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Ant Smith
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Reflections on my first solo exhibition

Thursday 9th June 2016 11:05pm

Project 269 in the round - photo Paul McQuad

Project 269 is a two year exploration of London and Londoners in the context of their relationship with The Underground. It was first exhibited in Stockwell at the Art4Space studios on the birthday of The Tube, in 2016.

This is a story of how to mount a successful solo photography exhibition.

Part 1: The Venue

I arrived an hour later than I wanted to on the day of the private view due to engineering work on the tube. I didn't mind so much as we were close to ready after a 12 hour install the day before, and I kind of liked the irony of it. We spruced up the room, prepared the bar and awaited the hordes... somewhat trepidatiously since this was a little known, hard to find, studio space in Zone 2 with absolutely no passing trade hosting an exhibition by an unknown 'artist'.

So why would we chose this location? How could we possibly be 'successful' in this space?

Art4Space Studio - photo Christine Adams

The space as we found and left it.

I'd had great coverage in the press a few months earlier, reaching millions of people, when I set out crowdfunding the project; and had every confidence I could get similar follow-up coverage for the exhibition. So I thought it would be a tasty offer for any gallery. But it surprised me (naively) to find quite a lack of vision or imagination in London's gallery community. Many simply ignored my approaches. A few replied to say they'd love to host the exhibition, at so many thousands of pounds a week. It felt as if they had no quality bar or curatorial care, they'd host anything for enough money. I felt as though I was talking to commercial landlords rather than the people with their fingers on the cultural pulse of London looking for exciting emerging talent.

If your concept is strong enough it can inspire others to take a chance on you. If not, if you can't find anyone at all prepared to take a chance, perhaps it isn't the right project to be exhibiting. Money can certainly get your exhibition hosted, but is likely to buy you into failure.

Observation 1: never try to buy success

I then looked into emerging 'co-operative' type galleries. They were very keen on what they were doing and were clearly less commercially minded. But they were still wholly concerned with their own venture and didn't really connect with what Project 269 was. That was (partly) my own fault. I remember going in thinking "what a gift this project is for a co-op trying to establish itself"; and it really would have been! But by thinking about the favour I could do them I failed to really enthuse them in the idea. The whole conversation pivoted around what wasn't possible, what couldn't be done and I left knowing I wouldn't be exhibiting there.

No matter how strong your concept is, you can't expect others to just 'get it', you have to create enthusiasm.

Observation 2: others haven't been on the journey you have been on

Then Chris (my wife) found Art4Space. A community arts group with a studio space in Stockwell. They specialise in mosaics and Chris found an article about them and the amazing Rock Garden - which we had visited, and loved. So when I contacted them I was able to be genuinely enthusiastic about their work, as well as my own. We were able to forge a human to human, artist to artist link that created a solid foundation for us to work together.

Over a few e-mails everything was agreed, the space was wholly mine for ten days for no fee; in fact I didn't even meet the director of the studio until the private view! After the initial exchange, where we were able to share genuine enthusiasm for each other's work

I went on to think about all of the things that could pose a problem for the venue:

  • Security

  • Moving things around

  • Access during the exhibition

  • Insurance and liability impact

  • Costs incurred (utilities)

By raising these issues and offering solutions before they presented themselves or occurred to the owners I was able to engender an amazing degree of trust.

Whilst the spark of creativity was critical in the first moment, it was experience and professionalism that sealed the deal.

Observation 3: you best get what you want by caring for the needs of others

But what space had I found? It certainly wasn't the blank canvas that a dedicated gallery offers. Nor was it the ideal size that some of the warehouse conversions owned by the co-operatives offered. If I'd had a fixed idea of what the exhibition was my approach to the space would have been all about what I couldn't do. The experience of looking for a space though had made me think about what was truly essential, I had developed a mantra: The map's the thing. So long as I could fit the map into the floor space, everything else was simply dressing.

That may sound as though I made plenty of unfortunate compromises but in fact the opposite is true. By the time we'd finished the installation we had unquestionably created a full gallery style experience. I'm reminded of the acronym KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!).

By concentrating on the essential, we achieved the aim with the minimum of fuss, frustration and waste.

Observation 4: understand what's important

I could have spent more money on a better situated, better appointed, larger space. But that in itself meant making compromises. It would have taken much longer to raise the budget. More wall space meant more time and money to be spent on filling them - essentially to distract from the map. More footfall would have lead to a greater number of people who weren't especially interested or drawn to the map...

Don't get me wrong. Such an installation would have been (would be) wonderful, but achieving the essential concept, quicker, and for an engaged audience was really powerful. And I don't need to think of the work as finished, done with. I still have the option of a 'grander' installation if I wish. If the buzz from this installation makes it possible.

