Back in February we held an event with our partners Trust New Art at the National Trust to share some of the experiences, research and results of five Short Residency Awards given to New Art West Midlands alumni artists Larissa Shaw, Lindy Brett, Aileen Doherty, Theo Ellison and Grace A. Williams. An aim of the event was to highlight the value in artists working within heritage contexts, looking at the ways in which artistic practice crossing into new spaces might yield new and sometimes unlikely research possibilities. The artists involved were selected through an open call to all alumni of the New Art West Midlands exhibitions and were asked to make a proposal for research for a particular property following a networking event. It was important that no outcome was expected of the participating artists – rather, this was an opportunity for research, conversation and reflection. These residencies took place from May to October 2018, for a period of five days, each with varying degrees of engagement with staff, collections, audiences, architecture and landscape.
Kate Stoddart, an Independent Curator working with National Trust, and our key contact throughout the project, emphasised concerns for supporting artistic professional development that she shares with New Art West Midlands, especially in the years immediately following graduation. Such residency projects not only provide key opportunities for artists but also allow properties to have access to new voices and views that enrich their own research and their offer to audiences. The project brought together shared ideas of supporting continued professional development for the region’s artists – not just at graduate level, but also in the critical years that follow. It was also about introducing and contributing creative intelligence, encouraging new ways of thinking and working at heritage sites which will make for interesting projects and attract new audiences.
Held at Birmingham City University’s Conservatoire and chaired by Professor Catherine Baker, Associate Professor Interdisciplinary Practice at Birmingham School of Art, we heard presentations from the residency artists and staff at each of the National Trust properties involved in the East and West Midlands: The Firs, Ilam Park, Attingham Park, Coughton Court and Mr Straw’s House. These properties were selected via a call for expressions of interest. Kate noted that three of the properties had never before worked with contemporary artists.
Catherine Baker explored in her opening presentation definitions of research in terms of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) (questions, aims, context and contribution) and creative practice as research in and of itself. Many definitions place a dichotomy between creative practice and research and they remain unclear. Collaborative and interdisciplinary relationships have value for both parties but are not necessarily harmonious. In fact, conflict, disruption and provocation might be more valuable than a settled and comfortable research relationship. For Catherine, research is reliant upon vulnerability, not knowing and even failure. Artists are best used not instrumentally but as partners. In this way, it is new insight, rather than new outcome, that is gained.
Artist Larissa Shaw gave her presentation with Rachel Sharpe, Creative Partnerships Manager at The Firs in Worcestershire, the birthplace of composer Sir Edward Elgar and the place where his ‘genius’ was born. Larissa began by discussing the importance of chance and of the Worcestershire landscape to Elgar’s composition work which offered a starting point for her residency. Her time at The Firs afforded her some distance from her practice and allowed her research to grow and develop into something that might become a physical work in the future. Larissa responded to the residency context by engaging in conversation with volunteers who are ‘home-grown’ Elgar experts. Speaking about her practice with non-arts specialists left her feeling a little vulnerable but support and parameters for working from Rachel enabled a freedom and confidence in her project. Larissa has an orchestral background and the project provided a critical link between that and her artwork. Rachel and Larissa are looking to develop an Arts Council funding application that draws on the “Aeolian harp” – an instrument played by the wind – and they are excited to reflect on the possibilities and conversations ahead.
Lindy Brett’s residency was spent at Ilam Park in Derbyshire, supported by Projects Offer, Paul Mortimer. She used medium-format photography, video and sound technologies in the landscape, dividing her days across several weeks to explore ideas of the picturesque and the self-conscious landscape. Lindy conducted oral research with volunteers and staff on their favourite views and aspects of the very large site which dovetailed with Paul’s key concern about what Ilam should be in the twenty-first century, and a renewed importance of this landscape which has inspired artists since the eighteenth century. Some of Lindy’s ideas included camera traps set off by the feet of visitors, frames placed within the landscape and recreating vanished aspects of the site. Both felt that the short nature of the residency (five days) did not account for the induction to the site that was necessary given its scale nor the time it took to explore it. Lindy feels that the experience has given her confidence and opened up new ideas.
