An Independent Artists' Trip to Hunt for New Framework of Art-making

Trip to Cardiff, Glasgow, Dundee, Edinburgh and Nottingham in February 2020:

After filling in a million applications to open calls and failing all of them, we went on a trip in February 2020 to figure out what the f**k we are doing and how we can make art happen.

 

(This piece of writing is on-going. You are welcome to come back after a week and see how it grows. Or maybe not?)
(This is not only our voice but also from fellow artists and practitioners.)

 

In my room in Seven Sister, London, I stuck this piece of a hand-drawn map of art spaces in Nottingham by Paul Hughes on the wall in front of me. He drew it on a blank piece of A4 while explaining what each of them does and whom we should meet while we are here. At the same moment, we were inputting these galleries and studios one by one into Google Maps. It was right after we have our first sip of tea after arriving at his house from Edinburgh. This eagerness and willingness to sit down, have some tea and introduce you to their art scene are extremely generous, rare and almost impossible to find in London.

 

Ghost and I quitted our full-time job and came to London in 2018. Since then, we have been visiting other European cities, including Vienna and Marseille. We have been meeting artists of all kinds, learning their culture and hearing the possibilities and challenges they face. Now in 2020, we realised that we haven’t ventured the rest of the UK beyond London. With Surf the Wave of Pavilion Dance South West supporting our train tickets, we went on a trip in February to visit five cities around the cities: Cardiff, Glasgow, Dundee, Edinburgh and Nottingham. 

 

The trip is planned with questions in mind: Can we imagine and innovate new frameworks where artists take an active role in making things happen? Producers, curators and programmers of venues and festivals are often the agents who initiate and organise the happening of an event, while artists comparatively are at a more imperative position, dependent on funding, space and many other factors. How can we see the process of art-making as a cultural process to demonstrate new possibilities? 

 

In the past year, we have been filling in application days and nights, and failing them all the time. It is a very difficult process. We wonder how much more we can achieve if we can instead utilise these time and energy of writing passages and passages of “proposals” and “creative ideas” on actually making things happen and letting our creativity thrive. Perhaps we are just not that good at waiting.

After spending five summer weeks in Vienna in 2019, we realised how building trust and real relationships with people is crucial to our artistry. It empowers us as we found companions in what we are passionate about, we learnt we are not the only one. We believe in long and deep conversations. The kind that makes you forget time and sit until the pub has to close. The kind that makes you understand not just more about the person, but also the context that they placed themselves in.

Our schedule before we arrive the city was usually meeting a person a day. It then ended up with meeting three people on one day as artists and venues generously introduce us to their friends and other spaces, which also demonstrates their generosity in sharing knowledge about the ecology of the art community they are in. 

We are constantly curious about how artistic conversation happens. The pub and bar culture here in the UK definitely helps a lot as those are places where the real post-show, post-opening talks happen. However, how artists of different artistic practices come together and exchange thoughts and ideas reveals a lot about the possibility for collective intelligence to form. These conversations sometimes happen organically, We were sitting and chatting with CC, an American Artist we met at Glasgow, on the upper Jazz bar in CCA Glasgow. Words just flow naturally and pour all over the table. The generosity in sharing our own artistic views and observations and opinions to the world supports this unbelievably satisfying yet intellectual exchange to occur. And that makes me wonder: what kind of structure/framework/facilities us as artists ourselves can build to allow these minds to stay fluid and permeable, and what will be the cost behind building them. 

It has been an interesting experience as we communicated with different art practitioners and venues and received various responses from them. As we sat down with people who hold venues and resources, the impression that we gave to them and how we can understand more about the art ecology of the industry in that city became the craft. The opportunity to meet others eye to eye and carry out these long and deep conversations reveals itself to be crucial for building real relationships, which no emails and no online applications would do. However, as artists, how we can put ourselves on the same discussion table with organisations’ directors and programmers who make big decisions of our industry still remain an unsolved problem. Same to the ones that we brought with us on this trip.

