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(Exhibition: Lorna Simpson Photo: Colin Davison)

All images courtesy of BALTIC

 

In conversation with Gary Malkin, Producer (Documentation, Library & Archive), BALTIC

Discussing 15 years of BALTIC

 

AA: What is your favourite exhibition or exhibitions?

Gary Malkin: One of my favourite was Susan Hiller, which was in 2004, and I don’t normally like it when an artist takes over too much space in BALTIC, I think it tends to limit the choice and I quite like it when there’s different artists to see when you walk around. The Susan Hiller exhibition was over 3 floors, but it was all so good. It was a retrospective of her work and there were some really strong pieces in there. It would have been a strong 2-floor show anyway but the thing that absolutely made it for me was the commissioned piece on level 4, which was an enormous sound work. If you know level 4 at BALTIC it’s an incredibly difficult space to programme because it’s so big and there’s also a space where the viewer can look down on to the exhibition. This means that you not only have to think about the way the work exists as you walk around the space but how its going to work looking at it from above. To decide to fill it with almost nothing but sound was incredibly brave. But it worked fantastically well. The audience were in there for ages because you had to spend time with the piece to really get it. That particular piece was one of the best things I’ve ever seen at BALTIC.  I suppose more recently I really liked the ‘Disappearance at Sea’ exhibition on the ground floor, which a very small show but felt incredibly packed. It looked at the refuge crisis, particularly in the Mediterranean. What I liked about that, apart from the quality of the work, was the way it put across a really serious and contentious topic, which was undoubtedly coming across from a particular angle, but it did it really inclusively and subtly without preaching. It was very cleverly curated.

AA: I remember the ‘Disappearance at sea’ but I didn’t have a go at the VR experience.

GM: it was really strange, it was VR and it was incredibly realistic and yet weirdly fake at the same time, which is a hard balance to pull off. When you were standing on the edge of the cliff it really did feel like you were going to fall off the edge, but then you’d turn around and see these people, these kind of skeletal outlines that didn’t move which added to the sense of weirdness, it felt…ghostly!

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(Exhibition: Disappearance at Sea. Image: ScanLAB)

AA: I remember there being different textured sections of the floor. It’s interesting how the exhibition experience has evolved, that incorporation of new technology.

GM: I think that was a particularly interesting way of using new technology. With that piece the makers (ScanLAB Projects) had only recently completed the TV series ‘Italy’s invisible Cities’ where they were creating large-scale 3D virtual models. It was quite interesting to see how they transposed these ideas from the TV screen into the gallery. But there were also other technical pieces in the exhibition. Some of the films were almost like animations in the way that they presented information, alongside a quite intensive dialogue. Then there was the piece that had vitrine of water with boats and hands going across. There were some interesting pieces in that show, but all quite subtle. They all gave that message across about people dying essentially in the Mediterranean through desperation, and that absolutely came across but not in the way that I expected. I expected it to be more difficult, especially for the crew, but it wasn’t at all. Partly aided through the amount of training that everyone had beforehand as well. Amnesty International came in for two days and trained everyone, so we all knew the facts and the figures and the truth behind some of the headlines that you see in the papers. It was an intensive two days but it was really interesting and set you up to respond to the more difficult questions from the visitors.

AA: Looking at the progression from when BALTIC opened up until now in terms of, not strictly education, but how the audience engages with the space and not just by visiting but also through such things as the B.Read books and artists talks, the book fair, how has that evolved over the years?

GM: That’s a really big question that I can answer in a number of different ways.  You can see three key points in time when the education has changed at BALTIC…that’s slightly unfair because the education side is always changing. But essentially in the early days before we even opened as a gallery, we had a series of events and exhibitions called B4B, (Before BALTIC). That was when the learning team was created in the St Mary’s church in Gateshead where the old offices used to be, and there were many different events and talks, some of those got transcribed into the B.Read book series, which were very successful and really beautiful little books. These looked at what BALTIC was as an organisation and how it fitted in with the current dialogues in contemporary art.

When we moved into the building in 2002 we had two rooms for education. Education has always been a key part of BALTIC and getting that message out to other audience, whether that’s through gallery text, videos in the gallery or work that goes on behind the scenes within the learning team.