Attingham Park near Shrewsbury hosted artist Aileen Doherty. Saraid Jones, Research and Interpretation Officer, started the presentation with an audio described tour of the site, and noted that she was really excited to be out of her comfort zone showcasing Attingham Park in a new way. Aileen’s practice is characterised by natural forms and natural sciences. This was her first residency and she admitted she had no idea how to approach it initially. Aileen split her five days in two parts in July, and tried to get to grips with the scale and the collections of the site where nature is frequently brought inside. In addition to tours, Aileen was able to stay on site and experience it outside visitor hours which was a valuable experience. The split sections allowed reflection on the first part of her experience, and the second half was spent making photographs and drawings of surfaces and textures very close-up. Archival research afforded further insight. Aileen felt that she achieved what her proposal outlined but that the reality of the residency challenged her thinking. Saraid’s team felt relaxed about the non-outcome driven nature of the residency – she found Aileen’s fresh eyes in thinking about details really useful and tried to give her freedom to explore. Aileen was pleased to have support, and to have open-ended and in-depth conversations with staff and volunteers. There are possibilities afoot for future collaboration via a potential outside artwork.
Emma Dwan O’Reilly explained that Warwickshire’s Coughton Court is a nationally important house (it played a key role in the Gunpowder Plot) owned by a Catholic family who still live on site. Theo Ellison spent his residency on site. Theo found the scale of the house was overwhelming and felt a self-imposed pressure to shoe-horn previous work into this context. Not being able to touch or move any of the collection objects was a source of frustration so he resolved to work with these restrictions of preservation and conservation. He recruited a 3D-scanning company to laser scan rooms and objects within the house and presented some of the ghostly films and stills made using this technology to us. Theo felt his pieces were most successful when they lacked human presence. He found the collision of not being able to do what he wanted to do on site was a fruitful experience that has enabled new ideas and works. He is keen to show some of these works at Coughton Court and elsewhere in the future, and explained that the technology allows the mapped spaces to be endlessly revisited and discussed. Emma noted a big change in Theo’s work from their initial conversations. She was delighted by the work he made and was excited to share this with colleagues. The works produced have clear potential to feedback into the site.
Grace A Williams spent her residency at Mr Straw’s House in Nottinghamshire, a relatively small and humble former home to the Straw family of grocers, where she particularly explored the role Florence Straw (wife of Mr Straw) played in its history. This line of research fit with her existing interests in the ‘vanishing’ of women and domestic space. Grace found that the staff on site were very helpful and that she was given freedom. The space is full of objects that appear untouched – it is one of the largest collections in the National Trust – which she found a little intimidating. Grace recorded the space within and outside visitor hours through photography positioned at 4ft – the height of Florence – and while she was there she met a visitor who had known her. Grace found that five days was insufficient and she put pressure on herself to make work. In conversations with Abigail Rose, Membership and Visitor Welcome Assistant, conservation, presentation and preservation were discussed. In one tour of the house with a male volunteer guide, Grace found him comically dismissive of Florence – claiming that Florence spent the family money on wallpaper. She found this made her laugh but she was also angry about the comment and will endeavour to feed this back to the site.
At the end of the event, we also heard from Emalee Beddoes-Davis, Curator Modern and Contemporary Art, Birmingham Museums Trust; Hetain Patel, Artist and Eira Szadurski, National Trust Creative Producer – Outdoors, who contributed their valuable views to the afternoon’s discussions. The group began by discussing the value artists bring to such sites. Emalee reinforced the fact that this is focussed upon the artist’s subjectivity, thinking, experiences and honesty which moves the site away from a purely institutional voice. An artist has the ability to highlight artifice in this context. Hetain noted that such projects provide artists with new perspectives and time to think outside their usual frame of reference. The group discussed the length of these particular residencies, concluding that neither the artist’s practice nor their thinking, stop after five days – that that is a starting point. This, of course, raises a question of remuneration, Hetain affirming the point that an artist does not underwork on a residency because their reputation is at stake. The group also discussed the issue of presenting research that is unresolved and the uncomfortable nature of this in relation to outcomes and the honest expectation of a non-outcome driven project. For Eira, the value of the residencies lies within the permission given to the artists to ask awkward questions, make criticisms and have opinions. Two-way dialogue, outlined parameters and expectations are all key to making such projects effective.
Rachel Sharpe, from The Firs admitted that she was afraid of the non-outcome prospect at the outset of Larissa’s project but has come to see the importance of this. The Firs, for instance, have arrived at a new understanding of this value which has positive future outcomes for their way of working. She stated “You provided us with a very important platform to have a very different conversation about the site.” Catherine summed up by concluding that it is exactly this knowledge and this experience that is the outcome.