Reflecting on P-ART-Y 2020
Interview with Chris Bailkoski by Mollie Balshaw and Rebekah Beasley
Back in February 2020, Short Supply celebrated our first birthday since establishing the initiative, via an event at Soup Kitchen called P-ART-Y, a night of emerging performance art in collaboration with Chris Bailkoski. Chris is a director of Soup Kitchen and curator at PROFORMA, a non-profit, performative visual art platform supporting artists and curators. He has created a range of exhibitions and residencies in Greater Manchester, London and Lancashire, Chemnitz, Germany and Venice, Italy. We attended the launch of PROFORMA's 2019 autumn programme at Soup Kitchen and afterwards we discussed the possibility of collaborating with Chris to create a unique celebration for our birthday. Unaware of how events were to unfold just a month after our P-ART-Y, we are now using this opportunity to look back and reflect on the night, and think about the place of events like this in Greater Manchester and beyond.
P-ART-Y in full swing at Soup Kitchen,
Short Supply to Chris:
What lead you to agree to the collaboration when we approached you about P-ART-Y?
I think that Short Supply are providing a vital resource for emerging artists in terms of exhibition opportunities at what can be a career-limbo period of time. Creating your own opportunities for others to exhibit through Short Supply is something that mirrors my own emergent curator career. I soon found the opportunities and funding dried up and at this critical point (and unfortunately the most-common outcome for artists/curators) general work commitments take over in order to have a reasonable standard of living. From that negative experience but fortunately working as nightclub and venue manager for a number of years (which ultimately led to the creation of Soup Kitchen and PROFORMA), I have always tried to create and provide opportunities for others where I was unable to find them in my own career. When you both approached me about P-ART-Y at Soup Kitchen, I thought this is the perfect kind of opportunity to support you both as emerging curators and collaborate on a one night exhibition. I think collaborate is the most accurate word for the process as we started from the same viewpoint that it should be a platform for emergent live and performative artists, which opened up new artistic and curatorial possibilities for each of us.
What are you looking for from artists in an open call? What factors inform this decision?
To be honest, I try to steer clear of open calls, or at least competitive language and elements of them. Through PROFORMA, we have yet to use an open call format, instead identifying live/performative artists to work with through extensive studio visits. With a realisation that this process is also problematic, I am trying to figure out an in-between way of fostering a healthy balance between open calls and studio visits which will hopefully be tested later this year. My own interests are in performative/live arts and with you both wanting to test performance as part of P-ART-Y, this narrowed the field in terms of the artists we were looking for. As this was the first open call I have done in a number of years, working with you both I think we struck a really good balance between that framework and fair selection process.
How do you feel about the performers/performances we ultimately chose?
I think that each performer and their performances were ideal for the basement space at Soup Kitchen. Artists chose to either perform on the stage or on the dance floor, and within this they created a very immersive environment where they really had certain control of the audience and atmosphere. While I don't recall it being a conscious decision in the selection process, each of the artists played with ideas of cultural production and highlighted the invisible agencies behind them.
Luke Beech, painting his right arm in honey and gold whilst half naked, then proceeding to eat these applications off of it, fetishised the currency of the artists unique touch.
Chester Tenneson and Laura Weaver's performance of creation/destruction through our connection to social media (apple and android phones particularly) performed in the centre of the dance floor, creating an energy and focus away from the centre stage. This reflected and highlighted the disconnect between what is essentially slavery in mobile product creation and the corporate monopolisation of all our lives.
Oliver Tennant's performance explored the exploitation and monetisation of our mental health through supposedly positive affirmations, repetitive sloganism and anthemic songs that overlook our very complex personal issues and create vast wealth for the mass-generalised, symptom-cure led Pharma economy.
As Taurtollo, musicians and artists Raheel Khan, George Burrage and Glen Cutwerk, performed off stage in a corner of the the room that was mostly hidden from the audience but sonically inclusive, as the soundscapes they created could be heard throughout the venue. A sound experiment that incorporated recordings of taxi drivers and night workers reflected another aspect of multiple unseen agencies involved in our daily lives.
Oliver Tennant performing at P-ART-Y,
How did you find the pace of the evening?
With the performances mentioned above there was a really nice, slow build up of activity, which again reflected the nightclub space and the music that is often placed there; a slow build up to a crescendo.
Did you have any initial expectations of how the event would play out? Were these met?
I thought it was important to try to be relaxed about expectations as much as possible, after guidance and assurances with the practicality of the exhibitions, I think it was best to allow you both time to work out how the night panned out (in terms of order etc) An important part of collaboration (which I am still learning!) is not to micro manage every aspect of an exhibition but to acknowledge strengths and weaknesses and support each other in the best possible way. The risk is in initiating the thing in the first place, the journey afterwards will always exceed expectations.
Taurtollo performing at P-ART-Y,
Any particular highlights with regards to audience feedback? Do you feel the event was well-received?
I was really happy that the night exceeded any audience expectations we might have had beforehand but this was never the driver for hosting the event. Soup Kitchen has never been driven by audience numbers, always about supporting artists that myself and the other directors are passionate about. So, with this as our vision so to speak, I was extremely happy that there were a few people at the start of the evening that were supposedly just passing but were still there at the close of the event. Equally, customers from the ground floor bar were coming down to see what was happening and stayed beyond their intended time. At points, the basement was at capacity of 200 people, which is ridiculous! There was so much positive feedback that it felt like an acknowledgement of this vital platform you have created in Short Supply and affirmation of the potential of performative visual arts.
