with Jack Brown and Jo Thomas
JB: We have been trying to capture what’s happening now (talking about what Figure Ground are trying to do during the ‘road trip’) and through the way it’s sort of organically grown, with people we have interviewed suggesting where we should go next, we’ve not really gone to any gallery spaces, or if we have they are artist led. And we haven’t really gone to any big hitters or big names. We’ve just been to the people who have self-initiated, people who have been working hard to get to where they are.
GS: I think in a sense that’s more valid when you take things out of the gallery context and take it into the public’s realm, into the people’s realm and let the people consume the work on their own terms rather than on your terms within the gallery space.
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.
GS: 99 percent of it really, well for a start it’s through necessity, because generally I don’t have a studio, I often give my studio away to artists who are residents at the gallery so I treat the public realm as my studio really.
I do builds and projects out there that are ad hoc or self-funded or activities that I want to test out. Lots of that stuff happens in and around my immediate locality.
Stoke on Trent has been decimated in last fifteen years, in a post-industrial sense, but also through housing demolition which happened in quite a few Northern cities. So a lot of my personal work is based around this sense of home and belonging and de-inhabitation, population dispersal, which we think of as the movement of refugees on a grand scale but actually, that’s what is happening in these cities. What’s happening is that populations, through no fault of their own are being ‘shunted’. You know it happens in London in terms of gentrification, this isn’t that but, and actually the nuts and bolts of it is people are being uprooted, sometimes people have been here for generations, and it takes generations to really lay those roots.
JT: So, I think what would really help us would be if you could describe your last project, to get foothold into your practice.
GS: OK, so I developed a series of sort of terrace house room sets; a kitchen, 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?
GS: 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 land’. I’ve got some political issues with who owns the land, with land ownership.
The sets are quite complex and I try to make them as authentic as possible… thinking about public art and as I mentioned before about the public consuming art on their own terms. People are entitled to ignore what I’m doing, or to be interested or beguiled at what I’m doing and my hope is that conversation ensues from that process. And I think generally it does because it’s accessible work, people see a familiarity there and largely what I’ve noticed is that people are drawn to talk wistfully about memories of what was there and how it was there and how they lived in that way.
I think home is so crucial and integral to everybody’s way of being
JB: And so transferable too, because everyone understands that, and we all can imagine, well what if that happened to me. Even if you have not been removed you can understand how important it must be to someone. The conversations that happen around the work, are they recorded as part of the work or is the work just the situation that you set up?
GS: I think the documentation of the work is what endures, and that might be a film of the process or a recording of the conversation or documented photographic images but absolutely the conversations are super important.
JT: Are there ever things you do within your practice that are funded? Or is it always self-initiated, self-funded?
GS: No, I’ve had commissioned work and residency work which has allowed some funding into my work. It’s quite a cheap practice really, you know, I mean I can find or source the materials really cheaply. Stuffs reusable.
JB: And have you ever been stopped? In these situations when you are working without permission?
GS: I’ve never been stopped. I’ve even had attention from officials but that’s part of the practice; to engage with all sorts of different people and you know I’ve got a series of disarming tactics...
JB: Can you share those tactics?
GS: I think it’s about being able to converse and not dictate. And if you talk with enthusiasm and passion about things that are of interest to them they will soon come on board. Also ask questions, talk to people, be interested in your audience, it shouldn’t be and them and us thing.
JT: So, who is your audience? Do you have two audiences? The people who you meet ‘in place’ and then with the documentation, does that go on to a secondary audience as artwork?
GS: I guess so, the primary audience are the people who are watching and joining in the process, but then the documentation may end up being exhibited
JT: So why do you document it?
GS: Erm, I guess for a sense of endurance, of legacy. A buildup of something, I guess that’s a personal thing really, that might be for me, a bank of work that helps me go away and reflect on what worked and what didn’t
JB: I was wondering how, when you talk about the importance of dialogue within your own practice, how that relates to work as a director of a gallery and how that relates to the audience there.
