Interview with Chris Bailkoski by Diana Marrone for Slow Words 01.06.2019
June 1, 2019
Corte Supernova – a little and hidden Venetian tiny space hosting sound and event designer’s studios which has a propulsion much bigger than its premises – hosts a temporary North West, UK artist residency roster organized by the Manchester based PROFORMA – an artists-led platform and festival – during the occasion of Venice Art Biennale.
For instance, during his residency in Venice, Omid Asadi transformed his piece, Damman (3rd Edition), from a powerful performance into a fragmented tapestry. Referencing sustained subjugation of Iranian heritage by Western superpowers and corporations, philosopher Michel Foucault, global migration and ritual.
Following our way to dig into arts by tangling it from the entire spectrum of its deploying, we wanted to meet the guy organizing Proforma, Chris Bailkoski who is also behind an outstanding Manchester club called Soup Kitchen.
Your life in a few words, even before Soup Kitchen…
I was always interested in creative activities since my childhood, I really wanted to be involved in animation and illustration from very young age.
It is very hard by coming from a background of working class in UK and particularly in Manchester! There is lots of resistance to artistic practices, I always found myself fighting against this since school time, as I was pushed away from it, I wanted to be involved even more…
Why do you think there is a resistance?
Because there is a perception that art is an easy subject – you can do whatever you want therefore is easy – but for me and particularly at secondary school the most difficult subject was art: what I can imagine can be put on paper or in a painting….
I was good academically with mathematic, sciences, chemistry…It’s process you learn and has a set pattern (when you are a teenager you don’t really go through theoretical sciences).
I went to art school quite late, in my mid-twenties, mainly to get away from these kinds of working-class barriers. From that point onwards, I’ve actually found that art has been a way to gain more knowledge of the world and universe we live in instead of the elementary level taught in school. And art has much more of a relationship with my heart and passion.
I did try to be an artist but the way my brain works, I have to admit, is much more versatile and suited to curating. There are many different and complex issues going on in an artwork and I don’t think I ever truly believed I was a good artist. Curation is my passion really!
Did you start Soup Kitchen to support art?
It’s part of my ethics, since I was a kid: it has been instilled in me from my family, ‘you’ve always got to work hard’.When I was studying, I was always working in bars and cafes. I was very good at it and so I ended up managing some of the places quite quickly as a licensee – I actually became the landlord at the age of 25 in a music club in Manchester. It allowed me the freedom of the daytime to work on arts and try to develop that path.
It must have been around 2005-6 that I thought there might be some way I could actually have my own premises and I can work in a way to free more time to concentrate on visual art again.
We (a group of 3 of us since day 1) opened Soup Kitchen in 2010 developing it from a little cafe to a large music space and a night club. It has been going nearly 10 years now, I’ve moved to finance director and my colleagues are managing and creative directors. I can work remotely so I can concentrate on curating more fully now.
What about the contemporary art scene in Manchester? Are there many commercial galleries or more artists’ studios – apart the incredible performing art festival the city hosts every year?
There are only one or two commercial galleries in the Greater Manchester region, the others are artist-led galleries: they have lots of visibility nationally, but they don’t operate in a commercial way.
There is a thriving artists’ ecology driven by these spaces, but we don’t have so many buyers coming to Manchester and lots of works are not ‘sellable’ to the buyers existing in the region. This community is very cohesive and very good at sharing resources and Arts Council England offers some support, but resources are scarce.
Have you been in Venice before bringing ‘PROFORMA Pavilion’ residences here?
Yes, what is very important for me – and a reflection of the things back in Manchester – is that you work very much with communities to make events or exhibitions possible.
Using that mentality coming to Venice, two years ago as a student of a master’s degree in curating, I was offered a month to work with the British Council at the British Pavilion (the exhibition was a solo of Phyllida Barlow). So, I had the vision on how to have an exhibition here and I worked the past two years on making it possible.
Again: we work with artists residencies as much as it is possible and as well to replicate this model as much as possible. But also, in this case, we try to put everything back into Venice and the Venetian economy (not only the materials for the artworks but we hire from here and don’t bring so much from home but also the reason to be exhibiting in Corte Supernova: we’ve met via the music scene and this will be not the first and only joint project).
I also took inspiration from the people at Corte Supernova for what they organize with a festival called Fresch.in I was invited to during Carnival. Musically it is very similar to some ideas I have, on how to put together a similar kind-of experience within the Manchester grassroots community. I want also to invite some of them to put it a similar festival on there! I see this as a dialogue for now and the future.
For the next Art Biennale, we’ll try to be here for the entire time of a six-month exhibition, not only our actual six weeks this time.
With the same model of artistic residencies?
