Interview with Alys Williams, Artist and Curator, Director of the Vitrine Gallery

AM: How does your work as a curator inform your practice as an artist and vice versa?

AW: Both inform each other constantly, which is something I try to hold onto and learn from. Although I never planned to move into the field of curating or run my own gallery, it has developed very naturally from my art practice. I find curating an extremely exciting, surprising and rewarding practice, which definitely also positively influences my own work. I'm lucky to be working with some amazing artists, who greatly inspire me; both as curator and artist and as much as I am finding my place as curator, I would never stop making work myself. It's a constant. I think you find yourself questioning everything you do as an artist from a different perspective – from the curator's perspective - and more harshly than I did before. It's quite daunting exhibiting my own work now for this reason.  It's also hopefully a positive for the artists I work with that I can look at their work and the exhibitions from an artist's perspective too. This understanding and flexibility hopefully helps produce interesting shows.

I think for me the two roles are interchangeable as well. I work with found objects and different mixed media elements, so arranging things, composition and framing is where my skill lies, I guess. Working as curator: figuring out how to place works together or who to present has its cross-overs with this and while not trained in curation, I feel that my practice as visual artist has lead quite instinctively to this point.  Exhibitions like HYBIRD, which I curated in December last year, push this interchangeability a little further and really question my role as curator/artist, which is something I want to explore further in the future.

AM: Could you tell me a little bit about the Vitrine Gallery, the space you direct in Bermondsey?

AW: The actual exhibiting space is a very unusual space. It occupies a very large window along one edge of this new – 2 year old – square. We present work by emerging artists with three main areas: group exhibitions; solo exhibitions, mainly by artists who haven't before had a solo show in London; and site-specific installations. This main programme is accompanied by events, including performance, screenings, music and parties ... which are a lot of fun! This element of our programme has always been very important to me. Time-based art is a strong interest of mine and also because viewers don't go inside the gallery (they view exhibitions from outside the window), we encourage people to visit us for the opening events, where we work very closely with Shortwave Cinema, using their bar for private views and the 50-seater cinema for artist talks, discussions or screenings. We use these events to expand in some way on the work that is in the exhibition and to make use of other spaces in the development. I guess, I'm good at asking (or convincing) other people to work with us, supporting or partnering with us or letting us use their space … Creating exchanges that allow for as much to happen as possible, without massive overheads and therefore for free to the viewer.

With the main space the two things that have always interested me the most with it, are: 

Firstly, how it is encountered: we now have a strong following from within the contemporary art world who visit the space and join us at events, but because of the architecture of the gallery we also present everything we do to the passing or local audience very publicly. People who might not normally step inside an art gallery and who inhabit the square regularly, have really taken on what we are doing and engage with it extremely positively. 

Secondly, its influence over the work we do: It is an unusual space, which means that there is always an element of site-specificity to the installations and exhibitions we put on. Focusing on site-responsive work or thinking about how the exhibition space influences the shows we do has become central to the gallery's programme and is definitely an exciting part of my work; in part because it's a thread that carries prominently through my own practice as artist as well. It's a 24-hour space so work like Ludovica Gioscia's 'soft power' installation has used this quality, creating different day and night modes.

The space was founded by myself and Rennard Milner, also an artist. We have since formed a small collective, who are all artists as well as curators, Justin Eagle, Katherine Gardner and Natasha Rees, and begun working with associate curators. It was important to curate the first year's program quite tightly, giving a very clear reflection of who we are and what we are interested in. But now, while developing this further, it's also exciting and important to work with new curators, bringing a different take on the space, new ideas and artists. 

AM: How does the new Satellite Vitrine Gallery at the Hospital Club function in relation to the primary space?

