Artist Helen Kilby-Nelson discusses her research interests and working methodologies ahead of her exhibition at Coventry’s City Arcadia gallery at the end of August.




How has the residency at Coventry Art Space shaped your work?


My initial proposal for the residency included researching socially engaged art practice alongside developing how my own practice might fit under this umbrella term. As a social housing tenant I founded an action group in my local community in May 2018 and I have wrestled with whether this was something separate from my practice or a part of it. If it is a part of my practice how do I ensure an ethical and transparent relationship with fellow members? The time and support from Artspace trustees helped me to work through these questions and I have found that these two parts of me now sit comfortably with each other and with members of the action group. I finally gave myself permission to allow the socially engaged aspect of my work to grow organically without feeling the need to have a prescribed or time sensitive outcome.


The residency has allowed me to further develop my research-based practice which has manifested in a body of work that responds to stigma based on social housing. These two elements of my practice currently synthesise and weave in and out of each other in a non forced way. The residency has therefore helped shape my practice to incorporate various methods of working. I see my practice as multi-dimensional in terms of approach, process and outcome as I move forward.



What can visitors expect from the exhibition at City Arcadia?


The exhibition includes film, projected moving image, sculpture and text. The combined works are a layering of different forms of language, representing misinformation, learned behaviour, lived experience and the perpetuation of stigma both external and internal. The work focuses on cause, dissemination and effect.


As part of the exhibition I will also be running a workshop on Saturday 31 August, ‘re-imagining Monopoly’, as a creative tool  to address the challenges faced for marginalised groups within a hierarchical society.



Can you tell me more about the title of the exhibition?


A word, an insult I have come across through talking with other social housing tenants and one which I have been called myself is “leech”. There are so many assumptions wrapped up in this single word. Yet the leech is an incredible creature, some of the fascinating facts I discovered are that a leech can adapt to almost any environment, it is gender fluid and that it has 32 brains. It felt appropriate to take this negative imagery and subvert it as well as use a potent, visceral word that hints at supposed intelligent collective behaviours and instigators.



Can you tell me a bit more about your approach to the timely subject of social housing and its myriad political, economic and social associations?


I chose to approach this subject through an autoethnographic process, having been a social housing resident for over twenty years, feeling angry about poverty porn, misinformation about social housing tenants, the loss of autonomy and reduced life chances. Using my own experiences as a base from which to research other artists and collectives who have tackled issues around social housing and open dialogue with others, including housing providers, researchers, community workers, other social housing residents and the wider public. The hardest part has been unpicking the political, economic and social associations and how these all merge. There are elements of all three in the work but the main focus has been stigma and how that is created and the power it has.



How do you conduct your research and how are your works made manifest?


My research is rhizomatic including everyday observations, interactions, feelings and thoughts, conversations with friends and peers, philosophy, critical texts, art-works and artist links. My practice responds through writing and making throughout the process. I make multiple works in different media and the process can appear chaotic, however it creates a visual and written ongoing critical dialogue of itself. These instant responses to external interventions and internal thought processes maintain a state of flux, a constant questioning and production towards more resolved pieces of work.



What will you be working on next and how does this support longer term ambitions for your practice?


My practice will continue to question, respond to and act on issues within society that marginalise, dehumanise and perpetuate inequality and the cause and effect of these hierarchies, language and inequalities within society and on identity and life opportunities. My work in response to social housing doesn’t finish with this exhibition and I will continue to collaborate with fellow tenants in my local area to shift the balance of power. I am also planning a further period of self-guided research into hierarchies, cause and effect.


I have already begun working on an exciting project as part of my professional development with Black Hole Club at Vivid Projects that continues to experiment with language, this time through sound and methods of input.


Myself and artist Adam Neal, who has also been undertaking an Artspace graduate residency and is showing at City Arcadia, are working together on a ‘Graduate Toolkit’ which will add another dynamic to both our practices, as well as planning other collaborative projects.



29 August – 7 September 2019
Arcadia Gallery


Artist Helen Kilby-Nelson discusses her research interests and working methodologies ahead of her exhibition at Coventry’s City Arcadia gallery at the end of August.

Artist Adam Neal speaks about his autobiographical body of work exploring social class ahead of his exhibition ‘In Loving Memory Of’, opening at Coventry’s City Arcadia later this month.



How has the residency at Coventry Artspace shaped your work since you completed your BA at Birmingham City University?


