I have been Covert Artist in Residence at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, during May, June and July 2015.
A covert artist residency is uninvited, unfunded and self directed, so undercover, if you will. What is an artist residency anyway? They seems to vary as much as the places they happen, but basically, an arrangement is made for an artist to be in residence for a set time, ranging between a few days to around a year, depending on the programme. The artist may be given a space to work, access to resources and facilities, including some not normally available to the public, such as archive materials. There is usually a specific goal in mind, such as an exhibition, display or event as culmination of the residency. In addition, the artist may be expected to open up parts of their practice to the public, perhaps through talks, studio visits or workshops.
The artist will normally have written a proposal to the residency institution outlining why their practice or process is a good fit for the collection or ethos of the institution, and perhaps how they will engage with the material and the public. Residencies my be part of a programme with specific remits and artists may be selected on those basis, often through a competitive process of application. Institutions like artists residencies because it is part of their remit to reinterpret their collections in new ways, to find new avenues for public engagement, and because they tend to be curious, creative and academic professionals who are interested in artists and innovative ways of understanding their cultural capital. Artists like residencies because it is a chance to work in an environment with different resources and challenges, because they can work through projects to completion, because they can present work and their process to the public and other professionals, and because they can find new aspects to their practice by engaging with interesting materials or circumstances, and make new professional connections.
Residencies may vary considerable outside of these circumstances, may be specific or open, funded or charged, supported or not, prestigious, organised, worthwhile or not.
Residencies may be just that, and involve artists living and working in different places, perhaps internationally, for several weeks of months. clearly this makes residencies impractical for artists who have families, jobs, commitments, and all the normal continuum of life that people are subject to. So residencies for some artists represent an ideal and remote holiday, a breaking of ties, rent or mortgages, and an enormous commitment. Nearer to home residencies may be a negotiation of time commitments and logistics. Clearly, the artist must consider the balance of all these pros and cons.
I recently read a call for artists in residence which provided basic living accommodation and a space to work for two weeks on a fairly remote Scottish peninsula of a Scottish island. The proposal was that the artist would spend two weeks there, engaging with the environment and the local community, give some kind of talk or event for the locals, and at the end, donate a piece of work. There is no funding for travel and upkeep, and no payment, not even the minimum wage. It may be a marvellous opportunity to go to a beautiful, interesting and rugged part of the world, but as a working holiday it ends up fairly expensive. I imagine the organisers consider that they are offering the artist something rare and marvellous, but not many people can work unpaid for two weeks and in fact fund their own expenses and in the end give away the fruits of their labour.
What is to stop an artist organising their own residency within suitable and available parameters? What is to stop me?
I do not have a studio. My studio is spread out on available and temporary spaces at home, getting in the way of living space. My studio is piles of stacked boxes in my bedroom, frustratingly and awkwardly inaccessible. My studio is this piece of paper I am writing on, my laptop where I work. My studio is my state of mind. My studio is the V&A museum, where I am undertaking my first covert artist residency.
It doesn't actually have to be such a marvellous place as the V&A to undertake a covert artist residency. Anywhere will really do, and I am planning to complete others in all sorts of places: libraries, which I have a particular affinity to and a habit of joining, shopping centres... I could easily do this in a field and plan to. And why not a residency at home. That is so logical.
I will carry out a series of residencies in places I am drawn to and places I am not, in places rich with material and places seemingly empty.
There are rules, oh, there are rules. Flexible boundaries which I negotiate with myself each time, basically following and tending towards this set of criteria:
- I set a time-limit for the residency
- I go there regularly during the residency
- I create a project / piece of artwork
- I find a way to share my conclusion
- I am free to bend the rules.
I have completed my first covert artist in residence position, at the V&A. Everything is organised, processed, stuck in a book, printed out and placed in folder and boxes. No matter what happens, I have made a model of working for myself that I deeply love and find fruitful and productive. I always find it hard to fulfil briefs that I cannot reinterpret myself - how often do I misunderstand the question! This is it for me, and already it is time to plan the next covert artist residency.