St. Leonards & Hastings
Christine Gist


Christine Gist
with Katy Beinart, Jo Thomas, Laura Krikke and Frank Cartledge
Caravan, St Leonards, Station Car Park


LK: How would you describe your practice?

CG: I trained as a sculptor in America, at Yale. Yale University School of Art. I’ve always balanced my own practice as an artist with curating and working with other artists on collaborative projects but never in a gallery space.

LK: So you’ve never worked in gallery?

CG: Well actually yes, I’ll come to that later.

CG: In America in New Haven Connecticut quite a few of us did projects in empty shops saved for regeneration. So there was always this thing of thinking of it more as public practice rather than doing things in a gallery context. When I decided to move back to Europe which was the beginning of 1989 I got a curatorial job with what was then Kent Institute of Art and Design based at Canterbury and for 11 and a half years I curated the exhibitions programme at the three colleges Canterbury, Maidstone and Rochester. What I focused on then was working with artists, art centres and curators who were based in Northern France, Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands. Because having been outside of England for a long time and being based in Kent it seemed more logical to work with people there. It was a period in England where it seemed everyone was hiring exhibitions. Someone curates something in the North of England and then people would hire it and it would go all over.
Okay it’s interesting but I’d preferred to do something else. At that point Kent County Council were really pushing to make links with partners in Nord Pas de Calais because of the Channel Tunnel. It all made sense at the time. Then I decided after 11 & a half years I didn’t want to be working full time anymore and started to work freelance and just started initiating various things and being contracted to do projects all over East Kent and North Kent primarily. The projects were all in the public realm. Occasionally we would be using gallery spaces or indoor spaces and then I founded Whitstable Biennale in 2002 and curated it in 2004 and then just didn’t want to do that anymore. I don’t like these projects that go on year after year after year particularly when there is no funding and you have got to start from scratch. So then I co-curated the annual arts festival here Coastal Currents which started in 1999. This was in 2009. I was really astonished how easy it was to do things in Hastings and St Leonards. For example, going into a small shopping mall saying can I use your space, can a couple of artists do something here, oh yes that’s fine they can I use this wall.

FG: So was it easier than in Kent.
Yes, I think it was because In Kent I was generally working on projects that were funded by different councils. In Kent they had East Kent Arts Partnership, the local authorities that constituted East Kent like Canterbury, Dover, Shepway & Thanet. Then there was a similar local government organisation in North Kent as well. So I think there are a lot more restrictions

JT: There was a lot of ambition about them, about what can be achieved through art.

CG: Exactly, it was very much about arts led regeneration. Which is fine because I am very much interested in that. But I don’t think there was much risking taking or willingness to take on new ideas as there is here with the council.

JT: So when did you start finding that in Kent

CG: I think it was more around the time when I was curating Whitstable Biennale was when I felt that the council was more involved in the procuring funding etc. etc. but they weren’t really willing to take risks. Everything had to be quite controlled as though they were council projects although I did most of the funding raising for them. And I felt that things had to be followed in a much more rigid structure. That was just the way it was then, which was fine.

..

So I started working on Coastal Currents, with two other artists, younger than myself. The festival had gone through a lot of changes over the years so we were really reinventing it. Again, working very much in the public space, although also in shops, restaurants and whatever space we could find really and I managed to find the outdoor space here... The empty space was owned by SEEDA. ..

JT/KB: Seeda is how we all started off

CG: Exactly, although they were disbanded a couple of years ago

KB: Yeah they were

CG: Fortunately the person who was instrumental in me using this space was someone I had met in Margate. So I knew him quite well so that was good and they said yes I could use the empty site for an artist’s project temporarily. So that was for Coastal Currents in 2009. Well I ended up continuing to use the site until Jan 2013. They gave me a temporary license at peppercorn rent and even when SEEDA was disbanded and all their property went to this other government agency but I still had a license. Then they decided they wanted to develop it and they wanted it as a vacant possession.
In using places like that you know you are not going to have them permanently and that’s actually a good thing. Because you use them to the best of your advantage while you can and then move on. So things don’t become stagnant.

LK: So what it your work. Is it mainly curating?
I do both. I do my own work. Again it can be more gallery based. LK: Is it sculpture still?
Yes, I’d say more installations than sculpture

KB So is there a connection between what you are curating and what you are producing yourself?

