By Brady Knight
This months FORUM talk at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff is entitled ‘Wales in Venice’. Organised by Ffotogallery and WARP, the discussion this month will focus on the opportunities and aspirations for Welsh artists and creative practitioners to travel to Venice in an invigilation role, the hope being to gather inspiration and experience from one of the world’s most prolific and famous art cities and to further develop their artistic positions and potential careers.
The Arts Council Wales offers positions in various cities with bright artistic culture around the world, a popular and sought-after opportunity for many artistic practitioners throughout Wales and FORUM this month gathers several of them together whose city of choice was Venice to discuss firstly the reasons behind their desired destination, their ambitions and objectives leading to this choice and secondly the benefits and detriments of taking this placement, how it has influenced their career decisions and artistic practice.
Held in Chapter’s Stwdio space, we are welcomed warmly in the bright and airy foyer where casual discussion begins as people outline the topic for the evening and friendly banter takes place as the rest of the guests arrive. The main discussion then takes place in the large, wide-open studio space, where we arrange ourselves in a circle near the large projection wall, where the speakers will stand. Darkened for the projections to play, the room is ambient. As organisers and visitors of the Diffusion Festival will know, up until an hour before the talk began the space was used for Gideon Koppel’s Borth film, his large projection meditatively documenting the inward and outward coastline of the small island town of Borth in West Wales, a juxtaposition of infinite seascape and dilapidated yet undeniably homely architecture. Those aware of the show will already appreciate a theme of travel and location for the talk.
Casual and friendly we settle into the talks quickly and first to speak is Victoria Malcolm, a seasoned and observational art practitioner, intelligent and focused she begins with her initial aspirations for wanting to visit Venice. Interested in the strong African presence in Venice and having a South African Background herself, doing a residency there earlier in her career, she had an invested passion to explore and document this finer aspect of the culture. It was also her hope to organise collaborative workshops with African members of the culture that she encountered. Driven more by passion in her interest in African culture in Venice she also had another more intellectual interest in visiting; fascinated by the intricate sewer systems of the city she was interested in exploring and documenting the elements of a society built to civilise it, to help the everyday running of it more efficiently, and she observes that the people of Venice have more of an interest in this aspect of their society. Through her hands-on approach she has become very knowledgeable on Italian culture; she enlightens us with insightful information throughout her talk. Her visit to Venice was compelling and successful; she describes this kind of opportunity as being able to give weight to what you do in your practice, informing your position and status – to have worked in Venice, and it seems evident from her insightful and passionate approaches that she has been influenced by her experiences in Venice in this way.
Some simple questions are directed at Victoria as she draws her talk to a close, her concise account already covering most details of her trip, and we then move swiftly on to the second speaker, Samuel Hasler. A highly prolific and unique visual and performance artist, Sam has produced hundreds of works throughout his young career. His approach is often one of caricatures or personas, portrayals of people in a variety of precarious, mundane or even crude situations; a subversive, ironic, perhaps satirical commentary on a bunch of questionable individuals seldom observed in modern society, and it is unclear as to whether Sam sees himself, or if we as viewers should see him fit into this group or not; or perhaps his work speculates that we all belong in this group in some way or at some point or another; his intentions maybe unknown but his work certainly remains unusually potent.
His talk at FORUM certainly kept to this theme, regaling us with an erotic, often graphic, occasionally poetic, sometimes-perverse account of a man (we are unsure at first if it is Sam) and his wild fantasies and experiences with the Venice prostitute community. Sam portrays this character, nervous and shaking as he recounts the story, going into often-unnecessary levels of details of the unnamed man’s thoughts and emotions. Several, also unnamed, girls appear throughout his story, elevating them to the level of Goddesses, he prominently refers to them only as ‘she’. Longing and full of desire he is reduced to a animalistic, slave-like shell of a human being as he obsesses over the attractive and lavishly decorated women of the night. The only discernable theme of the talk, it continues for a seemingly long time before fading into a short, sharp ending and we are left stunned by Sam’s unexpected performance.
