Interview with Nina Coulson & Alex Johnson by Daniel Pryde Jarman
Bio: Movement gallery is a departure, a change, a stopover, or an arrival – it’s a point along a journey and a geographically democratic site for the production and presentation of contemporary artwork. It is a micro-gallery, located in what was once a redundant gent’s toilet that fronts directly onto a busy railway station platform. Movement is run by Yoke & Zoom, an artist duo (Nina Coulson and Alex Johnson), who work from home on the Malvern Hills in the UK and Internationally. Yoke & Zoom’s practice involves collaboration and interventions in public space, in an urban and rural context. Yoke & Zoom work with such themes as communality, rituals, survivalism, counter-cultures, mobile architecture, alternative living systems, and the relationship between culture and nature in contemporary society.
Transcript key: N = Nina Coulson, A = Alex Johnson
Q: What were your motivations for setting up a space? How did you form?
N: I was doing my MA in curating at Dartington and we were not motivated to set up a gallery at all, but Alex’s brother saw the lease was available and we decided to put in a proposal.
A: I am sure you were interested?
N: No, I wasn’t.
A: A few other groups were.
Q: So it was a competitive process and you proposal was accepted as the strongest?
A: Yes, based on our work as artists. The other groups were charities and it was not going to be a charity shop, as they were proposing to use it for storage instead. Acorn, the charity that facilitated it, said they really liked the idea of quite an extreme change of use from public toilets to public gallery, and the idea that they would get a stream of visitors on the platform.
N: We had always worked from home, never had a studio, taking our work outwards from where were based. We had a schizophrenic practice, going away to make art. We wanted something that would allow us to bring the two things together and with more involvement.
Q: How did Movement form? You obviously work together, in more ways than one. Did you conceive of Movement as a public interface for Yoke & Zoom. Was it something separate or designed to work in tandem?
N: The intention was going to be originally that we would have several shows a year and the rest of the time that we would have a private studio for Yoke & Zoom.
A: The original plan was to have a gallery that was quite separate from us as artists. An artist-led gallery, working with artists who we respected, but we had no idea of the future collaborations that would come out of that. It has benefited us as artists.
N: I would say that it actually goes against us as artists, in the sense that we are now known as directors or curators of Movement, we have gone from building opportunities as artists in collaborations. We were in the position whereby we were going to others for advice, and we have skipped a step and we are now offering other people advice. So in terms of our own practice that has become quite distracting, as you can’t communicate with a curator about a show you’re doing in another gallery. You cannot skip your work into it, but you are working for somebody else when you are running the space. There are quite different sides to what we do; it has been a juggle.
Q: How much of this was down to the signification of the space? For example, if you had called the gallery Yoke and Zoom Public, would that have got around some of these issues?
A: For me, Movement was always greater than us as artists. The Movement name was always about this, in terms of involving other people and our own ideas. It represented our ideas and how we were positioning ourselves in the art world. Since we have opened, it has been quite hard to run the two in tandem. There are some areas where it definitely suites as more as artists, and other moments when we are representing the gallery.
Q: What form or model does your space take? You mentioned your original plan to have on and off seasons, whereby the space would switch between exhibitions and your use of the space as artists. To what extent did you research into existing models for this?
N: We got funding for a research period to look at other galleries and other artist-run spaces in other cities, and we had done Midwest, which was an opportunity to look at other models, which had really helped. I think that with Midwest there was definitely an urge for artists to run spaces.
A: I think we were encouraged to look into and run our own space. Movement is only 35-square meters, and so we were interested in looking at examples of smaller spaces, such as the Station Gallery in Bristol. We talked with and met up with many other artist-run galleries to see how they did it and to get advice.
N: Essentially Movement always had to be a not-for-profit space. We don’t always have to use it as a gallery, as the railways are happy as long as we use it as a site for art. We have been careful not to only show our own work. Movement does represent what Yoke & Zoom does. The first question we got locally is ‘is the gallery for showing your own work’? We had an advisory panel and a steering group, but we did not want it to be too diluted locally. We wanted it to be different and with no pressure from outside parties. We don’t have a board, and this is a deliberate act.
A: Many of the galleries we looked at had boards, although we did have an advisory panel that was more like a working group for when we were setting up. We always knew we did not want too many people telling us where we should be going, as we knew what the consequences are. Too many people in a small gallery!
N: We had a four and a half year period, where we were negotiating with eleven different people anyway. So a board would have made this process much more difficult. Having said that, now that we are running the gallery, I think it would be nice to have a board that we could defer to. So that it’s not always just us dealing with large decisions. We have considered opening it up a bit and to think about the life of the space outside of us.
