Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Adventures in France

Between 2nd and 4th April 15 artists were selected to take part in the Fabrica /NAN research and networking trip to Lille. Lucky for me that I was one of them, and could extend the Year of Finding Spaces in the City for Art to France, and see what is happening in the Northern Region of the country.
The 15 of us met at the beautiful new St. Pancras station on Wednesday morning, along with Emilia Telese (an artist and NAN representative), Guyan Porter (Artist and representative for the Scottish Artist's Union) and 5 of Fabrica's members.
We took the amazingly quick Eurostar to Lille station where the adventures began.
Our first stop was to visit La Vitrine - which is an independent artist run gallery in La Madeleine district.Gallery Director, Solange Piatek met with us to talk about the galleries ethos, which is to be a space where artists can take risks, investigate new directions for their work, and experiment. The Gallery shows both early career and more established artists, and has become known as a place where new stars are discovered. The Gallery is part of the 50 degrees north artist network. It is a petite (note the French) space, but the 22 of us happily fit inside. Above you can see Guyan Porter, Matthew Miller (artist and co-director of Fabrica) Daniel Simpkins (Artist) and Laurence Hill (Executive Assistant at Fabrica) looking out of the window of the gallery.

From there we travelled across to La Malterie.
This fantastic maze of a building used to be an old brewery, and now operates as a space at the cutting edge of French art practice - and demonstrates all that is good about what is happening in the area. Over 30 artists benefit from spacious studios within the building, and print-making facilities and photographic darkrooms. La Malterie also houses a gallery, and a bar where we saw a double bass player tuning up for the evening's performance.
Caitlin Heffernan (Fabrica) looking at Samuel Buckman's video in La Malterie Gallery.
La Malterie has a residency programme which is housed in the impressive space at the top of the building, known as 'The Plateau'. The artist's resource centre within La Malterie provides advice and development opportunities, and operates a policy that the artists receiving advice and information contribute and exchange information of their own with others, perpetuating the belief in a supportive system. It was this which particularly struck me, and really got my mind racing...But more about that later.
We were welcomed into the Malterie with the special biscuits (gaufres) and coffee that would become so familiar over the 3 days, as a number of the artists opened their studios for us, and were very generous in showing us their work and talking through their ideas.
Laurent Rigaut showed us the assemblage he is working on at the moment. He uses only found materials, which he brings into the studio and arranges into configurations, using sound and light. The middle cloud was flashing on and off in an irregular pattern, and there was a dripping sound.

Sebastien Bruggeman was busy working on a drawing. He said each drawing takes him hours to complete, I couldn't tell whether he said 14 or 40, but either way, it's a long time. They take so long because each one is made of human hair and what Sebastien described as 'school glue.' He takes Japanese manga as his inspiration, tracing parts of animations together, and building new objects and creatures. He had a mini-exhibition prepared, which consisted of the bureau and small chair and a few of his pieces. The spiders are made of schoolgirl's legs. His new idea is to take posters and erase the subject except for their hair. This is what Amelia Crouch (Artist and Gallery Manager for Project Space Leeds) is discussing with him above.
Carol Levy's sculptures could be seen as propositions for buildings. In particular he showed us a Stag, which we were all amazed to see. He talked about what it would be like to have his stag building built in China for the olympics. He also talked about his deeply felt concern that art practice should not be all about the head - and that spirit and body are just as important for a full and successful practice. In this way, he said, it is important to him that he has time in his studio to work, but that there is also time to dance.
Fred Martin is one of the longest standing La Malterie members, having been installed in his studio there for 13 years. Fred has been making head casts for a while now. He initially made casts of his own head, but the project has become a very successful tool for collaborating with and engaging others. He first has to prepare the clay, and get it really soft before he can make his cast. In some ways the preparation process which he goes through with the clay is mirrored in the interactions he makes, when working with others. He first has to build up trust in order to get the individual's full cooperation, before plunging their head into the clay and holding it their for a number of seconds. The photographs of Fred pressing people into clay look somehow shocking and violent. The following photograph of the person emerging from the clay however, always reveals an enormous smile from the participant.
We also visited the Qubo Gas studio. You can see their funny website at www.qubogas.com
they are Jef, Laura and Morgan, a colourful drawing collective, who make all sorts of drawings together, always collaborating with each other in a very free and intuitive way.
And after seeing all of these wonderful artists in their surroundings we all popped upstairs for a glass of La Goudale (a delicious local beer at 7%) and some popcorn.

If you are still reading by this point, then well done - I got quite carried away about La Malterie, because it really was such a great place. The next day we were to take the train to Valenciennes in order to visit L'H du Siege, which I was told means the H of the chair, but also refers to the hospital that is nearby. This was really to be the main event of the trip - a symposium which aimed to talk about partnerships between artist-run initiatives on both sides of the channel, and look at the cultural differences and approaches. In the morning there were presentations by both representatives from Fabrica and L'H du Siege, and Guyan Porter and Emilia Teleese, talked about the projects they are involved with in the U.K. The comparison was completed by Vincent Victor Jouffe and Laurent Moszkowicz, who discussed the activities of FRAAP and its regional branch the CRI Nord-Pas-de-Calais. The points raised through the symposium will continue to be deliberated over at http://sites.a-n.co.uk/artists_talking/projects/single/423184
so I will not go into too much detail here.
Lunch - lots of wine lead to a table signing opportunity. After lunch, with the helpful lubrication of the wine the morning's events were discussed in heated detail. The job of bi-lingual translater Stephen Wright became more difficult, as sentences and paragraphs got longer and longer, and seemed to be more emotional and personal as time went on. Much was lost in translation, but the discussion seemed to include the differences in approaches when working as an advocate for artists, providing support, or opportunities as a curator or manager.
The French end of the table expressed an idea that it could be seen as strange to discuss one's supporting or managerial endeavours in relation to one's own practice, as they prefer to keep the two activities entirely separate - the word narcissism was used but at that point I went to the toilet, so missed the resolution of the arguement.
After the presentations Jo Lathwood showed us around the little house where she is to spend the next 3 months while she completes her residency at L'H du Siege. Her progress can be followed at http://sites.a-n.co.uk/artists_talking/projects/single/423070
The residency is named Coup De Pouce which means elbow in the right direction - and refers to its aim of giving an emerging artist a chance to explore an element of their practice in a safe and supportive environment.

