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In response to the impact felt by many freelance artists and creative practitioners as a result of the Covid-19, Metal reframed our usual, annual programme of Artists in Residence to create 18 new Remote Residencies – on offer to our local creative communities in Liverpool, Peterborough and Southend-on-Sea, each with an artist fee of £1000 and a month of flexible, online support from the Metal team.

Below you can read a blog post by artist Jessica Reeves, reflecting on the experience and outcomes of a remote residency with us in 2021.

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May 2021 ~~

I was an artist in (remote) residence at Metal in March 2021, whilst continuing my studies from home for a BA in fine art. This reflection is a long time coming as I have not wanted to revisit March; a month in which my mental health suffered after an overwhelming winter of UK lockdowns and restrictions. The claustrophobia of staying home exacerbated the pressure I already put on myself for university and part-time jobs; particularly with a March deadline for a dissertation written solely in my bedroom. 

The Metal remote residency however was an exciting highlight to a somewhat traumatic period. I applied with the intention of developing some in-progress projects and agreed weekly meetings with the Metal Southend team to discuss these. But being in the process of writing a dissertation which scrutinised and suggested reformation of the university art curriculum, and an ever-increasing disillusionment with my university experience, the weekly discussions went more in the direction of sharing of our educational experiences and institutional critique. This piece of writing is a non-material outcome of the residency, developed from notes kept during the four weeks which reflected on the unique experience of graduating from university during a pandemic.

disillusioned university experience ~~

My (now mostly remote) BA has termly “open studios” for which we would normally invite visitors to view works in progress in the studio, but these moved online this year. On a purpose-built website we were expected to upload work for visitors, who did not seem to flock in their numbers – possibly due to the oversaturation of screen-time faced by most of us during the pandemic and/or underwhelming similarity in experience between online exhibitions and ye olde familiar Instagram. As a student, incentive to contribute to the online open studios was that they were viewed by tutors responsible for our eventual grades. ((For Spring term open studios, I linked to a 20-minute Instagram Live discussion; alas my tutor only watched a bit of it – but got the jist – and somehow did not know that the other artist in conversation is my studio manager, working on the same course as the tutor themself – I guess things go amiss in massive conglomerate universities)).

Works had to be tethered in exhibitable form to this website, which led to documentation of works intended to be viewed in person, in a space arguably best reserved for whole-heartedly digital or internet-as-site-specific artworks. It felt like a repeat of what I had seen attempted by galleries through the pandemic – tangible artworks exhibited online as a second-best-option. Living through a pandemic is unprecedented for most people, so I am not trying to knock attempts at adapting to these new conditions. But for me, this form of distribution practiced by my university course felt unhelpful and unimaginative, and got me thinking about how well artists are being prepared for the future… (hence the dissertation topic of art university curriculums).

Raising these thoughts with the Metal Southend team, we spoke about how the internet can be democratising in some ways but also put limitations on creativity. Under pressure to exhibit digitally, I witnessed peers struggling with the nigh on impossible task of maintaining the same art practice whilst translating it online for exhibition. Keeping a pre-pandemic art practice consistent without studio space, side-by-side collaborators, IRL exhibition spaces, and so on, relies on a level of contortion from the artist which will likely lead to burn out. I feel that the pandemic was an opportunity to look at how art practices can be changed to suit the new conditions the artist finds themself in. Perhaps it could have been a chance to discover what art can do for us, as a consideration of self-care. Even if an artwork is well suited to online exhibition, in a time of online over-saturation is this as interesting and nourishing as it could be for the audience?

Via a uni class delivered over Zoom, myself and classmates were given advice from a tutor to “find a white wall in our house imagining that it is a gallery, and photograph work against it to present online.” I found this particularly uninspiring and a missed opportunity to really delve into how we can adapt our practices to new forms of distribution. Is a white-walled gallery the best we can hope for in the delivery of our art? The pandemic left us unable to access galleries and exhibition spaces – but for many people this won’t be the last time. In the future we may not all have opportunities to exhibit in such spaces, and there will always be potential audiences who cannot access them. What then? Can we not prepare for this eventuality better than spending the final year of a BA pretending our bedroom is a white-walled gallery?

An example of an alternative form of distribution explored during the pandemic was the use of post. The posting of artwork straight from the artist to a recipient cuts outs out the gallery completely and brings into question whether they are necessary at all. In their collaborative project Precarious Straits ~ Survival on Southend’s New Coast, Southend-under-sea, small Southend-based art organisations TOMA (The Other MA) and The Old Waterworks commissioned a postal care package from three artists, to make artworks to be posted to the homes of people who cannot access IRL events and exhibitions. Whilst initiated during the pandemic, this type of inclusivity will always be necessary and is something that artists in education now, could and should be preparing for.

