Flis Mitchell

Flis Mitchell
with Jo Thomas and Jack Brown
Liverpool, Exchange Gallery

FM: I’m no longer working with people.
I don’t know whether you still want to talk to me.

JB: Why did it fold?

FM: I got to the point when I’d been working with community, which is something I’d always kind of done to pay the rent and had my drawing practice alongside. What I do really is drawing research working out the parameters of what contemporary drawing is.
Then always because I have a natural facility for it, I’d been a bit of an organiser.
I got the job at Everton and I could see the need for a residency project.

JB: Do you mean Everton football club?

FM: No Everton the place

JB: Just to clarify…

FM: That’s the thing, people forget there is this place called Everton.

JB: As I said I thought football first.

FM: Football clubs in this town are really hungry children that take a lot and give very little back.

JT: Really?

FM: They do very little for the community they are parasites, those big football clubs.
A lot of the redevelopment in Anfield is because of that. They push up house prices People will buy them just so they have a use for a parking place for match days. Just to be close to the club so they can rent. Not just here, say, people will buy them just for a parking place and somewhere to stay.

JB: DO football clubs have to pay for their own policing? When I was working for Hackney Wicked we had to pay and you know art organisations probably have to…

FM: I don’t know you’d have to find out because I went on a protest recently and we didn’t have to. Policing was provided for us.

JT: So what was the job in Everton?

FM: I was the arts facilitator so I set up and recruited an arts group. It was nice and diverse, people from the community and from Liverpool Hope University, all people who had a vested interest in seeing art happen there. They wanted to see art happening but didn’t necessarily want to be the ones that the art was happening for.

(JB: Yeah)

FM: People who have a good idea that this art should be happening. So there was this really weird thing of having to schedule events that were (I guess) to engage people across a quite a large spectrum but also the people who were expected to benefit were just not interested. So we did not get a lot of community members. So in the end even though we talked about getting further funding and extending the art group it was decided to wind it up.
And what I wanted to do at the time was do a big residency project where we would get international artists who could come and work with two organisations at a time to make art happen in a more, I don't know...

JB: Out of those two organisations would it be 1 art organization?

FM: Yes, and 1 community organisation. So basically there are 6 organisations that I was going work with. Three of them: the university, the rotunda (trying to remember) and sort of local arts. So a community organisation and an art organisation would pair up and share an artist.
Say Hope University and West Defton Community Council and they would share an artist who would make work.

JB: And would the artist would be the facilitating link?

FM: Between the organisations, yes. Because there is not a lot of integration in Everton.
Even though there are loads of organisations that are really close together they have a real history of hostility because of the way funding was allocated in the 70’s. So my idea was that through the medium of art and the artist you could get them to kind of talk to each in a new way.
And also by say pairing each of the organisations in the first instance that aren’t hostile but having the residences running concurrently they would have to get know about each other. So even for instance if some one from Watford would want to visit, there would be events when they would have to mix and hopefully they would get to break down those barriers. Because the people were really nice in all of the organisations they just had a perception.

JB: Interesting the way people responded relating to the 70s...

FM: People have got really long memories.

JB: Yeah and it proves I presume that people have been in their jobs for a really long time.

FM: Yes a hugely long time.

JB: Yes they are entrenched.

FM: Not maybe entrenched just huge vested interests and an awful lot of love. And wanting to do best for their communities which then has the flip side of being overly competitive and hostile. And if you allocate funding in a way where little community organisations have to bid against each other - It was a foregone conclusion.

JB: Of course, yeah.

FM: Especially people who have a background in organising.

JB: Yeah.

FM: It was bound to happen I think. But anyway I folded up the residency in the end.

JT: So you took the initiative, and said enough.

FM: Yes, I got to the point where I was becoming known more and more for doing the stuff with people and less for the drawing and like the drawing was being diluted by work with people. JB: And I presume just time wise?

FM: Yes those things are so voracious. I would be having meetings with the Arts Council, meetings with everyone. I got to the point where a lot of the organisations I was working with were kind of like we would like this project to happen but we don't actually want to do any of the work. So even asking people for information for the Arts Council bid I’d be coming back. So I thought if this is the tone of the way things are going to proceed…
This is probably a project that needs to happen and probably needs to happen in this area because I know there is not a lot of art going on in North Liverpool or any art with community members and international artists. Even though I could see the niche and knew if I spent hours on it, it would work. I just drew a line under it and said I did not want to do anymore.