A: But I think that happens anyway. Like the show you did with us Dan. Or when we had Freee in, it was very much about giving them control of the space. Just because we don’t have a board doesn’t mean that we don’t give other people creative ownership of the space, particularly featured artists. In fact, it’s because we don’t have a board that we are probably able to be as flexible as we are in freeing the space up. We can move things around, be flexible, and have autonomy.
N: Not having a support of a group means that we have had to put so much into it, and the reason why I feel that it has affected our practice.
Q: Sometimes a board can create more work, but where it may be useful is in sustaining itself without only your blood pumping through it. Which would also allow you to walk away from it at some point.
N: There have been times where that would have been really good, as for example going through the renovation was so difficult. It was only us two. There was no third party we could go to, and so it really impacted upon our working and personal lives. If we left it for a year, we would like it to carry on running as a gallery. We have a complex lease and it’s for us, and not to sublet. We have looked at future possibilities of others running the space, which we can direct from afar.
Q: Do your projects emerge from a scene or community of practitioners?
A: I would not say that creatively we are rooted in a scene. In fact, most of the artists we have shown haven’t had a Worcester connection at all. In fact, I see it as the role of Movement to bring international contemporary art to Worcester. We are unique because we have this great random audience who miss trains, or who have been delayed. Even though it says Art Gallery in big letters, even when they have crossed the threshold they are not sure what it is, what kind of building or room they are in. A lot of the feedback we get is very positive, and from people who didn’t even know that it was an art gallery. I see my mission as bringing interesting international work to Worcester. We are doing a thing that not even the Worcester Art Gallery & Museum is providing. So in a way, we are providing a public service that just isn’t there at the moment.
N: When the opportunity first arose to do Movement, we had been practicing for 6-years as artists, or maybe 4-years from when we did our first major public project. So our scene was always fractured internationally, and it wasn’t anything local at all. Well, we had done some things locally but it did not quite match up. Nat Pitt opened his space just before we opened Movement, at around the same time we signed the lease, although we hadn’t yet got permission or funding. What Nat is doing in Worcester is really good, as we didn’t know anyone else locally who was showing contemporary art.
A: Nat’s problem is, well it does not have to be a problem, but he does not get the audiences that we get simply because we are on the train station and in the middle of the city centre. What was great was that Nat opened in the mean time during the years that we were trying to get all of the permissions sorted out. So it made it really positive to see somebody else kick-start the local scene that we wanted to be part of, in terms of activities for contemporary art. I think that between the two us we have definitely had an impact on that
N: The difference between Nat and us is that he was much more positive about the local scene and how he could change it, whereas we were quite jaded about it, as we grew up there and had moved away. So for us, we knew that there was still people working in an education context that were there from when I was studying. We knew that there were certain boats that you couldn’t really rock. So I was very aware of not wanting to let anybody dilute what we wanted to do locally.
A: Which could have been inevitable couldn’t it? That was the trouble, that a lot of interesting stuff fizzes up, and then tends to peter out again doesn’t it?
N: Yes, I think it’s good to engage locally, but then if you are only thinking on a local level you are not going to look beyond that. So for us it was really important to have that duality, and to bring those two things together.
A: We knew from the start that we did not want to follow an arts workshop model. Even though there is still a lot of call for that in a provincial city. There was one in Worcester that lost all of its funding. It had been regularly funded for years.
N: We had not had an arts officer in place in the city for 10-years, and there still is not one in place.
Q: So is this service outsourced by Worcester Council?
N: No, there is a County Council officer, but not a city one. We had not previously had support with our projects, and so we knew that we were not likely to get any local City Council support either. We knew that the Council was not going to help really.
A: We also knew that we did not want to be dependent upon the city or the County Council.
Q: Do you think the activities of Movement have been shaped by particular local conditions, and if so what were they? You mentioned the influence of the particular conditions of the train station, and the lack of existing facilities.
N: Yes, definitely. We put it to the Arts Council that there were not currently these facilities.
A: In terms of the city art gallery and museum, once their contemporary curator had left they were never replaced.
N: We had been to a triennial festival in Japan, and that helped us become aware of how you can do something rurally and still look at it as being just as important. To me every location is equally as important as everywhere else. Many people said ‘well it is only in Worcester, and you’re not really going to be able to do much’. But I have always had a very clear idea that everywhere is equal, and because Movement is part of a physical rail network, allowing you to leave from the gallery door, perhaps change once, and be anywhere in Europe. That physically means that we are part of a network and a larger system, which is important to us.