Friday morning we were on our way to Gambetta to visit Le Centre d'Arts plastiques et Visuels, to look at the Dimitri Vazemsky exhibition and receive a tour of the center.
Dimitri Vazemsky's Rogue Rouge.

The show was a network of clues and hidden messages, which we had a good time trying to decypher. He had even left a message for Fabrica on his post-it note wall. We left a reply.

We visited the artist resource room, where there were plenty of books and other information. Marie-Joseph Pilette (Director) explained that the room was soon to be redesigned, and that the exhibition space would become the resource centre while that process gets underway, and that the process of changing the space would almost become an exhibit during that time.
Our final stop in the whirlwind tour was a visit to Tourcoing's Musee des Beaux Arts. This was an optional visit, and the lure of French supermarkets, cheese and blonde beer almost won out, but Laurence Hill recommended the visit, saying it really was not to be missed, and he was right. Curator Pascal Favrel met us at the Museum in order to talk about his curatorial role. He immediately explained that their idea was to mix the classical treasures from the Museum's collection with the work of contemporary artists, creating new, surprising and exciting relationships between the works.
This, he said was his favourite room. He described seeing the deflated hot air balloon, a piece by a contemporary French artist working with readymades, and knowing that the colours would work beautifully with the painting on the left, which was held in the Museum's collection. Pascal openly described the curatorial processes that are engaged with throughout the Museum. The decisions made are often playful, unpressured and intuitive. The narrative that unfolds through the space is not burdened by meaning and theory - allowing the works to breathe and exist together. The approach is wholely refreshing, and a real treat for the viewer.
In one room there will be a series of works involving pigs, and in another a bronze figure appears to be looking at a painting or staring out to sea.
There was a room where a number of visual puns involving heads by Markus Raetz were seen together.
One bronze piece which looked like twigs attached to the wall, revealed itself to be a head looking at a ball from one particular angle, and the piece on the plinth showed what a shaking head would look like in a photograph with a long exposure.
The site specific pieces in the hallway were so beautifully and sensitively placed, and reflected the Museum's commitment to supporting local French artists (We saw a piece by Sebastien Bruggeman - the hair man from La Malterie on a pillar).
The Museum has a vibrant and active education programme, regularly welcoming classes from institutes of all ages, while we were there there was a group of tiny people enjoying a tour of the exhibition. Pascal described the really enjoyable seminars with students from the local art school which are held on the Museum's staircase, he explained that the students fill the stairs while the discussion is held. I wonder if they realise how priviledged they are to work in such beautiful and relaxed surroundings.
Then we had a rest stop in Rirkrit Tiravanija's installation room, designed as an artist's relax space, there was a fridge (which Pascal explained is usually full of cold drinks) some comfortable chairs and a table football game.
Pascal also said that the artist usually stipulates that there should be pop art on the walls of the space, to encourage the relaxed and carefree environment, but that the Museum does not have any such works in their collection, so a compromise was found with some colourful pattern paintings.
We got into the swing of things by lounging about on the sofa and playing the footaball game. Score nil/nil. Pascal can be seen on the left, talking about the artist's intentions for the room.
Jo Lathwood Looking at Stephane Couturier's photograph.
Having visited many art galleries and museums I must say that this has to have been one of the most enjoyable visits I have had the priviledge to take, this must be mainly attributed to Pascal's fantastic tour, and the truely accessible feeling, and beautiful architecture of the Museum. I will certainly return to the Museum in the future.

And so our adventure was almost over. We collected our bags from the hotel and returned to Lille International train station once more, where we just had time to fit in an evaluation of the trip before getting the train home with our newfound friends.
All that remains is to say a massive THANK YOU to Fabrica and NAN, and their French counterparts for organising the trip. THANK YOU to the French artists and curators who were so generous with their time and open with their spaces, and THANK YOU to the wonderful artists from the U.K. that I was so priviledged to meet.
Lasting notions from the trip seem to be that in France and in the U.K. there are groups of people who believe in sharing information, resources and skills in order to provide support for the growing network of artists. We saw the benefits that this openness can bring, and the absolute sense that it makes .

The trip has got me thinking about where I live, Stoke-on-Trent.
We are a city that is around ten years behind most other post-industrial cities (like Lille) in the regeneration process and in many ways this is reflected in the lack of opportunities for artists and creative people in the area. It feels that things are beginning to happen in Stoke, Art galleries are opening, and groups are forming, and we even have Axis art and music festival which is in its second year. What we need is a way of pooling our resources, and keeping track of what our city has to offer. As well as this a philosophy of support should be encouraged, because at times being a creative person in this city, one can feel isolated and unsure of where to go for advice. The trip has really showed me that we need an artist's resource centre in Stoke-on-Trent, like the ones we saw at La Malterie and Le Centre d'Arts plastiques et Visuels in Gambetta, and which the Fabrica team described in their presentation. It has shown that though we may be behind in the regeneration process, this can be seen as an advantage - we can learn from others that have been in this situation how to ensure that art and culture are at the heart of the processes of renewal.
We can view the activities in La Malterie et al as best practice models for our development, the knowledge and guidance gained from this will become invaluable as we move forward.
How exciting.

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