The conversations that make up the Figure Ground Road Trip took place in a caravan (Mobile Studio) with members of Figure Ground. Before each visit we identified key people in that geographical area and asked them who they thought would be interesting to talk to. The resulting conversations expanded our existing networks. All of the artists we talked with are active. Some have received funding and a few work to primarily to commission. Many artists are self-initiating projects, frequently working out of the spotlight. We would not have come across most of the work without this project.
Before each meeting we asked for an image that represented the artists’ working practice and a short written outline of their work. As the trip developed a useful archive of imagery grew into a resource we could refer to.
A clear set of key questions emerged. These covered motivations, how work was produced, who it was for, ways of participation, and value of place.
How would you describe your practice?
What’s the drive?
How did you come to make your last piece of work?
What makes your practice possible / impossible?
Who is your audience?
How do people interact with your work?
How do you tell people about your work?
How important is place in your work?
The conversations revealed parallel concerns and distinct variations in different places. The artists practice was rarely as clear cut as a public art or socially engaged artist. These artists tend to have multifaceted practices that morph to people, place and opportunity as well as their own lives. They utilise a wide range of skills and experience that includes for example: curation, fundraising, educational work. They can generally be understood as a contemporary artists whose work engages directly with people and place. Few of the artists were keen to create more permanent artworks in public spaces.
Making things happen:
The artists we spoke with included those working to commissions, being invited to develop work and self-initiated projects. Realising projects can appear as luck but it is more realistically achieved through identifying and consistently following up opportunities and developing trust with wide ranging networks. Some artists were invited to develop projects by developers, community organisations or arts organisations. Artists talked of time consuming areas such as negotiating permissions and securing funding, some had someone to do this for them, whereas others choose to disregard these processes and go ahead anyway.
Most artists cooperate and collaborate widely (with passersby, other artists, local businesses, infrastructure organisations, arts and other funders, galleries, arts groups, academia) where as others work closely with one or two groups of people. All the artists had a sensitivity to the surrounding political social realm. They tend to have excellent organisational skills alongside wide ranging networks. Some found the organisational requirements were not necessarily recognised in projects either financially or in time, and could be overlooked by partner organisations. Both Anna Francis and Jayne Lawless recognise a value of deeply knowing community but have different approaches to realising work.
Artists working deeply with people in place were aware that they are at risk of ‘being used’ up by public art processes. Sue Nunn and Jayne Lawless describe the impact of this. Alongside care of the artist there are the responsibilities towards collaborators, participants and other audiences together with an awareness that a participant may become a collaborator. Katryn Saqui talked about collaborating with a local fisherman in her work as part of Underground Pearl.
Different places offer different possibilities. In Liverpool space is cheaper resulting in the proliferation of light industrial space hosting art and other creative ventures. Where as in Brighton and London it is very difficult to access cheap space. In Kent there is a history of supporting organisations that enable projects and individual artists. However this is a stretched out region so internal transport is more difficult making it increasingly easy for people to network in London. There have also been many links with mainland Europe. Given the time passed since the conversations there have been many shifts in the world. Already projects in Kent are affected by our changing relationship with Europe.
Whitstable and Liverpool Biennials and Folkestone Triennial focus artistic activity. Historic and political initiatives impact. They can help build strong relationships and friendships that continue beyond organisations that is part of the legacy of Seeda that Christine Gist works with. Equally they can divide and frustrate when organisations have to compete for limited funds for. For example the old political divisions in Liverpool.
There is a range of distinct motivations artists talked about from following personal obsession ‘I’m going to see where this takes me’, to perceiving a need or responding to advertised or invited commissions. Some see making art in the public realm as a means of making a living as an artist. Others do this alongside other paid work. All the artists we met were art school trained. Some were put off applying for arts council and other funding because they felt funders needed to know their expected outcomes and they want more freedom and trust in the creative process. Some projects last week’s where as others last decades. Sometimes an overarching project will have lots of small parts. The more artists invest in an area the more possibilities seem to emerge. Often it is these artists who are able to bring in other artists enriching the culture in these areas further.
In the artists we came across there was often a playfulness and freedom in the work. From crossing zebra crossings (Cally Trench and Philip Lee) to spitting projects (Extra Bones) to carving of Fidal Castro in a housing project (Sue Nunn). Katy, Jack and I have had the most amazing journey visiting all the artists. We realise we didn’t travel as far as we wanted, or talk to as many artists as far as we wanted but we have a taste of the range of practice that is happening now and how artists are creating work in place with people. These artists are giving themselves permission to get out and do. They would do more if more funding can be encouraged to trickle through the systems in particular for self-initiated projects. Initially I thought there were lots of artists doing this kind of practice however this Road Trip has shown us so much more is possible.