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Nothing Concrete: Can We Be Artists?

Connecting Conversations

Nothing Concrete text
2 Mar 2022
80 min listen

This week we have a live recording of Can we be artists?, a bold panel discussion we hosted in collaboration with Headway East London. 

Leading figures from across the arts and culture industry, come together with neurodiverse artists and members from Headway East London, to discuss and dissect the notion of 'disabled art'. 

The panel explores challenging questions like 'Are arts organisations and institutions holding us back from creating a truly open, accessible, and exciting arts world?' and 'How do we shake up the hierarchy oppressing those creating work outside of the mainstream?' 

Headway East London is a local charity supporting people affected by brain injury, offering specialist services to survivors and their families. They are part of our Community Collaborator programme, an in-depth 3-year partnership between the Barbican and a local community organisation working on a range of projects that encourage exchange, collaboration and learning. 

Panellists include:
Kate Adams (Project Art Works), Ali Eisa (Autograph Gallery), Will Gompertz (Barbican Centre), Chris Miller (Submit to Love), and David Tovey (Arts & Homelessness International). 

Want to hear more about this talk and our work with Headway East London? Read our article with their Director of Development, Laura Owens.

Firoza: Good evening, everyone. Nice to see you all here today. As Amelia has said, my name is Firoza. I'm just going to tell you a bit about myself and a bit about Headway as well. So, I'm Firoza, before my brain injury, my background was in books and publishing. I had an AVM in 2007, which resulted in a stroke.

AVM stands for arteriovenous malformation, which is a congenital condition. So I was born with it. I was paralyzed on the right side and had to relearn how to walk, use my right hand again, and re-learn daily life skills. I joined Headway East London in 2008, where I could continue my rehab accessing services like physio and occupational therapy.

I'm now involved in many of the creative projects and I'm currently host and producer of Radio Headway East London, a monthly radio show. Just to give you a bit of background to Headway East London. We are a day center in Hackney. Last year, we supported nearly 800 brain injury survivors and their family members. It’s a place where people can make friends and get involved in activities like art, cooking, therapies, and support with advocacy, benefits, and housing, et cetera, via our casework team.

So, I'm now going to hand back over to Amelia.

[Applause]

Amelia: I am now going to introduce the wonderful Billy. Billy from Headway East London. I've got to run around again.

Billy: Thank you, Amelia. Hello everybody. I've been assigned to tell you how Headway East London got to this position. I've been going to headway for nine years now, following a stroke under complications with brain injury. Before then I was a journalist at the Guardian newspaper. But the most important thing is, I was lucky enough to go to headway after my brain injury and became involved very quickly in the art studio and in other activities that they do.

And three years ago, Headway East London was just another one of the many community groups on the Barbican's contact list. So, we would be invited to exhibitions. We would be invited along to events and activities. And slowly over those three years, we started talking, we started to help run workshops and we basically got more and more involved with the Barbican, and the Barbican kind of, I think they liked us, to be honest, I think they like the kind of people we are.

So, the conversation and that's the really important word tonight, “conversation”. That conversation just developed from that it got deeper and deeper, longer and longer. And throughout lockdown we carried on, on Zoom. We carried on talking and we don't stop talking. We just don't stop talking. So, when you think about the key word for tonight, it is conversation.

It's about, you know, conversations can begin, they can end, but some of them really do have to last a lifetime. So, this is one of the conversations hopefully we're going to have tonight, is we're going to have a conversation that will go on forever and ever and ever, because these are big questions we're going to be asking.
And so, please give it a good shot and give the panellists a hard time and-

Chris Miller: [sarcastic] Thank you, Billy!

Billy: Oh, shush!

And I just want to, I just want to end by introducing- I don't know whether everybody knows about visual minutes, but some meetings in some events like this have really long, tedious, horrible written minutes at the end, we've got a fantastic artist, Ray, turn round.

[Applause]

We've got a fantastic artist, and you can see Ray's work down there. She's working on it already. She'll be eavesdropping on our conversation and please feel free to offer your points of view to Ray, so she can document them and she can illustrate them. And you can see more of her work down by the front door there.

So, just enjoy that as well, because she needs you to tell her things that she can put on that visual minutes or whatever it is called. It's called visual minutes, I think, it sounds a bit- it's just a great way of doing it, that isn't, you know, it's just an exciting way of, you know, seeing all that stuff that you spoke about, and it gives it life. Anyway. That's enough of me announcing. We're going to get on with the- if I go, who do I hand back to?

Firoza? Yes. Firoza, it’s over to you again.

Firoza: Thank you, Billy.

[Applause]

Okay. So, I'm just going to ask my panellists to introduce themselves and tell me where you're from and why you’re here this evening. Chris, would you like to Start?

Chris Miller: I'm Chris Miller, I had a stroke about nine years ago, like Billy, and now I'm a member at Headway East London.

Ali Eisa: Hi I’m Ali Eisa. Where I'm from could be a complicated question than I'm going to answer. [Laughs]
But anyway, I'm from London, I’m an artist and I work for an organization called Autograph, which is the Association of Black Photographers, based in Shoreditch. So very close to here. I do various other things as well.

I'm a lecturer at Goldsmiths university and, yeah, that's me.

Firoza: Cool, Thank you.

David Tovey: Good evening, everyone. My name's David Tovey, um, I'm an artist, I'm an activist, campaigner, educator. I work in the field of arts and homelessness, internationally, and for a company, or charity even, called Arts and Homelessness International. Says it on the tin. And I'm also the founder of the One Festival of Homeless Arts, which is an unfunded festival, which has been running for four years now, which is based in London, Manchester, and recently Coventry.

So that's me. 

Firoza: Thank you very much. 

Kate Adams: Hello. I'm Kate Adams and I'm an artist and I'm co-founder and director of Project Artworks, which is an organization based in Hastings. We're “a neuro-diverse collective” we've called ourselves for the last 18 months, but we might change that category.

