Monday, 24 October 2011

Usherette on Duty

When a vintage motorbike with sidecar pulls up outside the venue calling itself Kirkland’s New Empire Bioscope you know it will be no ordinary trip to the cinema.

The Bioscope is an ongoing cinematic project between artists Elena Cassidy-Smith, Ruth Swallow and cinema buff John Bates. I was visiting on the last night of this four week project as my own film Trolley Happenings was being shown on their silver screen.

We climbed the stairs into the atmospheric cinema interior. With plenty of red, luxurious velvet and gold painted detailing there was immediately an air of theatricality and excitement.

I love all this kind of thing and so was especially delighted to be one of the artists whose film had been selected to shown on the screen in the Bioscope.

From left to right: Elena Cassidy-Smith, Kirsty E Smith and Ruth Swallow.

And not just any screen but one with a unique handmade proscenium.

I love the fact that the pelmet fringing above the screen was made from hair bobbles!

This really appeals to my interest in the provenance of materials used by artists. I am fascinated by the creative use of everyday items.

Not surprisingly during the evening I found my eyes wandering to the fringing on more than one occasion. I felt that it was even better than the lovely rich red fringing that I had used to trim my film booth when I presented Trolley Happenings as part of my show in the 2010 Liverpool Biennial.

Elena and I also have some common passions; tea trolleys being one of them.

Elena serves refreshments from her trolley during the interval on the final evening of Kirkland's New Empire Bioscope.

At one point in the evening I found myself launching into a description of one of my favourite Magic Roundabout episodes; the one where Ermintrude fancies her chances as a TV presenter. She swishes her tail and rolls a daisy in her mouth as she reaches her head through the cut-out screen of cardboard television and says, “Drink more milk darlings”.

It is at this point that I can get strange looks. I will have made one of my frequent tangental links in my head but instead of keeping it there I have spoken it out loud. The result is that people wonder why I seem to have changed the subject completely.

The explanation in simple!
The drama within this lovely little cinema was gentle and fun and not at all po-faced. It was playful while at the same time being respectful of a bygone era.

So back to Ermintrude... I love the original Magic Roundabout (with Eric Thompson doing the voiceover). It was fun and magical too; the link in my mind was that same happy feeling and a sense of childlike adventure.

Elena had made a beautiful mini-cinema (modeled on The Scala cinema, one of Wolverhampton’s old cinemas- built 1913, demolished 2006). She made this model especially to present her exceedingly old copy of a home made Alice in Wonderland film.

The story that she told me about this film made it even more intriguing. The filmmaker used his wife and children as the actors (his wife as the March Hare) and much of it was filmed in a public garden.

Her piece made me think of both dolls’ houses and imaginary miniature worlds.

In my short film Trolley Happenings, almost all of the action takes place within a hostess trolley. And most of the performers/characters that feature are little things that usually live on my mantle piece. Before dashing off to the Forkbeard Fantasy Summer School (where the film was made) the last things that I threw into the car happened to be these few vital mantel piece 'friends'.

To summarise some of the most interesting connections:
Hostess trolleys - Elena’s refreshments trolley and the one I used as a setting in Trolley Happenings
Evocative red velvet curtains - that one is obvious
Vintage projectors - I have used one as the central object within my film, and John asked me straight away about it, most people don’t realise that this machine with interesting knobs is in fact a vintage film projector.

So as I happily watched Trolley Happenings in the theatrical setting of this unique recreation of a 1930's cinema, I smiled to myself when my little one eyed waxed sponge monster did what I have always called his ‘Dougal Move’. The stop-motion animation process resulted in it appearing to swizzle about just like Dougal (coincidentally another character from The Magic Roundabout)!

But how do you explain a chain of all those thoughts in a clear and concise manner?

In conversation this is extremely difficult and we all know it's hard not to sound like someone who is jumping around subjects!

It’s interesting how one person’s ‘normal’ can be another person’s ‘a bit too weird’. When it comes to surreal I love it but to others it can be disturbing and strange, sometimes even in an uncomfortable way.

I wonder, if surreal is served up with a dash of humour does that make it easier to cope with?

I am asking this because descriptions of Trolley Happenings range from strange and weird to surreal and Jan Svankmajer-esque. So a bit too bizarre for some and quite understandable for others. However no matter which end of the spectrum viewers are on they all laugh at the very same comedy moment, so at least there is no doubt about that element of the film!

A still showing the comedy moment.

In another Magic Roundabout episode, called 'Watch the Birdie', Dougal uses an old fashioned camera with a dark cloth to cover his head and keep out the light.