The next big change was in 2006 when we opened up Quay, which metaphorically and physically put education at the heart of the building. Apart from the art space every single space on Level 2 is now dedicated to learning, that includes the library. It used to include the archive but that went upstairs when the library has expanded to twice its original size. There are drop-in workshops, two exhibition spaces for schools, colleges, universities and community groups, three if you include the one in the library. There’s the workshop space - it’s the only space in that doesn’t have Swedish pine floors so you can get paints out and be messy.

It’s never a case of just accepting what you have, because things change, time changes, you learn by your mistakes as well as your successes, it’s a case of honing it down and refining it, but then even when you get something near perfect in a year or two it won’t be perfect anymore and you’ll have to rethink it again. We’re going through that phase now, we’ve just opened up a sensory room, which is really quite popular and simple, it uses a lot of colours, lights and textures.

The third one I think is down to the new director Sarah Munro who has a much more holistic approach to learning and programme. The differences between the teams are becoming softer. There isn’t the idea that the programme team will work out the exhibitions, and learning will be given those as finished entities to do work out a supporting learning package. The conversations are much more joined-up and the programming meetings involve more members across the teams. It’s particularly interesting how it works for learning and programming because they are really merging together in quite a progressive way and I think you’ll start to see that a lot more in the galleries.

We’ve always had outreach programmes, even before we opened, but that’s developing and changing a lot. There’s more emphasis on taking BALTIC out to people – in particular hard to reach groups.

This has manifested itself in many ways for the Library & Archive. We already have a small travelling library, but it’s going to be developed into something much more focussed and with a different emphasis. It will include books by artists that will be used as examples of what can be done with the format. The travelling library will be taken out to groups and left with them for a few weeks or months. Artists will then work with the groups to create zines and artists’ books using the material that they find in the collection as inspiration. It will focus on the stories that the participants want to share. Then some of these will become part of the collection itself. We’re trying to promote the idea that BALTIC isn’t just a building but a set of beliefs or ideas. If something works within the building itself then why not try to take that outside rather than expecting people to come to us. It important that people feel a sense of ownership but some people aren’t getting that message. While I’m not saying that everybody will want to have anything to do with us we are missing a huge potential audience in people that ‘could’ become a part of the picture but currently think that it’s not for them, or that they won’t be welcomed.

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(Exhibition: Outside of a dog. Image: Jerry Hardman-Jones)

AA: If I remember rightly in one of the early BALTIC publications there was an intention when designing the building for visitors to be able to see the staff and artists at work. You wouldn’t necessarily be able to go into the space, but you would be able to see what they were doing – providing a view into the inner workings of the gallery.

GM: That did happen in three different spaces. On level 2 the idea there was to have an art space and beyond that there was a line on the floor saying ‘do not cross’ and then the BALTIC staff area, where we all had lunch and tea breaks. It was slightly strange and I don’t think it worked. That area is now Quay (BALTIC Learning), and it makes much more sense to have it as a space for everyone rather than a handful of staff having a coffee break. Although it’s interesting to see what happens behind the scenes I don’t think that extends to watching somebody eating a sandwich! The second space we’re currently not getting quite right in my opinion is level 2 art space, if you go back before the current build you used to be able to see all the way across level 2A which is the staff area, so when you came down the lift you saw everybody working. To me that was really special, it was an interesting space visually and it just gave so much light to the building. To me it just felt like the lungs of the building and since we built that wall, which covers up most of that space, the light levels have completely changed, you don’t get the sense of connection to the staff (and behind-the-scenes) that you did before. I think Sarah Munro is quite keen on bringing that back, which personally I would love to see. The whole idea of creating the high wall was so that artists could use the height. There have been many exhibitions that have done this really well, but personally I prefer the more open space. The other area that is key for that visitor connection is level 5 looking down on to level 4. We had a phase in the early days when we called ourselves the ‘BALTIC Art Factory’. Rather than having an empty space during exhibition turnaround people could look down and watch works being created for the forthcoming exhibition.  There was, and still is, a commitment to commissioning new work and having artists-in-residence.

