[The following interview took place over a number of weeks in Summer 2019 between Dean Brierley, Director Caustic Coastal, and James Schofield, Manchester Editor, Corridor8. Four years on from Part 1 and Part 2 of their original conversation the format of a shared, ongoing Google Doc was continued, with the text published in its entirety below.]
[C8] So, firstly welcome back…it’s good to talk to you in this format again, and hopefully will allow us the space to have another interesting conversation. I suppose straight off the bat we should begin by talking about Caustic Coastal and your upcoming 5th anniversary as an arts label. How have you found them? 5 years is a long time for artist-led organisations of any size to survive and constantly programme through, let alone one that for the most part has been a one-person operation. What would you tell yourself (or anyone else) if you (or they) were starting out trying to create something similar now?
[CC] Five years is an arc. It has, I suppose, permanently altered how I work, who I am, what I do. And there’s instances throughout that timeline that marker how I imagine exhibition making now, that have continued to set and reset the bar in what’s possible. That arc has, I imagine, from the outside looked smooth, and there’s snags and failures and rethinks abound throughout. Equally, and more importantly, there’s swathes of shows that have been special, pivotal, unimaginable, with artists that have been mentors teaching me how to do everything.
Whether now or then, or in whenever years’ time, the thing I’d always pinpoint is to put yourself in positions of luck, doing what you can within the means you’ve got, practicing in public in whichever way is possible, thriving off the yeses and nos you get. There are cracks in everyone’s ecology that can be filled, whether highlighting what’s underrepresented (for me at the start and still this was bringing to Manchester practitioners from outside the region that I adored, yet would otherwise have to travel to see) or the reimagining of ways in which things can be brought to life in your own world. I’ve had the grace of occupying two fascinating buildings over the past five years, though through video, publishing, fashion, pop-ups, TV shows and so on we’ve been able to be more things than just a ‘gallery’. Absorb what exists, then push it forward and distribute in every way you can.
You’ve been researching artist-led ecologies for the past few years since we first spoke, what kind of shifts have you seen in this time, are there key models you’ve been watching or some specific moods you’ve noticed?
[C8] From the outside it seems as though that ethos of rolling with the punches (in terms of yeses and nos for projects/funding/etc.) along with showing artists who you’re passionate about has allowed you to realise some *beautifully* bonkers projects up until now. Do you have a desire to keep taking the Caustic Coastal microcosm even further into the wider world?
From my own research and experience, I think that the ‘traditional’ gallery/studio model will always be a mainstay as it is generally self-sustaining, although they can become pretty stale pretty quickly in terms of how challenging or adventurous the content of their programming is. If you want to be cynical there also tends to be a trajectory where once established for an extended period of time ACE funding is sought which leads down a certain path of how they (ACE) seemingly want you to end up (usually culminating in becoming a CIC, charity or NPO) which is fraught with issues and in many respects takes away the inventiveness, spontaneity and opportunities to fail, and leads to risk averse programming producing ‘safe’ exhibitions and events that ultimately contribute to maintaining the institutional/non-institutional status quo.
Increasingly though outside of the ACE bubble practitioners and organisations like yourself are beginning to experiment with other formats of (physical/digital/social) spaces in which to create, which is really interesting to see. It’s similar to the drive toward free educational models like Open School East, School of the Damned, Extra Special People, Islington Mill Art Academy, etc. in that people are clearly fed up with the situation and in many respects are reformatting the existing systems to make them work better for more people and practitioners (even though the free school model itself is widely up for debate in terms of its effectiveness and how it can be co-opted, and also criticisms faced in terms of many being used as a primer for accredited institutional education further down the line). However that overarching anarchic spirit and energy that drives people to self-organise is a really productive cultural force.
[CC] “Exhibitions aren’t enough” is the premise I’ve been running off in the past few years. Like lead singles on an album, they hold a certain purpose, yet don’t necessarily make up the totality. More recently I’ve been interested in using the exhibitions as more than just standalone items, like a rumour that exists which can latterly be extended through video, soundtracking, as garments, or that we reimagine with artists what second or third iterations could look like. In extending out, Emma Talbot’s exhibition was a trial in stretching through a newer space via Salford Lads Club, and for me this is a simple shift to engage both the tourist and the local, either of which might not step through the door of a “gallery”, to happen upon something you can present them on their own territories.