CG: I see curating as an extension of my own practice. Because, particularly with outdoor spaces, I tend to think of the relationship, not as much a relationship between the work and the audience, but the relationship between the work and the space

So in the current space I’ve got up the road, the majority of the projects are large scale installations of whatever form they might take. Sometimes that works and sometimes that doesn’t. I tend definitely to work that way. I had been trying to get hold of the current site for ages, it’s owned by Network Rail.
I kept badgering this person who I had met who finally got so sick of me phoning him. He said look I’m just going to give you the name of somebody else. He should have given me his name ages before.
It was someone who was based in Bristol but was responsible for this whole community scheme that Network Rail operates nationally.

These disused sites that they don’t want to develop but can’t get rid of for reasons like access to the railway lines in case of an accident. They let community groups use them. So I have a temporary license to use the site and I’ve had that since about March 2013.

KB: Wow, so it’s an outside space, completely outside

CG: Yes, go up and have a look at it

JT; we need to go up there

CG: No electricity or anything and because it is more a residential area, well houses opposite, than the other one was I am reluctant to use generators. We have done that before for people installing work and we did quite a few film evenings
Every Christmas you could tap into what UK Power Network called unmetered supplies but you can only do it around Christmas. The council would also do it because they put a Christmas tree outside the space and that was how they powered the lights.

KB: Do you think there is a lot of knowledge you must have gained over the years about how these infrastructures and things work? Obviously you have got that knowledge yourself. I think it sounds fairly kind of unique because you got that knowledge yourself.

CG: You know what is really interesting... I have also been chair of the board of Limbo Arts Ltd in Margate since 2003 and we have had this former electricity substation on a temporary lease that has studios and project space. Contacts I made here in St Leonards with what was then EDF Energy but now it’s UK Power Network I was able to use and help things in Margate With the current installation, the artist I am working with wanted driftwood. I thought, oh I have a contact from way back with the environment agency and I talked to them and yes they had driftwood just down the road. So...

KB: I guess you couldn’t have predicted that that would be what you would learn through your practice. There’s no course that teaches you these kinds of knowledges or how to...

CG: how to actually negotiate it’s something I’ve been lucky at doing, managing to navigate my way through institutions, people, things like that. I always figure that somebody must be able to give you permission or be interested in doing something and not necessarily back down at the first hurdle.

KB: So there is a bit of determination

JT: I liked the way you dealt with us getting the caravan here, just talking to the lady in the cash thing. So gently but... but it was done with out any fuss.

CG: Yes and also she was very amenable to that, it was fine you know. I think a lot of times it is luck who you are talking to. You could get somebody there who is a bit that’s more than my jobs worth. I can’t give you permission to do that. So I think it does it vary.
In Dover for about two and a half or three years, I did several projects on two floors of this multistory carpark in the Charlton Shopping Centre. That was really good. But I think it’s actually good to not see these spaces as permanent.
That interesting ages ago we went to see Cameron Cartiere at Birbeck, I think she’s no longer at Birbeck, and she had written a lot about public art. She was trying to pin down how permanent is permanent. And she said the definition was something like 7 years.

CG Well that is interesting.
It was really funny but it is challenging thing about public art. The old sense of public art is that it is permanent.
Exactly
KB: But you are almost saying the opposite or permanent isn’t a good thing

CG: I think public art over the years has got a bad reputation you know as fixed objects that are commissioned often for quite a lot of money but they don't necessarily work. I’m not quite sure they do what they are supposed to. If they were supposed to do anything. I almost feel they are a bit irrelevant.

LK: They also end up imposing on the community anyway if they are large pieces.

CG: Exactly

LK: The temporal thing is very, every community is constantly changing. I guess I’ve always felt if it going to space it has to have some relationship to it or create a situation so that space will always change, the community will also change. Therefore also the art should also change.

CG: When I first started working down here. There was quite a bit of hostility from some of local businesses.

LK: I thought you said it was easy?
Well it was easy but a couple of places here were suspicious. Not as much hostility to the work. I was doing things here but I wasn’t living here. Because they had their own local artists. Particularly as the first artist we worked with wasn’t from here but from Ashford. He wasn’t local. But gradually that changed. People could see everything was fine. They realised we weren’t trying to impose our ideas on people. It was great. I think you get that element in any community.
LK It’s relationship building.

