Throwing in the (tea) towel
Rosalie Schweiker’s tea towel diagram was produced in Summer 2015 as part of her project Some Ideas for a New Art Institution. The commissioning of this project was prompted by the move to re-think the role and structure of Spacex as an organisation, which was made necessary by the loss of regular funding from ACE in the 2015 NPO review. This month tea towels have been sent out as a parting gift to arts organisations across the south west, to mark the closure of Spacex.
Some Ideas for a New Art Institution was commissioned in order that the process of re- imagining the organisation be in part artist-led. Spacex has always supported artists to take risks in developing their practice and felt it was important to involve artists in redefining ways in which they could continue to do this. Initial conversations between Rosalie Schweiker and staff produced a manifesto, representing key issues to address within the organisation. This was used as a starting point and provocation for conversations with people who were interested in the future of the organisation and its role in the cultural ecology of Exeter.
Rosalie created a series of events that facilitated conversations and enabled access to the visioning process. Events included a ‘Big Meal’ a ‘Drink and Think’ and other productive and playful ways of eating, speaking, drinking, thinking up some ideas for a new art institution. As part of a residency, Rosalie occupied the gallery, sleeping there during her visits; she wanted to make visible the practicalities of the day to day matters of running the building and of the needs of the people who worked in that space, including artists.
The concept of ‘usefulness’ in relation to the art institution was explored as part of this research. The tea towel was designed to be a light- hearted gift to other organisations, a reminder of the sometimes unseen tasks associated with hosting events in galleries.
For me this tea towel diagram gives form to the questions, and propositions, that are currently being interrogated in the sector regionally in relation to the future of our arts institutions:
If the triangle is the definition of an institution; the scribble is a bunch of questions about what an institution could be.
If the triangle is a flagship destination; the scribble is a labyrinth of unfamiliar territories and encounters.
If the triangle is a formal staffing structure; the scribble is a horizontal, collective hustle of people.
If the triangle is impenetrable; the scribble has a lot of open entry points.
If the triangle is a formal conversation; the scribble is an interruption, a confrontation or an unplanned chat.
If the triangle is clear in its meaning; the scribble may form a new one…
Some Ideas for a New Art Institution was the first of a series of collaborations with artists that suggested and tested new ways of working for Spacex. Another project that tested new ways of working for Spacex in 2017 was Makers of the Multiverse, by Juneau Projects (Philip Duckworth and Ben Sadler), which at its core explored interconnectedness and collaboration within the arts ecology. Makers of the Multiverse modelled an alternative to the commercial art market, re- positioning artists as central to the distribution, pricing and display of artwork. This collaborative project pushed open the old triangle, collapsing the notion of institution as gatekeeper. Juneau Projects worked closely with other artists, makers and local communities to edit the boundaries of who and what who should be shown, included, embraced.
…If the triangle has three points of contact the scribble is a collection of entirely interconnected lines. The complex system of interdependencies that makes up our visual arts ecology in the south west is vital; the artists, artist led groups, independent curators, producers and educators, active participants, visitors, audiences and users, commercial and public sector organisations…we are all collaborators within the bigger picture. In any life cycle, each party competes for attention; many fail, but some flourish, become established and prepare the ground for others to grow. An established organisation closing down is undoubtedly a loss. But it does make way for new perspectives and fresh thinking about how we could operate as a sector, and about how we can aspire to thrive in a tangle.
Text to accompany a tea towel : Rosalie Schweiker 2017
Hello, I’m Tea Towel.
Oh hi, I love your print. Where are you from?
No, I mean where are you originally from?
Well, I was sown together in Mexico, but my print was made in Poland.
Oh wow, great. I love Polish food.
My name is Institution, by the way.
Nice to meet you Institution.
I like that you’ve got so many different stains on you. So interesting.
Yeah, I’m a socially-engaged tea towel. I host lots of communal meals.
Oh wow, great, that’s so fascinating. I’ve wanted to host a meal for a long time. Maybe I could invite you to do one? I’ve got an event next month, an opening with over 200 invited guests it’s going to be grrrreat.
200 people is a lot. Do you have a kitchen?
No, sorry, I’m quite an old-fashioned institution, haha. But maybe you could do some cold snacks?
Do you have a budget for this?
Sure, sure. I just need to check, the exact amount, I’ll email you. What’s your email?
It’s Radical, underscore, teatowel, all one word, email@example.com.
Cool, thanks, I’ll email you.
(Some months later)
Oh hi Tea Towel, fancy seeing you here!
You should meet my colleague (to colleague) you’d love Tea Towel’s work. Look at this messy squiggle instead of a triangle, haha.
It’s a bit faded now I’ve been washed so many times.
I love it! You’re such an authentic voice. We really need to rethink everything in this current climate and you’re so refreshing, honest, I find it so fascinating how you think about ethics in your work, we do need this now more than ever, with Trump and Brexit and all this…
By the way, I’m so sorry I never emailed you about the canapés project I’ve just been so busy.
Don’t worry. It might not have been the right thing for me anyway.
Ah don’t say that, you would have been so great. Tell me, what are you working on at the moment?
Well, lots actually. I’m doing this project with a group of teenagers and 400 dirty dishes and there’s a pot with burnt fondue that has been soaking for a week now and somebody just asked me to wipe their laptop screen…
OMG you sound so busy! Well, I’ve just moved out of London, because I feel it’s so much easier if you’re regional. And I’m so excited about how REAL everything is. I pay a third of the rent I used to pay. And it’s so much easier to get ACE funding as well, much less competition.
Oh sorry, I forgot you didn’t get your NPO application through. That’s so tough. Did they say why you didn’t get it?
Not really no, it’s quite un-transparent. But I guess in the long run it’s good to be an independent tea towel. I was just sick of writing all those applications and even if I got it, I couldn’t pay myself…
Ah, well, listen, it’s so great to see you again. Maybe we can catch up properly next week?
Yeah, I’m going to take next week off and just lie on the heating for a bit to dry properly. But after that, we could meet for a coffee.
I’d love that. I would really appreciate your input for a project I’ve just started. It’s all about rethinking myself, becoming a new institution, you know with ‘users’ not spectators, I want to move on from exhibitions, maybe set up a housing coop as an art thing or something like that, you know. Not just always soaking up content and all these hierarchies, it’s so ridiculous, isn’t it? I want to really push the boat out, like maybe pay everybody minimum wage and have a board with super diverse local people…
Hmm, sounds interesting.
Yeah, I have to admit, I’ve been so inspired by you tea towel.
Errr great. Sorry I have to go now, somebody just spilt their beer.
Haha, always on duty! I’ll email you about the coffee.