From a conversation between Jason&Becky(J&B), artists, and Amanda Roderick, on 30 January 2018 at Mission Gallery, Swansea.
Jason&Becky have been involved with Mission Gallery since they were students on the BA Fine Art course at Swansea College of Art (2010-13), and collaborations have evolved through one off live performance, offsite projects, group shows, workshops, international residencies and a solo exhibition. Since October 2016, Mission Gallery has been the industry partner for Jason Cartwright’s PhD in partnership with Swansea College of Art. Becky Williams’ PhD industry partner is Coastal Housing. Connecting their research focuses, while creating collaborative opportunities between artists, audiences and linking the three cultural, social and educational organisations has been key. http://www.uwtsd.ac.uk/research/art-and-design-research/kess-ii-scholars/
Philosophy by its nature is fluid, you must be able to change it as times and attitudes change. But if what you set up is fixed, then you can never change and you become stuck. If your space or building can’t adapt to the evolving ideas your group may have, it becomes really difficult.
J:What I am looking at is the relationship between the gallery and the artist and the community. Essentially, what happens between the artist and the type of work they make in the community and whether making a certain type of work outside of the gallery is more likely to encourage the participants to attend or visit cultural events throughout the year. That’s mainly because there is research to suggest that a certain amount of hours of contact with cultural organisations in a year will increase people’s wellbeing scores. And whether there is a certain type of work in a community setting that may be more likely to encourage that to happen?
Our collaboration with the people in Sketty is driven by the idea is that art is a difficult place to jump into. We are all wary of seeing and experiencing work that we do not understand, or going to places that are a bit weird and we are not used to. The interest for us is whether certain types of work, that specifically involve encountersfor people – an encounterbeing a point of mild trepidation or excitement, where they may not really understand what is going on, but not in an unsettling way – whether that kind of engagement with the work and will enthuse people into going to more cultural events.
Galleries can do more by commissioning more of that type of work, not only for their own organisations, but to encourage visits to others as well. I think there is a benefit there for everybody. A lot of the time, when we talk about the impact of this work, the outcome period is too short. There needs to be a longer-term evaluation about how people react to work. When someone participates in a community project, for example, the record and evaluation of it, and when that individual comes back to a gallery, or engages in other cultural activity, is often a very short reflection. Evaluation can also be very self-centred. If you haven’t encouraged them to go to other cultural events and venues and they only return to Mission Gallery, for example, or that visit may be a one off. Encouraging and introducing them to lots of things or by showing them work which may inspire them to do similar activity means more likelihood that they may return, more regularly and repeatedly.
We will be trying to create these encounters,but how that manifests in the community and how they react to it, is what we will be finding out. I think it is really brave of Mission Gallery to do this (PhD placement) and a good example of how an organisation can gain so much from ‘sticking its neck out’, raising its game in this way. There are huge benefits from doing it. It’s a shame that some of the bigger organisations, with additional resources and capacity don’t do more work in this area.
J:We talked about having a philosophy and how that philosophy drives things, but it should also be flexible if it’s a good one? So if you are a group or an organisation, that philosophy guides you in the beginning to set something up. Philosophy by its nature is fluid, you must be able to change it as times and attitudes change. But if what you set up is fixed, then you can never change and you become stuck.
If your space or building can’t adapt to the evolving ideas your group may have, it becomes really difficult. Imagine things without any fixed buildings – it would make the logistics of finding space very difficult.
B:But it can give you opportunities that you can’t have without a building.
J:You can’t have a gallery without a reason, must have the philosophy to drive it. You don’t just open the doors of a gallery for no reason. Most galleries are set up to serve a community and my research is looking at how effective that is in a fixed situation – so how a gallery works in the community, as well as having a fixed space by itself.
B:When you are working in the community as we are – I mean just meeting people and having a space to do that – this is an issue we are facing at present. The site and the architecture are important in that respect. So even if you are not using the gallery as a space where you meet with your community, you do need another space of some kind.
