Colchester, the beautiful curves of Firstsite and the Potential of Open Calls, what went on at that talk?

I like what they’re trying to do in Colchester, I like the fact that, whatever may have happened already, the Firstsite people are trying to reach out and be inclusive, to involve people, to be for the people, to welcome people, to engage with people. Art spaces really do need to engage, they don’t need to compromise or heaven forbid, “dumb down” but they do need to engage and invite. I really like the big Open call show that just came to an end in the very big gallery space that is Firstsite.

Firstsite, Colchester

Firstsite, Colchester

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Off to Colchester then, can’t quite recall how the invite originally came about now, a result of the Cultivate blogs or my big mouth or the recent on-line interviews about open calls, or maybe the postings and the debates on social media, the shouting about the cynical dishonesty of so many of London’s open call art shows and the calls for artists to confront those treating us as mere cash cows.

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firstsite_colchesterThe invite came in from Stefanie Kogler at Firstsite Gallery, would I come and take part in a talk and make a presentation about Open Calls at an evening event called “The Potential of Open Exhibitions”? Now I’m based in London, have been for years now, accidently moved in to an empty flat with no heat or hot water somewhere back in the last century, moved here after the escape from art school when we really had no money and nowhere else to go, someone offered the space, we took it, we’ve been here ever since. Once you’re in the city and part of the various London bubbles, you don’t look out that much, you’ve surely got everything you need right here on your doorstep (besides decent football). I was aware of the big Firstsite Gallery in Colchester, only vaguely though, caught a hint of the controversy blowing in the winds, us London-based people rarely get a chance to get out of the city (Lynda Morris is right, we should get out, good to have her reminding us at the talk, really enjoyed Lynda’s talk), of course I’d come to Colchester, delighted to take part.

Firstsite Open 2015

Firstsite Open 2015

Firstsite is certainly an interesting art space. Firstsite is a big space, a bold space, an ambitious space, a controversial space, a potentially glorious space (or maybe it already is a glorious space? I confess I don’t know enough of the history to judge). Certainly a beautiful building balanced out there as it is, balanced out in the open by the Norman church and the Roman walls, fascinating space. Not sure if the architect, Rafale Vinoly, has fully taken on what the building is actually for, not sure if sloping curved walls are what you actually want in an art gallery? None of the should it exist matters right now though, the great big gallery is there and speaking as a first time visitor, from the outside it’s a building that rather excites. The Golden Banana is what the locals call it, don’t get the feeling they always mean it in a favourable way? Get the feeling they might just be coming round to feeling a little affection? Maybe? Certainly chatting to people in the town brings out a whole raft of opinion – indifference, excitement, a little bit of contempt, the skateboarders outside seem thankful for the concrete, not really that interested in what was inside though, the girls sitting outside drinking cider are more interested in talking about going to see Marlyn Manson in London tomorrow, “we hang around outside, we go to the loo, never go in for the art though, nor really for us is it?”. There are those who speak in a more positive manner though, people do seem to be warming to it, and the open show certainly seems to be aiding the process. The guy at the railway station insists “that big gallery in the best thing to happen here for ages, people need to stop moaning about it and go enjoy it”, while the woman in the book shop tells is she didn’t like it at first but now she’s rather fond of it.

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A golden bus, outside the golden banana

A golden bus, outside the golden banana

Like it or not, the building is there, the debate about whether it should or shouldn’t have been built in the first place, the debate about the building of it or running over budget surely no longer matters? It is a beautiful building, it glows, exciting to look at, thrilling, positive, touchable, even on a dull windy day in November it’s a building that impresses (a building that’s far more likable than that annoyingly disrespectful Walkie Talkie Vinoly imposed on London).

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Yes, rather like this first in-the-flesh encounter with the Firstsite building, excited by the shape, do like the curves, however unpractical, the shape is glorious, and once you do get inside, past the initial décor crimes and the instant coffee, once you enter the chambers and discover the spaces hiding within, then yes, the internal gallery spaces really do feel like they work – the rooms, the art wombs, surely every town and city should have a big glowing art space? Surely Professor Lynda Morris is right when she says London should not think itself to be the centre of it all? Colchester is surely blessed with opportunity? And if open calls and engagement are to play a part in the future then surely there is something to positively grab hold of here at Firstsite?

