Curator and editor Bryony Stone speaks about her latest project which gives four artists and designers the chance to create in their own space
“Likes don’t pay bills”, responds curator and editor Bryony Stone when asked the reason why she’s launching her latest project, an artist’s residency programme taking place underneath Waterloo station, called Progress. She’s speaking specifically on the rising pressures to create art in London, as well as other capital cities around the world. Coupled with a free-for-all mentality that means art on Instagram is okay when it’s being invested into your camera roll, but not so when you’re asked to cough up cash to actually own it. And yet, we continue to rely on artists to create – but at what cost, and, more importantly, how do artists cover those costs? According to painter Alfie Kungu – who is one-fourth of Progress and features in a new film by Shelley Jones premiered below – “To survive in London as an artist you have to be extremely flexible.”
In 2017, Stone founded IRL platform all in: because she “wanted to explore how art could bring about meaningful conversations – conversations which would happen in real life rather than on the internet”. Her first event for all in: was a ten-day exhibition at London’s House of Vans (also the site of her latest), and brought together a staggering 19 artists – from Mica Levi and Holly Blakey, to Liam Hodges, Gaika, and Celia Hempton – to discuss mental health and how it affects them. Over 700 people walked through its doors on the opening night alone, and Stone knew she was onto something.
“It is crucial to me that the artists are able to make work which they would not be able to make otherwise” – Bryony Stone
The idea to stage a month-long artist residency programme with four artists came, as most good ideas do, over a cup of tea and a chat. “I kept finding myself talking about both London’s financial inaccessibility and what I saw as a more systemic lack of support for emerging artists,” explains Stone. “With such a vast, cavernous space to display the work, it made sense to build something which could be functional and had a life of its own beyond a static group show.”
“Selecting artists for the residency was very different from curating a group exhibition,” reflects Stone. “I wanted to make sure that the residency was giving something of value to each of the artists at the same time as allowing them to push their practice somewhere new.” With this in mind, she selected poet Wilson Oryema, painters George Rouy and Kungu, and designer Paolina Russo – whose corset was worn by Solange on Dazed’s spring summer 2018 issue. The curator and editor reveals that not only have they been chosen because of this, but also on the belief that they would genuinely get on with one another, given how close they’ll be working to one-another: “in the hope that they’d be able to build their own community down there – a commune of ideas beneath Waterloo station”.
Stone adds, “I’d met each of artists before working on all in: progress through other work projects. I’d written about and met painter George Rouy, multidisciplinary artist Wilson Oryema and fine artist Alfie Kungu in recent months and years, and friends had shown me fashion designer Paolina Russo’s work from when she was at CSM. "I knew that each of the artists would not only make dynamic, thoughtful work, but that they would connect with each other on a personal level.”
When it comes to giving the artists guidelines to work from, Stone decided against. “It felt restrictive to impose a brief or theme,” she says. “It is crucial to me that the artists are able to make work which they would not be able to make otherwise – whether down to space or time or the limitations that might come with a commission. I’ve tried to remove those limitations with this residency.”
Returning to why this programme came about, Stone muses on “the need for creativity as a force to navigate, process and comment on our ever-evolving political and social landscape in the UK (and the world) is greater than ever”. She continues, “Creativity is so crucial, and yet the government does little to support or build the creative community. A House of Lords report published last week highlighted that bringing EU cultural workers under the same restrictions as currently apply to third-country nationals may be harmful to the cultural sector because existing visa rules require a minimum salary in excess of what many cultural organisations can offer. So not only are we stripping away funding for creativity in schools, but we’re also actively discouraging skilled cultural sector workers from coming to the UK from elsewhere.”
In terms of the online landscape, Stone says that she sees the positives of social media for “placing power back into the palms of the people”. Explaining, “With self-promotion a few clicks away, emerging artists can build a following outside the traditional gallery models which were historically been the preserve of a wealthy, well-connected few.” However, the curator and editor is under no impression that this means it’s a free ride to success, and that it can, in fact, be the exact opposite. Returning to her “likes don’t pay the bills” comment, she adds, “As property prices continue to inflate across London, young artists are being priced out of zones 1 and 2 and instead forced to move studios further to the city’s edges or out of London altogether. For example, George’s studio is in Kent, and Paolina, Alfie and Wilson work from their bedrooms. I loved the idea of bringing artists who didn’t have studios in London into this idiosyncratic space directly underneath the busiest station in the UK.”
Another important factor for starting the residency is to give people a chance who wouldn’t usually visit galleries or museums, let alone artist studios, the chance to experience it. From Thursday to Sunday, visitors can stop by the studios and see the artists working. “Art should be inclusive, not exclusive,” she says. “It can and should act as a stimulus for ‘real life’ conversations, for those that make it, and for those that see it, and build communities through those conversations.”
“I wanted to bring a fantasy version of what Alfie, Wilson, George, and Paolina’s studios might look like to the public, opening up a dialogue between artist and viewer and allowing people to see that making art is not a secret, or a veiled, interior process. Again, it comes back to what I suppose is at the heart of everything I do – that idea of making art accessible.”
Progress opens at London’s House of Vans on 2 August – 23 August 2018. The programme will launch with a panel discussion on community, visual politics, and radical creativity chaired by Stone and featuring all the artists. The studios will be open Thursday and Friday 4pm – 10pm, Saturday 10am – 8pm, and Sunday 12pm – 6pm. On 23 August, the final work will be shown to the public from 7pm – no RSVP required