I recently attended one of the best art events I’ve been to in a very long time. It involved wearing a shiny, elasticated party hat and disco dancing amid strangers at a Whitworth Thursday Late in Manchester. What really set the evening apart however, wasn’t the buffet of cheese sandwiches and pineapple sticks, but the sense of relief as, for a brief moment, people lowered their guard and just went with things. No pretence, no networking, no looking cool. Just having fun.
The celebration was an ‘Art Party’ thrown by the members of an ACE-funded project OutsiderXchanges, which brought together six learning disabled and six non-learning disabled ‘emerging’ artists, providing them with a shared studio space for seven months. Left to its own devices, the group engaged in a fluid process of playful, self-directed collaboration; exploring each other’s practices, ideas and experiences, and experimenting with new ways of making. Among the outcomes was an exhibition that travelled from The Manchester Contemporary to BALTIC in Gateshead and the Whitworth. As well as a series of symposiums and talks around artistic collaboration (the next happening at DaDaFest 2016 in Liverpool), and several independently continued projects.
For anyone suspicious of the sort of tokenism or grant-winning sub-agenda that can sometimes accompany socially-inclusive initiatives; here this wasn’t the case at all. The principles of collaboration and participation at the project’s heart and the atmosphere of celebration that surrounded it felt authentically tempered by the healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek irreverence and criticality that came out in much of the work.
A rather sardonic confrontation of elitism within the contemporary art world emerged across several pieces. For example Matt Girling’s short film The Pearlescent Party of Iridescent Energy, in which Kwong Lee (outgoing Director of Castlefield Gallery) makes a very knowing cameo-appearance, involves him partaking in a joke about art world pretentiousness. Pretending to be on the phone to Girling, he is supposedly duped by the group into funding the purchase of essential party – rather than art – supplies, distracted in his hurry to ‘go meet Nicholas Serota (outgoing Director of Tate Modern) for Eggs Benedict at the local art restaurant in the local art institution.’
Similarly, although delivered in fits of hysterics, The Invisible Gallery at Midnight, Part 1 and Part 2, by Jane Louise Graham and Simon Raven makes a complex, very poignant point about the exclusivity of the art world, ‘art’ as a social construct opposed to general human creativity, and the number of artists who never receive exposure or recognition. In Part 1 of the video-piece conversation, Graham comments: “It’s almost as if the more unfair society becomes, the more Invisible Galleries are required to show all of the artwork that’s being produced.” While, elsewhere, Raven expresses his hope to carry the project forwards by “making performances like a flawed magician, in which I will attempt to make whole galleries disappear in the name of Disability Art.”
Other pieces touched upon more personal themes. The Whitworth party was an elaboration on an earlier version held in the group’s shared studio as a way of getting to know each other. The playful discussions it prompted around favourite party foods, best party outfits and top choice of guests (if you could invite anyone) provided an unforeseen bridge into a much deeper set of insights around individual identity, which had a defining impact on the project’s development. A film using footage from the original studio party was played throughout the evening at the Whitworth alongside other related artworks, contextualising what was going on (which might otherwise have come across as fitting into the same meatless, purely celebratory ideology thought to hamper critical development within so-called Disability Art).
It became clear that the ‘Celebration Cake’ which appeared as a reoccurring motif throughout many of these works was the creative input of artist Horace Lindezey who, on each occasion I met, asked me whether we were given Christmas cake by the dinner ladies at school – something I doubt I’ve ever stopped to think about, but which unlocked a whole series of memories. He was also very keen to know about specific details, such as whether I ate the cake, or wrapped it up in tissue paper to take home to show my mum. Lindezey’s very particular style of questioning and own treasured memories of school led to an audience-participation piece developed between him and Juliet Davis, which enabled interviewees to reflect on their own past experiences in new ways. Similarly, alternative models of remembering and conceptualising the world were expressed in a physical performance titled I was the Assembly Hall in which, Lindezey describes; “I was the assembly hall, Juliet was the dinner ladies room and Sophie [Lee] (not Sophie Lawrence) was the classroom.”
OutsiderXchanges was started by Amanda Sutton, Director of Venture Arts; a charity based in Hulme (Manchester) that helps enable talented learning disabled artists to develop their creative skills and career opportunities. As she explains, “many of the people that we work with still face significant barriers that prevent them from becoming part of the contemporary art world, yet they have a real contribution to make in terms of their ideas, creativity and ways of looking at life.” The project’s aim was to demonstrate the value to be gained through equal creative exchange: reinforcing learning disabled artists’ status as artists in their own right, and playing upon the notion of ‘insiders’ versus ‘outsiders’ (also bringing the term ‘emerging artist’ into question).
As project partners, BALTIC and Castlefield Gallery offered various forms crucial support. BALTIC, in terms of the exposure (and legitimisation) associated with having your work exhibited at an international art centre. And Castlefield, through representation at one of the UK’s biggest commercial art fairs outside of London, attended by collectors and curators as well as the public, and out of which several works were purchased. Castlefield also supplied the studio space (two temporarily vacant office units in Chorlton, Manchester) through its New Art Spaces programme.
Though OutsiderXchanges is reaching the end of its formal lifespan, Venture Arts has just secured significant further funding through the Arts Council’s Elevate Fund – setup to help strengthen the resilience of non-NPO organisations working towards ‘the creative case for diversity’. With the money, Sutton has begun searching for a more permanent space within an already existing studio complex or arts organisation in Manchester, where an expanded version of the project can continue. If this occurs (along with the necessary backing and support), then it’s exciting to think what impact it could have on the city’s art scene, the type of work that gets seen and the kind of ideas in circulation. The challenge will be ensuring that the same non-prescriptive approach, and levels of creative independence and trust so essential to making authentic work, are upheld.
Let’s hope so as if the point of art is to open up other ways of seeing the world, then these voices need to be heard. Finally, to return to the somewhat anarchic yet genuinely welcoming energy that set the Whitworth Thursday Late apart from most other art-related events; I think this is definitely something we need more of, especially in our current time. As things fall apart around us, it’s change we need, and fresh perspectives: conversations in which everyone who wants to be heard, has a voice. Sadly, we have a long way to go.
Sara Jaspan is a writer based in Manchester.
Image of the OutsiderXchanges installation at The Manchester Contemporary courtesy Castlefield Gallery and Annie Feng.
OutsiderXchanges has staged projects at The Manchester Contemporary, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and The Whitworth; and will be part of DADA Fest 2016 and is assisted by project partners Castlefield Gallery and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art.
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