Singularly-themed and seemingly unrelated as though one huge digression from the main theme of the talk, we wonder as to the value of Sam’s speech in the ‘Wales in Venice’ FORUM discussion; but in light of the artist’s background and practice we can begin to establish the meaning of his almost inappropriate expression. Ever subversive in his approach, Sam has seemingly inadvertently produced a strong piece of work through his experiences in Venice. Fitting with his previous works, we see a character portrayed in his performance; perhaps a satire of Venice tourism, we see the typical British traveller bedazzled by Venice’s prostitutes, or perhaps simply a loner, a voyeur, looking and desiring the beautiful ladies in Venice but too afraid to go and speak with them, a typically more common persona of Sam’s works. Sam’s entire visit to Venice seems like one large production of work, based on experience he develops a new situational character. Although narrowly-focused, not discussing any other aspects or experiences in this hugely artistic city, his trip seems beneficial and successful to his practice, inspired by his experiences he is able to produce more work.
Composing ourselves after Sam’s talk, and after the many probing questions deciphering the meaning of his work, we come to the final speaker, Nia Metcalfe. An artist and curator based in Cardiff, Nia had much more practice-based intention behind going to Venice. Working in a curatorial capacity with 4 other artists from Wales, she conducted research into the boundaries between artist and curator and examined the possibility of collaboration and producing work over long distances. She provides us with a detailed, comprehensive account of her time there, focusing largely on her personal experiences working with the artists and producing work, as well as some light-hearted experiences as well.
Challenged by the diversity of her artist colleagues, she needed to be flexible and diverse in her curatorial role. She had the opportunity to work with various contemporary mediums such as Internet blogging, in which she was employed by one of the artists to find something interesting in Venice everyday and record it in a notebook. This proved a huge commitment and initially presented as a challenge as she looked more for the things that stood out, of which there are many, especially as a tourist, but soon she fine-tuned her perspective to finding things more idiosyncratic and personal. During her free time she would embrace elements of Venice culture, she recalls experiences of visiting a local bar so regularly that the owner started charging them the same cheaper price he charged the locals. Nia’s trip to Venice proved extensive and diverse, a really educational experience, both for her artistic practice and her knowledge of foreign cultures; of all three speakers she seemed most changed by her experiences.
With the talks now over, comprising approximately half the length of the event, the main bulk of discussion now took place with the rest of the guests. Firstly we hear from a young woman currently in her final year of university who also intends to invigilate in Venice, looking to conduct primary research for her dissertation, and to see the iconic Biennale. We then move into discussion about the application process for invigilating in Venice, a member of the Arts Council fortunately also being present. It seems there is a certain trepidation to invigilate for this and similar opportunities, initially people explain that there is often a fear of declaring yourself an artist, or creative practitioner, as if it were a more frowned upon career choice in wider society and we humorously speculate that an Art Pride Movement should be conducted to counter this. It is however a serious issue amongst many, particularly younger, emerging practitioners and a significant reason why many are reluctant to apply for such opportunities.
Another reason people are reluctant to apply is for the perceived difficulties in meeting the criteria and beating the competition in their application. The Arts Council member reassures people that each proposal is left largely in the hands of the organisers and that there are no set right or wrong criteria for being successful, you are judged based on your merits as a practitioner and for your passion to pursue it further, and it being as popular an opportunity as it is, competition is still no reason to be deterred from applying.
Venice is the place to be for an artist, and is a fantastic cultural experience as well. Although it is occasionally, more recently perceived as becoming very industrial, art is becoming a local industry, corporate and missing artistic ideals, it is argued here that it is not, that it is all relative to your artistic context of experience, and remaining open-minded you can gain very valuable experience there.
From the accounts of our speakers we can gather that it was an extremely beneficial experience, if simply for no other reason that for the cultural experience and knowledge gained. Victoria’s personal ambitions for visiting were realised and sought out whilst there, adding weight to her artistic position and gaining further knowledge into the culture of Venice. Sam focusing on one aspect of the city found a platform to produce further work, better inform his practice by increasing his repertoire of contextual themes and sensations. Nia had a fantastic and challenging opportunity to work with several artists on different projects and produce a large body of work in both a practice and curatorial role, as well as embracing the inspiring culture. Venice is definitely a worthwhile city to visit as a creative practitioner, any deterring reasons people face are often unfounded and practically it is a very real opportunity for people to undertake, and should be greatly sought after; in any case the benefits far outweigh any detriments.
This month’s ‘Wales in Venice’ FORUM discussion provided very detailed and useful information on the topic of invigilating in Venice, and even though usually aimed at emerging artists or students, veterans and established practitioners would certainly have found it informative also; an enlightening discussion on a brilliant opportunity.