It's the tyranny of categorization. And yeah, I'm not sure why I'm here. I think I'm here because we work with, Autograph and then that's how I met Chris and Chris suggested that I come on the panel. And Project Artworks has been, shortlisted for the Turner prize this year. So that might be another reason. 

Will Gompertz: Round of applause, don’t you think, for that?

[Applause]

Hello, Good evening. I'm Will Gompertz. I'm in charge of the artistic and learning programs here, at the Barbican. And I've been here for not very long, about four months before that I was at the BBC as it's arts editor correspondent. And, before that I was at the Tate, so I know the hell you're going through with the Turner prize.
And I've written a couple of light books about art, and I'm really looking forward to this conversation and what comes from it. 

Firoza: Thank you very much. So, I'm gonna fire away with the questions. Chris Miller, my friend. Nice to see you. My question to you is why do you do art? 

Chris Miller: Yeah, I’m trying to think, where’s a good starting point? Because you could say “what is art for?”, but the danger with that is you disappear up your own backside in the process.

So, what’s better to start is why do you do art.

Why I do art is, I had a stroke about nine years ago as I said, and then, I went to Headway, and Michelle, who is the manager of the art studio there. Well, I was looking around various spaces. I went into the art studio and Michelle said you could come here any time and do art.

And I said to her, I had been a science teacher, and other things. But when I went to secondary school they said “you’re crap at art”. So, I didn’t do it anymore.

But Michelle is in the good way, very persuasive. So, I started to do art. And what was the key thing for me was, in the art studio there’s somebody called Errol. And, understandably, after you’ve had a stroke, you get a bit depressed and down. To say the least. And that’s how I felt. 

But one night I went into the studio, somebody called Errol who was in a wheelchair, with much greater speech issues than I have. But he was always singing and laughing and joking, doing art. And I thought “Why can’t I be a bit like him?” 

And that’s the key thing for me. The staff are an important thing, but what’s best is you learn more from similar people to you. The last thing I would say in this section, cos I’ve got things to say about “what is art for?” as well… The last thing I’ll say in this bit is- So Eleanor and Charlotte are here, who created the Dubuffet show and that was excellent.

But in lots of ways, Dubuffet got things very right. And is quite central in my thinking. But there’s several things he got wrong. And one of those, especially now. And the people that are involved now. People are involved in lots of - His idea was there was individual art, from artists. In 1945 I’m not sure that existed. It certainly doesn’t now.

There’s lots of different collectives and art studios, like you’re talking about. And the way you’re doing it is not just as the individual, you’re doing it as a collective That’s why I’m talking about Errol.

Firoza: Yeah.

Thank you. And, that's really interesting what you're saying. I want to ask you about your own artwork as well. Because I know that you take inspiration from famous paintings and you put yourself in those paintings. So, you almost replace, those certain features or those paintings and put yourself in them.

Chris Miller: So, these two are. That one was based on Botticelli’s Venus. 

Firoza: Exactly.

Chris Miller: I’m not trying to say here, that I’m beautiful like Venus. I’m trying to question the whole thing of beauty. Which we’ll talk about later on.

Firoza: Yeah. And that's what I, yeah. I kind of wanted to understand more about that. What that means to you. Cause you have this one and you have this screen.

Chris Miller: Perhaps I’ll say more later on.

Firoza: You want to save it.

Chris Miller: But this one is about my operation, and the central figure of that is… I did that quite early on. It’s about the second or third thing I did. But the central- I got partly from Picasso’s Guernica. But it’s not. It’s me, being operated on. 

So, the way I think about it, it’s a bit like, I think, Frida Kahlo. I’m a bit obsessed by my images of myself. And not because I’m obsessed by myself. This is some way [of asking] “How do I fit in the world around me?” 

Firoza: Yeah. Right. That was really, really interesting to hear. Thank you very much, Chris. 

[Applause]

Firoza: Well done.

I have another question. This question is to Kate Adams. Can you tell us, is everyone a potential artist?

Kate Adams: I'll do my best. So, I'm going to- I've made notes because I want to quote things and my memory isn't up to the whole quote, but… so is everyone a potential artist?

Well, I think “yes” is very much the answer, but then I was thinking, well, okay, what is an artist? So, I thought, I'll look at some definitions.

So, I checked it out online and it said an artist is “a person who creates paintings or drawings as a professional hobby”. And then it said “informally, a person who habitually practices, a specified reprehensible activity”, like piss artists, for example.

[Audience laughter]

So that was enlightening. But, essentially, it's a dedication and skill, that can be honed over time.

So back to the question. Well, I come back to one of my favourite artists, Joseph Beuys. He was a German artist and teacher and theorist of art who was highly influential in international contemporary art in the latter half of the 20th century. His work is really grounded in concepts of humanism, ecology, and social philosophy.

He was an amazing environmentalist as well and planted “7,000 Oak trees” in Kassel. I visited Kassel recently. And they're not all oaks, I can tell you. They didn't all survive, but they are there. He's regarded very highly, but he famously said in 1973, that every human being is an artist who from his state of freedom, which is the position of freedom that he experiences at first hand learns to determine the other positions in the total artwork of the future social order.

So, for me, everyone has the potential to be an artist and Beuys was talking about what he described as a most modern art discipline, the social sculptural or social architecture. Which will only reach fruition, he said, when every living person becomes a creator, a sculptor or architect of the social organism. So only a conception of art revolutionized to this degree can turn into a politically productive force, coursing through every person and shaping history.

So, what this essentially means is that we can all be creators of things, but also, we can be creators of compassion and tolerance and housing and care and communities and our own destinies and where this falls down is when we are, for whatever reason, dependent on others to provide the contexts, opportunities and environments for this innate creativity to flourish. And I guess that's why I'm here right now.

So, we have to bear in mind that most revered artists and philosophers are neuro-typical, or male or white and so on. And it's only now that we're beginning to blur these distinctions and open the way for other voices to frame our cultural spheres and self-determination.

Art and the practice of it generates thinking. It forces a contemplation in multiple and extraordinary dimensions. Children given the right environments are all artists. They draw the world, they process experience, and they inhabit and connect with what they are making as it emerges. And I think actually that's a prerequisite of any artist- I'm nearly done.