J:So what we are looking at now is being the gallery representative outside of the gallery space – so we are the gallery.
B:We are the architecture in this case then, I suppose. Or maybe an extension of it. That can be problematic though!
J:This is where a strong philosophy is important. You can take the philosophy that Mission Gallery has and go out into the community – you don’t need a building for that. You just need the people.
J:You have got to have something at the core of what you are doing. Not just the artwork itself but a drive to do something in a certain way or you get a bit lost otherwise, I think? Lost in what you are trying to achieve and it gets a bit muddled in its translation to other people.
J:We learnt a lot from CIVIC*. We all felt the main work was taking place outside of the gallery, but having to have something in the gallery, has made it easier to know how projects could happen in future. We did a walk – so the work was naturally done outside – but we had to put something inside the gallery space as well. Knowing that our practice develops in that way makes it much easier now – especially with the Sketty project. To envisage work that is simultaneously connected to place and us and the people who are involved at the gallery, at the same time, without the gallery being an afterthought.
B:There is a certain amount of time you have to spend at a place I think, before you can feel properly connected to it. Instead of just visiting, to be firmly embedded in a place, so you can feel you can respond to it.
J:I suppose that is what is happening in Sketty now isn’t it? We are only just starting and there is possibly a bit of mistrust. We are just getting to know each other for a period of time.
B:We are just strangers at the moment.
J:I think some organisations thrive on partnership and others just don’t get on with it really. As an artist you tend to be a little bit in the middle and it helps if you can negotiate that ground. I don’t know if that is right or wrong. I certainly feel that as an artist you are able to be more agile than organisations. It’s difficult for big institutions – like the City Council – to move the goal posts so easily. That makes it challenging for the artist then as well, I guess. Mission is very good at being able to be agile.
B:Do you think then that a bigger organisation expects or needs artists to be more malleable or flexible? Or should it be equal?
J:I think it scares the hell out of them. I think they have become so institutionalised, it scares them, being flexible.
J:The Festival project with Doug Ashford last September* is really good example of how two very different organisations can touch briefly and successfully. There is mutual benefit. Brand and philosophy, its interesting – the Swansea Festival brand is different to Mission’s, but in certain places they can overlap, and take part of each others brand, and create something new. If Mission tried to fit in underneaththe Festival or another other organisation it would not work. If an organisation tries to oversee everything and others have to come in underneath it doesn’t work. Organisations have to overlap at the edges a bit? Take a little bit from each other and go their separate ways again.
B:The ones that don’t work, you can’t force them. You have to accept it won’t work well with everybody. You have to work with the people who have the same aims – or at least overlapping aims – who are open and prepared to work like that.
J:Those aims might be really small and not your complete aims as an organisation – it’s like a Venn diagram. You cross over with some aims – you’ll do one little thing but not all your philosophy is in tune with the other organisation.
B:Sometimes I don’t understand them and I don’t know what’s going on – the things that have to happen to make a partnership work. There are so many factors. Some are really big and sometimes when you are an artist and not involved in all of that discussion, there are conversations where you don’t know what people are talking about. Because they are planning and talking about it to prepare – you have missed some of that aspect?
J:Do you think that when that happens it is because the organisation itself is unclear about its philosophy. That only happens for me when there is an umbrella organisation that is unclear what they are doing – it isn’t easy for you as an artist to see where you fit in then. Part of the frustration you are talking about is when you read long emails waffling around a subject because they don’t know and don’t understand themselves? Often because they have become so big. Any business when it becomes so big, it is very difficult to instil those values across every person involved.
B: I also think that it is very easy to forget that if you have been working on a partnership project for a while and someone comes in who doesn’t know anything about it, it’s easy to forget that they haven’t been involved in the whole process. That can happen to artists when joining a project, and it can be very confusing, as you don’t really know what’s expected of you.
J:That’s definitely an agenda thing. Being unsettled, manipulated, pulled different ways by different organisations agenda’s.
