A Dialogue Between Angela Wingate-Burdon and Sheyda A. Khaymaz
This dialogue between Angela Wingate-Burdon and Sheyda A. Khaymaz took place on 29 October 2017 via Skype. Edited collaboratively by Khaymaz and Wingate-Burdon.
Venues: Angela’s living room, Dayton, Ohio and Sheyda’s studio, Newcastle, UK.
Themes mentioned: Commercial galleries, institutional critique, creepiness, emerging practices, collaboration, academic language, curating, photography, black identity, otherness, self-critique, DIY, DIWO, inspiring others.
Exhibitions mentioned: "Dialogus", Vane, Newcastle upon Tyne, 4 - 21 Oct 2017 curated by Lungs Project. "Touch", Patriothall Gallery, Edinburgh, 27 Oct - 9 Nov 2017, curated by Esbat Collective.
Artworks mentioned: "Self-portrait", Angela Wingate-Burdon, photography, 2017
Angela: Hi Sheyda! So first of all, how do want this interview to go? Are you asking me questions?
Sheyda: Hi Angela! Well, I have made some notes from the bullet points in your recent email. However, I don't think there should be an interviewer and an interviewee. I think it should be a dialogue - yes, that word again. Let's just have a conversation and see where it will take us.
A: Sounds good!
S: To begin with, you said that initially, your intention with Lungs was to push against the status-quo, to carve a space for yourself as an artist/curator, as well the artists you collaborate with because you felt that there we no spaces of discussion, especially in Sunderland. You also mentioned that you believe we lost touch with this spirit a little bit and took a bit of an academic turn. I guess I want to hear more about what you mean by academic? To me, it sounds like you are confusing it with theoretical.
A: I think my feelings were explicitly affected by the fact that our exhibition, "Dialogus", this year, was held in Vane because they are so commercial. I think as a one-off experiment, it is great because Vane is a professional gallery. They are well known. They have their own audience. They have a particular programming, so people know what they are going to get there. There is also a certain expectation from the audience about the quality of the work. Working with them has been beneficial for us this year as we now have a more significant audience, mostly due to the fact that we had an exhibition there. However, it is not something I would like to do every time. It makes me feel kind of creepy. Maybe this isn't the most suitable word, but this is how I feel.
S: I definitely agree. It does make me feel uneasy to have a continuing association with a commercial gallery. Mostly, because I think we wouldn't grow much from that; we wouldn't be able to produce something new out of that dialogue every time. Commercial spaces have a rigid structure, and their goals are pretty obvious. They always are aware of where they stand because they need to have a precise understanding of the art market. To me, this leaves very little or almost no space for experimentation.
S: When you said that we took an academic turn, all I was trying to do is being utterly critical of the mechanisms these commercial galleries operate within; to express what I am just talking about now but at the same time to critique our first issue and re-visit our motives. It took me to write an essay about it because this is how my brain mostly works. I guess I was trying to say; "I am aware that the first issue was completely independent, and we went on to organise an exhibition in a nightclub, but this wasn't critical enough for me". I think, last year, Lungs turned a blind eye to the structures that were out there, not only did it not critique them but at the same time, it bypassed them. So, what I wanted to find out this year was whether or not we could work within these structures but still remain critical of the establishment, also, to see what we could learn from working with them. As I said, I would never want this to be an ongoing thing. As an experiment, however, we gained an incredible amount of experience. The preview of our show was really busy. We also managed to tap into Vane's audience base, everyone who receives their newsletters now knows about us. Also, I believe we got featured in The Journal because we opted for a gallery which has all these resources I mention. So I guess what I want to ask now; do you still think that this is an academic approach or just a critical one?
A: It is a really thin line. I believe you can be critical without being academic, but to me, the line often gets fuzzy. I always find myself overwhelmed with artspeak. That is not my scene and definitely not what I initially wanted Lungs to be about. It can be quite isolating sometimes. Also, last year we didn't aim to critique anything, we were only trying to get the work out there, and even that was really difficult.
S: I think your fears have a basis. I guess you felt that if we use a somewhat academic jargon, we fall into the danger of alienating our audience. After all, Lungs is all about building connections, rather than isolating certain people and communities.
A: I think as long as we keep this in mind, we can still investigate theories and experiment without being so dry. I don't think we have fully crossed over to the academic; I just sense that we are heading that way sometimes. Moving forward, I want us to be aware of the implications of the language we use.
S: To me, this language is a kind of a spectrum. It doesn't have a specific onwards trajectory. We have many arms that reach the academia but at the same time other arms in different fields. In other words, we have so many different tools! Just because we used one of them a little more than the rest, it doesn't mean we are completely going in that direction. As you said, it is about self-awareness. Do you think, then, in our latest edition we worked around this issue?