Q: I suppose you have to get your head around a certain mindset in order to think like that? Particularly in the winter months when you may only get about two visitors and it can feel like quite a thankless task.
N: Yes, there are times when I think, perhaps not Alex as much, that if this gallery was there it would be amazing. It can be difficult if you have invited an artist to work there, and they have come a long way, and you really respect what they are doing, and then hardly anyone comes. Or they come and there isn’t anywhere else to go to afterwards. You want it to be a gateway to more and that can be quite frustrating.
Q: In some way, do you feel as though you are representing the city, and selling it to visitors?
A: I think you do. I remember, a year and a half ago when I was in Frankfurt, talking to people there about the gallery, and very much aware that I was not just representing the gallery but also the city.
N: That was interesting because we were working on a project with Simon Starling and his students. The intention was to enable spaces across Europe to connect with us. Alex went out to the opening in Germany, and there were certain people at the launch who, when they heard that we were showing the project in Worcester, literally just turned and walked away.
A: They were basically disgusted that it wasn’t going to be shown in London. That was the first time that it dawned on me that I was also representing my local provincial city.
Q: I have a similar issue in Coventry. As I have been running two spaces, there has been noticeably more interest in showing work at Grey Area rather than Meter Room, simply because more people are interested in showing in Brighton.
N: Our shows tend to work in reverse. We do not get high numbers of visitors for Private views, as there aren’t the numbers to support that kind of a scene. So we maybe get higher numbers during the shows. We had lots of visitors for our first ever opening, but people think we are open now and so they don’t keep coming. There isn’t an art scene or culture of going to PVs. continuously, and instead we may get fifty people a day throughout a show. Which is good for the size of the space.
A: Its location is as much a part of its identity. I do not think it actually would work in London, or on a London station.
N: What is good about our station is that there aren’t a lot of other distractions. It is literally just that. We have a good footfall, as there is something like two million a year who use the station, and so it has a lot of good lively footfall. Our audience tend to see us in the same way that people have a feeling of ownership for a museum or public gallery. People feel that same kind of ownership for us. A lot of artist-run spaces don’t often get that. In our first funding, we only had to be open 16-weeks of the year, and so we did not have this idea that we would be always open. I think that is what people find difficult. There isn’t a culture whereby people think lets go and visit an artist-run space and let’s look them up. People instead expect us to be always open, and are confused when we aren’t.
A: We have had people who have seen the gallery closed for a year, even though it has been open on and off, because they always come when we are not open. They just keep coming at the wrong times.
N: With our new funding application we are planning to be open 40-weeks a year, and to experiment to see how that works in the space.
Q: In order to secure funding such spaces are often expected to professionalise and institutionalise their operations. Have you obtained public funding, and if so did you experience those associated pressures?
A: Not at first, no. However, I think with this second round of Arts Council funding. I think there are a lot more hoops to jump through now than when we first opened.
N: I don’t think that’s true with the Arts Council, but with the County Council it is, as they want us to operate much more like an educational provider. On certain years they haven’t funded us at all, as even though they can see what we are doing they don’t feel that it is enough of a public realm gallery. The Arts Council however haven’t put any particular pressure on us. We received a sizeable grant to begin with, and they haven’t asked me to write the grants in any particular kind of way. I have decided to state that we will be open for longer weeks because of what the public have said to us. I wanted it to be more regular as I think that it has often been too flexible. I want to experiment with it being quite structured for a period of time.
A: I think our relationship with them has definitely changed if you compare this with the first application.
N: The old relationship officers were supportive and advised us how to get our first funding. They were promoting what we did as artists and what we did as gallerists. I wouldn’t find now, that with the new structure
A: There was more money in the pot back then when we first started; this is before the Olympics were announced, and before the Tories made the cuts. It is a very different operation now.
N: When we first put in an application, it was all based on presumption, as we hadn’t even signed a lease yet. So they trusted us with that, and that was amazing. Now I have gone back to them for slightly more. They always told us from the start that we wouldn’t be regularly funded, and that we wouldn’t qualify as a national portfolio organisation. Our new relationship manager has come in and she doesn’t know us from before, and so she sees us as gallerists rather than as artists. She is very cautious. I do think it is good to have somebody who knows what you are dong personally, but relationship managers do not have any power now. They cant even give you advice.
Q: What is the division of labour within the organisations and what are the conditions produced by them?
