Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Public - You & Me: Social Fibres by Laura Robertson

A Text Commissioned as part of the Public - You & Me programme

Social Fibres: An Attempt to Braid Together Three Strands of Public – You & Me

What are your knots? Adana press print and handwriting. Photo by Glen Stoker 2019.

Strand I: to question (unravel)

Rebecca Davies and Selina Oakes’s multifaceted public programme for AirSpace Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent Public – You & Me demonstrates what Boris Groys calls education by infection: teaching art is teaching life. Its deceptively simple and generous set-up – a constellation of free, open door events, which will in turn help shape the gallery’s future exhibitions – is a portal for a complex set of ideas; moored in education, inclusivity, health, activism and usefulness. It is joyful, welcoming. In short, Public – You & Me questions what the gallery can do for its public, and vice versa. What makes it unusual is its artists and contexts. 

At first glance, Public – You & Me could be understood as a measure of potential: testing AirSpace’s strength as Stoke’s first and only contemporary visual art space, yes, but also its role as something more ambiguous: what Hans Ulrich Obrist would call a laboratory, or a place of knowledge production. Internationally, galleries are striving for programming that is no longer peripheral to its exhibitions. Rather, educational events (discussions, symposia, classes) for visitors entwined with curatorial production as one, core offer; equivalent to a rope woven from many fibres. In reality, public programming might rub up against the art presented, but is notoriously difficult to interlace. Tate and other large institutions have dedicated departments that typically work on the same projects, but disconnectedly, instead of in harmony; rare, too, is the programme that establishes hardy roots in its local communities. 

For AirSpace, Davies and Oakes invited artists and designers to share their own modes of cultural production with us; contributing to a carefully considered, month-long series of workshops, performances, group crits, film clubs and socials. Drawing on Céline Condorelli’s vision of ‘making things public’, from her 2014 book The Company She Keeps (whose name-fellow, Mary McCarthy’s 1942 novel, charts her protagonist’s life and emotional development), Public – You & Me concerns itself with making with others: strangers, non-artists, friends and ‘friends in action’. Principal questions, learning and action are inherently socially engaged. The results (permanent, like Matt Foster’s Plane Structure CoBuild of chairs, tables, benches and information stands that now enhance the gallery in perpetuity; or more momentary, such as a screening of Andrew Kötting’s feature-length documentary, Gallivant, 1996) are not the point: the point is to create a shared experience. 

This collaboration could be called art education, as the process is certainly a studious one. The teachers – who would probably protest at being called so – are professionals with years of experience in fabrication, publishing, printing, filmmaking and graphic design, and who encourage critical thinking. An integral part of Public – You & Me are the dialogues we have about the teachers’ work – including why they do what they do.

It’s clear that Public – You & Me is a knotting together of makers who utilise collaborative models of working to address social inclusion; from the invited artists, including Phoebe Davies (whose programme contribution, A Soundtrack for Stoke, played locals’ favourite songs, encouraging the sharing of city-based memories and stories) to those who already reside and work in Stoke, including AirSpace co-director Anna Francis and Public – You & Me curator Davies (who co-run The Portland Inn Project CIC community interest company: a living artwork of buoyant karaoke sessions, kids café and classes in ceramics and opera). AirSpace’s regular, critical programme expresses inclusivity through food; Francis’s Artist Soup Kitchen has historically created a space for people to congregate and debate everything from image appropriation to family art activism. 

Public - You & Me Library (detail). Photo by Glen Stoker 2019.

Strand II: To learn/unlearn (twist)

The metal letters (tin and lead) are tricky to pick up and slot into parallel lines. We’ve chosen a gothic typeface, so struggle to identify the alphabet from dark licks and curls. Everyone in the group is sat on chairs built a few weeks ago; each wooden leg bound to the seat with thick, black elastic (hair?) bands. 

Three Adana presses are oiled, official-looking – intimidating, but less so after Edwin Pickstone’s demonstration. Typography technician at Glasgow School of Art, he tells us (in no uncertain terms) that we are now overseers of the print resources and will be, in using the equipment, making the facilities easier to use – by being organised, checking everything is working as it should be and (this is important) coming back to teach others.