Inspired by this project, my contribution to the university open studios in December 2020 was a “paper—pulp—sculpture—postal—chain”. My current medium of choice, paper pulp, is a free, abundant material which makes use of waste household paper and cardboard. I shred it, soak it, then blend it with a food blender to make pulp, which can be used as a sculptural material (you may have seen it used to make handmade paper). The paper pulp chain involved me making the first paper pulp sculpture, to be posted to, received, repulped and re-sculpted by multiple participants, in a chain of a continually remodelled artwork. 

I am glad for the inspiration to test post as a form of distribution, rather than simply photographing paper pulp sculptures and uploading them online. I did not feel that the work would translate to the digital, as a medium of textures and small details, and objects embossed with my own fingerprints that are only found when the viewer’s own fingers slip into the imprints. The project was a mulling-over of art world accessibility and hierarchies, which I feel could have been much more fruitful if encouraged and supported by the university through thorough discussion under the curriculum.

Recycled shredded paper soaking in water before blending
Taking pulped paper from a bucket into a mould
Paper pulp sculptures with embedded organic matter
Paper pulp sculpture held in hand
Sculptures packaged up for the paper—pulp—sculpture—postal—chain

unlearning art school~~

I fulfilled my aim to continue the paper—pulp—sculpture—postal—chain project during the Metal residency, but for me a more significant outcome was the conversations it led to – helping me explore my own ethics and positions to take within the art world. It occurred to me how helpful it was that the pandemic has put distance between me and my university. The Metal team shared their experiences of “feeling like a square peg in a round hole” as recent graduates, with the realisation that what was taught at university does not resemble real life. We spoke of an ‘unlearning’ process that graduates may have to go through. I feel like I already relate to this despite not having yet graduated, due to the process being brought on early by the pandemic. With the distance from university, we have had to DIY-it; seeking out external connections which became more influential than the degree itself.

My part-time job working for TOMA became heavily influential, with their ethos of collaboration over competition, because working with them allowed me to recognise the competitiveness encouraged by my university. The fine art course has more than 200 students, split into different pathways across studios in different parts of the building, leading to many students on the course not crossing paths or ever even meeting one another. I realised how unhelpful the pathway system is; collaboration is needed for survival and yet the course is divisive. Such a large course size leads to a competition for resources and individualistic art practices. It is quite a depressing thought, but I think the pandemic has brought my university experience closer to what I want it to be.

I have heard universities defended with “you have to be part of it to understand what you don’t want to occupy” … as if it was a helpful experience accumulating more than £60,000 of debt to learn that a mainstream neoliberal university is not well-suited to me and that I don’t want to be part of it. What has been helpful is to experience a variety of institutions; an art school for my foundation where I now do some casual work, a different institution for university, part time jobs at a museum and TOMA, a university exchange to the Netherlands, as well as residencies like at Metal. I can draw on these experiences to formulate institutional critique which informs my creative practice. For my work developed during the Metal residency, the goal moved from exhibition as outcome, to using the process of making as a tool for processing frustrations with university and as an exploration of my belief structures.

My current aim is that these values will be transmitted into my own actions, for example in the organisational structure of a project I am currently leading in place of a conventional degree show (which this year has moved online). The project, called the Anti-Degree Show, will culminate in an exhibition in Southend later this year. Speaking to the Metal team, who exist outside of my art school bubble, was helpful in identifying degree show conventions and questioning how it can be accessible as an ‘outsider’. We spoke about subverting art world rhetoric; even that “Anti-Degree Show” is the artworld referencing itself, and irrelevant to most people not in higher education. Degree show ego, seriousness, commerciality, and audience passivity are old-fashioned conventions I want to reject. Instead, making an exhibition relevant to the Southend audience is constantly under consideration in its planning.

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I processed these thoughts whilst making paper pulp sculptures on the residency, influenced by my insight of the Metal organisational structure and teased out during discussions with the team. Towards the end of the residency I was lucky enough to also present a Metal Future Network Short, an Instagram Live discussion (mentioned previously) with artist collective Otherly. It was an informal chat about collaboration, dematerialisation, arts organisation as practice, care during the pandemic and more. This was a nerve-wracking experience, being my first time ever presenting live with insecurity about my ideas still being so much up in the air & rough around the edges. However, I ended up really enjoying it (despite watching back with a cringe at my rusty presenting skills) and feel that it tied up my work for the residency.

Screenshot of Future Network Shorts with Otherly

If you have anything to comment, please continue the conversation with me via email at jessicareeves@live.co.uk or Instagram at @jessica_reeves_. Thank you to Paige, Andrea, Hannah and Stephanie of Metal Southend for your work & brain power!

Remote Residency : Jessica Reeves