- HM Prison the Verne
- South West England
“A high wall, razor wire and closed circuit television cameras surround you. Beyond that there is a 15m drop into a dry moat originally built by prisoners in 1847 to keep people out, not in. There is one road on and off the island … Oh, and if you want to go to the toilet, then please ask permission first.” ‘Housekeeping’ at symposia is usually a routine procedure quickly dispatched and proceeded from, but on the first day of the b-side symposium Resonant Terrains in the chapel of HM Prison The Verne, Portland, it made visible the spatial framework within which ‘delegates’ were situated. On entry to the countless lobbies, waiting areas and courtyards preceding the chapel, momentarily divested of my camera, phone and any recording device, I was unable to memorise a poster with a list of instructions prison guards must follow when conducting a full body search. Yet, the endlessness of this list made me acutely aware of the actions and codes of behaviour that support the architectural apparatus that Alan Rogers, Executive Director of b-side, described in his opening introduction.
Resonant Terrains symposium was a prelude to b-side multimedia arts festival, which takes place biennially between Weymouth and Portland. Begun in 2008, the next festival will take place in September 2014 in sites across the island, including the prison. With a focus on site-specific works and processes, the question of the symposium asked: “If festivals are the new platform, and sites the new venues, what can they offer and what can’t they offer artists, curators and audiences?”
‘Walls, Doors and Strata,’ was the keynote performance by artist Phil Smith, who recounted, through anecdote, performance and audience interaction, how walls, boundaries and hierarchies of place are performed differently in different spaces, different times and through different memories. Smith’s presentation aligned with the performative nature of our entry to the symposium and reminded me of theorist/critic Mark Cousins’ description of the wall as a ‘complex apparatus of security’ that performs as a symbolic marker of division (Condorelli 2009). For Cousins, the wall is not a wall in itself but requires supplementary apparati to function as barrier or divider.
In a very different talk, James Lucas, the prison Governor, referred to the shifting nature of this supplementary apparati. He described how the prison’s imminent change to an Immigration Removal Centre, marked by the departure of the last prisoner on the day of the symposium, brings with it new questions around ethics and new training for staff. Quoting T.S. Elliot, he signalled a need within this context for art as an exploratory device. Peter Heslip, Director Visual Arts, Arts Council England, further reinforced this need. In his description of artists as ‘agitators,’ Heslip referenced curators Claire Doherty and Sally Tallant, among others, and concluded by quoting artist Gavin Wade on the value of art: “artists (and arts organisations) – they don’t give you what you asked for.” Immediately, the question of the social role of the artist was foregrounded. In conversation with Simon Ryder, artist in residence at HM The Verne for b-side 2014, we discussed his conversations with the Governor, which so far have focused on the modifications of disciplinary procedures associated with staff re-training and the connection to and challenging of the existing prison architecture as well as the risks associated with opening the prison doors to an artist.
The theme of questions around the benefit of festival-based art and for whom recurred throughout the two days of the symposium. I asked Alan Rogers how the notion that ‘artist’s don’t give you what you ask for’ is productive in relation to festivals and in the context of current commissioning processes from Local Authorities where artists become ‘service providers.’ Rogers identified a “risk of suffering mission drift” in these processes, where artists and arts organisations “become subject to someone else’s agenda,” and questioned the top-down evidenced-based focus on ‘priority communities’ to produce a ‘correct’ project. Instead, he proposed the model of b-side where “links with people on the ground … develop projects that take a risk, based on sound knowledge and several years of work.” For Rogers, the key thing is “the fact that we are all limited by our experience; limited by what we know and have seen already. There is a danger in diluting a project if you try to please everyone … projects must be challenging in some way.”
After the opening talks, a series of walks and tours lead us to different sites across Portland. I joined Sue Palmer and Joff Winterhart for ‘Walks and Conversations with Sue and Joff.’ The walk promised to explore ‘unexamined corners, signage and human life.’ I was not disappointed. We meandered through narrow routes, in-between back-gardens, across wastelands and were given a guided tour of ‘Martin’s Garden’ by Portland resident Martin himself. Near the end of the walk we were invited, in groups of 3, to enter a Barber’s shop in Fortuneswell. The ‘Barber,’ a woman in her 40s, looked up briefly from her duties, while a local volunteer/friend of b-side pointed out old photographs of the high street among a plethora of press cuttings and memorabilia on display next to various hairdressing implements. It was an unexpected and delightful insight into a space of display between public and private, commercial and social, where people come to make themselves presentable while exchanging local news. Invited in, a simple step through a doorway told a completely different story. The only action of the artists: to make the connection; to make the space visible.
I asked Sally Watkins, b-side curator, about this potential for re-casting and re-viewing places through performative practices/artworks. She described how these types of works can allow “audiences and specifically local audiences” to “see and review glimpses of some of their local areas through the lens of the artist. Just experiencing a site at the pace of the artists changes our perceptions of place.” However, she stated that, festival curators also have a key responsibility in “finding a balance between artworks that leave space for the sites to reveal themselves and for the work to compliment it or at the other extreme to re-tell the narrative of a place, perhaps challenging it.”
Tip of the Iceberg:
The final day confronted the symposium question more directly, with a stimulating session of discussion groups and speakers tackling questions around the impact and legacy of festivals, the differing role of the artist within them and the usefulness of the term itself. Chairing the debate, Carolyn Black, Director Flow Projects, talked about the risk of instrumentalisation of artists and festivals in relation to funding streams. In contrast, artist and curator Alex Murdin described how festivals offer the opportunity for social impact, which, quoting Jaques Rancière, is ‘dissensual,’ in that it is neither antagonistic nor dialogical but sits between the two to change social structures and organisations. Arts writer, Dany Louise offered a critique of ‘Festivalisation’ and the economic co-option of art into tourist attractions, focusing on festivals that concentrate on the ‘wow factor’ but are devoid of social exchange, while Katie Etheridge brought in the position of the artist, which shifts depending on budget, proximity and personal connection to the festival location. Finally, Grace Davies presented a study commissioned by Visual Arts South West into the feasibility for a Biennial for the South West region, conclusions from which advocated that the strengthening of existing infrastructures of arts organisations was more sustainable than a Biennial event. In relation to b-side, Sandy Kirkby described to me how “We struggled with the term festival but felt Biennial an arty term that involves lots of organisations and venues, whereas b-side has no specific venue.” For Kirkby, “Festival is accommodative and somewhat flexible – it can adapt, it’s an organic animal.”
After the talks we concluded by splitting into groups to focus on different aspects raised by the speakers. Disappointingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, we didn’t reconvene to discuss findings and there were no clear conclusions. So in response to the symposium question perhaps one possible answer, as suggested by Kirkby, is that “Festival is the best word so far.” Its format offers different possibilities that can be genuinely socially engaged but should not be instrumentalised to solve social problems; that can open up different spatial knowledge for artists, audiences and curators but depend on establishing long term co-ownership and commitment; that can be sustainable and leave a legacy through sustained connections and repetition but should remain adaptable, temporary and organic. With that in mind, the best conclusion came from artist Sue Palmer who described festivals as a way to make visible the “tip of the iceberg.” Here, they can provide a moment where a fraction of the largely invisible working processes of artists, who work for extended periods of time in many different and complex situations with many different people and communities, can be made visible and celebrated.