Volunteering at Fabrica: contemporary visual arts in Brighton

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Fancy volunteering in the visual arts? Student Rosie Clarke (BA (hons) History of Design, Culture and Society) gives a taste of her experiences a
t Brighton’s Fabrica.

Over the last year or so I’ve been involved with some of the events and exhibitions which happen behind closed doors in the cool, quiet atmosphere of an old church on Duke Street. You may have been inside Fabrica, or you may have walked straight past like I had countless times before, but now I urge you to stop and have a look.

It’s a wonderful building, with walls so thick that even the busiest Saturday Brighton tourists are muffled, and a roof that vaults high into shafts of sunlight. Fabrica hosts contemporary visual art exhibitions and holds all manner of events, from films to workshops to talks. It’s an organisation which commissions art works in relation to the building itself, creating a feeling that is unique to Fabrica.

My role as a volunteer means helping out during exhibitions: I talk to the public about the current artists on display and the work that Fabrica does elsewhere. So far I’ve been involved with The Blue Route (by Kaarina Kaikkonen), Resonance (Susie Macmurray), and A Cold Hand on a Cold Day (Jordan Baseman). When I applied to become a volunteer at Fabrica I wanted to learn how a gallery functions, meet some new people, and perhaps be inspired in my own creativity. However there is so much more to being a Fabrica volunteer than just standing in a gallery.

One great opportunity was being able to contribute to The Response, a magazine put together by Fabrica volunteers alongside each exhibition, featuring our own artwork or writing. It was great to be a part of the editing team and have the chance to get my work read by hundreds of visitors. We responded to Kaarina Kaikkonen’s The Blue Route, which used reclaimed shirts to project ideas about loss and longing. You may have seen some of Kaarina’s work wrapped around the clock tower in Churchill Square. We used the shirt as a starting point, and the magazine content grew from there.

During the set-up of Resonance I found out how to put together an installation, by spending a few days stitching reams of sheet-music into cones for the final piece – getting to know many interesting people along the way. It felt like time had stopped, if not for the fact that every time I glanced up there would be another huge new limb of the paper sculpture suspended above, the product of our labour. This photo was taken halfway through…

Installation of Resonance by Susie Macmurray. Fabrica, 2013. Photograph by Rosie Clarke.

There are also plenty of evening events that are held in conjunction with the current exhibitions, such as panel discussions and film screenings. In October I invigilated for “Nothing Lasts Forever (Nor Should It)”, a frank and heartening discussion about death and dying to compliment A Cold Hand on a Cold Day. The series looked at ways of dying (inevitable as it is) and raised the question, why are we so averse to talking about death? I remember one of the speakers describing pain, as “a vessel of grief.” Its moments such as this that I appreciate the depth and essence of Fabrica’s work, which goes so much further than the visual arts.

So within all these experiences, I’ve learnt that by engaging with unfamiliar things there’s a lot to be discovered. The best aspect of Fabrica is their willingness to encourage new ideas, and allow volunteers such as myself to take on more responsibility. If you’d like to get involved too, you can download an application form from Fabrica’s website, or come along to one of their events to find out more. Fabrica’s next exhibition features Jacob Dahlgren’s On Balance and it runs from 5 April to 26 May 2014.

The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things: Writing the gallery guide

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Second year BA (hons) Museum and Heritage Studies student, Sandy Jones, explains the process by which she came to assist on a show described as a ‘mash-up menagerie’.

Installation view of the Universal Addressability of Dumb Things. 2013. Photography courtesy of the De la Warr Pavilion.

What do a ten metre high inflatable Felix the cat, William Blake’s Ghost of a Flea, a replica Sputnik satellite and a singing gargoyle have in common? They are all part of The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, an exhibition at Bexhill’s De la Warr Pavilion curated by Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey. The exhibition is part of the Hayward Touring programme that brings exhibitions to over 100 museums and publicly funded venues in Britain every year. This summer, I was fortunate to work with the DLWP on the gallery guide for this thought provoking exhibition.

The De la Warr Pavilion is a contemporary art gallery and live performance venue situated on the seafront at Bexhill. Designed in 1935 by architects Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, the Grade One listed historical building remains an icon of Modernist architecture and a celebration of the International Style. Described by Mendelsohn as a ‘horizontal skyscraper’, the building was restored and redeveloped between 2003-2005 with funding from the Arts Council Lottery Fund. Rather than house a permanent collection, the DLWP flexes its spaces to support a dynamic programme of art and performance, showcasing experimental and inter-disciplinary works from emerging artists and big names like Andy Warhol and Antony Gormley.

