Visual art enjoys an unprecedented prominence in public life. From the various millennial projects such as the Walsall Art Gallery and Tate Modern, through to the circus that is the Turner Prize – and the associated shenanigans of our ageing Young British Artists – contemporary art seems to have carved a niche in the carnival of daily life.
Even so, few people know that we are halfway through the National Lottery-funded Year of the Artist. From June 2000 to May 2001, this project has placed around 2000 artists in residencies including shops, businesses, hospitals and newspapers. Now the results of these unusual collaborations are starting to be seen.
“Mostly it’s gone swimmingly,” says Marie Clements, spokeswoman for the Year of the Artist. “There’s been a lot of criticism of the Lottery aspect, but while people didn’t like the idea of the money going to the Royal Opera House, they seem to be able to cope with artists in residence. The residencies are very open to the public, and the idea of an artist in residence in businesses, shops and places such as hospitals relates to everyday life,” she adds.
There is also a strong regional element to the programme, with artists in residence in such sites of local passion as football clubs – poet Atilla the Stockbroker is Brighton and Hove Albion’s artist. “He’s encouraging his peers in the stands to write verse,” says Clements.
Another football artist-in-residence, Richard Piers Rayner, at Middlesborough FC, has even become quite famous, due to his graphic novel being snapped up as Sam Mendes’ follow-up film to American Beauty, and through such schemes, we have become quite used to the idea of artists in residence.
Is it just another millennial waste of money? Well, of an overall spend of some £5m, about £3.5m has been earmarked for the artists, but so extensive is the scheme that the share is not great, with the artists getting on average about £3000 to £4000. Indeed, adds Clements, “It is a way of creating opportunities for artists, and also reminding people about the importance of their work.” There is also the idea that the synergy between the artist and the organisation leads each to learn from one another and in turn creates good results.
There are few criterias to how it should work. Clements says that there is “a whole range of ways to deliver”, from a company being merely a studio provider, or asking the artist to work within a brief. “But no-one is trying to censor the artist. The point is to raise standards.”
Michael Atavar, the artist-in-residence at The Guardian for the past six weeks, was chosen after applying for the post that required someone conversant with “digital technology”. His own work is now linked to the GuardianUnlimited website – the paper’s on-line production – and he goes into the office two days a week to create illustration and html files.
“It’s a bit like having a new studio with lots of facilities,” he says. “My role is to be present, but in a non-functional way. I’m not part of the newspaper, so I can cast a different light on the normal work it does, to watch the flow of information and provide my own commentary.” Indeed, he says that his work stands “in opposition to journalism. It is slow: the speed of a human heart.” With a different pace to the news website and a strong graphic component, it is actually quite restful and can be seen by logging on to www.guardianunlimited.co.uk/artist.
It seems fairly appropriate to have an artist-in-residence at a news media company. But Year of the Artist has also placed people in less obvious environments, such as stately homes. Last summer, photographer John Goto was in residence at three landscaped gardens: Rousham Park, Stourhead and Stowe, and this year the results of his work can be seen at Wolverhampton City Art Gallery.
“By examining these Arcadian landscapes, I wanted to examine our relationship to nature,” says Goto. “We have a complicated relationship to heritage and tourism, and as an observer, I have tried to investigate that relationship.”
He photographed the gardens, buildings and temples of these aristocratic estates in a “kind of documentary way”, watching the “activities of visitors to these places”.
As far as residencies are concerned, Goto primarily approves of them as an alternative form of patronage. “I would say that anything that puts money in artists’ pockets is a good thing and it helps artists produce work,” he says.
There are precedents for Year of the Artists’ residencies scheme, and it is interesting to look back. Architect Jonathan Darke of SEF in London’s Islington hosted sculptor Nicky Hirst as an artist-in-residence, as part of a scheme by art agency INIVA a couple of years ago. “We were challenged, which was good, as that is what artists are supposed to be” says Darke. “It also drew attention to the process, rather than the product, which was illuminating. I liked it, as it enabled us to judge the work beyond the usual concerns, and to have a commentator with a perspective outside the straightforward process of getting buildings built.”
Although initially there for two months, Hirst stayed for a year. But her presence proved slightly divisive among clients. “Some were impressed and we gained kudos with them through having an artist in residence,” says Darke. “But others were cynical. They wanted to know what possible value it could add to the work,” he adds.
For these kinds of reasons, the Year of the Artist has struggled to match the right artist to the right residency. For example, Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby, who have taken a residency at the Victoria and Albert Museum, are appropriate to the site on the basis that he is an industrial designer and she an architect.
