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Four Infrastructures for Contemporary Art - an artist’s view

10.10.2023

Blog post by Jack Ky Tan, 22 Sep 2023

(10 minute read)

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Image: 'Disposing Forests (audio)', Jack Ky Tan at KILSTURE ROAMING. Photo by: Colin Tennant.
Image: 'Disposing Forests (audio)', Jack Ky Tan at KILSTURE ROAMING. Photo by: Colin Tennant.

ROAM (West) was a yearlong research residency with Upland that began in September 2022. It explored how contemporary art practice could be developed in the Western region of Dumfries and Galloway (“the West”) via my own art practice and in convening a local artists’ group. In this project, I wanted to create space for contemporary artists in Wigtownshire who did not feel that they had a platform, to create opportunities for artists to share practices, to produce exhibitions and events that gauged audience response to contemporary art, and through all this to evaluate the infrastructure needed for a vibrant contemporary arts scene in the area.

The project did accomplish this by convening a group of seven artists who met regularly from November 2022 to discuss work and share our practices. Over the successive 10 month period, we also produced a skeleton contemporary art programme consisting of a pop-up gallery exhibition, a public roundtable discussion and a final site-specific exhibition in Kilsture Forest. Our focus was to make experimental work alongside each other, show together, and test whether audiences in the West had an appetite for contemporary art.

For a region that is very remote (scoring lowest for accessibility in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation), our events were surprisingly well-attended, with people travelling in from Stewartry and Dumfriesshire (some 70 miles away), as well as tourists from the central belt, the North of England and the Midlands. Many were also artists themselves, who expressed pleasure and thanks at being able to find this kind of space and artwork in the West. The participating artists also appreciated the opportunity to meet, to make experimental work and to have new contexts to show contemporary art. In particular, they expressed a desire for more opportunity, and for the region to be able to support and develop practices in contemporary art that rivalled those elsewhere nationally or internationally.

But what would it take to actually achieve this?

From undertaking this residency over the last 12 months, four infrastructures have emerged that I consider to be the necessary conditions for a thriving contemporary art scene: the infrastructures of (1) access, (2) investment, (3) education and (4) artist subculture.

Access infrastructure

Like much of contemporary culture—the internet, entertainment, commodities, finance, utilities, climate, politics—Contemporary Art is entangled with the metropolitan and the global. Here in our rural area, there isn’t enough of an audience, a market or a professional arts infrastructure (galleries, museums, biennales) to keep a population of career artists going from ‘graduation to grave’. For artists to physically get to those platforms, or for audiences/curators to get to us to see our work or studios, we need good geographic access and an affordable transport service.

Unfortunately there has been a chronic trivialising of the right of rural communities to have good transport infrastructure since the Beeching Railway Cuts in the 1960s, where over 2300 stations were closed, including the entire Stranraer to Dumfries line that served half this county. The utilitarian and neoliberal metrics that Dr Beeching used to measure whether a transport infrastructure is worth it or not (i.e., the number of bums on seats, and if there is a large enough profit for a train company) still influences transport policy today. This means that artists in Wigtownshire, particularly at the western end, cannot easily develop the networks and reputations in centres of art around the country that are a necessary part of their career.

Investment infrastructure

Funding contemporary art isn’t just about giving artists a sum of money to make work in their studios. The professional infrastructure surrounding this production is important too. When the artwork is made, who is around to critique it so that it can be the best work it can be? Who is there to help the artist curate how it can be best presented? Are there any high quality spaces to show it locally? Is there a community of experienced art handlers and technicians on hand to make this happen? Are there skilled photographers who can photograph diverse mediums of artwork? And who is there to write about the work and critically frame it within art history? Finally as discussed above, is there a transport infrastructure for the work (and the artist) to tour nationally?

Sadly, after a year’s residency, I must conclude that my answer is No.

Vibrant contemporary art sectors, rural or otherwise, have arts organisations of different sizes that become a supportive inter-organisational ecosystem. There doesn’t have to be many organisations, but just enough such that there is a viable sub-sector of jobs in curating, public programming and exhibitions-construction, as well as ‘para-art’ work such as art criticism, art writing, photography, publishing, transport/art-handling. Very much like the business sector, the arts ecosystem needs startup and ongoing investment too for growth and maintenance.

