What does it mean to be an artist working outside of your country’s capital region? This is the main question behind the second edition of Traverse, Aarhus Billedkunstcenter’s research program exploring artists’ working conditions across cultures. For this project, Aarhus Billedkunstcenter partnered with New Art West Midlands (Birmingham, UK) to consider the impact of peripheral geographies on artists’ working lives. We wanted to know, what challenges do regional artists face? What opportunities arise? How can we better support artists working outside of the cultural center?
Mette Boel (DK) and Joanne Masding (UK) were selected via open call to explore these and other questions. Over the course of two months, the artists engaged in a lengthy written exchange examining their working lives in depth, considering a range of topics stemming from the theme of periphery. The following excerpt reveals how the twists and turns of their correspondence steer our collective research in unexpected directions.
What structures do you build to facilitate the right headspace and working conditions?
Mette Boel: I don’t actually know if I have a specific way of working. I have both worked on exhibitions having no space to physically work and prepare in and therefore working mostly in my head and then I've also had periods of having much more physical space. Both things work for me. I think London for me was very much a very long exercise in adaption, being able to shift and being able to work from the onset of a feeling or mood or desire much more than working through material investigations as an example.
After moving to Aarhus I have much more space than I ever had in London, this have prompted me to be more physically involved for longer stretches of time in my research and working process. This is important as I am trying to spend as much time in my studio making work as possible.
Some of the things I do to get in the right headspace is reading and writing and trying to reach an open and intuitive space within myself. I sometimes close my eyes and keep them closed until I can see quite clearly the work I want to create. This doesn’t work all the time. I try and get into where the flavor sits, the gist, the heart of it all. Because I make suggestive work and it for me is more a case of wanting to create a mood or a space, than for instance delivering a message or pushing a point I tend to dwell on things, keep them a bit open. Theory means a lot to me, but its something sitting on my backbone, something that is there as a base for thinking, reflecting and reacting and creating. It is not always predominant in the work itself.
Joanne Masding: To make good work, it’s important for me to live a life where being an artist is my job. I have gradually worked towards being in the position I am now in, where it is my main activity and how I earn a living, and I’m more productive when I can spend a fairly traditional proportion of my week at work. On the whole, this means not working during the evenings and at weekends, and having holiday. Spending the majority of my time in the studio on my own suits me well.
I’ve been trying to build a solid studio practice, where I continue making work consistently, rather than making for opportunities when they arise. As part of this, I make the best work when I can allow things to resolve quite slowly. The pressure to know immediately what work is and what it’s doing can be stifling, whereas making room for being playful and unknowing usually leads somewhere more fruitful. Taking on new ways of working, whether process, material or form, takes some recalibration, so for this particularly I need room to understand how various components are behaving.
What is the best starting point for building a show?
Mette Boel: When I do my large total-installations, the space is crucial to me, the way it looks and feels. I like a closed space, so the mood does not seep out through cracks and doorways. I like things to be contained. I do not come along these spaces too often, which means that I only do large-scale installations maybe once a year. I feel like a big show a year is a good amount for me. I always need some time to contemplate my decisions and the shows general feel. And of course, it is always a quite costly affair to put on these shows, so it is important that there is enough time, to get the funding for realizing the show.
Another thing is time. Time is very important; to have time enough to develop the work so that it becomes something that takes up a place in my consciousness as something, which was really there, which existed. Something that stretched above the work and the space and the time it was on display. Potential for expansion, is very important to me. I like it when a work or a show leads to something new. For instance new collaborations, extensions of existing work ore new thoughts and ways of working. This is why collaborations are important. To work with good people, and people whom I trust and who trusts me. The work must also demand its space, it need to be emphasized by a necessity to become. To be brought into the world so to speak.
Joanne Masding: The most successful shows that I’ve made have had a long lead-in time. As I’ve said, making new things is usually slow, and I often work with the materiality of the exhibition space, which also benefits from a longer timeframe. It can be challenging to talk about new work when I’m in the midst of it, and I’m still working out how to use curatorial/organisational support during this part of the process. Collaborations in this sense can be fruitful, but I build relationships slowly and it takes a lot of time before I can communicate easily. It’s ideal when I feel trusted to do what I do, and supported without too much need for tying things down early.
Making shows is a really exciting part of being an artist, and the point when I properly get to experience the work for the first time. This is a high-risk scenario! I enjoy installing work, and in a dream world would have time to sit quietly with the work while I’m making an exhibition. Working with tech teams is relatively new to me, and I’m still practicing being decisive out loud.
What does recognition mean to you?
