Sustaining An Initiative For Emerging Artists, Writers And Curators
Following the culmination of their year-long project ABSINTHE, a series of three major emerging art exhibitions at the Spit and Sawdust pub in Bermondsey and the transformation of a large unoccupied warehouse in Deptford into a collectively run studio and gallery complex, Collective Ending HQ now provides studios for nine practicing artists as well as three writers and curators. The project is coordinated by those in residence and supports emerging artists by providing resources to explore and develop their practice in a collaborative and experimental setting.
Ahead of the launch of their public programme, HQ members Hector Campbell and Billy Fraser sat down to discuss Collective Ending. They touch on where the initiative started, the importance of providing a supportive community to emerging artists, and its upcoming projects including the exhibition ‘A Land of Incomparable Beauty’.
Before we begin, it would be good to clarify what are Collective Ending and Collective Ending HQ?
Collective Ending (CE) is a loose group of artists and curators, all of whom met through art school and London’s emerging art scene over the last few years. At the moment, Collective Ending serves as more of a shared sentiment and way of working, rather than a strict set of rules and responsibilities. It began as a way to stage exhibitions in a more collaborative fashion, with an overall ambition to create a support network for emerging artists and curators. Right now, Collective Ending is in this beautiful nascent moment where we still feel like anything is possible; we are excited at the possibility of consolidating and expanding organically in the future. Collective Ending HQ (CE HQ), our new collectively run studio and gallery complex in Deptford, was established late last year as a counterbalance to the greater ambiguity of Collective Ending. It allows us to explore our shared interests and aims; while it’s one thing to talk about collectivism and collaboration in the abstract, it’s quite another to have built and run a space together, from the ground up. The HQ has led to many benefits for ourselves and our wider networks. For those who maintain studios in the complex (our Collective Ending HQ members) they occupy some of the most affordable studio space per m2 in the capital, whilst also gaining access to workshop space and in-house storage. The sense of community that exists from maintaining the project through collectivism has also led to regular, informal and open crits amongst residents, as well as the pooling of talents and skills-sharing (be it curators helping artists write funding proposals, or the artists helping install or photograph each others shows, etc.). Finally, we have incorporated a gallery space measuring approximately 100m into the complex, to be programmed democratically by all residents and allow for exhibition opportunities for those in our wider network, as well as the scope for many special events incorporated into a public facing programme.
Now let’s look back to the past. I suppose a brief history of CE should start with the infamous ABSINTHE prototype, both etched into and erased from the memories of those who attended…?
For sure. Upon graduating, myself and CE HQ member Tom Ribot moved into V22 studios in South Bermondsey, on the same street as sculptor James Capper’s studio. James was the glue that first propagated the importance of collaboration, he was the spark that ignited ABSINTHE and many of the relationships between those now involved with the HQ. Our first attempt at a more collaborative form of exhibition-making was the prototype ABSINTHE, which brought together artists from our combined network for a group show in James’ studio. Hundreds of people attended, half a dozen bottles of Pernod Absinthe were consumed and the event ran way into the next morning.
Amidst the absinthe fueled frivolity, did you learn anything that night that still informs the thinking of CE?
I think the plight faced by small/mid-sized galleries today, the difficulty surviving the established art market system, leads more often than not to the less ambitious, ‘playing it safe’ exhibition programmes intended to appease collectors and present a specific form of commercialised art. The main revelation that came from the ABSINTHE prototype was the need for a community, the need for a support system for emerging artists and practices that sit outside of a commercial gallery context. Many relationships formed that night have led, not only to CE, but other collaborative ventures.
We first met shortly after that ABSINTHE protype, during your ambitious curatorial project ‘Extended Call’, hosted at Subsidiary Projects in Vauxhall. I remember we discussed, amongst other things, this need for a support network in the emerging art scene, the necessity for community, and above all the importance and want to self-produce and self-promote, to make things happen.
It was that shared desire “to make things happen” that birthed the concept of ABSINTHE and that still informs the thinking of Collective Ending today. I remember being exhausted after the opening of that third part of Extended Call, and had just sworn a year-long hiatus from curatorial ventures, when James rang me to say he had found a home for the next ABSINTHE. Reluctantly, I dragged my corpse to the Spit and Sawdust, a pub down on its luck in Elephant and Castle, to meet with the pub landlords and James. It was at this point that James brought Charlie Mills and I together. It was an instantly beneficial partnership, as whilst I possessed the artsy, cowboy, can-do approach, Charlie had a great deal of experience within an actual gallery and an eye for operations and correct practice. Together we could balance each other out and have all bases covered. Following that initial meeting, Charlie and I began what became a fourteen month schedule of Monday studio visits with artists who would go on to become the 90 artists exhibiting in three back-to-back iterations of the ABSINTHE programme, hosted across the generous three floors and garden of the Spit and Sawdust pub.
