On Places, Rewards, and Negotiations

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As published in Exhibist Magazine, January 2016

On Places, Rewards, and Negotiations
An Artist’s Venture into Residencies


Travel, for most of human history, was a risk — risk of disease, potentially hostile foreigners, inedible food, and unpredictable terrain. One embarked upon the unknown with only modest hopes of returning. No internet, no phone, no TripAdvisor or Booking.com. No airlines to ensure a point-to-point, on-time departure with safe landing. Even the purpose was dubious at best. Why would you want to leave your home and your family and be a stranger somewhere else? Ok, so you are an explorer. What is the purpose of that, exactly? Conquest? Science? Art? Academia? And what would the purpose of the journey be if you never shared your discoveries with someone else upon your return? 


As I boarded bus 123 in front of some massive stop in the outskirts of Seoul, I questioned my own sense of purpose in this journey. The bus was to take me an additional hour out of the city, to what I understood to be an island. I had the stop name written in my notebook, spelled in English letters, and beside it, my best attempt at the Korean characters. I guess someone understood, or some locals just knew from experience, that confused, tall, luggage-bearing foreigners needed to get off at the Gyeonggi Creation Center on Debu Island. As I wandered around the empty campus, trying to find another human being, I wondered indeed why I had left my studio and home to create a temporary life elsewhere. 


But of course, like many of the early explorers, I too had an ulterior motive. Little did anyone realise that in addition to pursuing my proposed project, I was there to investigate first-hand what it was like to be an artist within an institutional, government-sponsored artist residency. A detailed mission, yes, but not without precedent. Up until this point I had been involved in the world of residencies from almost every aspect imaginable. I had worked for residencies, worked for networks of residencies, and set up my own residency. I had attended residency conferences, residency workshops, and residency symposia. I had written about residencies and written for residencies. I had also attended several residencies before, but those had been small, intimate, artist-run projects. I was deeply curious to experience the ‘art institution’ as an artist. And, having never lived in a country with significant government sponsorship, I was interested to see how that affected the flow of work and the resident artists’ experience.  


There were three of us — three foreigners amongst over 50 Korean artists spread out in six sprawling buildings. The three of us were further isolated by the fact that we were only there for three months, while the Koreans stayed for one year or more. Being part of an institution definitely had its merits: a professionally produced exhibition in a huge space, a large staff, excellent lunches in the cafeteria… and, as a Korean-government-approved-foreigner-artist, I was graciously invited back to Korea for a biennial the following year. But as in all large institutions, the staff come and go. Within six months of leaving, none of the staff members I knew were working there anymore. And because we were hosted by employees who worked in the office during the day and left the premise every evening, our time there lacked the intimacy I had experienced in smaller residencies.


My interest in artist residencies goes back a long ways. I had all but stolen the book from the university library. As a student in the ceramics department of Grand Valley State University in a wooded ravine in rural West Michigan, I discovered the world of artist residencies from the publication ‘Artist Communities: A directory of Residencies that offer Time and Space for Creativity’. Published by the Alliance of Artist Communities, an association of artists’ residencies, it had a few pages on each of 70 different programmes within the United States and a listing of some international programmes. 


Just as I was graduating in 2003, ‘the internet’ was starting to prove its usefulness for traversing great distances instantly, providing information and connection to far away communities. Loosely based on the Alliance publication, I organised a cross-country tour of 13 artist residencies, non-profit arts organisations, and community arts initiatives throughout the United States and Canada. I set off in my little blue Dodge Neon. During the two-month trip the most significant experience was visiting the 18th Street Art Center in Santa Monica, California. Although I offered to volunteer for a few days at each organisation I visited, one of the only people to take me up on this was Clayton Campbell, then the co-director of 18th Street and the co-president of Res Artis, the worldwide network of artist residencies.” He put me to work organising report data for some funding Res Artis had received. Thus, I was introduced to Res Artis. 


As chance would have it, the conference of the Alliance of Artist Communities was the following weekend in San Francisco. Clayton got me in as a volunteer, so there I was, attending my very first artist residency conference. I soaked it all up like a sponge. After this experience I got it into my head to attend the next Res Artis Conference, which was to be in Australia the following year. I’m not sure why they let me in, as Res Artis meetings are generally for the directors of artist residencies — but fortunately they did, as it irrevocably changed my life. Everything I had ever been interested in came together under the diverse umbrella of Res Artis: art, theory, production, participation, presentation, surprise, international connectedness, initiative, collaboration, community… I could go on. I met people from literally all over the world, some from small artist-run spaces and others from large institutions, those just getting started and others with decades of experience. 