As soon as I spotted this camera (see above) in The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford earlier this year I immediately thought not only of Dougal and that Magic Roundabout episode but also of this....

A prop from a Forkbeard Fantasy production which I saw behind the scenes on the film making course - another reminder of my very visual memory and the connections I often make.

So everything makes complete sense... at least to me!

I have been an avid follower of Forkbeard Fantasy for 13 years now. They intersperse live action on stage with film and projection. They have a completely off-the-wall sense of humour (quite normal in my eyes) and their productions are exceedingly surreal. To make a final cinematic link I must mention one of their shows 'The Fall of the House of Usherettes' (first staged in 1995 and set in an old cinema). To find out more about Forkbeard Fantasy don’t miss their residency at The Southbank Centre, London. 2nd Dec 2011- 8th Jan 2012.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

anticurate and the role of the curator: one of my lessons of Summer 2011

What does the word 'curate' mean to you?

By taking part in anticurate at mac Birmingham this summer I feel a bit more enlightened on the topic. Since graduating in 2006 I have bust a gut trying to ‘make something happen’. It has been full of adventures, exciting, exhausting and at sometimes disappointing.

Actually at the low points i.e. when I have received another rejection (or shall we say, when I haven’t been successful in being selected for a show) then I have had to take encouragement and strength from the wise words of other artists more experienced than myself. When questioned about rejections an artist I know said that he could build a pyramid with the rejection letters that he had received over the years and he wasn’t meaning any fancy origami hand built pyramid he was meaning just piling up all the flat pieces of paper on top of each other. (This artist is Egyptian so pyramids are especially symbolic to him.)

This summer Trevor Pitt, curator and clever type devised a crafty plan. At first I thought that anticurate was a bit of a gimmick. Invite anyone, professional or amateur, newbie or established artist to submit a piece of art to a series of six exhibitions taking place over a six week period. I thought to myself, "Mmm so no artist fee and mac Birmingham gets a whole summer of exhibitions for free". But then on the other hand there was also no application fee. So many exhibitions these days have artists paying for the chance to be selected.

And also the thing that I hadn’t bargained for was that I would actually learn something about curation myself.

So on the submission day I arrived at mac to drop in Fin. I was pleasantly surprised to see it thronging with people of all ages and with artworks in all sort of mediums. The plan was that over five weeks of the summer five different groups would each curate a week-long exhibition. They would draw from the same pool of art. Each of the groups of curators/ anticurators had varying experience of curation. In fact some had absolutely no experience of it at all. For a final week there would be a sixth exhibition and in it all of the submitted artworks would be shown.

The official blurb said,

anticurate is a project devised as a challenge to the authorial figure of the curator. Imagined as a version of an open exhibition the

project will unfold over six exhibitions in which democratic and collective approaches to exhibition curating will test conventions of the visual art space”.

Fin was one of 350 pieces of art submitted to the anticurate pool.

This is Fin in the holding pool. It was a nice idea of cutting a peephole in the wall so we could look in to get a view of all the other pieces of art.

When we delivered our art we had the opportunity to meet and have a brief chat with each of the anticurator groups. This was our chance to ‘pitch’ our work to the anticurators.
The publicity text said,
" that you could influence the anticurators in an attempt to ensure that your artwork was chosen for the exhibition".

To be honest I just had a very enjoyable morning talking to a wide range of people.

I did speak to each anticurator group and I tried to take into account what little I knew about them when I spoke about my work and Fin in particular.

So this was the first lesson that I was later to learn, it doesn’t matter whether the curators seemed to to be interested in and like Fin, in reality when they came to select work for their show they had their own themes in their minds, their own plan and truthfully with 350 artworks to choose from they would have had lots of interesting conversations with a lot of artists that morning.

Had my pitch improved my chances at all?

Well for four of the groups I would say no but for one of the anticurator groups, Alison Tarry and Tim Stock of Eastside Projects Extra Special People Programme, then it would have mattered. In retrospect it would have been helpful if I had given a better ‘performance’ when speaking to Alison Tarry. I say this because I didn’t realise just how important what each artist said was to have on Alison and Tim’s show.

See / Hear was the first anticurate exhibition and Alison chose pieces based on things that the artist said during their pitch. Tim, who wasn’t present on the submission day, made his selection based on the works when he saw them in the pool. and some of Alison's (Hear) and Tim’s (See) actually matched up! The first anticurate show was a mix of well known names from the Birmingham scene with a lovely sprinkling of others.

