Between Matt Wilkinson and Sheyda A. Khaymaz
This dialogue took place between Sheyda A. Khaymaz and Matt Wilkinson on 27 February 2018. Edited collaboratively by Khaymaz and Wilkinson.
Venue: Pink Lane Coffee, Newcastle, UK.
Themes mentioned: contemporary art in small towns, artist collectives, Shields Road, collaborations, casual curating, serving the art history, identity crisis, bubbles and cliques, trends and cliches, success, anxiety, letting it die, helping others.
Exhibitions mentioned: "Dialogus", Vane, Newcastle upon Tyne, 4 - 21 Oct 2017 curated by Lungs Project. "Anthropological Conjectures", Istanbul, Turkey, 29 Dec 2017 - 30 Jan 2018, a solo show by Sheyda A. Khaymaz. "Something or Nothing", Abington Studios, Blackpool, 15 Mar - 30 Mar 2018, curated by Joseph Doubtfire and Garth Gratrix.
Artworks mentioned: "Composition i", Matt Wilkinson, video, 2014. "Idea Generating Machines", Sheyda A. Khaymaz, sculpture series, 2015-present.
Sheyda: Hi Matt! To start with, I will just briefly introduce you to our "Dialogues". This is an online, conversation-focused programme we devised to place our artists at the centre of a discussion. However, to clarify, I am not interested in descriptive interviews in which artists tell how they painted a picture. There are certainly other platforms for that. I would like this dialogue to be more self-reflective and self-critical, but at the same time critical of the social structures we work within or fight against.
Now, I haven't prepared any questions for you. I think the strength of this conversation lies in determining our shared experiences as artist/curators who work in regional art scenes so we can create a discussion around the issues we both feel vital in our practices. Let’s look at this as a collaborative activity out of which we create a new understanding within our fields, help each other out, encourage others to think more introspectively. What we produce here today will be the creative outcome of our dialogue.
Sheyda: So, I have not seen you since our launch exhibition, Dialogus which was in October 2017. In that show, we exhibited a great video work of yours entitled "Composition i". You are now based in Blackpool and are an artist member of Abington Studios. I was wondering if you have any input in the organisation's public programming as well as holding a studio.
Matt: A little bit, but just in terms of ideas. I think with Blackpool being a seaside town; it differs a lot from the cities, especially major Northern cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle in terms of emerging art. The arts scene in Blackpool is smaller and less developed compared to Newcastle. When I first moved there, I wanted to get involved in as much artist-led activity as possible and contribute to the conversation of contemporary art within the area. Having lived and studied in Newcastle for seven years, I still am in contact with friends and artists up here in addition to artists who have now left the city. When arriving in Blackpool I just wanted to connect the dots a little bit and get people over to Blackpool and put the town in people's minds in terms of art. However, more things are happening and more exhibition opportunities are popping up which is great. Abingdon Studios Co-Director Garth Gratrix has played an integral role in developing Blackpools Contemporary art scene.
The idea of the exhibition Something or Nothing was born out of similar conversations I had with Gratrix and artist Joseph Doubtfire who has taken the lead in curating this project. The exhibition consists of Abingdon studio members exhibiting a piece of work that is miniature in scale or part of a larger construction of work, and inviting an artist of their choice to also exhibit in the show. It is exciting that you agreed to be part of this exhibition Sheyda! Other studio artists have also asked artists from around the country to contribute work. We see this as a great opportunity for networking and building up a wider dialogue for future collaborations. Even though I'm not the organiser of this exhibition, I am a part of a much broader conversation about what is going on in Blackpool. We just want to make more things happen!
S: Absolutely! Also, you're not a stranger to curating as you have been involved in curatorial collectives such as MILK and other projects since your undergraduate studies. Having lived in Newcastle as both an artist and a curator, how do you compare the artistic communities of Newcastle and Blackpool? Can you expand on this a little bit? You have mentioned Blackpool as somewhat underdeveloped in terms of contemporary art, and I am curious to hear more about it.