The one that arguably worked best was Antony Gormley. 287 volunteers came in to be cast in plaster and then those casts were used to create steel sculptures of these people. All of that, the welding, the casting, everything was on display. It was essentially two exhibitions; one where the work was created, and another one where you could walk around it and see the sculptures. That was always the intention. That term ‘ The Art Factory’ got dropped at a certain point after the initial director had left, but we’re starting to rethink some of the ideas that were present then. There’s always the difficulty of what you do in a contemporary art gallery when one exhibition comes down and another one is going up. There’s always that period where there’s a bit of a lull. It’s so much nicer to work here when all of the galleries are open. We’re still trying to get around that and some of those ideas are the art factory and creating things in the space, are coming back in, but ultimately changeover periods are necessary in this kind of gallery. If you take our sister gallery BALTIC 39 in Newcastle, that’s where you see a lot of that art factory idea happening. Artists don’t come with a lot of finished work and put it in the space. Perhaps 70% of the exhibitions are created in the space during the exhibition. That’s going to continue into the future. Art organisations or artists take over the space for a few months and create work over a longer period of time. This has already happened in a number of exhibitions, such as the FIGURE shows, Pester & Rossi, RIFF/RIFT for example. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out to a longer timescale. BALTIC 39 does lend itself to that kind of exhibition, but I think you’re going to be seeing elements of this at BALTIC as well.

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(Exhibition: Antony Gormley Image Colin Davison)

AA: The Antony Gormley work was commissioned by the BALTIC wasn’t it?

GM: It was. Commissioning new art was something we started even before we had a building, with the B4B programme and also the huge Anish Kapoor piece that filled the entire building in 1999 before the conversion began in earnest. If you want to find out more about BALTIC commissions we’ve just released a Google Arts and Culture page for BALTIC so we’re associated with that and it tells the story of a lot of the commissions. Again, it’s an interesting time for BALTIC because Sara Munro has been here for about two years now and in that time she’s learned about our history, seen what we’d done in the past and now she’s taking elements of that and also her own ideas, her own history, and really moving it in interesting and new ways.

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(Exhibition: Antony Gormley, Moulding and welding workshop with Field Domain Image: Colin Davison)

AA: The Antony Gormley work and what’s exhibited at BALTIC 39 allows visitors to see artists working in the space. Its interesting for younger people to see what its like to be an artist, I don’t think there is a huge amount of visibility to that and understanding what they do on a day to day basis, there’s been the BBC program ‘ What do artists do all day’ but to actually go and see someone in a space, and perhaps be able to go up and speak to them as well, is something quite special.

GM: We do a lot of work with that, its not just about having that art factory idea, but it’s bringing groups in. Two weeks ago we hosted ARTiculation Day, where students come in from different schools and spend the day researching particular art works, really going into detail about the artist and what they do and why they do it. You see a real shift in a very small space of time. Its only a day long, but you quite often get people who are really negative, or perhaps don’t understand how an artist works or what they do, but by the end I would say that at the vast majority of them have a really good understanding and a respect for it. At the end of the day they all present to the curators at BALTIC, myself and some other members of the learning team. There are then opportunities for these students to enter a national competition where they get to give presentations on art to a much wider audience. Last year a student from Southmoor Academy in Sunderland reached the finals of the competition after attending one of the workshop days here.

AA: How much has audience participation changed? It’s become quite a hot topic over the past few years as opposed to the idea where visitors just come in and view work.

GM: It depends on the exhibition. There was a big exhibition last year, called the Playground Project, which looked at the history of design and the architecture of playgrounds.  That had the biggest audience participation levels of any exhibition we’ve ever had, literally people were running all over the artworks. It was one of the most popular exhibitions in terms of numbers and visitor comments that we’ve had. We can’t have that kind of exhibition all the time, but we are getting wiser to certain things. Like summer holidays, for example, being an excellent exhibition time for certain types of show. But what else can be done at the same time that might not be a playground exhibition but something else that’s appropriate.

Again it’s about that joined up thinking and getting the teams together at an early stage. There are other things like the family days. These have been running for a number of years but we’ve only done one in the new format. The idea is to bring in new audiences, but it’s bringing them in through art. So artists come in for the day and will create artwork or perform. It’s all completely collaborative and participatory with younger audiences. We’ll certainly be doing more of these. By doing this at key points, we aim to really build up a new audience through contemporary art that would not have considered visiting beforehand.

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(Exhibition: The Playground Image: John McKenzie)

AA: What’s interesting for me when visiting galleries such as the Whitworth, which has just been redeveloped, how they’ve got a space specific for yoga classes and workshops for children, it was incredible to see how many teenagers, children and parents use that space and how loud the exhibition spaces were. I do wonder if that comes from using that space from a young age, and feeling like it is theirs, to get a long-term audience by engaging with them at a young age.