Hanging on the gallery wall was a set of clipboards with ipods with audio recordings of each of the Hear selected artists speaking when they first chatted to (made their pitch to) Alison. I remember that she had her iphone on the table and that she said that she just wanted to hear what I said about my practice/ work rather than look at the piece I was submitting but I had no idea that I was being recorded when I made my pitch! (Maybe she told me and I hadn’t taken it in or maybe she just pressed the record button without mentioning it?)

So week one I wasn’t selected, but it was a good show and beautifully presented.

The show for week two was curated by a group of mac staff however they were staff in non art roles; either working in the cafe or front of house. This show was much busier as they had selected a lot more pieces than week 1 had. I have to say that my comment in the visitors book was a bit negative mentioning the awkwardness of the minimal sineage.

But there were other positives in the visitors book. I noticed one visitor saying how nice it was to see ‘proper’ drawing and painting... this section presumably. (See image below.)

By week three I had decided that I had to collect the complete set of exhibition brochures/ guides and see each show for myself. This week was the turn of a group from Ikon Gallery’s Youth Programme. With either an A Level in Art or being on an art Foundation or Degree course this group of anticurators had more of an ‘eye’ than week 2’s anticurators. I preferred it to the previous show.

As part of visiting I also had to read the comments in the visitors book and also leave a comment of my own. I noticed that various visitors were wondering why some works had been in more than one of the shows while there were still about 300 pieces of art in the central holding area (treasure trove).

They obviously hadn’t got it; they didn’t understand that each group had the same pool of work to choose from and that whether or not it had been chosen previously was immaterial to their job of curating their show.

So week 4 was the turn of the Young At Heart anticurators. By this time the pain of being rejected was becoming less. Every Tuesday I would check the mac website to see if I was one of the selected artists and a quick scan did not show my name even by week 4.

I was quite disappointed by the Young At Heart show. I felt that they hadn’t broken free from their very traditional tastes but actually to be fair it was their show and they could choose what they wanted. There were four ladies in the Young at Heart anticurator team and I did notice that three of them had also entered artworks themselves which they had also selected for their show. (But in their shoes wouldn't I have done the same?)

The mac is a community art venue and the gallery is visited by a huge range of people from all backgrounds and levels of interest in art and by now I realised what a brilliant idea Trevor had come up with. anticurate was being very effective in getting more people see see art and some visitors were coming on a weekly basis to see what was on offer each week. It seemed that local people especially, were getting interested in the anticurate project. So despite me not thinking all that much of the anticurate week 3 show I am also sure that there would have been a good number of people connected with the Young at Heart anticurators who loved their show.

I really liked the week 5 show. The anticurators were Carli Francis and Rosie Carmichael of ‘No Aloha’ a Birmingham based zine.

Their show was full of energy and the PV was really buzzing too. They had pulled a big crowd, possibly partly due to their publicity mentioning free drink(s). There was music, sofas a big crowd and No Aloha had put their stamp on the show by adding more of their own artwork. It was also nice that they showed a full screen version of J Copplestone's anticurate mix-tape too.

Ever the completer finisher I had to go to the final show.

Week 6 was a salon type show where every single piece of work that had been submitted was on display. I anticipated it looking like a big jumble sale but thanks to the clever flexible exhibition structures, folding partitions, tables and shelves designed by Juneau Projects I think that it really worked and Fin finally got to come out of the central storage area.

So some lessons that I have learnt about the curation process?

Well it is absolutely nothing personal when you are not selected but it can be personal when you are.

Curators, like artists, have topics or themes that they want to explore. It is patently obvious now that getting to know appropriate curators ie curators for whom your work is of interest is absolutely vital. It is the first step after actually making work.

The purpose of anticurate was to explore and question the notion of curating, and the hierarchies that are normally attached to the process.

Trevor Pitt and Craig Ashley (mac Birmingham’s Visual Arts Producer) invited artists, curators, critics and arts workers to respond to the question, “ What does the word curate mean to you?”

The responses were fly-posted onto the walls of the Terrace Gallery and made very interesting reading. I was especially touched by these ones.

So having had Fin rejected five times in a row (from anticurate curators and not including other submissions made this summer) did it put me off applying for other shows?

Speaking with an artist who I admire very much I felt encouraged to hear that even for someone of his standing his rejection to success ration is 10:1.

So I am very happy to announce that I now have not one but two of my beings selected for the Nottingham Castle Open.

Colin and Strange One will be on show at Nottingham Castle from 8th Oct - 6th Nov.