Nicole Mortiboys, No Title. Photograph Gavin Rogers

 

It was an unusually pleasant summer’s day in July 2017 on which I first set foot inside the cool, cavernous interior of the former Coventry Evening Telegraph building. I was being shown around by Coventry Biennial director Ryan Hughes, as I had recently been selected for a New Art West Midlands Curatorial Bursary to work on the biennial and also because ‘The CET’, as it has affectionately become known, was to become the site of the biennial’s principal group exhibition. At that point, a not-inconsiderable feat of imagination was required to see how this could be so. The building had, in eight or more years, been used only for self-guided heritage tours that did not even nearly cover its entire footprint. There were whole floors without power and many rooms blanketed with the assorted detritus that is left behind by a down-sizing company which neither intends to return nor expects anybody else to. Deeper inside the building, the initial cool gave way to a chilly cold as that cavernous lobby, by turns, contracted to become claustrophobic office space and then expanded to become truly massive in the former print rooms. Those who visited the building during the biennial will know that what looks, from the street, to be a handsome, but fairly unprepossessing, mid-century office block becomes, upon exploration of its interior, a veritable warren of spaces encompassing the domestic, the commercial, and the industrial in a complex of connected buildings covering almost an entire city block.

 

Nicole Mortiboys, No Title. Photographer: Gavin Rogers

 

The Biennial’s theme, and the title of the exhibition in the CET building, was ‘The Future’. The irony does not escape me that, as I write, ‘The Future’ is now in the past. But any conception of the future is always inextricably bound up with the past from which it springs. The biennial’s exhibition at the CET always acknowledged its place in a historic building in Coventry and sought not to predict the future but to thread art through that historic building in a manner which united old and new for a vision of the possible futures which might await us all.

 

My principal concern and the focus of my work, however, lay in the question of quite how, even with around 60 artists planned to be shown, we were going to fill the almost endless available space. During my time with the biennial, I visited artists in their studios as far apart as rural Yorkshire and urban High Wycombe. I had the privilege of being invited generously into the practices and thought processes of many artists, having discussions that helped to evolve my understanding of how their numerous practices with varying starting points could be situated, within the exhibition, to invite each work into a lively discourse with the others and to generate a hearty artistic and intellectual feast for visitors.

 

Bermuda Collective, Alcoholism ’65. Photographer: Gavin Rogers

 

On the more pragmatic side of affairs, I supported volunteer recruitment events, worked closely on the design direction of the Biennial’s printed programme and led on the coordination of the VIP and Professional’s Preview Day. During the biennial itself, I led curator’s tours for members of the public, as well as colleagues in the arts sector. Part of the potential of any biennial lies in its ability to habituate itself to its host city, finding moments of encounter that grow out of, respond to and transform the spirit of the city. To this end, I used the curator’s tours as an opportunity to discover and discuss other people’s reactions to the exhibition and the artworks in it, as much as to share my own knowledge and opinions. The biennial was a truly collaborative, city-wide project and I was delighted to also be asked by biennial partners Scratch the Surface Festival to lead a conversation with the artists of their END//BEGIN-Dialogue exhibition, on the topic of how art making can intersect with, express and sometimes provide relief for artists with mental health issues.

 

We did, ultimately, fill the CET with art and, in my entirely biased opinion, we did so quite admirably. During my time with the biennial, I developed my project management, networking and research skills. I also gained a great deal more experience of working with artists at various stages in their careers. The experience has already led to my being given a place at artist Jamboree 2018 and I am now greatly looking forward to spending a summer’s weekend in the glorious Devon landscape surrounding Dartington College, which is of course very different from the urban landscape of Coventry that I spent a lot of time in during the course of the biennial. But, once again, I will have the privilege of sharing discussions and debates about the practices and processes, this time, of 150 fellow artists and curators. Whatever that may lead to, whether exhibitions or other forms of dissemination, I hope to experience again the genuine and enthusiastic public support that people from Coventry and beyond lent to the biennial. For after all, as my experiences with the biennial reaffirmed, art needs people just as much as people need art.

Engine Curatorial Bursary recipient Jonathon Harris reflects upon his experiences of working with last year’s Coventry Biennial of Contemporary Art.

Jonny Bark, Inhabiting Edgelands

The Old Print Room, CET Building
25 November 2017 – 14 April 2018
Reviewed by Caroline Molloy, Senior Lecturer, Coventry University

 

Jonny Bark, Inhabiting Edgelands

 

 

Inhabiting Edgelands, sees the re-visualisation of Jonny Bark’s final BA (Hons) Photography degree work, as an immersive experience in the Old Print Room at the CET Building in Coventry. Once housing the printing press for the Coventry Evening Telegraph, the Old Print Room has transformed into an experimental space in which new installation strategies are investigated. This space has enabled Bark to conceptualise and produce his first independent solo exhibition, the re-imagining of Inhabiting Edgelands. Originally conceived in book format, the work has been reconfigured to occupy the vast 30 x 20 metre Old Print Room. The work inhabits three of the four walls, punctuated on one side by neon yellow pillars. The images are pieced together in a mosaic of low-fi A4 prints to create life-size landscape images. In the centre of the room lays collected ephemera from the edge lands research site. Accompanying the visuals, Bark has created a soundscape that situates the audience back into the edge lands.

 

Jonny Bark, Inhabiting Edgelands

 

Bark’s work moves away from traditional depictions of the picturesque landscape, redirecting us to the unnoticed and mundane. With the aim of drawing attention to the transitional spaces between the urban and the rural, Inhabiting Edgelands looks at these neglected liminal spaces. In order to investigate his research site beyond a tourist gaze, Bark camped out in the edge lands. In a formative showing of the work, the audience were required to travel to the edge lands to see the work on exhibition, in the environment where it was made. In placing the work within the research site, Bark demonstrated an understanding of the relationship between his images and the landscape. The weather conditions of the edge lands interacted with the images on display and the longer they were left situated in the landscape, the more they deteriorated. This became the inspiration for the low-fi presentation strategy used in both the Inhabiting Edgelands book and this exhibition presentation.

 

Jonny Bark, Inhabiting Edgelands

 

In Inhabiting Edgelands, Bark reminds the audience of what it is like to ‘feel’ the geography of the landscape, as well as look at it. The overlooked and the everyday are at the centre of his work. It is a conceptual response to the landscape that raises questions about the politics in representing the environment. Using multi-sensory methodologies, the work succeeds in transcending its original photographic roots. This is not a spectator’s exhibition; it requires participation from the audience. To capture the essence of Bark’s large-scale work, the audience are required to move around the space, and whilst doing so they are accompanied by the blended environmental soundscape. Through this interaction, the audience are encouraged to think of the landscape as an experiential place.

 

The opportunity of using the CET building to exhibit Inhabiting Edgelands has proved to be an excellent opportunity for Bark to realise the work without restriction of space or time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caroline Molloy reviews Jonny Bark’s exhibition Inhabiting Edgelands at the CET Building, Coventry.