M: Although I think it's unfair to compare both places, I personally find Blackpool more liberating as an artist. It may be a coincidence but I had my busiest year in terms exhibitions and co-curating whilst I was based in Blackpool last year. However, some of these opportunities came via artists I knew or had previously worked with from my time in the North East. I didn’t actually exhibit any works in Blackpool last year, so Something or Nothing will be my first time as an exhibiting artist in Blackpool which is exciting. Last year most of the shows I was involved with were further afield such as at The House of BLAH BLAH in Middlesbrough, Suede Gallery in Edinburgh and the Lungs Project at Vane Gallery in Newcastle which you curated and organised.
Abingdon Studios, where I am currently based as an artist studio holder, is located directly above Abingdon indoor market which is great as a practicing artist due to its location within the centre of the town and being next to the iconic Blackpool Winter Gardens venue. Most importantly though, the artists are at the centre of the scene which is most beneficial and hence I feel this is an exciting time for Blackpool. Abingdon Studios' Co-Director Garth Gratrix, set up I.C.W (In Collaboration With) around a year ago, taking over an empty two-floor shop in the town centre. Since then, he has hosted multiple exhibitions inviting artists both from and outside of Blackpool to exhibit and develop their work. This space has been an interesting way of inviting artists to Blackpool and for locals to engage with contemporary art. Abingdon Studios' other Co-Director Tom Ireland owns Supercollider Contemporary Art Projects which is also based at Abingdon Studios. It was nice last year that Abingdon Studios got national recognition and was listed on Kevin Hunt’s artist led top 100 most exciting U.K. initiatives for emerging artist-led activity.
I am yet to set up my own initiative or project in Blackpool but it is something that I would be interested in doing at some stage in the future. I also believe that it is hugely beneficial to give other artists opportunities if you can as I believe it also helps your development via co-curation, event management and one’s own fine art practice etc. Also, to create and engage in a dialogue with fellow artists about contemporary art practice is extremely important as you can easily become isolated in the arts if you never leave your studio and stay in your little bubble.
S: It certainly seems like most artist-led activities are concentrated within the city centre. However, to go back a little, I'm actually interested in your experience with MILK collective who at some point organised a series of exhibitions in a highly working-class and underdeveloped neighbourhood. To me, the collective looks like a really tight group, composed of people who have studied together, all coming from very similar backgrounds. Also, they have a huge number of members. Given these, what was the overall decision-making process within the collective? What were some strategies you used to gain strength in your shared background and interests but also to encourage the difference in opinions to emerge positively? With that, I guess, I am trying to ask, how did you deal with the possible drawbacks of everyone being on a similar level of understanding? That could have produced really boring results.
M: MILK collective operates at times like a tag team in regards to different members taking the project lead for different exhibitions. From the beginning, the collective have always wanted to help provide emerging artists with a platform to exhibit their work in the North East. An example of what I mean by the collective operating like a tag team is when myself and Ash Howland Davenport co-curated and project managed the exhibition One Foot In The Cradle at the House of BLAH BLAH, Middlesbrough on behalf of MILK. Previous to that, MILK were in-residence at The Division of Labour, London where Joe Shaw, Max Lee and Matt Antoniak took the project lead. As a collective, I suppose we have never all sat down and given each other specific roles, things have just kind of fallen into place in regards to how we operate. My role is as an exhibiting artist and the collective photographer who has documented predominately all of MILK's exhibitions.
I think with all collectives and artist-led organisations, a difference in opinions is quite healthy. We tried to encourage different ideas and voices, so having multiple artists involved with the collective is a positive thing. We haven't kept on continuously agreeing on the same things, which like I say, is healthy. In my opinion, it is natural and normal for collectives to change or lose members over time, predominately due to the fact that artists end up seeking different things during their careers. Hence why the group became a lot smaller since its founding in 2015. Initially the collective started with around 12 members.
S: Twelve people?!
