Food for thought: The Lonely Artists Society

On a winter’s morning this time last year in my bitterly cold Brixton studio, I pulled on my painter’s overalls, artfully tousled my hair and powdered my nose in preparation for my screen debut: my Skype interview with the then Director of Postgraduate Studies at ECA, Neil Mulholland. The blurb for the Contemporary Art Practice MA places a strong emphasis on students’ ability to work well together in a critically discursive environment, so I’m pretty sure it was my unbridled enthusiasm for teamwork, and perhaps the paintbrush in my ponytail, that secured me a place on the course.

Living up to the stereotype of the solitary painter bound to my artist’s garret on the gritty streets of South London, moving back to a heavily populated, open-plan art school studio at ECA took a little adjustment… and the purchase of a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Four months in, just as I’d perfected my ‘don’t even f*cking think of talking to me while I’m painting’ look, we were assigned the painter’s ultimate nightmare, the Collaborative Project.

In groups of three, Contemporary Art Practice students joined forces in the second semester to curate an exhibition in the ECA’s C02 Project Space. We were allocated the space for one week during which we work together to realise a show, before opening to our peers followed by a group crit. Many see this as an opportunity to make something together, a new piece of work they’d never dream of producing as part of their own practice.  Not us. We, two painters (of the solitary single-minded variety) and a film-maker, could not agree on anything beyond where to meet for coffee, cake and ensuing cyclical discussions about how to use the space.

Progress in the form of skeletal ideas about possible installations caused me to wake in a cold sweat, fearful that such approaches to art making were simply trite and far too contrived.

With only a fortnight until we’d be handed the keys, the pressure was on. In a final bid to reach a resolution we asked ourselves what had been missing thus far from our time in Edinburgh at ECA, and whether this could activate our approach to C02. Transplanted to the city from London and Montevideo, we missed being part of an artistic community extending beyond institutional walls.  Still in search of our ‘local’, a neighbourhood nucleus full of familiar faces and like-minds, equally craving conversation about art, culture and Edinburgh’s creative potential, we formed The Lonely Artists Society (LAS).

The LAS Banquet #1 took inspiration from 17th-century salon-style gatherings and the recent ‘radical hospitality’ of artists such as Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Project. Subtly altering C02 with a lick of paint, we installed our own works-in-progress. Part decoration, it also offered us the chance to see our work beyond the chaos of our studios and provided a focus for the dinner. We put up posters and took to social media to spread the word, inviting people to RSVP for a chance to share dinner with us in exchange for conversation. Inundated with responses, we offered the 12 available spaces on a first-come first-served basis.

Ferrying a home-cooked vegetarian Moroccan feast into ECA without a minute to spare, we were greeted by a mixture of new and familiar faces.  Armed with a glass of prosecco, our guests introduced themselves, utilising our location and the art on display to break the ice. The evening attempted to bridge the gap between the social aspects of a private view, the intimate studio visit and the exchange of ideas encountered within a seminar. I believe it did all three, though perhaps less booze was required, finding ourselves still in college at 3am on a school night! Table cleared and minds exhausted, we departed into the night, satisfied not only by a belly full of grub, but by a sense that the seeds had been sown for further gatherings.

Perhaps with a little hard work and commitment, Edinburgh’s creative infrastructure can be strengthened, and the graduate brain-drain to the more established art scenes of Glasgow and London will no longer be inevitable.

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