In imagining futures, the label has always been a means of disguise for me to project out from, seeming and acting bigger than its constituent parts. I had to get out of my system a number of ideas that have sat bubbling within the last three years at the past space. Stuff that sits in notebooks or as flashbacks that appear when your mind wanders whilst acclimatising to a scale and type of building that is hard to tackle off the bat. And throughout this to stretch artists to make the shows that none of us could imagine, of institutional scale and quality. The ‘beautifully bonkers’ shows started in my mind with Gabriel Birch’s Second Skin, and an allowance to install over a period of three months across all three of our spaces and on our external facade. This became a pacemaker and a barsetter for every other show thereafter, a model of how to imagine exhibitions grander than what I thought was possible, and it needed someone with the ambition and punch and detailing such as Gabriel to move me to that level.
Now I feel I don’t just need to work through the space exclusively, and that the label can act in a way akin to those of fashion labels such as Raf Simons or Off-White, as one of a number of outputs I can drive as I work through other means, whether institutional or independently or collaboratively elsewhere.
[C8] That approach to the format of exhibitions is the freedom and inventiveness I was talking about. It’s part and parcel of an organic process of development that otherwise exists as an itch you hardly ever get to scratch!
The extending out into the local area to engage with new people and not feeling constrained to the traditional locality of the gallery is also interesting. In context of Manchester and Salford, do you feel like in regularly doing so you’re creating projects that nobody else is really doing? There are a few other organisations in the cities that operate nomadically or occasionally have pop-ups elsewhere or host pop-ups themselves, but often that’s more out of necessity rather than a desire to do so.
[CC] We are definitely an isolated entity in what and how we produce. Our spatial capacity, the lengths we take to install (which can run up to two months), the types of shows we push artists to deliver sets us at an institutional bar under an ‘artist-led’ banner presenting aspiration and ambition as a core. Specifically over the past two years this has entailed solo shows taking on all three of our exhibition spaces across the warehouse while commissioning new work for our public facade as an ongoing archive with fees of £2,500 per show (plus £1,500 for materials). And for me there is no parallel or equivalent in the city.
What this presents is an exposure of the type of city Manchester has become in disabling the possibility for long term sustained projects at ‘emerging’ and ‘mid’ levels whilst favouring singular monolithic cultural organisations. No different to central banks, they govern how culture and in turn cultural finance is distributed where ‘value’ is judged on high audience impact and favours spending on projects that can actualise a return to feed back into themselves. As a simplistic example, MIF, during their financial year 2017-18 were provided with rent-free offices (valued at £175,106) by Bruntwood Limited. Whatever you make of that small fact, it encapsulates a major disparity between top-tier and the swathe of those working culturally at lower levels that means we unfortunately look isolated in an economy rather than neighboured.
What’s also at play is an overarching independence of satellites working parallel to one another. I can’t put it much better than Mat Dryhurst in The Creative Independent that “when everyone is independent, it turns out that we don’t have much collective bargaining power to influence anything all, or at least those with the most wealth or resources will dominate.” The total point is that whilst it’s great to be unique to the system, the city would be a more valuable ecology if we weren’t, if there were others who had access, space, longevity, and collective support to deliver at levels they can’t at present even imagine.
On a broader measure across the Northern corridor do you think the above pans out similarly throughout or is specific to Manchester’s ‘London 2.0’ economy?
[C8] Unfortunately from my experience and research I think Manchester definitely isn’t an anomaly in terms of how its ecology functions and is ultimately weighted toward the larger organisations and institutions. At a broad level there was a drive by the Arts Council in the Thatcher era to bring in the value for money ethos and public/private funding model that is still present today, focussing ACE feedback on quantitative rather than qualitative measures and asking practitioners to act entrepreneurially (in line with neoliberal dogma) to secure funding.
Given that smaller organisations/groups/individual practitioners don’t have the time and existing resources to fulfil much of the funding criteria it inevitably means the larger groups have better access to it, and coupled with the drive toward the creative industries of the New Labour government, increasingly those bigger organisations are seen as good investments which reinforces a certain sense of safety in their programming and businesses’ investments as (being cynical) why rock the apple cart with risky projects that could make you lose funding or associate your business with potentially ‘edgy’ cultural practices? In terms of the North I’d recommend reading Art in the North of England 1979 – 2008 by Gabriel Gee as it gives a good account of the socio-political issues that have influenced how the general ecology of things has come to be, and shows the cyclicality of much of it – which in itself should hopefully help spur people to change how they maybe approach certain issues.
I’ve also recently been meeting with a group of other researchers and talking about artist-led practices and how we could begin to make inroads in raising issues at an academic level that are continually encountered and repeated to communicate them to students to try and help stop them continuing – one of them was exactly the point you mention of how/if you could create a governing body for the artist-led? Like with museums and the Museum Association, where everyone that is part of it is accepted to be a museum and they can use their collective power to argue for changes to funding/governmental policies to benefit everyone including both those that are established and just starting out. It seems like everyone wants to have more bargaining power with other institutions but then no way has been developed to join the dots of the artist-led to collectively empower everyone to be able to demand real, meaningful and lasting change.