M: Yeah, something like that. The collective was established when we had all graduated from Newcastle University in 2015. Being friends who wanted to continue creating new work and wanting a platform to do so in Newcastle, we formed The Byker Gallery on Shields Road and held an open call. The Byker Gallery was an empty supermarket before we moved in and we transformed the space into a pop-up gallery. This would result in a series of four exhibitions in four weeks at the space, co-curating under the name MILK whilst exhibiting our own work in addition to other early career to mid-career artists who applied via the open call. I remember you coming to those shows actually because I was taking photos at the previews.
S: Hahah! Yes, I used to live just around the corner on Heaton Road. It was pretty refreshing to see contemporary art amongst the betting stores and pawnbrokers at my doorstep on Shields Road, the very same street once was named the worst shopping location in the U.K.
M: I think that is why those exhibitions worked so well. It is always interesting to host exhibitions in locations where a percentage of the footfall may not be your traditional contemporary art gallery audience. Coming from a working class area myself, I can understand how certain individuals may be intimidated or alienated by contemporary art as a whole, so to host a programme of events like that was great. I was always interested to see people's response as they came to have a look at the work and see which works they engaged with and which works they didn’t. In addition to the exhibitions, we also held community engaged printmaking and singing workshops in the space, as well as two artist residencies.
S: I really hoped that you permanently occupied that space. It would have been amazing to see more exhibitions in Byker.
M: Yeah that’s true. We did hope to host more exhibitions but due to our lack of money it wouldn’t be possible. From the beginning I think we all knew that to move into a space like that on a permanent basis would be financially unsustainable. We did love the space though and it was the perfect location, only around 15 minutes walk from outside the city centre. The building also had a lot of glass windows on the street level which was great for engaging local people to come in and see the show, even if they stopped momentarily and have a brief look through the gallery windows.
S: Sure, I thought the glass façade was perfect for exposure too. In terms of other MILK related projects, I'm familiar with the gallery, Slugtown, also founded by artists from MILK. Can you tell me more about this initiative?
M: Yes. Slugtown is a gallery founded in March 2017, based in the lounge of the house I used to live in in Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne. It is a project that I initially had a loose involvement with when it was first established; but recently I’ve taken on a more active role. The gallery is co-run by Matt Antoniak, Max Lee, James Hindle, Joe Shaw and myself. We are all MILK Collective members who wanted to establish our own exhibiting space/gallery. As practicing artists, we were all intrigued by the idea of having a gallery in a domestic space, hence why our lounge was transformed into Slugtown. Since December 2017, I have become the project photographer for Slugtown. The gallery has had nine exhibitions so far which have been received positively. It has also been great to have neighbours coming to see the shows from our street who were intrigued and curious about what we were doing.
S: That sounds excellent! Now, it seems that you have had some curatorial experience, working within different artistic communities, even as an undergraduate student. It's evident to me that you're carrying this experience forward in what you do in Blackpool. As an artist/curator, you're trying to contribute to the artistic discussion in an underdeveloped town, freshen up its public sphere, just like what you collectively did in Byker. Since you are also involved in - broadly speaking - curating, have the factors you pay attention to in an exhibition changed? For example, you seem to be thinking about the social implications of the projects you realise in a public space; you're considering the social milieu and the level cultural engagement within a certain area. At least, you're reflecting on the impact of the exhibitions you make. Did you look at it the same way as a student artist when showing work in shows organised by others?
M: You might need to explain this a bit more.
S: Ok, I will give you an example from my experience. I think having initiated and managed curatorial projects gave me a lot of useful tools in terms of communicating with others, handling budgets, even becoming a good administrator; sort of stuff I was reluctant to get into, or rather didn't find enjoyable. I was only interested in different artistic processes and just wanted to talk to artists, to get to know them, and this was also deeply rooted in my everyday interactions with them. For example, this conversation is a result of me wanting to be immersed in the intersection of the everyday and art/curating. Curating, as a framework could be as casual as having this chat in which we can get as critical as we want or stay lighthearted. My curatorial experience fundamentally changed the way I work as an artist; it made me more of a social artist. So my question is, has becoming an artist with curatorial experience affected your approach to your art in general?