So, within this conceptual framework, we can also make stuff. We can make drawings, installations, and performances and happenings. However, many people who go through art school, for example, don't actually end up making things, but they use creativity in other fields. So artistic practice generates thinking and thinking generates artistic practice. This is the way that creativity works.

It's also one of the reasons that oppressive states try to eliminate creatives and people who think too much, we really need to consider why art education has taken such a hammering, over the past decade and right now. So, creativity then, is a process.

You act, you consider, you see what happens, you respond, you react and so on. That is what an artist is and everyone has potential to do that. Very often the art is in the making, not in the object and I have to say that many of the neurodivergent artists and makers with whom we collaborate at Project Artworks are actually free of the burden of the label of “artists”.

They are also blessedly free of all the cultural contexts and baggage that many of us bring to our actions as artists and creators. What matters is connection.

Connection to everything, connection to materials and processes, their environment, and whether they're free to explore it. So, we pay attention to environments because environments are able to nurture artists, and able to make people fully engaged.

And sometimes what happens is truly extraordinary. It can sometimes end with a thing, a painting, an object that to others is recognizable as art, but perhaps for the person who made this, it represents a trace. A trace of their existence, their spirit and their being, and whether it's art or not is of little significance.

And isn't this what all artists want? To leave a trace. So again, I say, yes, everyone is a potential artist, but not everyone is given the equity of self-determination in order to become one.

[Applause]

Firoza: Thank you very much. Does anyone else wants to say anything on that subject? Feel free?

Firoza: [Chuckles] No pressure. You don't have to.

Ali Eisa: I want to say something about, are we talking about both of them? Because the question about “why do you make art” and Chris, you obviously talked about it from your position. But I guess for me, I make art for myself, but I also make art with other people. 

And I think they're kind of, and I've always been drawn to that. And it's only recently that I've been starting to think, like, why do I always collaborate? Like I always work with people, whether it's communities or a friend of mine who had been working for 10 years. And, I think it kind of connects to what Kate just said about connection.

For me, the reason I make art is partly about making connections with people. And I think that that's as important as making objects or making things that are visual that people see, and I think that that's something that is still not quite understood enough in terms of the arts institutions and galleries, is like, the purpose of making art can also be about connecting with people as much as it is about making things that can go in the world that can be seen.

So that was just what I thought when I was listening.

Firoza: Thank you. That was a really nice thought. Would you like to add anything to that, Dave, or?

Chris Miller: Connections is very important, because you can communicate via art, especially if you have a speech difficulty, you can communicate a lot more by artwork than you can by explaining the artwork.

Firoza: That’s very true. 

David Tovey: I just wanted to come in actually, partly to do with Kate’s question and also Chris's as well, because I feel like sometimes, yes, everyone can be potential artists, as long as there's the access to it and there's access to spaces.

So, I think sometimes we forget about, you know, yeah, I could sit at home doing a piece of artwork, right? But if there's actually a space which is allocated and funded with equipment, then you're going to have more people making art and making good art as well.

You know, and I feel like that seems to be forgotten in the whole equation of being an artist. To come in with Chris's question as well, of why I make art. I have a similar past to Chris, you know, I had a stroke 10 years ago and then I had like a domino effect of bad health from cancer, having a cardiac arrest and ended up, street homeless. On the streets. And then it got to the stage that I tried taking my own life.

For me to sort of like try and rebuild myself, resilience, my competence, to try and reengage, and talk and share what I was going through because I didn't have the language skills to do that. I found that I could do that through artworks. You know, whether it was photography or spoken word or theatre or film or dance, whatever I tried to put my mind to, it gave me that access to start picking myself back up.

You know, I always say that art saved my life, and I truly believe it did, because it gave me that that thing to focus on it gave me that hope, right? And that's something that we don't have a lot of in this country, is hope. And when you're street homeless, you pretty much have none. Because there are so many barriers there stopping you.

So, I found that by being able to create something, wherever it was a stick man for two minutes or whether it was, uh, an opera, I wrote. It meant that I wasn't thinking about all the other shit that I was going through, and I think sometimes art can be that simple that it helps you escape the realities of real life, and if you've had brain injuries, and other social problems and barriers, then art can really help you engage. So, yeah. 

Firoza: Okay. Thank you. I think you said that really well, that's something that we promote at Headway in our studio is just to get lost in that studio and just not work, care, or worry about what's happening outside of what's happened to you.

So, I think you've explained that really well. And again, with the communication issues that some people have and they lose their voices through strokes and accidents, that's another wonderful way of communicating through painting and pictures to express themselves.

So, it's so important. Thank you for that. 

So, David. Still on you, I have a question for you. Does art need to be beautiful? 

David Tovey: Wow. So, this is actually a really quite difficult question to answer. “No”, [laughs] is probably the best way- but, so it's sort of like, we've got to flip this on its head, right?

Because who decides on whether it's beautiful or not, right? Who? Is it the artists, is it the viewer? Is it the general public? Whoever is out there. So, for me, I make quite dark, hard-hitting work around homelessness, addiction, mental health, suicide. I make this because it's stuff that I've lived through and, and I'm talking from my heart.

To me, I wouldn't say it’s beautiful art, because for me, it's just a narrative of me trying to express something. Whether the viewer sees that as a beautiful artwork, that's entirely up to them. And I think this is the thing when thinking about the context of beautiful art, we've got to sort of like, say…  sorry, I was going to swear. Was gonna say “fuck it”, but I'm going to swear. Fuck it. Right, and actually stop thinking about the artwork as a guess, a sort of like a thing of beauty. Because it has to be a thing of what's come from you. And surely, that is beauty. Whether it's pain, whether it's sort of like the amazing picture of Chris's there, of his stroke. His journey, you know, there's so much pain in that. So much grief. And anger, but also there's that beauty of seeing Chris understand that within his artwork.