Educational infrastructure

However, we also need ‘good’ art in the first place. To me, this comes out of good art education and the presence of a thriving artist subculture. I don’t have any preconception of what ‘good’ could be. In fact, I am always learning from other artists, especially from art students, on what ‘good’ is at any point in history. Nevertheless, ‘good’ consistently shows up, and I believe the common denominator is education.

By education, I don’t necessarily mean an arts degree from a famous art school; not all famous art schools provide good art education. Nor does one need a degree at all. However, as someone who came late to art (in my 30s), a degree was the best and quickest way to get an intensive art training and up to speed. The operative word here is ‘training’. Artists often refer to what they do as a ‘practice’. Like a gymnast, ballerina, electrician or dentist, having a practice means training, both the initial (formal or informal) training to qualify you into your job, and also ongoing life-long learning.

At the time of writing, I know of no contemporary art school, accredited or unaccredited, in Dumfries and Galloway or indeed in the whole of the south of Scotland. Along with galleries, good art schools tend to fertilise the cultural ground. They nurture experimental thinking, increase the quality of new practitioners entering the sector, provide teaching jobs for local artists, provide continuing professional learning for mid/late career artists, they archive/preserve/honour the best artistic knowledge produced locally, and they generate ideas that allow us to anticipate societal changes and to future-proof.

So I am at a loss to understand why such a beneficial infrastructure of contemporary art education doesn’t exist here, and why we don’t deserve this kind of learning support that is available throughout the central belt and north.

Artist subculture

As much as a top-down or outside-in framework is needed, contemporary art won’t happen without an artist-led DIY subculture that forms the ground/ underground/undergrowth of what we think of as a ‘visual art sector’. Indeed, there is no culture for any regional cultural strategy to strategize about, if artists are unable to produce that culture by being able to be themselves.

Currently, artist subcultures are particularly fertile in places like Glasgow, East and South London, Berlin and Yogyakarta. And I suppose one could include the artists’ colonies in St Ives (Cornwall) and Kirkcudbright (Dumfries & Galloway) as historical examples. It is difficult to pin down how to create this subculture or where it pops up. Indeed places like Gillman Barracks, a government-designed contemporary art enclave in Singapore, tried and largely failed. But there are a few obvious conditions.

Firstly, it needs to be physically possible for artists to live, work and share ideas together for a subculture to be viable. As such, a region needs affordable housing, affordable groceries, a healthy casual work sector, dyslexia-friendly public services, a reliable public transport system, free or cheap meeting/making/exhibiting spaces. Unfortunately, few of these exist here in the West of our region.

Secondly, contemporary artists are instinctively alert to the quality and availability of freedom in any place; they tend to gather in such places because they are conducive for the most productive kind of thinking and work. So if artists decide to do something for example requiring permission (e.g., a happening, festival, pop-up), local authorities or parish councils should have an open and curious attitude rather than a reactionary one. In particular, they should refrain from indirect censorship, such as using the planning system to frustrate artistic expression.

Finally, the wider community has to be on board: to appreciate having an artist subculture as a part of who they are, and to understand it to be part of their ‘socio-economic offer’ as it were. However the metrics for assessing the value of such an offer shouldn’t be only about how it improves the economy, public/mental health or community cohesion, which it does in my view. Rather, a thriving contemporary artist subculture is itself a metric that a society is capable of critical reflection, healthy scepticism, ‘outside of the box’ radical imagination, productive mess, and knowing how to wait for things to grow. In other words, having qualities of confidence, faith, resilience and patience.

I believe we have a lot of the last two conditions here in Dumfries and Galloway, but without the physical conditions of affordable housing, living costs, work space and transport being satisfied, and indeed all four infrastructures being satisfied, it will be near impossible to establish an artist subculture or a sustained career as a contemporary artist in the West.

Bio:

Jack Ky Tan (b.1971, Singapore) is an interdisciplinary artist based in Galloway, Southwest Scotland. Working across, performance, sculpture, social practice and institutional critique, his practice is an ongoing exploration of social justice that blurs the boundaries between, art, law, governance and consultancy. Jack originally trained as a lawyer and worked in civil rights NGOs before studying ceramics at Harrow/Westminster and the Royal College of Art. Jack completed a practice-led PhD at Roehampton University that explored legal aesthetics and performance art. He has taught Sculpture at the Royal College of Art and University of Brighton, and MA Politics & Art at Goldsmiths.