Yes. The trend for me is to move away now from the globalized art market; spending time and having residencies is a way to counter these market forces. My own residence here has been so important, and I wish artists could feel the same, by working with limited resources in such a unique place. Residing here, you have a real and direct engagement with the audience as well. To have the opportunity to discuss of an artwork while creating it is paramount.
Which is your impression of the international audience you saw in the other Venice Art Biennale pavilions and the big bunch of collectors coming here as locusts…it must be a very shocking – and far away – model if paralleled to your community-based project…and the way artists create.
Well, when I was here two years ago, I worked during the vernissage week at the British Pavilion and I saw everybody, literally everyone from the art world coming. It was a bit overwhelming and a very surreal moment. I am really happy to not be on that radar.
As you experienced here at our opening (they opened the last day of the vernissage days, May 11 under a torrential rain you could expect in Manchester or Liverpool!!), it went way beyond our wildest dreams and our expectations, it gave us not only visibility but also lots of prospects with new projects (and some international curators found their way to visit us too!).
From my own perspective, the work at PROFORMA Pavilion is made in the way it’s not sellable directly here or back in Manchester, the longer-term aim is to try to give visibility to artists and curators and pay them through commissioning.
What do you think will happen in Manchester with Brexit?
Generally, for my experience with Soup Kitchen, we’re working with lots of musician and djs coming from Europe and we are afraid of the rising costs for transportations and visas. This will create lots of additional pressure on us on the ticket sales. And of course, tickets will be more expensive because of that.
Without thinking so ahead in the future, unfortunately Brexit is already causing problems. People are not going out as before in Manchester because they prefer to save as much as possible for what they fear will happen when Brexit will be completed.We are worried that we have to change both models (Soup Kitchen and PROFORMA) to make it more suitable to these concerns.
Did you receive a letter explaining what do you have to expect as a musical and artistic venue?
No, we’ve been redirected to websites that are not giving any real practical or even general answers and the political process has been nasty, leaving lots of uncertainty. This from a business point of view.
From a cultural point of view, some of the artist we work with are coming from the working class of the northern cities. These are places where there is quite a bad perception of their communities; they are blamed for Brexit and the rise of the far-right, as the press put this in their words. Particularly in these marginalized northern cities many voted for Brexit in order to raise their voice with the hope of eventually being listened to given they are always ignored.
All this was even as Manchester voted ‘Remain’, all of us (the North) are considered ‘leavers’. Some of these artists feel unfairly treated and work with these issues. If we don’t have a conversation with people in part through art, I don’t know how we’ll tackle this difficult situation.
Art is a social ignition for a further dialogue…
Even if it should not really explain anything, it could perhaps try to help us understand this unstable dynamic.
What are you listening to now?
In this past month I was not very much listening to music but I want to suggest you one band we’d had at a fundraising event at Soup Kitchen with a very successful gig, they’ve also played on Radio 1: Hannah’s Little Sisters, keep an eye on them in the future….
I know that Manchester literary fanzines and reading scene are terrific! Do you have any of them you like best?
Murmur is a favourite magazine and among its authors there is Rory Cook. He writes lots of content and is a great storyteller and spoken poetry author.
We love very much the kind of spoken word à la Kate Tempest…By the way she opened the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale with a performance she was left totally free for by the British Council (commissioning it to talk about Brexit, the subject of the pavilion).
Talking of British Council, they’re very supportive in Europe with arts: they issue maps for helping to find the British artists and exhibitions elsewhere, giving grants and issuing other funding schemes…you can even buy art in commercial galleries by paying them a little per month while the Council pay it upfront to the gallery and/or the artists…
The British Council has been really helpful and again, without the opportunity given to me two years ago, I would not have able to be here. The Architecture Biennale is more ‘political’ while the Art Biennale is different and the political circumstances happening now are avoided and concentrate on solo artists, it might also be because the audience figures are much bigger too.
Where do you see yourself in ten years from now?
My vision for PROFORMA and Soup Kitchen will be to come up with new models for both, I like this transient form we’re experiencing in Venice for PROFORMA but back in Manchester we have to find an art house to host our residencies and this can be done by creating a hostel or similar.
In ten years-time, I would love to have a PROFORMA biennial festival in Manchester and it is really important that it has to be artist-led and going against Manchester International Festival in terms of alternate years.
I imagine an artists, musicians and other creatives international network with residencies in multiple spaces and multiple times feeding that back into their work.
It might seem quite utopian, but artists can show the way the world can coexist in this universal or European conundrum in which we are now entrenched in.
What did you learn from life so far – as a person or as a professional or both?
To be persistent.
There are ways or lessons in which, yes, patience is key, but you have to be persistent.
I’m forty years old now so it’s long time I’ve been experiencing this – persistence is the main thing.