Rethinking Practice: Disseminated

Artist and writer Sara Bowler summarises and reflects on our VASW annual regional meeting Rethinking Practice: Discussions on Contemporary Art Practice in the SW and Beyond.

Thursday 3 December 2015, Ocean Studios, Plymouth
Full audio recordings available below. 

Rethinking Practice: Discussions on Contemporary Art Practice in the SW and Beyond set out to consider the factors influencing the development of practice today and the key drivers defining the shape of the current contemporary art world.

Grace Davies began the day with a quick overview of a positive year for VASW, including an artists’ mentoring scheme, the New Expressions programme and a range of events, workshops and advocacy for the visual arts. After securing funding from ACE, the next programme will see networking events, a continuation of the mentoring scheme, travel bursaries for artists and curators and new features and toolkits on the website.

Entering the World From Here

“You can’t wait for the world to come to you – you have to go to it.”

Dave Beech artist, writer and lecturer (Freee Collective) had been invited to open proceedings with a provocation.

He chose remoteness as his theme; how this is determined and by whom. He explained that given places exist geographically equidistant from each other, remoteness can’t be a measure of distance. So it must reside elsewhere as a concept. Those considered remote by some may not view themselves in this way.

Is access the key to how far away somewhere appears? If travel is easy and convenient does this prevent a place from being remote? And if so, what determines a centre? For Beech, it’s a place where people travel to, not just through. World centres are not remote; the world doesn’t pass through them, it arrives in them.

However, he also considered the counter argument to centric approaches citing Doreen Massey’s concept of ‘grounded practice connectedness’. The idea is that we need to take our ground with us, we don’t have to assume the mantle of the place we are going to but we do need to practice connectedness in our usual places and those other places we choose to access. It’s an active process that involves connections with people and processes.

Beech ended by saying “If we live in a remote place and have a grounded relationship with another place, then safe to say we can enter the world while still being in that remote place.”

It was a thoughtful provocation with particular relevance to practitioners in the South West who often feel at a distance from world centres. For myself, my interest is in how we create temporary ‘world’ centres in remote places through our actions and work, places where others want to be and are willing to travel to and connect with.  I’m thinking of events such as the Penzance and Falmouth Conventions, organised by Teresa Geadowe, when international artists and participants engaged with their equivalents on the ground. Or the Plymouth and Bristol Art Weekenders.

Art and Education

The Red School and Plymouth College of Art
The speakers following focused on education’s relationship with art, starting with Andrew Brewerton’s fascinating account of how Plymouth College of Art has instigated the Red School, the country’s first school of creative arts.

He felt this achievement marked a moment when centre and periphery had swapped places. In terms of external interest in the initiative, with visiting delegations from the UK and abroad, this is apparent.

The ethos of the school is ‘purposeful learning through making’, ranging from language to food to ideas, identity and community; all human artefacts. Their aim is not to make it larger but to consider if the model can be delivered in other places.

Plymouth College of Art has a direct relationship with this ethos, examining what an art college can be in the 21st Century. They provide old analogue and new digital practices in purpose built studios and workshops available both to students and practitioners.

Brewerton noted that the team behind the Red School is involved in an active process of making; inventing every new year in this inaugural period as the first pupils continue their creative journey through education.

Wysing Poly
Donna Lynas, Director at Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridgeshire, described how they had re-orientated themselves to become a campus and research centre as they continued their commitment to shift the focus of contemporary art from the gallery to practice.

Despite being an isolated bubble on the edge of two world centres (London and Cambridge) they were attracting people nationally and internationally interested and willing to come to them. Their approach to discussion and dialogue enabled them to bring in a wide range of external ideas and experts, nourishing both Wysing and the practitioners and audiences who engage with them. This two way engagement is crucial to all types of practice – it’s what keeps it forward thinking and inventive. The visual arts have thrived on the exchange of ideas and approaches over millennia, it’s how we have learned about other cultures and interpreted and adapted what we discover to new purposes and forms.

Lynas asked the question, ‘Where are the radical centres of art education today?” Could they be resurrected or re-enacted to bring them back to life? Or are different models needed?

Next year, Wysing will describe itself as a Poly as an all-encompassing description of its commitment to sharing knowledge, collaboration and democratisation. They will investigate if they can offer an alternative to the Masters degree through a dispersed programme for ten artists delivered through partner venues.

Partnership working at UWE
Lisa Harrison, Associate Dean, Faculty of Arts, Creative Industries & Education at UWE in Bristol, described how they had instigated a new approach to expanding the campus by working with a range of arts based organisations across Bristol.

This initiative was encouraging students and staff to travel to these places to seek out the learning and support they needed. In so doing, they engaged directly with professionals at work, seeing and experiencing at first-hand how things get done.

Listen to Art and Education


Writing, Curating and Making saw art writer Lizzie Lloyd, curator Ben Borthwick, Plymouth Arts Centre and artist and Director of KARST, Carl Slater raise questions of how to select artists to work with, who to begin a conversation with and how to orchestrate things to gain visibility.

The three presenters had a wealth of experience and were generous in sharing their ideas and observations. The overriding impressions were that people work with people they are interested in and that these relationships often continue intermittently over several years; that things do not have to happen in London to have credibility; that being bold and asking the unexpected often succeeds; and that reducing red tape gets things done!

Listen to Writing, Curating and Making

The second workshop, If a Tree falls in a Forest: Art Outside Urban Centres was chaired by Tim Martin, curator, Hestercombe Gallery, Somerset and included artist & organiser of copse barn camps Anna Best, artist & curator Jennie Savage and architect at Neat Design and founding member of MUF, Juliet Bidgood. This session investigated how artists, curators, collaborations and organisations are developing new platforms and approaches to collaboration and audience engagement outside of urban centres and how these projects contribute to wider critical dialogue. A summary by Grace Davies of this workshop can be read here.

Listen to If a Tree falls in a Forest: Art Outside Urban Centres


The closing session invited discussion from the floor. Amongst points raised were:

  • How do we make the region work for everyone?
  • Should urban initiatives dominate?
  • How do we create an inclusive critical mass?
  • Should support be targeted at those with energy rather than spread evenly?

Dave Beech closed proceedings by talking about his early experience of ‘looking’ when first at art school and the realisation that this alone was not enough to gain understanding. Through reading and talking to others, he realised he needed to engage in dialogue to be able to ‘see’. It’s a powerful metaphor for those in South West. We can choose to see ourselves as remote, or we can choose to engage with others, wherever they are geographically located, through direct and digital means. And periodically, we can become the centre for others to come to, rather than simply pass through.

Listen to the closing session

Sara Bowler, 
Artist and Writer

What's On

Family Saturdays

Aspex Gallery, The Vulcan, PO1 3BF

Monday 01 October 2018 – Thursday 31 October 2019

Craft Workshops

Various Venues

Friday 08 February 2019 – Tuesday 31 December 2019

Jon England: Hour Hands

Market House Museum, 32 Swain St, Watchet TA23 0AD

Wednesday 27 March 2019 – Friday 08 November 2019

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