J:Here in Swansea, I’m sure in other places as well the problems are like all other artist run galleries, spaces, etc. They are in constant need of updating either physical refurbishments or in terms of tenancy. No one knows from one day to the next if they are going to be there. Short-term leases, buildings that are falling down, buildings that are damp, cold, or don’t lend themselves to any kind of making activity. I think that’s symptomatic of the many of problems in the art world, but in Swansea particularly. There is no economy, no art economy. It starts with that –there is no security anywhere.
B:Yes, and it’s not just about the smaller galleries and organisations, working alongside larger arts venues. External partnerships are important there too. Because if you can partner outside of the arts, then you are going to be in a stronger position. You can argue the case outside the arts, as to why you should be there.
J:The other thing that is important is that we don’t hang onto one model for how things should work. We shouldn’t just look at the way that a certain organisation runs and just think that’s better, that’s successful, so we’ll replicate it lots of times. That’s the conversation Swansea Studios seem to be having with the Council at the moment – just because a particular arts organisation is being run in a certain way, what benefit do we get if there is no diversity at all amongst organisations in the city? It is important that we do not say they are run better, they are just different.
Maybe the Council have an obligation to support groups and organisations that operate in a less economically sustainable way too? Not everything can be sustainable in that way, but that doesn’t mean it is not right, good, or can’t provide benefit to artists – it might be doing good exactly because it isunsustainable. Because it has more freedom and it is not tied into all those issues? It is extremely complex.
J:‘They’ are looking for ‘value’. But the definition of value is to them, attached to money, a monetary thing, which value is not. That is what Becky has been researching.
B:Whereas Jason’s research is to do with the encounter, and the role that the gallery can play between communities in getting people to visit and participate, my research is more to do with how you evaluate such arts projects – and how that could potentially be carried out in a better way than it is currently. An example of what happens now might be that an artist gets funding from, let’s say, the Arts Council. They would apply for the funding, then receive money, then carry out the project and evaluate how it went at the end. I feel that will largely be a personal response to the project, often evaluated in a way that justifies what you have had the funding for. I think that the evaluation process itself could perhaps benefit more people than it does currently, making it a worthwhile process instead of a process that feels like a pointless, bureaucratic one.
You must show evidence of fulfilling funding requirements, so you say what happened and how well it went for two reasons; you want to justify it and also maybe you want to secure future funding? You obviously want to talk about how well the project went but currently I don’t feel that there is a place for artists who are working on different projects in different places at the same time to come together and talk about what went wrong and the things that did and didn’t work. So you send off your evaluation to the Arts Council and that’s the end of it – the circle never completes. You never get anything back in terms of feedback. And that is really what I am looking at with this PhD research – how that could potentially be different. How might the community become more involved in that process? So I’m looking, sort of, into a collaborative evaluation – but I want to look at a bit deeper than that. How can the evaluation process be more cyclical? And how can it reach further than it already does?
J:And that goes back to the value thing because I know you have been looking at it. And that has become to mean something different than is does at present.
B:Yes, and my evaluation is not about evaluating in monetary terms, which is how you would traditionally and typically respond to justifying something in terms of value – economically. This is where evaluation in the Arts is currently coming under scrutiny, with more and more calls to ‘evidence impact’. Something like wellbeing, for instance, which the arts are proven to benefit, has to be measured in a different way. It’s more difficult, not as easily quantifiable.
Investigating the socio-economic and socio-political condition, Jason & Becky work collaboratively to address a number of questions regarding our current human and social state. Through their practice, interventions and socially engaging experiments, they explore and provoke reactions, often with no pre-determined outcomes. They challenge perceptions and aim to engage participants, blurring boundaries and pushing limits through interaction – often resulting in revealing insights into human relationships, questioning the judgements, beliefs, awareness, appreciation and understanding of others. Viewers and participants are often challenged to rethink their relationships to one another and their surroundings, confronting altered situations and simulated environments designed to create the uncertainty of internal dispute.
Image: Jason&Becky at Casa Dell’Ospitalita, S’Alvise, Venice, 2016