An e-mail came out of the blue one afternoon from Alice Thickett at Nottingham Contemporary…
“Hi Mark, I was wondering if you’d be up for a chat about running a workshop with our Collabor8 group. Maybe we could speak on the phone?”
I’m always intrigued by such a proposition and so speak on the phone we did. I’ve had a relationship of sorts with Nottingham Contemporary since just before its launch in 2009. I was commissioned by, then Director, Alex Farquharson to design a logo for the organisation, one of ten they were commissioning with a commitment to use all of them rather than coming up with a single branding identity. This logo was subsequently turned in to a permanent sculpture for the exterior of the building and glows brightly outside to this day.
Alice told me they’d been chatting in the offices about relevant artists to work with their Collabor8 group, to help them come up with a logo. During this discussion my sculpture had literally homed in to view through the window and the call was made.
We came up with a structure of a three-week workshop with me delivering the first and third and Alice using the middle one to help develop ideas between them. As an artist you never know quite what to expect when you’re invited in to work with a group like this. Just because it’s a voluntary thing it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the members really care about art or artists. They often care even less who you are. The flip-side to that is that some groups are totally switched on and enthusiastic and I was relieved to discover that this lot were very much the latter.
Even working as a university lecturer, as I also do, I’ve never believed it’s my job to give people ideas, or push things in the direction I would necessarily take. There’s too much of that goes on, particularly in universities, creating little more than ill-informed pastiches of other people’s work. If I do my job properly I’ll just facilitate the individual or group to come up with something good, which is entirely theirs, with a nudge here and specifically-worded question there.
In particular, this group are not kids, they’re young adults (is that patronising to say? It feels like such an 80s term) with a whole host of experiences, interests and reference points to draw on, so it was more a case of building an approach and structure over the three weeks that would allow these to shape themselves in to something usable.
I talked in the first week about us seeing ourselves as a design team, the idea that the final product may actually just be the physical product of a couple of the individuals in the room, but the way we would arrive there would be through the entire group inputting in to the discussion and development of the ideas, to reach a useful end point.
The sessions themselves were an enjoyable and productive chaos. We had our structure and I had a list of tasks that we needed to get through each week to ensure we got where we needed to go, but beyond that there was plenty of room for the natural excitement and breakdown of conversation to happen, along with members finding dubious pop-garage tunes on iPhones to play to the whole group (it definitely wasn’t a pop-garage tune, I’m just being your typical Granddad in saying that, as I’ve no idea what the classification of the tune would have been. I just know it led to furious chair dancing from most in the room including Alice, the gallery’s Youth Programmer and commissioner of the workshops.) There was also the welcome distraction of a fine spread of snacks each week, including Pringles, Mini Cheddars and houmous – no expense spared.
From an outsider’s perspective, what was also very noticeable was how genuinely engaged this group are. The week of the first workshop a bunch of them had just got back from a conference somewhere and spent the last ten minutes of the workshop sorting out the logistics of an upcoming trip to London. They were also organising a screening night at the gallery. There was a genuine sense of ownership over the activities they were engaged in, mutually beneficial to the gallery in terms of their programme and outreach, and genuinely fun and rewarding for the group who were leading on it.
So, after the first week we’d looked at a bunch of stuff, I’d talked about the relevant bits of my work, being a typically egotistical artist, and we’d arrived at a point where it was already in their hands. The success of the workshop really relied on their ability to keep thinking about the task at hand and to bring some particular ideas and materials with them the following week. This part then happened on Alice’s watch, so by the third week the plan was that we would have a bunch of ideas and references we could finesse in to some usable form to hand over to a designer.
Sure enough, on the third week, we had a bunch of sheets of sketched thoughts and ideas that we could discuss as a group to try and pull together the different ideas that people felt were working or not. Overall, the group worked really well together. These kinds of sessions can sometimes be a bit like pulling teeth, as often no-one really has the confidence or inclination to say, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, to certain ideas through fear of offending someone. Not so with Collabor8. It was a friendly and energetic session where we went round and round the houses in a useful way and ultimately settled on a few key elements they felt represented the ethos of the group. We even managed to come up with some very bad sketches (mine) of a rough layout for the design.
It was a fun and productive few weeks, which is primarily down to the individuals that were there to take part, but in no small part down to Alice and Becky – the Youth Programmer and Marketing Assistant – who clearly do a great job of using and enthusing this group to be a genuine part of what Nottingham Contemporary is. It always sounds like a cliché when someone says, ‘I got as much out of it as they did’, but sometimes it’s true. When these groups and these workshops work really well, that line between workshop leader/artist or facilitator and participant genuinely fade away, until you’re just left with a bunch of people in a room having a good, productive time, eating Mini Cheddars and listening to terrible music on iPhones.
Blog by Mark Gubb