A curious case of the artist-run exhibiting space secured on the premises of Bristol’s internationally acclaimed art centre.
It’s been a while since I last entered Spike Island with a volunteer badge pinned to my black uniform. But as I did, I had to admit that one month was not nearly enough to explore everything hidden in this labyrinth of a building.
Converted into an art space in the late 90s, the former Brooke Bond factory has since grown into a major creative centre of the English South West, occupying 80,000 sq. ft. on the wilder bank of the Avon – the heart and spine of Bristol’s bustling city life. That is to say, peeping through its glass doors can barely satisfy your curiosity if you know it accommodates a gallery, a full-fledged printmaking workshop, co-working spaces, and about a hundred artists’ studios.
For us gallery volunteers, taking visitors from the all-access ground floor up to the studio holders’ territory was an adventure – everyone seemed fascinated with a subtle sense of trespassing. Still, we had our reason to intrude.
‘Welcome to Test Space,’ I would say to the visitors as they tip-toed past the artworks.
It all started in 2009, when a group of Spike Island artists decided to exploit the hallway between their studios as an independent exhibiting space. Six years later, the project developed into their immediate creative outlet to showcase both finished work and work in progress. In this regard, Test Space is exactly what its name implies – a space to try out new creative ideas in a gallery environment, test them with the audience, and ultimately gain more visibility within the art community of Bristol and beyond.
The concept has no formal limits, be it an artist’s experience or location. Since its inception, the space has hosted works by self-taught, emerging and established artists alike, many of whom came outside of Spike Island or even Bristol. ‘Opening up the space to allow artists outside of Spike Island to exhibit has always been key,’ say Test Space project coordinators.
There is no single format either: throughout its history, the space welcomed live performances, site-specific installations and even a hypnosis session as part of Hayley Lock’s Passing Through the Mother Hole show. When asked to recall some highlights, Julian Claxton, Test Space co-producer and Spike Island artist himself, picks, among others, Simon Hood’s ‘endurance drumming, shamanistic rituals and simultaneous performances reminiscent of the New York loft scene,’ Solveig Settemsdal’s Epilelesthai that ‘made dramatic use of lighting and… reanimated the space in unexpected ways,’ and Howard Silverman who ‘wins the prize for the biggest number of works in one show, filling the space with over one thousand individual pieces!’
Although Test Space is an independent artist-run initiative, those behind the project fully acknowledge its welcoming premises: ‘Because of where we are situated – within a building that has a prominent and funded exhibiting programme – we are essentially hybridic,’ admit Test Space coordinators. Relying on the infrastructure and predictable audience numbers of Spike Island, Test Space exhibitions can run regularly and continuously – ‘something that I know from my own experience can be very difficult for independent self-funded initiatives,’ adds Julian.
This creative symbiosis results in more positive spillovers. The space’s guaranteed audience can surely include those who were alerted to ‘more exhibits upstairs’ by the main gallery invigilators, but there is more to this – invited to partake in Spike Island’s gallery events, artists, writers and curators often stepped in to engage with Test Space as well.
The nucleus of Test Space is networking, and its impact is manifold. From connecting young artists, for whom it might have been the first ever solo show, with the art world influencers, to seeking out new names through regional bodies like Visual Arts South West (VASW), Test Space is feeding on creative interaction between artists, audience and institutions.
It’s not uncommon for the products of this interaction to find their way into Test Space’s programme. The latest exhibition – Conversation Pieces – brings together just about everything Test Space embodies. It is curated by Georgia Hall who is doing her placement at Spike Island as part of her MA in Curating at the University of the West of England, and unites seven Spike Island artists – Kamina Walton, Angela Lizon, Jo Lathwood, Caitlin Shepherd, Milo Newman, Solveig Settemsdal and Charlie Tweed, who spent the last four months producing a sequence of artistic responses to each other’s work. As each artist nominated another, their ‘handover’ conversations helped to shape the ideas behind a nominee’s work and build a cohesive narrative throughout the show, hence its title. Now the recorded conversations are available both as part of the show and via Soundcloud to provide a conceptual backdrop for the artworks on display.
I did bid farewell to Test Space back in August, but the place breathes on. Born out of the studio holders’ community ethos, this younger sibling of Spike Island gallery seems to enjoy a rising prominence within the local art scene. Then, should we expect more new names and collaborations in 2016?
‘We already have more people wanting to show than we can fit in!’
Test Space website
Spike Island exhibition programme
The featured image courtesy of Spike Island. © Max McClure, 2015.