the BasementArtsProject // an interview with a curator // Bruce Davies
[C] So you’ve been in Leeds the better part of two decades, would you say during this time that the actual art itself has changed in terms what people are making? Has the art adapted with the times and the spaces now available?
[BD] Because of the nature of temporary spaces, artists are always having to adapt their ideas, their styles, their ways of working to every single space they use. Most will never have the luxury of a completely blank space, white walls, shadow gaps, and nicely polished floors to work on. Equally, that can just be as intimidating as being given a cellar like our spaces.
I think my space, for instance, quite a few artists that have worked in it would say its adaptable. It mutates with the work that goes in there. So often I meet artists and have conversations with them, show them the basement, it's different from looking online. It’s an unconverted basement. There’re brick walls, plaster peeling off, it's crumbly, it's dusty, it's damp in the corners and people coming who want something more traditional… I mean I’ve only ever had one person come in and be put off by that. I mean, that was probably to do with the fact that it was works on paper, all of which were framed, all of which were on paper. Its damp down there, the humidity and stuff will affect that work.
A lot of people, even those who do work on paper go down and say ‘oh, I’ll just adapt what I do’ and will then redesign their ideas around the knowledge of the space like a creative constraint. One of the benefits of that, I mean, we’ve been doing it almost eight years now and I can honestly say, I think other people would agree with me when I say this, I can’t ever think of two exhibits which have felt like a re-tread of something which has happened there before, even though it’s the same space being used over and over again. People just adapt it in different ways, even to the point the same artists will use it a different way a second time. There are couple of artists I’ve done a couple of exhibits with now, two or three, and each time they’ve used it it’s been completely different.
[C] You talk about using a basement as an exhibition space, it’s this kind of sub-culture, there’s an identity. What was and is the purpose of this?
[BD] I mean, the purpose of using the space that we do is the fact that it’s my home, so I live there, I actually own the place. I had the space at the bottom of the house which I use to just dump things in. For the first two or three years of doing exhibits down there you couldn’t really access the back half of it as most of it was just full of junk. Over the years we’ve cleared it out and the exhibitions have just become bigger and bigger. The space has become usable, more flexible, more adaptable.
The other reason of doing it there, ownership is a big part of it. Unlike a lot of other places, we don’t have to worry about what we do to the space. As long as it doesn’t get damaged to the point at which it damages our house it’s okay. It means we don’t place any constraints outside of that on what people do. We had an exhibition down there with five kilograms of glitter, there wouldn’t be possible elsewhere. There’s more freedom for the artist, we want them to get as close to the vision they have for their work in the space that is available to them.
Also, at the time of starting it there weren’t a great number of places to do things. I used to run a collective of about 20 people and after two years of doing exhibition after exhibition it was like ‘ummm, we’ve kind of done all we can with the spaces we can get hold of, we’re starting to run out now, so what can we do?’. So, we started with the idea of let’s find a venue first, so we used the basement and then found the artists to populate the venue. So, instead of working with the same 18 to 20 people all the time, I’ve worked over eight years with more than 250 artists now.
[C] So, how do you find the artist? Do they approach you or do you go to them?
[BD} A few of them are people I know from the past - whether that be people who were part of the collective I ran or people I’d met locally as part of the scene. But from the moment of setting it up eight
years ago, from advertising the first event which was April 2011 straight away we were contacted by somebody I didn’t know asking is this a venue available to use as they’d be interested in proposing a project. So right from the offset it’s been a 50-50 split between things we go out to look for and other things which people say we’d like to do this with you.
[C] Going back to your role as a curator, when you’re curating a project how do you go about it? What’s your start point and how would you describe the process?
[BD] So if it was somebody proposing a project they’ll send us a sort of detailed proposal with an image if it’s not an installation and the works exist already. They’ll send us a description, they’ll explain what they want to do, then I’ll meet them and go over it, they’ll look at the space and decide whether their project needs adapting for the space or whether it’s exactly what they imagined, then they’ll go ahead and do it.
‘From that point on. It’s a case of, I get as involved as much as the artist[s] want me to be involved. I’ve had some artists come, visit the space and go ‘okay, it’s not what I thought but I’ll go away and redesign this’. Quite a lot of them will take the measurements of the space and go away. Some of them come back with a fully formed plan based on what they’ve done.
‘We had a group called Saturation Point from London and they came back with all their plans and said ‘this is where we want to put things’. You know as much as I did for that exhibition as a curator
was to say ‘hang on, the ceilings aren’t very good there so you’re not going to be able to suspend that piece’, so we worked out a different way of displaying it. My knowledge of the building was probably the most I involved myself with that. There were two objects which changed places when it was being installed because of that. With other people it’s a completely different matter, they can go alone, or I can be completely involved in the project.
