Simon Bayliss, an artist and writer based in Devon, has contributed this report on his experience as a participant in the 2013 Cornwall Workshop
A group of artists, curators and critics, all with differing art world experience, from seasoned international gallery directors to emerging artists based in the South West, gathered for a week-long intensive residency in the remote but creatively vital region of Cornwall. The second Cornwall Workshop developed from a series of regional events convened by independent curator Teresa Gleadowe, which includes Conventions in Falmouth and Penzance in 2010 and 2012 and a previous Workshop in 2011. They are conceived as international yet locally focused meetings, held to envisage and discuss differing ways to experience and produce art in Cornwall and other similarly dispersed regions.
Thus the weeklong intensive residency, led by artist Simon Starling, was packed with field trips, lectures, workshops and discussions relating to contemporary art and beyond, all rooted in a response to place and combined with an expansive international sensibility. It opened with communal walks devised by the artist Hamish Fulton on the weekend of 19 and 20 October, and featured a day-long writing workshop led by Ellen Mara De Wachter, and a fieldtrip guided by Billy Wynter and Hadrian Pigott.
‘I am a walking artist. If I cannot make walks, I cannot make work’. Hamish Fulton asserted this mantra at a packed Friday night lecture at Falmouth University. He spoke of his dedication, over the past four decades, to walking as the basis of his practice and presented a selection of photographs, graphics and visual poetry laconically reflecting the experience of solo treks and choreographed group walks in the landscape. The Cornwall Workshop participants gathered on the front stalls, and this keynote event was introduced as the beginning of our weeklong gathering.
The following day, after settling into the accommodation at Kestle Barton – a renovated ancient farmstead tucked away in a remote corner of the Lizard Peninsula – the group traversed the winding lanes, past the estuarine creeks of the Helford River, west toward Penzance. There we joined other collaborators to form a group of a hundred walkers on the seafront promenade to participate in the first of two monumental walks led by Hamish Fulton, commissioned to kick start the residency in ceremonial style. Participants were instructed to line-up at right angles to the esplanade, each framed between the lines of the paving. At eleven o’clock sharp we set off to walk for precisely one hour, pacing the width of the seafront promenade, back and forth, mimicking the ebb and flow of tide and surging waves. The directive was to move at a sustainable pace of ones own choice; some power-walked whilst a woman wearing golden wellington boots, made just one statuesque crossing.
In Fulton’s words, the second public walk, on Sunday morning, involved ‘180 people divided into 2 equal facing lines walking east walking west in silence at arm’s length from midday to one o’clock at low tide on Penzance Beach Cornwall England 20 October 2013’. Personal observations noted in response to this dynamic, albeit snail-paced, social event became the stimulus for a writing exercise. London-based art critic and curator Ellen Mara De Wachter led the writing session and tasked participants to compose a letter describing their experience.
You made an artwork for 180 people on Sunday morning, for all to gather and walk together in a coordinated engagement of an hour’s duration. Since you already know the structure and parameters that allowed such an event to happen, I can only offer you a report of some of the resulting instances.
As drops of rain disappeared, the incidental freedoms began. Should I look up from my path prescribed to me for an hour, and stare out to Saint Michael’s Mount? I know Saint Michael’s job in heaven was to guard the Kingdom and put up the barricades to keep the Devil out. But I think he arrived on the beach to us, for the Devil surely resides in the details. I can hear someone’s coat flapping in the breeze, or I might see the seagull fighting the wind. Feet shuffle in irregular patterns, while rumours abound of the perfect footsteps far ahead. Should I focus on the slow movement of my feet in straight line ahead? What about the seduction around, the possibility of eye contact with a stranger, or a glance ahead? What of a woman munching chocolate, or that row of five beautiful boys? The walk might be an erotic derangement turning us all into voyeurs around an air of potential liberty.
Fulton’s two contrasting walks continued to feed activity throughout the workshop. For participants, they provided a common experience and connection to a wider social sphere, as many of the other walkers were artists from the region. Further observations of the walks became an anchor for thought as discussions ensued. For example, the man who controversially sidestepped for the duration of the Sunday walk raised some important issues. Was he acting out of line? By abiding by Fulton’s rules, were the participants merely choreographed drones or were they entitled to a level of authorship? Was this work, which looked visually striking from a distance, designed with emphasis on the resulting photo-documentation and with less regard for participatory experience? And how did it relate to the Saturday walk, which evoked an exhilarating sense of personal freedom within its set parameters?
