Where to?

Where to? - Vane

‘About Time’ exhibition, 1997, ‘Vane97’

1996 – Visual Arts UK – left for me, and I think for many others in the north east of England, two abiding memories. One was from the previous year when the Arts Council of England (ACE) panel – deciding which of the contenders would ‘win’ the bid – ended a visit to the region by meeting artists, curators, and assembled worthies. Maybe you were there and maybe you met someone from ACE. I was, and I didn’t, but that wasn’t really an issue. What was important was that a lot of people in the visual arts spent a whole afternoon together. And they liked it and wanted to do it again.

The second is of the level of activity throughout 1996. Partly this was because more was happening but partly because we were all more aware of what was going on and shared a hunger to partake.

Whatever your critical view of Visual Arts UK it fed a hunger among artists for that intense level of activity. But then we had 1997, and apparently a lot of the available money had been spent the year before and energies were drained and not a lot was going to happen – and that wasn’t good enough.

It’s from that particular set of circumstances that Vane emerged. Looked at from the perspective of the succeeding Vane projects [in 1998 and 1999], ‘Vane97’ looks small and lost within the city of Newcastle (in the Vane98 Journal Mark Little said “blink and you might be forgiven for having missed it.”) But it provided a map for the future – though not an easy one to navigate. ‘Vane97’ had a lot of problems and disappointments that could have been easy to walk away from. The key moment for Vane as a real force on the cultural map of Newcastle and on visual arts production in the region was the moment of response to ‘Vane97’. Not to either walk away or simply repeat the whole experience but to take stock and then gear up for something more ambitious and audacious says a lot about the artists involved.

But let’s get a wider perspective on this. The north east of England has a long history of artists organising exhibitions, making temporary use of empty buildings, setting up groups and structures to make things happen. This goes back at least thirty years. Some of those initiatives have developed into established organisations and – more importantly – the activity has produced an approach to practice that hinges around a fluid relation between the artist and modes of production and engagement where other people are implicated throughout – as audience, collaborators, facilitators, etc.

This isn’t peculiar to the north east but it’s worth recognising that it has a long history here. The important question for me is to what extent this approach to practice is one formed of habit – a kind of set of clothes that everybody wears because that’s the way they cut the cloth these days – or one that is knowing and critical. Inevitably there’ll be a mixture but that’s no problem. Crucially what’s needed is a critical mass of artists, curators and others who are engaged in consistent dialogue, along with various means of sustaining that dialogue and of stimulating it from outside.

Vane is one of those means. If all it had achieved was its rather anarchic monthly meetings downstairs in the Head of Steam pub, that in itself would be significant. But actually you can’t have the meeting without the activity. This isn’t oddball café society. This is people getting down to it and making something happen – and it’s a year-round activity.

The initial basic ethos of Vane was its inclusivity – if you wanted to be in it you could. Vane has been heavily criticised for this non-curatorial approach and it’s easy to see why. The Doctor Frankensteins of Vane had created a monster with the propensity to run out of control. ‘Vane99’ was the very reverse of ‘Vane97’ – it was everywhere and it attracted, I felt, a lot of artists who hadn’t really tuned in to what was going on. For them it was a successful event and they wanted to be part of it – they’d got the habit. I don’t mind that. I found a lot of work in ‘Vane99’ disappointing and unambitious but I also found a lot that was surprising, audacious and considered. And that mix is one of the means of dialogue.

Artists lay themselves on the line every time they exhibit. It can be a fraught experience. You might think with Vane that at least you can get lost among the crowd but I don’t think it works like that. There are too many keen eyes around and that impacts on how artists think about, make and present work. Maybe you are initially attracted by the success of Vane but maybe you come away with a more demanding critical awareness of yourself and your work. Ever the optimist I know, but if Vane doesn’t have that allied to its inclusivity then its critics have a point.

This is one of the big questions facing Vane. It’s not something you can leave to chance (though chance isn’t to be undervalued or ignored) but there’s a danger of being overly rigorous. One approach is to pull back and see Vane within the context of other activity. And the value of that is to set the question of critical feedback for artists in the same arena as other big questions facing Vane, such as: who is its audience? Do we need an event of this scale, can it be effectively resourced and how does it relate to other cultural activity around Tyneside? Or, to put it another way, to say that you can only answer those kinds of questions by looking at how you map yourself onto a cultural biosphere – an ecology not just of the arts but also of the social, political and economic.

Sticking with the question of the critical dynamics within the visual arts, Vane is part of a landscape that’s changing quite fast. There are an increasing number of very ambitious artist-run projects around and there is a growth in the gallery sector, not least the imminent opening of BALTIC, The Centre for Contemporary Art and the Laing Gallery is broadening its curatorial approach. Add to this the Globe Gallery, North Shields, Waygood Gallery, Newcastle, NGCA, Sunderland etc., and not only are there a lot more spaces but there is a range of scale and approach in the gallery sector that hasn’t been there before. Add also non-building-based projects such as Locus+ and Isis Arts, the range of public commissioning, three university art departments… I could go on but what’s my point?

It’s this: Vane – or any other initiative – can force the pace of critical dialogue by throwing it into that arena. The question is not how artists operate within Vane but how Vane operates within the bigger landscape – because that’s where artists have to operate. This is why I see the key moment for Vane as the movement from ‘Vane97’ to ‘Vane98’. It wasn’t about more exhibitions and more artists. It was about making Vane highly visible and changing the landscape by doing that.

This isn’t a question of a local landscape. The coincidence of artist-run shows in Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle in 1999 led to exchange visits which, in turn, led to the ‘LMN’ show in all three cities coinciding with ‘Vane2000’. These dialogues and the activity produced – individually and institutionally – need to map back into the region. I feel this happening but not enough. I want more, both from the sector I work in and from the city I live in.

Newcastle and Gateshead’s bid for Capital of Culture 2008 gives a certain edge to those aspirations and – one hopes – increases the climate of opportunity. I can’t remember who said this, but I recently read someone say there’s no point in an artistic journey if you know where you’re going – that’s a bus trip not a voyage of discovery. But Cities of Culture and the like have to be able to map out routes. Keeping that open-ended and exciting is difficult but again I think you need to look outwards and see where you are and what’s around you. Part of what’s around is what Vane represents and exposes – a high level of visual arts activity and an active and fluid dynamic between production and exposition. Whether that is made apparent through a big event or in other ways, that level of activity, exposure and dialogue is vital to the well-being of Tyneside.

For me, visiting Vane always raises two questions. One is how I feel about any particular work or exhibition – and the opportunity to reassess, make comparisons, see changes from one year to the next is just about unique. The other is: what does this make me feel about the place I live in? Try asking yourself that question next time you visit a Vane project.

David Butler is a writer, researcher and academic. First published in the Vane2000 Catalogue.