We concentrate on setting our sentences, brows furrowed, before rolling ink over raised surfaces; pressing small cards with declamations and celebrations. One declares: ‘The Revolution Has Compassion’.

Edwin says that he once burned a print-on-demand book, so that he could manufacture ink from the ashes; a method to question artisan and digital production methods. What are we doing, but that? 

The learning is troublesome, slippery. It doesn’t stick to a curriculum, nor does it have an Ofsted inspector. It cannot really be measured by matrix or exam. The materials can be misused; the ideas veer off wildly, reconstituted, misinterpreted. A lexicon is distilled from the pop-up library and wall hangings – friendship, solidarity, civic pride, co-operation – in a process of subtle influence.

Sandy finishes early and helps out. Made redundant from a job in social care and youth justice, she says that there is little work for young people in Stoke. The Pits and The Pots, meaning the coalmines and the potteries, have closed, leaving only non-transferable skills; each a key part of the production line but useless without it. One person would roll clay into balls, another would fire-up the kiln. No individual was taught how to create a pot from initial sketch to dinner table. And here we are, studying analogue equipment in order to pass that knowledge on. 
In our pockets, we pass fingertips over the scalloped edges of print club loyalty cards.

Something to Say: Celebrations and Declamations - workshop with Edwin Pickstone (detail). Photo by Glen Stoker 2019.

Strand III: To act (bind)

It’s not hard to appreciate the service that AirSpace – as gallery, laboratory, social club, classroom or workspace, or all of these things – offers Stoke. Its residents are at major risk of poverty and financial exclusion (food bank usage has increased by 46% since the introduction of Universal Credit in 2013). There isn’t an abundance of free schemes like Public – You & Me or The Portland Inn Project. 

‘Socially engaged’ programming doesn’t have to dominate every exhibition, nor does it have to work miracles – like improve health and wellbeing (although we know that art can, most recently from Aesop’s 2018 Healthcare and The Arts: GP Survey: revealing that two in three doctors believe that ‘public engagement with the arts can make a significant contribution to the prevention agenda’), or become an art school (as Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) has done this year, teaming up with Teesside University to provide BA and postgraduate qualifications in Fine Art). As a workroom for socially engaged action, AirSpace can do a lot just by opening the doors and making it easy for us to join in.
So, once we’re a part of Public – You & Me, what is to be done? The fibres of our ideas could be teased out, identified, and re-woven as we wished. We could think about our work – our ‘public’ activity or collective action – as we do the Friction Hitch: a knot that can be adjusted, but one that locks in place, from friction, when the load is heavy. As Davies says, we do the best that we can and the most that we can.
If Public – You & Me is a turn towards an educational model that is looser, more experimental, more critical, and perhaps more useful for the future, then we can play. We can build a model of programming in such a way to increase its length and tensile strength; a united community that will carry the gallery through times of uncertainty (lean years, budget cuts, reduced arts provision, or other trials). We can rename the arena in which we learn and make and talk. We can create a space less exclusive and more open to all sorts of unexpected experiences that expand our friendship circles, confidence, abilities and imagination.

We could each fill in the blanks, writing (and re-writing and re-writing) a modern manifesto that makes us more resilient. You and I might think about what it means to act:

To act means to bind, stamp, dance, listen, speak, watch, draw, carry, choose, pass on, peel back, come back. To act is to __________, to act is to make __________ obsolete. 

To act human, we must __________. Everyone should question __________.  

We are tired of waiting for __________, and wasting time on __________.

We have never used the medium of __________ to create art, and why not? 
Let’s not forget that we have an abundance of __________. 

What we think now, here, together, in this moment, means to shake-off long-standing presumptions of __________. We must think carefully about __________.
To act is to invent a new name for art. __________ is art’s new name, and it gives us freedom. 

Look round: we can learn to __________, and to unlearn __________. 

Public – You & Me looks like __________, and we celebrate it as we continue to shape it in our own image. 

If we need to, we screw up this paper and we start again.


