In response to changing practice: New Writing with New Contemporaries

Jude Browning, Commissioned response for Ulay: Now You See Me Symposium, 2018, Text and reading. Jacquetta Clark. Courtesy of Cooper Gallery.

Seventy years young this year, the annual Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition is at Leeds Art Gallery from 14 September, officially launching on the 26th. Big birthdays are perfect moments for self-reflection, and New Contemporaries (NC) has chosen to re-evaluate how it can successfully attract artists with a diverse set of practices, particularly those that are language-led. To clearly signal that text-based and performance submissions are welcome, this year’s annual exhibition will be accompanied by the launch of New Writing with New Contemporaries (NWwNC). The first art-writing programme of its kind to be supported by New Contemporaries, NWwNC will be co-delivered with artist Nick Thurston and Corridor8. The core aim is to develop a new model for supporting and publicly presenting experimental writing by early-career artists.

As an indicator of the type of practices emanating from UK art schools, the New Contemporaries (formerly Young Contemporaries) exhibition provides an invaluable snapshot of the kind of concerns, issues and urgencies that are preoccupying emerging artists. Each year in December, NC invite submbissions from final year and recent graduates from art schools and alternative programmes to be considered for selection and exhibition. Appearing in the exhibition is seen as a clear stamp of ‘one to watch’ status; it has been a stepping stone for a number of highly regarded artists including Tacita Dean, Mona Hatoum, Mike Nelson and Laure Provost, and more recently Saelia Aparicio, Lucy Beech, Raphael Hefti, Nicolas Deshayes and Yelena Popova.

This year’s cohort of forty-five artists has been whittled down from a total of over 1,600 submissions to the open call. Among the usual representation of current or recent graduates is a relatively new demographic of those from non-affiliated, peer-led courses. These include Open School East, School of the Damned, The Royal Drawing School, Syllabus and Turps Art School. Significantly, this is only the second year that NC have widened their selection parameters to include those enrolled in or emerging from alternative education programmes.

Kirsty Ogg, director of NC, states: ‘opening up our annual call to artists outside of formal, degree-awarding programmes has been a way to publicly acknowledge that not all artists follow the same path when developing practice’. This could be a sign that prohibitive tuition fees are motivating artists to seek learning opportunities outside traditional frameworks, or, that artists are losing faith in university-based graduate programmes, which tend to prioritise assessment over personal growth. Most likely, it is a mixture of the two. Regardless, the inclusion of applicants from alternative learning programmes is a positive step toward further democratising the selection process.

What is perhaps less known is that the Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition is just one arm of NC’s activity. They are, in fact, the UK’s leading organisation for supporting emerging talent from UK arts education, helping contemporary visual artists bridge the gap between study and professional artistic practice. This active support of emerging visual artists involves creating mentoring, studio bursary and residency opportunities. It is in this spirit of creating support mechanisms that allow emerging artists to flourish, that the idea arose for NWwNC. Recognising that there was a dearth of development and exhibition opportunities for artists for whom ‘art writing’ is a prominent part of their creative output, NC decided to partner with Yorkshire-based artist Nick Thurston and Corridor8 to shape a programme that would plug this gap.

In Thurston’s words, the aim of the scheme is to:

‘create a context where the primacy of language is a shared joy and shared problem, where we might figure out some practical and conceptual answers to questions about how to navigate the presentation of such work, and where the collective impact of six highly-talented practitioners can really showcase some of the directions that this kind of practice can take’.

NWwNC puts the production of new work centre stage and is underpinned by mentoring opportunities. It is also hoped that the programme will form a peer support network that can foster further collaboration, opportunities and advice. This year’s selected artists are Jude Browning, Lucy Rose Cunningham, Freya Dooley, Malachy Harvey, Leo Hermitt and Ruby Lewis. Writing is central to the practice of each of these artists, all of whom have recently emerged from university courses or alternative learning programmes (two are former Syllabus alumni). Of the six artists, Cunningham and Lewis are based in Leeds, and Hermitt is based in the North of England. The other artists are based in Scotland, Wales and England – geographical spread being a fundamental consideration for the selection panel. The cohort were chosen from a shortlist generated by a prestigious group of nominators including Maria Fusco, Katrina Palmer, Bedwyr Williams and NC alumni Harold Offeh and Heather Phillipson.