A: I think we did.
S: I think so too. This is also clear in "Dialogus" as the show stemmed from the theories we used in putting together the issue. If we were to gather a bunch of works together under the premise of a group exhibition, I think we would end up with quite an average show. This is not to say the works weren't good. They were amazing! However, average in the sense that we, as curators, wouldn't be able to further our practices. Honestly, I am only doing this because I want to learn and grow. Making exhibitions for the sake of making exhibitions doesn't mean anything to me.
A: I agree!
S: I think it is helpful here if we talk about our aims as Lungs. You mentioned collaboration. To me, this has always been at the core of Lungs. You said that you want to create a collaborative exchange not only with the artists but also with community groups, with small business owners, with other alternative organisations. For example, Holmeside Coffee and The Independent, Tyne and Weird, bigger organisations like Vane, or even my cake-maker friend Dean. While I think it is valuable creating a long-lasting relationship with these people, I also think that we are confusing the exchange of commerce with the exchange of creative dialogue. Maybe we should establish the differences in between so we know how to approach these two. To illustrate, I made a diagram.
A: Oh god!
S: Don't worry; it's a small diagram!
S: This is us, in the middle. Surrounding us, all the parties we have interacted with in the past two years, from Jay Sykes to Sunderland City Council, from our designer friend Calvin Bone to Print North East. As you see, this is a spider graph. What it means, to me, is that we are in the centre of receiving all the benefits. I see this as a community serving us, doing us favours regardless of their wants, needs and agendas. I think this is a very selfish place to be at. I wonder what they are all gaining from this interaction.
A: I don't see it that way at all. I see it as an equal exchange. They are getting the same opportunities as us. For example, Tyne and Weird are very new, so they need exposure and opportunities, and we provided them with that. They are on all of our literature; we still keep on supporting them online. We directed people to their website so a lot of people who follow us know who they are now. It is the same with Jay Sykes as well. He is a content creator, and we provided him with content two years in a row. We do a podcast with him, and he does write-ups about what we are doing. I can say the same with Holmeside Coffee; last year we directed people there to buy our magazine. I don't see it as us being selfish and sucking all the freebies from them. Ultimately, in the North East, none of us have money. We might not be able to support each other financially, but we can support each other in trade and exchange. I wouldn't want to ask someone a favour without being able to reciprocate somehow. Also, once we build these relationships with people, when they need something, they come to us. When Jay Sykes, for example, needs advice on his Arts Council application based on Lungs' structure and activities, we can help him with that. I see this as an open dialogue between us on equal standing and not as us taking it all.
S: Maybe I am overly critical, but I haven't actually felt that it was an ongoing, two-way dialogue. It just felt like an exchange of skills and resources and wasn't built on a creative basis but more practical.
A: It doesn't always have to be a 50/50 exchange and not always will everyone get the same thing. It is mostly a case of "we are aware what you want to do, and we want to support you in meeting your goals." It doesn't have to be tangible either. I think it is because we are in the same community and we are all rooting for each other. Even a retweet is a form of support.
S: Do you think that we should be able to create a dialogue between these parties as well? Do you think they need to interact too?
A: For it to be an equal exchange, they need to interact. In fact, most of them already do, as this is a small community.
S: I entirely understand what you mean, but I just don't feel convinced. What I want to see here in the centre of the diagram is our artists co-existing with us. I think that is why I am still a little dubious.
A: When I talk about Lungs, I mean you and I. We are not established enough to present endless opportunities for the artists. Ultimately, our goal is to reach that state, to put artists in the middle, so we can facilitate these relationships within the network of support we have ourselves built. However, right now, I am focusing on growing the project so we can finally get to that place. We still need the help of our community. We intend to create opportunities for underexposed artists, but this takes a lot of time. We are only in our second year. Also, the bigger the network is, the more opportunities we can extract from them. We are currently dealing with five groups in Newcastle and Sunderland, and that is hardly large enough.
S: I understand! I guess, for me, the best part of the project is to enter into a dialogue with artists when we design the magazine and organise the exhibitions. A lot of the growth for me came from those interactions. So, for Lungs to have any longevity and long-term success, we need to be able to maintain and further this dialogue, deepen these connections so to speak. Actually, this brings to mind "Touch", the exhibition you were involved in with some of the Lungs artists from last year's issue. You working in collaboration with those artists, post-Lungs 2016, is a direct manifestation of this intent. We will also curate an edition of this show here in Newcastle. A great example of how we can sustain these relationships.
