the article i publish here was originally reviewed for an magazine in nottingham, uk on 20 april 2009, edited by hugh dichmont.
Don’t mind the gap
An overview of the cities‘ respective artist-run scenes
Nottingham is being seen increasingly as a vibrant and ambitious city for contemporary art. By the time I bridged the gap between the chilled arts waters of Dresden, Germany, and the hot pot of arts in Nottingham, German artist newspaper Kunstzeitung had described the UK’s East Midlands as being „the biggest mecca for art and arts lovers (in the UK) outside of London“, stating that more than £117 million had already been spent on the arts in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire between 1994 and 2005.1 From initial research into the city upon my arrival, I found a recent history of projects and events that characterised Nottingham as having a compact independent art scene; growing from a highly profiled network of professionals, often awarded by grants and funding through Arts Council England.
In 2006, Nottingham acted as the third location for the ‚British Art Show‘, inhabiting the city’s established, ACE-funded spaces, but distinguished itself in being the only host city to have had a fringe festival running alongside, organised entirely by independent artists and curators. Among its numerous events and exhibitions, ‚Sideshow‘ featured a show at Moot (a gallery that is becoming increasingly prominent nationally after three years of activity) by local artist Niki Russell entitled ‚redrawn [MOOT]‘. Formed over six weeks, Niki responded to „Moot’s transitional makeover from warehouse to white exhibition space, sifting for the inevitable gaps that have been left through this process. Once identified, these were exemplified and manipulated in order to physically alter the appearance of the Moot space.“ In doing so, Russell drew out the gaps in expectations between the gallery space, audience and artist, as an interrogation of the underlying psychology of art creation. He used precisely developed habits to inhabit the space subtly. The absence of an actual object left the visitor only with traces of the redrawn process of avoiding it.
This notion encapsulates the impressions I have of the city as a newcomer to Nottingham, and resembles my own approach of understanding it. Once there, I started by intuitively measuring and mapping the surroundings around local artistic activities; redrawing my inner map of the artistic landscape of Dresden and overlaying it with the artscape of Nottingham. Immediately this emphasised spatial contrasts – Nottingham is a dense town of short distances in comparison to Dresden’s extensive gaps, and so straight away offers a prompt creative potential. Nottingham makes it easy to visit six exhibitions in one day.
Tether is seemingly one of the most space-taking art groups in Nottingham at present. An award from the National Lottery through Arts Council England enabled tether to develop an independent art-based platform for different movements within various genres of the arts, including their own gallery, The Wasp Room, based above a carpet shop in a former office space on the edge of the city-centre. In March, the gallery featured work by artist Tom Down, with his first solo exhibition ‚A Far Sunset‘. Curious to me was that the exhibition leaflet came with a computer-generated impression of Down’s proposal: his show inhabiting both real and digital spaces as a kind of pictorial equivalent to Second Life.
Observation in the form of surveillance was brought into question by a new media festival and symposium Radiator (Exploits in the Wireless City) in January. Now in its fourth year, the festival aims „to instigate discussion and debate based on the understanding that the development of digital networks are transforming our notion of (public and private) space.“
Radiator featured commissioned artworks incorporating the new hybrid spaces in today’s wireless environment. Blind Spot by German artists Köbberling and Kaltwasser was perhaps the most powerful physical representation of this, in using reclaimed material to form a new space of fragmented ‚blind spots‘ not covered by CCTV surveillance. As artistic directors of trampoline – Platform for New Media Art (the organisation behind Radiator), Anette Schäfer and Miles Chalcraft are pioneers in utilising Nottingham’s urban space for the independent critique and examination of phenomena of contemporary urban life.
Much of the festival was physically centred in the Broadway Cinema and Media Centre, an independent hub for much creative activity in Nottingham. Also inhabiting the Broadway earlier this year was Hinterland Projects‘ nomadic curatorial project ‚the Reading Room‘. Coordinated by Jennie Syson, the Reading Room has for the past two years served the independent art scene as an exceptionally flexible and mobile open-discussion group focusing on various issues surrounding art, whilst examining short texts and pieces of writing. this ongoing project was also present as ‚the Reading Corner‘ within the show ‚Fictions‘ at Bonington Gallery during March and April. Syson compiled a reading list and composed a resource area in the gallery to compliment the exhibition, which itself explored the boundaries between fact and fiction, drawing on the paradoxical scenarios created by writer Jorge Luis Borges. Whilst having a strong focus on language, among other works ‚Fictions‘ featured interactive viewing devices by Eugenia Ivanissevich. Pointing out fragments of the exhibition, the periscopes offered alternative perspectives on the spatial environment of the show, with the visitor acting as observer of pre-defined views.
