Working Internationally

I’ve arrived at Nottingham Contemporary for the second East Midlands Visual Arts Network (EMVAN) conference ‘Working Internationally’. In front of me, I have my laptop, a tea-cup (with saucer) of chamomile tea and a glass of water placed on the white round table-cloth.

The conference was laid out in quite an unconventional format, and as I initially entered the room it felt like the layout of a wedding reception – round tables with chairs placed all around, and a top table by the stage for panel discussion…where the bride and groom would usually go. Strange at first but it actually made the day more informal and encouraged discussion and dialogue as you faced people rather than usually having your back to them.

Keith Jeffrey, Director of QUAD in Derby, and Chair of the EMVAN steering group, opened and introduced the day. He stated a few key thoughts including “we are entering a new financial and relationship landscape…we have to start taking control of our own destiny…it is up to the sector to embrace what EMVAN are doing…Coming together is the only way we will be able to maintain this scale of ambition…ambition is important. ‘Working Internationally’ may seem like a challenge but it should be a core part of what the creative sector should be doing.”

Alex Farquharson, Director of Nottingham Contemporary then followed with a secondary introduction to the day. He said “the “International” is crucial to what we do as artists and venues…Art is an international medium especially in the digital age…We are trying to keep up with the ever enlarging art world…In the early 1990s, “international” was shorthand for west hand European and north American…over the past 20 years we have been watching the wider idea of the global and the fluidity of artists working abroad or back and forth…An art ecology should be made up of public institutions and artists’ initiatives where Nottingham is at the forefront of visual arts provision in the country

Yasmin Canvin, Curator and Project Coordinator for ‘Sowing Seeds’, gave an overview of the region-wide programme of International Artist Residencies (IAiR) aimed at engaging with local people of all ages, to get fresh and unique ideas.

“How we must address the issue of change in a very proactive way.” – Yasmin Canvin

She spoke of her recent research trips to Cairo and India and work with artists Jitish Kallat; Simo Alotalo; Rana Begum; Tanvi Kant; Sonia Khurana – relationships with their own bodies and physical exercise, transforming the physical and social space, acts of protest; Dinu Li – Hong Kong artist working in the UK working with photography and moving image, cinematic tradition, documented fact, oral histories and figments of imagination; Jason Lim – installation and performance art; Vidha Saumya – nature used to draw out and examine human traits and personal histories whilst exploring the rural environment…also referenced a collaboration with Rebecca Lee.

She discussed different ideas as to what audience participation and residencies involve and the importance of  getting artists to network with each other and network with artists in the region…”the power of the artist is to ask the right questions in the right place at the right time…creative and lateral thinkings, natural innovators…rupturing patterns of reasoning…art being a state of interaction…If art is about challenging the status quo, international artists coming from another culture and context see our situation from another perspective…see that difference…each new generation creates their own new version.” She referenced artists Elke Uitentuis and Woulter Osterholt  and their project ‘Model Citizens’…intervening in the shape of public spaces…those taken for granted. The artists were asked, if there were no financial or legal restrictions what would you do? This made them question their restricted parameters involved intrinsically in their creative practice.

Yasmin closed her session by speaking of the lessons learnt and the underlying commonalities in order to achieve a strong collaborative process – openness and “unlearning”; flexibility and adaptability; willing to negotiate and to be supportive in that negotiation; not to be competitive; to experiment (VITAL!); to consider the expectations, adapting as we go; knowledge, internally about our organisations, but also our knowledge of the context the artist is coming from, the social and political background of the artists and how this affects their practice; good communication where we need to trust one another. She went on to say a few keys sentences that got me nodding in my chair…

“The importance of the accuracy of language when working internationally…the impossibility of translation without contextualisation..cultural translation, asking what slips and is lost and what is enriched in that process…Ideas move around the globe relatively easily…the one thing that is hard to find is time, we need sufficient time for understanding.”

She went on to quote others (that I need to cite – I’ll follow this up)…

“We need to develop a relationship before developing a project…Dialogue as the engine of evaluation….We must plan for open-ended situations…for the unexpected to occur.”

The penultimate morning session was by Michaela Butter, Co-Director Embrace Arts, who sees herself as a “cultural broker”…she spoke of ‘International Networking and Networks’. She started by examining how networking works today and the traditional approach to networking, which she saw as being based on colonial principles, a hierarchical centralistic structure that lacks flexibility. Today, networking is very much artist led, they have taken a very direct action in making them happen. They are now asymmetric, non-hierarchical, with a light approach, aligned to new technologies such as Skype and Facebook. The networks are faster and more sustainable – contemporary. She stated the negative aspects of networking – fragility, confusion, difficulties on making them efficient, they can get too big…in addition to the positive aspects – multiplicity, plurality, inclusion. Michaela questioned what makes a good international network? – A clear set of focus goals, open debate, clear decision-making process, allowing for different voices and a collective sense of leadership. Also engaging members through viral marketing.

