Nicholas John Jones

Praksis, Oslo
Interview Article in Norwegian|21.09.18

Brave spaces

Nicholas J. Jones in Guttormsgaard’s Archive at Blaker. Photo: Juan Covelli.

Oslo has long had a vibrant, diverse art scene. However, international artists have generally had few opportunities to apply for residencies in the city. So it was a blast of fresh air when British artist Nicholas John Jones, his partner Charlotte Teyler and British critic Rachel Withers set up the residency programme Praksis in Oslo two and a half years ago.

Since its early beginnings in 2016, Praksis has attracted a total of 90 residency participants over the course of eleven month-long project periods devoted to various specific themes – all of them open to local artists too. Jones, who still has a studio in London, came up with this model after having taken part in a number of international residency programmes himself, ending up in Oslo more or less by chance. When interviewed by Kunstkritikk two years ago, he related how he had come across an advertisement in Aftenposten that prompted him to enter into talks with the local authorities of Oslo, Kulturrådet and various other local stakeholders before deciding to take his chances in Norway. Meeting up with Kunstkritikk more than two years later, he has learnt many lessons, most of them good, and has decided to devote another two years to the project in order to see if Praksis might become a sustainable institution in the long term.

Dialogue

Praksis puts greater emphasis on collective activities and dialogue than most other residency programmes. Each programme explores a new theme and is headed by an artist or curator with special insight into the field. Residency applications may hail from a number of different professional fields, but they must all be interested in exploring the theme at hand. Bearing poetic titles such as In time, we too will become ancestors, Cultural Mistranslations, A Global State of Pareidolia and For A Rainy Day: Publishing As A Site Of Collectivization, these themes have contributed to positing the Praksis programme right in the centre of contemporary art discourse in Norway.

With each changing theme, Praksis also changes its location. Even though the programme has a room in Rådhusgata where many of its assemblies take place, it has no studio spaces of its own yet, which means that Praksis leads a nomadic lifestyle based on collaboration with the city’s art institutions. As yet, they have collaborated with Office for Contamporary Art Norway (OCA), Young Artists’ Society (UKS), Torpedo, Kunstnernes Hus, Fotogalleriet, Oslo Pilot and Norwegian Crafts, to mention but a few.

Their level of activity this September has been exceptionally high. Not only have the tenth and eleventh residency programmes overlapped in terms of time; both groups have also worked towards presenting their own exhibitions.

From the opening of the exhibition Monumental-Temporal at Fellesverkstedet. Photo: Praksis.

– I normally look to space out the programme over the year, but with many parties involved, arranging dates that work for everyone is sometimes complicated, and so I decided to test if two groups overlapping might benefit each other, replies Nicholas Jones when Kunstkritikk asks him if he is perhaps a little too busy.

– The overlap was only about a week, but it did mean that quite specific planning was needed to be able to facilitate and support each group. Praksis also doesn’t put specific emphasis on outcomes – such as shows – in order to keep the potential of each residency open. These two exhibitions grew out of the desires of those involved.

This open-ended and inclusive attitude is typical of the programme set up by Jones – and infused the mood during the opening of the exhibition Monumental-Temporal that capped off the programme sharing the same title, headed by German sculptor Gereon Krebber. Simultaneously monumental and ephemeral, the two-day exhibition took place at partnering venue Fellesverkstedet. It also marked a farewell to the large space rented by the project-based work space in Urtegata, given that they are now relocating to a new domicile at Grünerløkka.

Engaging with archives

Today, Friday 21 September, sees the official opening of the final show in the programme bearing the title The Collective Subject of History, held at Guttorm Guttormsgaard’s legendary archives at Blaker. Last week, Guttormsgaard celebrated his 80th birthday by donating his collection of artistic and cultural artefacts to a foundation. Nicholas Jones explains how this is the first time that Praksis has arranged a programme outside of Oslo.

– Curator Elvira Dyangani Ose was invited by Praksis and Guttormgaard’s Archive, partly as a result of previous conversations from when she curated the Gothenburg Biennial in 2015. She presented part of the archive during that biennial, but she had never actually been there. So this was set up as a way for her and others to engage with the archive in a deep way through the special opportunity to access the archive for a month. It sets out to think about how historical narratives are created and how objects can be points in which to renegotiate how certain histories are presented. It includes highly experienced and younger, talented, locally based participants, alongside artists from Istanbul and Columbia, though now based in London – it’s a very interesting mix of approaches and perspectives.