A: We do have volunteers, but we are the core. We have a lot of support staff and an intern programme. We get people in for technical work.
N: A lot of it is still run from home in-between shows. The division of labour initially was supposed to be that Alex would do negotiations, I would do more of a curatorial role, and that Alex would be doing work that is more technical and installation. Alex is better at working with an artist to produce a vision.
A: It morphs and modulates between shows.
Q: I am interested in your division of labour, in the sense that you are together in your relationship, you are together as artists, and you are together in the gallery. What kind of a gallery does that produce?
A: A difficult one! That was part of the reason for bringing other people in. Not only because we wanted to give opportunities to get involved in the gallery. It can be quite difficult if you are in a relationship, and you are working together in a public space. You don’t want any of the politics between you to get in the way in that space. For the benefit of the public at large, you know we don’t normally work together when the gallery is open, because there’s no need to.
N: It can also be quite awkward. We do not want to come across as too much of a kind of closed unit.
A: Well they’re terrible aren’t they, when you go into a shop and it is run by a husband and wife team, and they’re horrible. Luckily for them, we sort of keep the dynamics separate.
N: But it is hard you know, it impacts on things. Doing all those things together is difficult.
Q: Having produced a project at Movement, it seemed to me that there is a very small amount of distance between private and public space, and that your own personality is very much reflected in the way it is run. I’m wondering how you find a balance between not neutralising it too much, at the same time as not making it too overbearing?
N: Yes exactly. It is finding that balance, there was a period of our work as Yoke & Zoom where we very much put being an artist-led family into it. So our whole family, you know raising our children and how they got involved in our work, and wanting to do everything together as an artist family. I think definitely lately we have maybe found our own voices within the collaboration, a little bit more as individual artists haven’t we?
A: What is interesting about Movement is that it’s this development, this moving of relationships, development of collaborations. It’s not just learning from each other, it is learning and giving the freedom to the artist that come into this space.
N: If we are working with one artist, we don’t want to make them feel awkward because we’re already like this quite, like you know, fixed kind of entity of two. We want to kind of maybe let them feel that they can kind of make their own work.
A: They have the space all to themselves.
Q: Some of the best curating can be done when you leave the room.
N: Yes exactly, we do try and do that just leave it and let people do it. Which is what’s been had with Movement. There’s no other space you can go to, and there’s no other room where you can just shut the door and walk away. You have to go outside the space, or be working at home you know so it’s quite hard. That’s where you’ve got to really play it carefully.
Q: You have mentioned that a few times. Would you really like another room at Movement?
N: I’d like somewhere to go and hide. I think it’s quite important otherwise as a curator of the space particularly in an area where people maybe don’t have a lot of opportunities to show their work and the only kind of space that they are maybe familiar with is like a public art gallery. Where the curators can hide away there sometimes. I felt like that when we first started, as we were almost being bullied into people coming in going ‘Will you show my work? I’m in Worcester, I’m local’ and there’s no way you can. You’ve got to become quite tough, you know.
Q: It’s a question of visibility as well isn’t it?
N: When you’re dealing with the public.
Q: If a curator is always there in the space, it alters the dynamic of the gallery.
A: That’s why you know, it would be good to have another space. If you’re in the gallery you are in the space all of the time, so unless you leave the gallery and let the artist get on with it, you know it can be a kind of difficult.
N: I had a period when I found that hard, and I ended up working from home on what I was doing for Movement while Alex was doing front of house, and kind of keeping an eye on the space. I would be more at home and that felt odd as well, so maybe a different unit further down the line.
Q: Does Movement explore any specific curatorial strategies?
A: I wouldn’t say specific ones, we don’t like to repeat ourselves.
N: No, I think that there is an expected notion that we will and I think that one thing that our relationship manager at the Arts Council has expected from us is that we’re going to follow a curatorial strategy, but I think that’s much more institutional than we are. We’ve been very able to be quite independent. I don’t know how they will be with the second application, but with the first one we were very able to be free. All we had to do was give the names of the artists we were working with and rough dates and nothing more specific than that.
Q: Did you flesh out a kind of vision for the space?
N: Well, we fleshed out a vision of why we wanted to do things.
A: For the benefit of getting funding, do you not think you might have said something sort of like that? We certainly do not advocate and do not practice that, having a curatorial strategy.
N: I think it is important not to, as you’re always going to kind of change. I think it is really important to be open to things. I gave the vision that we would like to show international work, but that we’re very flexible, and because we are so small we want the room to kind of change and maybe the artists we worked with eventually were quite different than the ones that we originally said.
