Lydia Heath & Helen Marland
Katy Beinart, Jo Thomas, Laura Krikke and Frank Cartledge
Caravan, Brighton seafront
HM: As Unit 11, we have a bursary to do a project because there’s quite a few similar things like this, that ask what is it to be an artist run organisation so we’ve got a six month –
KB: Is that through A.N.?
HM: No, it’s through A Space, and Arts Council, it’s a local…
KB: so you want to ask us questions too, that’s great!
FC: it’s a 45 minutes time thing, maybe we can interview them
HM: We’ve come prepared, we’ve got a brief thing about us and the public art aspects of what we do because we’ve been traveling round with this piece of material, getting people to add to it. I didn’t bring it today because…
LH: We’ve got a bit of ambivalence about this part of the project
KB: That’s interesting
HM: but all this is documented on our website so rather than bring anything else we thought we’d just bring this today and if we could find out – it’s a bit of a two way thing
KB: that’s great for us though because a lot of what we have been doing is kind of one way, we’re always interested in talking about what we’re doing and in fact we can evaluate what we’re doing as part of the conversations
So tell us a bit about what you do.
HM: I suppose that would be fair… (Laughs)
So basically about 4 years ago, 3 of us who did a BA at Southampton Solent we set up Unit 11 as a space to keep talking and engaging about art and hopefully to make work and we’ve been through several coming and goings and we’ve got a space and Lydia joined us last year.
L: November last year, I graduated
HM: and there’s 9 of us at the moment and a section of us just put on an ex-hibition in a coffee house inviting others to join us and Lydia’s work was con-troversial which is interesting on the side.
Then four of us; myself, Lydia and Sarah who is really the instigator of the public art side of the project because we collaborate on this but we’ve all got different individual practices. We set up the studios to think of ourselves of artists.
So Unit 11 studios have done five or six projects.
One was ribbon people in Portsmouth. There’s a supermarket in Portsmouth and another supermarket comes in, there’s controversy, the hoardings go up, and we turn up and staple ribbons and have conversations with the passers-by.
Then in the cultural quarter in Southampton there’s lots of Arts Council money and they are building a big corporate space with shops, seven restau-rants, apartments for people, who can’t afford to live there, and so we went along and put the ribbon people on the hoardings and it was taken down the next morning.
We’ve had conversations with the developers and we had a meeting with them to try and incorporate local artists into the scheme but nobody is paying us. Nobody is paying artists.
Another of our members who is the instigator of this has a thing about artists should be paid and then there was another controversy about another shop-ping centre, Southampton has so many shopping centres, two on the go at the moment, one’s being knocked down and another one is derelict and they want to build another complex.
So with another group, Dangerous Ideas, we got together and did a mini making covers (getting the public involved in as a response to the conversa-tions with the developers there was another ‘do you want art or not?’ in card-board letters on the hoardings,
Jo: Are other artists coming in from other projects? Are you being commis-sioned?
HM: No, it’s just us… as part of the development they’ve sectioned off an ar-ea and we can go and do something if we want
LH: There was a very condescending email exchange with the developers saying how are you going to ensure public safety, and all this stuff, there were very strict rules if we wanted to officially have anything on this hoard-ing, and it was clear it was a conflict if interests.
KB: So you weren’t really being invited in in any way?
HM: Not in any way that we could really do anything. If they’ve offered us a small amount of money perhaps to do something – but we would have to do it, maintain it, keep it up – I mean we all have to work and this is about trying to find a way to sort of exist as an artist in a meaningful way in the communi-ty.
KB: So what is your interest in doing these projects? Is it political or artistic? Where does it sit within your practices?
LH: With the hoarding it was a reaction to the development of this area of Southampton. Sarah who instigated this project her practice is filmmaking but she did a collaborative project called the blue jumper where she invited people to come and knit a section of the jumper and had conversations along the way. The hoardings was responding to a situation.
HM: And it’s very hard to be an artist in Southampton. Nothing really seems to gel – there are lots of little groups but the main players – I mean we’ve got the John Hansard Gallery at the university and they’re coming down into that cultural quarter but they’re not interested in us, and you’ve got the Solent University Gallery which is a showcase and they’re not interested…I don’t know you get involved, we work at the university and we still can’t get in-volved!
Jo: So do you feel your practice is being forced out into the public realm by these political situations? Or is it an opportunity to ask questions and shake things up?
