Julie Myers: on residencies

Artist Julie Myers talks to Artquest’s Nick Kaplony about her experiences of the various residencies she has undertaken over the course of her career.

Julie Myers is an artist and lecturer at Kingston University, London whose practice combines film, photography and drawing with web and mobile technologies. Julie’s work responds to place: specific contexts beyond the studio or gallery. Making work in different locations with different people is key in the development of that practice. Often adopting the role of ‘the stranger’ or ‘protagonist’ to investigate and describe everyday ways in which people make sense of their environment.

Nick Kaplony: What do you look for in a residency?

Julie Myers: I look for ways in which a residency will extend and enhance my practice. Sometimes this is about learning something new, for instance at The Banff New Media Centre, Canada, I learnt how to develop content for mobile phone platforms. Or, sometimes I look for a residency that will offer me the opportunity to work in a completely different environment, this was the case at Adobe Systems in San Francisco, where I worked within a corporate context.

NK:  How do you decide when the right time to go on a residency is? Is it a question of waiting for the right opportunity to come along or do you actively seek out residencies at key stages in the development of your practice?

JM: I usually apply for residencies that I am particularly interested in, so it is mostly a case of waiting for the right opportunity to come along. In my early career I undertook a number of residencies with schools and community groups in and around London, these enabled me to develop strategies of engagement that invite participation from others in the form of collective activities, shared storytelling, site-specific events and workshops. Sometimes I make an application to an open call, but more often I make an application that reflects an evolving process which includes discussion with the residency director and the staff team at the host venue. The international residencies I have undertaken have mostly been commissioned and funded by Arts Council England, in these cases the schedule has been determined by ACE.

NK: In terms of the residencies that you have been on, how would you say the experience has helped your career and your practice?

JM: All the residencies have contributed in some way to my practice and provided me with an insight into alternative working models. My placement at Adobe Systems in San Francisco, where I produced a project called To Travel Somewhere (2008) was especially inspiring because I experienced the interdisciplinary methods of production that exist in Silcon Valley, California. Here I was able to learn more about the relationship between art, technology and business and make contacts with funding bodies and institutions in the US to expand my career opportunities abroad. The residency at Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridge in 2010 was instrumental in furthering my understanding of alternative forms of presentation and placed my work firmly within current thinking surrounding contemporary art practice. During that residency I produced Flora Data (2010), a series of animated drawings that move in response to live weather data. This project involved collaborating with the Computer Science and the Plant Science departments at Cambridge University and with local gardeners. My final presentation included a guided tour, an outdoor installation and a performative lecture. Wysings Arts Centre’s experience of hosting artist residences, and their curatorial vision was invaluable in the presentation and dissemination of the work.

NK: What advice could you offer other practitioners in terms of actions they could take to maximise the benefits that a residency might offer them?

JM: Be realistic about what you can achieve in the time and within the budget of the residency. It can be hard to maintain a balance of producing work that responds to a new environment and remains consistent within your own research themes. A residency programme does not always include an exhibition or presentation of work. In some cases this is good because artists are not put under pressure to meet a deadline. But, I personally like to work to an end point, so, if an end point is not in place I invent my own and find ways to present and document the work. Residencies can provide the opportunity to try out new ideas, it’s a good time to take risks and push the boundaries of your usual practice. It’s a good idea to connect your work to as many other venues and institutions as possible, host organisations usually have their own network of contacts so try to utilise these to reach a wider audience. Often the other artists, writers, musicians etc. you meet during a residency become strong connections for the future.

NK:  So that’s the good side of residencies, but can you tell us about some of the unexpected problems or challenges that you’ve faced while on a residency and how (or indeed if) you overcame them?

JM: As a visiting artist you enter an existing infrastructure, it is important to be sensitive to what is already in place and understand how the institution functions. There are always unexpected problems, because residencies deal with real people in real places. For myself, I like this fluidity, I like working with uncertainty and improvising with what I find in these different contexts. The limitations I encounter often make the work stronger, but this can sometimes be stressful. If the residency period involves teaching, running workshops or giving technical guidance be very clear at the start of the residency about how much of your time with be allocated to this.