A: Yes, we don’t want to have to. We did very much want to get away from the idea of saying who we’re going to have. Well, we didn’t want this idea of having to do what a gallery like the Ikon does here, where they know what they’re doing for two or three years, and there’s a sort of flexibility. If one artist cannot do a certain slot or whatever, and we were adamant that we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to be as flexible as possible. Obviously, we wanted to be able to work with an artist that’s very successful, and very busy, and you can’t just sort of say ‘look do you fancy doing a show next June’ or something like that. So apart from trying to work out when artists were free, so we could also be flexible in working with their schedules, by and large we didn’t want to be too prescriptive and have this whole two three year itinerary of artists coming in.
N: Yes, it was a sort of exhaustive process if you were just to work on those levels, but that would obviously be a factor and we talked about taking projects outside the gallery on the trains and really for us there is an importance to how we attend things in Europe for example, by going on the trains rather than flying. And while we’re doing that, kind of doing temporary projects along the way that are quite spontaneous. I mean, I’ve mentioned that again on a form. It’s got to be something that we’re interested in, because probably the longer I work connected to the railways the more I am interested in the networking. Artists that have used rail networks throughout maybe the last 30-years is something that does interest me, but we were very aware that we didn’t want to show anything railway related, at least until the end of the two year shows, at which point we did show something.
Q: I guess that is a deliberate curatorial strategy in itself. The idea of resisting the obvious curatorial narratives that present themselves.
A: But also, you’ve got people that are artists who visit the space quite often, and who want to do something to do with the railways and this location.
N: But we didn’t want to be doing site-specific work that would have been too responsive. With Yoke & Zoom, we had come to a point where we were responding to situations all the time and we didn’t necessarily want the gallery to be like that. We didn’t want artists who came to the gallery to feel that they has to do that, because some projects are just so much about the site or the people that use the site that the artist gets no actual imagination or expression. For us it was important to give the artist a space to expand.
A: We cannot stop artists coming to the space and going ‘Wow brilliant, it’s on a station!’, so yes it’s unavoidable.
N: I think that is a bad thing for an artist practice, because I think you end up not able to let it take its own strands. You’re always almost starting again with every new context and I think you end up almost like working like you’re in advertising, and you’re working to a brief. We were very aware that when the Tories came in that we didn’t want to be working for their Big Society.
Q: The artists may never show on a train station platform again, so those site-specific narratives may be too hard to resist.
N: Yes exactly, but then most people get through that after a while. Many people have said to us that they would love to make a sound piece based on the sounds of the station, or you know, that it would be really good to interview people there.
A: Or to use the tannoy system.
N: I think that using the actual trains as sites is much more interesting.
A: But then you see that depends on whether we are sort of commissioning artists to do new work, as that’s a trap that they can fall into. With Jacob Fiege’s work and Marcus Coates’ work, there was stuff that had been made previously, so there wasn’t any real eluding or connecting to trains.
N: But it was quite difficult when we worked with Freee though wasn’t it? Because they did a piece that in the end was interesting because I had been looking at not wanting to participate, you know wanting to go away from participatory practice. Freee is the kind of descent side of their work, so by trying to create a space. What they did was wallpaper out the entire gallery, blocked all the windows, and papered it with images of an area that was going to be regenerated.
A: An area just round the corner from here.
N: It was Digbeth and people could interact. That would have worked really well if it had been local to Worcester as people would have understood it much more. We talked to Hewitt and Jordan before Freee started, and they were on our first kind of list, and they had not done a gallery show and were very much working in public space with billboards. But by doing something that was away from here it alienated the local public, which created its own kind of interesting tensions you know, on how this is a public space.
A: There was simply a lack of context. It needed a lot of explaining to most people.
N: To the general public.
A: I’d say the general public were very nonplussed as to what was going on, even when it was explained to them that this was a part of Birmingham that was undergoing, or was due to undergo some sort or regeneration. They were saying well why are you showing it here why aren’t you showing the sort of industrial part of Worcester.
N: That was somewhere where maybe more context specific would have worked better.
Q: Perhaps that would have helped you to initiate a more genuine community exchange.
A: Yes, and we would have had more participation with people sort of going ‘oh this is what’, because the idea is that the public suggest ideas, stick them on the walls whether they want to turn an old office block into a hospital or something like that. The idea was that it was open for people to think about the idea of a community, and in a displacement from Digbeth to Worcester, the context was lost.
