40 Years 40 Artists: Gaada

Interview by Louisa Buck

Gaada (‘gaps’ in Shetland dialect) is a visual arts workshop and artist-led project space based in a former Methodist church on Burra Isle, Shetland. It specialises in working with communities to produce exhibitions, events, publishing and research. Gaada was founded in 2018 by artists Amy Gear (born 1989, lives and works in Shetland) and Daniel Clark (born 1988, lives and works in Shetland) who met at the Royal College of Art where they both studied printmaking. Gear and Clark also have individual art practices, working at the intersection of performance, print, sculpture and moving image.

Gaada took part in the panel discussion ‘Cultivating Communities’ at a-n’s Assembly Aberdeen event in July 2019, in which they outlined their approaches to programming and community narration. a-n published a profile of Gaada in September 2019 which included a video interview filmed at Assembly Aberdeen, in which Gear and Clark described the challenges and opportunities of setting up an artist-led initiative in a remote, rural location. They offered this advice to artists thinking about setting up their own project: “Don’t be scared to go where there are gaps in arts provision. Places where there’s seemingly nothing will be very rich environments.”

In October 2019 Gaada’s exhibition ‘ERRATA (Extreme Remote Rural Artist Travel Agency)’ was included in a-n’s preview of Art Licks weekend 2019. Alongside a body of collective works, in-house travel agents were available to help visitors plan their new life in a remote location, while dispelling myths and misconceptions about artists working in places like Shetland.20 years into the 21st century, what is the role of art and the artist?
Amy Gear: The role of an artist can change from day to day, but ultimately my role is to be as creative as possible whatever the brief, whatever the circumstance, and wherever I am needed. This flexible approach to being an artist is not the most efficient way to burn energy: I want to be a printmaker, a sculptor, a poet, a teacher, an art director, a curator, a community maker and most importantly, an activist. To work like this makes bright sparks fly for brief moments, followed by the deep dull burn of blue screened administrative work for long periods. But then, a petrol nudge from an artist, or a sliver of time thrown on the bonfire and suddenly, sparks.

Navigating the art world during the pandemic has not been much different than having to navigate it before. I never felt I had a map or guide, and the paths that others had set out were built up in cityscapes, or hundreds of miles away. I followed an island. Here was the one certainty. I’d been carrying Shetland around in my lungs since I left for art school, and when I got home I could finally cough it up and spit Shetland on the art world and see what sound it made. A place with no print facilities and hundreds of hidden artists, the most creative thing to do then (2018) was to create an organisation in Shetland that my partner Daniel and I could work in. We teach printmaking and are creating an art world on an island that we are excited about, one which is inclusive and challenging and interesting.

Making a performance about daily sexism is an artwork, drawing a picture that has no deep meaning is an artwork. Creating Gaada is an ongoing artwork. The role of an artist is complicated and tiring, sometimes I wish the fire would just go out, but then, nudge, petrol, sliver, sparks, bonfire.

During the pandemic, while people haven’t been able to go to galleries, I have been focusing on what people can do. They can read (or listen) so I’ve been writing whenever I can strike a match.Daniel Clark: The role of art for me has always been about finding ways to navigate myself and the world. Art and making has played a key role in helping me uncover strategies and tools to articulate, bypass, and occasionally quell, some of the anxiety and worry I’ve experienced on a daily basis from an early age. I’ve found great value in thinking through making – those introspective spaces an art practice can offer, the open channel it provides to accessing new ideas, and the joy that can lead to.

My role as an artist has been to understand that my value is not inherently linked to the exhaustive pursuit of furthering my professional practice, and that as an artist I did not have to choose existing urban art infrastructures as the default frameworks in which I must operate. Accepting this took me a long time, particularly after graduating art college, working in art education, and investing so much time, energy and money into the ultra-competitive art landscape of London.

Encountering the brave work of artists like Rosalie Schweiker and David Toop, and also the long-term, collaborative practice of Balin House Projects, helped give me courage to take a leap and leave the city. I relocated to Shetland and began working collaboratively with artist Amy Gear (and a whole community of artists) to establish Gaada.Our main aim is to remove barriers to regular creative development in Shetland through providing a safe space to access making facilities and creative support. We value skills, share the ones we have, and learn new ones together. As the organisation has grown over the last three years, we’ve been able to add a visual arts programme and artist development opportunities to our regular activities. There is now an amazing community gravitating and growing around Gaada, but it took the Covid-19 for me to fully appreciate how valuable the work has become. It is because of this community that, despite this horrific ongoing pandemic, over the last 18 months we have made many positive achievements with still so much to look forward to ahead.

Meanwhile, the role of art in my personal practice continues to be a quiet, mostly private space where I make drawings, sound works, build microphones, and go foraging with my headphones on. All of this is art, and it continues to play a big role in helping me navigate myself and the world.

What are your hopes for the future as an artist?
AG: I hope that the art world is a kinder, softer and more welcoming place for everyone everywhere. I hope that the artists are valued and that artists can go to bed at night without worrying about how to pay their electricity bills. I hope it’s not all digital. I hope that artists who have babies can get the support they need to keep being artists. I hope art education is completely reformed – from primary school to post-grad. I hope the art world stops any environmentally harmful practices. I hope that the organisations and individual artists who are already working on all of the above are still around, doing good work.

I see myself in Shetland, growing Gaada until it’s just the right size (not too big!) and watching my own personal art practice expand and contract, and change shape and dance from one medium to the next, warm flames on my face.DC: I want to continue developing Gaada as an open and accessible platform for artists to explore the potential of art in remote rural contexts. Through a focus on collaborative working, everyone who accesses the workshop resources also helps to support, inspire and surprise each other. Gaada has a focus on creating more space in Shetland for underrepresented voices, and through this work we are contributing toward a more dynamic and vibrant cultural landscape beyond the workshop. Gaada is the only artist-led organisation and/or art workshop in Shetland and so it feels like an especially nourishing and unique community to be part of.

In the most pragmatic sense, my hopes for the future involve securing a permanent, fully accessible, fit-for-purpose workshop and project space for Gaada in Shetland. Our current space is a 125-year-old chapel which, although beautiful, does limit who is able to access the space. The more visible and accessible we can be the better – especially if we are really going to change our landscape.

Header: Brooke Palmieri exhibition ‘Take Nothing for Granted: Theses on History’, 2020.
1. Amy Gear.
2. Daniel Clark.
3. Brooke Palmieri exhibition ‘Take Nothing for Granted: Theses on History’, 2020.
4. Mari Johnson exhibition ‘Display by Mari Johnson’, 2020.

Louisa Buck is a writer and broadcaster on contemporary art. She has been London Contemporary Art Correspondent for The Art Newspaper since 1997. She is a regular reviewer and commentator on BBC radio and TV. As an author she has written catalogue essays for institutions including Tate, Whitechapel Gallery, ICA London and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In 2016, she authored The Going Public Report for Museums Sheffield. Her books include Moving Targets 2: A User’s Guide to British Art Now (2000), Market Matters: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Art Market (2004), Owning Art: The Contemporary Art Collector’s Handbook (2006), and Commissioning Contemporary Art: A Handbook for Curators, Collectors and Artists (2012). She was a Turner Prize judge in 2005.