This is the Gallery and the Gallery is Many Things: A Conversation with Gavin Wade of Eastside Projects
Ahead of its ten year anniversary and impending reopening, Eastside Projects Director Gavin Wade speaks with The Luminary caretaker (and Temporary editor) James McAnally on the Birmingham-based artist run multiverse’s compelling vision of an intuitive arts institution, the urgencies of independent arts organizing post-Brexit, and how art offers space for reflection, speculation, and action upon our complex present.
James McAnally: As someone who alternately (or simultaneously) identifies as an artist, curator, writer, and founder of an independent art space – positions I likewise occupy – why do you feel that the assembly and sustaining of an institution is the best form for your work? Why not an independent curator, or a free-floating artist, or a biennial director? What about this form compels you?
Gavin Wade: It is simultaneity for me. I am always an artist-curator and occupying this position includes the usage of stories, words, space, organisation of energy and resources, the connections of people and a critical insistence upon context, and the push and pull of responding to and altering existing conditions. The institution is simply a form that brings together a pattern of ideas and actions to test things out, achieve things, and implies for me a working with other people, sharing approaches – shared consciousness in a way. In many ways curating an exhibition involves the same level of instituting as forming a business, a charity, a gallery, or a collaboration. There are more or less levels of bureaucracy in different examples but I am still able to feel that I can operate as a free floating artist, which is the term I like the most out of your list!
Eastside Projects is an ongoing attempt to generate a free floating artists institution. From the outset I attempted to counter the elements of instituting that I, and we, encountered and disagree with, and to include those that we wish to learn from and include in our gallery. The title of the first Eastside Projects exhibition was This is the Gallery and the Gallery is Many Things. And this still holds true to this day. We have a new way of describing ourselves as an artist run multiverse. If that is what an institution is, then I want more of it! Our multiverse is an attempt to influence and act upon the reality of Birmingham and, by knock on effect, the world. And I reserve the right to also be free floating, and act on impulse and intuition. If you build this into your policy and live by it, then it is true. So I think you can be truthful through this form of being an artist-curator and directing an institution. That is what compels me, that I can pretend, be truthful, and experiment, and I don’t have to do it on my own.
JM: I appreciate this fundamental refusal to be singular – a tendency many institutions suffer from in the interest of branding or public image. I find that the most interesting institutions are those that insist on their multiplicity and indeterminacy; those that insist on being free-floating, or simply free (whether we call this independent, alternative, or some other term), but also those that use that freedom to act in the interest of others. Eastside Projects’ description as a multiverse reminds me of a project here in the United States, Mildred’s Lane, which describes themselves as a “contemporary art complexity.” At The Luminary, we’ve started talking about our work as constitutions (con- meaning “with” or “together”) or co-institutions rather than institutions as we are attempting to move away from this singular space to something more expansive.
So, now Eastside Projects is “Many Things” and not just conceptually. With the Policy Show, you worked with the City of Birmingham in some context. You are working on a new space with Birmingham City University (STEAMhouse). Could you talk about that shift? Are you intending to open or operate other spaces over time or continue to push past the space of the gallery?
GW: We didn’t work with the City of Birmingham, but more in relation to them, and occupied their central council chamber for the third Policy Show meeting, and invited the Cabinet member for housing in relation to our investigation of how we should develop new housing policies. Over the past few years we have fed directly into writing elements of the public art strategy and cultural strategy for Birmingham 2015-2019 and hope to contribute to the next versions of these. In a way these should be expected. We are some of the members of various publics of Birmingham who focus on making art and so we should be at the table when the city wants to work out what the conditions for making art should be here. On that basis my collaborator, associate Director and co-founder of Eastside Projects, Ruth Claxton, proposed Birmingham Production Space which developed into STEAMhouse through synergies with Birmingham City Council and Birmingham City University. She wanted to produce a space based on her needs as an artist and then other needs of other artists and makers. And you look to align yourselves with others in the city who want to invest time and energy into improving the city. STEAMhouse is less a space dealing with display, and the gallery at 86 Heath Mill Lane more on display, but both are part of this process of testing how art should come into being in this city and offer support to others who want to move here, work here, live here, and change what here is.
I think we are moving towards an idea of other spaces and strategies and relationships, opening out from the last ten years of experimental exhibiting, to push our ideas into other usages. If we want to make production spaces for art, then not only the gallery, or the workshop, or the public square should be the site for this production, but also the home. We have been imagining making Artists Houses over the past few years, something I have found myself drawn back to time and time again over my past twenty years of being an artist-curator. We have one Artists House in development with artists Heather & Ivan Morison in Banbury about 40 miles south of Birmingham. This is part of a public art project called Park Life that we are curating, and the house will be for artists to live and work in, and we are aiming to have a 25 year lease on the house. So the house is a public artwork, it is a site for an artist to live as part of a new and old community, and to work and support activity within that area. And we are also making plans for a plot in Birmingham to develop the first Birmingham artists house with a number of artists.