Q: Do you relate to the terms ‘artist’, ‘curator’, or ‘artist-curator’ in any particular kind of way? For example, do you describe yourselves as artists or curators, or perhaps both or neither?
N: I would primarily describe myself as an artist and see the project as a larger artwork rather than an institution, and the people that we work with as collaborators within that artwork. I otherwise would describe myself as an artist-curator, but I do usually get introduced now as a curator, which I do slightly have a problem with.
Q: It grates with you slightly?
A: Yes, you said that right at the start of the interview.
N: No it does. It really does. I mean, curator has more power generally doesn’t it than an artist I think. Although they need artists to work. They cannot work without artist, but curators understand the system more than a lot of artists, and I think I do have a problem because to work as a curator it means that you’re part of an institution, you’re part of…I don’t know I don’t like it. It just does not work for me.
A: Well, you can be independent, you know a freelance curator.
N: Yes, but you are still part of a larger system.
A: Depending on who is paying you.
N: It might not work for a particular institution. No, I don’t like it.
A: It’s got this kind of clichéd idea of what a curator is, there’s some sort of inferred power, but I think we do so many things, and use so many different skills whether it is graphics or it is redecorating, putting something up, installing, phoning up, meeting with artists, etc. Even artist-curator doesn’t even scratch the surface of how extensive the activity is now for a lot of artists.
N: I think that all artists should learn curating because then they will understand the systems that play around their work and I think that’s really important, if artists don’t understand them.
Q: Do you mean in relation to the academic system, in terms of professional development units on art degrees?
A: Who’s to say what sort of model of thought you’d teach student curators.
N: Artists who understand that their ideas are not unique, and that it’s all about thinking on different levels. I kind of see it as thinking along the lines of similar points of energy or people, and I think curating opens people up to that, and to understanding. I think maybe the reason we got more into curating was because a lot of our projects would kind of be self-initiated. We wouldn’t wait for a gallery to give us an exhibition you know, and I think, because we collaborate a lot with other artists and we’re interested in other artists’ work. However, I see curator more as a bridge between, a communication device.
N: Not a facilitator, more of a communicator. I don’t know if the curator even has to facilitate, I would leave most of that to the artist. I think it’s a communicator.
A: Yes, but what I’m saying is your role as a curator say of Movement is to facilitate the artists to show. That’s what you’re doing as a curator isn’t it?
N: I suppose so, yes.
A: You’re facilitating and organising their show, unless you’re working with them
Q: It shifts doesn’t it, depending upon the show. In some instances, you may just leave artists to it, and in other instances you may feel like you are co-producing, and sometimes it might feel as though you’re making more of the work than the artist.
A: Quite often, that is the case, but I do not personally describe myself as a curator. But I think that it’s one of my many skills. The act of curating if you like. I am not fussed to be called it. I use it as a label.
Q: That’s interesting that you differentiate between being a curator, and the act of curating. So you’re an artist who curates?
A: I don’t see it as this grey area.
N: Which is where we have a difference. I studied curating, whereas Alex in a way studied something that was maybe more interesting in terms of the network. He studied urban design, and his work made us look at the kind of wider context, of transport systems you know.
A: Well, there’s certainly aspects of that, which I bring into our practice and I bring to the table at Movement.
N: I wouldn’t even think that I curated.
A: It’s just there’s just too many labels where we sort of do so many different things like you were saying at Meter Room. Sometimes it can be misleading, being hung up about curating or being a curator.
N: But you see when we actually have an artist in the space it really depends on what you see curating as. You could see it as the actual installation and production of the show with the artist, and the curator’s role in directing that, so for example when I had an issue with something that we were doing at Meter Room I went to Dan as the curator of the space and asked him. So an artist might expect a curator to maybe lead in certain aspects.
A: Yes, but Dan is also a facilitator.
N: And you take that role better than me.
A: Because we have such a small space as well, we mentioned that earlier, and it’s almost like there isn’t a lot of curation to be done. Unless you include curation as the whole process, you know, communicating with the artist facilitating the artist etc.
N: But we do not tend to like selecting the artist’s work that we are going to show, we don’t normally contact the artist. We might contact an artist and say ‘we really like this particular piece’. I don’t think we have selected any of the artists work have we? In terms of selection and rejection.
A: Well, we did with that Polish artist who graduated from Worcester last year, and we did with the graduate show.
Q: I think you curated Movement from the first point that you put a plan together, or imagined that this could be a place for art. I would argue that was your first curatorial gesture. Do you think that artist-run spaces offer an alternative, and if so to what?
