Reflections on an artist residency.
I’ve been doing this for a while now – being an artist. June 2018 marks 15 years since I graduated from University with a Fine Art Degree and started along the path of self-employment, art making and enabling other people to make art. There’s key points along that path that have pushed my practice in particular directions and one of those was an invitation to exhibit in Stuttgart in 2008 as part the 60th anniversary celebrations of the twinning programme between that city and my resident St Helens.
It was in essence a small event, an invitation to send artworks to the sister city and to travel to the opening event where I created a performed drawing, however it showed me the possibilities that being in a new place has for my practice. Experiencing new places, working out how to use my tools and practices in response. New drawings, installations, processes and ideas emerge and adapt, ready to be shown, shared and tested in other locations. The 3 days in Stuttgart in 2008 may have been short, but they had long implications for my practice (and my drinks cupboard, I still have the wine festival glass I brought back).
Since then I have been fortunate to work in Linz, Istanbul, Shanghai and Southend as an artist in residence, often in short sharp bursts – a week in the spring, a fortnight in the summer, a week in the snow, four weeks in the rain – they’re not your typically advertised artist in residence period. Those are often 3 months in one place – who can commit to these timescales? A small number of artists, yes, but those with partners, ongoing work commitments that sustain a practice over the long term, children, parents in need of care, for many it can be a struggle to engage with this process.
But sometimes it happens differently. So, to celebrate the fabulous flexibility of Yellow Door Artists who invited me to return to Stuttgart in spring 2018 (wow, it’s really 10 years since I was there) and their partners St Helens Council and GEDOK artists studios I’d like to share with you how precious even a 5-day ‘residency’ can be.
17:45pm arrive at GEDOK studio house. Introductions, bumping into an old friend, eating hurriedly prepared cous-cous, going to a forum to meet artists, to understand some of their practices. Translation, listening for german phrases I remember, zoning in and out as the conversations develop. Stomach-turning biscuits embossed with images reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch, faces in paintings, questions about installing works. Sharing my work, recruiting 6 artists to make a performance with me, choosing a location and a time less than 48 hours from now. Settling into the studio flat, sleeping at UK bedtime.
Waking early to the sound of church bells, buying breakfast (and beer for later), talking to my family at home, heading out early to explore locations. The Jewish Cemetery, Universität, Hauptbahnhof, Milaneo. Making a pilgrimage to C&A to relive my teenage fashion aspirations. Exploring the beautiful Bibliothek, considering its potential as an exhibition and intervention space. Holding onto original prints by Eduardo Chilida in the graphothek, wondering if we could have the same in St Helens, or if artists from St Helens could feature here. Reflecting on the similarities of the bibliothek space to the purpose of the cloisters at Norton Priory – deciding to include this location in a series of embossings I’ll produce here for an exhibition back home. Sitting out in the square outside the library on a deckchair in the sunshine. Warming my damp winter-weary bones in the spring warmth whilst watching how people move through the space. Areas of transit, areas of relaxation, areas for socialising, waiting spaces, places to promenade. Considering the role of the performer in my work, how to choreograph it, what is the script. Deciding to walk back to the studio, discovering the Chinese Garden, zig zag paths to confuse the spirits. A quick freshen up and then out to an artist-led space. Meeting more artists, sharing ideas about waiting, understanding the context of refugees in Germany, thinking about what an artist does differently in situations. Exploring the city, lakes, stationery shops, the crest of St Helens cast into the floor, the old castle, its cloistered passageway, thinking about how this could link to my work in progress for Norton Priory. Walking back home, meeting the other visiting artist in residence, taking a walk up the hill. Getting lost, finding our way, talking about studying, families, reaching the tower at the top. Back home to eat late, share food and drink that beer.
