Panel Discussion | TATE Exchange, Liverpool
On Friday 22 March we held a day of talks at Tate Liverpool as part of our TATE Exchange event for Conversations Series II: Other Transmissions. We began the day with the six residency artists talking alongside Creative Producer Jennifer Gilbert about how they found the experience, any challenges they faced and the pieces they chose to have in the final presentation of the work. Andrew Johnstone has non-functioning speech and spent the talk doing a drawing of the other residency artists.
The artists spoke about being drawn to the residency due to its longer length of time, it’s collaborative aspect which differed from the independent practice most of the artists already had, and the uniqueness of its setup. They all spoke of it being like hanging out with your mates, and that they all had fun bouncing ideas off one another. The artists enjoyed spending time researching into the Whitworth’s Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection, and said that it was useful to consider the collection from differing viewpoints, including partner Castlefield Gallery being involved in this too.
New skills were learnt from one another, and they described their six films as ‘an alternative Sesame Street from a parallel universe’. Although they all felt some of the weeks often got intense in terms of collaborative work made using sound or things discussed, what they liked about the five-month period was that if they’d had a conversation and left the session feeling burnt out, they knew they could go away, digest it and go back again the following week to discuss it further. This was something beneficial for all.
The artists spoke of the space being a great sharing one, and that they were making things that they didn’t expect to make. They felt that every person on the residency influenced the others in some form. Amy Ellison said it was like they had become a family!
After lunch was a panel discussion around the labelling of artists, by whom and for what purpose. The panel consisted of: Holly Grange, Curator of The Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection; Tony Heaton, Disabled Artist and Chair of Shape Arts; Residency artist John Powell-Jones; and Ben Wilson, an artist whose work features in the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection. The panel was chaired by Venture Arts’ Jennifer Gilbert. (Unfortauntely Dr David O Flynn, Chair of the Adamson Collection and Consultant Psychiatrist at SLAM could not make it on the day)
Holly Grange, Curator of the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection, spoke about the Whitworth re-evaluating the language they use to talk about the collection based on several recent conversations, including with the Hipkiss’ and with Albert Louden. With Outsider Art being a hugely loaded term, some artists don’t mind the label and wear it with pride, whereas others feel that they don’t meet the set criteria and feel fraudulent to be labeled as such. As with Holly, Jennifer agreed that it’s quite impossible to exist exempt from culture these days, and some Outsider Artists have gone on to get recognition within the mainstream art world today like Bill Traylor, Henry Darger and Judith Scott. Holly is now asking all living artists within the collection (that she can get hold of) how they would like to be described. The credit line noting that the work is from the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection always has to stay, due to the owners of the collection passing away. Holly is, however, looking at adding other text from the artists to describe their feeling on the label. For example Hipkiss stated they want the following by their work: “This work by contemporary artists duo Hipkiss, was acquired by Ms. Kinley in the artists’ formative years. The artists do not claim, and have never claimed, any association with Outsider Art.” They also spoke of never knowing whether or not their career would have taken off without the exposure given by the Outsider world. Shafique Uddin, whose work also features in the collection, spoke of also feeling free from the label now that he knew the owners of the collection had passed away.
John Powell-Jones talked about his work for the Conversations Series II residency all linking to his interest in labels and him questioning why they are there. He spoke of a book he’s reading called ‘Staying with the Trouble’ by Donna Harraway, which asks why labels are given, and to what reason, and who is the author of the stories we tell. John also spoke about the ‘starving artist’, and other labels that are given across the board. He mentioned that he had learnt that collectors seemed to benefit and often may alter stories to their own benefit, but that if artists had passed away they cannot stand up for their own beliefs or ideas too. John was asked by an audience member if he had ever had any experiences of being marginalised, saying no, that being an artist had been a positive experience for him, and that he felt privileged to be in the position he is in.
Tony Heaton started by sharing a Caroline Cardus piece that said ‘label jars not people’ – very apt in these conversations. Being in a wheelchair Tony spoke of it being hard to avoid the label ‘disabled person’ since it’s the first thing that people see – but he embraces it! Tony reminded everyone of the social model of disability, stating that the world is still disabling, such as the segregated entrance for him at the Arts Council England London office - he has to call for assistance in order to get through a different entrance to everyone else. Tony spoke of disabled people either being labeled as tragic or brave by the press, and never just being spoke about for the work they have done. He recognises that labels are meant to give clarity, but that often the labels are missing something, and Tony’s work plays on this too – such as his ‘Loop’ artwork. He finally spoke of many artists creating dead art – art that has become meaningless – by someone picking up on it, and asking you to make ten more of the same thing.
Tony went on to talk about how things were different in the disability arts world to that of the outsider art world: “because disabled people aren’t valued, then neither is their work. The way the media presents disabled people as benefit scroungers and so on means they are expendable, and so their artwork is seen in the same way.” Tony also talked about whether labels were oppressing people, highlighting the audience agency questionnaire that asks you if your disability stops you doing things, as opposing to asking if society and its barriers stop you doing things as a disabled person.
Artist Ben Wilson, aka the chewing gum man, spoke of his interest in labels, passionately giving the example “tate, sugar, slavery.” He spoke of already feeling special just by being allowed to be who he is. Ben asked the audience why showing your work in the Tate, over other venues, gives it such a prestige?! Ben’s work is part of the Outsider Art Collection at the Whitworth, but he says he doesn’t feel like an outsider, as he currently interacts with society on a daily basis. He also said that he didn’t feel marginalised, giving the example that he was there at the Tate talking on a panel. Ben said that he never wanted to be categorised and that he was labeled an Outsider Artist when in his 30s.
The panel was a lively chat, with each person reflecting on what others had said. An audience member even flagged at the end that the class label hadn’t even been mentioned yet. Also how peoples CVs with schools, colleges and degrees listed, and the part these play in how we are judged across society.
With thanks to Ellie Walmsley for taking these photographs.