Engaging

As the Engage (National Association for Gallery Education) goes into the second day of its annual conference in Cardiff – Landing Place – it seems like a good time to look at how art reaches audiences and how they react.

I have to confess that I’ve been a bit too awash with various projects to make it to the conference, but did get to the pre-conference social at Ffotogallery’s Turner House Gallery two days ago to meet up with a very lively group of gallery educators who make up the coal face of visual arts mediation and interpretation across the UK.

Before everyone got even more lively on the mulled cider on offer they were treated to a quick overview of what the education team at Ffotogallery have been doing. And here I have to declare a big fat interest. Last year I asked them if they’d be interested in working with me on an outreach project as part of a public art programme I’m managing in my home town of Penarth. A social housing project called the Billy Banks has passed its sell-by date and is being re-developed into the new Penarth Heights. I’ve been anxious to fold in the people who used to live there, to capture the history of what was a bold experiment in social housing back in the 70s, and to link the project to the wider town. Before the bulldozers had razed the last traces of the old site to the ground, Ffotogallery sent six artists in to six local schools, taking them on site visits and getting them to make their own very individual responses to the change. You can see the results here.To say they exceeded my wildest expectations is an understatement, underlined by the massive grins on the faces of the pupils who came to the launch event at the end of last month.

For some of those young people this was their first contact with an artist. And here’s the thing. Most artists don’t make their primary living form making and selling their work. It’s through education – teaching, artist-in-residence projects and activities that may seem at a tangent to their artistic practice, that many earn their daily crust. And for artists like Matt Wright, Faye Chamberlain, Chiara Tocci, Michael Iwanowski, Ewan Jones Morris and Nat Higgins this is an opportunity to work directly with a new audience. For the schools, of course, it’s a rare opportunity to work with new media and processes, as well as giving pupils and teachers an insight into how how artists work and adding a new dimension to curricular work they may already be working with. I just hope that this is the kind of work that registers with the Welsh Government’s New joint review to look at broadening access to the arts in education.

David Garner Future Tense But of course gallery education isn’t just for the children. Last week I took myself northwards to Aberystwyth Arts Centre for a talk by artist David Garner. His current show Future Tense is dense with meanings, as is much of his work. For this body of work he has thrown all of his thinking about the impact of globalisation into the creative furnace to produce a series of works which, in the pared back shell of the gallery, set up conversations with each other and send out narrative threads across the space.

Looking at them without recourse to the information sheet and before the scheduled gallery talk, they spark off a range of thoughts and responses, informed by my own baggage of experience. And then I start to consider them as distinct objects. All are made with an exceptional attention to detail so that I found myself looking for the joins, the interventions with the found objects that transform them to something else – a shift in scale in a child’s school desk,; the dark and exotic woods of what looks, at first glimpse, like a normal wooden pallet but has tiny dowel pegs where the roughly banged in pegs would be; the retro paint on the base of a giant spike at human height. piercing hundreds of time cards (the punched out chips in a glass jar nearby).

David Garner Future Tense detail from Lost Symbols in a Global CurrentWhen Garner starts to tell the gathered audience (I think there were about 30 of us but we were walking and talking so head-counting was tricky – it was a good turnout anyway), he starts to feed us details, thought processes, material information that adds another layer. There are some things intended by the artist that will never be obvious to the gallery viewer but, half an hour over time, we leave with a sense of having taken something new on board and that an exchange has occurred.

Back to Cardiff and even further back in time. As part of the current Artes Mundi prize offering at National Museum Cardiff shortlisted artist Apolonija Šušteršič managed to do what no-one else has managed in over 25 years. As part of her presentation for Artes Mundi she created a new project and an archive around the development of Cardiff Bay and the barrage that changed the view of what was once Cardiff’s Docks forever. As part of this project she filmed the pro and anti-barrage protagonists and, for Talk Show, she invited both sides to look back at the changes to Cardiff Bay. This was to be the first time that both sides had ever been able to share a platform, filmed live and unedited for an hour, the ensuing debate  showed that feelings around the development that displaced people and birds (Šušteršič remained neutral, although she has her own views on economically driven development, I am less so) are still raw.

Apolonija Sustersic Talk Show 19.10.2012

So within the context of a gallery exhibition, the outsider’s eye, in the form of the artist’s camera, brought a new perspective to an understanding of how places get made and un-made. And the events around art practice, when artists are allowed the opportunity to add another dimension to work that is already interesting, leave everybody better off.

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Backwards and Onward

Happy 2012 blog fans and welcome, as the last pine needles embed themselves in the carpet, to a rather random review of the visual arts year in Wales.

And it was a good one, with lots of highlights:

There have been some mighty fine shows on offer this year and I’ve been lucky to see a lot of them. In no particular order of favouriteness here are some of the ones that tooted my horn:

Project Object at Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen had everything going for it. I love it when artists are let loose on collections, or people are invited to talk about or curate objects that mean something special to them. This show came in four equally good parts and gave me the chance to come as close as I’m likely to get to the Aurora Borealis and slip a poodle into a public gallery. The Glynn Vivian unleashed David Cushway and some delighted individuals on their precious collection of ceramics. The resulting film,  Last Supper at The Glynn Vivian, shows how passionate folk become when asked to talk about the objects they love.

