Surface Arts DIY exhibition

Outside the White Cube: Surface Arts DIY exhibition engages with alternative spaces

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The DIY exhibition in Exeter has seen artists collaborate to create new work and new opportunities, organisers Surface Arts explain how the exhibition came together and how important events like these are in the current economic climate

Surface Arts DIY exhibition

What is the DIY exhibition?
A way to engage with alternative spaces in order to develop artistic practice outside of the ‘White Cube’ and an inquiry into artist-led movements within this current time. This stretched not only to how the art work was produced, but also to how the entire project was developed from day to day.

This show explores this increased separation of production from use and perhaps suggests new ways to intervene in the cycle and enjoy the creative benefits of ‘doing it yourself’ instead.

It gives focus to the process of making and the passion and time that is undertaken by an artist during the construction process. The potential of the space and reusing the discarded objects is not only a metaphor for transforming nothing into something, it is also a reflection of our financial climate in using what is provided.

Surface Arts DIY exhibition

How did the DIY exhibition come together?
DIY was initiated by Surface Arts, who formed a partnership with Book Cycle to develop the exhibition. Another partner was made through EVA Studios, who provided their project space and facilities for the artists, therefore giving a clean space with electricity and WiFi or simply another place for reflection.

Few of the parties involved had previously worked together and this demonstrated flexibility, collaboration and willingness to learn throughout the process. This exhibition couldn’t have succeeded without all the sponsorship we acquired to facilitate the running of the project, such as the artists’ accommodation during the residency, lunch, bus travel, equipment and help from volunteers.

The exhibition is truly collaborative in all senses of the word.

Surface Arts DIY exhibition

How difficult was it finding a venue?
The venue was found through the well rehearsed and trusted word-of-mouth method and was recommended by a friend and director of EVA as a place to investigate. We were introduced to a member of Book Cycle, who was very keen and interested in supporting art activity, especially for the warehouse, so after a few meetings to discuss how to develop the concept we excitedly put the call out to artists interested in developing site-specific work.

Surface Arts DIY exhibition

You mention that the exhibition aims to question artist-led activities within this time of financial instability and asks if this way of creating new independent opportunities is now becoming essential. What’s different for artists now, than say five or 10 years ago?
DIY is a reflection of our current financial climate in using what is provided, supporting the attitude of making do and making the most of what we’ve got. We are not saying that using reclaimed or found objects and ‘turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse’ is a new concept just that the context in which it is being done is perhaps changing?

The financial climate is much more difficult to negotiate and funding has become much less accessible. It has seen and will see further changes to how it was five or 10 years ago. We have become dependent on this assumption of a strong financial support for the arts through government and commercial funding. This has massively helped to develop our culture and identity internationally, enabling us to take a lead in the arts, but this level of funding cannot be sustained forever.

For artists, basic financial difficulties like the rent prices of properties and studios has increased, which often inhibits their practice, practical restraints such as time and working space. For organisers, finding the opportunities to create shows in existing galleries or other venues has become harder, largely due to how many are struggling to stay open.

We may be entering a period more resonant to the artistic production of the 1970’s; similar to methods from Arte Povera and Process Art, questioning these postmodernist roots and re appropriating this to our generation with ideas from Nicholas Bourriaud’s Altermodern theory. Artistic production won’t cease but the methods of production may just change. Artists are a resilient bunch and are fundamental to shaping the future.

The DIY artists worked on their own initiatives with limited funds, in keeping with the ideas behind the project. All conveniences throughout their stay were sourced through sponsorship and a positive attitude, which encouraged community spirit to support this grass roots project. The artists were provided with all their needs such as accommodation, food and travel etc. through ‘in kind’ support.

They were offered other valuable experiences such as networking opportunities, professional mentoring and invitations to events from Exeter’s art community. This project, therefore, generated an alternative monetary system throughout this period to enable this concept to become a reality. Although we would like to have the ability to respect the time and efforts of these professionals through wages this project simply presents an alternative way to ‘make’ and ‘do’.

Surface Arts DIY exhibition

For the artists and the organisers how important was it for you to source the material on site?
It was absolutely vital that the exhibition was strongly directed by the materials found on site. The work produced was truly responsive to the site made out of the contents of the site, therefore making the two inseparable and the same, in turn creating its own layer of historical value in the warehouse.

The artists’ interactions with the warehouse, both its materials and the space were used to create ‘site- specific’ pieces, making the location a work of art itself.  The time spent in the warehouse and materials used gave birth to works which are completely intrinsic to the site.

The overall project references the British penchant for DIY. It closes the distance between material production and usage of goods and services produced by others far away not allowing for this transfer of the ‘work’ to take place.

This whole process made the art work much more organic. Instead of the art works seeming to invade the space, they grew from it, and created conversations within it, preserving the characteristics of the warehouse and a sense of evolution.