Laura Robertson is a writer, critic and editor based in Liverpool and London. Her work has been published in international magazines Frieze, Elephant, Hyperallergic, Art Monthly, and ArtReview amongst others, and she is a proud co-founder and contributing editor at The Double Negative online magazine. Laura currently holds the post of critical writer-in-residence at Open Eye photography gallery, and is studying MA Writing at the Royal College of Art (2018-20). She is a former director and trustee of The Royal Standard Gallery & Studios.


TW: @doublenegativeL

This piece was commissioned by Public - You & Me curators, Rebecca Davies and Selina Oakes. Laura spent two days at AirSpace Gallery, experiencing the programme first-hand - participating in workshops and immersing herself into the activities, speaking with and working alongside participants and lead artists.

Public - You & Me, ran from 3 to 28 June 2019

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Public - You & Me on Kettle's On

Last week, Selina Oakes spoke with Peter Herbert from Kettle's On about Public - You & Me, running at AirSpace Gallery throughout the month of June. The clip above is an excerpt from a longer conversation discussing changes in the arts in Stoke-on-Trent over the last few years and AirSpace Gallery.

Public - You & Me is a test-bed programme of public-facing activity. This week, Rose Nordin from OOMK will lead a workshop on Zine Making and DIY Publishing, followed by a conversation on representation in the arts with Kerry Campbell (Mansions of the Future). On Friday, we welcome Figs in Wigs to the Gallery for a closing party like no other, with an immersive performance, a showcase of some of the works produced collaboratively in the space during Public - You & Me, and a drawing battle. 6pm until late, free and open to all.

Monday, 24 June 2019

Public - You & Me: Conversation with Kate Owens, Block Print on Fabric (and dance if you want to)

Photos: Glen Stoker

Glasgow-based artist and designer Kate Owens delivered Block Print on Fabric (and dance if you want to) at AirSpace Gallery as part of Public - You & Me last weekend. On Saturday, members of the public were invited to block print onto fabric by walking or dancing through the gallery space. Beginning with a short introduction to Kate's practice, participants were asked to design patterns on the base of wooden sandals - made, quite simply, with a slab of plywood secured to the foot with two elastic straps. Books about Sonia Delaunay and Textile Design helped to inform the patterns created, before they were inked up by pressing each sandal onto a felt ink-pad. Step by step, participants printed their designs onto fabric, following Kate's advice on how best to move across the space — with some amendments as each participant learnt (and unlearnt) ways of walking, printing, balancing and dancing.

Kate was commissioned by Public - You & Me to create soft furnishings for the space, to compliment the furniture made with Plane Structure. Sheets of printed fabric were cut into sections and paired with blocks of colour to create curtains and cushions — all in a single day. Here, Kate speaks about her experiences with print and reflects upon the workshop at AirSpace Gallery.

How did your practice develop into a participatory print process?

Kate Owens: I think about my practice including a participatory print process as part of a wider way of working. With participatory projects I’m mainly setting up situations with a potential for creative output and then retrospectively analysing the event to see where the work lies. I try to document the event, recording video and audio and also keep hold of some physical material from the process. It’s then about presenting elements that hold something of the spirit of that event. 

In the past I’ve transcribed audio recording during workshops into scripts which are then used to create performance work like Why Don’t You Put Eyes In Those Holes (2016.) I’ve also created works by assembling all the leftover material from a participatory event as a textile hanging Trying To Cut Out A Heart (2016.)

The particular block printing process I proposed for the workshop at Airspace Gallery came from a method I developed in the studio in 2017, where I realised I could use my wooden sandals as print blocks and walk a design across a length of fabric. It seemed so efficient and exciting because it brought two activities together — dance and printing. I use dance in a loose sense, but I’ve always had an interest in dance and probably spend more money seeing dance performances than I do exhibitions. 

The act of inking and printing a repeat motif is intrinsically rhythmic and requires carefully planned and controlled movement — so in my head these two creative practices were already linked. As I’ve said before I’m sort of pre-programmed to always be doing two things at once — it’s been my method of economic survival and through that I’ve realised it actually helps me to think creatively.

Have you worked with dancers before?