M: Yes I think it has. Curation is extremely important and something all artists should think about in regards to the context of their work within an exhibition setting. I believe that these ‘attention to details’ are important in regards to an artwork's relationship to another. I try to visualise how certain works may work in more unusual places in galleries. I often draw up multiple sketches before going into the gallery space and continuing to play with ideas and work placement etc. Personally I have a lot more experience as an artist than a curator. Hence, if you look at my background I have always co-curated with other people; I have never actually solely curated a show. I have, for a while, sporadically worked in collaboration with Ash Howland Davenport, a video installation artist I am good friends with. So, there's an aspect of collaboration and working with other people in my practice.
When it comes to my art marking on a build-up to an exhibition, I always want to inhabit and look around the gallery venue before the install, to see how this could affect my ideas and work. At the moment, I am working with Matt Antoniak from MILK on an exhibition at Abingdon Studios. Although we will be exhibiting as artists, we have been talking about ideas relating to the potential curation of the show and how we might use the size and scale of the gallery space in an interesting and different way. We are thinking about making some large-scale works alongside miniature works to see how they will all work in the space. We are currently talking about how to play with the audiences' spatial perception when they walk into the space. I’m currently thinking of creating a massive photographic print or wallpaper to cover an entire back wall with Matt’s paintings hung over the top. This is just one seed of an idea we have casually discussed. I’m excited to see how this co-curation will develop. The upcoming exhibition in May 2018 will be at Abingdon Studios' 2nd floor so the work won’t be visible from the street. In regards to your question about hosting exhibitions in areas whose residents might not be familiar with contemporary art practice, I think it is really interesting to organise shows like this to help create a wider conversation on art, engagement and its value within society.
S: So, from what I understand, you and Matt Antoniak are trying to conceive the whole show theoretically even before you begin to create the work. I definitely see some curatorial exercises in that. Look, I think I'm unconsciously trying to get to an agreement with you here on artist/curator practices. I come from an academic background, and what I often witness is the resistance against loosely-structured forms of curating. Let's face it; the academia is confined within tremendously rigid structures, the field of curating is incredibly professionalised and institutionalised. Hence, I see "casual curating" as a form of rebellion, to be honest. I mean, "artist/curator" is in no way a new term; artists have also been curating for a while now. I really do believe artists curate more intuitively than some institutional curators out there. That's why I refer to it as casual curating. For example, I have been trying to get you to say the word for ages here, yet you still don't call yourself a curator. For you, it's a natural extension of your skillset, a desire to put yourself out in the world working with other artists, trying to affect change in however small ways you can.
M: Ha ha, yeah I suppose I never refer to myself as a curator. I’ve always defined myself as an artist really… In regards to curation, I don't have experience of the academic side of things. I suppose I tend to look at things from a more immediate and instinctive perspective; through visual forms, aesthetic, scale and ideas. I prefer to approach curation in a playful and liberating way but obviously consider the subject matter of the artists' work involved in the show. I don’t bring in academic and theory-heavy influences. I suppose I lack the confidence and maybe, the individual experience as a curator to label myself one at this moment in time. Like I mentioned previously, nearly all my curation work has been a collaborative co-curation.
S: You have mentioned for the exhibition you are working on with Matt Antoniak that you're already thinking about how the show will be perceived by the public. You are trying to create a setting in which all works will enter into a conversation amongst themselves, with the space, and with the people around them. I've only gained this understanding recently! A few years ago, my artistic practice was so introverted that I rarely paid attention to what was going on around me. I just kept on making objects, and all I thought about was their relationship between themselves. I regarded these objects as autonomous so, of course, they didn't care whether or not they were being perceived. I'm afraid this attitude comes with reading a lot of continental philosophy! Just loads of abstract ideas! However, now, I see myself as a social practitioner; I understand that everything exist within a broader web of relationships and overlapping social narratives. Everything is sort of entangled. Then how can I isolate myself and my practice from the community I operate within? I simply can't! Over time, wider social and political context of works became as interesting to me as individual experiences. I owe that to studying Curatorial Practice, whereas you have been working with others, in numerous collaborations, towards this same goal.