 And surely that's all we're asking, you know, is the fact that we are wanting great art in the world, but who says that every single piece of art isn't great, isn't beautiful, right? It's peoples’ opinion. And I think it's that simple, like, you know, I can't stand Damien Hirst's work, I think it’s ugly. But it doesn't mean that it's not beautiful in the context of what it is. So yeah, I think that's probably the easiest and shortest answer there is. I’ll hand over.

Firoza: No, that's, that's really true. It really is somebody an individuals' interpretation or what it evokes for them and their feelings and what it means to them. So, yeah, totally agree. Does anyone else want to say anything on that as well? 

Will Gompertz: Yeah, I might just chip in. Yeah. I thought that was really eloquently said, David. I think what you were saying is actually we mis-understand what beauty is in a way. It's not about being pretty, it's about a truth and that's what's beautiful.

And what I love about art, and I love the question “Can anybody be an artist?” and Kate saying they can, which is great. But anybody can appreciate art as well. And art is a language and it doesn't exist on its own. I like being on the other end of that communication, you know, I like appreciating artists, but I think we all know art is an illusion.

And so really, for me, the best art is, if you have an essential truth wrapped up in a beautiful lie, and I think that's what it's about. 

Firoza: Thank you very much. 

Chris Miller: And I think in art, you can do anything you want to do in a painting, it doesn’t have to be truthful of the world, it’s what is in your head.

And as well, you can put the troubles that are in your head in the painting, and that makes the troubles in your head a little bit less. 

Kate Adams: Yeah. And, and also in the making, and in- I think beauty is in connection, I agree. Truth is beauty as well. I don't think art is necessarily innately beautiful. It's the, or should be, or can be even, I think it's the connection with the viewer and there's a subjective impact.

But also, for me, often the space in the studio, collaborating with people, sometimes something happens, which is beautiful, like a glimpse towards a colour that is done with an eye movement, which makes a choice that has not happened before. Or somebody says a word that they've never used before.

And that is an extraordinary moment for a parent or a carer who's with them. That is beautiful. But I think obviously there's other many other things, but I'm not sure art is the place where beauty exists. 

Firoza: Yeah, go ahead.

David Tovey: You just, thank you Kate, because you actually just reminded me of something, which I think is really, really important because it's also what it does as well.

So, for example, I'm going to give an example. I teach at a homeless shelter, homeless centre, every week and about three years ago, there was this guy who used to come in and he had this piece of paper just sat in front of him. And for weeks he wouldn't do anything. He wouldn't even touch it. He literally just sit there staring at this piece of paper, wouldn't talk to anyone in the homeless centre or anything like that.

And then him just keep coming and I kept thinking, why is he coming? Like, I don't get it. I just didn't get why he kept coming to this class and just sitting there and staring at this piece of paper. And on the, I think it was about the fourth or the fifth week. He suddenly started drawing these little boxes, put his pen down and said, “Thank you so much. That day was great.” And then walked out. And for me, that is exactly what the beauty of art is. It is that connection. It is that taking part in that process of how somebody works on art in their brain. And then suddenly this piece of magic just happens. And then to find out that was the first time he'd actually spoken to anyone in the whole hostel was just like, mind-blowing.

And so, yeah. Yeah. 

Firoza: Wow. That's amazing.

Chris, did you want to say something?

Chris Miller: My take on it, is that in some ways, we have to think about- Do you know, the acronym WEIRD? Western… White. Male. Ableist. That’s the tradition we’re coming from. But that tradition is starting to break down. Women are more involved, and black people, people of different races are more involved.

We’re still working through that. And disability and neuro-disability is perhaps one of the last things that we need to work through even more. What we need to have, the conception, the culture of what we had in the past was very weird. It’s not that the culture was right, it’s weird. It’s up to us to make it better. We’re not doing that just for disabled people, to pat them on the head. We’re doing that because it makes art better for everyone. 

Firoza: That's really good. That's so true. Thank you.

[Applause]

Thank you, guys. We're going to have a short break, in a couple of minutes, but we've got also got a couple of questions from the audience. 

Amelia: So [Feedback] ooh, we don't want that. I'm just going to run over here. So, we just thought maybe we'll just open it up and maybe grab some questions from some of the audience members, really quickly before we have a break and get interactive on our tables.

So, does anyone have any questions. You’re in the right place.

Audience member, JJ: Kind of, I had this very in my mind, but, the last kind of answer kind of follows on quite nicely. Um, but I'm JJ. I just wanted to ask the panel, how conscious are you of unconscious bias and tokenism in the arts world and arts establishment. It’d be really interesting to hear.

Amelia: Thank you. Does anyone want to take that?

Kate Adams: [Sarcastic] Never happens.

[Laughter]

How conscious are we? 

Will Gompertz: JJ, good evening, highly conscious. It's very evident. 

Kate Adams: It's not even unconscious bias, it’s just bias. And I think that there is a sort of evolving, changing awareness. I mean, Project Artworks has been going for 20 years and we've been knocking on the doors of the temples of culture for a long time.

And I think there is an opening up, partly because… you know, it's interesting, it's good. It's different stories of what it is to live and to make art and it creates relevancy for audiences. And I think audiences are the people who are making the change, not necessarily institutions, but institutions are recognizing that they need to reflect and represent their audiences.

So, I think there is bias. I think we've got a long way to go. I think certainly as Chris said, disability and neurodiversity is at the bottom of the pile. We were about 30 years, at least behind race, politics and diversity. So, we've still got a long way to go, but there's a slow movement, wouldn’t you say? 

Chris Miller: I think what you’re doing with the Turner prize and documentary for instance, and other things, is very important and as well, Yinka Shonibare curating at the Royal Academy. 

That’s the start of a lot of things going on at the moment.

Kate Adams: Just very quickly and it's not a done deal and it's not over. I mean, it's only five years since the head of exhibition somewhere told me that she thought it was really disrespectful to show the work of people with learning disabilities in the same building as a well-known artist. Disrespectful to that artist.
So, we still have a way to go.     

