AILBHE NI BHRIAIN TELLS THE STORY-SO-FAR OF HER CAREER AS A PROFESSIONAL VISUAL ARTIST.
I recall reading an article (somewhere) in which John Baldessari said (to someone) that approximately one percent of art school graduates go on making work after college – and of that percent only one percent make a living from their work. I am sure his calculations were about as formal as my referencing of them, but, applied to my own (committed, talented) year groups through college, the figures still manage an around-about-rightness.
Of Baldessari’s percentiles, I belong to the former: I do not make a living from my work. I work chiefly in video and video is tricky. A benefit of this uncommercial niche is not having to store unsold bubble-wrapped works under beds and in other people’s garages. You could also say it gives the luxury of being a purist, removing the pressure to shape work towards a buying audience. The downsides are obvious enough: lack of money; need to do other things for-to-get money to make work; lack of time to make work because of doing other things to get money to make work etc. But for the majority of artists (aforementioned 99%) this is nothing new. I state it just to signal that, for me, career development means simply supporting the continued production of work, and is an ongoing and often roundabout process.
My professional development, according to my official profile, appears pretty straightforward: a neat series of steps from BA to MA to PhD, to part time lecturing to full time lecturing, interspersed with exhibitions which, if attended, would make a nice tour of Europe. This neatness is of course misleading – the numerous jobs in restaurants, bars, primary schools, secondary schools, grammar schools, golf clubs, community groups, special need centres, graphic design centres, clothes shops, prints shops etc, all having been erased. While I will focus here on the major stepping stones, it’s worth remembering this alternative CV as an important part of the picture.
BA and aftermath …
I studied Fine Art Print in the Crawford College of Art & Design from 1996 to 2000. I loved the course, loved the college and emerged, aged 21, terrified that I might never make work again. My first exhibition post BA was a group show, which took place in Athenry. There were some prominent artists involved and the show was due to travel to London, Paris, New York. It didn’t even make it to the end of its Athenry run, the curator turning out to be a curator / gambler; my work disappeared, alongside all notions of being launched. (The positive: the push to produce my first body of independent work.) My second exhibition was a group show in Paris, organised through the Blackchurch Print Studio in Temple bar. Alas, there was rain in France, there was a leak in the roof, and another body of work failed to make it home. (The positive: insurance money, which helped fund my MA in the Royal College of Art.)
My movements between 2001 – 2002 went something like: Cork-Dublin-New York-Dublin-Donegal-Dordogne-Dublin-Belfast-Galway-London. This hopscotching was grounded by a few key things. I joined the Blackchurch Print Studio, an amazing resource that in my case provided access to an identity as an artist as much as to practical facilities. I also took part in a mentoring programme with Nigel Rolfe through the Cork Film Centre. This provided enough intellectual fodder and practical help to really engage me in video practice.
The move to video felt a natural progression from my earlier print based installations, but it was primarily a practical decision: video provided an economic way of working, both in terms of space and finances, and for a two year period the camcorder functioned as tool, sketchbook and studio in my practice. My application for MA study was an almost purely video-based portfolio.
My first foray into postgraduate study was an MPhil in text and image studies in Trinity College in 2001. I was genuinely interested in the course, but became alarmed at a world in which making had no place, and left one month into the first semester. I began an MA in the Royal College of Art the following September. Choosing to study in the UK was financially difficult, but the model of the RCA appealed to me – a solely postgraduate and solely art & design college, with a genuinely international student profile. It is also a two year course and operates a pass-fail system in studio assessment; this time and freedom from percentage-tags, to my mind, allows for the risk-taking intrinsic to good art.
I loved the RCA, though possibly my main education came from untimetabled activities – a creative writing workshop, evening film screenings, an alarming amount of time spent in the college bar. The college offers a high level of exposure for students: for some, the final MA show will still pass almost unnoticed, while for others it will act as a catapult into intense critical attention. It’s worth remembering that the latter doesn’t always signal the beginning of a successful career – sometimes a practice does not survive this level of scrutiny at such an early point. For me, many of the opportunities were slow-burners, but there’s no denying I gained a lot from the high profile of the student shows.
Post-MA, I continued to make and reflect on my work, and began, after a time and almost despite myself, to formulate this understanding into a PhD topic. I was wary of going the PhD route; I have seen PhD students theorise their practice of all its magic and strangeness, and feel that art in this context too often winds up as the tool to illustrate rather than generate thinking. But in Kingston University, where I began my PhD in 2005, there was an understanding of art-making as an inherently critical process, and a sense of art’s ability to operate independently as a research form. There were great people behind this – Louis Nixon, Katy McLeod, Elizabeth Price – and an approach, which was rigorous and loose, confident and curious. I was funded by the University for my full three years, and thus had an extended period of concentrating solely on my work.
I stayed in London originally in order to be at the centre of all-things-artistic, but at some point realised that every professional opportunity was arriving into my life via email I figured it was time to go to cheaper, more survival-friendly places and moved first to Glasgow and later to Cork, where I completed my PhD in 2008. Determined not to lose my practice to academia, I exhibited a lot during this period; this external activity formed an important part of my research, and a solo exhibition on The Butler Gallery eventually became part of my final PhD submission.
A common piece of advice to artists is to choose exhibitions carefully, yet in my experience it’s also good to stay open. Some great opportunities emerge from humble sources – for me, an exhibition in the Reina Sofia Museum arose from a small independently organised event in Madrid (I got an email from an architecture student and took a chance). In general I put a lot of work into applications and have found open submission exhibitions a great way to get work out there. Again, I think keeping a broad remit is good – my video work has featured in drawing, print and painting exhibitions and, if anything, most rejections have come from the media quarter. Being curated in unexpected ways can reveal whole new possibilities in your work.
A benefit of video is that multiple copies of the same piece can be shipped cheaply and shown simultaneously, but there can also be a lack of control over how a piece is shown. I am now very specific about installation requirements, and where possible will supply the equipment myself. The Cork Film Centre has played a huge role in my professional development, providing equipment to make, test and exhibit work.
My experience of exhibiting has been very varied: sometimes I am flown to openings; sometimes I don’t get sent an invite. Sometimes I receive a fee for each screening of a work; sometimes the equipment I send is not returned. Since 2007 I have been represented by domobaal, a London based gallery, and so have happily been able to share or hand over a lot of this professional negotiation.
At the moment I am working towards a solo exhibition at domobaal later this year; I also have a full time job and a 10 month old baby, so the work happens at lunchtimes, nap-times and at odd hours of the morning. But it does happen. I received an Arts Council Bursary last summer and so have a budget for the very first time; budgets are extraordinary things and I am excited about the new video pieces. My studio is in my home and this is how I’ve operated, by choice, for years. I am very disciplined, vigilant even, about making work – probably that post-BA fear of never making work again still lurks.
Building a career around making art is a pretty awkward proposition. ‘Professionalism’ is increasingly taught in undergraduate art education, which I think is worthy but problematic – with artist’s statements and applications preceding artwork in cart before horse / does: what-it-says-on-the-tin manner. (When it works, art should surely surprise its maker.) Still, I’m not sure I can suggest better survival techniques. My own experience boils down to: keep making work; take every opportunity to exhibit seriously; pay attention to the ‘Wrong Way Turn Back’ signals, however flaky it makes you appear; and keep making work.
Ailbhe ni Bhriain