Multiple sites

Come to Ours was a multi-site project conceived and delivered by an independent group of artists and curators based in the port city of Plymouth, Devon. The project ran alongside British Art Show 7’s (BAS7) residence in the city, Plymouth being the final destination of the 2010/11 touring show. The proximity of the nationally funded five-yearly show provided not only an impetus for Come to Ours but also, advantageously, a challenger.

When caught in the glare of someone else’s spotlight it is wise to have something to say, and Come to Ours did not shy away from this challenge. They met it with confidence and discernment. As the title suggests the project invited its audience to have an intimate engagement with a city that might be unfamiliar to them. Contemporary visual art from across the UK was integrated with the working and partying of the city by the very simple method of using non-traditional art venues for exhibitions. The Come to Ours team were able to present the work in this way and in these locations, because of their day-to-day investment in the city; they walk its streets, drink in its pubs, teach in its colleges and vie for work and opportunity within its organisations. By using what was local and known to them beyond their art lives the curatorial team presented their wares with the authority of ownership.

Video Takeaway and Would You Like This Badge? both gave visiting audiences a very easy way in to the city – everyone needs refreshment. The pubs I visited to collect my Would You Like This Badge? badges were tucked away in areas that a casual visitor, particularly an art tourist, might not normally be drawn. However the Come to Ours maps did draw the art tourists in – to spend money on beer and food, as well as badges, and to experience something of life in Plymouth. The Landlord of The Seymour Arms had tears in his eyes when he told me how touched he had been by the artwork promoting Plymouth with slogans such as “Plymouth not Portsmouth”, and “Plymouth Bigger than Reykjavik”. With new and existing patrons making purchases, the sheets of badges sold out again and again. In this one work the artists, LOW PROFILE, met a key Arts Council aim of extending audiences for visual art, while remaining provocative and entertaining. Video Takeaway used the non-traditional venue of fast food outlets, presenting show-reels of artists’ film and video that rolled through the night on monitors that would normally host MTV. I visited Video Takeaway at Jake’s early on a Saturday evening. Armed with a bag of chips and a fizzy drink I enjoyed the classic slapstick of a fitness-crazed human-hamburger from Emily Warren, whilst Roy Menachem Markovich turned a domestic dining room into a tropical forest. The success of this project was in presenting works that suited the location: fun and fast.

Plymouth Aural Survey, which is an ongoing project and can still be accessed online, reached into a personal sound-scape of the city. Artist Neil Rose spent a day in the heart of Drake’s Circus shopping centre, enquiring of passers-by what they were listening to on their MP3 players as they traversed the city. The research was then transposed to a web-based map where visitors are presented with a taste of the cultural breadth of Plymouth. Again the project extends an audience, this time by simply acknowledging them.

For all this inclusive activity there was also a high level of personal motivation within the project. Come to Ours wished to pull the audience into the fabric of the city, locals to be proud of it, visitors to see it and learn something of it, however they also wished to play up to the international stage. This is after all group of dynamic and aspirational arts professionals. A Circle, a group exhibition curated by Bryony Gillard and Beth Emily Richards, and Fireplace Gallery, curated by Hannah Jones and Neil Rose, used the more traditional models of white-cube exhibition spaces. Their twist lay in their location, with Fireplace Gallery making use of the unused fireplace in Jones and Rose’s bedroom and A Circle a group show, using a newly built but empty retail unit in the Millbay area of the city. The twists, however, were not what was interesting about these projects, their optimism and determination along with the good art work on show was what engaged. There was a tangible ambition to create meaningful critical exchange with peers within and beyond the southwest.

Through these more traditional exhibition methods it was easier to make comparisons with a more established visual art scene and truly understand how serious the Come to Ours team are about their project, and the development of contemporary visual art dialogues in the city. At a Sunday afternoon ‘opening tea’ at the Fireplace Gallery I overheard a visitor exclaiming how approachable the exhibiting artists became within the domestic setting. A Circle, perhaps the closest to a ‘white cube’ show, presented the work of six artists, incidentally all female, across an exhibition and publication. Much of the work demonstrated concerns with performance or performative actions, and places or concerns of the city are employed, such as the surrounding sea and local pubs – The Seymour features again in Gillard’s work Last Orders… (2011). Again here the core aims of Come to Ours are felt, the show engages with its locality and looks beyond the contemporary art bubble.

The Library of Independent Exchange (L.I.E), curated by Mark James and Christopher Green, also marked a clear desire to reach beyond the city. Publications came from artists, publishers and design houses within and far beyond the UK, presented in a slick bare space that could easily sit in any European capital or international biennial. Yet, again this project reiterated the philanthropy of Come to Ours with seminars and workshops a fundamental part of the project and the L.I.E. duo keen to continue developing the library and making it a permanent resource for the city.

What is important about Come to Ours is that the curators were able to understand what the audience might want because they themselves are part of that audience. They welcomed the opportunities provided by BAS7 being on their doorstep, whilst being very clear of the lines of separation. What could have been read as a one-upmanship game, the artist-led taking on a national institution, became a relationship dynamic quite representative of the state of much national activity; hidden away in public museums and galleries what could BAS7 know of the regions it visits? Could it ever broker the relationships managed by the Come to Ours team? Maybe, but maybe it doesn’t have to. How rich and wonderful for the audience to be presented with work from both perspectives.