Interaction and Exchange
With organisational lightness and flexibility, and emphasis on the exchange of views and ideas, the workshop’s classroom sessions began on Saturday afternoon with an array of individual presentations by participants. In a sensitively renovated barn at our Lizard accommodation, international and South West-based artists and curators gathered around a table to give short insights into their recent activity, as a way of introducing their practice. Exeter-based artist Nick Davies presented his book d PlsUR of d Txt (2008), an ironic marriage of high and lowbrow culture – a translation in text message language of Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the text.
Netherlands-based curator Samuel Saelemakers described the tribulations and triumphs of a voyeuristic project – inserting artist Alexandre Singh’s studio within a public gallery, whilst Singh wrote an entire play on the creation of the universe. Further presentations took place the following day in the café at Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, where local guests joined the Workshop group for supper. Dorset-based artist Anna Best showcased Bearpits and Landmines (2011 – 13), an app she created for a public cycling project – a platform game featuring a cyclist riding through a dystopian landscape, which was subsequently downloaded on phones and passed around the table over dessert.
Insight into one another’s practices continued to unfold during the writing workshop, as participants were each asked to present a piece of writing that had influenced their practice. St Ives-based artist Naomi Frears described how Fischli and Weiss’s ten point manifesto How to Work Better (1991) occupied a place of reverence in her studio: ‘6. Accept Change as Inevitable’.
Bristol-based artist Bryony Gillard shared a passage from Donald Barthelme’s short story The Balloon, in which the anonymous narrator retells public reaction to a gigantic sprawling balloon inflated over the streets of Manhattan. The purpose of the object is unclear, a public artwork perhaps: ‘some people claimed that they felt sheltered, warmed, as never before, while enemies of the balloon felt, or reported feeling, constrained, a ‘heavy’ feeling.’(1) The encompassing and flexible spirit of the workshop accommodated impromptu expansion of points of interest.
On one occasion, for example, Spanish curator Pedro de Llano elaborated on the mysterious story of conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, who vanished whilst attempting to cross the Atlantic from Chatham, Massachusetts to Falmouth, Cornwall in a 13-foot sailing boat. Within Ader’s small remaining body of work the artist presents himself as a failure; in one video he hangs from the branch of a tree until his strength fails and he drops into a muddy stream. The question of whether the artist’s oceanic disappearance was intentional was openly considered.
Contributing to the expanding web of discursive ideas and the ethos of open source learning, a flow of influential, interesting and generous people continuously dropped into the sphere of activity. Martin Clark, the former artistic director of Tate St Ives, joined for the latter part of the week, and friends and alumni of The Cornwall Workshop appeared discreetly during scheduled events or for the preparation of suppers. The informal atmosphere of the workshop spurred friendliness, conducive to exchange and flow between all involved.
The Turner-Prize winning artist and former professor of art at the Städelschule in Frankfurt was present throughout the week. He joined the audience at Fulton’s lecture, participated in the Fulton walks on Saturday and Sunday, and led the classroom sessions at Kestle Barton, which took the walks as a starting point for an exploration of relationships between action, experience and documentation.
As a way of examining this theme he played films such as Signer’s Koffer (1995), which documents Swiss artist Roman Signer playfully experimenting, like a wayward child, with his immediate surroundings. Signer is seen employing fireworks to open window shutters, catapulting tables to their destruction and filling his waders with water until he crumples under the weight. The film also exudes a sense of the artist’s engagement with place. Starling’s choice of educational material therefore presented the notion of active experimentation, with modest means, within a particular locale.
In light of the Fulton walks, Starling also played a film – made collaboratively with his former students – composed of synchronised re-enactments of works by artist Francis Alÿs, on the streets of the Maltese capital Valetta. One student pushed a block of ice until it melted, another boldly strode through bustling avenues holding a replica gun, while a young man marched under the midday sun wearing the red tunic and bearskin hat of the British Grenadier Guards. Starling described how this role-play exercise provided students with personal insight into the nature of Alÿs’s works, the ways in which meanings changed with social context, and through the collaborative nature of the re-enactments.
On Tuesday evening at Porthhallow village hall, on the edge of a shingle beach at a remote Lizard cove, we joined a host of local guests. After a communal supper of West-African crab-ball curry, Starling delivered an illustrated talk and film screening, entitled Tell Tale Sculptures (In and Out of Film), focusing on the use of film and photography within his essentially sculptural practice.
