“Art is part of our DNA,” says Jeremy Deller, while sculptor Richard Wentworth believes that “without art people won’t love each other, they won’t even hold hands”.
They’re just two of the contemporary artists who crop up in the latest Manchester Cornerhouse Artist Film (CAF) Art Party, very deliberately released on on Thursday August 21, the day the GCSE results are announced, against a backdrop of 14 per cent fewer students studying art.
“Art Party,” explains Cornerhouse’s artistic director Sarah Perks, “is part documentary, part road movie and part political fantasy, aiming to capture something of the spirit of the Scarborough alternative art conference held in November 2013.”
That event championed the importance of art and its place in education and modern politics at a time when many artists feel that creativity itself, particularly in school-age children, is under threat. With the likes of former Minister for Education Michael Gove apparently unwilling or unable to comprehend its intrinsic value, it’s no wonder that Cornelia Parker says she is “upset working class kids like her won’t choose arts subjects”, while poet Maureen Duffy fears “the Treasury boys are coming to sell off our pictures!” and artist Haroon Mirza points out that, contrary to the philistine fears of Gove and his ilk, “art can be maths, physics and technology”.
“Like the last CAF project Hiker Meat which proposed the question ‘How do we remake a film which never existed?’, Art Party is a project that exists in a few different formats,” Perks observes. “Bob and Roberta Smith, the British artist whose best known works include Make Art Not War, worked with film-maker Tim Newton, who worked often over the years with maverick theatre director Ken Campbell, to produce the film. But it’s also a political statement about arts education, in particular its relationship to the national curriculum and how we need to constantly revise, revisit and celebrate the importance of art, particularly as the UK shouts so much about its creative exports. It’s also set up, in a fairly tongue-in-cheek style, like a party political conference. So The Art Party was held recently in Scarborough, exactly the kind of place where the political parties tend to hold their conferences.”
Scarborough, as is pointed out in the film, also happens to be the place where the country’s first ever Arts Foundation Course was established. “Yes, there were panel discussions and the like, but it was also a party in the sense of being an enjoyable gathering with live bands and so on. The film itself is both a document of that event and a narrative film in its own right, featuring characters such as one called ‘Michael Grove’.”
Any similarity in that fictional narrative to anyone living, dead or somewhere in between is absolutely not coincidental, of course. Gove, incidentally, turned down the chance to appear, as did Harriet Harman and Maria Miller. Perks, I feel compelled to point out, though, can be glimpsed in the film, dancing alongside one of the actors.
“The film will be released on the GCSE results day to tie it in to a news focus on the education system,” she emphasises. “We’re also encouraging large and small venues screening the film to hold their own Art Party on that day, collaborating with local artists to become part of the Art Party movement, which is not a formal political party but a loose grouping of artists and organisations who are deeply concerned about the Government diminishing the role of all the arts and design in schools.”
There will be major art parties at venues including Cornerhouse, the ICA in London, Chapter in Cardiff, and the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, as well as cinemas, art galleries and art schools across the UK from Derry to Exeter, Newcastle to Margate, Liverpool to Leeds.
Cornerhouse Artist Films was set up in 2011 ‘to investigate new methods of production, distribution and exhibition for artist feature film, exploring digital technology while making use of our unique bridge between visual arts networks, artists and independent film exhibition’. They’ve already produced Gillian Wearing’s Self Made, Andrew Kötting’s Swandown, and, most recently, Jamie Shovlin’s Rough Cut.
“We know that a film like Rough Cut is never going to be a blockbuster,” laughs Perks. “It’s a first feature film from a conceptual artist who blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality, involving other art forms, including film, in his practice. It’s a logical conclusion and extension of the Hiker Meat project about a fictitious exploitation film that he’s been working on for many years. During that time various artifacts, such as props, have come into existence.
“So Rough Cut is a film about the world of film-making as well as the essence of Hiker Meat as a low-budget exploitation film and how one works with those ideas. It is an artifact in its own right which you can see in various cinemas and on demand. But as it rolls out around the country, because it’s a visual arts project, there will be various other projects associated with it.” The forthcoming fifth release under the Cornerhouse Art Film banner, Perks reveals, “is a project some people may already be familiar with, called Subconscious Society by Rosa Barba. Its first incarnations, in what could turn out to be a very long history by the time we’ve finished it, were a couple of installation versions here and at Turner Contemporary in Margate.
“Barba, who explores film both as a material and as something you use to produce something else, conceived the project to be in some ways about the changes in society and the move from the analogue to the digital age. She wanted to explore both an interior and an exterior visualisation of that so in Manchester we chose as a focus the Albert Hall, a building that, until very recently at least, had really stopped being used in the 60s, and called out for people to come along with their memories and stories. We took some of those participants, along with a local community theatre group and also some university students, into that space to workshop over a few days around the brief of setting up new ideas of society and change, filming all that on 35 mm. film.
“Then, around Margate, we looked for landscape shots to externalise those stories. In fact, we shot on some of the last Fuji 35 mm. film being produced, so it also became about how the function of that film has changed to become much more specialized in the digital age.
“Rosa also shot some 16mm. footage at an installation in New York and at her residency in Texas before coming back to do some more audio in Manchester.
“A feature length film version of that project has already been seen in Europe and there should soon also be a single-channel film presentation, without the performative elements, that will embark on a bespoke tour around the UK. Ironically enough, there will then be a DVD release.”
With these sorts of forward-looking and provocative projects coinciding with and reflecting the rise of HOME, then surely, whatever happens to the actual Cornerhouse building (please God, though, not just another hotel-based development), Manchester’s place as one of the most exciting places in Europe to be an artist right now is in no doubt.
To see the trailer for Art Party, click here