Ellef Prestsæter introduces Guttormsgaard’s Archive to participants in The Collective Subject of History. Photo: Praksis.

Unfortunately, there were some unforeseen circumstances, and Elvira’s participation was limited to a few days, which I think was a disappointment for the group. But we were lucky in that Danish artist Jakob Jakobsen was able to accept an invitation at quite short notice to join the group as an additional experienced voice. It’s the first time something like this has happened, but in a way it worked out very nicely to have their two approaches contributing.

The archive is so heterogeneous and extensive that it was quite overwhelming for the group at first, but Guttormsgaard and Ellef Prestsæter, chair of the archive’s board, did a great job of introducing what’s there and helping the group navigate it. This was supplemented by fascinating group discussions with people like Rhea Dhall from UKS and Ingvild Krogvig from the National Museum about how institutions present and create histories, and by events that opened up some of the conversations in a public setting. Now the group are focusing on preparing for the show. I’ve loved seeing what they have chosen to focus on and how they have worked with that material. It’s going to be fascinating to see their interventions across the archive.

Will do two more years

You celebrated the two-year anniversary of Praksis in the spring. What has it been like thus far?

When I founded Praksis I told myself I’d put in two years before assessing whether to continue or not. For me, these two years have been incredible. I’ve met so many fantastic people from around the world and we’ve had some very rewarding cross-institutional collaborations. The community in Oslo in general has been really open and welcoming, and we’ve had a great response internationally. Our feedback has been really positive. I feel very strongly that we’ve had a significant impact so far, and that Praksis is making a worthwhile contribution to Oslo’s art scene.

And so I’m now committed to doing another two years, during which – alongside the programme – it will be important to focus on how Praksis can become more sustainable in the longer term, growing our funding base, considering locations and our staff situation. Not that we weren’t thinking about that before, but in a way our programme has been so active that it has perhaps been difficult to do those things while also running so much activity. But I would say we are now at a kind of pivotal point – we need to think about the base of the organisation: whether we take up the potential to produce more research-based resources, such as publications, whether we should be working on exhibitions, whether we seek a location to house whole groups in one building, or whether we look for separate apartments and working spaces to have people in different parts of the city, and then of course how we pay for those things.

The Artist Entrepeneur-residents. Photo: Praksis.

How is Praksis funded at the moment?

We were really pleased to be included in Oslo kommune’s driftsstøtte (operational funding) last year and recognise this as a big achievement. The grant of 200,000 kroner is an excellent contribution and helps our programme, but it’s a small percentage of what it costs to run such an organisation. Kulturrådet supported us from the beginning, which has been great, and our total funding from Kulturrådet for this year grew to 800,000 kroner. So our entire budget for a year at the moment, outside of additional grants and those kinds of things, is about one million kroner. The majority of this is spent on the programme – rent, fees, costs of working with 40 artists and hosting about 20 public events a year.

And you have invested in this yourself as well?

Yes, absolutely. Charlotte and I do get paid a small salary but, along with Rachel Withers, we have put in a lot of voluntary work. And I think for me, it is about believing that the project is an important contribution and model for the scene in Norway and internationally. Particularly thinking about current domestic and international political dialogues, and the situation of arts education and the market.

Creating spaces for exchange outside of normal structures is incredibly important, both in terms of cultural development and dialogues within society. I do believe that it contributes to the cultural milieu in Norway in a very real and direct way.

With that said, if over next year and a half we’re not able to increase our income, I will have to consider the long-term sustainability. Right now, I am optimistic that sufficient financial growth is achievable. Having run for two and a half years, we have a lot of evidence of what the organisation is achieving, which makes it much easier to get people on board than when simply pitching an idea that is unfamiliar to many people. And of course there is the difference in that at the beginning people didn’t know me. I have had several people come to me and say, “When you first approached me about this, I was very sceptical, but now I’m so impressed by what has been achieved.”

Why would they be sceptical?

I came here from outside, proposing an ambitious project. I don’t find it so surprising people might doubt either my ability or intention. But to have someone admit that and then offer to help out in any way they can; that’s been one of the biggest compliments I’ve had as it’s really sincere and it feels like an achievement to change someone’s perception.

Personal and intense

In April I was able to join you for the Meet the residents-event introducing the 9th residency, titled Adornment and Gender: Engaging Conversation. I found it quite an interesting experience, and I was impressed by how personal and intense it was. The participants not only discussed strictly professional issues, they also shared some quite difficult and personal experiences. Would you say that such an atmosphere is typical for the residencies?

Adornment and Gender-residents speak with Antonio Cataldo at Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA). Photo: Praksis.

