An older white man with white hair, glasses and wearing a checked shirt is facing away from the camera and writing on kitchen cabinet doors using paint markers. There is multi coloured writing all over the cabinets and a box of markers in the foreground.

Widening Participation? In conversation with two recent graduates

Skye Williams, Memory Kitchen, 2020, Installation

In 2020 two students from Lancaster University’s Fine Art BA course won residencies through a new programme funded by ‘Widening Participation’. This is, in brief, a strand of Lancaster University’s strategy to promote social mobility and encourage positive outcomes for students from marginalised backgrounds. For artists, the ability to secure competitive residencies and funding partly depends on a proven track record. Akin to the ubiquitous issue of needing experience to gain experience, being awarded a residency with a leading UK cultural organisation straight out of art school should be a boon in seeking further early career opportunities. Of course, 2020 was a singularly distressing year and an incongruous situation to graduate into, whereby expectations were upended and once-shrewd plans suddenly became unreasonable. This context has affected and altered the newly developing practices of the two young artists selected for these residencies, and for each there are fundamental kernels that have been retained and developed in unexpected directions. In 2019 Sajid Javid declared an end to austerity, the economic ideology that precipitated massive cuts to local and national budgets for the arts and culture over the past decade. Now with the pandemic recession underway, the arts sector which leans heavily on freelance and casual work, as well as crowded gatherings and ticket sales, has been particularly badly affected. This isn’t to paint a needlessly gloomy picture of potential futures for the two artists interviewed here, but it wouldn’t make sense to discuss Widening Participation without thinking seriously about what now constitutes a ‘positive outcome’ for a Fine Art student, and how social mobility functions when existing inequalities have been crystallised and reaffirmed.

The selected artists, Rachel Doughty and Skye Williams, both commented that despite qualifying for Widening Participation, neither felt that they had been deprived or disadvantaged during their upbringings. This points to intersecting issues that are worth acknowledging alongside a discussion of both artists’ work, and their experiences with their respective residencies. What does it mean that people who don’t feel, or consider themselves to be disadvantaged are deemed so by institutions? This could be understood within a wider tendency whereby it’s difficult to situate oneself structurally from one’s own individual perspective; the objectively wealthy often consider themselves to be poor, those with the largest platform claim that they are being silenced, and those who actually have been relatively marginalised don’t necessarily hold this as part of their identity. It’s no secret that creative pursuits in general and the art world specifically are sites of inequity, but the extent to which this is borne out on an individual level is rarely made transparent. Then, there is also the mechanism whereby those that don’t consider themselves to be particularly marginalised in the first place, are more likely to put themselves forward for competitions and opportunities. Indeed, the eligibility categories for Widening Participation cover a wide swathe, and within this cohort there will be a level of self-selection. This is all to say that facilitating professional development for fine art graduates and artists in general isn’t a straightforward equation, and involves engaging hopefully and sincerely with an already cynical and skewed system.

The events of 2020 meant that only Doughty was actually able to spend time at the site of her residency, and that both she and Williams had to navigate their first months as graduates amidst lockdown. Their degree show had been held online, as a specially designed website with a section for each student, where they could present their work in a way appropriate to their practice within the confines of digital space. Notably, for both artists a significant concern in their work had been audience experience and participation, an aspect that has demanded urgent reflection and reimagining. When chance encounters and an unpredictable public are part of the work’s generative constraints, how can this practice evolve to cope with being suddenly cut off from the ebb and flow of public life? For Williams and Doughty, where previously the goal might have been to engage as many people as possible, with an interactive object on view in the public realm, now a more private, individual and in-depth engagement is sought. Or, where previously a tightly structured and immersive indoor experience had been the preferred mode of display, the less predictable and governable outdoors has now become the safest bet for planning a show. Doughty was in residence with The Eden Project during October 2020, and Williams conducted a remote residency project with Liverpool Biennial. What follows here are conversations with the two artists, delving into how they managed to engage with their host institutions, the strands of practice that they developed and what new considerations have arisen.

In conversation with Rachel Doughty

[Lauren Velvick] First of all it would be good to hear about your practice and how you came to be taking part in Widening Participation?

[Rachel Doughty] Throughout university my practice was largely video and installation; shooting cinematic clips. I don’t really have [storylines] or a linear [narrative]… I’ll have six or more on a wall or in an environment, so you can explore them yourself.

