Alice Gale-Feeny interviews Kirsty Ogg, Antony Micallef & Sean Edwards

As the nights begin to draw in and Autumn creeps into the landscape and our rituals, the Nottingham Castle Open 2014 application deadline also is encroaching upon us  (Midnight, Sunday 5 Oct 2014).  We have had an impressive amount of early applications so far, and it is a delight to see more artists applying from the West Midlands too. Following on from our series of articles drawing attention to past winners, thoughts from our Sponsors, and insights into how the exhibition has evolved over the years, we invited Nottingham-based artist Alice Gale-Feeny to talk to  Kirsty Ogg, Antony Micallef and Sean Edwards about their role as selectors for the Nottingham Castle Open 2014.

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Alice Gale-Feeny:  There is a certain expectation, due to the fact all works submitted have been made in the last year, that the Nottingham Castle Open reflects a relevant example of what Midlands-based artists are doing now. How do you judge what is relevant? Particularly for the audience who will see the exhibition?

Kirsty Ogg:  That is a good question. By its nature, work that has been made in the last year will always be a snap shot of what is happening in the region and the show is a reflection of that to a certain extent. One of our jobs as selectors, and I suppose my position as a curator, is to try and identify any tendencies in practice that might emerge as part of the process and how that might relate to a broader, national and international field of practice. It is impossible to try and second guess whether we might want to work with these tendencies, or find another ‘story’ to tell. The narrative of the exhibition is communicated to the audience via their own interpretations, and I am quite sure that there will be those who agree with our selection and others who don’t. Our responsibility is to make a selection we feel we can stand by.

Antony Micallef:  I personally feel the art has to have some power of its own. It has to communicate within the parameters it has set itself. The fact that it has been made in the last year is relevant enough for me. It’s not about trend or fashion it’s about the art speaking for itself.

Sean Edwards:  I’m not really sure that it’s possible to judge what is relevant, or indeed meet anyone’s expectations of what should come about from an open show. I guess as judges the best we can do is select work that speaks to us, and ultimately wants us to ask more of it; to see it in the flesh and to spend time with it. I’m not sure I’m interested in relevance with regards to an idea or what is ‘now’, but rather its relevance to individuals. Its ‘nowness’ will come from the criteria of it being new work.

Maelfa, 2011, Spike Island, Bristol, UK. Image courtesy Sean Edwards

Maelfa, 2011, Spike Island, Bristol, UK. Image courtesy Sean Edwards

A.GF:  Is it important to distance yourself from the process of selecting to a certain degree? Do you feel there is an obligation to choose not only works that you like, but works that deserve a platform because they are raising current questions?

K.O:  Trying to be objective is important; it is also important to try and keep focused during the selection process and this isn’t always easy! For example, taking lots of breaks so that you are fresh and don’t miss anything. I am not sure that I would draw a distinction between work that I like and work that addresses current concerns. What is more important is seeing work that clearly demonstrates a position in their practice and an individual voice that isn’t trying to second guess either the needs of galleries or the market.

A.M:  I think these are good questions. I think it would be hard to choose work I don’t like and after all, I’m only human. I’m shaped by my own experiences which in turn influence my decisions and taste. I am mindful and of course aware of myself being a painter, but I think good art stands out no matter what medium it is. It’s all about how you use your language. If a work raises questions and the piece is physically successful in it’s own right, then even better. I think the best art for me sings and encapsulate all this together. You know it when you see it (or hear it) because you just get it. S.E:  It’s important to seek out good work. Naturally one is drawn to works that one ‘likes’ but good works are not simply about liking something. Often the best works, the ones that stay with me, are the ones that I don't like. And I think that's an important part of the selection, to avoid the easy choices.

Bestial descent. Oil, charcoal and gold leaf on linen 80cm x 100cm. Image courtesy Antony Micallef.

Bestial descent. Oil, charcoal and gold leaf on linen 80cm x 100cm. Image courtesy Antony Micallef.