He spoke about his interest in formats of documentation that echo the ideas he wants to represent, and showed an excerpt from Black Drop (2013), a film commissioned in association with Oxford University, responding to the rare planetary phenomenon of the transit of Venus. The film also explores the relationship between astronomy and early moving image technology; he described it as ‘a film about the making of a film about the beginning of moving image technology’. Starling journeyed to Hawaii and Tahiti to capture the astronomical event using the soon-to-be-obsolete format of 35mm film.
Black Drop typifies Starling’s meticulously investigative practice as an artist, exemplifying his interest in finding the most appropriate means and mechanisms by which to document the ideas he is investigating, so that the documentation becomes inseparable from the action and experience of the work. Wilhelm Noack oHG (2005) has a similar structure, as it is a film about the company of metal fabricators that manufactured the spiral sculpture the film runs through when it is screened, and the film in turn documents the making of the sculpture.
Starling’s talk emphasised the key roles film and photography play in the realisation and re-presentation of his practice. His richly layered works, full of historical, geographical and scientific facts, revealed a methodology of lateral exploration, piecing together a network of latent or seemingly incongruous associations between subjects.
Starling’s approach was reinforced by the presence, throughout the week, of his former student, Irish artist Sean Lynch. During an in-depth presentation of his work at Kestle Barton, Lynch disclosed his own methods of working, which similarly involve multi-layered examinations of situations and artifacts. In a recently curated project, A Rocky Road, Lynch brought together artworks and artifacts with stories surrounding their controversial public reception or status. The exhibition featured a 1984 print by David Lilburn for example, depicting a man lying naked on his back, with an erection.
Accompanying the print Lynch placed items relating to an incident in which an enraged member of the public attempted to destroy the explicit work with a hammer whilst it was on display as a prize-winning exhibit at Limerick City Gallery of Art. An awaiting newspaper reporter, who had been alerted to the imminent attack, captured photographs of the scuffle between the vandal and the chairman of the exhibition committee. This subsequently generated debate in Limerick as to whether the journalist had abdicated his moral responsibility to intervene in the altercation.
As an example of Lynch’s work this collection of material demonstrates some of the imparted principles of Starling’s teachings, which advocate a research or project-based model of art practice. Not all workshop participants work in this way, yet Starling offered a significant and potentially enriching message for all involved: that art can be produced from worldly interests beyond the field of art itself.
As part of her research for a forthcoming exhibition at Tate St Ives, PhD student and art historian Rachel Smith displayed a curious historical document, which sparked the group’s collective imagination. Compiled by art historian and critic J.P Hodin in 1964, at the height of the Cornish modernist movement, this questionnaire probed artists on their relationship to the region, asking questions such as ‘What attracted you in Cornwall? a) the landscape b) the artists’ milieu c) other reasons’.
Proud of his heritage, Cornish painter Peter Lanyon evidently found the questionnaire inflammatory and farcical, as the questions seemed to assume that all artists were incomers to the area. In response to the inquiry ‘Is your work influenced by the Cornish Landscape’ Lanyon retorts, ‘I AM the Cornish landscape!’ On an additional sheet he makes suggestions for what he describes as a ‘better questionnaire’, which refers to his non-native peers as ‘foreigners’, and includes a parody of Hodin’s question ‘What attracted you to Cornwall?’. Lanyon’s irreverently revised choices are ‘a) the possibility of a quick profit b) the girls c) chance to make a name more easily’.
As an impromptu component of the writing workshop, inspired by Lanyon’s revealing reaction to Hodin’s survey, the ‘non-artists’, which included the international curators as well as Simon Morrissey, director of the Bristol-based gallery Works Projects, split from the group to work collaboratively on their own wily version of the questionnaire for the artists to fill in.
The new version begins with moderately straightforward questions such as ‘What are the characteristics of this landscape in your opinion?’ One anonymous participant answers: ‘To sum it up would be to write in clichés, as I do not feel invested in ‘this landscape’ enough – or perhaps in too many incongruous ways’, while another notes whimsically, ‘it’s soft and atmospheric – maybe a bit nostalgic’. The document then presents progressively surreal and ambiguous questions such as ‘What do you think of the foreigners here? a) obnoxious b) fun c) other things’ to which one participant replies: ‘they are a breath of fresh air, without them it would be hell’.
Teresa Gleadowe approaches the subject of the Cornish landscape from a defiantly non-romantic perspective. Cornwall’s rich heritage of extractive industry, particularly mining, has been a focus of lengthy research, culminating in The Penzance Convention in 2012, whose theme was extraction. As a field trip on Wednesday, Penzance-based artists Billy Wynter and Hadrian Pigott led a meandering walk through the contrasting landscapes of the China Clay mining district near St Austell.
