I am very excited to announce a collaboration between myself and James McColl as part of my Plymouth Art Weekender project, Cleaning in Progress, (which is backed by Arts Council England and Visual Art Plymouth’s mentorship scheme Plymouth Platform). As part of Cleaning in Progress, James will be producing the content for a guide/publication to be released alongside the city centre performance. Read James’ guest blog post below to find out more about his art practice and our collaboration.
My name’s James McColl, I am a Writer and Artist based in the South-West. I’ve written for art publications including VASW, Art Cornwall, The Skinny, Young Artists In Conversation, Made In Plymouth, Three Weeks and This Is Tomorrow. My work mixes performance, video and text. I’m one half of First Line Theatre, which is a performance group whose work is site-specific and deliberately outside of art spaces. A recurring theme of my work is to try and bridge the gap between the art world and general public through inclusivity, engagement and direct action.
I’ve been aware of Elena’s work for sometime, so it’s with both pleasure and excitement that I am producing a collaborative piece of text for her Plymouth Art Weekender project, Cleaning In Progress. Interestingly enough, during last years Weekender, First Line Theatre’s show Basic Space took place at the same time as Elena’s piece Metal Detectives, both performance pieces taking place in the heart of the city and an apt precursor to this collaboration.
We share a strong belief in what art can do in the everyday, whether it’s through her performance or my writing. Art should and can be for everyone, which is an ethos that is at the heart of this collaboration. This shared value was the start of our initial conversation and the starting point for the free handout that will be produced for CIP. With this in mind, my approach has been to create text that is accessible to everyone and explains Elena’s work in an interesting way. I also plan to use some creative writing as a response and companion text to the descriptive text. Currently, I’m writing in response to images of bombed out Plymouth, as well as automatic writing exercises.
Find Out More:
I’ve been in residence at the Batter Street Studio at Plymouth Art Centre since late November. I applied with a proposal that saw me looking to fully interrogate my art practice, using the space to play around with new ideas and combine them with some older thoughts that I hadn’t had a chance to test to their limits.
Receiving the keys to the space and settling into the studio, I realised that this was going to be harder than I imagined. Since vacating my studio space at the end of my degree a year and a half ago, I have condensed the workings of my practice to a sketchbook. I had made myself compact and transportable, and this was something I needed to undo in order to make the most of the space.
I knew that I needed to start by filling up the space, to make it less daunting. I moved my art projects and materials out of storage. Surrounding myself with my own art was comforting, I felt like an artist and I felt like the space was mine. I began to generate work. My ethos was that any idea I had was worth exploring, initially at least, so that I could fill the space with ideas and then later I could strip back until the only things that remain are those things that are necessary.
I did things like continuously throw dusters at the stairway and take photographs of how they landed until I exposed a full roll of film. I made a film from the point of view of a broom as it swept the studio floor, I hung things that I found on the wall in different formations. I put random things on top of plinths.
Having borrowed a typewriter from a friend for the duration of the residency, I began to generate quick typewritten observations from my walks into the studio. I also used the typewriter to compose rambling streams of consciousness, thinking deeply about who I am and what inspires me as an artist. What I revealed surprised me.
I revealed a very sensitive and anxious personality in my streams of consciousness. I am aware of mistakes I make, and I become tense in response to them. In a long, marathon piece of writing I desperately try to comfort myself from all the aches and pains in my body, the mistakes I make on the typewriter. I try to tell myself it’s ok, I focus on my hands, my feet, other sensations. I go through waves of complicated emotions in the space of one long sheet of paper.
This is the person behind the art I make. The polished performances that have taken months of planning and meticulous working out are actually just the tip of who I am. The residency at Batter Street has revealed this sensitivity. The battle that goes on within me and drives me to make art, while forcing me to question it and pull it to pieces in the same way I come to question and pull apart the things in ordinary life that inspire me.
My plan now is to confront this part of me head on and to name it as what it is. The anxiety behind being an artist is very real for emerging artists, and it is ok to feel it.
The finissage event for the Batter Street Residency is on the 3rd March, 6-8pm. See the Facebook event here for more details.
I am delighted to announce that I have been awarded a mentorship through the Plymouth Platform scheme, to develop a project for Plymouth Art Weekender! Plymouth Platform is now in its second year, and is part of a scheme to support emerging artists in Plymouth. Plymouth Platform invited proposals from artists, and each of the three successful artists are then matched with a mid-career artist mentor that suits their practice and method of working. Last years pairings worked exceptionally well, and you can read about the outcomes here.
After submitting my written proposal and then pitching my project to VAP Activators Laura Hopes and Lucy Rollins, I was thrilled to discover that I had been selected, and had paired with Rachel Dobbs, a local artist and one half of LOW PROFILE.