I’ve done this for a couple of years, I did [some] filming in Manchester at the end of Uni, and I once filmed underwater in the sea. For the filming in the sea, I strapped GoPros all over myself and just walked in, it was very cold, but it was really fun and I got some really interesting bits of footage.

I really like leaving things to chance and seeing what appears in the footage, then deconstructing the footage – pushing the lack of control.

Another aspect in my installations is that I randomise a lot of the clips, so that each viewing is unique, which is a really important factor for me. 

When I was coming out of Uni I didn’t [really] know what to do, and I was eligible for the Widening Participation competition because I’m the first in my family to go to university. I think my family were a bit thrown when I was like; ‘yeah I’m doing art’ and they’re wondering ‘is that what people go to university for?’. So when I got this residency I think for them it was something that shows you can do things with fine art, you don’t just do it for fun.

Being able to go down and stay in Cornwall at the Eden Project felt like such an indulgent thing, to be paid to go and do your own practice just seemed so amazing and not really something that I’d heard of.

Rachel Doughty, Colour and Form (2018)

[LV] So you were able to go in person?

[RD] Yeah it was pure luck with [the pandemic]. It was the middle two weeks of October that I stayed at the Eden Project in these storage containers that’re like a hotel room. I got to speak to the curators there and talk to them about how they select artists.

It was a really amazing experience to be able to go into The Eden Project whenever I wanted, I really got to thoroughly explore it. I also did a lot of filming on the North Coast of Cornwall, again to do with the ocean which I’d been [looking at] in my previous work. 

[LV] Did you get the chance to present the work you made on residency?

[RD] No, [it] was a ‘developing practice’ residency that didn’t need an outcome, but speaking with Nathan Jones (Lecturer in Fine Art at Lancaster University) and Celine Holman (Senior Exhibit Designer at The Eden Project), we started discussing whether it could be shown but everything with Covid has made it very very difficult. A lot of the staff have been cut off from The Eden Project, I think it’s something like 40% of Eden Project staff lost their jobs over Covid, so the site itself didn’t have as many people available, but still thinking about it.

[LV] It would be interesting to hear more about displaying film in installations and as clips, maybe there’s an element of collage in that? It seems like you’re thinking quite a lot about how people can and will realistically experience your work?

[RD] It’s a really important factor for me, often with my work I won’t feel that it’s done until I’ve had a few practice runs to see how people react, to see if they respond in the way that I hoped it would make them respond. If I’m trying to generate a feeling I want [the audience] to come out with that feeling.

[LV] Elsewhere you’ve mentioned an engagement with theories around the Anthropocene, is that something you were already interested in or has that come out of this residency and your time at The Eden Project?

[RD] For my [undergraduate] dissertation I was asking the question ‘can video art save the world?’, and can video art help with climate change. It was then that I realised this is a path I really want my art to go down. Having the opportunity to go to a place which is, if not trying to stop climate change, trying to play a part in preventing it was an amazing coincidence.

[LV] That’s a striking phrase; ‘can video art save the world?’ It would be interesting to know where that came from – was it your question or did it originate from another text or artwork?

[RD] That was my dissertation topic because it’s something I do really believe! There are a lot of issues to do with class around art, not everyone feels comfortable engaging with it, but film is a really accessible medium – everyone watches Netflix, everyone goes to the cinema – so what if there was a way that you could use film to encourage people to act more sustainably, out of curiosity and out of genuine wanting instead of fear; I wonder if you could make an artwork that elicits those feelings from people maybe it would save the world? I got really into this idea when I was writing my dissertation and found lots of other people who believed it too and were making work around it. 

I formed a film company in October [2020], thinking about the Eden Project residency and all the stuff I was doing. Using film to save the world is a big concept to take on myself, but I feel like you’ve got to go big, or what’s the point?

[LV] Going back to this idea of film as an accessible medium, it got me thinking about various curators, organisers and artists during the past year thinking in terms of ‘TV’ programming instead of live programming, because obviously they can’t do live programming right now, I’d be interested to get your thoughts on that?

