Seminar – Welcome to Paradise – ‘Changing Perceptions of What Artists Can Do’

The ‘Welcome to Paradise’ Seminar
in association with Fly Eric (A consortium of 3 artist-led organisations in the Northwest of England: Art Gene (Barrow) Storey Gallery Lancaster and Castlefield Gallery (Manchester)

Fly Eric Symposia Series. No 1 Expanding artists professional practice; Opportunities for Artists in the social, natural and built environment.

Event Chair
Mitra Memarzia (artist)

Speakers
Charlie MacKeith, Architect: Research Design
David Cotterrell, Artist, Professor of Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University
Verity-Jane Keefe, Artist: Muf Architecture

Mitra Memarzia – Artist

Mitra is an artist working in a variety of media including photography, film, installation, sculpture performance, and socially engaged practice. With a combined theory and practice PhD in fine art on Contemporary Iranian Women Artists, her specialist subject is the construction and representation of identities. Although her work is diverse, she often explores the notion displacement, boundaries and power. The relationship of the public with her work is central to her practice and viewers are often invited to take part. Her other activities include curatorial and creative production, associate lecturing at Sheffield Hallam University, workshops, and live performance. Mitra was awarded the Momentum Independent Creative Producer Bursary 2007-08 by Fierce Earth and funded by the Arts Council, through which she has been developing a unique artist exchange project between Birmingham and Shiraz with several outcomes including a documentary film. Her main artistic aim is to be a catalyst for inspirational dialogue and exchange through a variety of creative practices and productions.  Mitra is also on the board of directors for AN the Artist Information Company and advisor to AIR- Artists Interaction and Representation.

David Cotterrell

David is an installation artist working across varied media including video, audio, interactive media, artificial intelligence, device control and hybrid technology. His work exhibits political, social and behavioural analyses of the environments and contexts, which he and his work inhabit. Over the last ten years, his work has been extensively commissioned and exhibited in North America, Europe and the Far East, in gallery spaces, museums and within the public realm. Recent exhibitions include: Eastern Standard: Western Artists in China at MASS MoCA, Massachusetts, War and Medicine at the Wellcome Collection, London and Map Games at the Today Museum of Modern Art, Beijing and Birmingham City Art Gallery.

David is Professor of Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University and has been a consultant to strategic masterplans, cultural and public art policy for urban regeneration, healthcare and growth areas. He is represented by Danielle Arnaud contemporary art and is currently researching and developing new work with advanced simulation company SEOS, with the support of an Arts Council England fellowship. Further information on recent projects is available through his artist and gallery websites:

Verity-Jane Keefe – muf architecture/art

Keefe has worked for six years as a member of Muf, a London-based artist and architect collaborative, who “address the social, environmental and political infrastructure of the public realm”.

muf’s practice is as much about making space in which to make work as much it is about making spaces, each project therefore begins with an interrogation and expansion of the brief to identify the political and social context of projects.

muf’s methodology moves from the particular to the general and back to the particular again. It is an approach that rejects the habitual detachment of the strategist and instead recognises the importance of the minutely observed details of personal life.

muf art projects critically intersect at the point between desire and experience, object and process, how we live and who we are. In each situation the creative process is the mechanism to involve and inspire the potential viewer as participant or co-author of the work. Projects include temporary and permanent interventions from public space projects to buildings to furniture to urban strategies.

Charlie Mackeith – Research Design

The potential for the creative input of artists in other fields:
Professionalisation reduces the breadth of skills learnt in training to the limited confines of a job description set by society. Artists are able to transcend these narrow boundaries and must continue to be allowed to do so.

Our work in universities has shown us that the training of artists is unique. It provides working knowledge of materials, tools, methods and techniques combined with the articulation of ideas and concepts requiring self reliance and expression. The source for inspiration is personal but is also, largely, based on observations of society and the environment. Not all trained artists can make a living through their own work. The result is that the breadth of skills and enquiry learnt in training passes into a wide range of trades.

We have worked with and learnt from trained artists working in fields seemingly divorced from their studies: an aerodynamicist designer in the motor industry, a sculptor who makes other people’s seemingly impossible work…They are all distinguished by their pursuit of thoughtful enquiry and vision combined with a willingness to experiment, problem solve and make. We need these people to inform and challenge society’s perceptions of what is possible, to ask ‘why are you doing it like that?’.

The potential for the creative input of artists in the built environment: In the early 90s the role of an artist as a provider of a discrete piece of work, often a tokenistic addition, was transformed through the RSA programme championed by lottery funders.

