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MEANWHILE is an artist-run initiative founded by Jesse Bowling, Jordana Bragg, and Callum Devlin. Previously located at 35 Victoria Street, they have just moved the gallery and artist studio spaces to 99 Willis Street. The first show at their new location is Undercovers — a collaboration between Lucy Wardle and George Banach-Salas. Hanahiva Rose sat down with Jesse, Lucy, and George to talk about the new space and exhibition.
Jesse, can you introduce MEANWHILE?
Jesse: We opened on July 27 last year. We were kind of founded through Club Mirage [Auckland-based contemporary art space] and now are here, no longer involved with Club Mirage. When we first started, they gifted us the space and now we’ve moved past that point; we’ve come into our teenage years, I guess. We’ve gone from figuring out how to do it, to now knowing how to do it, but still trying to write the whole ethos of it.
And Lucy and George, you’re doing the first show at MEANWHILE’s new premises. Do you want to tell me a little bit about the show and your practice?
Lucy: George and I have been working on our project Undercovers for just under a year. The project is based on the ideas of masturbation, and the taboo around the topic — why it doesn’t get discussed. We wanted to make participatory art in an installation environment that opened up those conversations about masturbation and what it means to our bodies and our minds and our beings.
George: Yeah, we wanted to talk about how masturbation is a form of self-care and appreciation and comfort for ourselves.
These are very tactile works, but how exactly do these big, cushy objects come into play when we’re talking about masturbation? What are they?
Lucy: We wanted to be really ambiguous and kind of abstract. We thought about the shapes and imagery and feelings that are intertwined with masturbation and the body and then erased some of the elements from those shapes to make them more abstract.
George: We’ve used a lot of pink and blue, which might come off as quite gendered, but really that was just more of a colour balance that we were interested in. We did want to take it away from being specifically gendered, although we’re more focused towards femme-identified people because that’s what we are. The objects can interact with each other in a way that you would interact with yourself.
For you as artists, what attracts you to a space like MEANWHILE?
Lucy: I think the experimentation. It can be quite hard if you come up with an idea that doesn’t particularly fit into a certain category of gallery. When we were planning this show we were trying to think of spaces in which it could fit and I was confident we could approach MEANWHILE. I feel like Wellington hasn’t really had an active artist-run space or a more experimental, young, fresh gallery, so it’s really exciting to be a part of something that’s still growing.
George: I’ve always wanted to be a part of an artist-run space. I’ve always thought it seemed like a very natural way to operate as an artist. I’ve never really felt like my practice fitted into a kind of “white-box” gallery and, while there’s white walls here, I don’t feel like MEANWHILE is that at all. It doesn’t have that exclusionary element that the typical white-box gallery does and because I’m not personally interested in making work to sell, trying to make work for dealer galleries doesn’t really suit me. Working within an artist-run space where the show is for experience and exposure makes more sense for me.
Jesse, how did MEANWHILE go about picking the artists for this year’s programme?
Jesse: We did a call for proposals and received about 55 applicants. That was when we didn’t even have a space — we were still building the gallery. Up until then we had only been running the window space but there was already a lot of interest in this little institutional thing that we’ve been doing.
You went to Massey, Callum and Jordana [co-founders of Meanwhile] went to Massey, and Lucy and George also went to Massey. And that’s kind of the nature of being in Wellington, isn’t it. Is that reflected in your programme?
Jesse: No. We don’t try and reflect Massey art culture. We’re trying to broaden the Wellington arts community from this kind of “mate-group” into something more active and involving for a broader audience. How we went about choosing what we were going to do wasn’t biased towards whether you were in Wellington or not, it was more about how the work would engage the community. There are things that we don’t see a lot here because we only have dealer galleries and large institutions and a lot of those spaces aren’t very inclusive.
We have these three pillars: the art school, the public gallery or museum, and the dealer gallery. How does MEANWHILE fit into that structure?
Jesse: I think we are kind of free from those frameworks because we’re trying to form them ourselves. But also within the art community, and in art in general, you are performing within the bigger institution of “Art”. So I would see us as almost a stepping stone in between those things, but I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re the first step because we don’t just accept people coming straight out of art school, we also accept people who’ve been out for multiple years. It’s more about engaging in exciting practices than it is being a continuation of art school.
Is there a potentially ephemeral nature to the shows here? Do you document them? I think you’ve said before that the fickle nature of the artist-run space is reflected in your name and there’s a certain vulnerability that becomes quite apparent when you are put at the mercy of the real estate market, like you have been. If you hadn’t found this space you might have begun to exist exclusively through that documentation of what you had achieved.
Jesse: We document them and they’ll be posted on our website, which will hopefully be live next week. Our website is going to act as the archive. Documentation kind of solidifies the act in history. That’s why we did WHAT HAVE WE DONE, our publication. If we had had to move out, and couldn’t find a new place, or something happened, at least we would have that record. I think documentation is important for other people to be able to look back at.
I was walking here and went past the old location, which always seemed like a slightly funny spot — neighboured by the police station and Family Planning. It felt very CBD. And here feels different, but it’s only just up the road.
Jesse: About 150 metres up the road. I think that space was just on the fringes but this is in amongst it. We’ve never really been interested in Cuba Street and the “Cuba Quarter”, especially because the rent is soaring there. It’s similar to K Rd in Auckland where the rent is rising and rising and the artist-run initiatives, which have always been centred there, are beginning to be pushed out. Gentrification is the reason we had to leave our old space, and by buying into Cuba Street or K Rd you’re buying into the gentrification of those areas. We just don’t want to be a part of that centralisation of culture.
Undercovers runs until April 8. MEANWHILE is open Wednesday to Saturday, 12.00–5.30pm.