The gallery guide project came about after I wrote to the DLWP to ask whether they had any volunteering opportunities over the summer. They wrote back saying they needed some support with the guide and as I’d worked in design before, they thought my experience would be helpful. Before I met their curator, David Rhodes, I carried out some research and discovered that the exhibition was inspired by the concept of techno-animism, the idea that everything that is in (and of) this earth is being animated from within. The show is an exploration of how technology is changing our relationship with everyday objects and is creating an ambient environment around us where non-living things are brought to life. Paradoxically, these advances in technology reconnect us with our ancient past where objects and environments were thought to possess magical and divine powers. This was quite a concept to get my head around and it took a fair bit of reading to understand it. The method of curation was also alternative, approached by Leckey as ‘an aggregation of things’ and ‘a network of objects’, rather than a display of personal taste. Using the internet as a digital archive to research and select works over a period of two years, Leckey meticulously sourced and filed words, images, sounds and video into a conceptual matrix of humans, animals and machines to create a hybrid; an exhibition where the objects are – as he describes it – ‘in the physical realm but come from the digital realm’. His concept for the show can be seen on You Tube, in his trailer-like film, Proposal for a Show. Watch it and think about the challenge that faced the curator, finding all those things for what critic Erik Davies has described as ‘a post modern cabinet of curiosities’.

Leckey is often described as a pop cultural anthropologist, and I can see why; he samples across cultures, eras and media. Fortunately, David (the DLWP curator) and Chelsea Pettit (the curator from the South Bank) brought clarity to my task by advising on the most important themes. We agreed that I would research and write about 12 selected works and that the design would be simple because the subject matter was so complex. David also suggested that I join the team on a visit to the Nottingham Contemporary (another great gallery, by the way) to see the exhibition before it arrived at Bexhill. This helped enormously although when it came to writing the copy it was challenging because there was so much I wanted to say, but no space for it.

I visited the DLWP during the installation process and observed the curators as they worked with the artist to agree where and how the works would be displayed. One highlight was watching the courier, responsible for transporting an ancient Egyptian canopic jar and mummified cat, unpack and examine each one closely with a torch, checking that they conformed to their condition report and testing the environmental conditions. Another highlight was watching the team inflate Felix’s giant head and position it within the stairwell at the front of the building. For a gallery that last summer had rigged a bus to be half on and half off the roof, in homage to the closing scene in cult film, The Italian Job, this was a breeze.

The team at DLWP were extremely generous with their time and were great to work with; I enjoyed every minute. Catch the exhibition if you can: it’s on until 20 October 2013. www.dlwp.com

Felix the Cat at the De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill. Personal photograph by Sandy Jones. 13 July 2013.

Strike an Iconic Pose: Exhibiting a dissertation

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Graduating BA (hons) Visual Culture student, Kate Wildblood, reflects on the ways in which her personal, professional and academic interests intertwined in her dissertation, soon to be exhibited as part of Brighton Pride 2013.

Collages of gay club flyers constructed by Kate Wildblood

Having spent most of my professional career either DJing within or writing about LGBT cultural and social life, when I became a mature student at Brighton University in 2010 it was perhaps destined that I would bring something queer to my Visual Culture degree. As they say, you can take the girl out of the disco, but you can’t take the disco out of the girl. My dissertation topic, Strike A Pose, There’s Something To It: Imagery in gay clubbing 1989-2013 examined the event flyer designs of Club Shame, Trade and Wild Fruit, showing how they reflected the 1970s Gay Liberation movement along with the challenges of the 1980s and early 1990s when HIV and AIDS dominated the public, political and media perceptions and portrayals of gay men.

By exploring Roland Barthes’ semiotic theory of myth, my research revealed how the flyer designers Mark Wardel (a.k.a. Trademark), B_Art, Pete Hayward and Paul Kemp created new meanings by reappropriating cultural iconography and signifiers, gay or straight – be they Oscar Wilde, Grace Jones, Aubrey Beardsley, Alice In Wonderland, Metropolis, Tom of Finland or Herb Ritts – to deliver images that challenge heterosexual ideals of masculinity.

In creating new images or subverting existing images for their own ends, gay flyer designers signified certain meanings, rooted in historical context, that connect the viewer to a particular aspect of gay culture, be they childhood memories, icons, subcultures or ideals of gay male beauty. By visually representing my research through the collages Trading Poses and Fruity Benders, I too reappropriated the images of gay clubbing to create further layers of meaning. Having spent so long surrounded by gay clubbing imagery I was keen to strike new poses with the material and to represent the rich queer history we have all played a part in developing. If you will excuse the puns, I wanted to Trade in the glorious Fruit-iness of it all.

I’m genuinely delighted that my two collages will feature in the Icons exhibition as part of Brighton’s new LGBT arts festival during the Pride events of 2013, and am honoured that my work will sit alongside artists including Keith Haring and Mark Vessey. The purpose of Pride, for me, has always been more than a party; it’s about celebrating the people of Brighton and our shared pride in our city. The Icons exhibition is a perfect reflection of that pride and a showcase for the artistic achievements of our seaside city. As so many of the images I used in Trading Poses and Fruity Benders originate from Brighton’s gay clubbing scene, it feels like they are coming home.

The Icons Exhibition is at Brighton Jubilee Library, Jubilee Square, Brighton until 1 August 2013. For further information on the event, please see the Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/events/153509038156320/

For more information about Kate Wildblood’s writing and research, see her blog:

http://www.perfectdistractions.com/strikeapose

Design and Culture in Spain, part III: Almudena Cathedral

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Alice Power, first year student on the BA (hons) Museum and Heritage Studies degree pathway, completes the short series of blog posts resulting from a recent study trip to Madrid by examining the distinctive traditions of Spanish Catholic art.

