What do people want from galleries? What are arts centres for? Open to the public, presenting public programmes, offering public resources: these are all requirements of the contemporary arts organisation that defines itself as for the public. Such organisations position themselves as for the public good, worthy of a prominent place within the cultural make-up of their regional context and of continued support from both the local arts community and a wider audience. And yet what the public wants and needs is something that is constantly changing — now perhaps more significantly than in the last decades, as other freely accessible institutions such as museums and libraries are being forced to reduce hours, consider charging entrance fees or to close completely. And so the question of how best to serve the public becomes even more vital to address.
Curated by The Bluecoat’s recently appointed Head of Programme Marie-Anne McQuay, current exhibition RESOURCE seeks to directly tackle the issue of how art and arts centres can be useful. McQuay has taken advantage of her first exhibition to reflect on The Bluecoat’s position as the UK’s oldest arts centre. Inspired by the centre’s founding manifesto from 1927, which states that The Bluecoat was established to promote not only the arts, literature and science, but also the ‘diffusion of useful knowledge’, RESOURCE is a group exhibition that brings together artists, designers and publishing collectives to fill the galleries with useful things. There is an emphasis on the building itself — via works that highlight the infrastructure of the organisation and its hidden resources — and alongside and amongst these are playful interventions and opportunities for multiple forms of interaction that attempt to turn the centre over to its users.
RESOURCE engages with the Bluecoat’s original interdisciplinary ethos, not simply presenting art, design and literature alongside each other but providing a platform for their intersection. Take for example the ‘Piracy Project’, jointly run by Andrea Francke and Eva Weinmayr, which makes available a collection numbering hundreds of publications, each displayed in duplicate, with original and pirated versions sitting side-by-side. This reading room resource is a proposition for the books to be used as books, but also as prompts to consider the relationship between author and reader — as a one-way transmission or as an invitation for conversation through imitation, adaption, translation and other forms of creative copying. Its prominent placement in a space that is viewable even before the visitor has entered the building suggests that this reference library of counterfeit culture is very much open to the public, as a starting point for debate in or outside of the gallery.
Other works that the exhibition categorises as ‘temporary resources’ include Ian Whittlesea’s instructional videos, in which The Bluecoat’s staff demonstrate how to become invisible (‘Becoming Invisible (Bluecoat - Agnes, Ruthie, Adam, Fenda)’, 2015). Displayed on monitors at different points within the galleries, figures are shown standing completely still, arms at their side and breathing so gently that there is often a moment or two before it is clear if you are being shown a video or a photograph, as if they are almost about to achieve, through Whittlesea’s technique, a transition into pure white light. While Whittlesea instills a meditative calm, Jack Brindley’s alternative audio guide incites a riot, instructing visitors to get in the way, to become animated, to interact, intervene, interrupt and generally make a scene. Another of Brindley’s works, two large and colourful canvases titled ‘I’ll be your mirror’ (2015), attempt to capture the unseen creative activity within the building. The artist left the two canvas sheets in The Bluecoat’s Print Studio in the months leading up to the exhibition and the resultant densely concentrated layers of coloured shapes and lines evidence the Studio’s extensive use.
Artist and designer Daniel Eatock’s contribution to the exhibition, as with Brindley’s nod to the Print Studio, highlights that behind the scenes of the gallery people are at work. His series of infrastructural interventions have been created using materials left over from previous exhibitions. One such work consists of a wall painted an unusual shade of purple-pink that was produced by combining all the not completely used-up paint kept in the gallery’s stores, along with a small stack of ready-filled tins that can be taken home by visitors for their personal use. Likewise in a spirit of user-orientated usefulness, a collection of prints, paintings and other wall-based works that illustrate a series of issues of online publication ‘The Serving Library’ (Stuart Bailey, Angie Keefer and David Reinfurt) are displayed in The Bluecoat’s first floor gallery for the purpose of providing a backdrop and reference points for a regular reading group that will run throughout the exhibition.
RESOURCE is an exhibition that feels restless within the institution — attempting to activate every space and leave not even the smallest element of the building that surrounds it unturned. The works themselves are demanding of the viewer — whether they require a lengthy period of looking, listening, standing still or, in the case of Laurence Payot, putting on a very strange set of gloves to interact with fellow visitors — but also of the space that they are inhabiting. The strongest works are those that interrogate The Bluecoat’s day-to-day activities, reaching out through the building to pull what is sometimes hidden or obscured into view. In this way RESOURCE opens up the 21st century arts venue. In reanimating the original ethos of The Bluecoat — including commissioning local design and print studio Jonzo to create a literally animated Gif of that founding statement (The Bluecoat Society of Arts, 1927, 2015) — curator McQuay has made her own declaration of intent to keep engaging with this question of how to be useful — opening up the centre to the public as a place for learning and production as much as as a space of display. RESOURCE makes suggestion for how The Bluecoat can and could be used, and rewards repeated viewing and interaction. With its public programme of events focusing on the artistic and civic function of the arts centre, this discussion seems set to continue beyond the exhibition’s run.