Freya Dooley, The Host (still), 2019.

Leeds was chosen as the proving ground for the NWwNC programme because, in the words of NC programme manager Séamus McCormack’: ‘it is a hotbed for these kinds of performative and writing practices’. Lewis and Cunningham studied at University of Leeds and are part of Context, a group of Fine Art students who run the Context Collaborative night at Hyde Park Book Club (a platform for poets, musicians and visual artists to meet and for ideas to cross-pollinate). Leeds has a strong history of DIY culture and artist-led activity, as well as cross-disciplinary music/art/literary collaborations, and Context is part of this rich lineage.

The work that the six artists produce and develop as part of NWwNC will be shown at a final public event on 9 November. The organisers and facilitators are open to the artists testing various modes of presentation, whether these be virtual platforms, performing physically in the exhibition space, or disseminating texts in printed form.

Why art writing and why now?

It would be fair to ask why NC have decided to focus on art writing in particular, and why at this moment in time? Recent UK degree shows indicate that writing (or language of some kind) has infected the practice of a great swathe of emerging artists, whether drawing on literature to inform their work, producing performative forms of writing, speculative fiction, poetry or spoken word. These forms of ‘interdisciplinary writing’, to borrow Maria Fusco’s phrase, are arguably on the increase yet they often do not always find their way into institutional exhibition formats.[1]

I posed this question to Nick Thurston who agreed that ‘there’s certainly a fashion running through contemporary art at all levels for using language as a/ the primary component in artwork’. In particular, he describes, ‘the conceptualist legacy of using/mis-using language as material that integral to mainstream Neo-conceptual art, the radical legacy of Performance Writing in the UK bleeding into the ‘visual arts’ via time-based and body-centred practices, and a re-energised interest in the politics of the speaking subject in line with shifts in identity politics within art and beyond art (auto fiction etc)’.

Malachy Harvey, Brick Biter, Installation view, video, 4m12s (loop), 2018.

When speaking of current trends, however, we must be wary to not speak of art writing, or interdisciplinary writing, as emerging in a vacuum. It has a long and colourful history, not least since early twentieth-century Europe when Dadaists and Surrealists combined fragments of found text with appropriated photographic images to open alternative, sometimes irrational, paths of communication they found missing from conventional art. We may also trace a path back to Modernist experiments, and the increased emphasis on the visual and aural elements of language over the descriptive. Gertrude Stein, the grand-dame of transatlantic modernism, has been described as using words ‘almost as objects on the page, repeating words and phrases with minute differences, focusing on what she called the experience rather than the event’.[2] This is a description that could neatly refer to a number of artists experimenting with language today.

The perceived divide between the literary arts and the visual arts is an artificial construct, and one that unhelpfully plays out in the shape of present-day arts education. As Thurston observes:

‘Those segregations rarely reflect the way that people in any artistic field actually work. Text and image have always been entwined, as have speaking and gesturing, form and body, etc. The language arts, like literature, traditionally place the highest value on what one can say or write. The visual-material arts, like fine art, traditionally place the highest value on what one can form for the senses. So, what happens when we remind ourselves that the division of the arts isn’t a given, and artists explore what they can say or write in a context that privileges aesthetic sensation? I don’t think it’s a surprise that younger artists are asking that question at a time when space and materials are un-affordably expensive, when the so-called art market and institutions have become so stratified, when the political climate suggests that Neoliberal democracy isn’t that interested in its citizens speaking or being heard in their everyday lives’.

Why have writing-led practices historically had limited visibility?

As McCormack points out, despite there being notable recent NC alumni working with writing, including Heather Philipson, Laure Provost and Patrick Coyle, there have typically been fewer submissions from artists making text-based work. Why is this the case?

