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Aaron Williamson suggests the establishment of an independent art state on Spike Island, Bristol / 25 February 2010

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Image courtesy of Spike Island. Photo: Adam Faraday

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This is my 4th week as the Adam Reynolds Bursarist at Spike Island and whereas the actual business of making things has still to be attended to, I think the work is coming into focus. More on this later, but first a description of / homage to Spike Island.

It actually is an island being a thin strip of land about a mile long with bridges at either end taking you over to ‘the mainland’ and it is also – roughly - in the shape of a harpoon spike.

Once over the small footbridge from Bristol, (about 20 metres), for me the Island immediately becomes something fantastical – like with Prospero and his Tempest etc.

I have a thing about islands and a couple of years ago did a performance on a tiny one in Lake Kuopio, Finland. For seven hours I circled the perimeter shouting through a tin-cone loudhailer to shore ‘Olen saari!’ (I am an island’ in Finnish).

The resulting bedlam from the shock-effects of the massive amplification that the huge lake’s weird acoustics created (an effect that I was entirely unaware even as the police helicopters circled overhead) can be read about in my book Performance, Video, Collaboration or in Colin Hambrook’s review of it on dao

Back to this island though. I’m currently studying and imitating anthropological accounts of ‘primitive societies’ and Spike Island, I reckon, could offer itself as the subject of such a study even if the ‘primitive’ qualifier would need teasing out.

The arts centre is the heart and focus of the tiny island and is surrounded by modern flats / wharf conversions for solvent folks who appear to spend most of their time jogging about and looking worn out.

The building –accessible throughout - covers 80,000 square feet and houses 70+ artist’s studios, a design centre, a department of UWE’s Fine Arts course with a large number of students and a print studio and metal/wood workshops.

Then there’s the spacious galleries – current show Amanda Beach – the café and the research centre/room where a breathless series of talks and presentations take place and another independent gallery ‘Works / Projects’ housed at the rear of the building – now showing new work by Edwina Ashton.

The curator of Spike Island, Marie-Anne McQuay is currently at the eye of this storm of activity, and last week gave an engaging talk on the subject of utopias / dystopias. I was struck, as a ‘foreigner’ to the island (I sneak back to London at weekends) just how this subject could have been addressed a little closer to home and the island itself appraised for its other-worldliness compared to life in nearby England.

There could be many ways of looking at Spike as a utopia / dystopia (categories that I don’t distinguish between but that’s a whole book to argue). The most obvious factor though is that the main work of the island – its sole export - is art, and that is an incendiary, utopian / dystopian product to be handling, for sure.

At nights a good-sized crowd assemble in the island’s crucible of gossip and debate, the Orchard Inn (I’ve looked for trees and there aren’t any about on the concrete docks so presumably the Inn’s name is a joke). Along with Marie-Anne and the alarmingly small number of committed staff that somehow manages to keep things going; the students, the visiting artists, academics, studio artists, designers and anyone else sucked into the maelstrom, all plot and argue, passionately debating the nature and purpose of their toil.

Last week I sat in ‘The Orchard’ among a lively, hunched ring of University lecturers and proposed to them, late on, that the bridges to the island be blown up and an ‘independent state of art’ declared, complete with border controls, an army of naked performance artists conscripted, and an anthem adopted from another island of troubles:

‘The sea oh the sea, is the gradh geal mo croide; long may it stay between England and me, It’s a sure guarantee that some hour we’ll be free. Oh thank god we’re surrounded by water!'

Keywords: visual art