In previous practice Charlie worked for seven years with Richard Wentworth. His commission was to articulate the intent of the project as the construction and client teams were overwhelmed by the mechanics of delivering the project. The result was a transformation of the whole working and revelation of the museum.

Our practice has developed what was learnt with Richard through discussion with other artists. Our current view is that, at the moment, society needs artists to be able to challenge accepted ways of working and to champion the intangible elements of a project because very few designers and clients have the skills to do this. But society has to accept that artists are being ‘borrowed’ for a short time: they must not be taken away from their own work. Someone has to be free from the contamination of mediocrity. And professionalisation is a signifier of that mediocrity: an agreed set of requirements and actions that depletes the energy necessary to question and challenge.

Which brings us to our project with Maddi and Stuart, revealing the possibilities of artist as client and commissioner.

A Journey Towards Esperanto

Elaine Speight
‘Changing perceptions of what artists can do’
26th February 2009.

“A bit like a boyband” is how Maddi Nicholson, co-founder of Art Gene in Barrow and today’s host, describes the aeronautically named Fly Eric – a network of artist-focused organisations in the Northwest of England, led by three galleries which were brought together by the Arts Council; Manchester’s Castlefield Gallery, Art Gene and Storey Gallery in Lancaster. Collectively these organisations have developed a number of initiatives, including a cross-gallery educational project and a symposia series, of which today’s event, Changing Perceptions of What Artists Can Do is the first.

I am mentally assigning each gallery director with a Take That alter ego, when the event takes off. It is piloted by the reassuringly composed Mitra Memarzia, a Birmingham-based multi-media artist who, amongst other things, sits on the board of directors for AN – the Artist Information Company, and is advisor to their Artists Interaction and Representation scheme (AIR).

Memarzia describes our flight path as “methodologies for changing perceptions of what artists can do”. Yet, to whom these perceptions belong is initially unclear; is it developers? Local authorities? Members of the public? The artworld?

As the event unfolds it becomes evident that the answer lies closer to home. The first speaker, David Cotterell, presents a coming-of-age story, which plots his journey from early, romantic aspirations to become Cold War Britain’s last portrait painter, to his current practice as a multi-media artist and consultant to urban regeneration master plans and public art policy. The pivotal moment in Cotterell’s career occurs during his second year at art school, when he realises that his focus on painting – a medium in which he is competent but not exceptional – has limited his ability to communicate his increasingly politicised ideas about art and society, and that by “sacrificing a broad audience for an autonomous voice” he has literally painted himself into a corner. His solution is to embark on a year’s residency in Canada, where anonymity dispels his fear of failure and grants him the confidence to begin again from scratch. He emerges a different type of artist, lacking the core practice so important to his earlier incarnation, but in possession of a new understanding of “what an artist can be”.

And so begins a prolific career, encompassing such diverse projects as the construction of a transportable, floating property, inspired by Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality, numerous gallery-based installations, a film constructed from CCTV footage of the London underground, and the propagation of an urban myth in inner-city Birmingham. Parallel to these are roles as lead artist on urban design teams, war artist in Afghanistan, and artist researcher in Shanghai.

Interestingly, the eclectic nature of Cotterell’s practice and his refusal to be pigeonholed as a ‘public artist’ are contradicted by a self-conscious need for boundaries. Whilst this could be viewed as an agoraphobic response to the loss of painting’s material restraints, the process of setting margins is a useful strategy for working with unfamiliar materials and contexts. Likewise, the artist exploits his lack of professional status as a way to eschew the macro view of the war correspondent or utopian vision of the urban planner, in favour of the “messy reality of the subjective view”. Cotterell sees his role as that of “curious individual” and is emphatic that artists resist the temptation to professionalise their practice. He suggests that artists can only effect change through adopting the role of outsider and, only half jokingly, proposes a limit on the number of times that an artist can sit within an urban design team.

Verity-Jane Keefe is another curious individual. An artist in her own right, Keefe has worked for six years as a member of Muf, a London-based artist and architect collaborative, who “address the social, environmental and political infrastructure of the public realm”. Muf’s main commissioners are local authorities, which employ the team to help provide solutions to urban design problems. As such, Keefe often finds herself working alongside members of other practices and professions, a process she describes as both empowering and problematic. Like Cotterell, she extols the virtues of the artist as interloper, likening her position to that of a double agent – privy to all agendas but complicit in none. She also draws attention to the unique freedom of artists to “mess up” and change direction, something with allows for experimentation within otherwise risk-averse environments.

