BALTIC 39 is BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art’s new experimental outpost in Newcastle upon Tyne, ten minutes’ walk across the river from the main venue in Gateshead. For its inaugural exhibition this summer, Newcastle-born artist Phyllida Barlow selected 15 artists to take part in ‘Switch’, a type of durational group show where participating artists were encouraged to return to the space during the show. In this sense it followed on from another time-based project, ‘What Do Artists Do?’, organized by Barlow in 2008, in which 16 artists – several of whom were included again in ‘Switch’ – took over a temporary space in East London. The project hoped to establish a hybrid environment between the studio and the exhibition space, in which were foregrounded the experimental processes which occur in the studio but fall from view as soon as the work is transferred to the gallery. Barlow continued this strategy last year in ‘RIG’, her major solo show in London at Hauser & Wirth’s Piccadilly gallery, in which one installation was left just as the art handlers had unpacked it, postponing any conclusive ‘signing off’ by the artist.
Although her own work was absent from ‘Switch’, Barlow’s role as teacher was palpable, with many of the artists selected having been taught by her at the Slade. Her husband and daughter, Fabian and Florence Peake, were also included – an unapologetic move given that the exhibition has apparently been perceived locally as an invasion by an exclusive group of Londoners to the North East. In an interview accompanying the show, Barlow reflected on ‘the fact that most art isn’t seen and most artists are unknown […] which for a visible art form is an extraordinary paradox’. Although this isn’t the case for many of those involved, artists such as Jason Dungan, Anna Barham and Heather Phillipson are seen to use their visibility to transmit aspects of Barlow’s thinking about art operating at the level of syntax, swapping form, subject and content as variables to be speculated upon within a discursive mode of exhibition-making. The gesture of turning the exhibition inside-out to broadcast the everyday trials of the studio, displacing the value of the finished object or outcome,can be read as a call for other artists, audiences and exhibition organizers to support art’s long game, wherein criticality is infused throughout the process rather than judged at the end.
I sensed that the practices of those who operate regularly in collective contexts, be they self-organized or institutional, such as Maria Zahle and Jason Dungan (who co-run the collaborative project The Hex), Sophie Michael (who has just completed her MA at the Royal Academy Schools in London) and Brighid Lowe (Barlow’s former colleague at the Slade), lent themselves best to the contingent nature of ‘Switch’. At opposite corners of the space, Dungan and Michael’s moving-image work, the latter filmed in situ in the studio complex below the fourth-floor gallery, complemented Dungan’s meditative observations (‘Webcam Videos’, 2011–ongoing) using the slight movements of a webcam to produce a beautiful, if useless, kind of surveillance. Michael’s ludic colouring directly onto the film stock, sending flurries of fictional activity past shots of studio windows and walls, also chimed with Zahle’s wall drawings, Gardiner’s Eye Stripe (2012), which performed an imperfect measuring of the height of the space. In contrast, Lowe’s recycling of thousands of art flyers as a carpet over one side of the gallery (Evidence 2008–2012, 2008–12) was a static reminder of the material economy the exhibition contributes towards.
By walking over the postcards, unavoidably scuffing them and even trying to ignore them as you engage with the other works, Lowe’s work created a point of resistance to reading the exhibition from a single perspective.The systematic presentation of the cards over such a vast area created a 1:1 map of the space through which visitors become aware of themselves looking and plotting their way through provisional intersections between the works which elapse as the exhibition evolves. In this sense, ‘Switch’ succeeded in creatinga decision-making process for the viewer, shifting the emphasis from a judgment on the value of the work to recognizing it within a collective context amongst a number of divergent perspectives.
First published in Issue 149