CG: And also, the term local artists. Most artists don’t like being called that. Wait a minute we are artists: Well we are artists but everyone has to live somewhere.

JT: So regarding your relationship to place. Is place important to you or is it somewhere your find yourself?

CG: I think a combination of both. The current site up the road is really a wonderful space, the openness about it. It’s very different to the first one here. We had a community session with some artists & local people talking about this first space and the difference between the two sites. A lot of people though the first space wasn’t very welcoming with the hoardings and the railing. It wasn’t a friendly space and it had the feeling it was keeping people out, which it was. One of the things that for me is important is that the works can be visible 24/7. Although it is important to let people into these spaces. I’m not able to do that every day nor would I want to do that every day. So it is really good at the current space, although it has got railings they’re lower, less intimidating. When I am available, usually on a Saturday afternoon if the weather is okay, I open the space up so that people can come in. We always have the opening receptions there. Some people are invited but often if the artist has been working there he has been making contacts in the area and local people do come in which is good.

KB: Sorry this is slightly different but what about the social context of place because one of things. Liverpool Biennale they got attacked for in one thing I read was the fact that a lot of the work was not at all about Liverpool or the social issues.
Is that something you are interested in or address here? Or is not really relevant

CG: I never feel that artists should be put in the position of trying to solve social problems or be seen as social workers, sometimes it is what happens as a by-product of projects. As to whether, I think it is really important. It is my point of view here. Is that is has some resonance with the site it’s in and with the community but not necessarily the people. It has got to make sense in the context it is being shown. Now, I did hear something about Liverpool. Was it because the artists were mainly from outside Liverpool?

KB: Yeah I think so, I’m not saying I agreed or disagreed. I suppose it is a question when you are responding to this whole context.

CG: I tend to work with artists from outside the area. The last 2 artists were from Rotterdam, the artists before from London. The artist before that from Rostock.

KB? Okay. It is necessarily the other artists but how you as a practitioner connect to this place.

CG: My connection is really strong. I want to be working in the public space because I think this is a wonderful place. You know the architecture. The people, some of the people like today moving the caravan. People just got in there and helped. When I first started using the outdoor space I had a really hard time I would often go over to the pub for help with padlocks and they would come over. They were great. It is important for me working here. But equally I enjoy doing projects out of the area.

LK: So why do you like working with artists that aren’t from here.

CG: It stems from the fact of having lived outside UK for a long time but most of my contacts that I still maintain were formed when I was working with Kent Institute of Art and Design and then I would say 90% of the projects I did were with artists from outside the UK.

LK: I think when you bring an outsider in, they will interpret this place from a totally different perspective.

CG: So when you are talking about the social contexts I am interested in how art can reach very different individuals or groups of people. A project back in 2004 that stemmed from Whitstable Biennale was a collaboration with Social Services. We worked for about 9 months with young people from schools about their interpretations of domestic violence through performance. Then I went on to get funding to do a similar project at the same school which was cross curricula lesson plans in domestic violence. I recently had funding for two artists to work with a group of older people with dementia who used a café/music venue just down the road. The artist had worked with this in Oct/ Nov 2013 and then we got additional funding and the project finished in June.

JT: How are your projects initiated?

CG: Sometimes they initiate from the artists themselves - This artist here in the space now, she is the one who did the work with people with dementia. She sent a proposal to the arts and cultural development officer with the council who sent it to me. And I thought this is quite interesting. Turns out she lived down the road from me. She did a project in the first space in 2012 and she did a couple of projects with schools and had ideas for something else. She wanted to work with older people focusing on their experiences with WW 2 in St Leonards and that’s how we made contact with the dementia group. So projects emerge from all sorts of different ways. Somebody might suggest something. Quite a few things, the larger scale projects I do, I think probably they are more self-initiated or somebody says something and I realise oh god they want something to happen I need to think how to do this.

KB: What a responsibility.

CG: But I mean with most projects I have been fortunate for a long time as they are all Arts Council funded.

JT: So you have a good relationship.

CG: Well I don’t know think anyone does any more.

JT: It has all changed

CG: Well yes, there’s not many people to have a relationship with.

KB: PO box and one of those numbers.