The answer may lay in the difficulty that language-led practices can have in finding a place and audience within big group show conditions. Sometimes the work may be less brash and shouty in nature, and therefore struggle to stake out its claim in the exhibition territory. McCormack spoke about raising artists’ expectations of what is possible. For instance, in previous iterations of the exhibition when artists from Cardiff, Birmingham or Nottingham have featured, the following year has seen a marked increase in applications from artists heralding from those cities. Perhaps not a surprising observation, but a critical one nevertheless – visibility leads to change. Similarly, it is hoped that this year a noticeable shift towards incorporating art writing into the fold, will encourage more of the same to apply next year.

Both McCormack and Thurston spoke about the need to critically evaluate how the current selection process for Bloomberg New Contemporaries may bias the outcome towards image-led work. Typically, artists are selected for the show by a panel of appointed artist-selectors who are sometimes also New Contemporaries alumni. They choose the shortlist of exhibition artists blind, meaning that that they are not provided with artists’ names, educational histories or any statements or explanatory text. The only material they are given are five images of each artist’s work. This can prove a challenge for text- or performance-based work, which can resist being distilled or encapsulated into individual images in this way.

Leo Hermitt, The Name I Call Myself, 2019. Rhea Dillon (still)

Art writing’s lack of representation in major, large-scale group shows – and I include the British Art Show here – may also lie in its slippery and nebulous quality. Put simply, it defies neat categorisation and explanation. It is often more than the simply descriptive, and is far removed from the bland and sometimes deadening prose of in-gallery interpretation, the function of which is often to ‘tidy up’ the meaning of an artwork or to fix it in place.[3] Art writing, by contrast, is often hybrid and experimental, borrowing magpie-style from poetry, fiction, conceptual writing, found text and a myriad of other sources. As a diverse field of practices, it is more than simply writing about art. Rather, it would be more accurate to describe it as writing around or with art.[4] In short, there is no absolutely conclusive definition of art writing, and this can make it a tricky thing to get a handle on. This is also what makes it so compelling.

Writing by artists conveys a specific type of knowledge or way of thinking around artistic practice that arguably the writings of art historians, critics and curators do not. Writing by artists produces new intellectual, political, and cultural potentialities. It’s not simply a case of artists’ texts existing in a hinterland between artistic production and art criticism. The artists who have been selected for NWwNC this year use the written and spoken word to explore such wide-ranging concerns as the power dynamics of public speaking (Browning), the poetics of love, loss and transition (Cunningham), forms of ventriloquism (Dooley), the affective states triggered by artworks (Harvey), the body as a site of cultural legacy (Lewis) and storytelling as a means to convey in-between-ness and marginalised experience (Hermitt).

Time will tell if the NWwNC project will yield a significant or enduring change to the type of practices represented within the NC’s annual exhibition. However, if the artists selected this year are anything to go by, we are set for an extraordinary and unpredictable showcase of experimental writing talent.

Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2019 is at Leeds Art Gallery, 14 September – 17 November 2019, before it moves on to South London Gallery (6 December 2019 – 23 February 2020). The New Writing with New Contemporaries public performances will take place at Leeds Art Gallery on 9 November, 12-4pm.

Holly Grange is a curator based in Leeds.


[1] Maria Fusco interviewed for Art and Education by Chris Sharratt in 2019.

[2] Catherine Grant. ‘”A narrative of what wishes what it wishes it to be”: An Introduction to Creative Writing and Art History‘ in Grant, C. and Rubin, P. Creative Writing and Art History, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester: 2012. p. 14.

[3] David Dibosa, ‘Fatal Distraction. Art-Writing and Looking at Art’ in M. Fusco, and I. Hunt, I. (eds.) Put About: A Critical Anthology of Independent Publishing. Bookworks, London: 2004. p. 47.

[4] Maria Fusco, Give Up Art, collected critical writings from 2002-2017. New Documents: 2018.

Published 18.09.2019 by Lara Eggleton in Features

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