Reviewing the exhibition now I can say that

  • despite location etc it drew one visitor every 6 minutes it was open (400 visitors)

  • The balance sheet was extremely healthy with an average visitor subsidy of £2.50 per head (in contrast arts council funded projects in London have a typical subsidy of £3.17 per head)

If I'd gone for a larger, pricier, exhibition I may have 'lost' a lot of money and that would have killed any future for the work. A more modest exhibition encourages success and creates the conditions that can allow the work to grow.

Observation 5: nurture your work

To summarise this perspective, a gallery isn't (or needn't be) some swanky address - it's just a space that can present the work. The work may benefit from the kudos of a 'proper' gallery, but if it needs that it isn't going to work anyway. You can't buy success, it has to be grown, nurtured. It isn't measured by how much you spend (quite the contrary) and not even by simple footfall; but rather by the engagement the audience has with the work...

Part 2: The Audience

Now to be perfectly frank, one of the major drivers for the exhibition was to serve my own vanity. I had created such a large collection of images (269 in fact) that it was impossible to completely appreciate them on-line in a purely sequential fashion. Just creating and seeing the map was a significant win. I don't think that's a problem though, perhaps this vanity is crucial to help fuel the enthusiasm needed to drive the project. How can you ask others to believe in your work if you don't have that enthusiasm? But while the photos were still just files on a computer disc, I couldn't draw enthusiasm from any intrinsic belief in the brilliance of the work - I'm just not that arrogant.

No work of art is complete until it's been presented. It's normal to be filled with doubt and it's okay to believe in it nonetheless. In fact it's necessary.

Observation 6: you don't have to believe your own hype

So it was a joy to see people arrive, early. I didn't know it at the time but this would be the pattern of the week. Twice I found people queuing when we arrived to open up over the course of the following week and not once was the studio empty at closing time. In fact there was hardly an hour in total when the space was devoid of visitors. Despite great press the space was hard to find, both online and in reality. Some folk told us of how they'd turned back on the previous day only to come back out and to try for a second time to find the map. Sure, this means there were plenty who wanted to see it and just couldn't, but that fuels the possibility of doing it again. But for this installation it meant that every one (of 400) who made it really, really wanted to see it.

The depth of engagement with the work was just incredible. I had kind of thought that if I made the map big enough people might enjoy wandering along its lines. And indeed they did. I was very pleased.

But then I started to be surprised. People were finding their own ways of playing with it. Not just walking along but sometimes running. Sometimes pretending to be trains, cursing the lack of sidings. Synchronising journeys from east to west and north to south. When all of a sudden, amidst the chaos that nigh on a hundred people brought on the first night, I saw the magic happen.

In front of my eyes I saw complete strangers arrive at the same station for their own particular reasons, stop there together, and start sharing their personal recollections with each other. My work, the map, on the floor beneath their feet suddenly inconsequential; but for the connection it had enabled. A connection of shared history, of community, of society. And I saw this happen time and time again. Day after day.

At first I thought I wanted a photography exhibition and that meant a gallery and people coming to look at my pictures. Actually I wanted to use my pictures to create a thing of joy.

Observation 7: know what good looks like

This is what I mean about quality of engagement. This is what I mean by success. Not footfall, headlines or kudos; but to see art in action, serving an almost tangible purpose.

It was around this time that I took confidence in the work. All along I'd been waiting for someone to say "How very dare you?", or "Who do you think you are to presume your vision is enough, is good enough, is even wanted?" After all, I'm not even a Londoner. But no one did. And I started to let folk refer to me as the 'artist', as it felt that to modestly complain against it was to diminish their experience. I believe it's fair enough to call my exhibition an art show (and by extension myself an artist) because it's a label that has been given to me by others. Thank you. It does please me.

As you might imagine, I was feeling quite positive after the private view albeit a little weary; but the proof of the pudding lays in the eating... and I'd been involved in many (joint) exhibitions where the mantra was "it's all about the private view" as the gallery would inevitably yawn with empty echoes thereafter. In fact, in this cold January week, visitor numbers were very healthy. But coming into the final week of preparations I found myself expecting the exhibition to be deserted most of the time, because that's what usually happens. Christine (who would be invigilating during the days) had even prepared a whole host of mini projects with which to keep occupied. In that final week before opening, all of the joy was hung on the idea of seeing the map complete, and maybe having a good private view. The exhibition thereafter seemed almost an inconvenience, a slight depression on an otherwise incredible task.

I wasn't at all happy about this. It seemed like a terribly dull world to be born into, and I really wanted more than that for my work. I'd had various conversations along the way and a few passing ideas resurfaced. Why not organise a series of mini-events to try and inject some extra energy, or interest. Why not? Well, because my brain had run out of processing cycles. There's only so much one person can handle. Fortunately, I know two of London's finest, and most tireless, creators of performance events who offered to sort all that for me (Calm Carl and Sarah-Jane). And Art4Space didn't even pause before saying "yes, do it".

Instead of thinking of the exhibition as a demand that people come and appreciate my work, we thought of it as more of an activity centre that would delight visitors; which just happened to be under-pinned by my photography. Sometimes, you best get what you want by caring for the needs of others.

