Alan Smith is the Creative Director of ACA (Allenheads Contemporary Arts) an old school hall in the Northeast of England. The organisation is an epicenter of arts and cultural activities and exhibitions in the village and surrounding area and welcomes creatives practicing in all medias to become involved in the project including students, writers, established artists and musicians (ACA, 2013). Smith believes it is crucial to have other artists and people around to “feed” (Smith, 2013) into their work to produce an all-inclusive, innovative environment.
Allenhead with a population of approximately 200 residents is quite a different and difficult place to work compared to New York where Smith was based for several years. When Smith arrived in Allenheads approximately twenty years ago, he felt that there was nothing happening there initially. He started to paint landscapes without reason but felt like he had to do something and thought that’s what he should be doing. However, he disliked the paintings and in frustration threw them outside. Over a period of time the paintings started to deteriorate – breaking down and covered inn mould and dirt. This process seemed to be an epiphany to Smith as to demonstrated that there were things going on around him and it opened his eyes. He started to consider the landscape of Allenhead with a new outlook – exploring and considering the environment around him. In comparison to New York City the landscape was quite empty and open – almost “frightening” to a point (Smith, 2013). This and changeable weather – particularly the extreme winters changed Smith’s perspective.
With this in mind, through ACA (developed 18yrs ago) Smith uses Allenhead’s environment as a source of education. He organises “silent trips” for students whereby he asks them to leave behind any recording devices such as notepads, mobile phones and cameras and use only themselves as the “recording system” while walking around Allenhead’s countryside (Smith, 2013). Following these trips, the group discusses what each of them has taken from it and an open and varied discussion takes place.
Another opportunity ACA gives to students is the possibility of gaining a placement at the ACAshop. The site used to be the village shop and post office 5yrs previously. As a well-established building that was already a central hub for the community, it created a new arts environment which encouraged residents to get involved with projects, attend exhibitions/workshops and join in creative discussions.
To further involve the community with ACA, artist Andrew Wilson asked residents to bring an item of importance to them to be displayed in the ACAshop as a way of making the community feel a sense of ownership in the project. He also asked everyone for their top 10 songs which was also played during the exhibition.
Although ACA didn’t initially have a sufficient catchment for Arts Council funding, Smith and his peers grew the organisation by firstly inviting people they knew to exhibit. Through word of mouth, more people got involved, audience numbers grew and people began to “sit up and notice” (Smith, 2013).
The organisation has become part of the community by building mutual respect and assisting wherever possible (i.e. the school hall was used for the village show when the village hall was unsuitable due to damaged flooring).
During Smith’s lecture it is clear he is interested in the future and the idea of not fully knowing or understanding everything he sees. However, he is also interested in the past and notes that “things may change but we’re still doing the same thing…it’s just evolved technology” (Smith, 2013). With this in mind one of ACA’s projects This is the Future focuses on these ideas. During this project artists including David Lisser were invited to produce work that demonstrated their ideas about what the future held. Lisser considered whether the village of Allenhead would be seen as the “remote” village it once was, cut off from technology and self-reliant (ACA, 2013). In terms of being self-reliant, Lisser produced a food-type with what some may think of as an unusual ingredient – namely midges. Midges are quite prevalent in the wild open environment of Allenhead and by using them as an ingredient to produce burgers, Lisser was utilizing them as a food-group – even developing a “Midgecatcher’s House” which was also on display.
Another artist involved with ACA was Arturas Raila in 2007. The work which included inviting Lithuanian pagans to Allenhead to carry out a pagan ritual of mapping out “geo-energy flows” (Hodnett, 2007) caused some controversy with the residents. However, Smith was interested in the spirituality and positive and negative energies the pagans believed in.
With regard to spirituality, Smith is also interested in the beliefs of the Zen Buddhist monks. Whereas scientists continually look to the future, the monks consider everything around them and believe that “it is equally important to look both ways” (Smith, 2013).
Smith also took part in the Migrating Arts Academy where he and artist Rosalind McLachlan explored the theme “5% as far as the eye can see” in 2013 (Migaa.eu, 2013). This is based on the theory that the human is only capable of seeing 5%, whereas 27% is dark matter and 68% is dark energy (Smith, 2013). Smith notes that he “enjoys” not understanding everything that he is seeing, however just because he can’t see something, does not mean it does not exist.
On this note Smith ended with the question:
Can creativity and imagination help us make sense of the inexplicable?
Acart.org.uk, (2014). Lisser. [online] Available at: http://www.acart.org.uk/davidlisser.html [Accessed 30 Apr. 2014]
Hodnett, M. (2007). News & Star | Pagan ceremony launches art show. [online] Newsandstar.co.uk. Available at: http://www.newsandstar.co.uk/pagan-ceremony-launches-art-show-1.184124?referrerPath=home/2.1962 [Accessed 30 Apr. 2014].
Migaa.eu, (2013). Migrating Art Academies » Blog Archive » Review: 5% as far as the eye can see. [online] Available at: http://www.migaa.eu/review-5-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see/ [Accessed 30 Apr. 2014].