“Love the differences” – Michelangelo Pistoletto

This artist brings people together internationally through his creative practice and public interventions to engage people socially and politically – “Networks are strengthened by difference”

“Difference is information” – Gregory Bateson

Michaela goes on to speak about the cultural networks she has been involved within Europe including ResArtis, ietm, bjcem, Culture Action Europe (a political platform for arts and culture in Brussels), and Black/North seas, all of which foster intercultural dialogue and understanding. She concluded with a photograph taken during a recent trip to China…and who was on there but two very familiar and friendly faces – Simon Kirby, Director of Chambers Fine Art in Beijing, who I met many times during my research trip to China last year, and Richard Sandell, who taught me during my Masters studies at the University of Leicester! It put a small smile on my face! A few final words of wisdom from Michaela – track your potential networks; recognise the time it will take; the importance of social time; have clear business cards and website; take time to build up intercultural competencies; learn a few words of another language…it goes a long way. And don’t I know it…today I feel “mama huhu” (so-so in Chinese). Tired really. It was a long drive here. The final talk of the morning was from Kaavous Clayton and Simon Liddiment who presented the recent project ‘East Goes East’ comes out of EAST International – a project involving collaborations  between three artists from the cities Norwich, Krakow and Budapest.

Time for lunch and as I always say, you can tell a conference by their lunch. We were presented with a menu and a plethora of sandwiches and wraps..herbal teas and coffee (though the water still tasted like coffee)…and a fruit platter and cakes. Time to see what I can have and not have…right…definitely not have…I couldn’t have anything, it was a full white sandwich affair and most of the vegetarian/fish option had gone…so they refunded my £5 and I went to Marks and Spencers to their food hall. I was delighted to find brown rice sushi platters, so I bought two little taster trays and a vanilla yoghurt. Over lunch, I sat and spoke to old friends, colleagues and familiar faces including Kate Pryor-Williams (previous Curator at Wolverhampton Art Gallery who now works for Arts Council England, West Midlands), Skinder Hundal (Director of the New Art Exchange), Keith Jeffrey (Director of QUAD), Ashok Mistry (artist) and Nick Slater (Director of Radar).

Kirsteen Macdonald from the Visual Arts and Galleries Association (VAGA) commenced the afternoon highlighting some of the key themes and points from earlier on in the day, and stated how governmental and organisational structures can be testing in terms of the development of creative practice. She was at the conference to specifically speak about the new initiative VIRE – VAGA International Research Enquiry which aims to benefit the visual arts sector as a whole by identifying opportunities available to curators at all stages of their careers. VIRE is investigating existing curatorial work in an international context, that presents the potential to promote exchange, foster partnerships and develop programmes in the future for curators working both in institutions and independently. VAGA need people to fill in an online survey by the 11th April 2011 which you can do online here…a great area of research and I am very interested to see and read the outcomes. Watch this space.

Artist Ivan Smith then followed with a very image heavy presentation and examination into ‘Working on an International platform through artists networks’, which has developed from his own ambition to work internationally and take part in projects all over the world. He cited examples of residencies and projects he had taken part and become involved with including the Abiko Open Air exhibition (2002) Sandarbh Artist Workshop/Residency and the work of many, many artists including Chinmoy Pramick, Bharti Kapadiya, Chintan Upadhyay, Alvaro Veruzcos, Kansuki, Istvan Eross, Dong-Hun Sung, Laura White, Abby Manock, Tsai Kun-Lin, Francis Gomila, Anke Mellin, and Liu Po-Chun. Ivan also referenced his works including ‘Light Bucket’ (2006) – an installation in Partapur Rajasthan involving 9 hanging concrete cast buckets with coloured pigment and battery operated torches; ‘His & Hers’ (2006); and ‘Cycle’ (2006), a process based installation in a lake where welded domestic bowls float in the water. Local people completed the life-cycle of the work by stealing it.

'Light Bucket' (2006) by Ivan Smith. Image © the artist


'Cycle' (2006) by Ivan Smith. Image © the artist

Ivan spoke in a very articulate way and with such enthusiasm about all these artists and their works. One quote he said really stuck in my mind.

“The collision between the environment and the artists provides some interesting propositions.” – Ivan Smith

It was now time for the keynote speaker of the day, Lewis Biggs, Director of the Liverpool Biennial…and someone who I definitely want to speak to later on in the day as regards my PhD research. He gave a brief overview of the history of the Biennial and the development of his role from Director of Tate Liverpool to Director of the Liverpool Biennial. He questioned what internationalism might mean, especially as regards the UK. In the 1990s, the market began to look further for exotic products where the UK got left behind…artists travelled more, curators travelled less…in the last 10 to 15 years there has been successful migration of curators to other countries…but artists are still much more nomadic than curators. Is it because the UK has an insular culture? Could it be the curators have less belief in themselves? Or do they have less imagination than artists? Lewis sees the International as cross-border or (the key word in relation to my research) TRANSCULTURAL. At the Liverpool Biennial, he said they use the term in a particular way…positively and negatively. Positively it is what is strange – strangers in the night, unexpected strangers…negatively it is what is the same, such as international hotels, international food, airport art.

