Reflecting on ‘Open Calls’

Open Calls

In the last 4-5 months, I have entered my work for five ‘Open Call’ events. The four that have concluded have all been ‘unsuccessful’ and the one remaining is a very long shot. I have spent over £100 on the entry fees and, apart from the most recent (where I apparently made the longlist of 40 from 200 but not the final cut of 21), have had no feedback beyond the polite ‘no’. It seems like a good point at which to reflect on whether they have been worthwhile.

I have been selective in the ones I have gone for – two were recommended by other people, one of which was very definitely a good fit and the other (which felt less so) was a tutor recommendation so presumably relevant. I have approached each one as an independent ‘event’ i.e. my entries have been tailored to the competition rather than just sending off standard ‘words’ and I have no doubt at all that I have gained a lot from that very exercise. Each has given the opportunity to think about my work in a slightly different way; and the process of selecting/editing for each event is also useful. So, all in all, these entries represent a worthwhile part of the learning process associated with Sustaining Your Practice.

However, I will be weighing very carefully the cost/benefit for any future entries. I understand that each represents an opportunity to have the work looked at by someone but with no obvious criteria on which the judgements are being made and no feedback on the outcome (and, to be clear, I wasn’t expecting any – it would be very difficult), it has to be a possibility that the entry fees could be better spent … perhaps on a paid-for critique, for example. To be fair, none of these competitions has asked for a large amount, and there is no suggestion here that they are ‘profiteering from the process (though there may be some around that do) but the odd £15 or £25 here and there soon adds up and could perhaps, as I say, be more usefully directed.

In summary – useful, but to be approached in a highly selective manner in the future.

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Assignment Four–Tutorial and Feedback

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I’m pleased to say that there isn’t much to say about submission and feedback for Assignment Four. The submission is about a final ‘draft’ of the proposed publication of the work – in my case, the plans for the exhibition at Bank Street Arts, which I sent to my tutor last week. We had an online tutorial yesterday and, apart from a whole series of very useful and encouraging tips/comments, the feedback is, essentially, get on and make it happen, enjoy it and, in the parting comment, ‘break a leg’, That’s not entirely inappropriate; so much is about rehearsing ideas and then putting on a performance.

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As these images show, the layout planning has progressed; the wall mural and larger prints are ordered (and the mural has actually arrived, within four days of ordering!); my own printing & framing is also under way; and, most importantly, the publicity machine is turned on and beginning to roll. There is a social/preview on Friday 30th and OCA are fully on board with invitations for that – 150+ have gone out, including 30 or so that I have done personally. Many of those are to people that I know won’t be able to attend but this is, of course, an excellent opportunity to promote the work anyway. There is to be a Study Visit type event on Saturday 1st, and this has been publicised on WeAreOCA – here. These two events are important – partly, of course, as a means of publicising, but also as a potential source of feedback. Engaging an audience with the work is also about engaging the work with an audience, so to speak. The student event, in particular, should be an opportunity to talk about the work and gauge responses – just hope I get a few people there. I’m also in discussion with the gallery about their related promotional activity, which is likely to be very useful.

Some key pieces of input from the tutorial, in no particular order, were:

  • make sure to gather as much in the way of statistics about site hits, footfall, views and so on as I can; and fully document them for eventual assessment submission.
  • make sure to have sufficient assistance at the installation stage because something is bound to go wrong;
  • take some good installation shots;
  • consider doing a set of affordable, editioned prints for sale at the preview as a means of covering some of the cost;
  • write personal e-mail invites to people I’m particular keen should be aware of the work/event.

The sale of a set of prints wasn’t something I’d considered at all & I wish I’d thought of it before sending out invitations. However, still time to do something, if I decide to. So, all seems to be in order, for now.

Dark Matter–the unseen world of artist-led activity

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On Saturday, I spent the day in Liverpool, attending this event, Dark Matter, run by local artist-led organisation The Royal Standard.  Many thanks to them for organising the symposium. A few weeks ago I floated a preliminary proposal for Assignment Three past my tutor; to be based around an exploration of artist-led organisations/spaces in my part of the country. She is encouraging me to focus down the scope somewhat from that preliminary idea, which makes good sense; and it has, to an extent, been ‘parked’ whilst I focus on the Bank Street exhibition (about which Assignment Four was submitted late last week). However, via social media, I spotted that this event was happening and decided, at very short notice, to attend. I’m glad that I did – the organisers know something about their ‘world’ by coming up with the title ‘Dark Matter’! There is a lot that goes on in this ‘world’ that is hard to identify and track down; so attending an event devoted to the subject has provided a good starting point.

This post isn’t going to attempt to draw firm conclusions or define a potential project more tightly. The intention is partly to record the fact that I went and to draw out a few reflections from the day.

  • There were representatives there from 10 or more organisations that I could identify, with reference during the day to several others, and the first point to note is the huge variety of formats, structures and intentions for this loosely defined concept of ‘artist-led’. From the ‘one-man-band’ organisation seeking, temperamentally, to find a place for contemporary art in a provincial town that was barely interested; through the multi-site, voluntarily run, provider of extensive studio space, developmental mentoring, collaborative and exhibition opportunities, etc; to the site-less but vibrant curatorial project-based organisation set up by a group of graduate friends; and touching on pretty much everything along the way, including both the commercial and the subversive.
  • Precariousness seems to be both/either an inevitable consequence of operating within the ‘dark matter’ world and/or a principle by which the organisations must operate if they are to retain their independence. The ‘wobbly chair principle’ was an idea that came up in the morning panel discussion and remained a theme for the day. In essence, creativity is better achieved whilst ‘sitting on a wobbly chair’ – a state of uncertainty in which one is never really still and must be permanently attentive/responsive. Space itself is one of the drivers of this precarious state – so many artist-led activities taking place in temporary space. It’s no surprise that those which seem to have survived longest frequently have either a founding member who owns the property or a particular relationship with a supportive landlord. Funding is, naturally, the other source of vulnerability – much activity depending on voluntary/low-paid organisers. Willingness to learn the skills of filling out grant applications is important to many organisations – but retaining a degree of ‘alternativeness’ is also important to others.
  • There is a ‘wealth’ (perhaps a questionable word to use) of talent, energy, creativity, drive, and so on through which ‘artist-led’ does what it does. And this ‘hidden’ world is providing opportunities for those involved and those it recruits/supports that would never be achieved through public institutions or the commercial art world. One or two simple benefits that I noted during the discussions – the way in which simply coming together and having a ‘name’ can open up dialogues that are hard to achieve on one’s own; the flexibility and responsiveness of these organisations in comparison to institutions with corporate constraints; the genuine commitment within organisations that are led by those for whose purpose they have come into existence to serve.

At a personal level, I remain interested in the idea of structuring an Assignment Three project around this area – maybe, as my tutor as suggested, focusing on a small number of case studies (and there is enough potential amongst those attending on Saturday). I made one specific new contact with a locally-based organisation of which I hadn’t previously been aware. But I also have to admit to a sense of ‘otherness’ that I felt, too. It is perhaps best summed up by the thought that I don’t, and perhaps never will, sit on the sort of wobbly chair that is an essential aspect of this ‘world’. Then again, ‘artist-led’, as I said above, can mean all sorts of things and I reflect, not for the first time, as to what sort of ‘artist-led’ might work for OCA graduates in a comparable way to those set up and led by graduates from other art schools and colleges.