[RD] I think digital space is probably the most accessible because most people seem to have access to a phone or a computer, although I’m not sure how many people have a TV now! Digital space is something I’m really interested in but I also know that when viewing artworks on a computer you can’t have the same experience as in a fully immersive installation, so I’m thinking about how to project things outdoors and really big, which can still be immersive when it’s on a large scale. This is where I was thinking of going with the work I’ve made in response to The Eden Project.

[LV] The idea of immersiveness is really important to you…

[RD] Yeah, the footage itself doesn’t have a story that you can follow and get caught up in, it’s purely aesthetic. I want to create a balance whereby you’re not so immersed in a narrative that you forget you’re a person, and you’re not off in your mind thinking about something else. The viewer is on this meditative line.

In regards to sites, I am looking for any urban environment that has corridors or alleyways, to allow viewers to feel as though they are exploring the piece. Practical aspects, like spaces for projectors, speakers and invigilators will of course also come into play. Any town or city that resonates with the tension between industry and nature would be a perfect location, as this piece is largely influenced by these tensions – between the land and the sea, and between the wilderness of Cornwall and the mining history.  

[LV] I was also wondering how you feel about presenting information and data, in terms of making work around climate change?

[RD] During my dissertation I read the work of Anna Tsing and Timothy Morton, who both write poetically, and I found I engaged better with that than more data driven writing that talks about how ‘if we don’t act right now everything will collapse’. That just makes me want to hide in a box, it doesn’t make me feel like I can do anything or even want to do anything. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about data in my work, I know that it is productive but [as a material for artwork] I don’t think it’s something that I will be using. I really want people to feel welcomed by the artwork; so they don’t feel defensive, and so it is an enjoyable experience.

[LV] Within this aesthetic approach and use of landscape imagery how are you communicating your message about climate change, or are you leaving it to the intelligence of the viewer to get there on their own?

[RD] I don’t think you’d necessarily know that it’s about climate change, and I don’t think that’s an aim either. It’s more that, I think, if people go they’ll appreciate the beauty of the natural landscape and will make that connection – with how fragile it is.

It’s trying to get people to have compassion for the environment and it’s not direct, which is definitely a new part of my work. It’s only within the past year that I’ve started going down that path. Before then it was [solely] about generating a feeling; feelings and emotions.

Image courtesy of Rachel Doughty.

[LV] Thinking back to the residency in particular, it would be good to find out more about that [as an] experience. 

[RD] Before I went I knew I wanted to film on the Northern Cornwall coastline, because it’s so rugged and so impressive; the cliffs are just stunning, and I hopes that even if people weren’t from Cornwall – I’m living in London at the moment – they would be so drawn to the beautiful imagery that they wouldn’t get so defensive about climate change.

I met an artist and team member at Eden called Sue Hill, near where she lives in Redruth. She walked me around the local area, telling me stories, and about how the mining industry had permanently altered the landscape, leaving abandoned brick towers dotted amongst the hills. I also spoke with Polly Gregson, another member of the team, who discussed her art practice. I had been to Bedruthan steps as a child numerous times and I knew about the Henry VII mythology surrounding Tintagel, but soon found through speaking to locals that this was more of a touristy interest, and Cornish mythology ran much deeper, through witchcraft and pagan rituals. 

I did long walks and I covered from Bedruthan Steps to Boscastle. I was doing these five hour walks every day with my camera equipment, which I really enjoyed because it’s just stunning, I’ve never seen a coastline that beautiful. I’d want to go back every single day; waking up in the morning like ‘great! I get to go to the sea’.

[LV] Is this kind of embodied research important to you as well – it sounds like bodily putting yourself in the landscape and being there over a duration of a few hours is a big part of it?

[RD] Thinking about my previous work where I was submerged in the sea, I noticed that the quality seemed better somehow. When you’ve been submerged in the landscape for a while, maybe you start to see things a bit differently? [I haven’t fully formulated this yet] but I do think that this durational, almost endurance quality is an important part of the work; [for example] the fact that [the equipment] was heavy and I had to carry it for so many hours.

[LV] Now thinking again about this process of seeing how people react, almost as an experiment, and then going back [and reworking]. There can often be a defensiveness if the audience don’t get from the work what the artist wanted them to. With this in mind it’s interesting that for you it sounds almost like a communal practice?

[RD] Maybe it’s different with film compared to [other mediums] but I’ve always felt that when I’m making an installation it is for the viewer. It’s not necessarily self-expression.