M: I think some things become apparent to us over time. When I was studying as an undergraduate, my tutor used to tell me to look at different ways of displaying a video, rather than the traditional cinematic approach to project onto a 2D surface. During that time, I came across artists like Tony Oursler who were projecting their works on buildings, smoke machines, sculptures, puppets etc. Thinking about the context and the history of a medium is also a huge part of developing as an artist. Yes, your immediate thought might be to project a video work onto a wall; however, trying to challenge the traditional ideas through experimental means will eventually help advance the medium you work in (if you’re lucky haha) I think you should try to escape the cliches and not do everyone else is doing. Next step for me to venture into more experimental methodologies. How do you look at your art? Do you think a lot about the art historical aspect of it?
S: I suppose I now accept that there are many different ways to talk about an idea, most of which I believe I try to use. For example, my latest solo exhibition in Istanbul, Anthropological Conjectures included a performance and some sculptural works, as well as a publication. It was highly collaborative and inter-disciplinary. I also experimented with creative writing and various forms of story-telling. Looking back now, the ideas the exhibition was trying to convey were the very same ideas which drove me to make sculptures some years ago. I guess, the more I research, collaborate, learn from others, and experiment, more tools I add to my pool of skills. So having to go back in the studio just to make more sculptures doesn't excite me as much as it used to anymore. I guess that is the reason my sculptural series, Idea Generating Machines are on pause at the moment. They just aren't as efficient as they used to be, or I have changed!
M: I find that quite interesting. There are certainly similarities in my experience too. There were times I would go into the studio and just get on with making and editing things. However, then comes the point you sit back and think about it and contextualise it. In terms of your artistic practice, you don't keep on just making.
S: I understand that! I guess my anxiety stems from not being able to talk about my ideas directly and with sincerity in sculptural forms. When making sculptures, these ideas are always filtered through a certain language; the formal language and histories of modern sculpture. So, to be able to interact with my objects thoroughly, you first need to know about these histories. Sure, there are many other aspects of my work which I know a lot of people immediately pick up on. However, I always worry whether or not someone understanding only some parts of my work is enough. At the same time, I don't want to alienate communities who have never been exposed to notions underpinning my practice. I think I'm finding it tiresome not saying what I want to say as directly as, for example, in an article. Such is the challenge of this medium! These days, however, I find my speech more effective as a curator than as a sculptor. I am hoping one day my sculptures can get to that level too, a level which they are actively engaging the audience, rather than quietly sitting in a gallery. You believe in pushing the norms of your medium to help eventually evolve it. In a way, you would be serving the art history by doing so. I admire that, and I guess I'm trying to do the same thing.
M: It is difficult though! How much dialogue you have with other sculptors you feel who are relatable to you? People on the same wavelength, working with the similar set of ideas?
S: With sculptors? None! I'm mostly dissatisfied with the majority of sculptures being produced by my peers. Every day I am becoming more tired of sculptural trends followed blindly by lots of young artists. This is the kind of stuff which obliterates your Instagram feed. It is exhausting! Plus, there are so many cliques, so much ego and competition in this scene! So I turn to people who I can completely be myself around, most of who come from non-art backgrounds. Some social sciences, politics, architecture. Perhaps, this is the reason why I am overly critical of my own sculptures because I know not everyone has the theoretical background to get a holistic view of my work. My interactions with people who are NOT sculptors are making me more political, continually pushing me to reassess my privileges and check my ethics to become more inclusive. So, I am happy I broke out of my artsy bubble.
M: In a way, if you feel that your work stands alone amongst other artists' works, maybe this is a good thing. It means that it is your own vision. If you continue to pursue it, great things can come out of it. I think it is healthy to see lots of work you don't like; this way you get to refine your interests. Sometimes I find it almost reassuring, looking at a work and saying "That's bollocks! I'm going to do it my way instead!" However, the other side of the coin is to have a dialogue with that work, whether it is negative or positive.