Not only this, but early on it manifested that ABSINTHE could move beyond simple show-making, and having discussed the best way I could contribute to the ABSINTHE programme, we decided I would be best served providing support to the ambitious publishing and live events programme you would run in parallel to each exhibition.
Charlie and I had realised the potential for the Spit and Sawdust to provide an extended platform for our peers and collaborators through a supporting programme of events, publications and projects. During exhibitions we could offer up the space to the artists involved and encouraged them to propose additional events that would bolster the programme and supply a safe space for those who wished to collaborate. As for yourself, with knowledge of the importance of documentation, we thought that a limited-run, archival publication would give you ample opportunity to provide some literary reinforcement to the exhibition programme in the form of artist interviews from those exhibiting; we would publish it in-house with Kronos Publishing, a risograph publishing house led by Charlie, with supplementary contributions from poets and other writers. Looking back on the live music night curated by ABSINTHE artists Jesse Pollock and George Rouy, the artist films screening hosted by Ollie Dook, the poetry night by Finnian Mckenna, as well as the performance packed opening and closing events, Charlie and I have agreed that the events programme became one of the most positive, welcoming and organic facets of ABSINTHE. It was in the same spirit that our dear friend Victor Seaward had agreed to lend us ‘The Parasite’ – a vitrine previously installed on the exterior of the Royal College of Art – as well as produce a smaller, second vitrine titled ‘Martin’ that would be installed within the Spit and Sawdust and host exhibitions-within-an-exhibition during the ABSINTHE programme. We reached out to fellow CE HQ member Georgia Stephenson to curate and manage concurrent presentations across both vitrines. Immediately, Georgia exceeded our already high expectations, giving our organisational skills a run for their money by having in-depth proposals under our noses before we even had the time to ask.
I am still immensely proud of the two risograph printed catalogues we eventually produced to accompany ABSINTHE §1 & §2, not only did it provide me the excuse to explore the both sordid and lavish history of absinthe in art, but also to interview many artists featured within the exhibition series whose work I had admired for some time. It was over the course of conducting those interviews that I was introduced to CE HQ members Ralph Hunter-Menzies, Alia Hamaoui and Byzantia Harlow. As the ABSINTHE programme progressed we incorporated launches for both publications into the live events schedule, as well as Byzantia and I’s somewhat charmingly shambolic ‘Art Pub Quiz’ which proved unsurprisingly competitive and left the winners with yet another bottle of Pernod Absinthe to stomach. Events such as these, as well as the aforementioned music, film and poetry evenings, provided a safe space for open artistic expression and a sharing of thoughts, feelings and ideas. The informality of the pub helped to create and nurture a welcoming environment in which a community could build and evolve, and has led to many continuing relationships as well as countless further projects.
Perhaps now would be a good time to flesh out how the 12 members of CE HQ came together? As you mentioned, Tom Ribot, Ted Le Swer and I had all graduated from Chelsea College of Arts together and moved into a shared studio at V22, Bermondsey. James Capper had not only aligned myself and Charlie, but also invited Ralph Hunter-Menzies to exhibit at the ABSINTHE prototype, and finally – when I needed help producing a vertical painting monolith for ABSINTHE §2 – he introduced us to his welder and subsequent ABSINTHE §3 artist Elliot Fox. Rhiannon Rebecca Salisbury was a fellow Chelsea graduate and had contributed work to the Extended Call series alongside another long-standing University of the Arts London friend Alia Hamaoui. I had been keen to work with Byzantia for some time, having been introduced to her by Keiko of Yamamoto Keiko Rochaix gallery, and I was happy to secure her participation in ABSINTHE §1. Yourself and Georgia came aboard ABSINTHE via the aforementioned events programming, and finally it was at a number of those events that Tom and I would find ourselves sipping absinthe and debating kinetic sculpture with Harrison Pearce. The stars were aligned, our avengers had assembled, and we were ready for our endgame. The closure of V22 was a major stepping stone for many of us, leaving Tom, Ted, Alia, Elliot and I just two months to relocate studios. The silver lining at the time was – while ABSINTHE §2 was in full swing – we were weeks away from our first, self-organised CE artistic residency to the south of France. The ‘Absent Minded Residency’ saw ten ABSINTHE artists (many of them future CE HQ members) run away to the French countryside for a week of art-fueled distraction. We drank, laughed and speculated about the future of both CE & ABSINTHE, but also the possibility of finding a location we could call home, outside of the politics and struggles commonly associated with London-based studio providers. As we had found with the ABSINTHE events programme, the informal, relaxed atmosphere of the residency allowed us all to open up to each other about not only our artistic practices but also ourselves. We quickly evolved from being art world peers to close friends, an evolution that has continued to underpin the ethos and essence of CE.