Every group is different, of course. I think in that particular case, a couple of people were especially open about how they entered the residency. In the Meet the residents-situation, the group is invited to present themselves for between 5 to 15 minutes, leaving time for some questions and answers afterwards. So they can give a slide presentation, they can perform, they can just talk, they can use their websites, it’s open, but the setting should be quite intimate. These introductions are open to the public, but the audiences are usually small – the group and up to about ten people, but that’s kind of important for the way in which the dynamic of that event unfolds. And I think it does allow for it to actually feel quite personal. It is good for the group to get to know each other and understand where they are coming from, but also to have people who would be interested have an opportunity to see all of these different practices in a short period of time, and to start conversations with those people. Potentially to arrange to meet again later or to bump into them at some point, as the group will likely be present at openings and across the city and people do recognise them again. It’s key as a starting point for the relationships within the group, but also relationships with others as well.

I think you’re right that this intimacy is what allows it to get personal. It felt precious to be part of that, to be allowed to witness it.

Absolutely. And members of the public, sometimes not from the art world as well, who join us will often come up to me and say “thank you so much, this was such a privilege, it’s so generous to be allowed to be part of this”. I think that kind of intimate space is quite special. Meet the residents normally takes place on the second or the third day of the residency, and I always find it incredibly interesting to see how people present what they do.

And then after this Meet the residents, they often do additional presentations and talks that are open to the public?

Some residencies specifically encourage collective activity around a specific topic, other residencies see participants using the time and space to work more autonomously, but in an environment where you can talk to others with moments set aside for critique, discussion and collective activity. But certainly at the beginning we go through a similar process – first day is breaking the ice, meeting on a kind of personal level, talking through what is going to happen, like what people hope to get out of it, why they’re there, and the institutions that are collaborating in it, a bit of mapping of Oslo and where we are, practical things such as the facilities that we’re using and things like that, and then it’s a meal together. And then the next day is normally the Meet the residents event, an introduction to resident’s practices, and then the third day would normally involve visits to spaces relevant to the theme. Probably in the same week we would do something that sets some theoretical context – this could be a screening, or a reading group, some kind of discussion that helps situate the residency. It’s also important to reflect on the residency as it comes to an end – whether simply through discussion or with more focused intent, for example composing a collective text that sums up key aspects of what’s been learnt in a way that could be relevant for others.

Adornment and Gender-residents meet Sille Storihle at her Kunsthall Oslo-show. Photo: Praksis.

Taking ownership

You told me you’re not only concerned with how to encourage creative and professional development, but also how to create strong group dynamics.

Questions about the nature of collaboration and creating safe spaces is something that has come up several times – though Welsh artist and researcher Phoebe Davies, who is in residence from October, recently pointed out that the idea of brave spaces may be more helpful than ‘safe spaces’ when thinking about development and pushing boundaries. This kind of conversation is in the nature of what we do – how trust is established between people who have just met each other, how people feel that they can speak up and take ownership of the space.

The notion of how ownership is created is very important for me, in terms of thinking about how you create meaningful collaborations, or even just allowing the residents to feel that they have their own agency within the residency – that they can actually affect the time that they’re having here, rather than simply follow a structure that is put upon them.

It’s interesting that Praksis also includes local residents. What are your experiences with that concept?

That’s a very important part of the residency dynamic. And for those who already know the situation because they live here, there are also things that will be beneficial for them in participating: exploring the theme, meeting others with similar interests, introductions to a lot of people across the city. When we started Praksis, I totally underestimated the value of introducing local participants to local participants. As well as bringing internationals to meet with locals – and they do bring in different cultural perspectives and have relationships that continue afterwards – we also connect different people locally who then continue to work together afterwards, continue to be friends, continue to support each other, move into studio spaces together, do exhibitions together. And that’s actually been very rewarding for me; because I live here too, I get to see that bit. A lot of the fantastic international people we have coming in, we do keep the conversation going, we do email them, invite them to things, we stay in touch, but it’s somehow more abstract than actually seeing people, and seeing them together, doing things. I think if everyone was coming, doing great things and going away, somehow it would be less satisfying for me. Staying in contact with people is important for me.

Asking open questions, workshop with Jason Huff. Photo: Praksis.

Doing whatever is needed

You are also committed throughout the process, every time? It must be both hard work and very rewarding?