Mette Boel: Recognition is a funny one. I am all right with saying that I want the recognition. Its a bit of a high for me, its my drug. I’m addicted to it a little bit. And all addiction is bad in a way. I wouldn’t say however that recognition is the biggest driving force but like all other jobs, it’s great to do well and to be recognized for the work you do.
I sometimes come across people who have this idea that artists are doing art because they can’t help it. Like it’s some divine power running out the arm and into the hand, gods send in a way. That might be true for some artists, that it is a type of calling. To me it’s very much a decision. This is my life; this is what I enjoy the most. I put all my energy into it because I want to succeed. Creativity is probably an urge, like an itch, you have to do it. But to do it professionally, that’s a decision.
Joanne Masding: We quickly enter into psychological territory when talking about making work! Being an artist is a strange job. I’m making progress when it comes to the mental impact of being critical of your own activities - being regularly rejected and seeing peers go along their own trajectories - but it’s still hard. There is usually a voice wondering whether it’s enough, or good enough, and it can take effort to hear the other voice that knows you’re working hard and doing what’s needed. The critical voice can be useful to a point for being spurred on, and receiving recognition from elsewhere can too. I try not to compare recognition I receive – feedback, show invites or reviews – to what anyone else is getting. Instead I try to put effort into keeping my focus on where I’m at, what I want to happen next, and what I’m enjoying, rather than getting sucked into assessing myself against other people’s CVs. I’m not looking for an astronomical rise and celebrity art career. If I can keep making work, keep working as an artist and keep progressing, I think that will be recognition enough.
How do you have critical conversations about your work and how are they critical to your development?
Mette Boel: Since being out of education I haven’t had as many critical conversations as I used to I guess. But I think it is a good thing. Instead of constantly being asked critical questions and being asked to position myself against other artists or ways of being an artist, I have more focus on my own work. However, that is not to say that critical conversations are not important to me. They are hugely important, but the situations in which I have these conversations must be real. Not awkward and superficial. I prefer a good old one to one conversation. Maybe it has to do a little bit with being in control. If I want to, I can ask an artist or a curator to come for a studio-visit. I can choose who and when and I really appreciate not having to talk about my work at stages where it is not ready to be talked about.
Joanne Masding: Always needing to translate things into language can be tricky. I put pressure on myself when I’m making anyway, so I’ve been trying to find the best ways to get critical input that’s also supportive.
I’ve recently been a participant in alternative post-graduate education programme School of the Damned, which involved lots of group crits in the same vein as art school. It’s through experiences such as this that I’ve been working out what I need and what I respond to best. I don’t like having to justify work to a group, and compete against big personalities for air space. Instead I love one-on-one conversations that are critically supportive and energizing and that send me off on new tangents and with more thoughts. I’m trying to build genuine relationships with people who I share common interests with, then I can have supportive conversations reflecting on work that are both useful and enjoyable, and don’t cripple confidence.
Working in a fairly small community of artists in the city, I have friends and peers who have an understanding of my practice and who I can talk to about making and work quandaries. While I love working alone, knowing that I’m part of this group is reassuring.
What does ambition mean to you? How do you feel about being ambitious? How are you ambitious? How does ambition affect the work?
Mette Boel: To be ambitious is not something I feel like I choose to be. It is something that is just there as a premise and a need for being able to work the way I do and with the things and people I do. Whether or not it is healthy to be ambitious is another thing. For me it is definitely important to be clear on for whom I am ambitious. Is it for myself and is it a drive that I need to keep my practice running or am I ambitious because I need recognition from people outside of myself, and my practice. I try and channel my ambition into focus on my work and the things that happen in my studio. At times I try and keep a bit to myself, to just work and not look to hard at what everyone else around me are doing.
Joanne Masding: I feel conflicted about the idea of being ambitious. In one respect I agree with needing drive to push ideas, develop and shift out of getting too comfortable, but in another I’m conscious of ambitious being a stand-in for bigger, louder, harder, and this doesn’t fit well with my personality and the tone of my work.
I’m also aware of the pressure to be ambitious, and hear it talked about particularly in relation to younger artists. It’s a quality that I feel that I’m judged against, and I think this can lead to feeling as though there’s a rush to achieve certain things, such as a first solo exhibition, rather than being able to focus on making the best work.
Mette and Joanne broadened their research by surveying five artists from each of their respective cities, asking the artists to identify how they got their most recent work opportunities. Did the artists develop their own projects, did the projects evolve within their networks, or were they invited to participate in projects unexpectedly?
Notes on tactics and things that have worked for others
- Expand network by working as technician/exhibition photographer
- Have a specific way of working/area of interest and be a good fit
- Apply to open calls when friends are judges
- Keep up long relationships, get another show when curator moves
- Initiate through network of contacts - use network pro-actively
- Invite people to the studio
- One show leads to another - invite curators to meet in the show