Due to new renovation plans at the pub, the final ABSINTHE opening and closing events were bitter-sweet but populated with many late-night conversations about how the project could not only continue, but grow and develop into something larger. With Tom and yourself having secured studio space within a large vacant warehouse in Deptford’s artistic hub of Creekside, talks began about the potential for a collectively run studio complex, an idea that piqued the interest of many of the group, intrigued by the concept of community, collaboration (and cheaper studio rent) that would come as a result of such an endeavour. As more artists joined the fold, the idea arose about building our own in-house gallery/exhibition space, and it simply became too appealing a proposal to pass up. I remember our first pre-construction meeting at the warehouse, sitting in what would become Tom’s studio and looking out over our newly-leased homestead. With all twelve newly anointed HQ members willing, the project began to look achievable, even within the associated budget and time constraints. Tasks were delegated out to those turning up for shifts at any and all hours of the day. At any one time we would have between two and twelve people working tirelessly to make our dreams a reality. The energy and ethos of the entire build was incredibly optimistic. The process allowed us the opportunity to get to know each other, to become much closer as a group, and to plot and plan for the future of the newly-named HQ, and CE as a whole. With each member possessing different skills, the whole was invariably greater than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps a slightly rose tinted view… the build process was something I doubt many of us would like to return to. Late nights, early mornings, you know how it is.
Be that as it may, slowly but surely the studios began to appear around us. The closer each space came to resembling a studio, the more the excitement built. Alongside the physical build, a strong, familial bond was forming amongst all members, with frequent compromises made “for the greater good” of the project. Upon reflection, it is clear that what we achieved with the building of the HQ was only made possible by the hard work and dedication of not only the twelve members, but also the many friends who lent a few hours of their time either building or simply offering support and encouragement throughout. As the construction of the studio and gallery space neared completion, we began a series of fortnightly meetings with HQ members. With many things considered, we decided upon the idea of a soft launch of the CE HQ. An exhibition of smaller works, each donated by HQ members as part of a guaranteed-win raffle, with all proceeds invested into the future of the HQ. Each artist agreed to donate three works, and Charlie, Georgia and I decided to add further spice to the exhibition by inviting three special guest artists – James Capper, Jack Evans and Victor Seaward respectively – all of whom have a close bond with CE and the HQ project.
The December soft opening was a euphoric experience. There was a sense of achievement, felt not only by us 12 CE HQ members but also by our extended family of friends, peers and collaborators. It was brilliant to see so many familiar faces, many of whom had visited the site during the building process. It was also a joy to meet so many new friends, and to see all the raffle artworks go to good homes. There are currently 12 resident CE HQ members within the warehouse, but this by no means accurately portrays the ethos or parameters of CE. Our aim for the HQ and CE as a whole is to support fellow artists and curators by presenting a platform for experimentation and collaboration.
In keeping with this ethos we have planned the HQ’s public programme, to include a yearly ‘members show’ of works by our nine studio artists alongside exhibitions curated by HQ members. With each exhibition we aim to provide public programming similar to that which accompanied ABSINTHE: expect film screenings, live music nights, ‘In Conversation’ evenings and plenty of performance. Unfortunately, for the time being our public programme has been put on hold. Our first exhibition ‘A Land of Incomparable Beauty’, curated by HQ members Charlie Mills, Alia Hamaoui and Byzantia Harlow, was set to be an exciting debut for the finished space, featuring Jesse Pollock, Frances Drayson, Luisa Mè and Bloat Collective, amongst others. The exhibition was installed and was set to open on Saturday 21st of March, but the impending lockdown had other ideas, and the show has been postponed until a time when we can safely welcome visitors. As for the rest of the 2020 programme, we hope to bring you an HQ members exhibition later in the year, and we can speculate about the possibility of an ABSINTHE-esque happening towards the end of the year. We look forward to embracing both old and new friends alike, and government permitting, there will be many nights to remember, reminiscent of our collective memories from times spent at the Spit and Sawdust or that sacred night at James Capper’s studio. We hope to welcome many of you to the HQ again soon, and if you haven’t visited yet we look forward to showing you around!
Words by Hector Campbell and Billy Fraser