An example of this is [an installation] called ‘Manchester Dreams’. I wanted it to [evoke] that feeling of being in-between awake and asleep; like when you’re on a bus late at night and you’re half asleep.

I [provided] a bed for people to lay which automatically gives that cue of sleepiness, whereas the audio was looping and felt vaguely nightmarish. There was [some audio of] a man on the phone that repeated and droned in and out and all the lights were really low in the [space] that I showed it in. I use cues to persuade people; it’s not so much like ‘react to this how you want’, I am guiding them [along a particular route]. I found that when I got comments like; ‘you need to turn the audio down, there needs to be more complexity in the audio’ I could take them on board.

If people feel uncomfortable with my work that’s not something I want. I’ve noticed that when I go around galleries there’s often a lot of flashing, bright, distracting lights and that’s not accessible for a lot of people. [With that in mind] a relaxing element is something I really want to bring into my work so anyone can feel safe. 

Rachel Doughty, Manchester Dreams (2019)

[LV] There’s a real parallel there between your modes of research that have an element of endurance to them and then ways of presenting work that pay attention to experience and bodily comfort. Before we finish I wanted to circle back to what you were saying about approaching ‘scary’ things like climate change, that are often presented in a chastising way. Perhaps there’s a need for some kind of kernel of joy or hope to be able to make changes?

[RD] I think a lot of this has come from, without wanting to patronise anyone, child psychology and [ideas around punishment and how to communicate in order to direct behaviour]. I suppose it’s a  love versus fear thing; if you’re doing something out of fear you’re going to run out of energy for it, and you won’t know exactly why you’re doing it except that you’re scared [as a counterpoint to] if you’re acting out of love and you genuinely care about something.

I’m hoping that these videos can instill a sense of why we love nature and why we care about it, if they can remind people of that then we have a better chance of [inspiring action].

I hope that by generating these feelings of hope and love people can be inspired in their own ideas, which might be better [and more appropriate for them] than what I could suggest.

[In the space] I try to create … an intuition chamber, because you’re [on the line] of immersion and being detached.

[LV] The way you’ve spoken about the people who might experience your work as individuals with different life experiences and abilities is interesting too…

[RD] There’s a link there back to Widening Participation. For example, my family who’re working class have never really felt welcome within big white box galleries, because they aren’t welcoming.

So my parents hadn’t been to university and while I didn’t grow up deprived, they just didn’t know about University which impacted my thinking on what’s possible.

[LV] This seems relevant to the fact that it’s a residency as well, since art opportunities are often gained through networks.

[RD] It’s been really helpful [as a launch pad] to apply for other residencies and other artist roles.

In conversation with Skye Williams

[Lauren Velvick] Could you give me a bit of background about your work and how you came to the residency with Liverpool Biennial?

[Skye Williams] These were residencies that the University put on for 2020 graduates, for people who came from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds. I don’t really like to use the term ‘disadvantaged’ because I don’t feel like I have been, but I still qualified so maybe disadvantaged in some ways but definitely not in others.

Perhaps my work has been influenced by [this upbringing] in some ways; all my work is about interaction and conversation and it has been for a long time. I’ve always been interested in working with other people and incorporating lots of different viewpoints into one work. This is what I was exploring at university and then with Liverpool Biennial; I wanted to work with them because of how they work with communities, but then the pandemic hit. Obviously [plans] got downscaled and I couldn’t work with people [in Liverpool] but instead worked with my grandfather. This has been really interesting and wasn’t something I ever considered before – working so closely with a family member – so this pushed me to work intimately.

[LV] Did you go to Liverpool at all?

[SW] No unfortunately not, what was offered originally was a studio space for a month in Liverpool, which we then decided wasn’t really going to work with my practice anyway, because so much of my work is done through talking to people. We agreed that I would go to Liverpool for a week to create a final outcome, and otherwise we did the residency remotely. Previously a lot of my work had been built around in-person communication, which I still had with my grandfather, but all of the support behind it was through a virtual setting which was a big learning curve.

I would go away and work with my grandfather and do some research and then come back, which is how it worked until I had an image of an ending point. I’ve been working [on this] for six or seven months now, and it has been quite difficult at times but also really good.

