Katy, Jo and I have had the privilege of spending time, in a caravan, with an extraordinary group of artists and arts organisers. We travelled to cities across the UK, to studios, galleries, to art festivals, to an old primary school and a lightship.
The people we met worked in similar ways, but defied categorisation.
To quote a caravan based exchange in Whitstable.
JB - Well this is the start of a two year road trip, not a continuous road trip but it’s an occasional road trip over two years. And we are trying to visit ‘publicly engaged artists’ or ‘Publicly engaged art organisations.’ We are, already, finding these terms difficult because they are so widely over used.
GM - Yeah, I was just wondering if there is any precision in how you use these sorts of terms…
JT - There is a tolerance, I think, in the way different people use them, there seems to be so many people working in this field – it’s almost like ‘working in the world’
JB – So, maybe we could describe it as ‘people who aren’t just studio based’… people who are outside making work.
GM – There was that phrase ‘public realm’ for a while, that came and went…
Gavin McClafferty talking to Jack Brown and Jo Thomas during the Whitstable Biennale in 2014
There are many words and phrases we could use to try and summarise or categorise what we found on our jaunt across the UK. But in doing so we might actually misrepresent some of its most important qualities.
Qualities we came across such as morphing from one way of working to another, shifting modes of engagement to suit its surroundings and a habit of filling holes and plugging gaps. Qualities that by their very nature are difficult to pin down.
However, listening back through the interviews, it became clear this field of practice had a few common characteristics.
It was populated by a wide range of artistic practices.
It was outside in public spaces.
It was rigorous.
It was constantly trying to find ways of connecting with new people and places.
It felt undervalued and sometimes misused.
It rarely produced permanent artworks.
The project and events we found where wide ranging in timescale, purpose and outcome.
It was born of universities, the vast majority of the people we spoke to had been through or were still in higher education.
People working in this field rarely have one line of work, there were often crossovers between art making, working with other people and making a living.
Although it could be argued that the people working in it are from quite a slime social economical democratic, the people who encounter the outcomes and outputs of this field of practice come from all walks of life.
Because, quite often it doesn’t look like or act like traditional art it seems to feel more accessible to people who normally don’t take part in or experience the arts.
It was full of things happening for the first time, tests, experiments, just doing it to see what happens.
Whilst trying to further illustrate the field of practice we found, I was draw to thinking about its outer edges.
The encounters with people/projects just inside this edge or boundary were often, for me, the most enlightening, flood-lights helping us look back into the field as a whole. Continuing this analogy you can place some artists/projects at opposite sides, home and away fans, whose dialogue helps animate the field they surround.
We encountered Alice Wilson just dipping her toe in, on her first day with 'frame' an interactive sculpture and drawing devise slap bang in the middle of an art festival. While Flis Mitchell was looking back as she stepped out, running a critical eye over her experiences in Everton.
We found Rob Turner making permanent artworks with communities across the UK while Andre Verissimo created ‘live moments’ with other people.
Airspace gallery in Stoke creating local change through gardening while Will Nash placed customised ping pong tables outside the Hayward in London.
Samantha Jones told us about Homebaked in Liverpool – geographically and thematically tied to a place, while Howard Lotkers theatre company roamed the Czech Republic making theatre in people’s front rooms.
Airspace gallery in Stoke brought in artists from outside of town while Jane Lawless’s Tin plate sculptures burst out of Anfield and into the wider world.
Reading back through the transcribed interviews three themes came up in a number of conversation. These themes relate back to this idea of the outer edge, of boundaries being stepped over, of holes in the fence.
Work and Life
The vast majority of people we spoke to had found a way of making a living out of their art practice. And for many this is where ‘working with people’ comes into the frame.
Andre Verissimo described this relationship when we spoke to him in Hackney Wick.
KB – Did you start off doing work with communities or did that kind of come later..