“Strangeness versus sameness is in the eye of the beholder.” – Lewis Biggs

Surely the difference and uniqueness of strangeness is more interesting than the repetition and uniform of sameness. So why “International” for the Liverpool Biennial? Lewis quoted the marketing statement used to promote the EMVAN conference – “Travel is not a goal in itself, but in the arts, working internationally is still seen as a sign of success.” So in this sense he said it is because we (Liverpool Biennial) want to be seen as successful. He went to reference familiarity versus exoticism as a paradox. As a user of art, we want to see what we already know where the comfort and reliability are more important than adventure. However, we are attracted to the exotic for its “novelty” value where learning another culture is hard work and so is having cultural imagination. Lewis questioned what kind of success do you want to gain by working internationally? Maybe it is about the organisation or the curator but not about the audience or the art? He said the Liverpool Biennial has its own mantra – “We try to work at the intersection of the local and the international.”

As part of the Biennial, art is made for and mostly in Liverpool, made from an International perspective from the artists invited to take part. The artists and artworks are to learn from a new city and a new audience. Over the past ten years of the Biennial, only 4% of the artists have been from the UK. Another part of the success of the Biennial is to commission artists to make new work…commissioning art for a non-gallery space. Artists who are tired of the art fair routine see this as an attractive opportunity. The Liverpool art network used to be dysfunctional, therefore, Lewis has tried to rebuild a sense of confidence and mutual support between artists and arts organisations in the area in order to benefit the development of the Biennial.

The intersection of the local and the International has meant the profit of art is not recognised in your own country…we want to know what our neighbours think more than our home territory…what we look like from the outside. Globalisation has made us so aware as the world as a whole, however the world is a very big place. The art world is something that we can no longer make an overview of…no one is ever going to know what the art world is…you have to choose which one you want to be interested in. The impetus to work internationally is easy – the hard part is to know what part to focus on. Be personal and follow your nose…but there are more formal ways of looking at it. What kind of cities are we? And what other cities can we relate to? Liverpool – city on the edge….a port city. The whole question of identity is linked to this…fighting for your own identity…the big bad neighbour next door that is interesting (from Liverpool it’s London). So what strategies and ways to be International…to know who you are and work with that is important. It is often the case that collaboration means doing more work than when doing it on your own, and co-production might mean working together with people who share the same perspectives that in turn might mean more work. He finished his talk with this lone, powerful quote…

“Art is the only unregulated business left…its capitalism in its purest state. – Lewis Biggs

Q & A panel time…

…where the themes examined were how the artist needs to be taken out of their comfort zone to create new happenings; the transmuting of art into the entertainment sector…when you make context, you produce art for that context, so when does it stop being entertainment? and becomes art?; Is there a risk in today’s time of austerity that we will lose our experimentation as we link to private sources of income for stability? – this becomes a challenge for us to become more experimental…how can we work differently? Art isn’t expensive until you turn it into something you want people to look at…it’s whether we (the institutions) can rise to the challenge of making it accessible to people…as you can’t market without money. The more challenges, the more exciting the contexts; it is important to remember how many different art worlds and art markets there are. One member of the audience piped up and I disagreed with her point of view…she felt artists have been lowering themselves to fit in and create art for the fashion of the art world at that time…which I really don’t feel is the case, especially not in International locations including China….this conversation continued with another delegate’s personal views at which I had to phase my brain out from the dialogue…I think I interjected at some stage asking the usual about transcultural curating. I had to steer the conversation away!

After the conference, I accompanied Lewis Biggs and Skinder Hundal (Director of the NAE) to see the Raghu Rai exhibition ‘Invocation to India’ at the New Art Exchange…a beautiful and precious display of distinct photographs. We then went on to the launch event for the 2012 World Exhibition, an exhibition of young artists to be held in Nottingham directly after the 2012 Olympic Games as part of UK Young Artists. Again, a lot of familiar faces and names were there that evening including a young lady called Diana Ali who I have collaborated with purely through email and postal collaboration, never face-to-face, so it was great to finally meet her! I thought I’d finish on an image of the canapés…I reckon wine and canapés go hand-in-hand with the art world…but that’s a whole other blog post…and PhD thesis. Really it is.




  1. “The Liverpool art network used to be dysfunctional”

    I once believed this to be the problem myself. In fact theNorth West Arts Council and their shills exposed themselves as the problem. All credit to Lewis for his achievements but he needs a new script.

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