N: I think that they just offer another level of working, rather than an alternative. What do you think?
A: Well it is an alternative I guess to the city art gallery sort of model, where you’ve got a hierarchy of staff and you know how the place is run.
N: I don’t think we should have this kind of concentration on artist-led spaces, because there has very much been a pushing from the Arts Council, and from other people, towards more artists setting up their own spaces, and especially towards groups setting up new artists spaces. But I think that I would encourage any artist to just go ahead and produce work anyway in as many different contexts as they can, so I don’t think they’re necessarily an alternative, I just think we live in the kind of culture now where things are so easy to promote through the internet, and that you can be anywhere, so they’re not really an alternative because probably anyone can do it. Maybe what I try to do is lead by example, and just go and do something. I encourage other people to use the railways as a space because they’re free.
A: What I was saying about Studio 13, which shut down, you know the place in Worcester, with the graffiti? How long was that open for?
N: Six months, but they had to pay rent. I think most artist-run spaces are stuck because they have to pay rent and rates.
A: Maybe we are forgetting how fortunate we were that we don’t have to pay any rent.
N: Which is where I think maybe the real alternative isn’t the artists-run spaces we’ve got now, where you’re still maybe creating a system where the only people that might know about it are other artists, or people involved in that art. I think for me, I see Movement as an alternative example, where you can find some spaces that are free, and I really want to encourage other people to use empty units on stations because they’re a free resource you know.
A: I agree with you, when people come in, to me they know that.
N: Yes, but I think that artists are being forced into a position now, where every artist graduate is being encouraged to set up their own space without looking at the wider implications of, for example, business rates. Now what we should be encouraging is groups that are there for the benefit of artists, groups that are maybe there to educate those artists or to encourage them like Turning Point and the Arts Council. We should be lobbying, so all those points are dropped. If you want it to be a real alternative to the average artist-led space there has to be a way of being able to do that, because as far as I see a lot of artist-run spaces, the people who set them up spend a few years really fighting and dealing with rates and rents, and dealing with extortionate costs, and not getting paid for it. And then it’s like the space just closes and it moves on, and I don’t think that is an alternative.
Q: The term can be considered relative, and on a local or micro level, the differences can be more subtle.
A: Well, we are kind of unique aren’t we when you look at it like that.
N: Yes, we are actually an alternative to you know how it was before.
A: Well we are an alternative to the city art gallery museum, because when you go into the city art gallery and museum you’re not aware, and there’s no personality. There is no dominant personality.
N: I wouldn’t say it was necessarily a fair alternative, because we’re still not going to be able to take a wage home, like if you worked at the city museum.
A: No, but it’s not the question. I think artist-led spaces are expected to do a lot of work.
N: Unpaid, and I don’t know if that’s the right alternative.
Q: There might be a couple of graduates next year who set up a space and look to you, but not as an alternative, but as the mainstream. Once you establish yourself for a period of years you become the more dominant hegemonic figure don’t you. Perhaps after three or five years you will look stable and less precarious, and more institutional. So you might end up being perceived as an extension of Worcester gallery, to those who are positioned outside.
N: Yes, well we have already been told we are an institution by certain people who are art critics that we know. That’s actually quite a difficulty with Movement, because we had to follow this very strict guideline for renovation. We got funding from the railways to actually do our renovations, and we were not allowed to show there until they were done to a certain standard. So I think from the outside we already look like that, particularly from how the gallery looked like.
Q: With the spaces that I’m interviewing for this research, you’re all so different. Just look at Down Stairs, and look at Nat’s space, which is his own house and it has his kids’ toys outside of the gallery.
A: I think they are all alternatives, you know going back to your last question.
N: That is what I really like about Nat’s space, that it is his house, because when we were in Tokyo doing a residency our space and our home were totally merged. Which is something that really attracted me to Nat’s space, that personal element mixing in. But Movement always had to be quite different from that I think.
Q: Eastside Projects refers to itself as an artist-run space, but their revenue from fundraising and sponsorship make the model quite an extraordinary case.
A: It is a University-run space.
N: Exactly, yes. A lot of the people, like the Bloors and Cheryl, and everyone from Grand Union and us, there’s a kind of crossover to what we were being almost taught, almost like the Arts Council at that point had a kind of vision for the region. Which is good they were putting a lot of effort in.
Q: That’s really interesting, that there was an intention and objective to publicly fund this activity regionally.
N: Without it, we probably would not have had that cohesion in different spaces.
