Work pictured by Ella Louise Jones

Some thoughts on space, care, support and belonging

Space implies an absence, emptiness, and lack of something. Literally an empty area that only becomes real when there is a purpose or activity for it to ‘attach’ to. It becomes a gallery space, rehearsal room, meeting place, classroom etc. System is a pluralistic space in this sense. Or perhaps, more accurately it is one of many functions of the space. When the space is occupied by other groups for different activities, for example by cellists to rehearse, it does not stop being System in my mind. However, to others it is perhaps a room above a bar where they come to learn Spanish or dance salsa, and that room is sometimes used as a gallery. To the bar owners it is perhaps a rentable space that they can use to bring in additional revenue or customers, such as when they offer us the space to use as a gallery.

This is different to many other spaces within Newcastle that offer studios and exhibition opportunities. Even when someone has a wedding in the BALTIC, they are guests having a wedding in a gallery space. BALTIC never periodically ceases to be a gallery in the same way as System does.

Until an incident a couple of months ago, I had always thought of System as ‘being’ the physical space. This changed when on the day of setting up for an exhibition there was a large immovable table in the space. I had never seen this table before in my life. It filled half the room and was bright fucking red. It was quite revealing the amount of irritation and stress that this table caused. There was an element of it partially ‘not belonging here’, with the artist and other curator both commenting on the fact it had built-in ports for laptops and resembled a table from a university library. The implication of this is that it was not a table which you would choose to have in an art gallery.

Those and I connected to System are aware that the space is used for other purposes. I am certainly used to walking into the gallery and there being rows of chairs set-up from some movie screening the night before or decks from a party. I think what was most offensive about this was the impossibility of moving it and taking it out of the space. It was something alien that had pierced the sanctity of the space. It didn’t belong and the lack of consideration of how this would affect us was a reminder that we were only guests in this space. I could no longer offer the full space to the artist. After having been promised the whole space the artist was now having to share it with this other object. This other object which was not part of the gallery. It didn’t belong, or maybe it was a reminder that we didn’t belong.

This physical and symbolic encroachment of space led me to think about the provision of space as a form of care or support. Care has been described as a “risky act empowered by the need of the other, yet not based on secure knowledge or competence, and therefore without a clear mandate, an impossible promise always bearing the risk of exhaustion”[1]. Much like space, care thought of in isolation is an empty abstraction. In order to exist it is reliant on there being a perceived need for it to exist. The same is true again of support; its existence reliant on the presence of something for which to bear or hold-up.

The provision of space, care and support is inconsistent within System. This is partly a matter of practicality. A lack of finance means that System is significantly short on time and resources and is completely reliant on voluntary labour and reactive ways of working. In this sense, I am an accomplice in the exploitation of my own labour and that of others. Apart from a couple of attempts at writing an ACE bid, I have done little to remedy this situation. This is partially due to a lack of the non-retrospectively billable time or energy required to put together another application. But also, a genuine concern over sacrificing System’s autonomy and way of working in exchange for getting paid doing something that I would do for free.

Much like space, care and support, System is an empty abstraction. It only becomes real when it has an activity, purpose or need for it to ‘attach’ to. In this sense, System is the provision of space, care and support far more than the physical space it sits in. If I were successful in being awarded project funding for System, it would mean having to promise the delivery of a number of ‘measurable’ outcomes. Plenty of valuable work is funded and done in this way, but it does have its drawbacks. My view as a slight outsider to funded individuals and members of institutions, is that the reduced autonomy to how they work means that they often appear/act in ways which are not personal but institutional. I think that there is something uniquely valuable in someone giving themselves to help someone for free. That’s not to say that System doesn’t have its limitations. I have had to apologise to artists because we can’t access the space for me to show them around as I wasn’t aware that the Newcastle Marxist Societyhas it booked for a meeting. However, these are not conditions which are created by System as an organisation, rather they are put upon us as a group of individuals with the artist. We are in the same position as they are.

I’ve been in situations where I’ve negotiated payment as the person using the space has received external funding. I believe that in the past this has caused the dynamic to shift considerably. It has turned System into a bookable space and that interaction into a transaction. On one such occasion, I offered the space for a group show, and when I arrived on install day everything was in progress. Everyone was working and the work already mostly up without any sort of discussion with myself. In fact, things were being done with the fabric of the building which I wouldn’t had allowed, however by this point it was too late. I wondered around a bit and tried to engage with it, but just thought “fuck it” and left. I was around for the preview out of a sense of duty to sell beers to pay for the upkeep of the space. There was little engagement from the artists and I had felt like I was at a party that I wasn’t invited to. For me they had missed the point of the space completely. Maybe they got what they wanted from the experience. I don’t know.