GM: It’s really important. BALTIC has been here for 15 years and the difference in audience is huge, in terms of reaction to the artworks but also the audiences’ sense of ownership of the gallery spaces. You mentioned the word ‘loud’ and BALTIC is a loud gallery, which I think is one of the things that sets it aside from others. That was one of the main things that attracted me to BALTIC right back at the beginning. I was here a few months after the gallery opened, there’s a kind of level of respect but not over reverential respect. People question things in a way that I don’t really think I’ve seen anywhere else, which is great. But now we’ve been here 15 years you’re quite correct, a lot of people who are coming in now as art students were just kids when we started. This has always been here for them. You don’t have to start off with that question “is this art?” or “what is art?” Because they’ve grown up with it as a concept the questions are already at a slightly higher level and more interesting. They’re asking things like “why is the artist doing this?”, “why did he/she decide to do it this way and not that way?”

BALTIC has always tried to get the visitors to explore these questions, even before we opened we had one of our newsletters dedicated to questions asked by children, not just about art but about life. It’s one of my favourite newsletters. It’s number 15 if you want to look it up.

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(Exhibition: Lorna Simpson Image: Colin Davison)

 

AA: In 2014 I saw the Lorna Simpson exhibition, which had a profound impact on my own work. She’s recently been asked back by BALTIC to be one of the judges in BALTIC Artist Award 2017 hasn’t she?

GM: Yes, we’ve had an exhibition recently, which is the first part of the biennial called the Artists’ Award. The idea behind that is instead of curators choosing the artists it’s the artists themselves who make the selections. All the selectors have a connection with BALTIC and they’ve chosen a younger artist at a very early stage in their career to go into the Artists’ Award. Each exhibition was curated by the two artists (the selector and the younger artists).   

Another thing that we’re trying to get away from at the BALTIC, is that an artist arrives, installs the work, has an exhibition for a couple of months and then you never see or hear from them again. We’re trying to be more supportive of the artists and bring them back into the fold, build up that sense of connection. Heather Philipson for example is coming back next year, she had an exhibition on the ground floor at quite an early stage in her career, has now gone on to much bigger things, we’re asking her back again now that she’s mid-career and build on that relationship. The same goes for the artists in the Artists’ Award. Pedro Cabrita Reis was one of the really early exhibitors at BALTIC, and an incredibly larger than life character. Lorna Simpson; you’re right that exhibition was amazing, and then to see her select a very different artist was also interesting. Did you see the video of the artists talking together? It was fascinating, it’s suddenly made perfect sense, they’d come in and clicked, and they hardly know each other. All of his replies to her questions seemed to produce this web-like conversation that was quite similar to his pieces.

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(Exhibition: The Artists Award Image: Colin Davison)

AA: Its an interesting idea, especially when your as big an organisation as BALTIC, to try and keep those connections going with artists but without necessarily exhibiting their work, because in reality you couldn’t do that given the breadth of artists to exhibit and promote, it’s progressive to have them come back as curators. I think that adds again to the community aspect for audiences to recognise say Lorna Simpson’s name and her association with the award and essentially whom she’s promoting.

GM: I’m glad you said that because that it’s absolutely the point. That it does provide those connections, not just for the artist but for the public as well. The Lorna Simpson exhibition was another really popular exhibit and people do remember it and want to come back and find out which artist she is recommending as a nominee for the Artists’ Award. During the Artists’ Award there was public voting going on throughout the exhibition. We consider that all four of the artists are winners, but there was also a public vote for their favourite.  The one with the most votes will get a commission to make a permanent or semi-permanent piece of public sculpture in the area, which I think is a really nice touch. Hopefully it’s feeding on the original notions of BALTIC and building up that audience and connections over time, and taking that in yet another direction.

We’ve always tried to work really closely with the local communities. There have been many successes as well as a few times where things haven’t gone so well. But I think that we’re in an interesting position now. Sarah Munro and also our new Associate Director, Caroline Murphy, have rewritten not only the way we work with communities but also how we meaningfully evaluate the experience. We are absolutely not in a position of slapping ourselves on the back. If things are changing within the building then it is probably doubly true with how we take BALTIC outside. There are many new plans in the pipeline that will start to emerge over the next few months and build over a longer period. It’s a really lovely 15 years on from the opening to look back on the many successes but also to be saying that we’re still learning and we’re still trying to be better. It makes it a much more dynamic environment to work in and I’m still really excited about the future.


Find out more about BALTIC on their website: BALTIC.art