JT: Sometimes the need is there but do you have enough energy, do you have the capacity. And are you the right person for it?

FM: If there had been two of me, a co-conspirator, it would have been a lot easier but it was just me going into these organisations and there was the weight of organisations who are hostile to each other always having to go backwards and forwards. That actually became a bit of a burden. Also I was involved in a project with Liverpool council that was really horrible, it was 8 months of having contracts cancelled and being let down and having conversations with councillors where sometimes you would talk to someone the next meeting you go to someone else who was there and they would completely back track. It was a public art commission. I had just had that as well so I was a bit beleaguered and just felt I wanted to prioritise the bits of my practice that don't involve other people.

JT: Was anyone looking after you in that process? Because it sounds like it was quite an exhausting role.

FM: No but I don’t think there ever is with artists!

JB: No there is not.

FM: I have become quite critical of a lot of practice that involves people because that is where the money is. I have noticed that since I have said I am not working with people anymore I want to get a non-arts job and pay my studio fees and come to the studio and work on my drawings that actually the number of commissions and stuff I can apply for has diminished to zero. There is never ‘come and show your work and be paid for it.’ All the money in art is in art with other people and that forces artists who maybe aren’t the best fitted for it to do these things that give this false reading of what art is - I think.

JT: Have you found that locally or nationally?

FM: Nationally and I would say locally as well: ‘We’ve got some money come and make this thing with this group of people and we’ll turn it into this.’ That is where the money is for art.

JB: It is almost always that. There are times when it is probably the motive for everything. There are obviously times when it is not.

FM: Do you know what I find? What I found was that we are still doing that New Labour thing. That thing that social workers don't do, artists are asked to. It is that hangover from New Labour. I feel like when I went to Everton - what they needed was a new boiler, a change of government, some actual money, a health centre near their community centre. What they didn’t need was an artist. So I would be rocking up there going hey. And actually what was my raison d’être to be there. And was that what really what I was needed to be doing there. Then you get this mismatch between someone who has found some funding because they thought is was good for the community because it has a quantifiable wellbeing benefit, and actually that is not what the community want at all. It hasn’t been autonomous. It hasn’t come from them. If they had asked for it…With some of the money we used to have a picnic for some 30 toddlers because that was more close to what the people from community wanted. With people from the Read organisation to read stories and stuff -but that wasn’t necessarily what I would have done. There is always this mismatch between the big art benefit that is meant to be there, the person who is meant to deliver it and the community who are subject to it.

JB: Or subjected to it.

FM: Yes, It doesn’t necessarily always come them autonomously.

JB: The problem with that is with consultation and community meetings you never really get the community at those meetings because the community is normally too busy or won't know about it and I’ve never really seen a really effective way of someone actually speaking to the community in a local area because normally there are about 5 different communities that don't interlink. Especially in London where I work a lot so in Deptford particularly you couldn't really ever speak to the community because there are twelve separate layers that don’t interlink.

FM: Because ‘the community’ doesn't exist.

JB: No it doesn’t exist as a thing.

FM: It almost always does exist in discrete places. The people you speak to are the spokespeople for the community that have a vested interest in being spokespeople for the community - they are not necessarily the people who want to do the art they are the ones that want to see the art happen. I don't know…

JT I think this gets back to the idea of the gatekeepers. The people who are like that is my funded pot and I run the projects in this area and I get the badges for it.

FM: I just felt a bit of a dick…

JB: Well good for you for folding it.

FM: Do you think? Well I felt like a bit of a dick to be honest because I had to go the Arts Council... even now when there are elements about it that really excite me but I don't think it’s…

JT: What drove you in the first place to get involved with it?

FM: I could see a need for it and I knew that if it worked it could be really good. And also really perhaps there is an element where I would have been a producer who didn’t make any artistic... I don't want to be the producer I want to be the artist. I used to get involved with things where I would produce things.

JT: So do you think that it is possible to be an artist in a community? It is almost that being an artist can be in some funny way a dirty word in a community. Is it possible to be an artist in a community?