[C] So your background is as a practicing artist but you now work prominently in a curation role, how did this transition come about?
[BD] Even with artworks I’ve made in the past, I’ve always seen what I do as being part of something else. I’ve never done a sole exhibition of my own work. I don’t work fast enough to be able to do that, I’ve got three small children, an art project and a full-time job, so I’m just not quick enough. When I do make things, I design things which are intended to be seen as part of something else. I almost let the concept drive what the art is going to be in the end, whether it’s an object, a sound piece, a film piece or whatever. My work is often in response to other peoples.
I guess this is the purpose of the basement… I’m interested in art being a part of daily life and that’s a big thing for me. I want to draw as much of a non-art audience as I do an art audience. So, where we’re based out in Beeston there are no other art venues, we’re the only one. Over seven years we’ve managed to maintain the space. I mean roughly forty percent of our audience is local. It shows that there’s been an interest for it, an appetite for it.
There’s a short story which I think acts as a great metaphor for what we are. The short story is about people going on strike in an art gallery. In the first days of the strike there was absolute uproar, ‘you can’t do that’, ‘you can’t take this away from us’. Gradually, the people striking don’t get what they want, interest disappears and the interest in the gallery goes. Eventually, everything goes back to normal, the gallery re-opens but now there’s no people, all the interest has
gone. ‘I think where we are if you took it away, people wouldn’t really notice it’s gone. There isn’t this idea of art being an ingrained thing into what we do, its’ not really part of their life. It’s not considered essential to their being. If we took it away they wouldn’t notice I don’t think. But, that’s not to say that the right way as things are. As long as these things are happening people are happy to engage.
My feeling, over time people start looking at things. People with no art background, looking at what we do, considering it, coming back, and perhaps people realise the affect ‘art’ can have on them and begin to really engage, not only in gallery spaces but also in their home.
[C] We’ve talked about your role as a curator, would you expand on this. Are there a set of rules you follow leading up to and during a project?
There’s an element of taste within it but taste really is like the last thing. Interest comes before that. Ultimately a project has to be interesting conceptually. Why are you doing it here? Why have you submitted it to the Basement? What’s the relevance of doing it here? Relevance usually has something to do with the space that it’s in or being put into. You can kind of tell when people aren’t really thinking about the space because they look at it and say ‘I can’t really do what I wanted to do with this’. Credit to those people, as often they go away and come back to attack it in a different way. That’s when you get a real dialogue going, a backwards and forwards narrative and the project changes.
I think that’s where I come in as a curator, it’s about keeping what they want but doing it in the parameters that they’ve been offered. The only other thing for me really is, is it well done? Does it look professional? Finally, I’m always thinking does this person seem as if they are in it for the long run? I’ve worked with some people and you never hear from them again. That one thing might be interesting for a moment but sometimes when you look back on them you think, I couldn’t really see any other way that was gonna go. When I’m looking over all the proposals that are coming in, my thoughts always go to where’s this person going next?
Consequently, I guess this goes back to your question about promoting artists. We work with artists who are undergraduates, recent graduates maybe involved in post graduate degrees as well as mid-career and established artists. So, we’ve had some quite big names do stuff with us and my sort of thing to them always is ‘this is what I can offer you and these are people you’ll be with and working alongside, maybe these people are recent graduates but as an established artist are you happy working with them’. Quite often they are. I mean the next person we’ve got in has done stuff at Leeds Art Gallery, has done stuff at Tate Liverpool and she’s working with someone who graduated about three years ago but it’s because their practices merge. They’ve decided to work together and to do it here. Everyone gets the same platform. It doesn’t matter where you are in your career, the venue is what it is. We put the same amount of effort into promoting any of them and I think they understand that.
[C] You’ve talked about this notion of undergraduates working alongside established artists. Would you say that their approach to a project differs?
[BD] There isn’t a general rule. Some people come to us and they’ve never done anything like it before, perhaps they have never even done an exhibition on their own before. So, they don’t know what to do, so they come to me not just for advice but for help in constructing the whole thing. In actual fact, I like doing that sort of thing. Together we work out how to and then build it in the space, so it can be a very practical thing. There are some students that know what they’re doing. They say, ‘I’ve designed this’ and I give them a week to do it. I simply give them the keys to the Basement, come back a week later and they’ve built it. Even with established artists they can be unsure and have to ask for help on certain things.
For me, I think that it’s important that as we go through life and experience things, each experience takes us to the next step, the next level. I feel that needs to happen all the time or you’re just treading water.