We got lots of feedback on the night that the space made the contemporary arts nature of the party feel more accessible. Do you feel that soup/other alternative venues are a good place to be encouraging accessibility in visual art contexts as people grow more and more skeptical of the traditional gallery space?
There is a long history of visual art in alternative venues in Greater Manchester which dropped off at the start of the last decade with the closure of places like the Greenroom due to the first round of major cuts by Arts Council and the start of austerity. PROFORMA is my own way to try to reignite this specific practice and by holding exhibitions in alternative spaces hopefully encourages accessibility. I actually think that the institutions in the city recognise the need to make exhibitions more accessible and one way of addressing this is through incorporating performative elements into their programmes from the start. It's really good to see artists from the region involved more often with these institutions now too.
Do you think there is value in using the venues reach within the community in Manchester to introduce those who maybe wouldn’t otherwise visit contemporary art events to try them out?
Alongside the artist development programme we offer, this is the specific vision of PROFORMA, rather than Soup Kitchen, inhabiting non-traditional gallery spaces to allow broader audiences to try out contemporary art events. And so each venue we inhabit, their respective communities can potentially be introduced to events they normally might not otherwise access.
Luke Beech performing at P-ART-Y,
Chris to Short Supply:
How did you find the process of collaboration?
We liked the process of collaboration, it felt very natural. There seemed to be a good balance between control and nuance, the night was planned enough to run smoothly, but there was room for fluidity and chance that kept us on our toes and kept the night a little unpredictable and really interesting.
If there was anything you would change about the collaboration, what would that be?
We’re not sure what we would change, we think it worked out really well and we were happy with the night as a result! If we were to do something like this again though, it would be interesting to explore a direct collaboration with PROFORMA, perhaps introducing emerging performance artists to more mid-career and established performance artists. We’re really interested in providing less experienced artists with opportunities to learn from more practiced artists, to try and develop those mentor-mentee relationships outside of exclusively educational settings.
Now you have experience of curating live and performative visual arts, do you think this will inform future curatorial processes?
Definitely! The curatorial process for this collaboration was difficult for us, and it has presented us with a lot of points for learning. It was quite different to the curatorial experiences we’ve had before; we had an active audience to consider, reactions that couldn’t be predicted and performances we hadn’t seen live before. While audiences and audience reactions for traditional exhibitions also cannot be predicted, their experience of a sculpture or a painting or a film is a much more private experience. Watching a person perform in such an intimate setting draws the audience in and makes them an integral part of the process, their reactions and behaviour directly shape its delivery and reception, even in performances like these which required no audience participation. We were very happy with how the night played out, and we think the curation was an important part of this as well as the energy in the room.
And if so, how?
This experience has made us think more carefully about how we want an event to be received, and the factors in our control to achieve this. It should never be so tightly controlled as to not allow for a little unpredictability.
Chester Tenneson and Laura Weaver performing at P-ART-Y,
Thinking about the broader Greater Manchester region, as young curators, do you feel there are enough opportunities to exhibit in the city?
Not really, no. We expressed similar concerns when curating the first iteration of MADE IT last year; we feel very distanced from many of the art institutions in the area, and don’t feel there is a proper system of support in place to encourage young artists and graduates. It’s a big part of why so many of these individuals struggle to keep that momentum going; they either know what they want but need some support they aren’t getting, or they don’t know what they want, have no-one to turn to and are left with no other options. It’s a problem not exclusive to Greater Manchester of course, cities across the UK are sharing the same issues. Lack of opportunity, adequate funding, system of support and wages for artists lower down the chain means people get left behind, particularly artists from marginalised backgrounds and artists who haven’t even managed to get a foot in the door yet.
Students and graduates have a bit more of a chance to put themselves out there as they have entered a system with the connections and knowledge already available, but at a great financial cost, and once you’re out that door as a graduate all the support you were receiving stops, so even if that system worked for you it’s completely temporary. It isn’t all doom and gloom - we’ve been lucky to receive support from many artist-led groups over our first year of doing this, but even then they more often than not don’t have the time and resources to offer the support I’m sure many of them would like to offer.
These concerns alone mainly reference our difficulty exhibiting our own work or facilitating exhibitions of others, but opportunities to curate are fewer still. If we want to curate something it must come from us, there are no other options. While we enjoy the experience of taking the bull by the horns, dictating our own vision and being in charge of our own opportunities (and making the time to do so despite many other responsibilities), it’s hard and extremely time consuming to organise shows with full and part time jobs that keep a roof over your head.
If there is anything you would change about the city, what would it be?
This is a tough one, the problems are so vast and for so many reasons it’s hard to know where to start. Knock down the flats and invest more money into culture in the city, and by that we don’t mean keep supporting the same established galleries and organisations that aren’t bothered about the artists on their own doorstep. We don’t need galleries to keep giving us the same old. We don’t want to de-value commercial, historical and traditional art, but if we’re going to change people’s minds about the value of art in general and create a better art world that we all have a chance to succeed in, we need to be promoting living artists of all backgrounds, archiving their work and getting their vision out to the general public. We have to unify against the tired practices that are making succeeding in this industry so difficult; but this would mean organisations who benefit from it would need to give up some of their control. Ultimately we can’t fix these larger problems alone, and that’s why working on projects like these which places significance on the filling the gaps in the city and trying to cultivate a better and more inclusive community is so important to us.
Chester Tenneson and Laura Weaver performing at P-ART-Y,