When accepting the responsibility to manage System[2], I was thinking of the range of possibilities and opportunities that managing a space would offer. However, I had not considered that the more embedded I would become within System the more that I would become bound by it. As System’s artistic director[3], I have received a lot of help with this from various members who have mostly come and gone. However, as the one regular member of System I have not had the luxury of the same mobility as others involved, and ultimately am the one responsible for the delivery of monthly exhibitions, maintaining positive relations with exhibiting artists, and ensuring exhibitions are promoted. This combined with several jobs has resulted in a poor work/life balance and much additional stress. However, I have also continued to work on exhibitions whilst severely sick (later resulting in a trip to the hospital) despite insistence from the artist and co-curator to “go home and rest” and “I didn’t need to be there”. I knew that they were right, so there must have been something else keeping me there.

There have been some good chunks of my life where I have felt socially excluded, for reasons both circumstantial and self-imposed, wallowing in a thick depression pissed off at the world. It wasn’t until university studying Fine Art that this had really begun to change. I had always drawn obsessively and in many ways that was my escape from a lot of things, but it was not until university that I had been given the ‘space’to do this. After having spent so long to go by unnoticed and take up as little space as possible, the emptiness of the studio was an invitation to fill it. I worked endlessly in that space, painting 5 days a week at first, and then 6 or 7 once I quit my weekend job. I poured everything into my painting until I was eventually working on 5 by 6-foot canvases. This consumption with producing work was not only permissible but encouraged, and what I produced was praised by my lecturers and peers. It was an in-road to connecting with others and through this I was able to able to chip away at the walls that I had built around myself.

On reflection, I am able to see the transformative effect that the provision of space had on me. As a graduate I am keenly aware of how few opportunities there can be beyond university to find space. To go back to wondering what stopped me from just going home and resting, I think that it was to out of a need to feel connected and contribute to something. To ‘give back’ maybe.

When first taking over System I was aware of how privileged I was to ‘have’ a space and the possibilities that that presented. From the start I knew that I wanted it to be a space that I could offer to others. The first exhibition that System had with me as curator was a group show called Dishwasher Safe. This came about through first being introduced to one of the artists at a preview by a mutual friend. We then agreed for him to send some more details of what he wanted to propose by email and then at a later point meet for a pint to plan further. What was a revelation for me about this show, was how much more fascinated I was by the group’s dynamic rather than the artwork and concept behind the show[4]. All of the exhibitors were friends who upon graduating will be split up as some of them return to their home town or move elsewhere to study/work etc. I saw the exhibition as a way of them reconciling their feelings towards this significant change and the marking of an ‘end-of-an-era’. The exhibition was a huge success with an incredible turnout at the preview and the exhibiting artists spoke highly of their experience. I felt elated to be a part of it.

Just like all groups need symbols and rituals in order to survive, so does an art community. To exhibit, is to make something public. An exhibition is the process of making something public but also of ‘forming’ publics through engaging individuals in the collective sharing of ideas and values. To support this statement, the success of Dishwasher Safe formed the basis of a number of friendships between myself and the exhibiting artists which would extend well beyond the duration of the exhibition. In this regard System is far from a selfless pursuit. By voluntarily giving my time, I get the same back. It connects me with people that value the same things that I do, contributing to my own sense of belonging to an arts community and self-definition as a curator/artist. It is a practice of care and self-care, both of which sustain the other. It provided a great antidote for some personal issues that I was battling through 2017, but equally, it can be a pain-in-the-fucking-arse.

MANNER OF FLYING is the first of a series attempting to understand what System is and what it means to myself, collaborators and exhibiting artists. Through this I hope to shed some light on ways in which space can constrain and enable the giving and receiving of care, support, and belonging.

All works in the image by Ella Louise Jones, taken by me at System Gallery, Newcastle, June 2019.

[1] Verwoert, J. (2009) ‘Personal support: How to care’, in Condorelli, C., Wade, G. and Langdon, J. (eds.) Support structures. Sternberg Press, pp. 165-177.

[2] The previous curators, Egle Dubinkaite and Jacob Zoob, offered me the space as they were moving down south

[3] Self-appointed title

[4] No offense.


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