They have chosen a kind of “living museum” approach. “We’re using it as a platform to make objects, which we then get people to live with for a month,” says Dunne. The artists are making eight such objects, including a light that switches on in the presence of a radio or television; a stool that is connected to the electrical “earth”; a table with several compasses which respond to the presence of a laptop computer; a “draught excluder for electrical energy” and a ladder with a lead box at the top that is designed to keep “favourite magnetic media safe: things such as cherished ansafone tapes”. “[These objects] are intended to generate reflection about such things as radio waves and electricity,” explains Dunne.
Dunne and Raby, who are noted for their “conceptual design”, have worked closely with the contemporary collections of the V&A during their residency. “It’s looking at the idea of comfort and function in the domestic environment,” says Dunne. “The museum is one of applied art and we’re broadly working within that category.”
Ideally, both the artist and the host establishment gain from the collaboration. A curator who works in digital media at the Ruskin College of Art in Oxford, Paul Bonaventura has been involved with residencies, including Mark Wallinger at Oxford’s Museum of Natural History, and Catherine Yass at the nearby Sir William Dunn School of Pathology. “There are various different kinds of artists’ residencies and some can be quite neutral,” says Bonaventura. “But the best residencies are those that encourage partnerships between experts from other subject areas which enable creative and experimental projects.”
This is certainly something that has happened at Radio 1, where artist in residence Charles Kriel has become one of the success stories of Year of the Artist since he began at the radio station last May. “It’s been quite remarkable,” says Kriel. “Before I went in I had all kinds of fantasies and trepidations. I worried about how it would go down in the fine arts community. Now I don’t care anymore.”
“When you walk into any organisation, it’s difficult. And as an artist, you’ve spent a lot of time by yourself, getting all worked up and religious about your work. But in an institution – even one like Radio 1 – one’s perspective is radically altered.” Indeed, Kriel – an ex-musician himself – feels favourably towards the much-maligned music business. “It’s far less conservative and more adventurous than the world of fine art,” he says. “I think it rewards those that bring energy to it. Fine art has all these social codes wrapped up in it, and this has been a breath of fresh air.”
Essentially, Kriel makes imagery for the Radio 1 website. But his work constitutes more than that, for he designs the digital video-streamed imagery to work with music in real time, most notably for DJ Pete Tong’s Essential Selection show on Fridays. His work with the station, which has moved into the “veejay” category, whereby the image-maker is as important as the DJ, is now credited with raising the ante in the wider context of dance music-related imagery. “There were a lot of lazy visuals in the area, and Kriel has set higher standards,” says Clements. He has now been hired by Radio 1 to stream live videos for another eight months.
He has also shown the way for a more creative, artist-led approach to visuals that accompany music. “You can’t over-emphasise the effect of MTV,” says Kriel. “But it has ushered in a corporate model, whereby a music company which wants imagery hires a Soho production house. I think that’s wrong.
“Clubs and bands spend an awful lot of money getting the visuals done,” he adds. “But when you see visuals that are bad, it detracts from the music.” He cites as interesting the work in the arena where dance music crosses over into the mainstream – Underworld, The Prodigy, The Orb, The Chemical Brothers, Leftfield – they are all acts with a visual element to their live work, but says that the rock world remains dull and conservative in its imagery.
Artist duo Anna Heinrich and Leon Palmer have been working at the IT giant IBM as part of its Interactive Media Team for one day a week. “It is basically involved with innovative ways of promoting companies on the Web,” says Heinrich. “We’re working alongside the creative team to offer an approach that is slightly different.”
Although Heinrich and Palmer haven’t had a great deal of experience in Web design and haven’t been at IBM for long, they feel a certain kinship with the IBM project team. “They are always thinking about the interface: about the entry point into or the website,” says Heinrich. “It’s like thinking about how to make an artwork accessible and they are project based, which suits our way of working. Both of us like working in public places, and IBM is very much a young and energetic environment,” he adds.
Yet there are differences. “Clearly, we don’t have the commercial restraints that the creative teams here do, although we have to be sensitive to issues such as copyright. But the residency can be an exchange of ideas,” adds Heinrich.
As artists in residence with a strong interest in the “site-specific” – they established a reputation for their projections on to buildings – Heinrich and Palmer have researched the history of IBM’s location near Winchester and found it to be a Saxon settlement, which may well influence the website that they are to produce for their residency. The idea, like the wider conceptualisation of Year of the Artist, is to weave art back into the fabric of daily life.
Visit www.yearoftheartist.com for further information