We are also refitting the gallery space at Heath Mill Lane at the moment after a set of major building issues were revealed. So approaching our tenth anniversary of operating we find ourselves adjusting, proposing and adapting in a range of different ways, and authorship and ambitions are changing and spreading out in new ways.
JM: Your work is distinctly rooted in Birmingham – its histories, opportunities, industries, and policies. I’m interested in how directly you engage your city and its specific positions. What has “acting on the reality of Birmingham” meant over your history? What does it mean in terms of policy and politics away from the gallery?
GW: What it means is that there are a different set of options in this city because we are part of its life. We have joined with other organisations here to survive, support, attract attention, centre the artist, and make civic space. These five aims are still part of our future vision but we have already acted in many ways to bring attention to these, to influence how people tell the story of what Birmingham is and can be. Our sixth User’s Manual, The Artist and The Engineer, is a retelling of the story of Birmingham’s coat of arms and proposes a new motto for our city. James Langdon, another founding director and a graphic designer, led this publication working with Peter Nencini and myself to craft a manual as a children’s book. A simple shift in perspective allows a retake on our city.
Working with other organisations like Impact Hub Birmingham also feeds into real change in possibilities within housing in the city, with the new policy for self build partly based on work towards the artists house. We look for change everywhere I suppose, with ourselves, our partners and the environment around us. Much of it is very hard to influence and we try to lead way beyond our authority. But it is in the trying and listening that we hope to make a difference. Small examples are when you might create a pocket of power and then you take it away. Our external billboard evidenced this as we were able to operate the only billboard in the city not controlled by advertising companies for 8 years until it becomes a way to express our emotions, in this case, anger. The day after the EU referendum here in the UK we smashed down our billboard. We bit off our nose to spite our face, but we were so angry. I still am angry about it. We are still part of the EU and I believe will continue to be so. I reject the government’s weak decision based on some hidden agenda. But I must admit, what I am interested in, what I think makes the most difference is what we can do with exhibition. To lead and adapt what is around us through our processes of making art. It is the most important element to us, hence a text like my TedX talk – City of a Thousand Artworks (How to revive a city) – published in my Upcycle This Book last year. In that text I show how simple it is for us to choose to make Birmingham an art city and that it sets up a whole other set of values and possibilities for how our city can survive and attract attention etc. It is important that we consider how to make art as policy, art as housing, art as a city. And then we go and do it. Or more precisely, we do it through the working-it-out!
JM: What I find so compelling about this vision is that you see the institution as a citizen in a sense, and certainly your positions as founders and artists shaping its course as a part of the public that you are addressing. At The Luminary and in my work with US English and other projects, we reference the concept of a “Prefigurative Institution,” which likewise assumes that the ways an artist space is constructed and the ways it operates in the world point to some other way of being in the world, of acting on it, as you say. Your work seems to operate similarly: the work is often on a 1:1 scale, but it symbolically reaches the whole city of Birmingham (and by extension, other cities, an altered world). One project I was especially drawn to is “Draft Ideas for an Artist House” by Ivan Morrison, which lays out the vision concisely: “We propose to begin by building a house that will act as a metaphor for what we want to achieve and a gathering point around which ideas and strategies can be voiced.”
Throughout your history, you’ve ‘upcycled’ and adapted works staged elsewhere such as modular walls from Vienna’s Secession, and so on. Eastside Projects clearly has a distinct voice and vision, but I’m curious to know who you view as contemporaries, as well as references. Who is informing your work in this moment of transition (even if negatively such as neoliberal, spectacle-driven institutions, etc)?
