Drawn to the Beat
By Andy Brydon Director of Curated Place
Naomi Kendrick's Drawn to the Beat event at Band on the Wall represented a brave and hugely successful step for the artist who has until recently been better known, at least in the world of sanctioned cultural establishments, for her practice pushing the boundaries of accessibility in museums and galleries than for her output as an image maker in her own right.
Certainly in the world of outreach her reputation precedes her with her practice being recognised as breaking new ground creating experiences that allow disabled, partially sighted and blind people to engage with art exhibitions on a level playing field with the 'able-bodied' and sighted. But often, having words like access, outreach and education associated with your artistic output can be something of a millstone rather than a benefit.
On the one hand working in these fields has given many artists the opportunity to break into the trusted inner sanctum of the gallery world - opening up networks and creating relationships to the places where commissioning decisions are made and exhibitions are planned (as well as helping pay the bills). However, all too often by creating relationships within establishments as 'the access expert' means that artists are then perceived as nothing more than that - falling into the trap of becoming institutionally compartmentalised by senior staff who talk of them in hushed tones behind closed doors as "being a bit 'community'".
The irony is that most of the public and trust-based funding dished out over the past decade has been fundamentally justified on the strength of this kind of work - creating legacy and extending the reach of the institution beyond the privileged and elite. However, its widely understood within galleries and museums, though rarely talked about openly, that most curators and gallery directors programme not for audiences, or even artists, but for their peers - other curators.
In the cultural landscape over the past 15 years or so this outlook has proved a winning formula. Many of those that have progressed into museum and gallery senior management have developed careers and secured regularly funded positions by establishing themselves as brokers of taste and artistic excellence by ensuring their intellectual output appealed to those in a position to give them their next career break - generally not artists. In addition, while it would be unfair to sat that the majority have developed successful careers without having any regard for their audiences, it is fair to say that audiences have been featured a lot more prominently in the education and outreach provision of institutions that have grown to sit alongside, rather than integral to, curated programmes.
While this preaching to the choir approach has been successful in the boom times, and led to the championing of the arts as a cornerstone of UK Plc, the drastic stripping back of the public purse that we're only experiencing the beginnings of leaves the frontline of the art world in a significantly different position that even 12 months ago. No longer is there the cash flow to drop in a rock-star YBA to substantiate your city's claims to cosmopolitanism, nor can wild architectural gestures any longer be justified merely on their status as "iconic". What is required to justify prolonged investment into the arts from both the public and private purse, is art that simultaneously engages and enriches audiences without neglecting the aesthetic or intellectual rigour that gives those of us already bought into the importance of maintaining a healthy cultural and creative ecosystem a firm belief in its long-term value and worth.
It's telling then that Kendrick, as an artist that has done her apprenticeship at the audience facing coalface of the cultural world, decided to deliver her highest profile solo event to date, outside of the structures of the institutions that have, over time, come to neglect that aspect of their function in what they deliver as a headline product.
Both devising and delivering Drawn to the Beat Kendrick successfully blurred the boundaries of curated show and participatory experience and, in doing so, demonstrated that it is possible to deftly walk in the shoes of arts facilitator and artist having shrugged off the burdens of being regarded as an 'outreach specialist' without disregarding the wealth of experience she has gained working face to face and hand in hand with audiences. Indeed, it is her skill in communicating the creative process, no doubt learnt by spending more time in galleries when audiences are actually there than any curator could imagine, that enabled the participants in Drawn to the Beat, to unashamedly and wholeheartedly participate in her work.
Prior to the event it was easy to see that Kendrick's concept of music drawing had the potential to create beautiful work, her own pieces first publicly featured in Blank Media's recent Blankmarket show being snapped up by collectors even before the exhibition had even officially opened. However, while collectors buying an artist's work may bolster confidence in their creative process it is another thing entirely to then extending what is a personal creative practice into a public space. In doing so Kendrick demonstrated a huge amount of courage to release her concept onto an untrained, unvetted and unknown audience that I've rarely seen within 'the institution' and showed a generosity to share her approach that an artist more accustomed to working in the mould of the individual genius - sheltered and hidden away from their audience's reach - would have shied away from, fearing their personal artistic expression be shown up as unremarkable.
What was remarkable, seeing the evening unfold, was that Kendrick's own works remained as stand out pieces of art created using her music drawing approach without ever undermining the experience of those participants that came along to do their own.
Stood in the room on the mezzanine of Band on the Wall it was easy to understand why. Looking down on the hundred or so people freely expressing their personal attachment to the music I was, for a moment, overcome with the feeling of being a voyeur. A feeling exacerbated by the use of silent disco to pipe the evening's dual soundtracks direct to participants personal headphones rather than through a room filling PA. Whilst watching without donning headphones myself it felt as though I was been given privileged, albeit illicit, access to the inner-states of those listening - a state that left me incapable of criticising their creative output on account of the immediacy and freedom of expression unmediated by structures of external aesthetic hierarchy. Later, grabbing a pair of headphones and jumping into the silent disco experience, (albeit still as a spectator rather than a participant), that experience of being ill equipped to criticise a truly personal response was transformed into a remarkable opportunity to empathise with the self-choreographed movements of a room full of people all reacting to the same soundtrack in their own unique way.
The resulting drawings were of wildly varying quality when viewed objectively, some wonderfully free and brilliant, others disappointingly contrived. However, having been external spectator, semi-connected eavesdropping voyeur and ultimately a fully-fledged participant it became clear that the process itself succeeded in being a beautiful work of art on multiple levels. Rewarding as both a communal experience and a means of nurturing individual expression Draw to the Beat achieved a rare feat in a world, like the institutionalise gallery, increasingly defined by the growing chasm between self and other - it connected people. It just so happens that when Kendrick does it herself it also results in spectacular art.
Andy Brydon is a curator and creative producer specialising in explorations of contemporary urban cultures that challenge traditional institutions. His hands-on, immersive approach straddles the void between curator, storyteller and artist, delving into all aspects of popular culture including music, film, photography and gardening. He is the director of arts production company Curated Place and responsible for the exhibitions Haçienda 25: Fac491, HomeGrown: The Story of UK Hip Hop, and Reality Hack: Hidden Manchester with Andrew Brooks. He is also the festival producer for the 2011 FutureEverything festival in Manchester.
Links below to further press for Drawn to the Beat
South Manchester Reporter -13th January 2011
Curated Place - 15th January 2011
Arts Council England News - 28th February 2011
Blankpages (Blank Media Collective) - 1st March 2011