a health intervention. I asked her how she felt issues of trust in this collaboration would be handled – especially since the people she intends to work with are a vulnerable group (patients presenting at GP surgeries with depression and about to go onto anti-depressant medication). I worried that it is hard enough setting up a sense of equality in an “ordinary” collaboration – how would two people in such different positions trust each other on an equal basis, regardless of whether the artist is determined to be on an equal footing with the patient? Given that the project will be taking place institutionally, it might be hard for the patient not to feel a sense of passivity (not ideal conditions for collaboration). However to be fair, Karen has had a great deal of experience in working with patient groups, and I agree with her that art is something that comes from the outside to within – which means that art can be made by anybody, given the opportunity. Although I was a bit unsure about the project as a whole (I found it hard not to see it in terms of therapy), I have to applaud the de-mystification of the art process upon which it is built. In the great nature/culture debate, I am always on the side of culture – believing that artists are not born, we are made and so, with a bit of guidance, art can come to anyone who lets it in. I will be watching the project with interest (www.karenheald.co.uk/ablett-residency).

It was a shame that it was only possible to attend one of the many afternoon sessions, but that was more than made up for by the opportunity to mingle with a fantastic mix of practitioners. The best outcome from an artist’s point of view was the palpable sense from the scientists that they were interested in collaborating with artists not for the sake of ticking the “public engagement” box, nor as a trendy route to funding, but because they were genuinely interested in art as a discipline, rather than as a provider of pre-determined end product.


Eek what a week

It started with a trip to Castlefield Gallery to listen to David Medalla speak about his art, his life and how the two have intertwined in the most astonishing ways. I could have listened to him for hours: not only were his stories fascinating (I can’t even begin to convey “Bambi shitting dollars”); but he really relished the telling. Being a poor public speaker myself (wibbly voice, sweaty palms, ballsing up the punchline), I was mesmerised. Also, it struck me that given the ubiquity of communication devices, it’s surprising how few people actually think about how and when to speak to best effect. Our machinery makes us lazy. Medalla, on the other hand, is a master communicator. He finished by taking off his belt, lining it up on a sheet of paper, dropletting ink into the holes (leaving a spot pattern behind) and then shining a torch through the holes of the belt onto the paper… a new constellation came into being. Silence. Magic. Communication.

I had arrived at the gallery late and by coincidence I ended up sitting next to Yu-Chen Wang, as the seat next to hers was the only spare. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said “but I couldn’t decide between you and another artist for the studio swap and so I wondered if the three of us could work together?” She needn’t have worried. Mind? Why would I mind?! It’s bloody brilliant news. Not only will I get to swap workspaces with Yu-Chen and work in the fabulous Chinese Arts Centre residency space, I will also get to work with Geoff Molyneux. He’s done loads of collaborations in the past and he is a wise man. Yu-Chen said she thinks she could learn a lot off both of us, but it’s me who’s going to be spoiled the most in that regard… our swaps and the resulting exhibition/presentation/whatever-it-turns-out-to-be will take place in late April. And all that was only Thursday.

Over the weekend I went to London. Ai Wei Wei’s Sunflower Seeds were beautiful, poignant and overwhelming. In fact, they made my eyes well up as I walked towards them… and then my whole head boggled: delicacy was strength; sameness was difference; fake was real; small was big. I don’t have the skill to express what the work did to me, I can’t put it into appropriate words… it was just brilliant. (However, “Modern British Sculpture” at The Royal Academy was not so satisfying. My main gripe was more with the way works had been displayed, rather than with the pieces themselves… call me Mrs. Fussypants, but if you’re going to stick loads of sculptures in rooms together, at least think about how they work off each other. Some of the sculptures looked like they’d just been left in the place where they’d been unpacked…. but why impinge on the lovely memory of the Sunflower Seeds?)

I came back from London to surprising messages. One was from painter Iain Andrews – he would like to discuss possible collaboration. I’ll be very interested to talk to him, as trying to work with an artist who has such a strong signature style is going to be incredibly challenging. The other message was from Katie at Untitled Gallery (who kindly negotiated my forthcoming installation at John Rylands Library, Deansgate in December)… it seems they want me to keep going after December and show in various rooms round the library over a 6-12 month period. This is an amazing opportunity. I’m feeling all inspired by Ai Wei Wei’s work with the people of Jingdezhen, so I’d really love to do a project with the “Friends of John Rylands”, if they’d like to… we’ll be meeting over the next couple of weeks to discuss.

Finally, Darren Nixon and I hung his show at Rogue Studios’ Project Space – it’s all ready for the opening tonight…

1 Comment

The meeting with Yu-Chen Wang last week was really lovely and I was in a particularly good mood in my birthday sunshine! I went to visit her at the Chinese Arts Centre and happily got to nosey round the residency space again: the main workspace is my favourite – it’s large and bright with a high ceiling and a ladder leading up to a hole in the wall where the sleeping cabin is. The feeling of being set sail to sleep must be quite relaxing.

Yu-Chen talked to me about her work, particularly her performance work, which I found very interesting from a collaborative point of view because she doesn’t perform herself, but rather drafts in professional actors, whom she then directs. Her particular brand of direction/curation/creation is quite unusual I think. I admire the boldness.

As Yu-Chen spoke about her work, I realised that although we hail from different continents and produce markedly different work, we do actually have a lot in common:

· A love of paper – more specifically, the way it curls
· An obsession for composition – stemming from graphic design experience
· A love of objects – their secret humour and potential
· A current wish to tie up various strands of our practice
· Finally, we have both had the odd experience of being presumed to be men (in both cases, it was our names that did it)

After discussing her beautiful and witty work, I walked Yu-Chen over to Rogue Studios, pointing out the “worker bee” symbols on the way – that little bee is always at the back of my mind somehow – and explaining its appropriateness to Manchester’s industrial past. When we got to the studios, I showed Yu-Chen my work and she was straight in there with insightful questions and comments. I was particularly pleased when she looked at my big wall of inspiration (see picture) and immediately got the various threads running through it: “You’re telling a story” she said… spookily, no-one has ever noticed that before – I think most people just think the pictures are stuck up willy-nilly; but as with anything creative, there has to be a reason, otherwise I won’t do it. I think Yu-Chen might be of a similar frame of mind.

Yu-Chen’s plan while she’s here is to do a weeklong studio swap, followed by joint exhibition with a local artist as part of her overall programme of work. She’s meeting a few different artists with this in mind, so I’ve no idea whether we’ll get to do something together, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. If nothing else, it’s been fantastic to be reminded that we work in a world of echoes, coincidences, similarities: someone, somewhere always understands.