LH: I think it’s us questioning as a collective what our place is within South-ampton. There’s other studio groups but they tend to be for artists working individually where as we try and operate more as a collective so it’s an ex-pansion of what our place is within Southampton.
HM: The idea of us becoming a group, a unit, I wanted it to be such a demo-cratic thing but I’m finding that doesn’t really work. But maybe it was a space for us at the time to develop so we gained confidence through doing these projects
Jo: Confidence in what? Learning the practice?
LH: Like in operating outside of an educational context?
HM: Yes, I mean you come out of the educational context and to be taken se-riously as an artist and to feel critically valid as that – because who wants to go out there and make mediocre work – I’d rather just be in a conversation than make mediocre work – and partly that is where this bursary thing comes in. We took Unit 11 to SLUICE and we were given this open plan space and the people next to us put a wall up. So we took some work and we weren’t sure what we were going to do. So we took that and we made a discussion table and a space for discussion
LH: Maybe that’s what kick started this thing about us finding out what we are. We’ve being going for 3-4 years and it’s beginning to settle but lots of questions are coming up, do we need a physical space, all these ques-tions…
Jo- Yes, we were talking about that yesterday and Laura remembered us say-ing we didn’t want to have a physical space
Laura – Yes and now we have one! (The caravan)
LH: I guess this is different to having a static space, if you are taking it around and having conversations with people it’s just something facilitating that which is different to being tied down to a physical space
Laura: Yes, it was something about unnecessary costs and we never wanted to be ossified as artists and makers, that’s key to our process. But what you’ve said about the democratic thing, that’s what I’ve always loved about (FG) we’re totally democratic
LH: Is that easier to maintain because you don’t have a space?
Laura: I actually think it’s a personality thing.
H: the fact that you each individually know where you are coming from or where you are going or what you want.
Laura: I think it’s an open space as to what happens each time.
HM: And have you all got individual practices as well?
All: oh yeah. (Laura describes practice)
HM: And the reason behind these things? I’m quite interested in that be-cause – of how to – not justify but – you can do art just because you like do-ing it or you can do art for a reason and you want to make some impact.
Laura: You mean personally or all together?
HM: I mean both – the ribbon people was about engaging people about their thinking about art and about highlighting an issue. My own practice which is developing at the moment, I’m doing a public art project with the university about regeneration but for me it’s about opening people’s eyes to what art can do, how it can change your perspective.
Laura: One of the questions we came up with before as to why would people want to work in public is because it has to have some relevance to the world
HM: But it be can utopian, it can just exist within that social thing. So it’s tem-porary so it only holds in the memory
KB: I think one of the things that brought us together to do this project was a question around how artists define public art and what that means now. There seems to be a difficulty in this kind of practice in people feeling justi-fied to do it, in people feeling supported to do it. In people feeling like they’ve got the right development opportunities to move from level to level.
Laura: That it is has some significance, because a lot of it is quite ephemeral.
KB: Yeah how does it get reported in the art world? As an artist you either go down the gallery route in which case you are very much part of a particular set of expectations or you go in this direction which is broad in itself, and how you then understand the structures, or there are then the structures there to enable you to do that type of practice. How do you make a living, how do you do you develop that work, what do you call yourself. And I think these things have come up for us and for the other artists we’ve talked to.
HM: Because you all work in public?
KB: Because we all work in the public realm as a group and also personal.
Jo: But not necessarily solely. It’s a part of practice but not to the exclusion of other things.
KB: So that’s what the intention was to map and try and define what existing practice is, particularly under the radar, to ask where are people finding things difficult, etc.
LK: When you set up Unit 11 it was important you were self-funded,
HM: Yeah we just exist on the studio rent
LH: Because the other studio base in Southampton has arts council funding and has a manager and it’s more business orientated. It’s great, they’ve got a really interesting space, but it’s a very different emphasis but in doing the re-search project we’ve done recently to visit other artist runs spaces or see how they operate, that’s come up. The sustainability as an unfunded thing. We all work full time so we don’t have as much time to give to the running of the studio as well as maintaining a practice as we’d like.
Jo: So is the ambition to maintain practice or is it to sustain or develop prac-tice?
LH: Maybe that’s the wrong word, I wasn’t there when it was set up but I think it was supposed to be a space which allowed people to continue the work they had been doing while studying and to be a critical space to come and discuss their work.