With artSOUTH boasting 15 associated organisations working together to present newly-commissioned art works across the South East, unhealthy | writer Mark Sheerin finds that it is not only the arts organisations that are joining forces but that many of the artists included in artSOUTH have also been selected for their collaborative work with scientists, makers and people from different walks of life.
With an action packed trip to the Isle of Wight thrown in, the first artSOUTH coach tour offered a quality day out, regardless of the ostensible reason we were all there. Art by Jeremy Millar, Bouke de Vries and Tom Hall was complemented by a jaunty ferry crossing and a perilous open top bus ride to the top of a cliff. It was certainly a memorable context to the film, sculpture and installation work which provided the day’s real highlights.
Several years in the making, artSOUTH might best be described as a Biennial with no previous history and no firm plans for a repeat performance. The festival can be found throughout Hampshire, the Isle of Wight and Bournemouth, and includes ten new commissions by international artists. These light up a range of offbeat venues along with the county’s best art galleries. ‘Collaboration’ is the unique selling point, and in many cases this has ensured that the art packs plenty of punch, whatever the visitor numbers.
Graham Gussin, Close Protection, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Marlborough Contemporary.
The vision for this brand new festival of contemporary art emerged from an unusual quarter: the imposing Winchester offices of Hampshire County Council. Their Arts Resources Officer, Anne-Marie Brooke Wavell, is also on the bus and gives me the working background to the project: “It’s funded primarily by the Arts Council, run by Hampshire County Council, and it’s also been funded partially and with input of time and staff by artswork [a Southampton-based youth arts development agency], and the National Trust and then the galleries involved.”
Given the numbers of arts councillors and county councillors involved, artSOUTH might have fallen into a bureaucratic black hole. It suggests effective collaboration was a touchstone from the very beginning. Brooke Wavell is enthusiastic about the project’s USP: “The idea is just to include as many ideas and people as possible. It’s not just the ideas of the artists; it’s also using third parties to come up with something quite unusual and different.”
Bouke de Vries has for example collaborated with a glassblower, two museums and a university to produce his delicate arrangements of broken artefacts. The artist has raided institutional storerooms to collect chips of historic jugs, bowls, dishes, and so on. Recreations have been made from glass and the remnants arranged in and around these ghostly containers. Look closely and you can see the fragments are numbered, despite being beyond repair. On plinths, in cases, in the contemplative setting of a City Art Gallery, there is a clear added value to this collaborative art.
Bouke de Vries, Memory Vessels, 2013. Courtesy the artist.
It is some surprise to find that Bouke is also working with Aspex. The gallery director Joanne Bushnell explained why she likes collaboration: “Personally I love work which is about the everyday, the real, the subjects that everyday people are interested in and engage with.” In other words, Portsmouth’s leading contemporary space is not big on art about art. “I think that when artists are collaborating with scientists and makers and people from all different walks of life . . . the subject matter with which they’re working is really rich and that makes for really interesting work both to us as commissioners and curators but also, I think, to the audience.”
As an example Bushnell describes her gallery’s main commission for artSOUTH, a collaborative film made by artist Jordan Baseman with help from criminologists and former criminals. She describes it as powerful and thought-provoking, and all the more so for its new context: “It’s being screened in a community-run centre called the Omega Centre, in Somerstown, in the heart of Portsmouth, in a difficult area of the city. So we’re hoping that’s going to attract a different sort of audience to the work.”
Jordan Baseman, Skin Colored Chairs, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Matt’s Gallery, London.
In one of the most notable collaborations here, artist Jeremy Millar has teamed up with an oblate (a monk to save anyone reaching for the dictionary). The subject of his artist’s film is Father Nicholas Spencer, head of the bindery at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight. Visitors to Southampton City Art Gallery can see him binding a copy of Huysman’s novel L’Oblat. Millar spent seven hours filming his reclusive subject and edited the results down to (a mere) three. It is a fine meditation on, among other things, the value of books in a post-internet age, the possibility of withdrawing from the world, and the relationship between artist and ‘model’.
Jeremy Millar, L’Oblate, 2013. Courtesy the artist.
After a smooth trip across the Solent, we are joined by Georgia Newman, Exhibitions Organiser at Quay Arts on the Isle of Wight. She complicates an already complex picture by explaining where her gallery sits within the artSOUTH landscape: “Aspex are our lead partner so we decided to work as an associate partner though having an exhibition with Tom Hall”. Artist Hall is also collaborating with a former rocket tester and the National Trust. His show is in a Cold War bunker, a stone’s throw from the island’s stunning offshore rock formation, the Needles.
Newman also says: “We found his work very inspiring, looking at heritage sites in the Isle of Wight. These are very important to us and, economically and culturally, to the island. Tourism is the industry the Isle of Wight thrives on.” She also explains that Quay Arts are keen to champion anything happening on the IOW, and sets out the case for collaborating with other venues. Newman praises joined-up thinking, and teamwork when it comes to fundraising. She describes this as, “thinking about how we can make it work as a group rather than fighting against proposals and bids. It’s almost useless in a way to have that negative way of thinking”.
Tom Hall, Chasing Sputnik, 2013. Copyright the artist.
Our conversation takes place, in surreal fashion, underground, where Tom Hall has installed a cardboard mock-up of Britain’s very own mission control. For many years, it seems, the UK had a credible space programme and this inhospitable spot on the coast of the island was where we tested rockets. Hall has collaborated with former engineer, Mike Elliott, to recreate an unlikely office complete with banks and banks of computers, close-to-hand ash tray, and the jazz instruments which Elliott and his colleagues would once play to keep warm on their remote and secretive shifts.
“I’ve had some fantastic responses,” reveals the artist. “It’s an easy piece to begin to engage with. It’s visually of clear intent.” And with the discovery of collaborator Elliott, Hall also has a compelling backstory. His reconstruction of a historic setting has also chimed in with the wider programme of the National Trust. And Hall is clear about the advantages to this partnership: “One of the great things about having it at a National Trust site is that you do get a wide range of new people to see the art.” Given his use of low budget material, Hall is making work for our times and collaboration is also a timely strategy, “with finances being tight. We’re looking to grow more audiences in particular ways and I think collaboration fulfils that in a very effective manner”.
On the boat home, artSOUTH Engagement Programmer Gill Nichol introduces me to the notion of the valuable “first audience” which collaborative pieces can affect. She defines this as “the people who work on arts projects who don’t have a clue about art. But get really affected, in a good way, by what’s happening.” As often happens with art evaluation the evidence is anecdotal, but no less powerful for that. Nichol recounts the case of an army professional working with artist Graham Gussin on a piece which involves contemporary dance. “He just waxed lyrical about the dancers’ bodies and said what they do with their bodies is amazing.” Likewise a maintenance crew on the SS Shieldhall, where Mel Brimfield stages some camp performance art, went from a position of hostile scepticism to enthusiastic advocacy after actually seeing the show. “For me that’s one of the massive pluses already,” says Nichol.
Annika Ström, Look, 2013. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Nigel Barker
She also says that collaboration offers “a softer way in” to art: “By saying it’s art and gardening, art and forestry, art and rocket science.” People are, according to Nichol, crying out to understand art and ask the question, ‘What can it do for me?’ As such, a festival like artSOUTH, for all the work which has gone into it, must win over its audience one member at a time. Talks, writing workshops, coach tours, a walking tour and a conference are all a vital part of the mix. So let us hope there are plenty more evaluation-friendly anecdotes to come.
artSOUTH takes place until 1 December. See the artSOUTH for further details.