The Conjunction 2010 art biennial for Stoke-on-Trent wound up on Saturday 27th November, after 6 weeks of marvellous art on show, plus a number of artist's talks, workshops and supporting events. This year I had been asked to come aboard the curatorial team. Research and development had been successfully applied for and the group worked with an arts manager to develop ourselves as a group - and think about what our strengths are and also which areas we need to work on. This was very beneficial for me, as it gave me a real sense of what the group was about, but also where I might fit in. As a very busy artist and lecturer I have to be really careful about what I get involved in - especially when it comes to voluntary work (like this). It is important as a volunteer to feel that you are getting as much out of the activity you are supporting as it is getting from you. The development time gave me the opportunity to understand what I wanted to gain from involvement in Conjunction as well as giving me a chance to set out what I had to offer.
It became clear that attention needs to be paid to audience development and evaluation, amongst other things - these are areas which I feel I have experience in, but I did not wish to just look after these two areas - my interests at the moment are in exploring the capabilities of Live Art, and so I wanted to be given a chance to focus on programming a live art element for Conjunction. The closing event on 27th then would be a Live Art Event.
Conjunction as a whole was curated using two strategies. The curatorial team discussed the theme and suggested individual artists who they wished to see involved. These names were bandied about until a list was agreed upon by all. There was also an open call process as well. This was important to all of us - as only sticking to selecting people we know/have heard of could result in Conjunction becoming stale - having an open call allows space for surprises and hidden gems to appear.
Conjunction 2010 had a lot less funding than its 2008 counterpart. In 2008 there was more than £80,000 successfully found from a variety of sources. Due to the group reshuffle, and time spent on development, we were short on time to actually bid for and find money - so the final funding amount was closer to £15,000 - obviously a significant difference. For that reason we decided to programme a variety of events and also select some ready made works (cheaper fee for the artist than new commissions). This means that, though a significant reduction in funding, we hope there was not a corollary reduction in quality.
My main focus was on insuring that there was a healthy live art element in the general program, but I also wanted there to be a specific day dedicated to Live Art, so in addition to the artists already on board we also put out a call for other artists that might wish to come along and get involved.So, on the 27th we got ourselves ready for a Conjunction First - The Live Art Event.
The day kicked off with myself and artist Katie Shipley making our way to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, one of the Conjunction venues. Katie works at the Museum and makes the journey from the museum to AirSpace Gallery daily - and yet many of those visiting the Museum to look at the art works there never venture across the road to visit AirSpace. Katie's piece journey would aim to draw attention to her daily journey, and hopefully encourage others to take the trip.On arrival at the Museum guests were requested to sign in (for monitoring purposes) the sheet they were signing was actually artist Carl Gent's petition to twin Stoke-on-Trent with Stephen's Quintet (a star) one of the commissioned works for the program. They would then be given a balloon to tie to themselves.At around 2.10pm we then all set off in single file from the Museum to take Katie's Journey.Everyone filed across the road to AirSpace in a line, it was interesting how solemn everyone was in this strange procession of balloon holders. Once inside the gallery Yoke and Zoom were there ready to give out Real Ale, brought from a brewery down the road from them in Worcester. Their work sought to create a space for convivial conversation - an escape through community and alcohol. The room was soon full of chat and laughter.Suddenly a fire alarm sounded, and everyone was encouraged to make their way out through the side fire escape. This was actually a ruse to move the group on to the next piece, a collaboration between Nathaniel Pitt and Various Artist as part of their Motel Kandinski series - Fire Assembly. Early that morning the artists had come along to lay a red carpet on the fire escape (in the snow - that's dedication!) As the audience filed out of the building there was a hold up - the fire escape had been turned into a waiting area like the type you find outside a high class night club - with a suitably bolshy bouncer allowing the great and the good through, while making the rabble wait. Ben from Juneau Projects was denied access completely, for wearing trainers. And what were we queueing for? We were queuing to get out of the gallery and for the opportunity to stand around shivering in the AirSpace car park, waiting to sign the Motel Kandinski guest book. The premise of this piece involves a confusion of the senses - sound (fire alarm) and smell (smoke pumped into the hallway) - referencing the fact that Kandinski was a synaesthetic and then expectation - the notion of selection introduced and favouritism - I was brought to the front of the queue by the bouncer and given VIP access.