S: Yeah! I do believe that it is helping me to identify my challenges. For example, when I see an exhibition of works adopting those popular styles, I do say "bollocks" to that too. However, that also fuels me with excitement when I sit in front of my computer and write about all the ways I, as a curator, can counteract these tendencies and overwhelmingly popular narratives in today's artworld.
M: I think if you feel that your voice is louder as a curator than as an artist, you will need someone like you to curate your work. Maybe, if someone else is curating your work, they will approach your sculptures with the same enthusiasm you approach other artists' works. I suppose you can curate your own work too, but I think it is a lot healthier get someone else to do it. I think with other people curating your work it is always interesting and can be insightful in regards to hearing their thoughts and a fresh perspective.
S: I'm not at all interested in curating my work. Anyways, don't listen to me! I think this an attention seeking yelp coming from a part of my identity that is dying. I have put my sculptures on a back burner for a while now, and I think the sculptor inside me is panicking. Let's call it a sort of an identity crisis, although this is quite a dramatic way of putting it!
M: If you look at all the different phases artists go through in their careers; you see that it is natural for manifestos, styles, identities to change and die. You can then create something new. Some things result in failure; you might not necessarily like some things. As corny as it sounds, this is all a part of the journey, isn't it? It is important not to resist change if you feel that it's right to move on to the next phase or series of new work. Whatever that may be, whether it is moving on to a new medium, idea, experimentation or project. Throughout your career I am sure sculpture will be at the forefront of your practice again in one way or another. It may be in an entirely new and different way, maybe a different set of ideals, aesthetics etc.
S: So you're saying I should let it die?
M: In a way. What I am trying to say is that you should do what you feel is right and if you feel you want to explore other avenues; that result in your sculpture practice taking a back seat, don’t panic! Go for it. Like you said, you are gaining new skills, ideas and knowledge that I believe will benefit you as an artist as well as a curator in future projects. Sometimes I go with my gut. I do that quite often actually. Sometimes more than I go with my head which I still don't know whether or not is a good thing.
S: I constantly have that internal battle, so this is excellent advice.
M: I have dabbled in many forms of artmaking. I worked with spoken word, performance, photography, text as well as video. I was once advised by a former tutor that it is important to create what you feel is right at that given time, due to it being the most relevant and real to you as an artist. I think it's your duty to follow your instinct and allow change to naturally happen.
S: Relax and don't panic!
M: Yeah I think so!
S: Thanks for your advice. I do get anxiety if I haven't made any work in a while so I will remember your words!
M: Sure. I think when you get back to it, you will have learnt from all the other activities you are now involved in. You will be able to look at things with fresh eyes.
S: So Matt, you have been really helpful. A few last words?
M: I think we have a lot of peers who might be thinking they are falling behind on their work because they haven't exhibited in a while, or fallen out of synch with their studio practice; you're really never that far. You just have to keep going.
S: Yes! I also want to add, seek help! Go out, find your friends and have discussions with them.
M: Yes definitely, I find that some of the best chats come at the pub! I think it is also true that the art world is a weird world regarding the different journeys and paths people take that lead to all different types of opportunities. Success is always defined individually. Things don't happen within a simplistic path, it is rather a winding road along which you make lots of random connections, find small victories.
S: I never like to focus on success all that much. If you buy into "success", you are bound to be let down because it means you're trying to be a part of a narrative existing completely independent of you. A narrative you have no control over, a box you're trying to squeeze yourself into. Guess what I am trying to say is, don't seek validation from outside as a measure of success and preserve your authenticity. I know it is difficult to do so in the arts. But I do see internal satisfaction as the driving force of longevity which of course comes with failing lots and lots until you find your voice.
M: Yes definitely!
S: Well, this has been great! I have learnt so much! Thanks for your contribution today!
M: Thank you! I think you helped me more than I helped you!