Throughout 2015 I looked at adverts for Artist in Residence schemes. I even applied for a few. Most of them were in schools and the briefs seemed to make the artist themselves the focus of the project. They would work with the pupils/people involved in the project and in some cases make work as well but it definitely felt like the project was about the artist not the residence. I thought about where it would be fun to be an artist in residence, but then I thought about what it would be like to be an artist in residence in just an ordinary suburban road, something like the one I grew up on in Maidenhead. Originally a new build Wimpey homes estate, all the houses roughly the same, with similar families with young children living in them with the occasional retired couple. People going off each day to commute to work. And I figured out in my head how much funding I’d need to do something like that, to be actually resident, whilst I worked as an artist. And I wondered if anyone would fund me for what might seem a rather ‘boring’ project – I mean it’s not like being imbedded in a fighting unit in a war zone, or in a refugee camp. And of course then I realised that I actually live in a street, admittedly not suburban, but still not artistically special or extraordinary. But I am more interested in that ordinary that turns out to be extraordinary. I know some of my neighbours, but none of them well, some I probably have never spoken to. Who knows what stories and lives are in the streets on which we live?
How often as artists do we either look to our immediate experience, or to a far distant exotic or strange world for inspiration and ignore that liminal edge between us and the wider world, our home neighbourhood, our own doorstep?
So that is what I decided to explore in this project. At the beginning of January I put this flyer through every door on Courtenay Street. Although the numbering of the street goes up to 88 it turns out there are only 77 dwellings. Two of those are officially in Courtenay Square but have their doors on Courtenay Street – so I included them. The flyer invited my neighbours to join me in my experiment and asked only that they give a little time to talk to me about their experiences of living in Courtenay Street/Kennington/South East London and if they wanted to, we could also discuss what other things an artist in residence might do. I was quite nervous for some reason when I delivered my envelopes into the various letterboxes, I wondered about the response, I wondered if I’d get a response at all!
Reassuringly quickly I started to receive emails form people in the street saying they would like to take part and so far I have met with three of them. In talking to them and discussing the project with them I realised that I had some other aims in what I was doing and these were:
Not to objectify
A lot of art that is about people – portraits for example – has a tendency to objectify the person being portrayed – they become an object for the artist to work off, and although in a portrait one would look to capture personality as well as physical features, these also become objectified in some way. What I sought was subjectivity – that any work produced would be the collaboration of myself and the person I was talking to, it would be an exploration and an experience rather than ‘capturing’ them in some way – a word we often use when talking about someone’s likeness whether in photography or by other means ‘you’ve really captured them’, ‘you’ve caught the eyes really well’ and so on. I use this language myself instinctively and I am now consciously trying to change it.
Some of this thinking has come out of my discussions with the residents of Courtenay Street and my thoughts about how I will make those discussions and experiences into art works and some has come from my London Debates series of drawings. These drawings which are made whilst people are actively engaged in debate or protest or purposeful conversation are an attempt to put down on paper the experience of seeing and hearing that energy that people have when they are engaged in activity to which they are passionately committed. They are multiple viewpoints and timepoints layered up to create a picture that pulls together a series of moments during a discussion or presentation or demonstration. They aren’t always great likenesses and they don’t always work to my satisfaction, but I feel if I keep on attempting it I will learn something. They are the opposite of a photographic ‘snap’ and it feels like a useful thing to do to find a different way of recording such moments when instant-photography is so ubiquitous and seems to create a homogenous experience of such moments; caught in a fraction of a second we all look the same to some extent when we are in mid-sentence.
Engaging people in art who might not otherwise be interested
I’ve spent a lot of the last four years thinking about how people engage with arts and culture and whether all the cultural lobbying I have done with What Next? is just preaching to the converted. A lot of participatory projects seem to have a slightly patronising us/them slant, where ‘us’ is some kind of professional arts practitioner or organisation and ‘them’ is the people, the masses, the assumed to be ‘not like us’. Arts organisations talk about engagement but only in the sense of audiences. My own experiments in this area have been tiny and this current project will probably reach more people than those that have gone before.
Three people is not much of a sample but so far two of them have some kind of interest or do some kind of artistic activity and only one had no particular interest in the arts but was more interested in the social connection aspect of the work. Assuming that not too many of my flyers ended up in un-opened envelopes in the recycling bin, then 77 different households will be ‘engaged with’, but it will be the people who step up to participate that I am interested in. I want it to be feel like genuine collaboration and hope that it might also spark creativity in others or that I will find other artists in Courtenay Street who are also working away at things.
Exploring the autonomy of the artist
When I initially had this idea I talked to some people about it and many of the responses were along the lines of ‘ooh, you could definitely get funding for that’ as if this was my prime motivator in starting an arts project. I’d had previous discussions around the dividing line between amateur and professional and the sliding scale of amateur/ voluntary/ grassroots/ un-paid ‘professional’/ profit-share-professional/ paid professional that seems to operate as a value measure and also of course in the visual arts world the divide between ‘commercial’ and non-commercial the latter requiring funding by arts organisations in order for the artist to survive. My experience was there was some kind of peer validation going on around the ways in which people were paid or who they were commissioned by or got funding from. To be paid was one thing, but to be paid via a fund that was competitively difficult to get and which implied a pre-judgement of quality by the funder, seemed to be the highest validation.
I decided to reject this. I felt that a validation that was intrinsically tied up with money/getting money wasn’t one I would subscribe to. I also didn’t want to have to pre-evaluate my ‘project’, work out in advance what the ‘outcomes’ might be, or guess at how it might go, in order to fill out a funding application. I wanted to be free to fail, to experiment, to change my mind about the parameters of the experiment, to make whatever work I felt would be interesting, to invite collaborators, to set my own deadlines and expectations and basically to just do as I pleased, free from external constraint. I appointed myself artist in residence, without asking anyone. Because I am an artist and I am a resident here. I didn’t need extra money to make the project happen, my expenses are those I already bear in living in my flat, and I had already set aside a minimum of 1 day a week and a potential of 3 days a week in which to make art (of any kind, visual, written, theatre projects etc). Most of the art I make at the moment is either collage, made from recycled magazines and cardboard, or black and white drawings in small notebooks – the costs are low and easily found from my other streams of income. They might even be recovered if I sell some work!
I think that I will find as I go along that other things occur, other thoughts to explore, other avenues to go down. I am already thinking about looking into the history of Courtenay Street, its past to complement the work I am doing on its present, and also perhaps (maybe when it stops raining) the physical fabric of the street, what it is made of, what it looks like.
Watch this space for updates on this and for work as it is made.