A.GF:  In agreeing to do this interview, you are providing a certain level of transparency to the whole process behind the Castle Open. Do you think this allows the sometimes bureaucratic nature of applications and the selection process, to be broken down and reconsidered?

K.O:  I think that all open submission opportunities try to be as transparent as possible and being accountable is part of that process.

A.M:  I can only speak for myself here, but the art I find most interesting is visceral and instinctive, no matter what the medium. Of course I’ll be judging with a panel, so I’ll have to consider and listen to others, which should be a pleasure. I’m sure this will be a very challenging process for all involved. Honesty and a will to listen; to be open and look at things differently, will help us all.

S.E:  I don't think so. There will always be a feeling by the artist’s that there is a bureaucratic system in place; often by the artist’s who do not get selected. I think maybe what this process (the interview) allows us a glimpse into an individuals approach to the selection process. But that is an individuals perspective and not representative of everyone.

A.GF:  Why do you think you have been asked to select for the Nottingham Castle Open?

K.O:  Bloomberg New Contemporaries is launching in Nottingham in 2015.  We are working with a number of venues in the city, including Nottingham Castle, and being involved in the selection of the Open is a good way to cement this working relationship.

A.M:  I’m flattered to be asked. I’ve been working hard at my profession for 14 years now. I’ve been exhibiting for a while and have been through a lot of processes and changes within my art career, so I think this makes me a valid candidate. Judging art is never an easy thing, and it’s so personal. I think you have to look at it with an open mind and an objectiveness, which only comes from experience.

S.E: Perhaps because of my existing relationship to Nottingham with the projects I undertook with [former] MOOT gallery between 2005-2010. It's a relationship that has continued so I know the scene a little here, but not like a local. I also think it’s partly to do with my role as a practitioner engaged in what could be called ‘sculptural practices’ and having that represented on the panel.

Putting Right, 2014, Limoncello, London, UK. Image courtesy of Limoncello and Sean Edwards.

Putting Right, 2014, Limoncello, London, UK. Image courtesy of Limoncello and Sean Edwards.

A.GF:  As selectors, you each have quite diverse artistic practices. The applicants will in turn be working across a broad range of media. How will you approach this? Is it important that the selection is cohesive?

K.O:  Each of us have our own set of interests and preoccupations in terms of practice, that we will bring to the selection process but I think one of the interesting things about being involved in an open submission show, is having those assumptions challenged by the work that we see. It is also about how we work as a group and the decisions that we make together; I am sure that there will be moments of cohesion within the selected work as well as pieces that break that cohesion.

A.M:  Of course it’s important but I think cohesiveness can work in a number of ways. It’s not entirely about aesthetics. We are a small group of people bringing together an exhibition from a completely random selection. I think the beauty will be in its celebration of this diversity. This is what it’s about. It’s about the ingredients we have (similar to forming a meal with a number of chefs).

S.E:  I think this emerges in the selection process. Naturally with the diverse practices we might be drawn to different things but that's the point of having three selectors. From my previous experience on selection panels, the most interesting shows in the end, are the ones where you as an individual, argues the merit of works you really feel should be in the show.

Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2014, at ICA, London. Image: BNC

Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2014, at ICA, London. Image: BNC

A.GF:  Is there a particular medium that doesn’t naturally suit application processes like this one? How may artists find ways to tackle this when applying to the Open in terms of representing their work?

K.O:  If there are a lot of applicants, it is sometimes difficult for long moving image work to have the full attention that it deserves. Organisers of open submission shows try to create as even a playing field for artists working across all media.

A.M:  Again I feel this all depends, and only the art itself can dictate this. Of course there are more accessible or familiar mediums that are easier to divulge and digest. In turn, the very decision to use certain mediums, that come with their own parameters require a different respect. This will be based on how well the language of that medium is used.