After the completion of my Fine Art BA at Birmingham City University I was thrown into the mire of what real life art practice might look like. The residency with Coventry Artspace has aided in that adjustment and has given me a framework to work within that has directed the trajectory of my practice. The nature of my practice hasn’t changed greatly, however it has become more reflective, biographical and intimate. I’ve placed my own class construction and role as an artist under a microscopic lens within my practice, perhaps in an attempt to forge some form of identity and perhaps to continue this inquiry within social class. In terms of my process, my practice has become increasingly concerned with photography and its processes. This may have stemmed from time and financial constraints; nonetheless it has led me to an interesting point in my practice where I am now questioning the relevance and application of photography within issues of social-class representation and translation. The freedom of the Artspace residency has allowed me to shift my practice slightly, generate personal work that concisely comments on a myriad of social-class issues.



What can visitors expect from the exhibition at City Arcadia?


‘In Loving Memory Of’ will provide an insight into a fading way of life, that of the traditional working-class, whilst beginning to highlight how that exists amongst contemporary societal shifts. The exhibition will consist of photography, film and objects in order to create a form of amalgamated comment on the issues at hand. I anticipate the exhibition to be visually jarring to some degree, so that it mirrors the eclectic interior of my Nan’s house. Equally, I’m trying to mask or underplay the larger thematic at hand with somewhat playful visuals and display mechanisms, in the hope that everything attempted to be conveyed is done so in a palatable manner. I’m conscious of not wanting to become too preachy or patronising with this subject matter, so I’m actively trying to avoid this. Equally, a key attribute of working-class culture is its ability to use satire and self-deprecate to a certain extent so I do want this to be evident within the exhibition.



Your statement describes your approach as ‘generat[ing] work about the social, from within it.’ Can you unpick this a little?


This stemmed from an initial acknowledgement of my position as an artist, and also being cemented within a traditional working-class community. During my final year on my BA I wrote this statement because I was working part-time within a local social club and managing a local children’s football team therefore I was an active member of the community I was producing work about. I do not work in a social club anymore, however I do still manage the football team so I am still an active member of the community. Operating as an artist and producing work about this community placed me in a precarious area in terms of my identity and also conjured ethical implications. I deem this to have defined my approach, as I have never sought to document people directly, only objects and locations that talks for and about people. I’ve been constantly torn between two very contrasting worlds, the art world and the traditional working class environment I have been raised within, and I’ve been attempting to ameliorate the chasm between them. Although I’ve realise that at this point amelioration is some way off, and it’s more pertinent to acknowledge and comprehend first.


Do you feel that the body of work is a portrait of your family and/or yourself? Or is it more about a cultural and social moment in time?


Currently I do feel like the work is more of an autobiographical reflection and a translation on the issues I’m investigating. At this point in my practice I deem that to be an appropriate perspective to take on the subject, as my area of investigation stems from my relationships, environment and experiences. Therefore being able to fully understand how my perspective on social-class has been constructed underpins this current body of work and any future development. Additionally, presenting a more intimate and personal translation on the issues has the potential to the viewer to project their own relationships, perspectives and experiences onto the work. Although I’ve acknowledged the work is autobiographical, I do believe there can be wider cultural and social issues extracted from it, as it unpicks issues surrounding national identity and social mobility in small doses. The work needed to be personal in order for me to produce it in a concise and coherent way, however this body of work is only a departure point for work of this ilk and within this area of investigation.


 What are you working on next and what are your longer-term goals for your work?


Saturday 17 August, sees John Hammersley (artist and chair of Coventry Artspace) and myself engage in an ‘In Conversation With’ event, at Arcadia, Coventry. This will be a conversation that challenges social class construction and its placement within a creative context. Whilst Saturday 7 September will see Helen Kilby Nelson and myself run an open workshop titled ‘What do Artists do all Day?’ where we will be discussing the transition between graduate artist to practising artist and how you bridge that gap.


Once my exhibition and residency finishes with Coventry Artspace I will be undertaking a Graduate Residency with Grand Union in Birmingham, I will be starting a Film and Photography MA at the University of Derby in September and producing new work for an exhibition with Ort Gallery early next year. Crucially, as a result of the residency Helen Kilby Nelson and myself have started working collaboratively and have devised what we deem to be a crucial project around graduate artists and residency programming, and we believe this project proposal has real impetus.


Longer-term I want to continue the investigation into social class and its placement within a creative context, and to be able to draw on public issues within my practice. Currently my work is heavily autobiographical and I have been questioning how far this goes to making comments on the wider, more public issues. I am undertaking this MA on a part-time basis, so that I can maintain a practice outside of this and also bridge the gap between academia and the ‘real-world’, in a hope that this will allow me to produce work that creates more considered social statements that reverberate outside of my own social sphere and understanding.


‘In Loving Memory Of’
Arcadia, Coventry
Opening: 15 August 6pm – 8pm
Continues: 16 – 24 August 2pm – 6pm Daily (except Sundays)

Artist Adam Neal speaks about his autobiographical body of work exploring social class ahead of his exhibition ‘In Loving Memory Of’, opening at Coventry’s City Arcadia later this month.