A – No, this came later, to be very honest it’s a combination of belief and also of financial reality and... fortunately I don’t do it just for the money otherwise I would be doing something else, and you know I always wanted to work with people as well but not so much in this participatory way. It’s like, OK I have a project where I want people to be part of it, it’s a from scratch thing, you know, there is an art form and there is a group of people you can work with…
Most of the people we spoke to worked from project to project. Weaving aspects of their own practice and other employment around these projects.
We often found ourselves discussing funding, working to a brief and artists being helicoptered into situations and communities. Many people we spoke to were critical of projects set up to place an artist in a community for a month or two, reasoning that there was little chance of that artists really making a long lasting impact in that time frame.
Jane Lawless and Samantha Jones both spoke to us about Homebaked in Liverpool. Homebaked by all accounts was a brilliant project that helped transform attitudes and lives around Anfield, Liverpool, it’s still there now, fully embedded in the community. It also, for a time, totally took over the lives of many people involved. We found that many artists we spoke to, at points, lost or gave up their own practice to work on projects like this. For Jane and Samantha, it was all encompassing because it was on their door step, it was their own community they were working within.
Jane told us about lead artist Jan Van Heeswijk’s arrival in Anfield.
I think is what originally really difficult for her, she was facing a lot of hostility.
The last thing we needed at that time, after twenty years of shite, was art! And I'm an artist says that!
So I was like 'Oh my god, please don't let me down' - I'm the only artist in the family and I'm like 'Shit' not only will she get paned but I will - 'is that what your lot do?' 'Is that what you've been training to do?’ I was thinking 'Oh my god, don’t do something really bland, don't do a bench'. 'Please don't do a piece of public art and then leave' because all you will do is alienate even more people…. The suspicion round by ours was intense.
Jan Van Heeswijk was lead artist on ‘Two up two down’ a project commissioned by The Liverpool Bienalle that over time became ‘Homebaked’.
What was interesting, for me, were the projects where the artist wasn’t an outsider. The artist wasn’t dropped into a situation as a solution. It was about being a person within a community who happened to be an artist too.
Another artist we spoke to, Katryn Saqui, had been working within the community she lives in for many years. She lives and works in Deal on the East Coast between Dover and Ramsgate.
We spoke to Katryn about becoming known locally as an artist…
Katryn: I’ve never thought of neighbours as the audience, but I really like that idea.
Jo: It’s an incredibly honest way of working. In my experience a lot of practitioners will shift into a different way of being for the work.
Katy: Also its one of the things we are talking about, whether you are doing it where you live or are going into an area where you don’ t know and then you can take on a different role as a stranger. But being in your own locality you can’t walk away from it, can you?
Katryn: the consequences...
Jack: everyone knows you are an artist all the time, you can’t pretend not to be one.
Jo: Do you find there is an expectation developing from it?
Katryn: I’ve got one neighbour opposite me who fixes the computers when they break down and he was saying ‘ I keep looking over here to see what you are going to do next’ and we did for Cheritan Light festival a piece called ‘ Diskoda’ and we got funding to make a great disco ball and we put it in the Skoda, and we got lights and the rotating thing and we parked it on top of a hill and we lit it up and the streets and the sides of the houses.
The disco ball is now in my sitting room and my friend came with her two children so we thought we could have a disco dinner.
And the next day this guy who fixes the computers was wondering what was going on in our house last night? Was it an installation? What were you doing? Yeah so there does seem to be some expectation or curiosity, like what weird thing is she up to this week?
Anna Francis from Airspace gallery recently moved into a ‘1 pound home’ in Stoke and spoke about her experiences of arriving in a new community as an artist hoping to get stuck in and build new relationships with her neighbours.
AF: That’s the funny thing. There is another person who had moved into the £1 homes I’d presumed that we were going to do everything as volunteers. I don’t know why but I just presumed that we would because I thought that was how it would work. We were talking about she was going to charge people to join the choir and they would pay each week and she was saying "well that money will pay for my time" And I was really surprised. I hadn’t though that you would get paid for your time.
JT: Why shouldn’t you value your time? If you were a local plumber doing work in your local area you wouldn’t think twice about charging for your time
AF: No that's really interesting.