One would never have guessed that the Glynn Vivian team had been holding their collective breaths, waiting to get the green light for the new development project – the programme was as lively as ever. I’ve already written up my highlight here. The off site programme continues – follow it here.

Neil Mcnally was let loose on Newport Museum & Art gallery to curate a show – The Institute of Mental Health is Burning. Mcnally selected objects from NMAG’s fine collection, mixing it up with a host of artists. Those who went will have Goldie Lookin’ Chain’s Newport State of Mind (You’re Not From Newport) etched into their memory banks forever more. NMAG also brought us Dis-location by Andrew Cooper, an artist who never fails to engage my attention. Pete Telfer, God of Culture Colony, filmed Cooper talking about his work.

In mid Wales, Oriel Davies gave us two artists associated with the 2007 Wales at the Venice Biennale offering: Bedwyr Williams and Paul Granjon. Williams’ show, Nimrod, launched with one of his trademark darkly funny performances and the humour threaded through the exhibition, which coincided with the National Eisteddfod up the road in Wrexham – Williams took the Gold medal and went on to win the People’s Choice and Ifor Davies Award in an unprecedented hat trick.

Bedwyr Williams, Nimrod Oriel Davies

Granjon took over the gallery to create a workshop for unlikely gizmos with very willing volunteers for Oriel Factory. With a suite of his quirky drawings and a loop of films featuring some of his performances, inventions and songs to spur them on, the workshop elves came up with some highly inventive creations – none of which are likely to feature in the Innovations catalogue any day soon.

Across the Cambrian mountains, Aberystwyth Arts Centre has become an important venue for artists’ moving image with The Box seasons, but I’ve also enjoyed Visitor (still  on, if you’re quick) and Wild Thing.

Back in Cardiff Richard Higlett had his first solo show in Wales at g39’s temporary new home in The dairy, Pontcanna with Welcome to Your World. Higlett never fails to surprise and this show was no exception: a talking cat, the GPS (gallery of portable sound) car and a band (Bear- Man) playing from a hole in the gallery floor. Experimentica came back for its 11th outing at Chapter (where else could you find a man covered in mucus bouncing on a trampoline?) Chapter Gallery continued to surprise and delight with Pile and  The With Collective my personal faves.

Over in Penarth, Ffotogallery’s programme was as strong as ever, showcasing new and established talent and with complementary and engaging talks and the ever-popular Artists’ Book Fayre I’m so glad that this is my local. They’ll be bringing an international photography festival to Cardiff in 2013.

Artist-run spaces offered some really exciting shows and events this year: tactileBOSCH in Cardiff, continued to present rare opportunities to see performance, along with installations and painting shows that spilled out all over Cardiff for MOIST; Elysium ran another Bus Stop Cinema and disrupted the streets of Swansea; g39 hit Leipzig’s Spinnerei for the big Art Weekend; The Rhôd created a new series of site-responsive works in an old Mill in the hills of Carmarthenshire and created their own pavilion at the Venice Biennale (Rhodio). Swansea’s Supersaurus played host to shows by Gordon Dalton and Tom Goddard, while Supersuarus member Owen Griffiths dug up a football pitch to grow vegetables for Vetch Veg (sometimes you just couldn’t make this stuff up!)

Online artists’ film platform, Outcasting is heading for world domination. Not content with presenting international content, Outcasting’s evil genius, Michael Cousin, has joined forces with, er, me and St David’s Hall’s exhibitions officer, Ruth Cayford to form Fourth Wall. Pedwaredd Wall CIC, which will be filling Cardiff with artists’ moving image this autumn, thanks to festival funding from the Arts Council of Wales. Watch this space for more info and a call for artists to submit.

Goodbye and Hello

2011 was tinged with some sadness as Swansea lost two inspirational women: Swansea Metroplitan University lecturer Susan Griffiths and Mission Gallery Director Jane Phillips. Both died too young and leave a big hole in the visual arts community.

We also said goodbye to arts education as we know it with some major restructuring of fine art courses and a few closures. I’ve already written about this here so I won’t bang on but I’ll be watching as things unfold over the next few years.

James Boardman, Light Corridor, CSAD degree show 2011

And last, but not least, of the farewells goes to all of my former colleagues at the Arts Council of Wales, who find themselves staring at an uncertain future following the recent major restructuring (more on this as it unfolds).

Meanwhile some new faces appeared on the scene and began to make their mark:

Amanda Roderick took over as director at The Mission Gallery under very sad circumstance, but her work to date would, I’m sure, make Jane Phillips proud. Ben Borthwick got into his stride as Chief Executive of Artes Mundi, which is scheduled for this Autumn in Cardiff. Up in Llandudno we said goodbye and good luck to Martin Barlow, who left Mostyn after steering its development into one of the finest exhibitions spaces in Wales. He is  replaced as director by Alfredo Cramerotti, who took over as the first major retrospective of Blaenau Ffestiniog-based sculptor, David Nash – Red,Black,Other – launched to much excitement.