Will Gompertz: I think the really interesting thing though, JJ, is perceptions change all the time. So, it's never a static situation. And, and we tend to think that our moment is like, fixed, but it's not, it's always moving. And one of the things about the best artists is they, they’re kind of just like a bit ahead of that moment.

And I remember Phila De Barlow, who is a very good sculptor, who taught for a long time and really got absolutely no credit for her work at all until she was in the seventies, in fact. She'd have people come around to do a studio visit, to come and see her work. And she always knew it had been a disaster when they said, “God, I really love your sink.”

You know, they just, weren't interested in the work at all. And suddenly like she's 70 years old, she's retired and her work suddenly becomes incredibly important or recognized by the establishment. And suddenly this person who's been largely ignored is representing Great Britain at the Venice Biennale.

And she couldn’t have imagined that 10 years earlier. And so, I think that sometimes we make the mistake thinking it's a static situation. It’s a moving situation. That's why I think my fellow panel members are all sort of amazing in what they're doing because they are, they are making sure that there is a movement and it is changing.

And Chris is absolutely right. I think we're at a moment of flux and I think we will see a different set of criteria and a different way of looking at the world, you know, in the next five or 10 years. 

Ali Eisa: Yeah. I think that's really true, also I don't think about bias so much. I think it's just more about what people are interested in and what people are motivated by and who, because, you know, at the end of the day, if you look at the profile of the majority of people that work in particularly big cultural organizations like this one and others.

You know, I don't really have to spell it out. It's like, it's quite clear that there's very, you know, clear kind of, you know, mainly it's in arts education and I work in it and I think I'm a bit of an outlier because usually it's like white women of a certain age. That's generally what it is. And I just think that that's where it's about the people that are working in certain positions.

And it's about having a range of different people that are able to kind of at least collaborate within that and have power and have agency. So, I think for me the whole thing about unconscious bias, like I've done the training on it. I did unconscious bias training at Goldsmiths after an institutional racism incident, and then I'm there doing unconscious bias training?

I'm like, what, what is this about? It's like, it to me is completely not the right way of looking at it. It's about what are people interested in? What are they motivated by? And then how are then resources allocated towards that? Especially when it's public money. So, I think to me that's much more the kind of thing that I'm interested in. Looking at within institutions and arts organizations.

David Tovey: Yeah. I just really wanted, and I’ll do this really quick cause I know we're short on time. Obviously, I look at homelessness, right? And I stand up and fight to try and get as many homeless artists work seen as possible throughout the UK. And when I first set up the festival in 2016, it took me 18 months to get a venue to even actually host us.

Right. Nobody would even, like, open their doors to me. And that shouldn't be the case. So yes, we see it on a daily basis. Like the homeless arts community has doors shut in their face every single day, worldwide. Right?

And I'm glad that I work in this field and have the access to try and open those doors.

I mentioned, I'm an unfunded festival, right. That says it all. We'd never been able to get funding for the festival because nobody wants homeless arts within their venues. That hopefully will change. I know the Barbican now have people, who are homeless doing arts here. So it's slowly starting to change, but we've got a long way to go. A long, long way to go.

Amelia: Thank you very much. Give a round of applause as well. JJ, you gave us a big question there.
 
--BREAK--

Firoza: Thank you very much, Amelia. So, I am going to continue with the questions to the panellists. We're on question four and “Who decides what art is?” and that's for you, Will.

Will Gompertz: Well, me obviously. Who decides what art is… Actually, it's me and it's JJ and it's you, and it's everybody in this room, to decide what art is. So, you know, if you look over there, over our shoulders to those lights in the conservatory, are they just nice lights which you could buy at habitat? Or are they a sculpture by Noguchi?

You know, what are they? You can choose. I can choose. Are they an artwork or are they just something super functional? And I think that we tend to forget that, you know, we have a power and we have an agency to decide what we think art is and what art isn't. And, and, you know, it's always, it's a difficult question, right? But, but because obviously art tends, you know, gets taken, taken in by the establishment and is commodified and businesses built around it and careers are built around it. But, you know, I suppose I think a bit about the story of Theaster Gates, who is an artist I know a little bit, he's an African-American artist who was bought up in Chicago.

Poor family, he’s the ninth child. He has eight older sisters and his dad tarred roofs, and his mum was a primary school teacher. And he did pretty well at school and he went to university and became a town planner. And he taught town planning. He got a job at the university and at the weekends, just to relax, he liked to make pottery. And he’d make plates and bowls. I don't think he made any rhinos, but you know.

And then, every month he’d go to a county fair and he'd set his plates in his bowls and people would say, Theaster, you know… They'd be like $5 or $4 and people would go, “Oh, Theaster, I really like your plate. But I'll give you three dollars.” And he'd go, “Well, look, I made it with my head, my hand and my heart. And really, I'd rather just give it to you then haggle”, you know, it's not what it's about, and he said he got fed up with this, and to be honest, they were only worth $5. So, he decided that he would stop selling his plates and his bowls that he made in his little pottery studio.

And he would actually create an exhibition of them in Chicago. And so, he rented this little space, a little art space or gallery space, which was literally the size of the stage we're on now. And he put some shelving up and he put all his plates in his bowls and his jugs in the gallery. And he had an exhibition.

Except that he didn't say it was by Theaster Gates. He said this work was being presented by an artist called Soji Yamaguchi. [Chuckles] I know. And Soji Yamaguchi actually was a conflation of two names. One was Soji Hamada, who was a great Japanese ceramicist. And the other one was Yamaguchi, which has an area in Japan, which just ceramics are taught and made.

And he put the two things together and figured the Americans would never work it out.

Which they didn't.

[Laughter]

So, he has this big show of all his stuff. And it's amateurish. It's not, you know, he would say, it's not particularly good. In terms of something you might see out of Wedgewood or something, but it was his work and he has this exhibition of this stuff.

Oh, and you made a backstory for Soji Yamaguchi as well. So, when you walked into this space, there was a whole backstory about this chap, that he was this great Japanese master, who'd come over to America to work with the black clay of Mississippi. Fell in love with a woman, got married and eventually took her back to the village he was bought up in Japan. And tragically for him and his wife, but very conveniently for Theaster, he got killed in a car crash.