Following the conference, I was offered a job to develop an international residency programme at the Global Arts Village outside of Delhi, India. The three-acre, exquisitely manicured estate already offered some art classes, but upon the suggestion by an American friend that it would be a great place for international artists to work, the owner had attended the Australian conference to gather information. I arrived one day before our first artist in residence and found that the accommodations were still being built, there were no studios, and laundry was being done in an underground cave by a small boy with a bucket. As I believed nothing was impossible, I jumped in as best I could, creating systems, texts, programmes, a website, a database, and an attempt at a business plan. Unfortunately, I soon discovered the director was more interested in playing Osho guru and hanging out with the artists than running a viable international residency programme. I did learn some valuable skills during this period, however, like how to dance to Lata Mangeshkar, how to use a mobile phone, and how to smuggle dissatisfied artists to freedom by bribing the doorman. Three months into my one-year India plan, I used those bribing skills to get myself out, escaping with a friend to a new project in Austria.

 

A short time later I was contacted by Rudolf Brunger of Ufa Fabrik in Berlin, Germany. He was organising the next Res Artis conference in Berlin and invited me to work with him to prepare the conference. Amongst other things, I was in charge of the conference booklet and, following the conference, the documentation. Transcripts of the conference sessions were to be uploaded to the Res Artis website, so I ended up working closely with the website programmer, who taught me the entire content management system for the website. To my surprise, I loved it. Res Artis did not have any employees at the time; it was run entirely on the volunteer efforts of the board of directors. I saw a need and offered my newly developed website editing services to the board for $10 an hour, 10 hours a week. They agreed, and I became the first staff member of Res Artis as website editor and communications person — a job which I held for the next eight years. 


Over this period I met and befriended many people in the field. I also attended and had some part in organising four additional Res Artis conferences, in addition to meetings and conferences of other cultural networks like IETM, Transartists, Trans Europe Halles, and ASEF. Res Artis became my international family, they were my people. These networks worked as brands do, earning trust through consistent behavior. Brands build faith through their logo, a colour, a service, or an idea. These networks provide context and credibility to their members, creating an industry standard, training, publicity, and some level of quality control in a frighteningly diverse field.  


Following the Berlin meeting, I was invited to attend the inaugural residency programme of Aden Studios in Istanbul… as an artist! I jumped at the chance to make artwork again. It was a fully programmed month-long period with tours of galleries and art spaces, meetings with mentors and curators, suggested readings, excursions, feasts, and a chance to work in a small studio in Galata. Intense to say the least, but I ended up with an excellent introduction to the art scene in Istanbul, a small exhibition, and a lot of new friends. The following year, I decided to move back to Turkey.  


After a year of living in Istanbul, I felt it was time, and possible, to open a space of my own. I found a small, entry-level space near to where I was living in Aynalı Çeşme. Inspired by the original idea of a Caravansarai — sharing time and space, trading ideas and goods — I updated the concept to include the modern-day relationship between physical and digital life. I wanted to give myself and guests a chance to work freely and have open discussions. After the first meeting, I organised a structured, 55-hour event split into different topics for people to claim and use the space an hour at a time. I was trying to create an open platform through which to share knowledge and explore collaborative possibilities. Ha. Needless to say, no one really understood what I was doing. People were suspicious and confused, unsure of my intentions. Though several nice, small projects came out of the space — cultural internet TV channel ‘CITV’, the trans-locational cooking performance ‘Virtual Chef’, and some interactive exhibitions exploring the relationship between technology and art — I knew it was not a sustainable endeavour. After a year and a half I was exhausted. Between the three jobs I was working to fund the space, and organising the projects themselves, I was spent. I left the space and took some time to consider my next step. 


The next era in my Istanbul life came in the form of a partner, Anne Weshinskey, who had been drawn to Istanbul through various projects and festivals with her work as a circus performer and performance artist. We got on well, and before either of us knew what had happened, we were shopping for a building and writing a business plan. 