In keeping with the underground theme we arranged a night of Poems From The Underground and a night of Busking. Aside from the first and last days they were the two busiest times of the exhibition.

You can't do it justice by simply installing it and sitting back.

Observation 8: your exhibition is a performance, from start to finish

What's more, these different approaches brought out yet more new and unexpected ways for people to interact with the work. Poets would recite their lines while tripping from station to station as their tales unwound. Or the audience would be directed to find the appropriate stations. One poet said this was the most enjoyable reading of his work he'd ever done. Whilst the buskers were playing I lounged back in an easy chair and watch in delight while ladies danced about, whirling atop of my photographs. It was a moment of pure joy, for everybody.

All through the week different people came along and played with the map in different ways. The school party we were glad to host, of course, showed me how much fun it was to loll on top of it and take selfies.

By the time we closed on the final night people (with my hearty permission) were tearing bits of it up to take home and keep, thrusting generous donations into my hands. It was to be destroyed anyway, but once again I was surprised at the many, many, different ways people wanted to engage with this work. Perhaps this alone IS enough to declare the exhibition a total success? I do think so.

Part 3: the map

A typical exhibition is simply a matter of hanging pictures on a wall isn't it? The pictures are the thing, that's all you need. So what's all the fuss about 'curation' exactly? Unlike linear experiences (books and films) exhibitions are experienced in a variety of personal ways. When an individual enters the space they are immediately influenced by the presentation as a whole. They may start at what they perceive to be the first work and then walk round in an order (maybe clockwise, maybe anti-clockwise- who knows?) but they are aware of the other work, they've maybe already clocked a piece they're impatient to get to and might start zipping about in a way that seems random. Certainly, the experience isn't under the control of anyone other than themselves.

So I gave a lot of thought to how the body of images would be presented. In fact, the presentation was a part of the work itself.

I had to consider how people would find their stations of interest. For individual stations alphabetical order would work, but often people live between stations or have an interest in a group of stations. An arrangement by London borough would work for these cases. But people will also go on journeys of their own peculiar design...

I experimented with different sequences in video slideshows (The Central Line Edition is on this page).

But it was quickly evident that the only way to display the full collection was laid out on a facsimile of the Harry Beck's famous map. Accommodating that layout on a wall though, would be impossible. My final layout was 14' in the short dimension. Even if I started at the skirting some images would be a good 8' above people's heads - too far to really appreciate. So I decided on a sacrificial floor installation that I'd encourage people to walk over in the hope that would be fun... This meant every image could be seen from the same distance (determined by the height of the viewer).

Consider the work as a whole to be a work in itself. Fashion it to suit the collection, the space, and the relationship you want the audience to have with it.

Observation 9: you don't have to have walls to have an exhibition

Perhaps flower photos could be glazed onto vases? Marine photos pasted to the ceiling?

This took care of the essential component of the exhibition but the map was still clearly installed inside a very busy, distracting, studio space. I felt I needed people to feel as though they had entered a microcosm in which the whole of London was presented so they could immerse themselves in the experience. Although I'd met the opportunity of having no real wall space (which wouldn't have helped) all of the shelving and bric-a-brac was a real problem. It's important to create an environment that allows the viewer to create a relationship with the art. So they are entering a well defined specific space outside of which they can leave the concerns of their day.

We solved the distracting shelves problem by covering them with paper and sticking a selection of super large prints up. In order to create a blank canvass effect over what was 14 square meters without multiple messy joins and creases I sourced 1m wide 2000micron decorator's premium lining paper. It worked a treat and cost only £1/sqm. If I'd looked for art supplies this part of the exhibition alone would have broken the bank! Just as you don't need a gallery for an exhibition, you don't need an art supplier for art supplies!

So with a 12 hour gruelling installation we had created a full exhibition experience, with great help from the installation Team:

The final part of the puzzle was to ensure we properly connected the visitors with the work, to ensure they could indeed put aside the concerns of the day and enter this grotto we had fashioned. That was easy on the private view as everyone was greeted with a welcome and a drink. It was the brilliance of Christine, in the following days, to realise that because we had pitched the whole affair relatively modestly we could do just the same. We could treat every visitor as though they were a specially invited guest. And that's what we did, which I believe set the perfect conditions for engagement with the work that no other realisation could have done.

Unlike physical medicines that can be taken, art, which medicates the 'soul' must be given!

Observation 10

My final thought goes to the supporters of the exhibition. Those who donated to the crowd fund. Those who gave up their time to visit. Those who helped on the mammoth task of creating the exhibition. And of course Art4Space

Whilst it's true I gave over 2 years of my life to create the images, the exhibition itself is a work in itself. A work that transformed my efforts from digital files to a real world real thing. No matter how much the photography comes from me. Project 269 comes from us. It's a physical impossibility for one person to make such a thing. To claim ownership of such a thing. Thank you all for making it real.

American student selfies on the map. photo:Christine Adams

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