DAO contacted North West Disability Arts Forum NWDAF to find out about an innovative project aiming to open up debate about identity, access and inclusion within contemporary art.
NWDAF commissioned visual artist Ben Cove to get involved with TransART - a mobile public art project that celebrates Disability Arts and culture. The project involved taking a film Ben made of himself painting during an Art House residency and showing it from the back of a van. It was taken to a variety of destinations across Merseyside. Schools, colleges, community centres, museums and art galleries were invited to host the project and participate in a series of seminars led by the artist and inspired by the contents of the van.
The idea was that TransART would function as a mobile resource to educate, raise awareness and stimulate debate around Disability Arts and culture. Ultimately, TransART was about transcending barriers, cultures, languages and environments to celebrate and engage with contemporary art in the public realm.
The ArtHouse website (Wakefield)
The Silesian Castle of Art & Enterprise website (Poland)
Further information on Ben Cove's work can be found at: www.benjamincove.com
Ben Cove has attracted media attention on several occasions with his ironic, iconic imagery. New Plastic Universal, his solo show at the Castlefield Gallery in Manchester last year, was the Guardian Guide pick of the week. Colin Hambrook asked Ben how he felt about taking his work out of the gallery and directly to the people as part of NWDAFs TransART project.
BC: I like to question the role of the gallery in my painting, so showing the process in the form of an 8 minute film and taking that directly to an audience was an exciting and challenging progression. It gave me the opportunity to give background information and answer questions directly to audiences who weren't necessarily versed in the language of art. The film showed me making two very large paintings during a 7 week artist's residency at Yorkshire ArtSpace in Sheffield. It has not been shown in public before this point so it was good to find out that people got something from it. The film is essentially documentation and has no dialogue or explanatory narration, which has perhaps held me back from submitting it for screening elsewhere.
It's still hard for me to judge the success of this work as a stand alone piece because people tend to react to what's being portrayed rather than to the formal qualities of the film. From the reactions I've had, I've learnt that for an audience the main focus tends to be on the ambitious nature of what's being shown. Whereas for me the purpose of making the film was to examine the role of the performance aspect of my painting process.
CH: You said in an interview with Duncan Higgins that you were interested in the way that filming of the art-making process changed Jackson Pollock's way of working. TransART is taking this further in the way you are directly communicating with your audience. Has the experience given you food for thought about your working practice?
BC: I waffled on about Pollock in the interview with Duncan Higgins because it is the first thing that springs to mind when I think about painters being filmed at work. It's a particularly interesting example of this phenomenon because the theory goes that this event marked the beginning of Pollock's slide into the abyss. Once his working method had been laid bare for all to see there wasn't much left to do with it I guess.
I am in no way putting myself up for any sort of comparison with Action Jackson, but it was something I remember from TV as a child which struck a chord with me because it made me understand that painting didn't necessarily mean sitting in front of an easel with a pallet and set of brushes. I think one key reason for me making this film in the first place was because I had been filmed for TV the year before and asked to paint for the camera. This was such a bizarre experience, thinking that what I normally did in private had now been seen nationwide kind of freaked me out.
Even though the film that Channel 4 made was great, I think I wanted to do something myself to sort of redress the balance. I've always wanted to connect with a wide audience like most artists but this can sometimes be problematic with some types of work. I think that taking the film out and delivering seminars and workshops alongside it was great in terms of feeling you are directly communicating with people and getting positive responses. Occasionally though some criticism would be good!
CH: Has the video process helped clarify the paradox between what is art and what is work?
BC: I'm interested in the way that painting is work when it is being made, but becomes art as soon as it is a finished product on a gallery wall. In a sense documenting the painting process highlighted the importance of the processes in my work. Especially in this case where I didn't have enough time to finish the paintings during my 7 weeks at Yorkshire ArtSpace, but have ended up with a finished film of the process. Some of the work I'm currently developing is more process lead so it was certainly significant for the development of my practice.
CH: In the seminars, what sort of questions is coming back from the public? Do responses vary according to the context?
BC: Responses have certainly varied from venue to venue. We visited some very different places - primary schools through to foundation courses. This meant I had to present work and ideas to people with very different perceptions of the project. One day I would be talking to F.E. students and the next to people with learning disabilities.
This was a challenge because I'm so used to thinking about my practice in art-world terms. It was a really good thing to do because it made me focus on the core of my work. Responses have been very good. I think sometimes it's enough for disabled people just to meet another disabled person who is working in the mainstream. No matter what they think of the work that's on display, just taking the work out to people is a positive gesture in itself.
Current exhibitions of Ben Cove's work
Alison Jones talks about the impact of TransART
Colin Hambrook asked NWDAF's Arts Project Manager Alison Jones about the impact of TransART.
CH: What kinds of venues/Organisations were receptive to the idea of TransART?
AJ: A wide range of venues/organisations across Merseyside including segregated schools (both primary and secondary, Social Service day/resource centres, further education colleges (media, art & design departments), arts centres and art galleries (for example, Bluecoat Arts Centre, Citadel Arts Centre and Tate Liverpool) and public spaces such as the Albert Dock, Liverpool.
CH: What kind of feedback have you had? Has the project been successful in communicating ideas of Disability Arts and culture?
AJ: We've had very positive feedback from both disabled and non-disabled communities. Disabled young people saw Ben as a positive role model. Engaging with his work led to the realisation that art could be a career option for disabled people. A group of disabled writers at the Citadel Arts Centre were inspired by the physicality of Ben's creative process and responded by writing down their thoughts and feelings. Disabled people participating in proactive arts activities within social service resource centres were keen to share their experience of the creative processes involved when making art.
Non-disabled students studying media and art and design benefited from engaging with a practising artist who uses working methods that are unconventional, but at the same time fascinating and truly innovative. Non-disabled students with hidden impairments felt empowered to identify themselves as disabled people and recognized the value of being part of a wider collective identity.
One of the aims of TransART was to break down the barriers that prevent access to the contemporary visual arts for many disabled people because of inadequate access, both physical and attitudinal. By using the van as a mobile resource to take art directly to various communities across Merseyside TransART went some way to achieving this. Providing an opportunity to raise awareness, educate and inform and attract new audiences to Disability Arts.
CH: What kinds of debates have arisen from the workshops?
AJ: A group of disabled visual artists were invited to participate in a seminar at the Bluecoat Arts Centre and tackle some of the issues they face. Ben's film was used as a starting point for discussion exploring issues such as the artist's physical limitations when producing large scale paintings and the way in which he found alternative mechanisms to accommodate such limitations. We explored the content of the work and its relevance to both disabled and non-disabled audiences.
There are questions around identity and where a disabled artist fits in the mainstream, which are important get people talking about.
Generally we had a very good turn-out to the events we organised. Audiences were in excess of 500 and varied in age and background.