I think it’s quite an interesting question to end up on
JB: Yes how close can it get.
JB: You can zoom from the city to your street, to your back door, your back garden, kitchen where does it stop?...where can it physically stop as well?
AF: But I suppose that is part of that ethos of Small Change .Your skills are a resource, your knowledge and experience are a resource and actually making a difference where you live. We do it as a gallery where we are based and the city around us but you can also do that with where you live and start to recognise in your neighbours as well that there are resources that are perhaps a bit untapped.
Small Change is a book by Nabeel Hamdi ‘about the art of practice and the limits of planning in a cities’.
Gaps to fill
One of the characteristics of the field of practice we encountered was its ability to fill gaps and to plug holes. We found artists had poured their practice into all sorts of places; barbershops, fishing boats, art festivals, parks, gardens, bakeries and front rooms.
Glen Stoker of Airspace gallery told us about the Spode Rose Garden Project. A project that intended to show what could be done with an unused garden attached to the Spode China Hall, off Kingsway, Stoke.
JB – I’ve been following the Spode Garden project, and there seems to be a similarity between your own practice and the idea of opening up spaces again. Also Anna spoke about how she shows people where a gap is and then leaves that gap to be filled.
G –and of course, that’s not just a physical gap, that’s a personal gap as well, so if you walk past this once great garden that has now fallen into decline, you can get in there and do something yourself. For me and for Anna and for the gallery as a whole it’s about saying you can do this you know, and well do a bit to show you what’s possible...
In filling these gaps artist moving into public spaces, spaces that allow genuine exchanges and conversations. In these spaces the ‘art’ and the ‘artist’ become less important.
Julia Riddiough told us about her project ‘Clip cut gel’ in a barbershop for the Whitstable Biennale in 2014
Julia: for example in the barbershop, that was challenging because men don’t tend to want to discuss things in that way.
Katy: So how did you get the idea for the barbershop?
Julia: I was at a critique at Whitstable satellite, and it was actually another artist, Nicole Mollett who said “Why don’t you do a barbershop residency?” and at the time I thought ‘What is she on about, she’s mad?’ Because the film I was showing at the critique was all about men’s hairdressing and men’s issues but when I got the train to Margate I just thought ‘What a brilliant idea…..
Katy: It seems to make sense that you want to engage with an audience which isn’t necessarily an art audience. By being in the barbershop you do that.
Julia: So I show the film and I don’t say it’s an art project, I just say it’s about men’s hair.
Because when I had the gallery in Hoxton, as soon as you said it was art, people would just turn off and think it wasn’t for them, as if they weren’t entitled. It wasn’t for them.
Katy: So by saying art= not entitled?
Julia: Especially in Hoxton St, where it was a mixed community of Turkish and what I called the white, old, indigenous population and they just thought it wasn’t for them.
Katy: I suppose they have all around them but it’s not a world they aren’t invited into.
Julia: So I would say come in and have a look and tell me what you think, I used to call it an art conversion. If I could get them in and told me what they thought about it, I would say, didn’t say gallery I called it a project space. Once they heard that they would change and they would have the slight fear. I would say ‘It’s alright, if you don’t like it, it’s actually as valid as liking what you’ve seen.’ But most people would say ‘I like it.’ Or I would ask them a question that opened up a dialogue and I would engage them in a very everyday way, so people felt it was something they could identify with.
So it’s the same with the barbershop. I just say ‘Have a look at my little short film about men’s hair’ and then I ask them ‘What are the pleasures and challenges of being a man are today? Give me a barber shop story? And if you ruled the world what would it look like?’
Some guy this morning, he was fantastic and he said to me if he ruled the world it would be fluffy. And he was really great, he really opened up to me. I asked him where he had been and he said he had just had a fry up, and I said ‘late night then?’ and he said ‘Yeah’. And he watched the film and he said ‘That’s really funny, we’ve just been talking about relationships and how hard it is.’ I asked him how old he was and he said 38, and all of his mates were 38 and we are just finding it really difficult and we can’t cope.