It began amid a peculiar juxtaposition of old and new terrains, weaving through ancient farmland bordered by the tall hedges of intricate field systems, while looming in the background were the grey, artificially terraced mountains of the modern spoil heaps. In open moorland we passed the famous landmark of Roche rock, an imposing granite outcrop radically crowned by a ruined monastic cell, legendarily once inhabited by a leprous hermit. We picnicked on a heath at Hensbarrow Downs, the remnants of old land, now neighboured by artificially sculpted hills.
The oldest of these was unevenly curved enough to mimic the surrounding natural undulations, yet its lighter-coloured blanket of younger, less diverse natural grassland revealed its age. Following the trundle of dump trucks we entered the heart of clay country where, peering over roadside ridges, we observed the vast track-riddled hollows of excavated territory. Ducking out of a forested path we discovered a steep-ridged milky quarry lake and back in the open landscape witnessed the original and iconic pyramidal spoil tips, veined by erosion.
Wynter was openly fascinated by the colossal scale and movement of the rapidly shifting landscape, and throughout the walk discussions ensued as to whether these immense earthworks could be likened to large-scale land art by artists such as Robert Smithson and James Turrell. Pigott led conversations on the economic, geological and industrial aspects of mining the sloppy white clay, detailing the processes of extracting it from weathered subterranean granite. Gleadowe highlighted the dramatically contrasting vistas of the relatively short trek, from the scarred and industrial pits, to the enfolding sublimity of the leafy pool, through to the vivid peaks of the sky tips.
The walk theatrically concluded with tea and biscuits at a prim quintessentially Cornish village hall, where the group was greeted by a retiree who had spent his working life driving aggregates from Clay Country elsewhere; ‘making Cornwall smaller’, he pithily remarked.
Outcomes of the week
During the workshop, it became clear that the informal contributions imparted by participating artists and curators were of more importance to the discussion than the immediate relevance of their individual professional practices. An air of commitment and interest in wider issues and practices was key; one-to-one conversations, round table discussions, dinners and bus journey chats gelled the week’s activity and established friendships, future correspondence and collaboration.
On Thursday, the discussions at Kestle Barton focused on drawing together the outcomes of the week. An endeavour to gauge the significance of Hamish Fulton’s walks, for the group and wider public sphere, led to conversations on their connection to the field trip and to discussions on land art. Further debate ensued, concentrating on ideas for future activity and revealing a common desire for the next big project to include opportunities for art production.
On the final day, at the historic Porthmeor Studios, following a discussion on artist residencies hosted by Tate St Ives, participants were invited to share their experiences of the week. The questions raised by non-participants embodied a wider curiosity about the workshop: what was learned and what was concluded? In this old timber-clad room, lit by skylights with paint peeling from the tall rafters and traces of artistic activity staining the floorboards, the four windowless walls contained the atmosphere while we took stock.
For all who participated this intensive residency delivered a multifaceted range of masterfully curated experiences: varying modes of encountering art, engaging in communication and understanding place. Notions of vitality and sustainability within contemporary art in the South West remained a fundamental refrain throughout. Yet the presented ideas, and the discussions that ensued, developed an extensive interdisciplinary, international and trans-historical web of enquiry, which both supported and transcended the prescribed themes of the workshop.
Participants will undoubtedly revisit these absorbed experiences and ideas, whether through subtle shifts and gestures in personal artistic activity, or through collaborative ventures between newfound friends. The possibilities raised were entirely expansive, interpersonal and stimulating.
(1) Donald Barthelme ‘The Balloon’, from ‘Sixty Stories’. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1981.
- Cornwall Workshop participants gathered in Helford village
- Walkers pace back and forth on Penzance Promenade during Hamish Fulton’s Saturday Walk
- Hamish Fulton leading the Sunday walk, Eastern Green beach, Penzance
- Slide from an artist presentation by Simon Bayliss
- Fischli and Weiss, How to Work Better (1991)
- Supper at Kestle Barton
- Still from a screening of Signer’s Koffer (1995), a film about artist Roman Signer, as part of Simon Starling’s workshop
- Sean Lynch discusses his practice
- Responses to the revised questionnaire by an anonymous participant
- Excavated terrain, China Clay mining district, near St Austell
- Participants observe the landscape
- Mark Osterfield introduces the discussion hosted by Tate St Ives at Porthmeor Studios