No, but he didn't really, because he didn't exist.

[Laughter]

So, he has his show. He has a backstory. And after one hour of this exhibition, every single item has been sold and not one item did anybody ask for a dime off. And he was selling those same items which he was selling for four or five dollars in the county fair. He was selling the same items in his exhibition for four and five hundred dollars. And people bought them because they thought they were buying Soji Yamaguchi. And they believed the backstory, and they were delighted with their purchases.

And eventually they found out what had happened. There was no Soji Yamaguchi. There was only this town planner who liked doing pottery at the weekends called Theaster Gates. And the art world approached Theaster and said, “Theaster Gates, you are fantastic!” In fact, you're an artist!” and he went, “Oh God, am I? Right? Okay. Marvellous.”

And so, with that money, he went and bought a rundown shack on the south side of Chicago. And if anybody knows anything about Chicago, it’s an area of deprivation. It's principally African-American. And, it is a place that Theaster really felt he wanted to make a contribution to.

So, he moved into this shack, and it'd been boarded up for like twenty years. But it was what he could afford. And he started to rip all the stuff out of it because he was going to do it up. He called it a “gut rehab” and he started taking all this stuff out and it's just, it's just, well, it's crap. You know, it's rubbish, the sort of stuff we'd put in a skip. But he decided each item held within it a story. So, he started to formalize some of those objects. So, there was an old fire hose in the basement, which was just covered in rat’s urine and dust and rubble. And he just re-coiled it into a coil.

Then he found a bottom of a drawer which was trashed in the kitchen and got the drawer bottom out and nailed the hose to the drawer bottom and then created out of some old balustrading going up the stairs, he created a frame. So, he just sort-of formalized this rubbish, really. And he then sold this as an artwork because he's now understood himself to be an artist and he sold it and it was bought for 120,000 pounds.

And then he did it again and again, and again, selling more and more of this stuff from gut rehabs to wealthy collectors. He said, “I can't believe how wet rich folks get about this stuff.” [Laughter] I know. that's what he said. And then he bought another house and did another gut rehab and another house.

And did it all going down south side. And with each house, he gave them to the community. So, he made a house called the black Listening house, which had music in it. And he made the black filmmakers house, which had film making equipment and films in it and, and a library full of old magazines, principally around African-American culture.

And then he starts working with mayor Ron Emmanuelle, who was Obama’s running mate to create, youth centres and develop a studio where he put young people. And so, one guy, he wasn't really an artist, he was a town planner, he was transforming the south side of Chicago by leveraging this concept of art, by deciding, him deciding, what is art. And persuading the audience that that was art, and so, you know, and that. Kate sort of mentioned about how art isn't taught in schools anymore. And it's just so sad because art really can change the world and it can do amazing things. And it's much more than being beautiful it’s much more than being decorative. You know, it is the thing which makes us human. It’s the thing which enables us to express our humanity.

And so, uh, what is art? Is, it’s anything you want it to be is the answer to your question. 

Firoza: Thank you. Thank you very much for that, Will.

[Applause]

Will Gompertz: Thank you.

Firoza: So, we have the last question, question five. This one is to Ali, whose art should be displayed in art galleries? 

Ali Eisa: Okay. I'm like Kate. I've written things down.

I've been th- yeah, because we had this initial conversation about this, a couple of weeks ago and it's just been going around in my head and the more that I thought about it, the more sort of complicated it’s become as a question, but I've tried to just boil it down to one thing for me, which is, I think it's basically a political question?

It's political because when you say “should”, what we're really talking about is what art do we value? What art do we want to highlight? Who do we want to make visible? What careers do we want to push? That's really, for me, the nub of the question. It’s about representation and art is made by people, so if we're representing their art, then we're representing them as people.

So, that's kind of the first thing that I was thinking about, and then that then leads us to the next part of that really, which is it then becomes dependent on who's in charge. So, who's in charge of galleries and that's like the trustees.

So, the trustees of museums of galleries, if they're public institutions. Directors, curators, learning curators, or engagement people, basically the people who have got power and the people that make choices and judgments about what art should be displayed in galleries and what is good art. And without sort of going into too much history about that, I think that that is something that we have to look at in context of history. And what's the history of galleries? What's the history of museums? They're essentially tied often to colonial projects, to empire, to privilege. And they're essentially based on values and interests that tend to be able-bodied, white, male, European.

So, I think that that's the background and the structure to this question really, which is that galleries have tended to show art that is in that image that represents those interests and those values. And that's because the people in the positions of power that choose to show that art.

Thinking about it from my perspective of what art that I think, should be shown in a gallery. My first response that was kind of like anyone's art could be shown in galleries and should be shown in galleries, but I just give you a little kind of anecdote really based on where I work, Autograph.

Because I think this is something I always use as a way to sort of describe Autograph. And what I think is really at the kind of core of the organization and the project. And Autograph, didn't start out as a gallery. It started out as an association of black photographers. But now it is a gallery, it's a small institution I would say. It's in Rivington place in Shoreditch. We have a big building. It was designed by David Adjaye. We have a lot of people that come there. So, we've really now a gallery in the same way that the Barbican is. But the case that Autograph made when it first started was a really interesting kind of wager, which was basically that given the increasing population of black people and people of colour in the UK, this is in the late 1980s, 1988.

There should be an increasing share of public funds that go towards representing those artists and people from those communities. And that's not just out of charity, that's connected to rights because if we look at the universal declaration of human rights and we look at the bit about art and culture, it says everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts.

So that's something that is enshrined in human rights and in human rights legislation. So, there's this idea that public funds should support everyone, all people, it makes sense that a share of that should equally represent people of different backgrounds and different ability, different races, cultures, et cetera.

[Applause]

Thanks. [Chuckles] I've got more. Before I came, I looked at the website of Scope, which is the charity that campaigns on behalf of people with disabilities and in the UK currently, this is their statistic: 14.1 million people with a disability in the UK. So that, that obviously covers a lot of different kinds of disabilities, et cetera.

