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.

In June Engine offered a curatorial opportunity to support Coventry Biennial of Contemporary Art, and a bursary to support the research and development of a curatorial concept. We are delighted to announce the recipients:

Jonathon Harris has been selected for the curatorial development bursary with Coventry Biennial of Contemporary Art. The £2,000 bursary will provide the opportunity to work on a series of high profile solo and group exhibitions as well as accompanying events. With the majority of the Biennial programme in place, the post will focus on the selection of work, production, logistics and management of exhibitions programmes.

Due to the high standard of applications, both Grace Williams and Kaye Winwood have been awarded research and development curatorial bursaries.

Kaye will use her bursary to support the research and development of a multi-site presentation of artworks in response to her ‘Expanded Dining’ work. Her curatorial ambition is to explore food as an artform and to contribute to new knowledges in gastronomy, performance and visual culture which propose new modes of interdisciplinarity.

Grace will use the bursary to research and develop an exhibition inviting emerging and established female artists to respond to an ‘occult’ artifact. The show will aim to initiate a dialogue around the social importance of maintaining histories sidelined as irrational, and the central role of women within occult practices. The bursary will also support a number of key research visits to leading repositories of occult and esoteric material in the UK and Europe, building on her own doctoral research.

We’ll report back later in the year on their progress.

 

Congratulations to Jonathon Harris, Grace Williams and Kaye Winwood who are successful recipients of our recent curatorial opportunities.

Birmingham-based artist Jonathon Harris has a practice he describes as inter-medial. Working across sculpture, installation, writing, and still and moving image, his artistic concerns are centred upon our increasingly digital lives.

Fresh from a recent curatorial intervention at artist-led space Stryx, Harris is about to undertake his first large-scale curatorial project for the 2017 edition of Fringe Arts Bath titled Diegetic Life: Ghosts of the Putative. The ambitious exhibition takes as its starting point, identities that are specifically constructed for screen-based dissemination. Works for Harris’ exhibition will be selected via an open call. Anneka French finds out more.

Is the curatorial project an extension of your artistic practice?

In a word, yes. I’m trying to place ideas I’ve been working with as an artist into a wider context and, for me, that entails a necessary expansion of my artistic practice into curating. I see curating as a way to encompass a plurality of perspectives more effectively than as a solo artist making a single artwork. This has arisen, in part, from researching Jean Baudrillard’s ideas about hyper-reality. I’m interested in what happens to visual art, which has developed in much less visually-saturated times, now that we live in this visual hyper-reality and see more images per day than some of our ancestors saw throughout their entire lives. I was recently asked to stage a ‘curatorial intervention’ as part of #sorrynotsorry at Stryx and, in that process, I found a parallel with the way component parts are brought together in an installation piece – perhaps for the first time, I began to think concretely about the exhibition-as-artwork.

Diegetic Life: Ghosts of the Putative is your most ambitious curated project. What drew you to working with Fringe Arts Bath?

I’ve been involved with the West Midlands for enough time that it has a pleasantly familiar feel but there’s always the danger of that quite quickly becoming hermetic. So I’m keen to work outside the region partly because it’s outside of my comfort zone. My experience has been that the West Midlands is supportive of artists and many people here have been generous in sharing the benefit of their experience. Now, I want to take that knowledge and experience elsewhere to see how it sits in other contexts but also be able to bring something back to my peer network here. Establishing a solid base for ones’ practice is valuable, but so is having dialogue with other parts of the country too.

Fringe Arts Bath are friendly towards the type of high concept programming that I think my exhibition fits into – that can be seen in exhibitions they’ve previously programmed. The organisation tends to take over a mixture of art venues and other kinds of sites across the city. I’m awaiting confirmation of where my exhibition will be held but also looking forward to the possibility of working with a non-standard space. The festival offers lot of support to early-career curators which I was keen to make use of and, of course, Bath is a beautiful city in which to work!

How did you arrive at the subject of the exhibition?

It has largely grown out of my artistic practice. I’m slightly obsessed with surveillance culture – how, as a society, we have been entirely complicit with the exponential growth of public surveillance over the past few decades, and also the ways that process might have primed us to be enthusiastic about the way we now conduct a ‘social media surveillance’ of our own lives. I have exhibited work which played with the dynamics of surveillance at both Friction Arts and mac birmingham’s Cannon Hill Art School. Those works were about protest, politics and civil freedoms – topics which, for me, very much underpin some of the issues that are thrown up by the concept of hyper-reality. In the early 1980s, Baudrillard described hyper-reality as the point at which we can no longer reliably tell the difference between reality and fiction – a quick glance at what’s going on with politics suggests that we’ve now very much reached that point. My first degree was a film degree and I find documentary film theory helpful in getting a handle on this hyper-reality situation. ‘Diegetic’ refers to the narratives we create when we make images and videos. I’ve always thought that ‘putative’ is an ugly word but in this context it refers to the actual reality that is there before we start making images and creating narratives about our lives. This exhibition questions whether there is any difference any more between the reality of our lives and the narratives we create about our lives, or whether we are so far into the hyper-reality that we can no longer tell the difference.

What kind of artworks are you hoping to show?

I’m selecting via an open call and I’d like to have works in the show from both new media practices and more traditional art media. The ideas around the show feel very digital but the approach to them doesn’t have to be. An ideal scenario for me would be a counterpoint in the exhibition between still works and ones that either move or have a sense of movement, so I would definitely encourage submissions that use sound or performance. Even though there is an obviously political way to think about this exhibition, I’m also quite interested in more personal, perhaps more subtle, observations on the exhibition’s themes as much as works which have a statement to make.

How can artists apply to be part of the project?

Submissions are welcome in any medium that respond to the ideas outlined above about diegetic/screen-based life. The official call for artists can be found here and artists should email their proposals to diegetic@fringeartsbath.co.uk by Monday 27 March 2017.


The exhibition opens with the festival preview, from 6pm on 26 May 2017, and will then be open daily from 11am to 6pm until 12 June.

Jonathon Harris is preparing to curate his most ambitious exhibition to date at Fringe Arts Bath. Anneka French finds out more.