[LV] If you don’t have a studio practice, how was it that you worked with Liverpool Biennial?

[SW] Obviously because of the pandemic all the plans I’d originally had got completely scrapped – I was planning to go and work with people in Liverpool, for example. There was a strange phase where nobody really knew what to do or what was happening and then slowly it started falling into place. 

I moved in with my grandfather because my university housing contract had ended and I’d had other plans thaty had fallen through because of the pandemic. I ended up here in Essex and things just made sense then; to work with the person who was closest to me at the time despite being locked away. Essex was in tier 4 so we’ve really not seen much out of a lockdown state.

Being in close proximity day in day out meant that these ideas and this proposal started developing, and the Biennial were quite flexible about how closely I had to stick to the proposal.

[LV] How do you conceive of the audience for your work, are they participants or co-creators, or somewhere in between? I’m thinking about what you said about bringing other people’s viewpoints into what you’re making. It seems like you almost set something in motion and then it develops from there?

[SW] It varies from work to work as to whether I engage with someone as a participant or as a co-creator, with the kitchen installation I definitely saw this as a form of co-creation because were were both in the space having conversations, but then the publication [that has come out of the installation] feels more like I’ve had a participant along with my creative journey. 

With this, there’s been someone there who the ideas have stemmed from and developed with; we’ve had a lot of discussions which have influenced how it’s turned out, but then I sat down and determined how [the outcomes will be] made, so that part is less of a co-creation thing and more of an artist-participant thing. 

I don’t tend to designate roles in advance, it depends on how the work develops as it goes along and how much input the other people end up having.

Curiosity & Conversation (1), 2020, Skye Williams – group interaction

[LV] Thinking about the publication in particular, are you planning for this to be solely digital or to have a printed iteration?

[SW] I’d really like it to be printed, my original plan was that I would have a set amount printed, and then I would do something inside each book that made each one completely individual. It’s such an intimate and personal project, and I think this is important to preserve in how it’s presented. Presenting it digitally would take away from [the intimacy] by making it so accessible on a mass scale. I wanted to do something like a small drawing or a sentence written into the from, so that it’s an experience rather than just a book.

[LV] The kitchen cabinet drawers that you were writing on to have been taken out, they’re not in situ anymore. Would they ever be displayed as objects? It would be interesting to find out what you see them as, as artworks, or?

[SW] I think it could be interesting to have them displayed, although this wasn’t the intention with them, which was to have an explorative moment together, helping to create conversation that we could build on for the publication. So while [the cabinets were] a starting point, they definitely [came into their own].

I haven’t been able to consider [spaces for display] because of the pandemic, and so it’s not something I’ve thought about [properly] yet and I worry that it would lose some of the intimacy. I think it would need to be displayed in quite a small space like the [original] kitchen so you wouldn’t lose the sense of what happened. I’m not sure that the white walls of a gallery space would work, that can remove the intimacy of an experience even if you’re stood in front of a work that you find really powerful.

[LV] For both you and Rachel, as artists you haven’t been able to think in terms of traditional exhibitions, and it’s interesting how you’ve had to think about the audience, participants, co-creators and even space in an expansive way. I’m wondering how this might feed into your practice going forward?

[SW] I think this is something that will definitely influence me for the rest of my art career because we have had to adapt so quickly and so suddenly, when I was in my last year of uni I was putting things in public spaces and getting passersby to write on them, obviously there’s no way I could’ve continued with that. 

When the pandemic started I was still living in university accommodation with my partner, and the intimate work started with her as we started keeping lockdown diaries using broken [obsolete] household equipment. We had an old TV that was broken, the housing company just let us take off the wall and use [it], and we kept a diary on it.

It was a real transformation in my work going from this complete lack of control working with anyone on the street, where you didn’t know how anything was going to turn out and it was completely down to chance, to this very set way of working and a shared experience.

It’s definitely created a lot of other avenues of thought around how my practice can be scaled back but also [pushed] forward in other directions. [Although] I am excited for when I can work with big groups of people again and go back into schools, for example. I’m sure anyone trying to create work is feeling the same, but my practice which was so publicly based has been [particularly] affected. 

I did work online for a bit, bringing together a group of artists. [This] was me trying to experiment, to see how a bigger group of people could work together. In some ways that stemmed from the work with the Biennial because I’d gotten so used to zoom meetings.