FM: I think it works for people but it doesn’t work for me. I think the crux of the issue is that in my drawing practice which is the primary bit, why I became an artist and went to art school there is no room for other people and so I think the issue is me and I have been doing a lot of things because I could do them and that was where the money was. And then I realised that actually even though there is no money in it and there is no outward facing aspect the drawing is the most important part. There are artists for who their work with people is the primary. Someone like Amy Rutherford where her work with people is the raison d’être for her practice then that is a seamless fit and that is a good thing. And I think that is good thing. But I think artists like her are really rare. The rest of us have a practice over here and the jobbing bits of workshops over here.
The amount of times I apply for things it’s not really my practice but I’m good at workshops so I’ll just give it a punt. I think people who are getting the people who are subjected to that sort of thing are getting a raw deal. I don't think they get a true sense of how artists work.

JT: No not at all.

FM: Say a family who have been round a few different workshops round Liverpool or anywhere might presume all artists are socially engaged and like doing work with kids and you know and that is how they fund other parts of practice sometimes. There are some artists sometimes and it all fits.

Where as I guess at the minute I …

JB: You’ve gone for a more of a money job and art time as very separate ... split it all across there is no link from your job now to art at all.

FM: No although recently I got sacked, I was working in a handbag shop. There was no link so I could go to work make some money and come to the studio and it then freed me from having to looking for those commissions where I could squeeze myself into that sort of box to deliver what was needed when it wasn’t necessarily appropriate.

JT: That makes a lot of sense. I worked at a Building Society for quite a long time doing exactly that. It was really different way of being. Whilst it is clear it is lovely.

FM: Yeah it has its own frustrations. Like not being freelance, so not being able to call my own hours, having to get up at a set time and be somewhere and having to be really polite to really stupid people but there is a freedom in that where you don’t have to engage in this whole art machinery because it feels like that, that kind of working with, because that’s where the money is. There isn’t any money for just making and showing work unless you are a superstar.

JB: Well, no, you’re right. If you are talking about living a sustainable, kind of like okay a decent (life)
There really isn’t. Unless you are one of the few. Who happens to do well and become known. If I think about the people I graduated with there is no one I can think who is living off…

JT: There’s a couple…

JB: There are a couple who I know who I was at Uni with who are living off sales. But most people aren’t. It’s a small percentage isn’t it.

FM: Which is fantastic.

JB: Yeah it’s great… But most artists aren’t. Most of them are making their money through doing public education and social engagement.

JT: And most of them will make a living doing something else entirely where their creative skills are an asset as well.

JB: Do you know what? I think is a really nice half way house between what we are talking about is people who are like gallery technicians and artists. It is still freelance. You are serving quite an obvious function like I am putting a wall up and getting paid for that but then this is my practice. FM: Especially for people whose practice is making. That must be nice.

JB: I can think of a few people that I know who do this and it seems to be satisfactory for them

FM: Yes I know a few too.

JT: Can I ask which image you choose to send us?

FM: I don’t think I sent one at all.

JB: You didn’t? I was just wondering where you felt - It would be really interesting if it was a drawing or an old work.

FM: If you have got a camera you can you can come upstairs and take one of my present drawing work if you want.

JT: Yes let do it later.

JB: It’s nice as well because amongst all the people we have met it’s nice to have someone who has come out of the end of it almost.

There are a few people we met who we interviewed, Alice for example who we haven’t got a photo of … This project here, Alice Wilson who was doing her first bit ever bit of … socially engaged practice… she was under my wing a bit doing one of my projects…We interviewed her on the first day of having people affecting her work.

FM: No way.

JB: And she was so strained. She wasn’t really sure about it and she was almost crying at the end of the day.

JT: You could really see the vulnerability where as actually if you have a very private practice which I think everyone we spoke to alongside their public or socially engaged practice has a private precious practice that was burgeoning and … it is how far under the surface it is and whether it pops out the other side.

FM: That’s really interesting but it is interesting as well that you say artists have their public bit and their private bit and I wonder how much of it is because that what they want to do is the private but the public bit is the bit that makes the money. I wonder… I think that really short changes audiences. And it kind of really ... it’s a false reading of what art is.

JT: I do think sometimes it is the private stuff that actually feeds some of the public stuff.

FM: Yes.

JT: Whether it is flowing back and forth...

FM: and for some people that can be really comfortable. Like the private stuff can be little drawings of sketches, or reading or thinking and that might feed the big thing for people but I wonder how many artists I know if they could make money in another way from their practice I wonder how many of them would do this.

JT: It’s a really interesting question.