Rachel Dobbs is an artist & educator based in Plymouth, UK, and is one half of LOW PROFILE (with Hannah Rose). LOW PROFILE’s practice spans small-scale live moments, gallery exhibitions, books, videos, text works, and large-scale participatory projects. Their concerns are commonplace – centered on people, relationships, communication and an examination of the role of community, individuals and the collective.
In addition to the mentoring support, Plymouth Platform also offers a grant towards the development and production of the work, as well as a research budget shared between artist and mentor. This will enable us to attend relevant events that could further ideas and expand horizons. Rachel will also be supporting me to put in additional bids for funding, which will be new territory for me and something I am quite excited by.
I feel as though this mentorship will propel me forwards into the next step as an artist, whatever that ends up looking like. It’s a daunting prospect because there will be quite a lot of focus on the end result, but Rachel is calm and measured in her approach to working with me which instills a lot of confidence. So Plymouth Platform seems to have taken the strain away while simultaneously piling the pressure on!
Dates to Remember:
March 9th – Plymouth Platform Supper Club, Plymouth Art Centre
July 20th – Plymouth Platform Supper Club, Plymouth Art Centre
September 28th, 29th, 30th – Plymouth Art Weekender
October 27th – Evaluation session, Plymouth Art Centre
As 2017 draws to a close I am looking back on the crazy year I have had, and forward to 2018.
2017 has been a fantastic journey that has been unexpected, chaotic and wonderful all at once. Highlights include Chlorine and Talcum Powder, an exhibition in a swimming pool in Liverpool produced during a residency in collaboration with Devon Forrester-Jones; new pieces and re-imagined older works exhibited as part of MAKE/SHIFT in the new AIR Gallery in Altrincham, plus the milestone of performing Metal Detectives as part of Plymouth Art Weekender 2017, read more about that here. There have been so many other things and far too many to list. Each opportunity, event and exhibition has been fruitful in different ways – I’ve met and worked with loads of like-minded people, overcome challenges and pushed my art practice further into the world. Thanks 2017, you were awesome!
Next year looks set to be huge. I’ve laid the groundwork for some new projects, and I’ve set myself the goal to do something ‘bigger than I’ve ever done before.’ So while I know I can never hope to predict all the amazing things that will happen next year, I’ve chosen a few things that I am particularly excited about.
BATTER STREET RESIDENCY
January to March I will be getting stuck into some studio work as part of the Batter Street Residency. I’ve been occupying the Batter Street studio at Plymouth Art Centre since November this year and so far it has been extremely productive, you can read more here. The residency will culminate in a finissage event in March where I hope to be showcasing a new body of work produced during the residency, but I imagine there will be several breakthroughs that will happen in the meantime, through having the space to test new ideas and interrogate my practice.
INCREDIBLY ORDINARY, EXETER PHOENIX
In February 2018 I will be showcasing my work at my first solo show ‘Incredibly Ordinary’ at the Café Gallery at Exeter Phoenix! I will be working towards producing some new works as well as some live performances of some of my older pieces. For me this is set to be quite a milestone and I am looking forward to seeing it all come to life.
I recently discovered that I had been selected to receive a bursary to attend Jamboree 2018! This will be happening in June, and will involve an intense long weekend of networking and skills sharing with like-minded people. I anticipate that my involvement in this will be a great chance to recharge my creativity, and do a bit of a stock take on my progress. I’ll be meeting new people, practicing talking about my work and sharing my practice in a lively and supportive environment. Pre-registration for tickets for Jamboree 2018 is live until February 1st 2018.
PLYMOUTH ART WEEKENDER
Plymouth Art Weekender has been a pivotal festival for me over the past couple of years, and 2018 will be no different. To follow on from Metal Detectives, I am planning a new, large-scale project for Plymouth Art Weekender 2018 to meet my ‘bigger than ever’ goal. Planning for this has already started, and I am pleased with the direction it is taking. Check back in early 2018 for a progress update…
2018 will also be an opportunity to visit exhibitions and to support fellow artists. I am looking forward to the Graduate Show at Plymouth College of Art where some of the performers from Metal Detectives will be showing their final projects before launching into the world as artists. Plymouth Art Weekender is also sure to be populated by some fantastic emerging artists travelling this same journey.
Like every year there will be challenges I’ve never had to face, difficult moments and plenty of stress, but I am determined to push through and make the most of every moment.
I’d like to thank you all for your continued support in my practice. 2017 wouldn’t have been possible without the continued encouragement from all of you.
Starting a new sketchbook is, for me, a traumatic event. I take my sketchbooks pretty much everywhere with me, and they become a part of me. So putting one down and starting fresh in a lovely white new Moleskine is a leap of faith that challenges me, with its tantalising beauty, not to be a perfectionist.