And finally, we said hello to #0 of tant magazine. They’re currently inviting submissions for #1 so please follow the link.

    David Fitzjohn, TactileBOSCH Citizen 2011     Jonathan Anderson, Dark Star - Mission Gallery

It’s been such a busy year and I’m sure I’ll have forgotten to mention a lot of the wonderful things that I have seen. Please feel free to add your own favourites in the comments section.

In the meantime I hope you have a very productive and creative 2012.

The Culture Colonists

Now I’m guessing that Anna Wintour didn’t start her career by flogging copies of American Vogue from a cardboard box but, as deputy Editor of blown magazine, I set off for Aberystwyth with said cardboard box,  some pretty pictures and assorted stationary and passengers. The rain lashed down as I did various pick-ups from Splott, Riverside and Carmarthen, looping around Wales before finally reaching my bed for the night.

In the run-up to pulling together an issue for production it takes something pretty special to drag me away from my obsessive war against missing or misplaced apostrophes, but then I was heading for an event that I couldn’t miss: the launch of Culture Colony.

Now if you’ve had your head in a bucket or don’t live in Wales you may not know about this creative community, the love child of the remarkable Pete Telfer or, to be more technical, an on-line community for creative people and organisations in Wales.

Telfer, a former cameraman for the BBC, notching up an impressive portfolio of films for such programmes as The Slate, before the Beeb dumbed down their arts content, felt it was high time to circumvent the Welsh media, who had so poorly served the arts in Wales and go, as Culture Colony’s  slogan has it: “Beyond TV”. And he has.

The site offers a non-hierarchical forum for creatives in Wales. There’s no advertising (but please subscribe to keep it going), no agendas, but high production values and a lot of film content from Telfer, who can often be found, camera clamped to his editorially incisive eye, documenting cultural activity around Wales. What’s not to love?

For the launch (it’s been going a while but the site’s just had a major re-vamp) there were no press/media, no politicians or arts administrators, just a bunch of people who believe in the power of the collective platform and of the third (fourth? fifth?) way.

I was torn between (wo)manning my stall and attending the really engaging discussions. So, in the morning I sneaked into the session to hear a really thought-provoking conversation about archiving the arts, chaired (but in an informal “let’s just have a nice chat” kind of way) by  artist Stephen West.  Dr Heike Roms talked us through her work to date on What’s Welsh for Performance, followed by Eluned Haf from Wales Arts International, talking  in Welsh at breakneck speed (props to the fantastic translator who was just a heartbeat behind her) about the need for critical debate in Wales and bigging up Culture Colony.  Richard Huw Morgan, a last minute sub, who talked about some of his previous projects, future plans (both solo and as part of good cop bad cop) and how Culture Colony has supported his latest project – the cross-over from the digital world into the world of actively supporting creativity.

Around Aberystwyth Arts Centre artists had been invited to make interventions. So we had Kathryn Dodd and Louise Bird’s White Shift – Short Shrift; Roger Loughor’s subversive road signs; Kim Fielding’s disturbing photographs and Michelle Collins’ invitation to curate her un-edited archive while wearing a badge that said ” Artist”, “Curator” or “Critic”, with sustenance provided by Pete’s mother’s cake and sundry biscuits. But I can’t pull up at this point without mentioning the rather wonderful Dartboard for Witches in  the gallery. This exhibition offers a refreshing new look at textiles in art and has been exceptionally well presented.

This was not an event, nor  is Culture Colony an organisation, that could be dreamt up in any strategy. It is driven by goodwill, vision, passion and the collegiate and collaborative nature of the arts community in Wales.

Plugging blown, as was my mission, I was suddenly conscious of the role that arts centres and organisations play in Wales. This role doesn’t fit neatly into any monitoring or assessment format but… Aberystwyth Arts Centre have put themselves squarely behind Culture Colony, who are now housed in the splendour of the Thomas Heatherwick studio spaces. I ruminated on this as blown has had so much encouragement and support from Chapter Arts Centre. The unsung part that arts organisations play in developing artists and the wider culture in Wales deserves a big shout out.

If you haven’t had a look at Culture Colony yet I urge you to do so and, if you can find the modest wherewithal to join, then get PayPal-ing forthwith.

And finally, my apologies to my loyal blog fans. I have been out and about, and can commend to you: To the Buddha Veils and Voids, at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, featuring Peter Finnemore and Jonathan Anderson (who has a show coming up at The Mission Gallery in Swansea very soon); Bystanding at g39.  I also revisited the wonderful new Mostyn Gallery and  We have the Mirrors, We Have the Plans, (sorry but you’ve missed it, but more great shows on the horizon), which was well worth a quieter visit, away from the private view hoopla; spent too little time at Re:Animate at Oriel Davies (this year’s curated Oriel Davies Open curated exhibition, featuring the full gamut of some of the most exciting moving image practice form across the UK) and did my annual pilgrimage to the  National Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale, the gold medal for Fine Art this year going  to Simon Fenoulhet (hooray!)

More bloggery when blown issue 2 is safely at the printers (and there’ll probably be a shameless plug too).