Roam was an artist-led project, developed with participants from the 2010 retreat ‘Neither Here Nor There’ at Wysing Arts Centre. New work was shown at group show Roaming at Aid&Abet, Cambridge, in 2012, accompanied by an essay by Colin Perry. I produced Occupation Artist, an installation piece with seven videos on TV screens with a single spoken soundtrack, based on interviews and footage of the participating artists discussing contemporary art production and the role of the artist.
Essay by Colin Perry
Along its exposed coastal margins, East Anglia is vast and overwhelming. Cliffless stretches of shore vanish into a haze of brilliant light, while – out in the North Sea – vast cargo ships glint like beacons as they taxi towards Felixstowe, the largest goods docks in the UK. Seaward land, when not occupied by industry, is often inhospitable. At its southern point, Orford Ness is a land-jetty ruled by birdlife, a handful of twitchers and the remnants of a Ministry of Defence outpost. On its northern frontier, the Norfolk salt marshes are often impassable to human wayfarers. It is landscape so inscrutable, so psychically exposed, that it must be filled – somehow – in the human mind. And filled it is: with rumour, myth and magic. One of the earliest and most potent of these narratives is that of ‘Black Shuck’, the devil-dog that (so they say) terrorized a church way back in 1577, toppling its tower and killing two parishioners – before finally being immortalized in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). More recently, East Anglia has had visitors of a more otherworldly sort, when in December 1980 UFOs graced the skies above the small Suffolk village of Rendlesham. Strangest of all, it was American personnel stationed at the nearby RAF Bentwaters (a military base that had been leased to the USAF during the Cold War) who reported the sightings. It is a landscape to project your fantasies onto. For artists, that is a resource to be celebrated and explored.
‘Roaming’ features the ongoing work of seven artists who have responded to the geography and folklore of East Anglia, as well as to each other’s ideas and practices. The exhibition is named after the collective title of the group, ‘Roam’, which consists of seven artists: Will Clifford, Sarah Evans, Bettina Furnée, Catherine Hemelryk, Hayley Lock, Rachel Oxley and Caroline Wright. They have literally and figuratively ‘roamed’ the landscape, picking out the bones of history and folklore that litter the fields, architecture and mindscapes of this ancient region. Oxley, for example, has walked from Cambridge to Felixstowe, documenting her walk on a blog, while Wright has filmed solitary shelters, creating an eerie structuralist portrait of the region’s outposts. Sarah Evans visited Titchwell salt marshes on the North Norfolk coast, the location for a series of drawings in which chance encounters emerge from the lonely, negotiated environment of both land and sea. Indeed, many of the group’s common concerns have emerged from a deep connection with this place, for all of the artists have lived or worked in this region of East England. Equally important, they met first while on the ‘Escalator’ residency programme at Wysing Arts Centre, a vital home for experimental arts located a few miles outside of Cambridge, near the village of Bourn.
Because of its genesis in East Anglia, ‘Roaming’ has a non-metropolitan air (the overheated London art market of products feels a world away). Of course, this does not mean that the artists involved are removed from the key debates in contemporary art; indeed, art theory and advanced practices are concerned exactly with what it means to live outside the cultural capitals of old. Increasingly, it is important to create subjective maps of these territories. For the past two decades – since at least 1991, when curator Mary Jane Jacob organized the legendary exhibition ‘Places with a Past’ in Charleston, South Carolina – artists have been involved in creating works that are not just sited, but also embroiled in a region’s history, social fabric and politics. It has also become important to place the local in the global context, a concern that is evident in Europe’s ‘roaming’ Manifesta biennial, as well as ‘static’ biennials from Istanbul to Gwangju. In the UK, we now have numerous large-scale exhibitions that address the local: from the Folkestone Triennial to the Liverpool Biennial (both urban centres, admittedly); at the same time, the UK’s arts funding has shifted to accommodate debates about regionalization, pushing against London’s financial gravity. Innovative ‘regional’ (the word itself speaks of metropolitan prejudice) institutions now provide opportunities for artists and curators to look to the local.