Recently awarded with funding by Arts Council England as well as the European Regional Development Fund, Moot and Stand Assembly have in the last year moved into a large free-standing space owned by BioCity, an organisation whose purpose is as a „bioscience business incubator“, and who own lots of land in the east-side of Nottingham’s city centre (an area undergoing a vast process of regeneration). After reading an article in a local paper entitled „Making space so art will flourish“ (in which Moot’s Tom Godfrey and Matthew Jamieson stated that they were intending to „expand Moot further“2), BioCity’s Chief Executive Glenn Crocker decided to offer Moot and Stand Assembly a disused former factory they owned, for a reduced rent, only leaving the artists with the costs for regenerating the building themselves. They are now in the process of developing it into a distinctive hive featuring artist studios, workshops, project spaces and of course Moot.
Taking over Stand Assembly and Moot’s previous location are recent graduate group Backlit, who I visited on the 26 March for the private views of ‚Five Brothers in Seven Sisters‘ and ‚Symbol Minded‘, the second of which brought together four students in order to create an immersive environment that insinuated connections to the mystic and the occult. For some reason I arrived too early and some seven or so people were gathered between the four triangular and prismatic works in the room, deep in conversation about mystical truths in arts.
Very much responding to the expansive trend within Nottingham’s independent arts, perhaps rather intuitively, artists Charlotte Osborn and Chie Hosaka have developed Artnot.
Launched this April and challenging the gap that has been left by local event listings and the national press, Artnot acts as a free printed resource for both artists and visitors to Nottingham to locate independent art activities, events, exhibitions and venues in the city. It is also hosted online by new web-based magazine Nottingham Visual Arts.
In comparison to Nottingham’s compressed artistic geography, Dresden has a relatively scattered community of artists. As a city bombed greatly during World War II, it still has large areas of unused city-centre land, spaces that artists are keen to inhabit. Improvisation took over in the economically tight and politically oppressive GDR era (between the end of the war and the fall of the wall) when artists specialised in hiding from observation whilst renovating derelict properties as private spaces to live in, which the vibrant parts of today’s Dresden has built its reputation on. After the fall of the wall, Dresden received a lot of financial support for regenerative projects, with artists continuing to use disused spaces and unwittingly make areas of the city more attractive for business investment; renovating properties, populating hidden areas of the city and increasing the status of forgotten districts. For a long time, artists acted within their own understanding of regeneration, without government support or pressure, though this is all changing. With cities and states in financial debt, federal art councils are facing pressure to be more present in a global context of city branding. In this regard, Dresden has a disadvantage, in being already spatially more spread than Nottingham, where quite often, restless art facilitators seem to be able to contextualise their ambitions within the wider frame of national redevelopment/regeneration, or at least achieve some kind of support through local initiatives.
No such cohesive approach is existent in disparate Dresden, as solutions for rebuilding the city centre are still regarded as uncertain by the artistic community, but are incessant, due to Dresden’s aim to fulfil its global image projection as ‚Florence of the Elbe‘. Because of this, artistic work is regarded as obsolete and hindering, and alongside a present lack of funding after the financial melt-down, public space art projects are generally limited to mainstream cultural activity. Despite this, Dresden artists continue to inhabit a variety of city spaces; former butchers shops (Knark-art); on top of office high-rises (7.stock); baroque civil houses (Art house Dresden); former factories, warehouses and other industrial spaces (Idee 01239, Metropole and many more). But without more respect and support for regenerative art projects and long-term prospects for funding from councils, Dresden’s artists will always be waiting for money that either is not there or is not coming. Out of a number of independent art venues that draw their history from public art activity after the fall of the wall, only the two hot spots of Art house Dresden and 7.Stock inhabit Dresden’s centre in a sustainable way, however, without a cohesive social context in their surrounding area.
Alongside genuine efforts to receive future governmental investment, Dresden’s art scene together with the government can learn from Nottingham’s diversity of art activities and their support by governmental bodies. Dresden has the potential, but needs engagement from funders and expanded networking to improve long-term prospects for growth in the arts.
In some ways, the widespread spatial potential of Dresden’s artistic landscape offers a calm antipode to the enforcing density of Nottingham’s artscape. Dresdeners like me would do well in learning from Nottingham’s ambitious pursuit for a self-contained settlement, and yet, conversely, Nottingham locals might do well in learning from Dresden’s practical ability to link across the gaps of a rather an urban space scattered with empty fields, to find artistic satisfaction in (or the artistic harvest if you will).
1 Kunstzeitung, regensburg/Germany, September 2009, Dorothee Baer-Bogenschuetz.
2 Evening Post, tuesday 25 March, 2008.