Staying in the studio, saying good morning to my family, then time alone. Thinking about choreography, how to communicate my ideas to the performers with little time and no rehearsal. Getting excited about graph-squared tracing paper, making an analogue stop-motion animation. Heading out to find out what the general strike today is about – looking for the gathering. Waiting for the demonstration. A truck is bounded by four people carrying warning tape, marking out space, moving through space, don’t enter this space. Whistles, banners, translating their demands through photo-translate, being part of an event whilst also being an outsider. Back home, making a flyer to give to the performers, translating it, transcribing it, copying, pasting. Packing the work into a rucksack, taking a selfie before I leave, hoping I don’t get anyone arrested, walking back to the square with plenty of time to spare. Waiting, for my performers, working out where to start, a photographer arrives to document it. We intervene, we move, we wait. Shifting, obstructing, channelling, kettling, connecting, disconnecting, zig-zagging, disbanding. Watermelon Ice cream and gifts of thanks. Then, to a symposium, a lecture, hard to follow, not enough time to cover everything. We walk, find falafel and eat together. Find the crests of St Helens and Brno cast into the pavement and explore our connections to Stuttgart. Then home.
The main aim while being here – the performance – is ticked off. Change of focus. Scribing spaces into parchment paper. Aerial views of a cloister, library, university, auditorium. Spaces of learning, writing, solitude, community and focus. The cloister is the encapsulation of an artist’s residency. The rain pours outside the window and I head to an invitation for lunch. Taking a new route, buying strawberries which makes me late. Welcomed into the studio by home made aromas. Sharing over food, finding the commonality between practices. Time, place, layering, ephemerality. Finding ways to connect in future. Off again to visit an exhibition venue, how can I exhibit work here? But look, the plaza is embossed with a grid – how can I work with this space? I watch, I film, I count how big the space is by how many steps people take. 1,2,3,4,5,6, nearly 7. Now him; 1,2,3,4,5,6, and a bit. How about her? 1,2,3,4,5,6,7. How can I use this space, as a maze, will my intervention from yesterday work here on a massive scale – think I might need to write a proposal. Choral music emanates from an auditorium, I explore and remember that we were in that room 10 years ago – speeches at the exhibition opening, an unexpected custom. Disappointment that the paternoster lifts are not working, I head down the stairs. Hot chocolate and a fig tart. Time to think, then let’s squeeze in a lecture before my next meet up. Time, time travel, how do we communicate an idea from the future back to the past, how can the future us save ourselves? Across the city to a theatre, ready to meet Labyrinth theatre company as they rehearse for a show tomorrow. Shoes! Shoes! Who wants shoes that will transform your life? Young men, with stories to tell. Stories of struggle, of hiding, of the ice man who is always lurking in the shadows. Watching how they work together, how the team supports them, how the director pushes them to strive for the best performance they can all give by working together. It is late, but I don’t need to go home to anyone, so back to the symposium for a film. Some context about Kurdistan, Syria. Confinement, wanting to help. Different ways of helping that get conflicted and corrupted, everyone wants the best for their families. Nearly midnight, I slope off from the post-film Q&A and walk through the night.Day 5
The last morning to be woken by the bells. Becoming fond of the whistling kettle. Packing, breakfast in the sunshine with friends new and old before an excursion to the flohmarkt. Remembering buying a bicycle from the flohmarkt on a residency in Linz and falling off in the tram tracks, looking for a darning mushroom to use as a printing baren, deciding to just buy ice cream shaped buttons. Saying goodbye and heading back to the studio. One last ice cream in the sunshine as an end of residency treat. Artwork on stickers, Yellow Door taught me about slap ups last year, and #freeartfriday. It’s a day late, but I’ll do it anyway. Marking my route back home. Helped up or held down? Time to leave. But I’ve still got this time alone whilst I travel. Still working in the airport, and on the plane, sharing the creativity with the father and son next to me. Good luck with your exhibition. Home again and the intensity breaks.….
5 weeks later
I write this piece, having gone to a library I wouldn’t normally go to. Taking the lessons from the solitude of a residency to give me space to think and to plan. Wondering how all of these experiences, connections and ideas will unravel into my future practice, into new works to realise, whether at home, back in Stuttgart or in another location in the future. The residencies I participate in may be short and sharp, but they extend far into the future of my work.