S.E:  Personally I think sculpture can have a tricky time.  At its best, it engages with a real world experience that includes how you approach, move around it and uncover it in relation to bodily experience in time.  As a ‘sculptor’, you have on one side to try and capture that process - it’s hard.  But also those who make moving image work, and i’m sure painters would say they have a rough deal.  As selectors we know we are not looking at the work itself.  But outside the context of an open, we now experience work to a much greater degree through documentation.  I think that's what’s great about an open; you are captured by something, essentially an image, and have the option to choose to see it for real.  I have been disappointed when seeing works I’ve selected through documentation. It’s amazing what the filter of the screen can do.

A.GF:  Antony and Sean, how will your experience as a painter/sculptor influence how you select applicants working in in this medium?

A.M:  I can look at a painting objectively as a painter myself. I can look at the use of line and form and tell how confident that artist is with his/her hand. You can read paintings in the same way a detective can observe a crime scene and understand how it was formulated. At the end of the day, I have to be objective and will apply the same criteria to painting as I do when looking at any other medium.

S.E:  I guess this ties in with my answers above. Obviously those issues will be things that I take on board but it certainly won’t alter my preference. Selecting is about seeking out ‘good’ work, regardless of medium.

Antony Micallef in his London studio. Image courtesy the artist.

Antony Micallef in his London studio. Image courtesy the artist.

A.GF:  Antony and Sean, could you speak about a particularly positive experience of being in an ‘open’ exhibition or group show?

A.M: I entered the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery in the year 2000 and came second, which in turn started my career. I’m fully aware of the apprehension one feels in entering an open submission. They are tricky exhibitions to be a part of, as you are being ‘judged’. Whenever you exhibit, you are always judged, as we are in so many ways in life, but ones art is always a reflection of ones self, so it can be a very personal thing to take on. I admire anyone who gives this a shot and enters whether they get in or not.

S.E:  I’ve genuinely always had positive experiences of group shows. Early on in my career after having just graduated, they were great platforms to show the work (even if not selected).  The fact that a number of judges see your work shouldn't be underestimated.  I guess a highlight when first graduating was being selected for the Mostyn Open (2006). One of the selectors was Bethan Huws, an artist I greatly admire.

A.GF:  Kirsty, how does your experience as Director of Bloomberg New Contemporaries influence the way you will approach the Nottingham Castle Open?

K.O:  In addition to my new role at New Contemporaries, I have been involved in selecting and organising a number of open submission exhibitions from Norwich Gallery’s ‘EAST International’, to Whitechapel Gallery’s ‘The London Open’ and the Dazed Emerging Artist Award, so I am quite used to looking at artists work in that context.

Image (L-R): Elizabeth Neilson (Director, Zabludowicz Collection), Kirsty Ogg (Curator, Whitechapel Gallery) and Charlotte Higgins (Chief Arts Writer,The Guardian) discuss applications at the Contemporary Art Society, July 2013. Photo: Joe Plommer & the Contemporary Art Society, 2013.

Image (L-R): Elizabeth Neilson (Director, Zabludowicz Collection), Kirsty Ogg (Curator, Whitechapel Gallery) and Charlotte Higgins (Chief Arts Writer,The Guardian) discuss applications at the Contemporary Art Society, July 2013. Photo: Joe Plommer & the Contemporary Art Society, 2013.

A.GF:  Bloomberg New Contemporaries has a different set of criteria to the Castle Open. Nottingham welcomes all artists over the age of 18, who may or may not have formal art training.  What role does the Castle Open play for the region do you think?

K.O:  While it is important that younger artists have a platform for their work, I think that it is also crucial that older artists have an opportunity to show their work in open submission shows. It is an obvious thing to say, but not all artists are the same and their practices develop at different rates and in different ways over time. The art world has its young stars, as well as more mature artists who have come to prominence at a much later stage in their careers. Open submission shows allow work that has been overlooked or a new developments in a practice to be highlighted.

S.E:  I think regional opens can be a great way to see emerging practices and artists that may slip under the radar.

Alice Gale-Feeny is currently showing HairWashCarWash  at Two Queens, Leicester until 27 September 2014.   HairWashCarWash is a research project, performance and exhibition  developed alongside hair salon assistants, car wash attendants and artists local to Leicester.