Although spawning great creativity, Durham city was recently dubbed a ‘vacuum’ for contemporary arts provision1, worsened perhaps by its ‘town’ and ‘gown’ divide. Happily, Ustinov College has been tackling both issues through its Encounter exhibitions and events, held in 2018 and 2019 and due again next year.
This year’s theme was the encounter ‘between climate change, nature and society’. Fifty works in a range of media, by thirty professional and amateur artists from the UK and beyond, were exhibited in the emphatically non-gallery setting of the College’s café and community room, in early March. Researchers, schoolchildren, local arts collectives and a knitting group collaborated in participatory activities, and performances embellished the launch event.
What began as a shared concern among these groups about climate and nature appears to have grown into something more like a sense of solidarity. Identification of the contributors’ names by each work, but not always their affiliations, helped to suppress viewer preconceptions about who produced what.
Not everything cohered, or spoke necessarily to the project title; and some artists’ stated intentions were not borne out by what they produced – but this was less important than the good success scored overall with the collaborative mix.
Much of the contemporary upwelling of art on environmental anxieties simply blurts ‘Hey, notice this, and share my feelings about it’; and is worthy as far as that goes. More accomplished, however, and perhaps more galvanising, are works that twist a conceptual re-framing, or an extra insight.
One Ustinov example of the latter was James Devlin’s invitation to rub out his glacier drawing – contrasting our qualms about vandalising the drawn representation with our lack of compunction at obliterating the real thing. Lynda Clark’s simple plaster cast of buttons movingly told how domestic days have produced the whole Anthropocene era. Aloe Corry, with a folded cyanotype, collapsed the dimensions of physical space and opened the mythic; while painter Johnnie Foker may be our only documenter of the changing landscape of unnoticed gasometers.
Insight also comes from palimpsests that make our imaginations work: Steve Wright (acrylic/encaustic abstracts) and Siân Hutchings (gesso fragments) delivered well.
‘Poster presentations’, with data and citations, are a recognised way of reporting research to academic conferences. Ustinov’s Encounter, however, may be the first instance of the research poster being proffered as an artform in an exhibition. Several examples were included; and the science and poetry brilliantly began to re-voice each other. The fusion culminated in Camila Caiado and Glenn McGregor’s striking digital visual/sonic presentation of temperature records from 1850 to the present.
The installation ‘Resist’ (2019) (Mick Stephenson and Angela Tracy) was perhaps one of the only works to touch on the global interconnectedness and scale factors that could have featured more strongly in the show. Ustinov College however, in daily life, is on top of that. Its ‘Global Citizenship’ programme (of scholarships, projects and events) includes an arts and culture strand, and aims to bind academia and society in common cause for the most pressing challenges of our time.
As a committed federalist, Sir Peter (Ustinov) would be appalled at today’s politics: but as a polymath, he would surely approve of what the college bearing his name is achieving.
The Encounter 2019 exhibition concluded on 14 March, but an accompanying publication is available from Ustinov College, and the ‘Café des Arts’ strand of the College’s ‘Global Citizenship’ programme continues – see here for more info. Watch also in due course for announcements about Encounter 2020.
1 (In the report ‘TESTT – experimenting, inspiring, changing’; January 2019 – see here for more info).
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.