Filling holes, finding new places to work, opens up conversations that simply wouldn’t happen in a gallery. Conversely, there are occasions when filling gaps starts to feel more like hammering a square peg into a round hole.
Flis Michelle, who has moved away from working with people and is turning towards a more studio based practice spoke about her experiences.
FM: Do you know what I found? What I found was that we are still doing that New Labour thing. That thing that social workers don't do, artists are asked to. It is that hangover from New Labour. I feel like when I went to Everton - what they needed was a new boiler, a change of government, some actual money, a health centre near their community centre. What they didn’t need was an artist. So I would be rocking up there going hey. And actually what was my raison d’être to be there. And was that what really what I was needed to be doing there. Then you get this mismatch between someone who has found some funding because they thought it was good for the community because it has a quantifiable wellbeing benefit, and actually that is not what the community want at all.
It hasn’t been autonomous. It hasn’t come from them. If they had asked for it...With some of the money we used it to have a picnic for some 30 toddlers because that was more close to what the people from community wanted.
There is always this mismatch between the big art benefit that is meant to be there, the person who is meant to deliver it and the community who are subject to it.
JB: or subjected to it
FM: yes, It doesn’t necessarily always come to them autonomously.
Stepping over boundaries.
As mentioned earlier, one of this field of practice’s most interesting qualities is the ability to morph from one mode of practice to another.
Throughout our trip we met people blending different art practices and merging diverse ways of collaborating with other artists and the public. James Harper at the Royal Standard in Liverpool described his practice as ‘based on the struggle between being an artist and a curator... and finding the dividing line, or asking whether or not there is a dividing line, or how the two cross over and merge’. A project James worked on with artist Jo Marsh was called ‘I know you, you can come with me’. It worked well outside of the normal boundaries of a gallery and invited artists to leave artworks in the street of Wrexham.
We asked James about it whilst drinking tea and eating jammy dodgers…
J – We have only done one project so far, in that format and that was in Wrexham. So we invited Twenty artists, they all came together on one day and we went on a tour around Wrexham, we went to urban areas, industrial areas, rural areas... different site of interest, then at the end of the day we discussed the different sites. After that Joe and I received the artworks and took them out to the sites we had agreed on with the artists.
The, when or if the works were found, we would then have this dialogue, you know, emailing back and forth with members of the public..
JB – how many works were found?
J – well each artist contributed four items so there were 80 deposited and I think we got about half responded to, there was only one artist who didn’t have any works found.
JT – So where does the work finish?
J – So the end of the project, if there is an end, because maybe there are some artworks still out there that haven’t been found, which it quite interesting, but we did have an exhibition at the end which included documentation that we had done and documentation that whoever had found the objects had done too. We asked, whoever had found an object, to loan it to us for the duration of the exhibition, and after that then get to keep it.
Galleries, studios, theatre are often a step too far for the general public, there are all sorts of inherent blocks; cultural apathy, other things to do with their time, intimidation, unfamiliarity, cost… when artists and arts organisations move out of these spaces, step over their own boundaries, people can engage with the arts on their own term.
Boundless would be how I describe Extra Bones. They are a group of artists who worked on ‘Stuff School’ at the Hackney Wicked Art Festival in 2014. A gang more than a collective, they make work with the public, not be because that’s how they fund their practices but because they wanted to, because it’s fun and because it would lead to new discoveries.
While the caravan’s windows hummed with music from the festivals main stage they spoke about working in public spaces.
EB: yeah and among lots of awkward meetings, occasionally you get someone who confounds your expectations and is a fountain of goodness and fun and either having some personal satisfaction or some artistic satisfaction, meeting that person in that context is just a joyful thing really.
We met Howard Lotker in Nottingham during In Dialogue an international symposium that looked at how artists and researchers use dialogue in practice. Howard worked with at theatre company called Home theatre or Divadlo. They have been working in the Czech Republic for 8 years. They devised and performed plays in people front rooms.