But that's 20% of the population in the UK. So, imagine if 20% of all arts funding went into supporting disabled artists and communities, imagine what that would look like. We would be in a pretty different place, really wouldn't we? And it's absolutely not the case. I mean, I don't know how many, exhibitions have been of/by disabled artists, particularly in big institutions.

You probably know a bit more about that, Kate.

Kate Adams: Very Few.

Ali Eisa: “Very few”. So, it's definitely not 20%. So, if we're going to talk about representation, then we need to kind of, get into these conversations actually about power and about money and about funding. Cause that, I think, has the impact on what happens.

The other thing is that I think, from working in a gallery, galleries are too often concerned with the object, the art object, and also my big bugbear is about how art objects relate to this idea of quality. Like what is a “good” piece of art? And I think that the reason I find that so problematic is because it creates a separation in galleries, and in particularly in institutions between art, like good art, high quality art, and inclusion, which is this kind of other thing where basically people who would be being given labels like “disabled people”, “hard to reach”, “disadvantaged”, “looked after”, “refugee”. That's where their art happens. It happens in the inclusion access stuff.

And then you have the “good art”, the “proper art”, the “artists”, and it happens there. And it's actually something that I think you see a policed in a way that is very physical. Most education spaces and galleries tend to be in strange little back pockets around the corner. They're almost always hire spaces, which means they have to be kind of scrubbed down and cleaned, usually by the people that work in those jobs.

So, there's a kind of segregation, often, that I see, uh, in the arts and in galleries between kind of good art that is displayed in the gallery and inclusion stuff that happens a bit around the back and in the side. Lastly, the last point I have about this question I was thinking about a lot is, what does it mean for people to show their artwork in galleries?

Because I think, often we don't necessarily interrogate that enough, why is it important to them? Because it might be important to them based on the work that they're showing, the things that are going on the walls, and that might be something that is important to them, but in a lot of the work that I do particularly kind of in the program at Autograph, which is working with marginalized groups, as I mentioned before, people that tend to be given all these different labels.

I think that there's often a bigger picture as to why people want to have their work in galleries, that people who work in galleries don't often really, fully appreciate. You know, being recognized and celebrated, being visible as a person, as well as your work being visible. Feeling, being in a place and occupying a place that feels safe.
That you feel you can be social in, that you can be comfortable in, that you can be together with people because you probably experience a lot of isolation. And I think that those things should be absolutely as important as the objects that people make or that go on the wall. But I think that often galleries are not actually built to really deal with that or to recognize that quality can be about relationships. It can be about connection as much as it can be about things that people make. 

And the last thing that I was going to say is that I think that the environments, which is connected to that is, I think that the environments of galleries need to change in order to really recognize this complexity of why different people make art, and how it looks and how it's manifested.

I think that people's rights need to be respected in this, in these spaces. And I think that that is connected to all these issues around the kind of resources that get given towards different kinds of art that is made and different people in these spaces. And the last thing is I think that this barrier, or this kind of gap between arts and like inclusion or participation or whatever you want to call it.

It often leads to a form of charity. Like, this is like some charity thing that we're all here and it's like disabled artists. And I think that that is really problematic. That's what continues the inequalities in whose art is shown in galleries. And I think that we need to engage with people in terms of their difference, on the basis of equality.
And I think when we can start to do that, we'll move past a kind of status quo that we have at the moment where we have the majority of exhibitions are by the “good professional artists”. And then there's this kind of swimming around of lots of people in like the Tate Exchange fifth floor, or in various other kinds of like, inclusion environments.

And I think it will be, as Chris was saying before, it's not just in order to be diverse and tick boxes. It's actually to create a more engaging, more interesting and a more representative cultural field where we can see ourselves in that space. And that can be said for anyone rather than just a very small number of people in society.

[Applause]

Firoza: Thank you, Ali.

Chris Miller: I love the way of saying what you just said. Before this, Will came down to Headway, and the question he asked about this event, which is a very good question, was “What do you want to get from this event?” 

And from my point of view - It might not be other peoples’- but it's fine. Is, for me, what I would like to see from this event, is the Barbican has an exhibition of disabled and neurodiverse art.  

[Applause]

Firoza: Thank you Chris, that’s very well put.

Will Gompertz: I suspect I ought to say something to that. Absolutely, Chris, and that's something we should talk more about and actually make happen. Ali, I don't want to sort of put words in your mouth about what you're saying. But, would it be fair to say that actually it's about just being clearer about what the purpose of exhibitions are, which is not necessarily to create some sort of amazing idea of sublime human effort, but actually, they’re storytelling devices and if you accept that, then you open up your mind to, well let's tell some different stories because at the moment, we're just telling the same stories over and over again.

And maybe if we took the concept that these are stories we’re trying to tell, then that would encourage people to look beyond the stories that are already told to new stories, which haven't been heard yet. Is that, is that a reasonable way of thinking about it?

Ali Eisa: Uh, yeah.

[Audience laughing]

I would add, well, I mean, I would add issues. Like, I think the exhibitions are thing, ways of thinking about an issue and stories are really important in how we communicate and tell about issues and about what we care about. So yeah, I would agree with that. 

Will Gompertz: I’ve got one final question for you Ali, is I was really interested because you also are a teacher at Goldsmiths.

How does your approach to exhibition making at Autograph translate to how you are shaping the program at Goldsmiths? 

Ali Eisa: Well, so I'm not a curator, so I don't create the exhibitions at Autograph. So, I have my own battles, [Laughs] but it's much smaller, so it's a bit more easy to kind of like, think about that.

But I guess we did, we did an exhibition with, Chris and with Headway. So, I've done some things that I'd say are curatorial, but I'm not sure yet. I think I've not really been at Goldsmith’s so long enough because I've only been there for sort of three years. And it's huge. And I think what Kate was mentioning about art education, I think it is in a place that is quite critical.