KO: I printed myself using print-block shoes to make a number of textile works and continue to do so in my studio practice. I’ve opened it out as a way of working with other people — initially with a group of dance students for the worThe Shadow of Your Shadow in 2018 for a project in North London, responding to a recently closed textile factory. For this project I taught the group of dancers a short choreography which allowed them to print and move the ink pad across the fabric, using their body weight to transfer the ink. 

I was interested to see how dancers would incorporate their own movements into the process. This whole project was conceived as a live performance so the only collaborative part was how the dancers used their own bodies whilst carrying out the rehearsed printing process. Bringing music into the equation encouraged the dancers to think about the printing process as dance and created a consistent rhythm which gives momentum to the performance. 

What do you most enjoy about working collaboratively with the public?

KO: The unexpected! I rarely get time to experiment so (quite selfishly) I enjoy watching and learning through other peoples experiments. I sort of think about the idea of the workshop in terms of ‘workshopping’ in the pre-performance theatre sense, where a small group riff on an idea exploring its potential, before formalising it into a public performance. When a participatory event works like this, it’s magic!

If any, what challenges have you faced in using this 'less traditional’ method of printing - as well as working in a participatory way? 

KO: So many! At first I was like, this is such an efficient method of printing! Why isn’t everyone doing it like this? Then, I tried getting more consistent prints and making it work on a variety of flooring with a variety of people, with a variety of abilities and found so many difficulties. I’ve worked out a method that I use in my studio by looking at lots of traditional block printing books and tweaking the many variables from the surface you print on to the surface of the ink pad, the viscosity of ink, materials used to make the print block sandal or the fabric for printing on. 

I’ve also found ‘flocking ma blocks’ makes for a much better print but is a bit of a faff and needs to be re-done every three metres or so. With workshops or participatory printing I have to adapt it each time depending on budget, floor surface, age or abilities of participants. I learn more each time I do it. With regards to this particular workshop in Stoke, I was pleased that we developed some new choreography and printing methods through using a wall —  very good for those who need a bit of help with balance. 

Often, your workshops, which are performative, are accompanied by music and audio tracks. For you, why is it important to have a cross-disciplinary practice?

KO: I always find categories of practice problematic even 'cross-disciplinary’ (it’s a mouthful, slightly off-putting and non-specific). I studied painting but didn’t make any paintings, and then did an MA in sculpture where I did lots of printing. Now I mainly make textiles, performance and curtains but essentially I just have a creative practice and always try to be open and outward looking so if music or another element seems right then I include it. For recent performances and participatory block printing workshops, I’ve specifically introduced music to encourage individuals to (almost subconsciously) be aware of rhythm and body movement or dance and essentially find joy in the making process.

For Public You & Me, we commissioned you to make soft furnishings for the Gallery from the prints created during the workshop. How did this differ from your usual process of making work?

KO: Really different to any other commission I’ve had and I’m still trying to work out what happened and what I did…?? I’d usually be invited to do an exhibition or a workshop or both as a related project. I occasionally get invited to propose a workshop with no specific remit and I try to use these opportunities as starting points for new work or to continue on from a previous project. So I am used to dancing a blurry line between education and practice. 

This was different because I was asked to specifically make soft furnishings. Having made textile-based work for the past four to five years I’ve recently started using the fabrics I print to make more functional objects out of the gallery space such as curtains, lampshades, cushions. In a way I’ve found exhibition making a bit deflating as you focus on making work and preserving it for showing in a very specific context. When it’s not on show in a (generally) neutral space, it’s packed up and protected and only lived with by the (very few) collectors of my work. 

The curtains, cushions etc that I've been making aren’t kept sterile, guarded by invigilators: they bump into life— on sofas, in kitchens, captured in casual photography as part of life's context. They are part of the daily conversation. I hope that’s how the textiles made during the workshop will be encountered in Airspace Gallery, now that they’ve been formed into furnishings. They are a bit more self-contained as objects, meaning they are robust and less dependent on context than my previous artworks. In a way I don’t have to worry about them surviving out in the world and I can let go a bit.

Kate Owens, Block Print on Fabric (and dance if you want to) took place on Saturday 15 June at AirSpace Gallery. You can see the outcome of Kate's workshop at AirSpace until 28 June.