A: The fact that they were taking us up to Glasgow and Manchester and we were seeing artist-led spaces in these cities, and the idea was that we brought that back.
N: And they were quite intensive learning weren’t they in Birmingham and the Midlands.
A: But outside the Birmingham artists, there was just us if you think about it, all the other gallerists we’re talking about were Birmingham-based, so we were sort of the Worcestershire artists.
N: So maybe what you were saying about the local context, maybe there was more of a regional context.
A: Well that was the whole point of Midwest, they found county towns and cities within the West Midlands to get feedback, and you know we met them when they came to Worcester.
N: And gradually the group got closer.
A: But the core of the group was Birmingham-based artists.
Q: I have noticed how people are willing to travel for each other in the region, and somebody from Wolverhampton will go to a show in Coventry, and will go for talks. People in Birmingham often come to talks at LGP for example, and that is something that seems rarer in the South East.
N: That group as well, we were probably the only people that hadn’t graduated locally from Birmingham or one of the regional universities and there is still a lot of promotion like particularly this New Art West Midlands at the moment is promoting graduate students from local universities, which is great for retention. We did not have the support of the university, or that kind of local graduate support, so I think something like Midwest was good because it was not just looking at graduates was it, it was looking much wider.
A: Yes, we sort of discovered it at the right time really.
Q: Do you think that Movement is itself an institution?
N: I think we have to think about our future because we have very long lease. So because of the fact that we have a very long lease, it does make us in some ways.
A: Yes. I think by default we are. I can see how we could be an institution just by the sort of premises and the nature of the stations and stuff.
Q: So what would give you more of an institutional status then? Would it be things like permanence, longevity, the building?
N: Yes, we have all of those. I’ve always seen our project as, well I did always see it as a sort of wider art work, so I didn’t see it as an institution.
A: We have also tried to do it in a way that tries to avoid the traps and trappings of being an institution, because we certainly wanted to get away from that. There was no need for us to be a top-heavy kind of institution like the Ikon for instance.
N: Yes, but the Ikon wasn’t originally like this, you know this comes over time doesn’t it.
A: Yes, that’s right.
N: And that’s what concerns me.
Q: Ikon started off as a space even smaller than Movement didn’t it ?
N: Yes, a tiny little kiosk.
Q: So do you ever wonder if this could be Movement in 15 years’ time?
N: I wouldn’t like it to be like that.
A: Personally, no.
N: I don’t want to run an institution, maybe set one up and let someone else run it.
A: I couldn’t run any.
N: We have certain permanence as a gallery because we were advised, we were offered between a 3-year and a 25-year lease from the railway. It had to be a minimum of 3-years so on the advice of the Arts Council we took 7-years initially, which began in 2006.
A: And 7-years scared me. It just seemed too long; it just seemed too much of a ball and chain.
Q: I can see how you could argue that it’s a project rather than an institution, and of course those two things can blur to an extent, but the idea of setting out for 7-years, that’s not just a project on a whim is it?
A: It is a serious commitment.
Q: It signals an instituting of values doesn’t it. This is what we believe in, and we are going to believe in that for at least 7-years.
N: Which is frightening you know. Most of our projects have been temporary before. I think there was one side of us that wanted to have something that was more of a constant throughout, making temporary pieces as artists, but I think that there was another side that’s frightening, and that’s a trap. You can’t easily walk away from a commitment like that.
A: It’s a hell of a commitment, 7-years.
N: It is a big responsibility we have to deal with legal requirements of running a company.
A: And then you extended it didn’t you?
N: I’ve extended it for another 15-years. I thought, well the renovations took such a long time, they took 4.5-years actually, and the lease took a year to actually get into place. So by the time we actually had opened we really only had 2 or 3-years left, and I thought we could have just done that and walked away, but I kind of felt like I wasn’t ready to walk away from it at that point, although I didn’t necessarily always want to run it as a gallery I think it’s important to keep the space as a site for art. Whereby it’s a working space for artists, or if it’s a gallery, and in some ways we had a duty once we had spent a lot of funding and time renovating it. We had a duty to keep it as a not-for-profit space, and not become another shop.
A: You know a café that sells.
N: After we’ve just spent loads of public funding renovating it.
Q: Is the lease in the name of Yoke & Zoom then, and not Movement?
N: It’s in our names as artists Yoke & Zoom, we could just say next year, well Movement isn’t going to exist for a while.
A: We talked about it being a studio as well. Right at the start, we were going to use it as a studio.
N: Yes, run it for our own work.
A: So yes, I don’t think we’re going to let it go for a while.