Sketchbooks are not MEANT to be perfect.
So while coming to terms with the tricky emotions related to starting my new sketchbook… I wrote a poem.
When I finished the last module of my art degree in 2016 I made myself a promise that I would continue my art practice for the next year. Part of this was about proving to myself that I could be an artist without needing the deadlines and coursework set for me. I also like challenges, and the first year after graduating from an art degree is a notoriously difficult one; you lose your generous studio space and you are suddenly finding yourself looking for work… which is likely to take up a lot more of your time. Art practice becomes a second priority and it becomes very difficult to feel motivated at all without the pressure of university.
Over the last year, I am happy to say that I have managed to keep my promise. There have been many ups and downs, many learning curves along the way and I am certainly a long way off being perfect, but I have shown work across the country, made new work and built many new, productive relationships with artists in similar positions to myself.
Here are five of the most useful and surprising things I have discovered…
1) You don’t necessarily need a studio space
Every artist works differently and at art college I was known for my big messy corner that spread out across the walls and floors as each module progressed. When I first left art college I bought myself a new desk and set up all my art supplies, books and a computer along one side of the living room in my tiny little flat. It’s great, and I do use it a lot… but it turns out that my biggest breakthroughs did not happen there. I found that going to little cafes and sitting with like-minded friends and an open sketchbook bred more exciting ideas than it did staring at my collection of posters and half-finished projects. I also found that a lot of my “making” could happen on site; performances can be worked on outside, I can temporarily re-arrange my living room into a film studio, or I can just send vague instructions to curators in galleries and the work might just materialise (you should be cautious with that approach)!
Having a go-to “art space” was certainly helpful, but I could have survived without it. In the beginning, I was telling myself “I’ll wait until my desk is completely set up, then I’ll be able to make work,” then… “If only I had a few more art posters to put up to inspire me… then I’d be able to make some work.” and it just became excuse after excuse. As soon as I realised that writing ideas while I was sat on a bus was just as productive as doing it at my special art table, things started to happen.
2) Keeping up with networking and admin is as important as making the art
Networking was always really difficult for me. It made me feel really awkward to approach people I didn’t know and I never had any idea what to say. This year has taught me that it has been the most important thing to get my head around, and I am getting there. One secret that I have learned is that it is not the amount of people you meet that matters, but the quality of the relationships. And by that, I mean how well you know them and they know you. The key to building “quality” contacts is to really get to know them. You can tell them everything you want about your art but the chances are they are half listening and won’t remember later on. If you really take the time to get to know the people that are showing interest in your work, then they are much more likely to remember you in the future. I give out business cards regularly, but I also take them from people, and then go through and e-mail each of them. (Remember that someone has to send the first email!).
It takes a bit of bravery, but this approach has led to many opportunities that would never have existed otherwise. Our conversations would have stopped as soon as we both left the gallery and we would have gone our separate ways. Now, when I have an exhibition coming up, I’ll go through my contact list and invite some people that I’ve had great conversations with in the past – they are often more than happy to support.
3) Helping other people with their projects can be really beneficial
I really believe that artists should support one another in achieving their art dreams. My work quite often involves participation from other artists or members of the public, and couldn’t exist without their input… but that is true too of any exhibition of any work – people need to go along to the shows and discuss the work afterwards in order to make them a success. I try to get along to as many shows as I can to show support and help them along. I’ll also do my best to help out when participants are needed: I’ve made submissions to projects that need personal stories, gone along to work on collaborative projects and supported performances. It’s not all give, give, give though… supporting other people has been an eye-opening and beneficial experience in so many ways:
I learn about how other artists work
I meet new artists who may offer other opportunities
I gain experience in supporting projects
I have to work to other people’s deadlines
The artists I help might support me in the future
I get inspiration from working in a different way than I am used to, or seeing different kinds of work
4) You have to get good at organising yourself
I tend to keep lists and make calendars because my memory is not always 100% reliable. This has had to go up a notch since graduating from art college. I’m suddenly juggling a full time job and an emerging art career, it takes some creative time management and it doesn’t always go smoothly.
I have found a few ways to make use of times that would otherwise be lost. Travelling on buses is a good time to check and respond to e-mails, break times at work is a good time to put ideas in the sketchbook and write to-do lists, mornings, evenings and weekends can be open to making work and more substantial admin tasks. I try to catch myself before I start losing time scrolling through funny pictures on the internet and attempt to use the time more productively. Writing and answering e-mails used to take up loads of time, but I’ve found that as I’ve gotten more experienced it doesn’t take so long.
Annoyingly, art practices often have to fit around the very mundane jobs that the bring money in, and down-time and socialising is also important or you will just crash and burn. Art can be quite social though, and it’s enjoyable or else we would not do it. I enjoy going to cafes or having Skype conversations with other artist friends. We can hop between talking about art and talking about life and get the best of both.