A: Oh yes! The exhibition was curated by Esbat, a female artist collective based in Edinburgh. Most of them went to Edinburgh College of Art together, and that includes Mary Trodden, who we have featured in Lungs 2016. The exhibition was held in Patriothall Gallery. What Mary wanted to examine was the effects of technology on artists with studio practices, for example, how the online space interferes with the studio space. I had a photographic work in the exhibition, a work I made as a part of a self-portrait series. I don't know why I included that particular work. I guess I am quite angry these days, so I wanted to confront some people.
S: In your work, you are examining your personal identity, but at the same time this identity is tied into a more complex web of histories and politics. Your identity has a collective connotation and not just a personal one. After all, you are investigating "blackness" through your own experience. It is incredibly difficult to do so in the current political climate and with white-supremacist ideologies on the rise, especially in your own home country. I suppose it is the most unwelcoming climate right now.
A: I always find this ironic because it is where I am from, and it is where I feel the least comfortable. When you are young, and you are the "other", you try to blend in and try to be similar to everyone else as much as possible. The older I get, the less I want to be like that. In the North East of England, I was always the only black person in the room. However, it didn't make me feel in any negative way. I am back home in The States now, and all of a sudden my race is a massive problem for me. I guess this self-portrait series is my way of saying "Yeah I am black. Deal with it!"
S: I think that your work communicates everything that is wrong with current racial politics, but it does so in quite a subtle way. It's really confronting but vulnerable at the same time.
A: I had about ten photos in the series, and that was the most militant one of them all. This wasn't even my first choice. I was initially going to exhibit another photo in which I looked peaceful and serene. After discussing it with people, I thought "if the point is to be here, to be present and to take up space, why not use the most confronting one?" But I still am sort of shy about it. When Esbat posted it on the Facebook event page for the first time, I gasped out loud! I guess this is something I have to deal with.
S: Well, you are working on a self-portrait series. I think it is about time you deal with shyness.
A: This was the reason I stopped doing photography for a number of years. I couldn't get over myself. I was afraid of critique and self-critique also.
S: Speaking of critique, I think self-critique is so vital for us right now as Lungs. I feel that we are at a really crucial stage in the project. We can either keep on what we are doing, and I do think we would do okay (however, there is also a high risk of stagnation) or we can push ourselves to do better than we did every year. To be able to manage that, we need to be really harsh on ourselves. We need to know why we are doing the things we do and where this gets us. We are nowhere near where we want to be at right now, but I also acknowledge that it is a process and a learning curve for us because we are both young and we only recently began our careers. So, as if I haven't been playing the bad cop for the whole interview, I want to ask you about the DIY aspect of the project which you are so fond of.
A: How do you hate DIY so much? It is what we are doing!
S: I don't really hate DIY. I just think that it is an obsolete term and quite irrelevant now. First of all, DIY lost its radical and political essence and became utterly mainstream. Every day I encounter a DIY collective popping up on the internet, mostly run by artists from white, middle-class backgrounds. It does not speak to me at all. Whether due to the lack of racial diversity or political apathy, I often feel underrepresented in most DIY spaces I visit. It is a term people like to throw around these days because it sounds cool. I cringe when I see a so-called DIY gallery in a big art fair because the whole anti-capitalist rhetoric of DIY is emptied out now. Secondly, everything we do, we do it with others, not just by ourselves. I think a more relevant term for us would be, DIWO: Doing It With Others. I believe this is the natural progression of the historical DIY ethics.
A: What I mean by DIY is us (you and I), doing it because no one else would do it for us. We don't receive any monetary support; we are a self-initiated project. We are not getting paid for this. It is also up to us to keep it going. This is a passion project, and we are motivating each other. So by DIY, I do mean the two of us as the driving force behind the project.
S: I see. I think this gives us a lot of space to experiment because we don't have to follow any rules or to suit any funder's agendas. That is why we were so experimental in the latest issue because we were free to do what we wanted. You said that you see print media as a space for experimentation, a space to explore various processes and methodologies. You want to inspire others to get out there and do it for themselves. I really like that! Do you think Lungs has been successful in inspiring others so far?
A: Absolutely! There are a handful of groups that have popped up recently, solely based on what Lungs has been able to do.
S: It's interesting you bring that up because I have been noticing those initiatives too. Their intentions, like us, seem to be supporting emerging artists in the North East specifically.
A: Yes. Not to toot our own horn but I do believe it is because we are sort of relentless. We are out there now, and we showed them they could do it too. Also, we now have other organisations approaching us, asking our advice. We must be influencing other people, and it is an indication that we are doing something right.
S: Now, I don't believe in singular narratives. We are not trying to be the authority on this nor are we trying to be trailblazers. Peer support has always been a part of artistic development; we haven't just invented it now. However, being able to inspire others is an incredibly life-affirming thought and makes this endeavour all the more worthwhile. Do you think we should end here, on a sweet note?
A: Why not!