We then made our way around to Dazed (local independent skate shop). They have a gallery space upstairs which artist Emily Candela was using for her piece 'Bleed'. Bleed involved a square of around 3 metres squared being marked out on the ground, and then a four piece punk band being contained inside - and playing a set.The effect of this piece was interesting and uncomfortable. As a viewer I felt uncomfortable - a Saturday afternoon, very little alcohol, an arts audience standing politely around, watching an extremely angry performance. The lead singer struggled to contain himself within the red lines - and reminded me of a caged lion pacing and thrashing about in its cage - pent up energy denied release.
The next stop on the live art tour saw us descent finally into madness. The journey we were taking started in a very respectable civic art space, and then we seemed to step further and further into fantasy.
Artist Adam James had taken over an old hairdressers, filling it with piles of old clothes - creating a fabulously deranged landscape. As we arrived on the street where the space is I was surprised to find the madness leaking out onto the street, and not being contained within the space - in relation to what we had just seen the energy here was oozing out in all directions. Adam James had assembled a troupe of performers, musicians and VJs - creating a world of fallen heroes - gods, now crazed run amok in the old hairdressers. Each god had their name printed on the back of their coat - like boxers. Displayed on the walls were details of each character - telling us about them as gods and then relating them to a more contemporary [fallen?] hero. Each character was wrapped up in their own revelry - occasionally interacting with each other and implicating the audience equally in the excesses. Feeding each other alcohol and ambrosia, screaming, crying, bawling - sometimes one of them would try to take you aside and get you involved in their particular brand of madness. All of this was accompanied by a backdrop pf music making, and digital visuals being beamed onto the walls - a bombardment of the senses was completed by the stench of rotting textiles.At first our happy band of live art revellers seemed to enjoy the experience - laughing at the 'performers' commenting on the repetitive nature of their ramblings. Then everyone was herded upstairs into a small space - where the gods became even more exaggerated in their behaviours - almost egged on by their captive audience. At this stage a number of people left, feeling it was too much. I think we were in the Hairdressers for less than an hour, but time stood still in that time. We were voyeurs in a crazy world, but unable to remain passive - as the performers demanded a reaction. This was the species of vagabond that is found in cities - no social inhibitions remain, they demand attention, food, wine, whatever.
I enjoyed it, but I was glad to leave. We made our way back to AirSpace for the final part of the day, a Juneau Brothers Performance. On the way back, feeling rather affected, we passed a trio of people with a big suitcase. 'Do you want to escape?' They called to us.
How odd I thought - we are escaping already! I started to tell them about the conjunction live art day, and they said 'we know, that's why we're her - we're the fringe!'A selection of postcards was held out for each of us to take - each one had the name of a place on it - I got Fingringhoe. Then they opened the big suitcase and gave you a keyring with the place name on it - and you were asked to draw what you thought the place would look like - based solely on it's name - creating a small space to escape in your mind to that place. Then I had to agree to send back the postcard if I ever get to Fingringhoe...
I was really pleased that this group had turned up to offer escapes - having a Fringe of unsolicited activity for me means that Conjunction is something that people really want to be a part of.
Back at the gallery The Juneau Brothers played us out with gusto.
Using their home made technological instruments they gave us a handful of songs which were amazing in their construction - we were given a special insight into how the instruments sound without Phil's digital intervention. The surprising thing for me is that I am not that keen on electronic music - but this is not just technically amazing - but lyrically beautiful too. The songs are rooted in a folk sensibility - talking about Pottery and Owls - and sounding like heaven.
It was a wonderful end to a really exciting Biennial - and something I am proud to now be a part of.
Since the event there has been some discussion about the works which we saw and experienced. Some found the Adam James piece too much, saying it was frivolous or disrespectful of those with mental illness. One person said - I was expecting it to be about homeless people - not people with mental illness. The truth is that many homeless people do suffer with mental illness - and what I think is very important about the work is that it draws attention to the way that we happily ignore their existence. The other thing it questions is the notion of acceptable behaviour. These gods are cavorting without inhibition - drinking, dancing, flaunting, shamelessly.
To celebrate the end of Conjunction we went out for a few ales, and then to a curry house. The place was full of people enjoying a Saturday night in town, and the group on the table next to us were enjoying themselves more than most, one woman slipped off her mega-high heels and fell flat on her face, laughing as she went. Then her friend began to vomit under the table. And there we have it - the reason why Adam James' performance is truely relevant to us today - holding up a mirror to the ordinary debauched activity going on in our city centres every weekend.
I am not moralising on it - I am sure I do it myself - but I am saying that this is why work like this should exist, adn should be seen in the middle of the afternoon.