While the rest of the world is just now getting used to social isolation, regional artists have been dealing with it for … a long time. Our social isolation belongs more to the tyranny of distance than the current pandemic, but the effect is similar and so it is not without a twinge of Schadenfreude that we now witness the rest of the world suffering from it. It also means that we are slightly ahead of the curve, having experimented with connecting artists in the virtual world via online conferencing and other social media over the last five years. Social isolation is arguably the single most challenging aspect of living and working as an artist in the regional context. Not only is the regional artist isolated from the centres of activity in the cities, but we are isolated from each other. Putting aside the lack of access to opportunities, networking, and participation in the broader currents of arts culture, this challenge manifests itself first as the near impossibility of regional artists to form communities of support. While the geographic density of cities usually means that artists can gather together in moderately sized communities, engage in collective activity, attend each other’s openings and shows and generally support one another in the difficult task of doing stuff that pretty much everyone else thinks is completely insane.
In the regions, you are lucky to have two or three fellow travellers within several hours with whom you can have those much needed conversations that remind you that you are not completely crazy and that doing incomprehensible things is not only a valid activity, it can be brilliantly fun. Without this ability to join together in conversation, collaboration, commiseration, and affirmation (which can only take place within a social milieu) it is difficult to maintain practice for any length of time. Contemporary regional artists arise, hold out for a while and either give up art altogether or move back to the cities. This is as a general rule, there are exceptions, especially where artists have access to the kind of support I am talking about. Artists who make their career first, find commercial representation and establish connection to curators, artist communities, etc, before moving to the regions with these resources in place, can maintain a practice if they work diligently to maintain these connections once they are out here. I find artists who work in this model often have a National or even International practice, and don’t tend to participate in the contemporary art culture of the region in which they live. There are artists who do manage to eek out an existence on the fringes of the local amateur arts group, accumulating the odd sympathiser or fellow artist with whom they can exchange ideas and support, but these are also the exceptions that prove the rule. Regional artists are isolated.
It was with this in mind that WAYOUT ArtSpace was established, to create an Artist Run Initiative that could attract the participation of regional artists living across NSW (and further afield for anyone interested) without being exclusive to regional artists. The idea was to establish an ARI run by regional artists but that would be open to artists from anywhere in the world, allowing regional artists to gather together to support one another through collaborative activity, but that wouldn’t reconfirm us in our isolation through exclusivity. The idea is to get to know and work with artists and arts communities anywhere in the world. That’s the dream. The reality is just beginning to set in as we come to terms with the challenges inherent in the running of an artist space by a group of artists who are separated from each other by the same distances that inspired us to begin this enterprise.
As you would expect, our main communication has been through internet conferencing and we had already established our group and had our first few online meetings when COVID19 hit. Cementa has been running this kind of online interaction for a number of years, first with an international exchange between Australian artists and New York artists, which was showcased at Cementa15 and more recently through our Telematic Studio Program designed and delivered by Christy Dena. Our past online projects were productive experiments with mixed results, creating some very interesting art but the artists struggled to make and retain relationships established during these programs. These projects were as much about testing the limits of this technology as it was of exploring its potentials. We expected similar issues when we began to gather to establish the WAYOUT project and I wondered if we were going to achieve enough cohesion to get this boat into the water.
As mentioned, we had just begun our attempts to gather online when COVID hit, and so it is difficult to tell what impact this has had on the functioning of the group, but from almost the first meeting of 14 artists from across the state, the interaction has been lively and committed. Perhaps the fact that we are no longer able to gather in person has given this group the energy that would normally have been spent elsewhere. Perhaps it was finally the right mix of regional artists keen to meet up and create the common ground on which art culture becomes possible that changed the dynamic, and maybe it was a mix of these two circumstances. Whatever it is, it is working. Every Wednesday at 4pm, the group meets, consistently attracting over 10 participants for discussion and project development. Over the last several months we have conceived and begun work on a soon-to-be-published catalogue of artworks that don’t exist. We are about to launch our callout for proposals, mount the first exhibition of our group at WAYOUT and have organised two field trips to meet up in Dubbo and Katoomba to take in the exhibitions of member artists. We have organised a series of absolutely fascinating online studio tours that occur at a rate of almost one per week. Our journey so far has been incredibly productive and our online interactions lively and fascinating exchanges. We’ve even collected a few urban-based artists, curators and creative producers who tag along or contribute at their own level of interest.
The studio tours, which this post was supposed to be about, have been one of our most successful outings, giving us a chance to tour each other’s practices and those of artists outside our group and to engage in the kind of dialogue that we haven’t really had the chance to experience since art school. We have since toured the studios of most of our own group and those of several Artspace residency artists. We are now moving on to artists further afield. The ensuing discussions have been fruitful and generative, and the great thing for each presenting artist is that it is a tour by their peers, giving the kind of insight and reception that only practicing artists can. It’s early days, but the fun we’re having is making it well worth our while. We’re looking forward to seeing where all this takes us!
If you would like to join in on our studio tours please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org This program is open to artists anywhere.