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Event report: Anchor Points at Look Again Festival Aberdeen

by Moira Jeffrey
Image: Jon Reid, Look Again 2016

Artists in Aberdeen have been encouraged to use opportunities such as festivals, events and temporary programming to “put their foot on the accelerator” in securing support for artist-led initiatives and artistic practice in the city.

SCAN co-hosted an event at Aberdeen’s Look Again Festival at the end of April, examining the role of festivals in developing artist-led practice.

Inaugurated in 2015 by Festival Director, Sally Reaper of agency SMART, the festival is a partnership with Robert Gordon University with support from Creative Scotland. It comes in the context of renewed calls for cultural change in the city after the long-running saga of Peacock Visual Art’s stymied plans for redevelopment in 2010, the city council’s failed attempt to be shortlisted for a UK City of Culture bid and during the current closure of Aberdeen’s city council funded Art Gallery and Museum for a major refurbishment. Peacock’s longstanding director Lindsay Gordon has retired and the organisation have now recruited new director Nuno Sacramento (previously at Scottish Sculpture Workshop) with an explicit brief to address strategic development.

This year the festival had curatorial direction from Hilary Nicol, the former director of Scottish Sculpture Workshop in Lumsden, Aberdeenshire. Among the higher profile projects were the first showing of Brutalist Playground, a soft play installation by Turner Prize Winning ensemble Assemble and artist Simon Terrill, and artist Doug Fishbone’s Boomin Bus Tour which took an unorthodox trip round the city.

Look Again’s declared brief included using the fabric of the city and bringing it into fresh perspective, in conversation with artists who live and work in the city as well as visiting artists and audiences. The SCAN event was held in the Anatomy Rooms, an artist-led studio provision in the basement of the historic Marischal building in the city centre, which once held the university’s anatomy lecture theatre and dissection room.

Jon Reid, Look Again 2016
Jon Reid, Look Again 2016

While the festival has a wide remit the emphasis in discussion was on artist-led activity, the perspective of artists and, in particular, artists as organisers. Contributors included Helen de Main an artist based in Glasgow who helped organise the exhibition Semi-Gloss Semi-Permeable in the Albus Building during this year’s Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art (GI), Laura Simpson, Facilities and Programme Manager at Hospitalfield in Arbroath, who studied at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design and is a former chair of the artist-led initiative GENERATORprojects. Kirsty Russell and Amber Robertson are both Gray’s School of Art graduates who as well as maintaining their own artistic practices, work together as Temporary Studio, a project which started by supporting other artists but has also developed as a collaborative art practice.

For de Main, Glasgow International (GI) provided an opportunity “to work with other artists and to generate opportunities for ourselves,” GI is “a platform to be seen and to provide access to other means to help accelerate a project.”

Glasgow International solicits bids from artists to become part of what is known as the supported programme: “It brings marketing support, it gave us a little bit of funding, just enough to make sure the project could happen. Through that we were able to find and secure a venue, and put together a show.” De Main contrasted her experiences in Glasgow in 2016 with a prior festival project; an exchange she helped organise in 2012 between GI and the contemporary art platform ReMap in Athens in 2012. Organised by a property developer as a tool of regeneration, with a mix of artist-led projects and international commercial galleries, de Main felt the latter project had less lasting impact on her practice as while it was an exhibition opportunity it failed as a developmental process.

Laura Simpson studied in Dundee: “When I came to the end of my studies I came to think about audiences for art, and travelled to art festivals such as Documenta, it seemed relevant for me to think about how to support other artists’ practice. At Generator I could see first of all what it was like being a graduate artist, how to develop your own practice and how to carve out time for yourself to make art.” As part of the Ignite Festival, she met other organisations and learned about city infrastructure and about funding. “Festivals work best where there is kernel of interest and focus to start with, with Ignite that was the degree shows, people were already coming into the city.”

For Simpson, artist-led peer groups are essential for artists’ development. “You have to ride the wave of meeting new people. An art scene that is really healthy is where there is good communication between generations and it is not in silos. You build your immediate set of influence through cliques and gangs, but you need to see what the next step is for your art practice and for practical needs.”

Jon Reid, Look Again 2016
Jon Reid, Look Again 2016

In a city where the expense of rent and issues around the retention of graduate artists is widely discussed, audience members emphasised the importance of access to production facilities, paid opportunities and paid employment, and for people working within the art schools to engage with their peer groups of artists and audiences.

Russell and Robertson described their own practice in Aberdeen as “built around the idea of a flexible name, flexible in location, audience or the idea that it might expand.” Robertson said that their project was a response to, “The lack of space for artists to have dialogue, a space to experiment, not so much a studio space, just a space to be. We were lucky that were gifted a space from the council, we programmed to encourage collaborations” Russell explained: “We worked on the idea of a studio toolkit. A lot of artists left the city, because of the cost of studio space and rent. And we tried to utilise these people without them being in the city through collaborative and instructional works, playing around.”

Wider discussions revealed that tensions exist between artists working in the city and its established institutions. Russell and Robertson felt that they worked in a culture in which artists were encouraged to demonstrate gratitude to the city and its institutions, rather than to work in equal partnership or be valued for their cultural contribution.

The Panel members had wide experience in these problems and in the routes that artist-led activity could provide in overcoming them. “The festival format has a great live element that can compete to complement the static exhibition,” said Simpson of the emphasis on events and live programming at her current role at Hospitalfield. “When a festival happens, it encourages great exhibitions, but for us it’s also about the liveness, the discursive opportunity and chance for audiences to meet the artist, for artist to meet other artists in formal and informal situations.” “A festival was,” she said, speaking from a building once famed for its role in dissection, “the way to get under the surface of a city.”