James Smith: I was in the Modern Art Oxford galleries recently and the first thing which struck me, or indeed perhaps anyone who was there, was the amount of activity taking place; visitors were screen printing, there were actors rehearsing even contortionists. I wanted to begin by inviting your thoughts on the nature and possible boundaries of a visitor’s experience.
Ben Roberts: Thinking about the visitor experience has been an important part of producing this exhibition because a large part of what the show is trying to do is challenge the preconceptions people have of what can go on in a gallery. This exhibition is about experimentation, exposing artists’ practice, modes of production, politics and consumption. The exhibition changes almost daily so you’re as likely to see a seminar or a choir as you are a film or a sculpture. This means we have to think very carefully about how those ideas are articulated for someone who is coming into the space for the first time.
I hope a significant part of the visitor experience will be to come to the gallery and be excited by what they find and as a result want to come back, to find out more. But there are limits of course, ultimately it’s unlikely that many people will get a full sense of the whole exhibition in all it’s manifestations. This is why I have tried to develop lots of different possible visitor experiences within the show - be that printing, or taking part in a play rehearsal or coming to a Hip Hop night in The Basement, or just watching a painting being made - because this is not a show which is simply about a passive consumption of culture. I would like visitors to come away with a sense that they can and want to be trying this stuff out for themselves. I think it’s also important to consider the possibilities for audiences beyond the gallery; using digital and social media platforms because that really does allow visitors a broader scope to experience the whole breadth of the show and everything that went on, either as an augmentation to a visit or browsing documentation online across a variety of platforms.
JS: I like your suggestion that a visitor’s experience might not be a linear, packaged or planned experience; that is could be something more chaotic, random - which are also qualities that artists engage with constantly. In some ways your exhibition is quite notational, with many possible outcomes, how important is it for your to document these outcomes and how will this inform further thinking, shows and programming?
BR: It’s true that Test Run as a show is spread over a fairly broad spectrum of interests and subjects. However there is also a structure to the show and the thinking which underpins it. So while much of the work is about process, experimentation and production it’s also about drawing together and foregrounding themes from the forthcoming programme at Modern Art Oxford. While the show is coherent in its approach to these topics there is also an eye on the future as well. Projects like Louise Herve and Chloe Maillet’s or Jeremy Hutchison’s films are very much shown as work in progress and will hopefully appear again in the programme in more developed form. It’s partly about working with artists over the longer term, so documenting that process as it goes along is really important both for the work and as a record of what we do. But because the exhibition is so diverse, it’s also obviously important to ensure we have as comprehensive a record of what happen as possible because in some ways that record is what the exhibition is - the only way that it can be fully understood and experienced. I do think it’s also important to consider all this material - images, recordings, video, etc as more than just documentation. Handled well I think it can become another iteration of the exhibition itself and so how that’s presented really matters. As you suggest though, thinking about documentation it makes sense to consider it at the programming stage as well. I’m interested in exploring what happens when one considers the ‘documentation’ as a part of the show - producing the live streams, performance and audio as events themselves more than things to just point a camera at; made for a watching audience online for example as much as those live in the room and what that means for the work itself. It’s something we perhaps haven’t fully cracked as yet but Test Run provides a great opportunity to really develop what we do with this material and how it’s manifested in the world.
JS: I wanted to focus in on The Print Studio for a moment as, visually at least, it forms the aesthetic center of the exhibition. I found it interesting that experiencing it both ‘producing’, and at a different time, ‘idle’ in the gallery that it simultaneously drew my mind to historical Marxist ideas of production and more current notions of immaterial labour and even zero hours contracts. Here was this old industrial factory machinery but repurposed to provide an ‘educational’ aesthetic experience for the production of singular creative acts…
BR: The studio is there for a whole raft of reasons, partially as you suggest to act as a physical manifestation of the idea of production. Printing is an interesting area in that respect which has so many crossovers between industry and more artistic production - both William Morris and Warhol, who we’re showing later in the year, obviously were both very much involved in printing and the relationship between reproduction and art has long been a fertile ground for investigations. In that sense it draws together a lot of work in the show around the idea of labour - both industrialized and artisan.
Aesthetically I was trying to do a few things with it. Firstly the show is about making artists’ practice visible and so it was a way of manifesting a studio in the gallery, because being in a studio is something that many people aren’t familiar with. However the rusticness of it, and the beautiful old presses and so on, are both a combination of using cheap materials that were to hand but is also something of a comment of the festishisation of such spaces and activities. The idea of watching the artist work in his studio has a weird mythology around it which I wanted to address in the context of this show. To an extent that’s what the library is about because there’s an idea in the popular consciousness that artists are in their studios making the whole time but the truth is you’re just as likely to find someone reading, or watching a film or buying stuff online or having a panic. It’s like anywhere else. Studios are useful, they can be lots of things, but they’re not magical spaces uniquely blessed with the power of creation. The print studio is there because I wanted to have a space which artists could use for making work, trying things out and so on but also for visitors to have a go, to get involved, to chat with the artists, take a workshop, fiddle about a bit - learn through doing. This show is about experimenting after all. It’s not all been artists’ editions. We’ve done poster runs, produced Zines, made flyers and printed pamphlets as well. If it looks old fashion that’s because it was made solidly a long time ago and there’s been no need to remake it. It’s also worth remembering that it’s not all etching press and letterset. There’s the Riso Machine and a photocopier as well, which as an invention has been hugely important both in the history of printing (also the world) and continues to be so. If I could it would have been fun to have a rapid prototyping machine and 3D printers as well.