40 Years 40 Artists: Rat Trap

Interview by Louisa Buck

Rat Trap is a Cardiff-based collective who produce exhibitions and events for artists and musicians to share work and develop their practice. Rat Trap’s focus is on the experience of being live and making work that evolves from collaboration and conversation. Working in often unrecognised venues they aim to blur audiences and formats, uniting the visual art, music and DIY scenes. They also run Rat Trap Studios which are music and visual art studios in the Roath area of Cardiff. Rat Trap’s members are Carlota Sousa Nóbrega (born 1993 in Madeira Island, lives and works in Cardiff); Elin Meredydd (born 1992 in Ynys Môn, lives and works in Cardiff); Gweni Llwyd (born 1995 in Wrexham, lives and works in Cardiff); and Rhys Aneurin (born 1989 in Bangor, lives and works in Cardiff).

Rat Trap took part in a-n’s Assembly event in Cardiff in November 2018, a day of discussion and debate around how to survive as a creative practitioner. In their presentation Rat Trap members discussed their use of unconventional and disused spaces around Cardiff, and described the collective’s purpose as celebrating creativity, testing boundaries and building a community around them with other artists who are interested in experimentation. Their advice for artists thinking about setting up a similar initiative was: “Just do it. Don’t be scared. You might fail, you might succeed, you probably won’t make any money, but do what you like doing”.20 years into the 21st century, what is the role of art and the artist?
Carlota Sousa Nóbrega: 20 years into the 21st century, the artists’ role remains untouched because I believe, there isn’t one.

The proposition that the artist’s work should have a purpose does a disservice to the art world. Firstly, because it disavows art that exists for its own sake and secondly because attributing a purpose to art makes a case for its failure. It creates the impression that artists might be failing their purpose when in fact their work doesn’t necessarily have to have one. It also perpetuates the idea that some artists are failing to fulfil their roles, therefore they are just ‘dead wood’ who should retire and/or ‘re-train’.

The reality is that the arts sector is not necessarily a service provider. Art can be simply the expression of one’s vision and ideas, reflecting on experiences and the world the artist knows. As a consequence of this, the artists’ work tends to reflect the political landscape of its time, not as is its primary function but merely as a by-product of the self-expressive act. Artists indeed have the power to educate and change mentalities, but that is not their role. Artists might raise questions and open conversations, but that is not their role. Artists can bring communities together, but that is because artists can do it, not because they have to. I believe that art is an act of freedom that cannot be limited or contained by the idea of purpose.

There is a general impression that artists should change the world, but the reality is that their art doesn’t put an end to hunger, poverty or war. Ultimately, art has never changed society, social policy has. In a world where artists are overworked and underfunded, if we are looking for a change, we shouldn’t be waiting for under-subsidised artists to make the shift. Instead, we should be thinking more seriously about who we are campaigning and voting for – perhaps opening these conversations through the medium of art, but only because we can and not because we have to.

Rhys, 20 years from now, what do you hope artists and the arts achieve in society and how?

Rhys Aneurin: My hope is that in 20 years, the arts will hold an invaluable role in communities across Wales, being an agent for change, justice and expression. Health, community, culture and language – they will all be intertwined through the arts. Communities across the country will see value in their artists, and local authorities will provide them with the opportunities to prosper, especially when the alternative is chain-store convenience or even worse, empty shops, units and spaces. An arts scene, no matter how understated, is one of the main things that gives a place its identity. And if that dies, so does a part of the unique make-up of that place. We must adapt and embrace the creativity that is on our doorsteps, supporting local ventures and independent thinkers.

We often hear of ‘the death of the high street’ – and while that may be a sad reality, we need the opportunities to fill those gaps with invaluable local inspiration and creativity – benefiting not only the arts ecology, but the communities and economies of which they are a part. The word ‘opportunities’ is of course to be emphasised.

The way the arts are embraced by those in power has a massive impact on the kind of societal landscape we as artists end up being a part of. Governments have a vital responsibility to invest in the arts, not merely as a gesture to us artists, but as a statement of intent in supporting the general public that could benefit so much from the arts in the future. For the arts to become more inclusive, vibrant and strong, we must shift the conversation from how much public funding is given to the arts to how much society benefits from the arts.One of many things 2020 and COVID-19 has shown us is how the creative sector is currently undervalued by our governments and local authorities. The Welsh government admirably made a relief fund available for the creative sector – but it was overwhelmed with requests within minutes of opening, showing how limited we are in being able to support our artists and creative people.

