As an artist Michele Allen is interested in exploring how we conceptualise environments and the ways in which physical spaces are culturally constructed. She explores this in depth in her lens-based work through an engagement with everyday situations, specific communities and locations. She began working with audio as a way of questioning the perceived documentary nature of photography, and of revealing the process of communication. She works with soundscapes and recordings, developing an interest in montage and multi-vocal narratives. Michele is particularly interested in collecting stories about place, drawing on collective memory and personal recollection and interviewing people with a strong connection to particular sites. She often juxtaposes this with other forms of written documentation including archival material, sometimes reflecting a more institutional understanding of space.
This show was the result of a four-month residency. The works respond to the castle’s history as a site of government and latterly as home to University College. The exhibition featured three different but related bodies of work, drawing on photographic and archival research related to the Castle and installed within its existing collections and architecture. The titular series of digital photographic prints installed in the windows and display cases of the Tunstall Gallery were supplemented by scans of archival texts relating to the foundation of the University. The photographic works document aspects of the day-to-day life of the castle with a particular focus on rituals and traditions. The artist was particularly interested in the fact that students live in the building, and that their social life is connected to a number of older and sometimes adapted rituals and traditions, some of which date back to early 19th century. Two of the images are of ‘Ladies Night’, a tradition rooted in the time (before 1987) when University College was an all-male institution, and students were allowed to invite women into the college on this special, formal occasion. Nowadays the tradition endures, but it is organised by women from the college who decorate the hall and invite guests.
The 9-minute video work entitled Aesop’s Feast was constructed from footage of banners filmed at the Durham Miner’s Gala in 2015, and a soundtrack of music and ambient sound recorded in the Castle during band and choir rehearsals. The title was inspired by the many classical references on the banners, which relate to ideas of education as a tool for emancipation and social equality, an aspect of both socialist and Enlightenment thought. The New Brancepeth colliery banner features an illustration of one of Aesop’s fables; Allen’s title references another fable as well a composition for piano by Charles-Valentin Alkan, which is notoriously difficult to play. By juxtaposing the images from the Gala and the students’ musical rehearsals, attention is drawn to the educational spaces of both the Trade’s Union Movement and the founding principles of the University, as well as to the value placed on classical education, and University as a site of exploration where people can try things out and make mistakes in a sheltered and nurturing environment.
Hazel Donkin, March 2016
Video recording of New Visions for art – a CVAC public lecture by Alistair Hudson (Director of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art) and Sarah Munro (Director of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead) – Durham Castle, 8 February, 2016. (1 hour)
Sarah Munro and Alistair Hudson are visionaries with a wealth of experience in cultural leadership gained in distinguished careers. Both were instrumental in the 2015 Turner Prize. Since his appointment in 2014 Alistair Hudson has transformed Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art into an institution dedicated to the promotion of art as a tool for education and social change. Sarah Munro became Director of BALTIC in November 2015 and there is an expectation that she will both re-energise the gallery and support the cultural infrastructure of the region as a whole with her passion and ambition.
On February 8th the Great Hall in Durham Castle was filled with over 200 people. The lecture attracted a diverse audience of students, academics, artists, and professionals from the cultural sector. Sarah Munro, BALTIC’s first woman director, used the opportunity to share her personal and professional background and to talk about how this has influenced her thinking. Her strong personal values are based on social justice and she is concerned, among other things, about the policies of the current government, about public services, vulnerable citizens and the environment. Sarah is exploring the concept of #OurBaltic: what does BALTIC mean for the artistic community, for local people living in Gateshead and Newcastle and for the international art world? She is currently writing a manifesto for BALTIC with her entire staff team, so it was too early for a ‘mission statement’, but it is clear that she will reboot BALTIC.
Alistair Hudson’s ideas have been widely disseminated. He is a member of the international movement Arte Util – http://www.arte-util.org/ – and aims to make mima a bigger part of people’s everyday lives. He believes that mima needs to evolve and adapt so that people think of the gallery as somewhere that they can use in the same ways that they make use of the library, the school and the health centre. He wants the gallery to be of value to the people who live on Teeside, as well as to people in the region, nationally and internationally. He supports bringing art into the world in many different ways, whether that is through housing, health-care or education, essentially applying it in every aspect of life, making it useful in society, contributing civically, getting involved in issues.
These are radical ideas about art: the idea of art contains within it many different modes of art, one is aesthetic, but a lot of art is about changing the world and in the UK this is under-represented. The role of the public gallery could be to help to support particular art practices and art that are not supported by the market, by private collectors. In the current political and financial climate it is important that public galleries demonstrate viability. Mima does not aim to show a panoramic survey of art practice, you will need to go elsewhere for that, but Alistair Hudson aims to develop a museum that is viable because it is useful and therefore should be funded. It will be interesting to see how BALTIC develops.
Hazel Donkin, March 2016