NK:  Its easy to make certain assumptions when we see a residency opportunity advertised, but actually there are a huge range of different residency models out there.  Could you perhaps give us just three or four different types of residency you’ve experienced, and say which ones you found most rewarding and why?

JM: INTERACT (2008) was an Arts Council England initiative to encourage dialogue between artists and industry. The project brief invited the artist to explore mobile technology and social experience and the placement lasted 4 months. Adobe Systems, San Francisco provided an office space and technical assistance, Montalvo Arts Centre, provided living and studio space and Arts Council England provided a fee and travel costs. The work that I started at Adobe developed into a much larger project which included presentations in Cambridge, UK, Helsinki, Finland and San Jose, USA. A residency model like this relies on a network of professionals and experienced institutions: Michelle Mann and Winston Wang, Adobe; Bronac Ferran and Dawn Giles, Arts Council England; Gordon Knox, Montalvo Arts Centre; Chris Rogers and Annette Wolfsberger, The Junction, Cambridge; and Susanne Santala, Kunsthalle, Helsinki, all of whom worked together to support this project and its outcomes.

WYSING ARTS CENTRE is a research and development centre for the visual arts set in 11 acres of rural Cambridgeshire. Each year a series of themed residencies are advertised. Successful artists are given a space to live in, a studio to work in and a fee.
Throughout the year a series of alternative exhibitions, workshops and events are hosted by Wysing Arts Centre, in which the residency artists are invited to present work. The setting and the staff team at Wysing Arts Centre encourage artists to explore new ideas and extend their practice in a professional and supportive environment.

THE BANFF NEW MEDIA INSTITUTE is located in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. These residencies are delivered along similar lines to that of a summer school, combining a period of learning, making and presentation. The Banff Centre provides a studio and accommodation for the artist and the artist’s country of origin usually provides funding for travel and maintenance. The extraordinary location of The Banff Centre, and the variety of artists, musicians, writers, dancers, mathematicians, scientists etc. that pass through the various programmes fosters a unique environment of creative exchange.

RESIDENCIES IN SCHOOLS, MEDIA/COMMUNITY CENTRES. Residencies that involve working with members of a local community have many different models. As a younger artist I undertook residencies in a number schools and community centres, and last year completed a residency at Knowle West Media Centre, Bristol.

These often involve making a piece of work with a participating group of local people. There is often a brief, or an expectation that needs to be addressed. These can be the most complex residencies to work with and the artist has to be very clear about what their role is and what the outcome might be. Having said that, I often find that these residencies can provide the artist with very enriching experiences that inevitably contribute to a developing process.

NK: What practical preparations do you make before going on a longer international residency?

JM: I organise my other work commitments and apply for a period of sabbatical leave from the university where I work. I put in place any visa, insurance or health requirements that might apply. I think about transport and organise what I will need to travel around the residency location independently.

NK: Is there any advice you can give to practitioners with families and children regarding residencies. Have you ever taken the family with you and what pluses and minuses were there to this?

JM: There have been times when it has been possible for my family to join me on a residency. This obviously means that I have to pay the extra costs, but my feeling is that having my family around has added to the quality of the experience for myself and my family and I have had very positive feedback from host venues. I think its important that residencies do not discriminate against artists with children. Having a child often helps me make stronger connections with the local community, which in turn embeds the work within a specific place and makes the outcomes more relevant.
However, some residencies are clearly not set up for families. Perhaps they are designed as places of reflection and retreat, perhaps they only have shared living accommodation, or offer only very short residency periods. In these cases it is not appropriate to take family members.

NK: Is there any other advice you can offer to an artist about to embark on their first residency?

JM: I have often found that as a residency is nearing completion I typically am able to reflect, with hindsight on a range of new possibilities for practice in the particular setting, so a good balance between being prepared and open to the possibilities on offer has been a good way to go for me.

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