What is distinctive in the UK is a keen interest in idiosyncrasy, history and mythology. Think of the Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane’s Folk Archive; Adam Chodzko’s psychedelic narratives and interventions in public space; Bedwyr William’s sardonic Welsh performance works in which he proclaims himself the ‘Dinghy King’ who ‘grew up in other people’s holidays’. In ‘Roaming’, we can see this conjoined interest in humour and history in Hayley Lock’s Blue Light – the artist’s first major video work. A quasi-narrative mash-up, Blue Light explores the legacy of Black Shuck, the myths’ connections with The Hound of The Baskervilles, and – somewhat unexpectedly – Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven children’s books. The video was shot on location in North Norfolk, at Cromer Hall, where Arthur Conan Doyle stayed and first learnt of the ghostly devil-dog; and at Beeston Bump, where Black Shuck was said to have appeared. Mysteries abound here: the film contains numerologically important data as well as featuring the motif of the ‘dark glass’. Lock’s video is based on a script she had commissioned from the science fiction writer Liz Williams, although she playfully ignored much of its linguistic niceties by insisting that her actors perform the ‘story’ through gestures and poses rather than speech. (The text is published in an accompanying publication). Also exploring local mythology, Will Clifford plans to organize a series of talks for the exhibition, each focussed on the area and community in which he lives. Talks will cover subjects including the Anglo-Saxon palace at Rendlesham and its connection with the Sutton Hoo burial site; the Rendlesham UFO incidents; and the history of the now-decommissioned Bentwaters military base (which is now a museum devoted to the Cold War). He also plans to exhibit a poster fusing Cold War and Ufologist paranoia, warning visitors ‘YOU ARE BEING WATCHED’.
For all the common interest in place, myth and heritage, it would be foolhardy to seek to label Roam as a ‘collective’. The Roam artists have not sought to lose their identity to a greater whole, as other art collectives have often done (in their initial stages, at least). Roam’s grouping is neither a collective criticism of the capitalist triumphalism of the individual, nor a parodic reprocessing of corporate anonymity. Instead, Roam’s model of working draws on practices of co-operative art making developed since the mid 1990s. Curator and theorist Nicolas Bourriaud’s well-known (and somewhat thorny) portmanteau ‘relational aesthetics’ posited that art was no longer about art objects or processes, but about the relationships it produced. In exhibitions such as ‘Traffic’, staged at the CAPC Musée d’art contemporain in Bordeaux in 1996, social formations such as a séance (Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster), a communal seating area (Rirkrit Tiravanija) or a flea market (Christine Hill) were art works that demanded participants. ‘Traffic’ was also unlike earlier models of experimental exhibition making, which had occasionally turned the exhibition space into a studio-like event in which the audience could watch artists creating works (for example, ‘When Attitudes Becomes Form’, Kunsthalle Berne, 1969). By contrast, at ‘Traffic’, many works were realized only through collaboration with other artists, or with the participation of the audience itself.
It is almost a decade and a half since the high water mark of ‘relational aesthetics’. For the artists involved, ‘Roam’ has been a means of opening up their practices and to aspects of process-based explorations that eschew finished products, to explore aspects of collaboration and sharing. At the same time, the larger and ongoing site-specific and relational debate has, once more shifted with issues of globalization and localness meeting under a broad concern for ‘mobility’ within contemporary art practice. Roam is part of this fugitive debate. The group’s name is, after all, a verb: ‘to roam’ (an ongoing process). This mobile approach can be clearly seen in Rachel Oxley’s Walk: a six-week exploration of East Anglia by foot, in which she not only visited sites of interest, but also encountered a wide range of people, from tourists to locals. The work is structured by a number of contingencies: by the weather, by the land, by chance encounters and by the interplay between the personal and the collective. More formally, it is structured by the duration of her expedition, and by a series of meals she had organized along the route and to which she invited other Roam artists as well as people she had met along the way. Some of these meals were well attended, jovial and convivial; others – when people who had promised to attend could not be there – were more modest and sedate. On her blog, you can trace her path as she meanders on an unexpectedly long route from the heart of the region (Cambridge) to its edge (Felixstowe). It is a route that defies the tourist trail: she skips the larger and more obvious stop-offs along her route, as if following a map from an earlier time. Walk is innovative for a number of reasons: it is open to chance encounters, is concerned with transforming a solitary act (walking) into a participatory event (talking, sharing a meal), and unfolds over several weeks as a series of potentially endless debates.