GW: 1:1 is definitely something we’re interested in, and I’m interested in the draft, or proposition, acting at 1:1. We have carefully chosen references over the years, from the first references we outlined in the first User’s Manual – El Lissitzky’s ‘Abstract Cabinet’ 1926/1930, Peter Nadin, Christopher d’Arcangelo, and Nick Lawson’s ‘The Work in this Space is a response to the existing conditions and/or the works previously shown within the space’ 1978-1979, Bart de Baere, Honore d’O, Fabrice Hybert, Louise Borgeois, Suchan Kinoshita, Jason Rhoades and Luc Tuymans’ exhibition ‘This is the Show and the Show is Many Things’ 1994 at Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, Ghent. After that point our contemporaries are the artists and other people we have invited to Eastside Projects and worked with, from Peter Fend, Heather & Ivan Morison, Shezad Dawood, Lawrence Weiner, Laureana Toledo, Mithu Sen and so many others through to the artists we are working with right now like Jasleen Kaur, Sonia Boyce, Rehana Zaman, Teresa Cisneros, Ciara Phillips, Christian Nyampeta and Hardeep Pandhal. But it is not only the artists who we are working with, nor the founding artists who influence what happens within our multiverse, it is as much the other individuals who have and are working on licking our organisation into shape. This includes key people along the way such as Elizabeth Rowe, who was the first ESP Programmer and my main assistant when we first started and I was the only employee. Liz worked through till 2012 and now she is part of an art producer duo called General Public. We have commissioned a new long form video work from them, called The Endless Village, that we will present in the gallery in June this year. Elinor Morgan was ESP and Public programmer with us from 2012-2015 and now is Senior Curator at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. It really is the people we work with, from some of our first volunteers who are now designers for us in the case of the amazing An Endless Supply, or artists we work with, ongoing supporters and people who care about us and we care for them. The current team now are all part of pushing Eastside Projects into our next phase of activity, involved in the processes and thinking about how best to exist.
Within Birmingham there have been moments of close partnership with other cultural organisations and I think we take pride in supporting each other as well as hopefully keeping each other on our toes. Looking out for opportunities that can be shared and when we need to work together to achieve things. And we also have key contemporaries over the years with other groups of active artists and curators from Grizedale Arts to Wysing Arts and The Showroom. Internationally we have imagined projects with Vitamin Creative Space in China, Tensta Konsthal in Sweden and Stroom den Haag in The Netherlands, and recently we enjoyed spending time with Aarhus Kunsthal in Denmark. We’re currently working with Mixrice in Seoul for an exhibition of their work also in June, and they are a fascinating artist collective, so we like to work directly with our contemporaries, involved them in what we do as much as is possible. We like to send out messages into the world and to get a response! Sometimes we invite people to us, other times people invite us to come and make a difference. Both are amazing situations. Eastside Projects can move anywhere in one sense and connect and collaborate with others. We are not so fixed.
All of our propositions and exhibitions, and functional configurations are responses and criticisms of other parts of the world around us – artworlds, planning decisions, funding body decisions, governmental mistakes, social changes, policy voids, and unexploited opportunities. Ongoing issues of representation and power structures within the artworld are a particular concern at the moment, and that our actions can say something to others about how you should and shouldn’t, can and can’t do things. Policy Show is very much about that, a criticism of ourselves in order to reflect on a broader sphere.
JM: Your last statement returns me to the context in which we started. Temporary Art Review has been doing a feature on ‘instituent practices,’ which is a term coined by Gerald Raunig meant to suggest the development of a new phase of institutional critique born from not just a natural conceptual evolution, but of a “political and theoretical necessity.” Our conclusion (and his, in many ways) is that the formation of new institutions that are self-critical, that short-circuit established power structures and point to alternate forms of organizing, gathering, is one of the primary necessities of our time. It is hard to unfurl this any more poignantly than you have already, but how do you feel that your work – at Eastside and elsewhere – infiltrates and ‘acts on’ this broader sphere? What may be the wider implications of this work?
GW: The wider implications are still that the entire system of how we organise our lives can change. Governments and national organisation systems do change and fall, and reset. It happens. Even relatively stable status quo situations like the EU and USA are going to have to change. It’s inevitable that a rebalancing of resources, trade and economic relativism is due, and if not imminent, necessary. You asked before about who might be informing our work from a negative position, and it is very much governmental, right wing, nationalist political positions that we attempt to survive and counter. The loss of governmental support for homes replaced by the profit impulse to develop real estate, the withdrawal of the free and open education system within the UK, and the attack on the freedom inspiring arts within that system, the erosion of the welfare state and movement away from an idea of universal income that supports inequality. They’re just the large scale blunt tools of keeping a population in its place. We’re against that. We’re a small cog but we try and make sure that our findings, propositions, questions, policies and actions, connect with others, offer small openings to rethink, react and plan.
It sounds overblown, or grandiose perhaps, but it is just part of looking and moving and thinking. The more you do those things you more you learn and have to take into account wider contexts. Practically and reflectively, this brings me back to our first exhibition ‘This is the Gallery and the Gallery is Many Things,’ which we are planning to do a second version of in September as we reach our ten year mark. The statement still rings true and will allow us to show elements of these many useful and useless things that we do, and how they are vital still, and point towards the next ten years of problem solving and provoking. The remaking of the gallery space and the interrogation of our policies and methods is all part of this. To act on our broader sphere is still to attempt to make art. That is the core of what we do, and what we believe in. That even in the face of impossible odds and gross inequality we will make art as judgement and speculation. The aim really is that a housing, welfare or economic system could be led by an art process. We just have to imagine it, recognise it, act on it together. Different visions will merge into something unexpected and new. It will happen.