GS: I think it’s integral, I mean my work and I think the gallery both blur boundaries around art, whether you forefront the art, or whether that it is there in the background… whether the public needs to see the art with a capital A; particularly in Stoke where there is a regular antipathy towards culture and arts practices, I think you have to be a little more ‘cute’ about how you approach a project and that definitely happens at Airspace as well as in my own practice so…
Airspace, as well as having its regular exhibition programme does a series of off-site works and do projects in the public realm. But even within the gallery programme, we are not, you know, a London white cube space, we have to know our city and our location and our public and so our programme has to contain a series of enduring themes which are accessible, but with-out dumbing down, you know… so the quality of the work is high, the concepts are advanced and complex but also accessible…
JB: Which is about language, I presume
GS: It’s about communication. It’s about communicating in a way that doesn’t frighten a slightly immature art audience. It’s not a very experienced art audience in this city so…
We are the only contemporary visual art gallery in a county of over a million people, and I think our last arts council bid was for eighty grand for two years, ten exhibitions, six residencies, you know, a really packed programme. We’ve got three part-time directors, it’s an artist led space, there’s nothing else like it around here.
And that’s something else I talked about at another conference, that ‘the artist led space’ in our situation starts to take on a slightly different role, its already been mentioned today with the Royal Standard taking the middle group between the big galleries and small start-ups, well for us at Airspace we are almost institutional because we are only one, and people look at us in a slightly different way. Compare that to an artist led space in London that can take as many risks as it wants because there is a whole host of other offers, other spaces.
We have to be really careful about our programme whilst trying not to alienate the small existing audience that we have. It’s a difficult balancing act.
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.
GS: 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 some things yourself.
For me and for Anna and for the gallery as a whole it’s about saying ‘you can do this’ you know, and we’ll do a bit to show you what’s possible…
JT: So how do you tell people about what you are doing?
GS: The most effective way is face to face, getting out and about and engaging with members of the public. Our social media and online presence is also really important, so we blog a lot. That’s important to us to show people the processes and to be open about all of those things, even the things that fail, we want to tell people about those things because it’s not all about saying ‘look at us, brilliant are we?’
JB: It feels like, maybe your personal practice acts as your ‘buffer zone’ you can work as you want to whereas the gallery has its funding and has to be more precious and is seen as a local institution now. Is that about right?
GS: Absolutely, there is an amazing freedom in that.
JB: And thinking about being involved in the gallery and your practice now, has it developed more that way because that’s what you need from it? Has it become more responsive, less restrained because you need it away from the gallery?
GS: Well I think the gallery work informs my practice and there are cross overs, but absolutely, sometimes I need to escape and do something that doesn’t have quite so much responsibility attached to it.
The other crossover with Airspace and my practice is the audience. I don’t think it matters if you have an audience of one or an audience of a thousand, I think it’s how you are communicating with that audience. And I’ve taken that from the gallery into my practice, actually it probably works both ways; it helps me with the gallery work and how we communicate effectively too.
JB: Anna was talking when Airspace still had Andy and David as directors and how there has been, since you guys took over, a change in the language used and before that it wasn’t really a very public space
GS: Well, the two years prior to us becoming directors, Dave and Andy worked with another curator who was overly conceptual, I would say, in his approach. Not that there is anything wrong with that, the exhibitions were great, but I think it was out of its place in the city, in a way. I just don’t think the city was mature enough to be able to take that sort of work. I think if there were ten other galleries around the city…
JB: and people were eased into it
GS: If that was part of a bigger cultural offer then that would have been fine, but as the only cultural space we noticed that it was alienating.
JB: It probably would have been art of other artists really…erm, I don’t know a lot about Stoke but I’m presuming the peoples historical connection with art would have been a craft based connection because of the local industry. Does that affect how you programme things at the gallery?
GS: Generally not, I think erm, there is a lot of looking backwards in Stoke, at culture. Personally I would prefer us not to be known as a crafts people or ceramics based because that’s an old story for the city.
There is a re-emergence in the city of independent ceramic activity, which is great, it’s brilliant, but any notion that Stoke could be at the centre of the world’s ceramics is just a folly. And I think its stultifying to think that way, I think it stops you progressing if you are constantly harping back to the past.