Absolutely. Rachel Withers, who is the co-founder, is supportive in an advisory capacity and then it’s largely Charlotte and I on working on the ground. The two of us cover everything needed from developing the programme, organising open calls, fundraising, reporting, updating the website, PR, putting out the chairs, making coffee, washing the dishes, making the food when we have group meals – the list goes on. It is a lot of work, and we have to be the first to turn up and the last to go home. But as you say, it’s also been really, really rewarding.

I mean, I can’t claim to be an expert on most of the topics that we deal with, but they are generally things that I think are really interesting, and I get the privilege of spending time with a group of people who are invested in the topic, and learning from them, listening to them, supporting them, facilitating them, trying my very best to make stuff happen for them.

And for me with art, what’s really interesting is the way it makes me think and the conversations it creates. As an artist myself, I actually have a very private studio practice largely concentrating on abstract painting. But the paintings themselves begin from questions. I set out problems for myself which I then attempt to negotiate. I think Praksis is kind of similar, I get to be part of the conversations and listen and learn. I’ve learned a huge amount. How many spaces are there, once you leave university, to really meet and have meaningful dialogues with new people for a sustained period of time? You know, not speed-dating, but actually spending a month with someone so you have the potential to really know each other and learn something by the end?

It’s also an interesting challenge to work with diverse groups of people in ways that are supportive but also allow for debate, and ideally display and generate solidarity. For someone in my position – as a white, straight, middle-class man brought up in the West, directing a programme – it is important to think about the mechanisms and histories of patriarchy and how privileges of power work. This should be part of trying to create programming that is relevant and supportive and needed. It’s challenging – and interesting too.

Another special thing about this residency is that it’s not restricted to artists, it’s open to anyone?

Yes, we are open to anyone who has relevant interests and experience, regardless of background, age etcetera. At least as much as possible – I mean, we don’t charge for people to participate, but at the moment we are also not able to offer travel costs to people that participate either, but that’s something we’re working towards; actually making it so that anyone, no matter what their financial background, could participate. I do recognise that to come to Norway for a month, even if your accommodation is free, still has a cost. This year, we started giving out a stipend of 3000 kroner for international participants – it’s not a lot of money, but it’s basically what we’re able to give at the moment. But I would actually like all participants – locally based, nationally based, internationally based – to get a stipend for participating.

The Artist Entrepreneur-exhibition. Photo: Praksis.

Facing towards the local

Are the conditions of being an artist something that you discuss in the residencies?

It’s definitely come up in a number of different residencies, but not every time. When we had the first one, New technology and the post-human, that issue was discussed quite a bit. The Artist Entrepreneur-residency, done in collaboration with UKS and The Moving Museum, was kind of built around that, looking at the precarious situation of artists and what’s happening with public funding systems and how you approach that.

Again, by having local participants involved, the situation for artists locally is represented within the groups and so it comes up. Norway has this fantastic history of artist unions actually lobbying on behalf of the artists, which you don’t really see in most other countries. For me, the amazing thing about the stipend system is that at some point, it was recognised on a fundamental level that artists and culture add to the health of society and the history of the nation. And that the state has a responsibility to enable that. However, I think there are some issues in the way in which the structure of the system in Norway may have inclined artists to look inwards, by which I mean locally facing. The system prioritises showing within Norway, and artists sometimes seem to be more inclined to think about what kind of activity is going to help them to get a stipend rather than pursue what is great for their work or wider career, but I don’t think the two have to be exclusive. I also think this focus on being active locally has to an extent reduced the visibility of Norwegian arts internationally. So I guess what I’m saying is that it could be interesting if international exhibitions and accolades were equally acknowledged as being part of the local scene.

You said earlier that international artists draw smaller crowds here in Oslo at the openings. Do you think international artists could be welcomed more warmheartedly?

I don’t mean to sound grumpy about that; I think is quite natural. It’s human nature that we go to the things that we know, but there’s something about curiosity and wanting to know about the outside or the other that fascinates me. On a personal level, I think that as an artist, you should always be questioning, you should always be challenging yourself, thinking about where you get your inspiration, what you really care about, why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s certainly not for the money… But, you know; it’s about how you keep yourself stimulated. Maybe for some people just being in the studio is enough, it can be, but I also think there is something very exciting about going into a group of other practitioners and challenging yourself and challenging them, and disagreeing, and learning and finding things that you think are amazing and that you had never heard of before. It’s a special opportunity to have. I think that everyone, really, artist or otherwise, should be thinking of opportunities that are out there to develop in life.

That sounds to me like a possible definition of what it is that you pursue with Praksis?

Quite possibly.

Lunch in the sun. Photo: Praksis.

 

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