[LV] It’d be good to hear more about these online experiments with participants. For years now it’s been really important to engage as many people as possible, or at least that’s something that’s been a big driver of arts programming, then all of a sudden having a full room is not something to aspire to. I think it’s interesting how participatory practices have had to adapt, especially for artists who’re at an early stage in their career and might not have already fallen into patterns and habits.

[SW] I ran something called the unknown communication project over 10 weeks. I put an open call-out saying ‘I’m an artist who works with other people and I’m really struggling’. I got loads of people coming back to me saying ‘yeah, I really need something like now’, and it was nice to know that I wasn’t alone with it, and to have other people from the artistic community speaking back to me.

I [had been] working with a project called Drawing Dialogue where [participants were] put into small groups, I was grouped with people across the UK and someone in Vietnam. I was posting things to other people and they were posting things to me; you had to work into the work, over what other people had done which was really interesting – to see how you could communicate with each other without knowing you were communicating. 

So [The Unknown Communication Project] was inspired by this as well as [my participatory practice]. I pulled together this group of people and put together these strange digital collages of everyday household objects which at the time I’d been working with really heavily. I sent out these collages to the group of people and asked them to send them back, manipulated digitally in any way they wanted, and we kept this going for 10 weeks. Every week I would send on an image that someone had sent back, and I would manipulate them as well, and we ended up with these really interesting, complicated works that had developed week on week. We had all sorts of different ways of approaching it, I was beginning to see people taking influences from other people without necessarily realising it. At the end I arranged a big zoom call and they were all like ‘ah, so you did this?’ etc. which was really nice, and I got positive feedback about how during that period people had felt like there wasn’t much creativity left in people.

That was one of my first time working with a group of other artists; previously I’d always worked with members of the public or groups in schools, I’d never really got other artists involved with my work so that was also really really interesting to see how when you give a prompt to another artist the way you would do it versus the way they would do it can be two very different things, and I think a lot of [the participants] found it useful to get an insight into someone else’s practice in that way.

[LV] It sounds like a way to bring the incidental back into your practice? You were describing earlier how the access to chance as a generative mode had been taken away, and to access it again you have to get structures in place that enable that access…

Before we finish I’d like to find out more about your process in working with your grandfather as opposed to working with groups…

[SW] At first it was really nerve wracking, we’ve had a bit of a rocky relationship for the past few years and we’d just started to rebuild. It wasn’t ideal that I was coming to live here.

It was a way to reconnect in our relationship and reevaluate, as well as the creation of this artwork, and it fell together nicely but was also something that I needed. I was suddenly in these spaces which are so full of memory all the time, which is something that I hadn’t really experienced before, and was something I was thrust into. I put together all these ideas and took them to my grandfather and asked if it was something he was interested in and wanted to explore, or if it was something he didn’t feel like he could do right now.

I was surprised that he was really really up for it, because he also saw it as a chance to reconnect.

When I took it to Biennial I felt really sheepish and was almost embarrassed that it was so emotionally charged. Most of my previous work has been about chance and hasn’t been so personal to me. Looking back on it now it seems strange that I was so worried and cautious.

We started working together by going on walks around places that we had shared memories, like the park across the road where my grandad helped me learn to ride a bike. Also a local beach, our garden and to the church that he goes to. Visiting these spaces and having these conversations; I thought maybe ideas would spring from the conversations but I realised that the conversations were the important part. We were having quite difficult conversations at some points, for example when we went to the church. I’m a gay woman, which didn’t go down too well, and we were revisiting this church which I haven’t visited in years because I’ve just had such horrendous experiences with [churches]. There was this really intense moment discussing how he just wanted it to be a safe space but that wasn’t something I’d felt.

I’d made recordings [of the conversations] and while I was transcribing them sentence by sentence I realised that they were coming out like poems, which fit really well, I’ve always found poetry such an emotionally charged thing and have been studying poetry a lot.

That’s where the kitchen came in, he told me it was getting taken out and I realised that this was something I really needed to use. It was a whirlwind, but really important.

Lauren Velvick is an arts worker based in the North West of England, and a Director of Corridor8.

This commission is supported by Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts.

Published 28.05.2021 by Lauren Velvick in Interviews

6,018 words