And I think there's quite a lot of stagnation in art schools. I run an online course called Pilot for artists and educators through Autograph and it was started at the beginning of the pandemic. And it's been really amazing because a lot of the people who've been involved in that have been people, most of whom are neurodiverse in different ways, or their experience of mainstream art education, meant that they've had to leave because there just wasn't the support.

Like there wasn't the support there for someone who needed help to be able to flourish in those environments. So, I think I'm probably trying to bring in things into that environment, around how to open up ideas of what it is to make art, and also what it means to crit and to look at art.

Goldsmiths has got this… a lot of art schools have this aggressive kind of crit thing where everyone comes in the room and we're going to sit down and then we're going to be in complete silence. And then everyone's going to look at your work really intently.

And then they're going to wait and then they're going to say something really intellectual or really over the top and then look at you, and then you've got to... And it's like, why does it need to be like some sort of grilling? Right? And I think that, that for me is reflected, it's physicalized in a lot of gallery spaces, like, gallery spaces can be really hostile environments for people.

Kate Adams: Yeah, I agree. And I think that the big question here or the big gap is that not all artists have the same level of need, for example, for support. So, one of the ways in which people have been excluded is that galleries think that it's all a level playing field out there, and it's not. Because actually to create equality, you have to recognize difference and adjust what you do in order to meet needs and therefore create equality.

So, I think there's a long way to go for galleries and institutions to understand how they need to support artists. To make and exhibit work. There are many supported studios, there's Action Space, Cheryl and Barbara over there, amazing organizations that are there to create an alternative to art school because, you know, art schools operate on a neuro-typical construct of academic achievement in order to be able to even get into them.

And so that whole arena of potential education and the nurturing of potential, it doesn't exist for many people. That's essentially what Project Artworks does, is to create this environment that enables people to discover something. And it's remarkable how quickly that can happen and what people can actually make, given the right environment.

And I wouldn't say that it's a matter of institutions having to set up those sorts of studios, but they need to work in collaboration with these alternative spaces in order to find artists.

David Tovey: Just to add to this as well. I'm really interested in the storytelling and of an exhibition and for a community like mine, the homeless community, it's very difficult for us to be able to be given spaces to story-tell, right? When we're not even allowed to come in the front doors of a lot of places, because we're turned away by the way we look, or the way we smell. And I feel it's really difficult to then have the voice, the confidence to come to people like you, Will, and say, “Give me a space to exhibit and story-tell my work and talk about my life and talk about my community.” When there's so many barriers put up, if you imagine, right, you know, for an able-bodied person, it’s quite easy to walk into a space and be seen as on par with everyone else. But if you have a disability, or you come from a minority, or you come from a vulnerable group, or homeless communities, then you're seen as below and you're not taken as seriously.

Like I was saying, it took me a year and a half to be able to get a venue, to give me a space, to showcase homeless arts. I know what it felt like the first time I had my own exhibition, you know, even though only four people came to my press night on the first evening, I was so bloody proud that I got my work seen, you know, and I felt good. It made me stand tall. It made me stand up. I was F-ing proud. Like, you know, I'd come from being on the streets to having my work in a bloody gallery. Right? And that's all we're asking for venues to actually come outside their little ivory towers. And instead of like saying, “you come to us”, well, how about you bloody lot come to us and actually find us in our environments, our communities, and say “I love what you're doing. Come and tell your stories, come or show your art in our spaces.”

Because it doesn't exist at the moment. And not only say that, instead of saying right now, go to arts council and get the funding to do this show, fuck that, I will pay you as a venue and come give you the money, put your show in, promote it, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

It has to be a lot easier because at the moment it just doesn't work for my community, and your community, and your community. You know, how can you get somebody who struggles to talk to come and present and say, “give me a show”? It’s near on impossible. So, yeah. Sorry. 

Firoza: Thank you. 

[Applause]

Thank you very much. Those are all fantastic points.

We've only going to have one question from the audience I'm afraid cause we're running out of time. Amelia, do you have somebody there?

Amelia: Anyone have a question? We are very conscious of time. And I know also some of the panellists need to leave at the time. So, no pressure. This is the closing question. End it on a good note, fellow artist, Lemsey. 
Audience Member, Lemsey: Hi guys, how you doing? I just want to ask, with how technology seems to be moving really, really quickly, how do you think that the traditional forms of art are going to be able to fuse with what new forms of technology and art are going to look like in the future? Because stuff like NFTs seem to be a big thing that people are talking about, just digital art spaces as well. Do you feel like the traditional art spaces are going to be able to factor into that or they're going to have to do something drastic to change?

Kate Adams: I think it's just like anything in art. It's going to be a phase that will just gradually become part of the scene. I don't think it's going to eradicate the need to have physical objects in space or for all the other aspects of making art that we've described, like social sculpture and how we collaborate with communities.

We have to remember that that's actually a, quite a level of… We were talking, I was talking with JJ about digital poverty, for example, that is still a really big thing. And so, it is just a phase and another aspect of art. I don't think it's going to eradicate the practice of other forms of art. I just think it's going to be absorbed as in, into one of them.

That's my, my feeling. What do you think, everyone else?

David Tovey: I agree. I think it will be absorbed, but I do feel that the the bigger nationals and an organization they need to keep up. Because I think like if they don't then the younger generation, especially are going to walk away from these institutions. And if their digital work isn't being seen by these institutions, they'll go somewhere else.

They'll set up their own places. And this is probably why I set up the festival in the first place, because nobody would give me the spaces and access. So, I was like, well, I'll just do it myself. And I feel like that is becoming more apparent now, just when you're looking at stuff that's happening in the environment and people standing up and saying, I'm not taking this no more, and creating their own movements.

So yeah, I think they, they have to change, and keep up.

Chris Miller: I think that’s true. The danger is, that it’s not the media, we need to not concentrate on the medium. It’s the feeling behind the medium. You’re trying to communicate.

Firoza: Thank you. Thank you very much, Chris. And I want to thank all my panellists today. It was a fantastic discussion. So, thank you. Thank you all.
 

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