Anne and I were brutally pragmatic about our reality as foreigners in Istanbul. We didn’t have family properties, high-school friends, or our parents’ colleagues to help us get started. We knew we were not eligible for any funding, either locally or internationally. In the States it is quite normal for artists to have one or several jobs to give them the freedom to pursue their work as an artist. We used the same model for our art space; the space itself had to get a job. We wrote a business plan, made a timeline, took out loans, and started shopping for an appropriate building. To over-simplify, the building would finance itself when we sold it, the facilities would maintain themselves through income from the residency programme, and we would receive some compensation as project managers for international organisations wishing to work in Istanbul or collaborate with local artists. The first two parts of the plan worked out well, it's the third that didn’t — we were never paid for any of our time in running the space. Once we got over our disappointment about that, we realised we still had quite a unique opportunity to use the space and our time for our own projects. Although we never had a true audience, besides a few close friends we would bribe with cake and drinks on the terrace, we did appreciate the time and space to collaborate with each other.


While I thought our purpose was clear, and while we didn’t think using an entrepreneurial model to run an art space was so strange, we again struggled with suspicion and confusion from many of our peers in the Istanbul art world. This was not the case with everyone, fortunately. Just after we started, two other artist-run residencies / independent art spaces using a similar financial model were founded: Halka Art Project and Maumau. For several years we enjoyed each other’s company, sharing our similar experiences and stories through regular meetings and get-togethers. 


A year into running the new space I applied for the two-and-a-half week SERDE residency in rural Latvia. Run by a group of artists, researchers, and producers whohad chosen to share their living and working space, the residency was tied to the local community festival, and we were there specifically to produce a work to be included in the festival exhibition. The hosts did not perpetually run residencies and thus did not feel that taking care of us was taking away from their own work. On the contrary, they had been looking forward to it as much as we had, so the entire time proceeded with mutual excitement. They procured a local Latvian grandmother to cook for us and, cliché aside, sharing meals really became an important way to get to know each other as we were all quite busy producing our works during the day. The feeling of shared purpose, and all of us working toward the same exhibition deadline, really made this one of the most rewarding residencies I have attended, and a model for the kind of programme I would like to start in the future.  


Within and alongside Res Artis there are a number of other networks and groups of residencies. French and Japanese residencies, for example, have their own national networks, a gateway for artists interested in exploring the residencies of that country. During my time with Res Artis, Murata San from Youkobo Art Space in Japan became especially interested in bringing together what he called ‘Microresidencies’ into a sub-group within Res Artis. He organised a mini-Microresidency conference, exhibition, and series of talks to coincide with the Japan Res Artis conference hosted by the Tokyo Wonder Site. Murata San invited me as an artist and as a Micro-residency initiator for the entire two months. During these meetings, the financial aspects of the initiatives were openly discussed, as was the relationship between being an artist and organising projects. Most in attendance simply considered it part of their practice as an artist and had no real thought to make their space financially stable. In Japan there’s no stigma that organisers must be failed artists, so it was quite refreshing to think that it was not only okay that I was both an artist and an organiser, but had been invited specifically because of this. 

 


After eight years of working as website editor and communications person for Res Artis, I felt like my time had come to an end. One major project had been to redesign the entire website, creating a searchable, detailed database of all member residencies, updating and translating all the website content, and populating an interactive, members-only section of the site with practical content and case studies specifically for residency directors. This project had finished, and I was feeling the urge to focus on Caravansarai and my own artistic practice. 


Over the years, I had been mentally collecting residencies that I wanted to attend as an artist. One was the Electro Etching Residency run by Alfonso Crujera at his home and studio in Gran Canaria, Canary Islands. After several months of discussion, we reached a trade agreement — I would come as an artist in residence to learn electro-etching, and in exchange I would help Alfonso redesign and recreate his website. For one month, we would work together in the printmaking studio from 10am until 2pm, and then from 4pm until 9 or so in the evening, we would work on his website. It was a useful, fun, and rewarding time for both of us. 


So what does it mean for one to be away? Habits can be analysed and recreated. You can truly start anew. Although being an artist in residence is a luxury, it’s one that takes an incredible amount of energy to sustain — Being a guest is a full time job in itself; there is no room for selfishness, the smallest of misunderstandings can take days out of one’s work, and expectations must be expressed, negotiated, and fulfilled by both sides of the equation. Still, the world of residencies is a way to experience intimacy and hospitality in an often very snobbish and money-obsessed art scene. People to people, people to place, place to idea, idea to project, project to people… a sub-culture within a sub-culture, its members traverse locations and nationalities, class and background in pursuit of time and space to think, to create, to face themselves and others, and return home again. 


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© Julie Upmeyer 2016