AirSpace Gallery
West Midlands

A Roadmap for Survival

It feels like the first day of winter when a biting wind greets me at Stoke-on-Trent station. There are no signs announcing the town’s contemporary art biennial that has brought me here, but I already have a feeling that Conjunction 12, with its theme ‘The Art of Survival’, is a different kind of biennial. I’m not expecting a festival banner plastered over the cracks of the city; instead, something that emerges with artistic intent from the gaps and fissures left by dwindling industry, high unemployment and local government cuts. Clutching my printed map in gloved hands and with the promise of hot, hearty, homemade soup, I set off.

Located in a beautiful but slightly crumbling Victorian building in Hanley (one of the six towns that make up the city) Airspace Gallery is the unassuming home to contemporary art activity in Stoke-on-Trent since 2006. Today is the second installment of four ‘Artist Soup Kitchen’ events being held throughout the month of Conjunction 12. Worried that I might be stumbling into a piece of self-conscious relational art, I was delighted to find the soup (Russian Vegetable) was delicious, the bread (Rye, donated by another local arts organisation, B-Arts) plentiful, the conversation engaging, and pretensions happily absent.

Around the table sit a small group of artists of different ages, disciplines and stages of career, exchanging in open and genuine dialogue on the practicalities and finer points of surviving as an artist. This week’s debate has a bias toward the potential of self-publishing as a low-cost platform, with Professor David Manley weaving a tale of the histories and possibilities of the artist’s book. The discussions that followed included: the plausibility of a “self-sufficient artist”, identifying a good market for your work, and how to balance income and artistic integrity. Of course, no grand conclusions were reached, except perhaps a general consensus that, like it or not, at the moment artists should be prepared to do a little bit of everything to get by.

Anna Francis – who is a prime example, being simultaneously, an established artist, co-curator and board member at Airspace Gallery, and lecturer in Fine Art at Staffordshire University – describes the Artist Soup Kitchen concept as a “treat for artists” more than anything else. It’s not a revolutionary idea, but a simple, cheap and understated way of bringing artists together for mutual support and exchange of ideas. It’s ethically-sound too – the bowls that we slurp from have been designed by local designer Denise O’Sullivan and are available to purchase direct, while donations are taken for North Staffordshire African Caribbean Association to help fund a ‘real’ soup kitchen. But Francis is correct in that it is simply reassuring to find other artists with similar perspectives, problems and questions to myself.

And so it is with thoughts of highly skilled, educated, qualified but paradoxically impoverished artists, that I encounter the work of Simon Farid, one of the artists-in-residence at Conjunction 12. ‘How to fit in’ is a deeply ironic (and thus, also honest) how-to guide to being an artist. The installation comprises a complex mapping of his residency: it is multi-media and multi-layered, in which the artist slyly critiques the media – and Airspace Gallery’s own selection process and motives. It’s a reminder that artist-led initiatives can and should be critically examined, rather than blindly praised, and that artists remain the best placed to criticise institutions in which they practice.

I venture over the road to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, partners of the biennial, where a similar critique is taking place. Shaun Doyle and Mally Mallinson have exercised somewhat familiar, but always entertaining interventions into the museum’s normal displays in ‘The Neo Dawsonism Archive’. The ‘Wedgwood Spitfire (c.1943)’ which “proved ideal camouflage for flights of the aircraft in blue skies with white clouds” is one such object. The artworks are informed by the history of the local area before being subject to a ‘pataphysical reimagining – rather than representing the world “as is”, we see the world “as if”. A separate exhibition of the museum’s own cognisant contribution draws my attention, with a loose collection of artifacts connected to ‘survival’. The objects and their captions (for example, ‘Extinct Passenger Pigeons Surviving in a Glass Case’ and ‘Silk Producing Moths Pinned against a Decorative Background’) put the methodologies of collecting and archiving under erasure, deconstucting the construct of the museum before our very eyes.

Many of the festival collaborations share this sense of playful deconstruction. Artist collective ‘(h)edge kelektiv’ disrupt the grammar of the public house in their residency in the Glebe Hotel. Their mischief includes literally-upended paintings, a (fake) twenty-pound note stuck to the floor and framed caricatures of regular patrons. It is clear that there has been a concerted effort to commission work that is developed in and for the public space in Stoke-on-Trent – rather than import readymade ideas. This outcome is twofold – the art works by interrupting routine life and ordinary places, but the artwork itself is interrupted by everyday happenings. The twenty-pound note has already been scraped off the floor by a (probably unamused) customer by the time I come to visit the Glebe Hotel. And a commissioned sculpture for Hanley Park has already had its endurance tested by floodwater. This piece, ‘Lych Gate’, by Andrew Holmes, also exemplifies why Francis has called the biennial a “collection of propositions”. Although strikingly constructed from scrap wood, it doesn’t have an obvious function: it has no walls and it doesn’t shelter. Sited in an unremarkable part of the park, it functions as a symbol of a place to meet, and therefore a place with potential, where things could happen in the future.

Two weeks later, I return to Stoke-on-Trent to be met by an even frostier breeze and Tom Stone, an artist who walks, and walks with purpose. For Conjuncton 12, he devised ‘The Expedition’, a participatory trek through the campus grounds of Staffordshire University. Partly satirical, partly reverent, the journey involves a series of “survival techniques” (such as marking hazardous terrain with chalk and saving a breath of air in a balloon) and is accompanied by harrowing extracts from The Worst Journey in the World – the journal kept by Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Through a process of re-enactment and re-spatialisation, the wasteland of the University becomes the Antarctic tundra, and the story of survival and companionship leapt from the page into icy breath and became our story.

With a long winter of government-enforced cuts to the arts and public sector only just beginning, the theme for Stoke-on-Trent’s third biennial could not be more appropriate. With the threat of further cuts, the situation of artists, and the spaces and groups that support them is perilous. In some way, Conjunction 12 has provided a roadmap for survival, by exploring and proposing strategies for the future. The most successful of these include the formation of solid partnerships with local groups and businesses, integrating and embedding artists through residencies in the locality, and continuing to interrogate existing structures of power. And let’s not forget the hard work of negotiation, patience and perseverance.

In 2005, Susannah Thomson noted “a growing recognition in critical circles that the once-radical motivations of the artist-run initiative have long since given way to a more individualist, entrepreneurial spirit.” But here, in Stoke and in towns all over the country, it would appear that artist-led activity is regaining its critical capacity. No longer simply a playground for those slightly more ambitious or organised, it is becoming absolutely crucial that artists join forces and in doing so, improve access to funding, forge stronger partnerships and develop opportunities extraneous to larger institutions. It is not only artists whose survival is at stake, but the endurance of critical dialogue at grassroots level and the cultural capital of the places in which artists live and work.

The Artist Soup Kitchen – 2. A Confusion of Tongues (Video by Glen Stoker)