CG: exactly but I think you have to be really creative about where you get funding from lately. One project I did took over 2.5 years of my life. This was a collaboration between here and an artists’ group in Dunkerque. Because in 2013 Dunkerque was the Regional City of Culture in Nord-Pas de Calais. It was really the head of culture in Dunkerque who is a friend of mine who encouraged me to do something with this artist group which I had worked with before. We got just over 45000E to work on a cross-border project. To develop this project with artists from other Port Cities in Europe

KB: I was on the ferry to France there was this poster for a project Newhaven to Dieppe. That must be something else. Obviously it has seeded other things.

CG: I work closely with Espace 36, an arts association/art centre based in Saint-Omer. We have worked together since 2005. It so happened I was based in Deal at the time and the town and Saint-Omer were twinned. So we suddenly said why don't we do something. We have worked on 4 projects since 2005 all with Interreg European Union funding. I was over in France on Tuesday and we will be doing another project that will be here in December. We have to think where the funding is coming from for that.

JT: How does making a living come into it? Do you have a stance? Is it making the artists project happen? How do you value yourself in and the artists in that process?

CG: Well, I feel in terms of the artists, one thing that is really important is that the artists are paid. This is a practical issue although I think some artists should be paid. But sometimes I think I offered some more money than they should have got. They would get a bit anxious that is not a bit how I wanted it to be. So I very much respect what the artist wants to do and to be able to at least give them some financial support. For example, one artist did a really good text based piece in the space here. He was really confident. He took part in a symposium. He came over in February and then he came over again with his colleague for the project in April. I would like to have paid him more but I didn’t have money for production costs. I could just give a fee of about £700 and paid for his travel. Artists usually stay in my house because if you start having to pay for bed and breakfast it starts getting expensive. But then I was talking to him & asked can you get any money from Rotterdam. And he managed to get 1200 euro for production costs which was great. So I tend to see myself more as a facilitator I don't really try to impose too many of my own ideas although sometime that is difficult. You see the artist that is here, who has got the piece now. I liked his work with the driftwood but it was almost like I wanted to tell him what to do with it.

KB: That sounds really challenging

CG: In the end he did listen to me, well somewhat. You sometimes have to hold yourself back a bit.

JT: I suppose it is different qualities of relationship

CG: Exactly, you have to develop some kind of relationship, not terribly personal, a productive working relationship. For example, this artist here... Johan Muyle
I have known him for a long long time we did a project when I was at Kent Institute of Art and then we produced an exhibition of his work for Brighton Festival ….and then we did something in 2000 at Aspex Gallery in Portsmouth. And I have been trying to get him down here and... Then finally he came here in May. And so we are doing something, it is definitely more his project than mine. He is doing something in this private home/b&b in St Leonards.

KB: Sounds fantastic.

CG: Only a short project because it took a while to convince the owners. And then he is having another project in more of a project space where he can have more work.
There is also another space I have got on the sea front that I have been given for peppercorn rent.

JT: Is it more like gallery spaces but they are outside spaces

CG: Yes, This one on the sea front is an indoor space cos I had another space down there, an indoor space owned by the Council but they just let that. I had it for about 3 years.

JT: So do they give quite a long ongoing lease.
Well the one I just gave up I didn’t have a lease at all they just gave me the keys and I used it. They have just leased it, I think for storage for a fish and chip place.

KB: I think the next person is here. Let us check our list of questions.

JT: Who is your audience? We haven’t talked about that.

With art outside the gallery potentially everyone is the audience you have no control who sees the work. You have some very interesting conversations. For example one man came up and asked how are you taking this installation down and later came and took it down.
In a public space you don't have control who sees the work.

KB: There is no deliberate audience, whoever happens to be Hastings on that day.

CG: Exactly but some projects are targeted at certain people – other artists, arts professionals and whoever happens to be passing by that day.

JT: I think we could happily stay and talk for ages but we have covered the core stuff. So thank you.

KB: Thank you very much


http://christinegist.wordpress.com
https://project78gallery.wordpress.com
www.coastalcurrents.org.uk




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Place Specific

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Unlocated            



Self-Initiated

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Commissioned



Ephemeral

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    Relational

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X
Place Specific


Unlocated



X
Self-Initiated


Commissioned



X
Ephemeral


Permanent



X
Relational


Non-Relational