Firstsite Open 2015

Firstsite Open 2015

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Hang on though, we’re not really here to discuss the merits of the building or the relative success or failure of the troubled gallery, there’s certainly plenty of strong opinion to be found who know far more than me about what has gone on to be found on-line since the ambitious contemporary art space opened (late and over budget) in 2011.
We were invited to Colchester to take part in a discussion on open call exhibitions, we’re in a dark theatre full of seats and faces lost in the bright light, an audience banked an waiting, five if us presenting views and offering thought, some of us maybe a little more chaotically than others

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Firstsite Open 2015

Firstsite Open 2015

“This fast paced talk will explore the role of Open Exhibitions in today’s art world. From emerging artists to those already established, and Open holds potential for an inclusive selection of disparate media, practices, and approaches toward making art. The result brings to light perhaps unintentional outcomes and new possibilities.

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Speaker panel includes: Dr. Stevphen Shukaitis, University of Essex, Centre for Work, Organization, and Society, Natalie Pace, Smiths Row Gallery, Sean Worrall, artist and curator, Simon Carter, artist and Professor Lynda Morris, Curation and Art History, Norwich University of the Arts 10 minute presentations will be followed by a Q&A and a lively discussion that will shed light onto this form of exhibiting artworks”.

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The talks are taking place in conjunction with the Firstite Open exhibition, so maybe we are here to talk about the building and the purpose after all? This particular Open call show does seem to be about reaching out to the town, opening and engaging…
The call to artists to join in put ahead of the show read like this – “Showcase your artwork in our internationally renowned gallery. The aim of our Open exhibition is to promote and showcase contemporary visual art practice in the East of England.

Firstsite Open 2015

Firstsite Open 2015

We want to create a dynamic show that highlights the diverse range of interesting work that is produced in the region. You do not have to be a professional artist to submit Works. The Firstsite Open is open to everyone. There is no limitation as to subject matter or style but we do want new work. We will not accept Work created before January 2011. We want lots of creative voices to have the opportunity to show their work. We also want to challenge visitors to reflect on why they like or don’t like particular works. Whether you choose to please or challenge the public is your decision. Works in the exhibition will be available for sale, providing an ideal opportunity for visitors to start their own art collection and provide invaluable support to artists.”

 

Firstsite Open 2015

Firstsite Open 2015

Seems this truly was an open call and the vital part of this show is that nothing was to be rejected. Everything submitted was hung on the rather packed and busy walls. The fact that nothing was to be rejected wasn’t quite made as clear in the details of the call as it could have been, that vital fact kind of makes this a unique show. There’s about seven hundred pieces on the busy walls, rooms full of art, a complete cross section of work, most of it from local Essex artists. Almost overwhelming, certainly something that needs to be explored again and again (and again), impossible to take it all in in just one afternoon visit, it surely would take several visits to even scratch at the surface. Almost too big, it does work though, this is brilliant actually, once you tune in to what’s actually going on and how it all works and that vital fact that nothing was rejected then this really is brilliant. The school kids are on the walls next to established local artists, this is a truly engaging way to use of the space, there’s some seriously good work in here The Open show is on the walls for almost two months, there’s all kinds of interesting events schedules during the period

Firstsite Open 2015

Firstsite Open 2015

Lot of really good work in here, some excellent pieces jousting for attention with the maybe not quite so good – a brave move to hang everything, an engaging move and certainly not something that could happen in every art venue. It does work in here, very much so, it surely wouldn’t at most times in most places?

