Monday, December 13, 2010

Law, sausages and group exhibitions

People say that there are two things that you should never see made: legislation and sausages. As a vegetarian and a former Law student, I have no problem with either of these forms, however I do think that the saying could usefully be extended to any kind of creative endeavour, particularly joint creative productions. We started this blog to document the back stage processes of pulling together a group exhibition of artists' books at the John Paynter Gallery, Newcastle (Australia) that is coming up in June 2011. And already I'm beginning to wish we hadn't...

The first thing to note is that the idea of organising an exhibition of artists' books happened pretty much by chance. I ran into Caelli Jo Booker one day in the halls of the art school where we both periodically teach and study. Caelli had earlier mentioned that she was having an exhibition of books she had made at the University of Newcastle's student art gallery: Watt Space. Knowing very little about the form, but liking the idea, I asked her about the exhibition with the vague thought that perhaps I could participate. (After all, how hard could making a book be? And even if I was too hamfisted to do it myself, I was reasonably certain that I'd be able to talk a crafty friend into it. By the way, that's crafty as in paper and scissors, not crafty as in devious). It turned out that the exhibition was going to be a solo affair, but we ended up chatting about artists' books in general: opportunities to exhibit; forms and media; aesthetics; competitions and prizes for; symposiums and conferences related to the form; artists in Newcastle making books; possibilities for funding for making artists' books, that kind of thing. 

Having stood there chatting for a good thirty minutes, it was time to either accept that we'd just had a nice conversation that wasn't going to go anywhere, or perhaps do something with the idea. We decided that yes, it would be good to have an exhibition of artists' books somewhere in Newcastle; that it would be great to involve local writers in the project; and that the John Paynter Gallery, as the home of the Hunter Writers Centre, would be the ideal venue. Caelli, a kind and practical person, offered to contact the gallery and find out when their deadlines for exhibition proposals were. 

A couple of days later I was sitting in a cafe working on a book project with a very tight deadline. I remember feeling stressed, amplifying this with a large mug of rocket fuel coffee, and that the cafe table had a wobbly leg and it was too bright to see my laptop screen properly. The mobile rang and it was Caelli. The conversation went something like this:

Caelli: 'I've spoken to Kerrie at John Paynter Gallery...;
Helen: 'Great! How did it go? When's their next deadline?'
Caelli: '5pm tomorrow'. 

We decided to lodge an exhibition proposal and spent the next ten minutes or so fleshing out the idea of an artists' books exhibition. We knew that we wanted it to be group exhibition, involving not only Newcastle based writers and artists, but people working nationally and internationally. I was working towards a joint exhibition with the sculptor Karen Robinson Smith, titled Strange Tales, so I was quite keen to do something around story telling narrative structures, particularly from a female perspective. (I'd taught a Creative Writing class earlier in the year and had a great time getting students to rewrite an extract from a Raymond Carver story, written from the 1st person perspective of a male character, from the perspective of one of the minor female satellite characters). We started talking about fairy tales, came up with the first part of the exhibition title 'Happily Ever After', then played around until we worked out the sub title 'alternative destinies in contemporary feminine narrative'. (It is worth noting that this combination of slapstick title with serious subtitle is prevalent in the context of academic writing, and Caelli and I, unfortunately or not, have both internalised it. I call it the 'just kidding: no really, I actually do know what I'm talking about' approach). And so the exhibition proposal was born.

Caelli, a graphic designer as well as an artist, did a fantastic job of writing the proposal and making it look damned good. At the time of writing, the proposal has been accepted, exhibition dates have been set to 10-26 June 2011, and we are in the process of finalising our Expression of Interest letter and form; we intend to send these documents out to participants, hopefully before Christmas.