I suppose in relation to Caustic Coastal, how do you think Manchester has changed in your time there? Recently there seems to be less and less projects/organisations starting up, which is a shame. There’s obviously a history of cultural resistance to the ‘mainstream’ and larger institutions within the city, but now everything feels a little apathetic like things are beginning to stagnate.
[CC] The general crux is about participation and gatekeepers. Who controls what and how they dish that out has both shifted and contracted over the past few years. When I moved back five years ago I was adamant I wanted to participate in some kind of way yet it was very difficult to imagine doing anything completely independently or from the ground up. It was and still can be an unforgiving landscape weighted towards specific orders of service and I was quickly made aware of who had what cultural power. I’ve been very lucky to have been given access to both spaces we’ve occupied. And for the past three years to imagine how a run-down warehouse could operate as some kind of artistic dreamscape. However I’m aware we’re an outlier in a wider system that favours “temporary”, “pop-up” and “itinerant” as it’s go to regimes.
What’s more at issue though is a lack of examples present right now for those who want to start things up to look towards. If all you’re seeing is well established galleries, heavily embedded studio groups or a mixture of the “connected” and the “established” that have held their presence for however many years (and in whatever guise or iteration they’ve adopted), how, as someone, individual or collective, who wants to participate in whatever way could you reasonably imagine routes to make it happen? There’s lots of pre-existing satellites all working on their own world, and that stagnation you speak of is in part due to a lack of cross-over, link ups, or means to launch your own satellite without enormous energy, funds and time.
For me it’s been about doubling down on efforts to make shows that compete with institutions whilst providing examples of what could be possible for anyone to take something away from; part spectacle, part experiment in exploding artistic practices further than they can be imagined. Emma Talbot’s 21st Century Sleepwalk exampled this as a grandiose and extravagant study in a painting practice writ large, stretching the ways in which she could actualise artworks spatially and giving her a foundation to try three different approaches across our three differing spaces from an insane 10x3m painted silk work to a tour de force figure crafted in the image of her characters, amped up with theatrical lighting switches and the weirdness of our Fridge space for good measure. In Part 2 of our last conversation four years ago I’d said…“the reason I produce [the] projects [we do]…is because no one else is doing it” and this is still the case.
[C8] As this conversation has been developing and those similar threads from our previous conversation have been creeping to the surface – infrastructure, support, willingness to actually do something, composition of power – it’s worth noting that you’ve announced that Caustic Coastal in its current form in Salford is closing down permanently. Following that, two questions: without going into details about everything, is there anything else you wished you could have done at the space? And have you got anything you’d like to say in the way of a eulogy about your time in the city?
[CC] I absolutely and unreservedly believe our programme was the best we could have achieved within the means we were given, and ditto for every artist that we have worked with through the label. From TV shows to monolithic solo shows and every possibility in between. From the beginning my aim was to deliver with the same voltage as the likes of Eastside Projects or Chisenhale or Bernadette Corporation. What fell short was the state of ‘permanent temporariness’ we were always in. As Yanis Varoufakis points out this is “a tried and tested strategy for keeping an occupied land subdued” and becomes no different on an artistic scale. With no lease, no contract, no longevity, no understandable length of time in which we knew we could deliver we were unable to build a model to sustain a wider economy of possibilities. Always building the next rung on the ladder whilst you’re on it rather than imagining and fabricating the whole (or at least half the) ladder before you step on. And that in effect is the ‘fuckeulogy’ to close on. About a city in which its Goliaths are too big and gluttonous to fail, and it’s Davids have to accept the piecemeal offerings that fall to their table. Where “artist-led” is seen as the dishwater spill over, jovial and hobby-like, rather that a central facet in growing and stretching artists to develop and deploy how they participate in the world. I have no idea how someone could start an artist-led space in Manchester anymore. I’m just hopeful I’m wrong. For now though I’m hyped about what getting rid of the burden of space can do, to reimagine the label once more whilst maybe doing some other things too. Job done; on to the next.
 https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/company/05292793/filing-history “26 Apr 2019 – Group of companies’ accounts made up to 30 September 2018” p.30, section 23 “Related Parties”.
 Yanis Varoufakis, Adults in the Room: My Battle With Europe’s Deep Establishment (London: The Bodley Head, 2017), p.306.