Fig 1. An interior arch in Almudena cathedral, Madrid. Amy Lou Bishop. 13 February 2013.

Fig 1. An interior arch in Almudena cathedral, Madrid. Amy Lou Bishop. 13 February 2013.

As we stood outside the Almudena Cathedral in the heart of Madrid, I turned to my student colleagues and set them a challenge, asking: ‘How old do you think this building is?’ Here was a chance to put into practice what we’ve been learning in our first year History and of Art and Design lectures by looking at a building of which none of us had prior knowledge. The four of us looked carefully at the decoration that adorned the ornate exterior.  It didn’t seem to fit clearly into any style or movement that we were familiar with.  There were certainly Baroque influences, which complimented the neighbouring Palace nicely, but as a whole it looked too fresh to be from that period. Our collective brain power estimated that it probably dated from circa 1875. We weren’t far wrong. Construction started in 1879. However, due to despites over decor and the turbulent political conditions in Spain during the twentieth century, it wasn’t completed and consecrated until 1993.

Fig. 2. Exterior of Almudena catherdral taken from Calle Mayor , Madrid. Amy Lou Bishop. 13 February 2013.

Fig. 2. Exterior of Almudena catherdral taken from Calle Mayor , Madrid. Amy Lou Bishop. 13 February 2013.

The interior was, somewhat unexpectedly, neo-gothic in style. Nevertheless, the bright whiteness of this still-young building gave it a very different atmosphere to the countless neo-gothic churches I’ve visited in the UK, Ireland and France. The ceiling decoration was very fluid and modern, marked with the bright colours that one often associates with Spanish imagery.  We visited on Ash Wednesday, so the space was active with worshippers as well as tourists. Despite this, the space felt somehow bare. Due to its age, it isn’t cluttered with tombs and monuments. One of my fellow students mentioned that it felt more like an art gallery than a place of worship.  With little uniformity in the scale and style of art displayed in each chapel, it was easy to view them as exhibits. As I had been educated in Catholic school, I’m fairly familiar with what each of the religious signs are meant to indicate, but here things weren’t so typical. Christian art, as a category, is vast and ever changing, yet within Catholicism, traditional styles and forms usually dominate.

Two years ago I visited a church called Parroquia Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación in Marbella. It was situated down a rather unassuming alleyway in the old quarter of the town.  I found the style of the interior, however, to be completely overwhelming. Many of the statues were life-size, draped in velvet robes and featured real hair. Each one was richly decorated with gold. They were extreme examples of what I’d anticipated. The iconic, highly decorative images of Catholic saints produced in Spain and other Hispanic countries are globally recognised as distinct to their cultures. Hispanic-style images of the Virgin Mary are a staple of any tattooist’s repertoire and are also often recreated in kitsch novelty items.  Examining the chapel of Ave Maria Purisima sin Pecado Concebida  in Madrid’s Almudena Cathedral, however, challenged all my preconceived ideas about Catholic art in Spain. The chapel was focused on an oil painting of the Madonna. Instead of highlighting her holiness by covering her in regalia, this Madonna was depicted in white with her head exposed, carrying a light. The most striking aspect to me was how clearly youthful she was. The gospels say that Mary was in her early teens at the birth of Christ, yet in most of the art created in her image she is more like a doll than a child. The painting did exactly what religious art is supposed to do. It made me think. Although I’d heard the gospel passages countless times, I don’t think I’d really ever connected the stories to the condition of a modern day young mother. Above the painting was a stained glass window made up of strikingly modern angular shapes. This is something I’d often seen in Protestant churches, but never in a Catholic cathedral.

In many Western cultures, the presence of a cathedral is still an unofficial sign of city status.  Yet, for centuries, Spain’s capital lacked an operational Catholic cathedral.  As an outsider I found this peculiar. I’d always assumed that there was something almost innately Catholic about Spanish national culture. In reality, Spain’s religious identity is a result of a long standing power struggle between Jewish, Islamic, Protestant and Catholic traditions, as well as the amalgamation of many strong regional identities. Nonetheless, 92% of people living in Spain consider themselves Catholic although many infrequently attend church. In some regions, parishes broadcast masses on local television networks. Perhaps this explains the diversity of the art in their churches. While in the UK, we’re predominantly interested in preserving the past, in Spain religion is much more connected to the present.  Not long after I returned from Madrid, a news story about a Catalan church that commissioned local graffiti artist to paint its dome was widely reported: www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21529832. This shows that modernising trends are evident in churches all over Spain.

Ultimately, Madrid’s Almudena cathedral is not just a place of worship and tradition. It is a boast that Catholicism survived attempts by other faiths to become dominant. As a site that incorporates elements of the past and the present, as well as local and universal iconography, it’s also a showcase for the diversity of Spanish national history and culture.