I guess the question we are asking is: how can independent artists stop being the kid who is behind producers, programmers and curators' backs. At a lot of times, when we attend meetings and events with producers, programmers and curators, we often feel like we are the kids at "bring your kids to work" day. Our opinions were heard, but not really listened to. And we wonder if we can find a new framework in artistic practice where artists become the lead and are the driving force for happenings. In such a way, arts can be truly responsive to the society that we are surrounded by and can be presented in time to drive changes and cause impacts beyond the art spaces.

One of the moments that really stunned us would be when we asked one of the venues' programmer. 'As independent artists, what we can do to actively cave space and hunt opportunities for us to present works that we consider urgent and needed to be in the communities quickly.' She replied. 'What you are doing is what I can think of. Travel. Meeting people face to face. Let yourself be noticed.'

Financially, the two of us spent £640.41 for the 16 days trip. We spent £260.6 for commuting between cities,  £127 for travelling within the cities, £42.93 for coffee/drinks, £35.5 for two performances and £174.38 for meals. We managed to stay at friend’s and friend’s families’ space and hence saved a fortune on accommodation. Surf the Wave in total gave us a grant of £300, meaning that we toke £340.41 out of our own pockets. If you think that's not bad: HOLD  UP.

One thing to point out is: as freelancers, we were not being paid for the hours we spent on meeting and interviewing the directors and curators whom we met up with, while they were as they are salary-paid. While we are still figuring out logics to justify this phenomenon, what enables us to do this trip and have these opportunities to spend time meeting and chatting? Probably being optimistic about what we do are valuable and the generosity of our friends' who hosted us. It's really all out of luck. We are hoping that this is also revealing the cost for an artist to build connections and expand their network in this way, in which there are currently very limited resources for independent artists to carry out such events. 

As artists who work on social issues, this troubles us a lot. We feel the urgency of presenting our works. We desperately need platforms where we can address these condition quickly, so we can be responsive to the situations in our artistic practice. As most venues program works two to five years ahead, we are hunting for flexibility in the current structure: finding alternative paths into these spaces.

 

Artists have been bearing the image of being nothing more than creative. We are seen to be unproductive, unorganised and messy, which none of these allegations is true. Before you even notice, artists are scheduling their projects, managing their personal image, writing up endless proposals and applications, pitching their ideas and generously sharing their ideas and thoughts to funders and more. The time and effort are, still, rarely being seen, not even talking about being fairly paid.

 

Can we bend rules? Can we collectively see what is needed to be shown now? Can we empower each other and lobby for an amplified voice? Can we together make decisions on how we can have a bigger grasp on what art can do to our immediate communities? 

You may say that we are romantics. However, we still do believe that art is a tool to drive changes in policymaking processes. But then, with the framework and hierarchy in the art industry now, how we can see and then harness the great potentiality in our work becomes the actual job for all of us, every practitioner, curator, programmer and director, now. 

In Cardiff, we met:

Catriona James

Lara Ward from Groundwork Pro

Chris Ricketts from Cardiff Dance Festival

George Fuller

Kathryn Williams from Rubicon Dance

Siân Rowlands

Cathy Boyce from Chapter Arts Centre

Jo Fong

Mehdi Razi

 

In Glasgow, we met:

Mark Bleakley

Yuki Chung

Michael O’Niell from Tron Theatre

Karl Taylor from Buzzcut

Catalina Barroso-Luque

C.C. Christian Noelle Charles

Jim Manganello

MollyMae Whawell from Glasgow International

Viviana Checchia from CCA Glasgow

 

In Dundee, we met:

Arian Murray from Dundee Contemporary Arts

Helen King

Attended the Surf the Wave networking event at Dundee Rep

 

In Edinburgh, we met Cynthia Cheung and Jan Liu who are also from Hong Kong. Cheung works as a theatre stage manager and Liu owns a barbershop and works as a hairstylist. 

 

In Nottingham, we met:

Paul Hughes

Hannah Sharpe from Dance4

Auto.Locus

Olivia Aharne from Nottingham Contemporary

Matthew Chesney and Joey Holder from BACKLIT

Joshua Lockwood-Moran from Bonington Gallery

Special thanks to our hosts: George Fuller, Mark Bleakey, Karl Taylor, Taylor Hans's Granny, Steve and Halina and Paul Hugh.

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