To quote Howard…
I’m really interested in the blurring of boundaries between art and life and the theatre of life, and getting works out of galleries into the streets. I think these distinctions are absurd, all these categories, things having to be separate, it’s much more interesting to mix things up and get a richness in the confusion.
Glen Stoker of Airspace in Stoke works inside and outside the conventional gallery space.
We spoke to him in Liverpool at the Royal Standard
JB – I know from looking through your website that a lot of your practice, aside from the work you do as a director of Airspace, happens outside of the gallery...
G – 99 percent of it really, well for a start its through necessity, because generally I don’t have a studio, I often give my studio away to artists who as residents at the gallery... so I treat the public realm as my studio really I do builds and projects out there that are ad hock or self-funded or activities that I want to test out... lots of that stuff happens in and around my immediate locality.
JT – So, I think what would really help us would be if you could describe your last project, to get foothold into your practice.
G – OK, so I developed a series of sort of terrace house room sets; a kitchens, dining room, living room, bedrooms and bathrooms. They were built quite quickly, they looked like stage sets so you were able to easily see how they were constructed. They are built in a day, always constructed on the site of a previous housing area. At root it was a performative thing, so you could see me building this set
JB – Is this with permission?
G – No, never with permission, I think you should do things until people tell you not to do them. The crux of the work is who owns the land͛... I’ve got some political issues with who owns the land, with land ownership.
We heard how the public reacted to Glens work, walking up to it if they wanted to, engaging in conversation if they wanted to. Often talking about the house they used to live in, the streets they once knew, comfortable in a conversation with references they knew, language they used and memories they shared. As Glen mentioned, artist who operate at the edge, remind the public that they too can interact, can look again at their surroundings.
Glen also spoke about something Flis had touched on, how we might think about the way we set up our ‘encounters’ with the public, how we might operate at the edge of our field of practice.
JB – I think the important thing about how you engage with an audience is that they come to you to engage, they might have walked across a brownfield site to get to you so you know they are interested...
G –well I was talking to Flis about it, and I agree totally that this imposition of arts activity on a public that don’t want it, that’s tough and there will be barriers there that you are going to spend all your time trying to break down before you even get to the work that you are trying to do, I think it’s a bit patronising too
JB – No, it is, and Flis was really interesting to talk to because she had come out the other end of it and is really articulately anti it! and that notion of things being re-developed, people building houses and the developers thinking well we can just have an artist here, at the end of the process they won’t really affect anything but it will look like we have consulted with the community, it’s almost like they are purposefully selected because of their preserved ineffectiveness...
G – I don’t know if you have come across this, but one of the big attitudes about artists is that what they are doing is a bit of a frippery, its inconsequential, they are playing.
We’ve been spending years trying to tell people it’s a professional activity... and then of course the large majority of artists and white and middle class, from comfortable backgrounds...
JB – that’s a good point actually
G –It’s something that we grapple with, with our audience. It’s another reason why it’s important to get out there, to get out of the gallery, because are audience is largely white, middle class, middle aged but some students who are also white...
JT – and if the education systems continues to be eroded in the way it is it’s going to be several decades before...
G –well it’s going to get worst, I think art and the working classes have never been further apart..
JB – in fact, it will just become a closed loop of rich people who can afford to study art and the rich people who own the galleries
G – which is how it always was and for twenty or thirty years there was a real attempt to knock those foundations, those gentrified foundations away and I can defiantly see things go backwards, back towards that. Something that is important to us is that we believe that probably the most important art activity that happens in the country is done by artist led spaces, or maybe individual, independent action, you know...
What we found, in our caravan, was a way of working ‘in the world’ that could be of real value. A field of practice that allows us to question the boundaries of work and life, to interrogate issues around the ownership and use of public space. It brings making and doing back into people’s lives and reminds us to make space for play, collaboration, experimentation and debate.
As artists, moving to the edges, stepping over boundaries will not help use define our common field of practice. But it will help us continue to be engaged, influential and positive members of the communities we work with and live in.