We don’t show local artists, which causes some consternation in the city too, you know ‘why don’t you show local practitioners’ it’s not about that, it’s about bringing new attitudes in and widening the focus. Stoke is very parochial, I think it would quite happily build a moat around itself and stop anyone coming in if it could. Stoke is made up of six towns, and there are people that want leave their town within Stoke. We have done some public consultation and I’ve heard it more than once from a resident of a town that is maybe a mile and a half from Hanley, which is the central town, and they’re like ‘I never go to Hanley, they talk funny there, the people are different there’ you know.
Those are national attitudes on a local level, it’s weird.
I think interestingly, people who lead what you might call conventional lives; 9 to 5, big families, not very much income are spending a large amount of their time in their houses. I think generally, there is an atmosphere of fear which says to people you are safest inside your own four walls. And this is shutting down people’s natural curiosity. It’s definitely there as a kid, so at what stage does that get shut down?
JB: It’s that fear of the man on the park who might snatch your kid and it’s the media of course.
GS: And I think that goes back to that tactic of talking to people on their own terms in their own space. I think a lot of attitudes I come across are at first suspicious. What are you doing? Why are you doing it? I think you can cut through that really quickly and be having an open, engaged, inquisitive conversation.
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.
GS: Well I was talking to Flis (Flis Mitchell) 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 articulate and anti it! The 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.
GS: 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, it’s 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 are white and middle class, from comfortable backgrounds.
JB: That’s a good point actually
GS: 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 art 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 its going to be several decades before…
GS: 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.
GS: 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.
JT: I think we already have a good idea, but what would you say drives your work?
GS: A natural inquisition, a curiosity, a want to find out what people’s lives are like, a dissatisfaction with how we are ruled and governed, decisions that are taken and imposed on people rather than what people ask for and how that affects people lives.
I think it’s a social, existential curiosity for how individuals are living day to day. I always want to know what people’s lives are like and what people think about their lives.
It’s a dissatisfaction, that’s what’s driving me. Things could be done better, money could be spent better, decisions could be taken better, consultation could happen better.
JT: So, did you choose to live in Stoke or did Stoke choose you?
GS: I think Stoke probably chose me in a way, I left home when I was eighteen and when and lived in Manchester for three or four years, worked in a bar and went to lots of parties, and then I wanted to do a degree and the only place I could get in was what was then Staffordshire Polytechnic. Did a politics degree what I was 22, so in that Stoke chose me, but then I couldn’t really leave. It’s a weird place, it’s a bit of a shit hole Stoke, it’s got nothing going for it on the surface, it’s pretty grim, the attitudes are pretty closed down, there’s no night life, there’s no real leisure output the night time economy is dreadful, I struggle to name two or more pubs in the city centre that are worth going to but, what it doesn’t have is any pretension, any sense of ego, any sense of bullshit and that’s what I love about it. And I think those things that are embodied in Stoke are the same things embodied in brownfield sites that you can find in brownfield sites. It’s like looking at weeds and seeing plants. I think at its base Stoke has a good, honest, working class integrity which I like.
JB: What’s the political feeling at the moment, in Stoke?
GS: It’s always Labour Stoke, forever Labour, since the 20s, big majorities. A fairly decent turn out for general elections, I think people are quite mobilised, probably a 60 percent turnout. There was a bit of a BNP problem five or six years ago. There is a big Asian population in Stoke and a big new Eastern European population, but it was snuffed out pretty quickly. People are general welcoming and tolerant. The problem with Stoke is it’s skint. I think Detroit just declared itself bankrupt, I think Leeds is on the verge, if it can be allowed to, of going the same way, I think Stoke is right on that knife edge. Before the crash happened in 2008 it had lost all its money in the Icelandic bank crash, it invested all of its public money on Icelandic banks
JB: It seems ridiculous when you look back
GS: Playing fast and loose with your cities money… yeah, it’s skint and I think that makes the art situation a little harder too, because of that argument between should we spend the money on schools and hospitals or is it OK to spend it on culture.