The Westminster government’s long-standing contempt for the arts became more evident than ever this year, adding to the endless list of reasons why we believe that Wales as an independent nation would flourish. Our hopes for the future of the arts in Wales only become reality when we realise as a nation that Westminster doesn’t work for Wales. We can do so much better, but we need the tools and the autonomy to do so. The fate of our arts – and our communities – must, and will, be decided here in Wales.

20 years from now, the arts will have played a leading role in the independence movement, inspiring us to become a self-governing nation.

Elin, what aspirations do you have for the arts in an independent Wales in 20 years’ time?

Elin Meredydd: The improved rail infrastructure of the Republic of Wales will mean that the divide between the north and south will end and the artists in the forgotten rural villages will at last be connected to the larger art scenes in the towns and cities. With more collaboration and integration, we will be stronger as a whole, able to leave Cardiff at lunch time to catch an opening in Caernarfon at teatime.

Due to acquiring the power to decide on our own Air Passenger Duty and re-joining the EU, Cardiff airport and The Republic of Wales’ tourism will flourish. Tourists will flock to our National Gallery overlooking the sea at Aberystwyth (our new rail infrastructure means it takes under two hours to reach by train from any part of Wales). Despite our initial worries that a large National Gallery would stamp out the smaller organisations, that will be far from the truth. Our new ability to have full control over our economic policy, regulation of our own financial sector and with a new freedom to implement many of those ideas that are recognised as essential to our prosperity, the smaller galleries will also flourish with development banks providing loans for those small and medium-sized organisations.

Along with investment in broadband and transport, large energy projects, and new high-tech manufacturing industries, development will be embedded with the values of our country, such as respect for the environment, social justice, and ensuring prosperity and a decent quality of life across all parts of Wales. People will want to stay in Wales and build a future here, but most importantly, they will be able to.

We will remain deeply inspired and connected to our physical environment. The focus on language and landscape will likely still be present and our contemporary visual arts practice will continue to be diverse. There will be an influx of smaller organisations, an inpouring of new applicants to the art schools and universities, and a boom in available residencies. A new national stage will show our co-creative programming, forward-thinking practices in collaboration and audience engagement, and re-thinking of curatorial authority. The Republic of Wales will build our national and international profile and ensure there is a healthy and ongoing creative dialogue across the nation’s borders IN OUR OWN WORDS, not in the UK governments’.

Gweni, if Welsh art schools and universities are seeing an influx of new students in 20 years’ time what will our arts education look like?

Gweni Llwyd: Art education will have care, support and sharing at its core. It will be free and available to anyone who wants to develop a practice, regardless of previous educational achievement, gender, race, ethnicity, class or age. Every town in Wales will have an art school, no matter how big, small, urban or rural. This will allow emerging artists to stay or move to any area of Wales and will hopefully prevent anyone from uttering the words ‘Welsh brain drain’ ever again. These art schools will share civic spaces such as community centres and will repurpose empty buildings, becoming places of production that are visible and accessible to all. Programmes will focus on day-to-day making and life outside of an art world bubble, as well as research, testing ideas and discovery.

In exchange for free education, students will give some of their time to their local community, completing tasks such as litter picking, gardening and babysitting. Students will be able to stay post-graduation if they choose to do so, joining a core teaching staff of alumni who share their knowledge and research with students across Welsh art schools. Of course, this will probably never happen. How do we keep fighting and striving for utopian visions in a difficult, frustrating and often hopeless climate? How can we ensure that positive change actually occurs?

Header: Ella Jones and Hugo Brazâo at RAT TRAP x g39, 2020. Photo: Elin Meredydd.
1. Rat Trap, 2020.
2. Ella Jones and Hugo Brazâo at RAT TRAP x g39, 2020. Photo: Elin Meredydd.
3. Blind Date, RAT TRAP x g39, 2020. Photo: Elin Meredydd.

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.