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“Having been greatly disappointed and a vociferous critic of Firstsite, both of its exhibition policy and the way it appeared to be unfit for purpose when it first opened, I am now totally won over and blown away by what the management have achieved. As an artist I submitted a piece of work to the Open Exhibition as much as anything as an act of solidarity. The way the organisers hung so many pieces of work so well is outstanding. Both as an artist and long time teacher I have been involved in hanging many exhibitions over the years. This Firstsite Open Exhibition presented the organisers with a mammoth task. They rose to the occasion splendidly. The way in which Firstsite now seeks to associate itself with the plethora of local talent is a huge improvement upon the previous snooty and elitist policy. All power to their elbow” (Colin Kirby-Green)

Firstsite Open 2015

Firstsite Open 2015

Open shows come in all kinds of shapes and sizes – big ones, small ones, establishment galleries, back street shows, grand events that are now the tradition, expansive Royal Academy style summer shows, little East End basement rooms, shows put on by people who tell you the exposure will be good for you, cynically curated shows in spaces that are never actually open, imaginatively engaging shows in always open spaces. Well intended shows, exciting shows, subjective shows, red shows, blues shows, themed shows, high-end shows, lo-fi shows. And these days, unfortunately, far too many blatantly dishonest shows put on by people who feel it acceptable to treat artists as nothing more than cash cows there to fund their lifestyles and their next holiday choice. Indeed one of the proposed panelists tonight was to be one of those delightful people who regularly runs open call shows in London, open call shows where she feels perfectly justified in charging £25 a go just to open an e.mail – e,mails that are usually from an out-of-town artists who’s been convinced that to pay is the only way to chase the gold that litters the streets and galleries of the London art scene, pay just to send an e.mail to potentially maybe have a chance of being in a show in a gallery that is hardly ever opens even if you are one of the few who does get selected. A £25 “admin” fee just to send an e.mail to potentially take part in one the rather dubious open shows her self-proclaimed “not-for-profit” organization puts on as part of their claim to be “supporting fellow artists”. Apparently twenty-five quid a go woman refused to appear alongside me at the talk tonight and asked that I be removed so that she could take part. When told of this and asked for my thoughts, I voiced that I would be more than happy to appear alongside her, there were quite a few things I would have like to have debated with her in terms of her claims to be supporting artists, alas it was not to be, she avoided me once more, why won’t these people who charge these fees ever front up?

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Some of the many open calls at Cultivate

Some of the many open calls at Cultivate

To try and cover the very open subject of open shows and open calls in five ten minute talks and a slightly fiery (very positive) question and answer session is almost impossible, tonight was constructive though, certainly worth the time and the journey, very valuable, learnt a lot (and hopefully shared a bit). From my point of view, firstly as a slightly angry artist coming at things, then as an almost reluctant curator, open calls mostly infuriate. At their best, open calls can excite, they mostly frustrate though, they can empower, they mostly annoy, they can certainly drain an artist’s pocket, they can certainly throw up some interesting artists, I like open calls shows, I like going to explore the honest ones, I refuse to go to the dishonest ones these days. I love putting them on, I love hanging them. I think we can claim to have “found” and brought through a number of exciting artists during the Vyner Street period of Cultivate and our many open calls, not all our shows worked, I think more of them did than didn’t though.

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Cultivate, always open

Cultivate, always open

Tales of other artists frustrations and annoying experiences, of encounters going wrong combined with seemingly everyone ever demand money from me when I was trying to find my artistic feet, these are some of the things made me want to do it myself, it was partly the annoyance of open calls in London that made us want to come together and open a space right smack bang in the middle what was by then the East London establishment of Vyner Street. Cultivate was partly a reaction to the annoyance of the open calls of the other seemingly very cynical Vyner Street galleries and organizations. That and an artistic need for community, for collaboration, the need to work together and put art shows on, a need to bring some of our shared experiences running records labels, musical events and such to the gallery environment, Cultivate was (and is) about many things, open doors and open calls were (and are) certainly a big part of it.

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cultivate_pinkOpen calls, a massive subject, from the now traditional but then groundbreaking early ‘90’s East shows of fellow panelist Professor Lynda Morris in Norwich, to the shows being carefully curated now by vital people like Natalie Pace at Smiths Row Gallery in Bury St Edmunds (hey artists, value you art workers, your enablers, your curators, Natalie contributes a lot tonight, she’s almost forced on the defensive tonight, I know us artists can get angry, but we do need those committed exciting curators). From funded art-establishment open call shows to the almost punk rock spirit of recent shows in the car parks and condemned spaces of London, the subject of open calls is a big one….
Tonight during the question and answer part we wonder if there really is a need for curators to police things, well an audience member does, (he seems almost offended that there are curators on the panel(, we talk about the need for curators to almost be dictators 9we I said I need to almost be a dictator) , about how shows have to be considered and carefully put together and how they just can’t happen without strong curation, about how we can’t realistically have a situation where anything goes, the same audience member insists anything can go, he makes some forcefully interesting points but really we have to counter that curators are vital. . We question if anyone can be an artist, we ask if artists should allow themselves to be exploited? My view has always been that artists should do it ourselves as much as we can, but I will say that it is vital that within that do it yourself framework there must be some curating, some policing, some quality control, an overall vision for a show, there needs to be selectors, the trusted people that make you want to explore their next shows.