I don’t think there is an easy solution, but keeping lists of things that need to be done and scheduling evenings where my only goal was to get some of those things done definitely helped me to get into a routine. This year I used most of my holiday entitlement to take my work around the UK (I’ll admit they weren’t the most relaxing holidays!), I would also regularly set time aside to look for opportunities and answer open calls, so that if any came through I had some deadlines to be working to and I had a reason to be checking my emails all the time. The single best thing is to make sure that any time you can set aside for art is as productive as possible, so that you can then move onto the other things that life demands us to do…
5) You have to forgive yourself for not making art sometimes
I am very hard on myself by default. If I don’t keep a promise I’ll let it eat away at me, if I say something to someone which is taken the wrong way I will punish myself over and over for the mistake. It’s a habit I have had to try and break for the sake of my art practice, because that kind of thinking really doesn’t help. Every time I get angry at myself for not making art, I felt increasingly desperate and hopeless at the same time. My ideas become frantic and strained, and more often than not I will end up ignoring my e-mails and keeping my sketchbook hidden out of sight.
Now, I have learned my pattern. Sometimes, I just can’t make art. For me, I know for a fact that after every exhibition, performance or large exciting event, I will need a period of “down-time”. So when I have an exhibition scheduled, I’ll also schedule my downtime too. I know that I will probably need a couple of days to a couple weeks recovery, with very little pressure or expectation. By being kind to myself in this way, I actually shorten the time I need, and soon I am fresh and ready to start again. Sometimes that feeling comes on without having done an exhibition, or when I actually have something really important I should be getting on with… when I notice that I take a deep breath and admit to myself: “I am not in the mood to tackle that right now, and that is ok.” And after confessing that and sincerely forgiving myself, quite often I only need to have a cup of tea and I am back to rights again.
At the end of the day, we are humans and not art-making machines. A little self compassion and understanding can go a long way.
Do you have any tips for emerging artists? Share them in the comments!
During Plymouth Art Weekender I worked with a small team of emerging artists to produce a new version of ‘Metal Detectives’. First tested in Sefton Park, Liverpool, Metal Detectives is a public performance which involves investigating ordinary objects while on a co-ordinated walk through the city. We used magnets to test meticulously whether each object was magnetic, regardless of its material.
The performance was designed to be over the top. The Metal Detectives were dressed up in white boiler suits and were equipped with those iconic red and grey horseshoe magnets to interact with, and stand apart from, the ordinary urban environment.
There is a sweet innocence about the performance too. We are taught in primary school that leaves can never be magnetic – but the performers tested them anyway, we did not discriminate between leaf and iron bolt. We became alien visitors to the urban world – experiencing it with fresh and guiltless curiosity, and encouraged the spectators who stopped to watch us to do so too.
The detectives announced their findings in real time with the two blunt and resolute statements: “This is magnetic,” and “this is not magnetic”. The repetition of these mantras became comedic in themselves, as the emotionless statements began to come out laced with surprise, excitement or uncertainty. And that’s the point. With Metal Detectives, I wanted to bring an emotional edge to something so usual. I wanted people to become excited and moved by something as ordinary as whether or not a piece of wood, a piece of stone or a signpost is attracted to our magnets.
Spectators enjoyed laughing at our efforts and found our behaviour intriguing and funny. But there were those who looked genuinely baffled, perhaps even concerned, who tried not to look. Questioning the obvious can be uncomfortable and frustrating. It’s easy to resort back to the comfort of the information we know, to stop being curious and stop wondering ‘but what if?’ But there are often rewards for wondering. In this case those rewards came in the form of unexpected magnetic components on benches, paperclips hidden under foliage… a rusty nail hammered into the crook of an old tree.
We also discovered patterns through the city centre, which could have only been noticed through embarking on this (or a similarly intensive) exploration. I became used to the way each tree would answer my questioning magnet, and sought out those parts around it that I knew were already magnetic with increasing ease. Others found themselves drawn to objects that were clearly not magnetic, and we all found ourselves disappointed when a box that looked to be made of metal was actually made of plastic (it was not magnetic).
Metal Detectives (2017) was performed in Plymouth City Centre on 23rd September 2017, as part of Plymouth Art Weekender.
Thanks and Acknowledgements:
I would like to thank each of the artists who dedicated their time to work with me on the planning and execution of Metal Detectives: Victoria Dean, Devon Forrester-Jones, Katherine Hall, Louise Riou-Djukic, Kate Summerhayes, Shannon Watson, Jessica Wright and Vesislava Zheleva.
Also, thanks to Plymouth Art Weekender for promoting the event and providing the logistical support during the planning stages.