FM: It’s not comfortable and it’s not a great way to make money and you often have to either water down your ideas … and I always feel for the communities in it because they do not ask for art. In the same way with say ...Someone can be doing physics research and their payment for that research isn’t dependent on them watering down what they do and feeding it to the public in loads of workshops for wellbeing … imagine if they did…

(JT: I think sometimes that is happening in physics ...)

JB: It would be literally worthless as research - you know what I mean. It’s a really good point actually.

FM: I think art is the only thing where we go you always need to prove your worth in a quantifiable way by working with (the) people with this. Or like councils think up like its a bolt on. Like they’ve got some money for this and this and this and they think it would nice to have arts workshop or they want to have a sculpture in place and so they want a load workshops to go with it. It is never integral and it’s never we want art and art is worth a lot for its own sake.

JB: It’s like we got a new development coming up or changing this park and within that we are going to have an artist working with people. But then really the artist and the people wouldn’t go change anything within that.

FM: Their voice is not strong enough so that they can do that. It’s almost like a pressure relief valve: we are doing this development we are changing this park and you guys can work on the sculpture together and so you don't actually have any real - you can’t really affect any change but you can feel like you have. Maybe I am being really disingenuous.

JB: No No, you’re not because when they do say you are going to have this artist working in the community, there will be this community workshop on the Saturday where they all get to work on this sculpture quite often by that point… the commission is really like we want you to make a sculpture that is a tree made of metal that is this high. The artist is already just working to a brief. Then the people that are involved in collaborating aren’t at all they are cooperating really with what the artist has already set up. That has been set up for them. They are maybe make leaves of the tree that they then maybe draw on. And when you get down to that bit the community who you envision as everyone who uses the park is two mums and three kids that happen to be there on the day because it’s raining.

FM: Yeah.

JT: That is the brutal cynical unimaginative planning approach.

JB: No but that’s what happens - that stinks of Section 106 desperation.

FM: The brutal cynical desperation part I think makes up the majority of art that works with people. When I look at the project briefs: We are making this thing and we want some artist but we actually know what we want already. I can think of some incredible examples of people working with the public but that is almost a separate thing to the daily socially engaged practice that people do. Because the people who have the money - even if your practice is socially engaged and works with people and is really good work, often it has to be shaped and moulded in order to get the money - so you might think of a project you can do that resonates with your own practice but doesn’t necessarily... I just feel quite cynical about the whole thing.

JB: There are definitely instances of artists that do work with the public and it’s amazing and brilliant but it is often not commissioned it is often through practice. It doesn’t end in a public sculpture that is there for you know. It is often the public art that just happens to happen and someone sees it and it is.

FM: Or like the work that the Serpentine did with the local communities and it went on for years. There are loads of examples of when it works really well but I don't think it does [for me] especially my work with Liverpool Council when they were like we’ve got this money and we are going to have part of Vauxhall Road and you guys can help design it and are going to do all this community stuff. It was like a brief made from heaven. There were 4 or 5 artists collaborating. We had all these ideas. Then over the months our input got taken down and taken down and taken down and taken down and taken down. Until they offered us the chance to organise, they had found some anchors and some chain from and… It was like that: we were going to organise where it went.

JT: Can I ask… were you paid for your time during that negotiation period.

FM: We were paid for a small amount of our time. Then we were offered a contract and the contract was cancelled. We had to threaten to sue to get any money out of the council. So we got a loss of earnings. I know that is like a bad example but I think it just showed me how seriously Liverpool Council take artists involvement and like if artists involvement should / could be integral to projects. I think it could be integral to development.

JT: It can be

FM: But when artists’ involvement is maybe seen as window dressing and I don't think that’s the issue. I think it is just seen as desire for art isn’t coming from communities who wants it there?

JB: If we really wanted to consult the community I don’t know there is probably someone who could probably do it far more effectively than an artist could.

JB: So if people are trying to say we’ve consulted ‘tick the box’ maybe they purposely (this is me being super cynical) select an artist because they don’t think artists can efficiently actually get the community...

FM: because like you know when I went to Future Cities which is a biennial meeting that had Peel Port Holding who are doing a huge redevelopment in North Liverpool and when we were there was one of the guys on the panel was talking about inputting culture into what Peel Port is doing and he said (an accountant) 'we have development boxes where you put a museum in for that' and one of the artists asked ‘what about having an artist on the board’ and actually that’s not what is wanted.

