Can you make art without electricity?
For a student, the notion of putting on an exhibition or event for a public can be problematic. It is the moment where you share a part of yourself with a wider audience, open yourself up to criticism and self doubt, try to be unique and try to stay true to yourself. Sometimes these thoughts all align to create an event that challenges the perceived norm. Battery Power: A Post-Electric Exhibition was conceived by Philip Speakman as an experiment into establishing alternative exhibition structures – namely the lack of mains electricity. With the help of O2’s Think Big project funding, Speakman developed his ‘post electric’ concept into a fully fledged event. Battery Power featured work by Isobel Adderley, Gillies Adamson-Semple, Eva Crossan Jory, Jess Heritage, Calum Lynn, Gina Price, Charles Verni, Andrew Wyatt, none of whom had access to mains electricity for their work.
“IT WAS SOMEWHAT INTENDED TO STAND IN OPPOSITION TO, IN THE WORDS OF PATRICK GODDARD, THE “ALL STYLE NO CONTENT POST INTERNET WANKATHONS.”
1 Granary: Can you tell me about your exhibition?
Philip Speakman: The exhibition was titled Battery Power: A Post-Electric Exhibition, and it took place over one night in a semi detached Victorian town house in Peckham. The notion of a post-electric future derives from Anna Washburn’s play Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play which ran at the Almeida in June 2014 and is set in ‘an America’ deprived of a national grid system after some unspecified end of civilisation.
The post-electric offered a framework, both conceptually and pragmatically, to construct the exhibition within. I liked the idea of an exhibition which could occupy a fictional space in the form of this imagined future. What was exactly meant by the post-electric, and what it might entail, continued to become more and more refined as the exhibition developed and even throughout the night.
The idea was never no electricity but post-electricity. By post-electric we mean a scenario proceeding now where electricity is a ‘switch flick’ away, but where everything around is us still relies on a network of power. This meant the artists had to provide their own power if necessary and incorporate this reliance into the piece.
An example of this is in Isobel Adderley’s installation S T E M, which required a generator to power her AV equipment. Through its approximation to the monitor, the generator took on a sculptural property. Andy Wyatt’s performance C’mon it’s Friday! centred around riffs played on an electric guitar going through a pocket amplifier which they didn’t know the battery life of so could have cut out at any point. Gina Price used the minimal lighting conditions which came as a result of having to light the entire show with LED torches to create a house wide wall work in UV paint called Was there all along. The minimisation of electricity also offered breathing space for work like Jess Heritage’s performance which utilises smell and haptic sensations like crushing an orange in your bare hands.
“ON THE SAME DAY AS OUR EXHIBITION ART MONTHLY HELD A TALK AT FRIEZE ENTITLED THE THE END(S) OF POST-INTERNET ART.”
The name ‘Battery Power’ has connotations with certain types of Art or media, was this intentional?
Maybe not a certain type of Art as I don’t think any of the work included in the show would look out of context in a more conventional gallery setting but the name was certainly intended to mark out a certain type of exhibition. It was somewhat intended to stand in opposition to, in the words of Patrick Goddard, the “all style no content post internet wankathons” which I’m really getting sick of seeing in galleries but seem to be so in trend at the moment. I found it quite interesting that on the same day as our exhibition Art Monthly held a talk at Frieze entitled the The End(s) of Post-Internet Art.
The exhibition was not in a traditional gallery space, can you tell me about that?
From the outset one of the aims was to move away from a traditional white cube space because of all the baggage associated with a space like that. They can be quite intimidating spaces to a non art audience and this wouldn’t have felt right with it being funded by a program like O2 Think Big. The national grid constraint was too central to the exhibition to have it in a pre-prepared gallery space and by using a derelict building, the staging of the exhibition becomes an act of salvage.
I think, or I hope, the exhibition functioned as a lens to view the work which might prise out aspects of the work relevant to the premise of the show. One of the central themes of the exhibition was salvage and this manifested in various forms; from Gilies’s readymades constructed out of found objects, to Andy’s performance which considers the bare bones of musical structures and garment making, and Jess’s spoken piece which trawls memories and imaginings and entwines them into a kind of patchwork narrative. So I think the works become thematically linked to each other but also to the space. We observed quite a shifting process between the artwork, the space, and the night as a social event, with works sort of bleeding at the edges and people being taken for a tour around the house as they went to see the next performance. By the end of night the hydrangeas in Issy’s installation were being taken almost like giveaways.
This is not the first student led exhibition you have organised, can you tell me about some of the other projects you have been a part of?
This is the first one I’ve been solely responsible for. I was part of a night at Camden Arts Centre last May called Altered States which I performed at with Tom Moore and The Automatic Trio, which came out of a series of seminars and workshops led by Serena Korda as part of a module during second year. The summer before this I got the opportunity to take part in an entirely student run exhibition called Kapadia initiated by Theo Tennent which took place in a house near the Arsenal stadium. Again this only lasted for one night before it had to be taken down for proper refurbishment, but it was the result of Theo and others making the most of an opportunity to use a space and working really hard to realise that.
Can you explain some of the obstacles and challenges faced when trying to make a student led exhibition?
Timing and communication was one of the things which ended up being the biggest challenge actually. Curating and organising what is essentially just a group of friends whose work I admire made it quite hard to be strict about ensuring people’s work was ready or that all the logistics of it all worked out.
The exhibition was made possible by O2 Think Big, a grant scheme open to people aged 13-25 which offers support in the way of funding, workshops and mentoring. SUARTs also gave us money to help facilitate the event and Brockely Brewery gave us a very good deal on the beer for the event. It all worked out fantastically well and the show went really smoothly.
“WE OBSERVED QUITE A SHIFTING PROCESS BETWEEN THE ARTWORK, THE SPACE, AND THE NIGHT AS A SOCIAL EVENT, WITH WORKS SORT OF BLEEDING AT THE EDGES AND PEOPLE BEING TAKEN FOR A TOUR AROUND THE HOUSE AS THEY WENT TO SEE THE NEXT PERFORMANCE.”
How does a curatorial practice influence your studio practice? Are they in dialogue with each other?
I seem to end up making lot of art which takes a lot of organisation, like films with cast and crew or long journeys where I need places to stay, and so I came at the exhibition in the same fashion really. I haven’t really viewed it as separate from the rest of my art practice. I wouldn’t say it came naturally but it wasn’t exactly a hard exhibition to put on when it’s just a case of working with a load of friends whose work you find really interesting. I kind of think it’s more exciting to create your own opportunities to show, and that way you get to do it exactly how your community envisions.
As a student, do you think it is important to engage with wider artistic practices rather than a traditional studio practice?
I’ve had hugely productive relationships working with filmmakers, musicians and puppeteers but I thoroughly object to the idea that it’s important for an artist to work in any particular. I also don’t see how a ‘traditional’ studio practice precludes engagement with a wider artistic practice. If by wider artistic practice you mean doing things like curating exhibitions then I don’t think it’s important for anyone to do things like that, but for me it’s more exciting to create your own opportunities to show work as that way you have complete control and it’s also just a lot of fun. Experimentation is probably healthy but I don’t think it is necessary for anyone to do anything unless it’s where they want to go with their practice.
After the success of Battery Power, what are your plans for the future?
I’m currently working on and trying to get more funding for a film which expands upon a lot of the ideas in the exhibition, most specifically how we create mythologies about the end of the world and how the current ones permeate our society, more often for the worse. It will involve a ritualised play about the end to the world being performed up a mountain.
Probably with flags, and a talking mountain.