Muf’s practice could be seen to embody the model of ‘dialogical aesthetics’ proposed by the US critic Grant Kester , in which artists engage communities and instigate social change through a process of “active listening”. For Muf, this listening takes the form of “hanging out” and “informal consultation”. Keefe presents a recent commission for Beckton Alp, a post-industrial, toxic slagheap and former dry-ski slope in East London, in which the team undertook a three-month residency in Woolworth’s carpark and organised social events, including creative workshops and a barbecue for local scaffolders. Combining these strategies with processes of “close looking” – excavational and taxonomic activities, such as soil analysis and the categorisation of found objects – the artists gained a multi-layered understanding of the site, from which they drew-up a proposal to redevelop it as a self-renewing landscape.

Charlie MacKeith, one half of Research Design Architects, provides a useful foil to the artist’s perspective. Understandably nervous about presenting to a room-full of artists, the final speaker describes his extensive and ongoing involvement with art. This begins in the mid-nineties when he appoints Richard Wentworth as the “stipulated artist” within Manchester Museum’s redevelopment, and leads to RDA’s recent commission for Art Gene, in which the artists were also the clients, a situation described by MacKeith as “the ultimate relationship between artist and architect”.

MacKeith depicts the artist as a type of “philosopher” with “the mental agility to jump through boundaries”. Echoing Cotterell, he celebrates the artist’s freedom from professional doctrine and claims that it was only when he began working with artists that he realised the affect of architectural training on his own mindset.

However, MacKeith sells himself short. RDA are no strangers to creative thinking and, above all, they understand the importance of taking risks. At one point, he mentions his irritation towards a 106 planning application, which stated that any art included in the scheme “should not be offensive”, and asserts that, in his opinion, offence can sometimes be a useful and important tool.

Like Muf, RDA could also be seen to embrace a type of dialogical aesthetic. MacKeith compares his approach to working with artists to “having a conversation”, and the emphasis within these collaborations is on a process of understanding and re-thinking a space, rather than on the production of objects.

As the event begins its descent, it becomes apparent that although artists may have long since re-evaluated the limits of their practice and converted the occasional architect, planner or local authority, many perceptions remain un-changed and, to return to Memarzia’s introduction, a methodology for changing the wider perceptions of what artists can do is still needed.

A clue for how such methodology might take shape may be found in Cotterell’s description of his own practice, as the search for a “unique sustainable vocabulary”. Perhaps what is needed is a new type of shared language, through which art can fluently converse with other disciplines, and artists can effectively articulate their expertise and ascribe value to their practice. Cotterell describes a “new form of Esperanto”, in which the vernacular of the artist, architect and planner are combined to produce a shared tongue. Although we are a long way from reaching this destination, the fact that it can be seen on the horizon is positive. Once home I look up the literal meaning of Esperanto. It means “one who hopes”.

Elaine Speight 2009
Elaine Speight is an artist and curator based in the Northwest of England. Her practice explores the politics of place through a range of creative activities.

Since 2005, She has been involved in the In Certain Places public art programme in Preston, Lancashire, which she co-curates with artist Charles Quick.

Fly Eric

Fly Eric is a developmental network of artist focused organisations in the North West of England, led by Art Gene, Castlefield Gallery and Storey Gallery.

Its mission is to support visual artists to infiltrate, inhabit and contribute to society.

FLY ERIC aims to:

  • Encourage artistic discourse and practice that is critical, innovative and ambitious by nature
  • Improve the theoretical and practical methods used by emerging and established artists-led organisations for long-term survival
  • Support a region-wide infrastructure for maximising impact of visual art activity across the North West of England and beyond
  • Learn from, and contribute to, a global discourse towards enhancing the role of the artist within contemporary society and cultureSupport Artist
  • Professional Development (APD) initiatives and activities to individuals and groups
  • Develop models of good practice for APD delivery through collaboration with partner organisations
  • Enable these partner organisations to maximise the relevance and delivery of APD
  • Develop networks for sharing specialist knowledge, skills, resources, funding, and advocacy through partnership and collaboration

 

External Links

Mitra Memarzia, Artist
David Cotterrell, Artist
Verity-Jane Keefe, Artist
Charlie MacKeith, Architect
Elaine Speight Artist
Castlefield Gallery 
Storey Gallery

Further Reading