JB: We don’t want that.

JT: On the few occasions where that happens it does do something it is unexpected and enriches but it is a risk for people who have got lot of power.

FM: Yeah so I don’t think is necessarily something that is wanted. And I think you are right that artist involvement is often retrospective involvement and 'we have everything sewn up and what we want is a little bit of window dressing.'

JT: And I think when projects overspend it is going to be one of the first things to be cut as well.

FM: Yeah yeah.

JB: Yeah.

FM: There are some amazing examples like Homebaked. But not every artist is of that caliber.

JT: And wants to do it.

FM: And wants to. In my mind the only people who should be working with the public are people like Jeanne van Heeswijk that is the level of engagement that communities deserve but I think because of the way money flows what you get is something else.

JT: So do you think the biennial has impacted a lot on the public art projects round here?

FM: I think having it there is a really good marker of best practice but I don’t think it affects say for instance council funding. I don’t think funders look at that and go ‘that is incredible I wonder if we can do something of the same caliber’.

JT: Really - I’m naive.

FM: For some people at the council it is maybe even seen as problematic. Even at the bakery they were having problems with Anfield council where they were thinking of moving the bakery. So I think for some people it is not even seen as best practice. For artists it has been an example of what can be achieved and the sort of wideness of the biennial to take on a long-term project. But I think the biennial kind of acts in isolation to the rest of the arts ecology. I wouldn’t necessarily say that the general day to day funding for workshops has been affected by an example of what can be achieved by what one organisation. I think maybe it is just as well if the majority of art that people can get into contact with is the art that fits funding.
So you are working on the council. And you are meant to be commissioning art work. There are very few of those people who are untrained who will know what good art is. There is this proliferation of poor work continues. What they see is what they think can be achieved and there is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

JT: We had a case in Reading there was a new Arts Officer who came from the sports direction because sports and arts got put into one job role.

FM: Of course.

JT: She got taken under the wing of the local arts studios (OHOS) who took her up to Cork Street and other places where in London where she was introduced to different art forms. And it is paying off.

JB: That is really good actually.

JT: They had to do it in their free time and luckily she was up for it. It is very rare someone has the time.

FM: One person - Laurie Peake. I think she used to work at the biennial. The people who were the kind of gatekeepers for that community had quite open ideas and quite rigorous ideas about what art was and what that wanted I guess the biennial has had an effect through person to person. But not I don’t think generally.

JB: What about just publicly, how aware do you think people are who aren’t arty or...

FM: I don’t think so

JB: It’s one of those things. It’s like we were saying on the way up you kind of forget. Just because in your head art is important to you and you think about art all the time it doesn’t register as a thing that is important.

FM: I don’t think there is an awareness of the importance of it... like if the value of the Liverpool Biennial is … you came to the biennial. There doesn't seem to be an awareness of this biennial and how important it is but also what a privilege it is too. And I think in the past there have been some quite splashy public artworks but they are missing from this biennial and I was really pleased about that.

JB: It was actually, yeah you are right.

FM: I was glad those things have gone. In the past there have been some really patronising examples of like being in Liverpool is often like ‘here’s a sparkly cocktail this is Liverpool' and I’m like can I just have a glass of water please. I was really glad to have a biennial that was more adult and more considerately curated. And was much cooler in emotional temperature.

JB: Yeah.

FM: But talking to people; they missed big public artworks because they are things that might take someone who doesn’t necessarily know of it into a gallery but that might be their gateway.

JB: Exactly, their way into it.

FM: I felt like it was a better biennial, a much more competitive biennial but... I don't know how the public feels, but often you will get into cabs and people have no real idea the biennial was going on.

JB: Was it the biennial that debriefed the cabbies.

JT: Yes I think so the first one or maybe it was the Baltic.

FM: That is really good.

JT: So I was wondering how you got into workshops

FM: Because I can do it. I dropped out of school when I was 16, worked in bars and then went to art school. I had a natural aptitude for it, it seemed a way to make money. Maybe just the things I can do aren’t necessarily the best things for me that I should do. I was kind of confused. Thinking I socially see a need for a project and then doing it.

JT: Do you miss that when you are working more quietly in the studios.

FM: No not at all!

JT: I think this is a good time to go and have a look in the studio.

FM: Yes.

JB: Yes, let’s turn this off.


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