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CULTIVATE CORNER, VYNER STREET,,,,

CULTIVATE CORNER, VYNER STREET,,,,

Someone tells about how there was once a series of shows at Colchester Arts Centre where anyone could turn up with a piece of art, grab a hammer and a nail, chip in a pound to help cover the costs and just put it up, nothing was ever policed, anything went. Did anyone ever overstep the mark I ask, “no” came the reply, “what would have happened in if they had done?” “It never happened” it easily could, “has it happened to you? he asked – “yes”. You need curators, you need selectors. Is everyone a painter? An artist? Simon Carter puts forward the idea that just because he played football with his mates on a Tuesday night that didn’t make him a footballer and no, just because you paint that doesn’t make you an artist, most of the time open calls do need to be carefully selected and curated, they do need a vision, putting together a group show is an art form in itself, feels like we’re only just starting to warm up when the rather positive evening has to comes to an end, I enjoyed it, I hope others did…felt productive, I’d love to follow it up, feels like there was lots more to explore…

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Firstsite Open 2015

Firstsite Open 2015

The open show at Firstsite might just be unique, a really open open call, I can’t think of any where everything has been hung, the rest of the panel or the audience can’t either, Stevphen Shukaitis offers that some of those London squat shows recently were (although personally I found those to be rather policed in the same way music bills at free festivals were, in my experience squat events are generally even more policed than events in more conventional spaces, but then they have to be, there has to be curation). This just might be an almost unique situation at Firstsite, the beautiful calming of an almost perfect storm, the right open show at the right time in the right space, it seems like the gallery may have finally engaged with the town, this might just be a rather special moment for Firstsite and Colchester.

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Open calls, so much to say, I love pulling them together, selecting them, hanging them, the cross-pollination, the uniting of a room, I imagine putting this big one at Firstsite together, hanging it, doing it, being in it, everything about it was a massive challenge for everyone involved, Not everything in the show works, not everything at the accompanying talk worked, really pleased to have seen the show, listen to the talks and to have contributed a little. I rather hope the people at Firstsite and the artists with their work on the walls are feeling pleased with themselves, an excellent show, an engaging informative day, plenty of food for thought and lots of engaging art… Lynda Morris is right, really should get out of London more, really should get to places like Colchester and Firstsite more often than we do, really enjoyed the day, the art, the gallery and the people. Thanks everyone

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Open calls? The Potential of Open Exhibitions? When they’re done in the right way, put together in the right spirit, when they’re about engaging and cross-pollinating, and not about exploiting than open calls are wonderful things, exciting things, vital things, value your art workers like Natalie Pace and Stefanie Kogler though, without them, open calls would not be such rich and fertile events where art, artists and communities can flourish together. Very fine show and a most excellent and informative day, thank you Firstsite.  (sw)

FIRSTSITE – COLCHESTER

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A quick snap shot or two of the open (apologies for the lack of artist names, who did those blocks, love those blocks). Click on an image to enlarge or run the slide show.

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3 thoughts on “Colchester, the beautiful curves of Firstsite and the Potential of Open Calls, what went on at that talk?

  1. Heard a rumour First Site was originally designed for a country in South America that when they saw the design did not want it so Colchester got it. Don’t know if this is true but may explain why the walls of a supposed art gallery has walls which slope backwards!

  2. Pingback: More thorns, more carefully placed “drops”, revealing Reveal and… | Sean Worrall

  3. Pingback: Revealing the first of the artists for Reveal, dropping “Drops”, dealing with thorns…. | CULTIVATING…. The Cultivate gallery blog…

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