This sense of duration and open-ended discourse is central to the entire Roam project. In the run-up to the ‘Roaming’ exhibition, a number of discussions, meetings and workshops have taken place (including the meals with Oxley). One of the venues for the group’s ‘Interim Event’, which took place half way through the planning and build-up to this exhibition, was the Martello Tower in Jaywick, in Essex. The location – a former military tower built in 1809 as part of coastal defence system against Napoleon Bonaparte’s naval forces – was a perfect setting for a Secret Seven style rendezvous. The event was a suitable mixture of the jovial (participants were asked to bring an ‘avatar’ – which transpired to be little cutout figures taped to rulers), and intellectual (links to a website were provided that hosts numerous texts on collaborative art practices). This type of structured group practice, in which an assembly of individual artists come together over many months to share ideas and goals, is an important innovation. It effectively stretches the exhibition out over a number of months before it takes place in the public arena. The purposeful, organization aspect to this is also a reflection of the fact that several of the artists involved are also well versed in exhibitionary models: Hemelryk is a curator as well as an artist, while Evans is a co-founder of Aid&Abet .
At times, the group also draws upon itself as a source of artistic content. In Bettina Furnée’s work Occupation Artist, we are presented with a video installation of the participating artists filmed in a location ‘where they feel at home in a professional sense’: Lock appears at a ford she knew as a child in Stoke Ash, Suffolk; Clifford appears at the reed beds near Snape, Suffolk; Wright is filmed underwater at Jesus Green Lido, Cambridge; Evans pours drinks at Aid&Abet; and Hemelryk skates around Draycote Water, Warwickshire. These short videos are played on separate monitors (one for each artist), and feature a single combined soundtrack, recreated using quotes from interviews with the participants. The work explores the figure of ‘the artist’, and how he or she might assume a position within contemporary art production. and rooting for possible positions of the artist behind dematerialised art production. In her work for the exhibition, Catherine Hemelryk has painted GPS (Global Positioning System) locations of pertinent places for the project in the exhibition space. She has also created travel bugs to visit geocaches (a sort of modern hide-and-seek using GPS technology) relating to each of the other artists’ projects. Also drawing on the power of the group itself, Lock’s Blue Light might be taken as a fantastical group self-portrait. In the video, the actors’ clothes – shorts and ankle socks – reference Blyton’s The Secret Seven, reminding us with a nudge and wink that Roam also has seven members. We might similarly imagine these artists as adventurers scampering across East Anglia’s wild coasts in search of adventure, or plotting new expeditions from their garden shed.
Blyton’s The Secret Seven also gets an oblique nod in Caroline Wright’s Secrets and Lies. While the children’s headquarters was in a garden shed, Wright’s structuralist video triptych examines three similar sites (a beach hut, a shepherd’s hut and a lookout tower). Secrets and Lies is a slow, meditative work, which is accompanied by a collection of poems by Martin Figura. We see a rag tied to a door, flapping in the wind; a photograph of a woman, framed and positioned carefully on a windowsill: the effects of time on objects, people and memories. (In the exhibition, a trail of objects depicted in the film will leads the viewer to the site of the screening). These images form a meditation on the places we go to escape the world. Wright is particularly interested in Michel Foucault text Of Other Spaces (1967), in which he introduces the concept of the ‘heterotopia’: a place that demands alternative social codes for a shared experience.
For Foucault, while ‘history’ was the evident obsession of the nineteenth century, ‘space’ was the secret obsession of the mid to late twentieth century. The exhibition itself – or rather the contemporary art gallery – is one such space in contemporary, western society. But it is not the only one. Roam, as a group, is concerned with the region where they are based – its little nooks and retreats, stories and people. But the group also intends to find ways of working with artists and groups from other regions in the UK and abroad. At the same time, their own thematic bonds will continue to strengthen as they continue to operate as a unit; this, in turn, will allow themselves to stretch beyond their geographical region as a cogent unit based in, but not confined to, East Anglia. Where else might we roam? The regional (as reality, as idea) is our current itch, and we must scratch it collectively.