Surface Arts DIY exhibition

Who are Surface Arts and why did you form?
Surface Arts is made up of six keen members all with artistic backgrounds, therefore making it an artist led organisation. It is a prime example of skill sharing; utilising everyone strengths, experience and knowledge in specialised areas whilst maintaining an open system for collective input on all levels and areas.

It was initially set up to provide artists the opportunities to develop their practice in alternative places and spaces. We develop bespoke projects and work with a multitude of artists across all fields enabling them to create works outside of traditional spaces. Time to produce and respond is one of our clear priorities as we continue to develop projects which allow the artists a period to understand the individual environments and create valued exchanges and reactions.

The DIY exhibition is in conjunction with Book Cycle and EVA. You also say on your site you believe in collaborative, cross over, organic system. How easy is that to organise and what have you found to be the strengths and weaknesses of that approach?
We believe it to be an essential approach to undertaking any project as it results in an immeasurable strength in the project.

Building partners has proven to be the success of this particular project as we have been reliant on networks and contacts in order to gain the support to do things on a shoe string. Exchanges of favours and skills have been central to our process. The diversity of ideas that fall into the mix is very important and this exchange of ideas pushes the ambitions of the organisers forward.

We had numerous group meetings involving all partners, supporters, artists and volunteers in order to open up questions and problems to the entire group to gain collective decisions. This did often turn into a longer process, but the outcome was essential. It is difficult to have everyone in the same place at the same time, but everyone was always filled in on all decisions and queries through emails to reach mutually satisfactory decisions.

One example of this was how we came to paint out the graffiti, which we came to realise as part of the identity of the warehouse. We believed it to be an ‘all or nothing’ decision; either painting out every piece of graffiti of leaving it as it was found. It was important that spaces were not isolated if sections were painted out, that the space remained whole. It was also important to respect the activities of the space, being a popular place for graffiti artists to practice their skills. We didn’t want to impose a fine art/ white cube attitude onto this space, disregarding this culture.

We decided to paint out the graffiti with a wash of paint which allowed the layers to be seen, one of the artists, who has his roots in the local graffiti scene, was keen to do this which seemed automatically less imposing. His reasons for doing it was to censor the graffiti getting rid of the subjective ‘good and bad’ and creating a clean slate for new graffiti to be produced later on after the exhibition. The colour, which is a wash of aquamarine, was not chosen, but in true DIY style came out of mixing all of the different donated paint together in a very large bucket to make one colour.

What’s been an unexpected outcome of putting the exhibition together?
The sheer amount of support and sponsorship from the local community and ambition of everyone involved. The additional collaborators were also an unexpected outcome.

As the project grew people were intrigued and wanted to be involved. This came first from Francis Ives, who developed a piece called Uncultivated and involved falling seeds made from pages of the books. It was decided the work would become a guide for the public and map the route through the exhibition. The work was intended to fall onto other artists work incorporating crossovers.

Volkhardt Muller also volunteered to set up a kitchen during the opening night to serve goulash to the guests. We also had quite a few photographers and filmmakers visiting the site to develop their own projects through the observations of the DIY venture.
The collaboration between Dave Holder and Sarah Farmer was also unexpected. They met when Holder was suggested as a musician for the opening night and discovered a shared interest in resonate frequencies. This started the development of their piece There are Many Ways to Hit Things and Many Things to Hit, which was performed during the opening night.
The involvement of these additional collaborators was opened up to the group and agreed on through shared discussions.

The DIY exhibition is the first of a series of events – what’s in store?
DIY was extremely ambitious and its success is an indicator of what is achievable. Nothing is set in stone yet, but ideas on our next project may involve border zones and no man’s land. This hopes to be a two-part project starting with an extended research trip for artists and ending with a reaction to their time spent, therefore emphasising process based practice which we aim to support. We do hope to take on this project with slightly more funding this time. How we achieve that is unknown, but we are certain it can be obtained with a bit of initiative and a lot of passion!

Surface Arts DIY exhibition

And finally, in terms of arts during the current economic climate are you optimistic or pessimistic?
We definitely feel optimistic, the very difficult position the arts community is finding itself in will necessitate artists of all disciplines to actively seek new or more ambitious ways of producing, performing and exhibiting work. There is an opportunity here for art to strengthen its connections to the community, and become less reliant on the ‘White Cube’ institutions. Artist-led groups are already making use of empty spaces (many of which have become empty because of the economic difficulties) and we think this pro-active approach could actually serve to produce art and artists who reflect the current culture and strive to connect with it.

The artists are: Adam Garrett, Chiara Gill, Hanna Downing, James Burgess, Jessica Mautner, Jo Willoughby, Julie McCalden, Mark Houghton, Megan Hoggins, Michele Louise Schiocchet and Sarah Farmer. The additional collaborators are: Dave Holder, Francis Ives and Alex Saunders.

• Find out more about Surface Arts

• DIY runs until Saturday, October 16 and is open to the public Thursdays to Saturdays 10am to 6pm and Sundays 11am to 4pm or by appointment only – ring Katie Hawker on 07812566759.

(images: courtesy of  Laurence Underhill)