Friday 08 April 2016 – Sunday 18 June 2017
Artist Simon Bayliss reports from SWARM which invited artists, curators, organisations, writers and independent producers from across Devon and Cornwall to socialise, network and learn from one another.
Swarm was initiated by KARST & Back Lane West, produced by Field Notes and supported by Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange and PAC Home at Plymouth Arts Centre.
‘I paint so that I don’t kill my family’ is the first thing Newlyn-based artist Stacey Guthrie said to me during our artist speed date session. A great start to what may otherwise have been a forced conversation. There was obviously a serious side to this remark, and Stacey elaborated that her work reflects the ‘ridiculousness’ of being a wife and mother and the domestic expectations placed upon her.
In gallery one at The Exchange the room was swarming. Anyone could join in and there were plenty of strays surveying for empty seats. Norman Buchan, a sculptor from Pipe Studios in Plymouth, described the Plymouth art scene as burgeoning, growing but not yet to its full potential. I wished it had been a real speed-dating event. There were stalls promoting artist organisations, such as W.A.N.K. (Women’s Art Network Kernow). Rose Hatcher, a founding member, explained that W.A.N.K. was setup to help raise the visibility of female artists in Cornwall through projects such as a recent exhibition and party for International Women’s Day at the Fish Factory in Falmouth. On the stall was a sign-up sheet to become a member, but I wasn’t invited to join.
Moving on, it was the first round of Pecha Kuchas, a series of short 20 slide presentations by various artists and organisations from the South West. I was also giving a presentation at the end of the day with Lucy Stein and was keen to witness how these ensued. Alarmingly, the first round presentations were impeccably professional, both informative and perfectly timed.
Moving-image artist Mel Stidolph began by describing her role as learning curator at Tate St Ives. She showed a multi-coloured mind-map of all her past jobs in curating and art education, with lines and arrows linking them to her own projects. Mel gave a heartfelt account of the benefits of working in art education and how these experiences shaped her practice. She suggested that as artists ‘we should do the thing that is most immediate’, finishing with a slide of her dog, Lincoln, who featured in a recent piece.
Gordon Dalton, the new head of Visual Arts South West, gave a bombastic, no-nonsense A-Z talk on what the organisation stands for and what it can offer. ‘A’, for example, was for acronyms, and how he hates them. ‘B’ was for 90’s artist-collective BANK, showing a slide of their infamous ‘Faxback’ project in which they corrected gallery press releases then faxed them back to the galleries, illustrating Gordon’s assertion of ‘no art bollocks please’. The speed of the presentations didn’t allow for sufficient note taking, so snippets of information now float out of context, such as Gordon’s insistence that ‘If you want to go to Chippenham tomorrow email me!’ The general point was that VASW is an adaptable and accommodating organisation, with many benefits such as travel bursaries and mentoring schemes. ‘W’ stood for ‘What do you want?’
Pause for thought
Feeling apprehensive after the Pecha Kuchas, Lucy and I went for a walk to discuss our imminent appearance. On arriving at the pub we met fellow dissident SWARMers and proceeded with a more familiar form of networking, glad to later read in the programme ‘At any point during the day, feel free to step out… and explore Penzance’.
Later, back at the hive, there was a long table discussion where informal groups chatted loosely about various topics on a menu sheet, such as ‘Do we need centres or could dispersed networks be the future?’ Evidence of conversations was left in the form of notes on the tablecloths, such as ‘social media can be used to keep connected’. I found myself talking about surfing, a more familiar buzz.
Round two of Pecha Kucha and Jesse Leroy Smith gave an account of ‘Unstable Monuments’, a recent curatorial project in a repurposed warehouse in Truro, describing the vibe as ‘bohemian’ and an attempt to ‘draw in what’s happening under the skin’. He talked about how the recently opened Newlyn Filmhouse is a direct result of a curatorial venture that he and co-curator Sam Bassett staged in the then derelict space.
With the imminence of our talk, my head was spinning with information. For me, the most difficult talks to digest used corporate sounding buzzwords about funding and professional development opportunities, accompanied by lots of logos. Projects and organisations keen to present themselves as transparent and accessible became off-putting. The ambiance was starting to feel like a business conference and I wondered where the artistic spirit could be found in some of the projects discussed.
Finally, it was our turn to perform our eccentric artist selves to a weary audience. Lucy described how the perennially unfashionable painter Robert Lenkiewicz ‘turns her on’. We showed naked pictures of ourselves climbing through the Men-an-Tol, the ancient holed stone in Cornwall which we linked to Macchu Picchu, a play on Peccha Kuccha. It seemed to be a welcome contrast to the more formal presentations.
In Devon and Cornwall there are a few weak or missing layers in the art world infrastructure. There are art colleges and institutions such as Tate St Ives, yet few commercial galleries, not many curators, and a small but growing number of artist-led initiatives. These platforms are a basic necessity, particularly for graduates and so-called emerging artists. That is why there is a need for SWARM; so that Individuals from different backgrounds could become part of a hive for the day and help strengthen the South West ecosystem. However, through ever-increasing public art events comprising live discussions, exchange and networking, it seems that our attendance and contribution as artists is becoming more valuable than our work. This was a free event, yet still part of the contemporary art economy described by Hito Steyerl as ‘more reliant on our presence than on traditional ideas of labour power tied to the production of objects’.
Understandably, there is collective anxiety about living and working as artists in a dispersed non-urban region and Swarm inevitably eased this by bringing people together and highlighting some interesting projects. I met some friendly people and one day I might join W.A.N.K. as my alter ego Poly Tunnel, but the idea of networking seemed too staged to expect meaningful encounters that could lead to career changing opportunities. For me, the value of this event was the pleasure of being there, of enjoying the immediate company and admiring all the great work and contributions.
During his talk, Gordon Dalton announced that, from us, he wants to see ‘good art’. This deceptively obvious statement reminds us that no matter how much networking we do, it is still our responsibility to explore the meaning of what good art is.
 Hito Steyerl ‘The Terror of Total Dasein’
Working towards a South West where talented artists thrive, and a resilient and connected visual arts ecology that inspires more engaged and diverse audiences to value and advocate for its work.
Part of the Contemporary Visual Arts Network