Vital Capacities: Developing an accessible model for ‘digital residencies’

Vital Capacities is a new purpose-built digital residency space, initiated by the UK’s videoclub, a platform for moving image artists, in collaboration with digital inclusion specialist Sarah Pickthall. It is intended to facilitate international exchange and provide the same opportunities as a physical residency. Curator, and Director of videoclub, Jamie Wyld spoke to Joe Turnbull about the initiative.

Installation view of an exhibition. On the left of the image is a tree-shaped collage of many, many black and white images (it's not very clear as the images are small, but some are portraits of people) - they are lit in a sunshine yellow light. The floor of what is assumed to be a gallery is chrome, and reflects the rest of the room. 12 TV monitors make a wall on the right of the image, on 2 screens are an animation of a man drinking from a bottle, on another is a hand touching the screen, other screens are whited out or unclear.
Jaene F. Castrillon, Perpetual, 2015 (installation) – image courtesy of the artist

Jamie Wyld is a curator with over 18 years’ experience which includes time as a Visual Arts Officer at Arts Council England. In 2005 with the support of moving image artist Ben Rivers, and artist and curator Laura Mousavi, Wyld established videoclub in response to the lack of artists’ film platforms and support for emerging practitioners. It has garnered a reputation for working internationally, supporting residencies, artistic exchange programmes and exhibiting opportunities with partners ranging from the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (Manchester, UK) the International Art & Science Research Institute (Shanghai), OSMOSIS Audiovisual Media Festival (Taipei, Taiwan) and Seattle International Film Festival, amongst others.

In October 2019 Wyld was on a research trip to Hong Kong for a video art fair. A friend of his was doing a residency in Chengdu, China and he decided to go and visit her. It ended up being an eye-opening experience on the realities of international residencies.

“It was in this massive complex on the outskirts of the city with a huge exhibition space. But there was no one else there. As we were walking around it really felt like we were in some sort of virtual set up. It made me think about what it means to be on an international residency. A lot of the time artists find themselves in another country on their own, doing what they would usually be doing at home. And no one actually sees what’s going on. I reflected on that experience when I started to imagine the idea of what a digital residency would look like. I really wanted to flip that on its head, so for artists on a digital residency what the artists are doing can be seen and experienced by others and the artist is actually sharing what they’re going through.” 

Early in the UK’s first lockdown videoclub was able to secure Emergency Funding from Arts Council England to pilot Vital Capacities as a means of exploring what a digital residency programme might look like. From the outset, Wyld was adamant that the programme involve disabled artists.

“During lockdown, it became really clear to us that this was affecting disabled artists, their practice and their ability to participate. Thinking about it, they usually have difficulty with travel anyway. We were influenced by that to develop a platform for them, so that we could support artists more widely in terms of our agenda to develop international exchanges – of skills and knowledge, creating new connections and making new work to put in front of curators and professionals.”

Black and orange print on off-white background. Five photographs of a woman’s face with text above and below.
Damien Robinson’s ‘AH AW (OR) OO EE UR (UR) The Long Vowels’, 2020

To facilitate this, they worked with digital inclusion specialist, Sarah Pickthall on establishing the platform, but also used the first cohort of artists as a sounding board to test and try things out as it developed.

“We wanted to focus on making it accessible, so that the artists were able to use it, but also that audiences were able to come and engage and see the work we’re making. It was really important for us, when we were setting it up, that we consulted with disabled artists in the building of the site, as well as the making of new work. That initial setup period was all developed with artists. It wasn’t just me as a curator thinking about what it should be like, it was also artists reflecting on it and what accessible components it should have. It’s got a really simple backend that artists can be trained in using in a few hours so that they can go into and add work to it. It has access streams that we’re adding in all the time so that it’s both accessible for artists to use but also for audiences to engage with.”

But of course, the platform can’t be accessible if the content and information on it isn’t. A key aspect of the programme was in upskilling the artists themselves on how to add access for audiences.

“We’ve got an information pack on accessibility that we give to the artists right at the beginning, which goes through all those access streams like alt text, audio description for films etc. It tells them how they can research those things and look at how they might make their work more accessible. Also, it’s about talking to artists about how access can become part of the artwork, rather than it being something that’s just added on. For example, Jaene F. Castrillon decided to integrate audio description as part of the artwork created, rather than it being something that was an option.”

Videoclub have brought their expertise in physical residencies to the programme, imitating some of the key elements. Each artist gets their own virtual space on the platform, a ‘studio’ a ‘research’ space and ‘profile’. Wyld explains:

“Those three components of a traditional residency: research, testing and making, and then exhibition are reflected on the platform. Usually, on a residency, artists will put stuff on the walls and they’ll turn the space into their own studio. I wanted this platform to be those walls of a studio. Artists are putting up what they’re thinking about, and the research that they’re doing. The ‘research’ space might be philosophical ideas, photographs or images by other artists that are influencing their thinking. The ‘studio’ space is what they’re working on. It might be sketches or ideas, or it might be past artworks that influence the new work. And any work that is made outside of the digital space that might be exhibited also goes in that studio space.”

There are also elements to a digital residency programme which aren’t always easy to achieve in a physical space.

CGI image of a sci-fi style landscape designed by the artist.
Clifford Sage, Tuner, 2019 (image still) – courtesy of the artist

“We have a programme of meetings and talks. All the artists get together regularly, we have conversations about what they’re making, how they can support each other and encourage them to visit one another’s studios. For example, on the last programme, Jaene F. Castrillon’s parents are from Hong Kong, but she lives in Toronto. She was wanting to reflect on the protests in Hong Kong. And then we had Angela Su, one of the other artists who actually lives in Hong Kong but trained in Toronto. They had this exchange about their past, what’s happening in Hong Kong and sharing knowledge of different artists they could connect with. We also have meetings with curators and individual artists to have conversations about their work.”

Wyld has found that these advantages actually outweigh a lot of drawbacks compared to a physical residency.

“For me, I much prefer it. I actually see more of the artists than on physical residencies. If there’s a problem with their space I can fix it straight away. The artists get a decent amount of money to spend time making something that they want to make in their own space, where they’re usually already set up. And it genuinely feels like they’re getting a lot out of it. Which sometimes when someone’s on a residency, they don’t.”      

The participating artists seem to concur with Wyld, with one feeding back:

“Vital Capacities gave me an incredible amount of support and encouragement as an artist during a really difficult year. Meeting every week and working together to overcome and think creatively about solutions to our individual and collective problems was a really beautiful process. I’ve never managed to feel in community with a new group of people that quickly, especially through remote working. As a disabled artist it’s very, very rare (in fact unheard of) that I come out of a project feeling well and truly taken care of.”

The initial cohort included 4 disabled artists from the UK, with the second cohort containing artists from Canada and Hong Kong as well. Videoclub has secured further funding to expand the programme in 2021 to support between 6-8 artists, whilst partnering with international organisations who will nominate participating artists to widen the international exchange element of the programme. It will be interesting to see how the model of digital residencies develops as we enter a post-pandemic era. 

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