AW: The idea was always to create a platform to present the work and artists to a very different audience in another part of London. I'd worked with the Hospital Club several times before, first in 2008, and had always found the place very supportive and eager to engage and facilitate ideas that emerging artists had for the space. It's a great place to showcase work to a large creative community and for Vitrine Gallery, it's probably an audience who wouldn't already know us, our work or Bermondsey Square. So when I proposed the project to Ali Hillman, the club arts curator, we discussed a pilot project for 3 months and it seemed to make sense to break this period into 3 projects that reflected our 3 main areas of work. So in April we had RELICA a group show; in May, an installation by an artist I'd been very keen to work with for some time George Henry Longly; and now in June a solo show of my own work. It seemed a good opportunity to exhibit my work with Vitrine, in a different space.

Both Ali, Katherine (who co-curated satellite Vitrine Gallery) and I were always keen to reflect our main program in regards to events as well. So for each show we have had an opening event with performance, DJs, video and/or film programmes, in the Games Room where Satellite Vitrine Gallery is located and in the cinema. 

AM: Could you tell me about your exhibition at the Satellite Vitrine, 'Wildebeeste'? I understand your recent trip to South Africa influenced the work?

AW: I went to South Africa in March this year as my sister recently moved there to start a totally different life on a farm with her new husband. It was quite a perplexing experience as well as being interesting, overwhelming and inspiring: I suffered from extreme Culture Shock. It was quite unexpected as I have travelled a lot and lived in other countries but I have never been quite so affected as I was there. 

I had already started work on my show for Satellite Vitrine Gallery at the time, but was still playing with ideas and materials so it was a really good time to have this kind of input and experience. I had started working with habitual objects to the club: cups, plates, cutlery and things. I was interested in creating sculptures that would whilst being individual pieces, combine in the space to form an installation that, as with all my work, started from and developed with the site in mind. I was considering ideas on table manners and the way conversation is created across tables; dinning, in cafes or at parties. It was the trace of these conversations and the residues in the still-lives that I was interested in creating within the work. 

Going to South Africa brought a different and very exciting new angle.  When I was there, I'd found myself strangely silent and unable to comment on the political, social and culture situation, which seems on the mend but will clearly take several generations to work towards repairing. This silence was very unusual for me so I did a lot of soul searching, I guess. I found myself instead coming up with lots of ideas that feed into visual dialogues. I started collecting natural materials, such as the soil and twigs, and drawing ideas of how to work these into table-top assemblages. I simultaneously filmed lots of short video pieces; archiving moments and places. The work grew from here.

I also had an amazing experience of encountering a wildebeest in its natural habitat, transfixed by an invisible danger: a scent that encircled it and stopped it from moving. It was completely isolated and lost from its herd in the wilderness. We sat for sometime transfixed by the creatures contrasting move between aggressive action and passive unknowing. The experience made me think about moments spent in the urban landscape of London, confused, excited or frozen by the unknown. This is where the title came from. The fact that the wildebeest is known for migrating across vast distances was also poignant for this exhibition and highlights a reoccurring theme in my work.

AM: You have worked in many media, including installation, sculpture, collage and video. Is there one medium that you feel more comfortable with or do you enjoy experimenting?

AW: I love working in different materials and mediums, and experimenting with the crossover between them. I think, in a similar way to how I described curating having links to the way I work arranging things, my way of mixing video with objects with paper and text is very similar. Installation is probably where I've always been intuitively lead but the elements within these installations are mixed and time-based. When it comes to my sculptures they are smaller versions and like this show 'Wildebeest' the way that I present them becomes an installation even if they can be seen as individual pieces as well. Collage, drawing and video are areas of my practice that I have always used to use to develop ideas and explore themes, places and narratives. In the last year or so I've focused more on these mediums to think about how they can develop within themselves rather than as preliminary sketches to a larger installation. I'm finding it very exciting doing this and it's definitely bringing my focus back to the details of my work and the rawer elements of it.

AM: What is your next project?

AW: Oh. Lots as ever! With my work, I am going to continue developing these table-top pieces as well as looking at how they might evolve into large pieces, including furniture with larger natural objects and video elements incorporated into them. It might be something that I will consider developing into an installation for 'brochure' at Vitrine Gallery - which is a series of site-responsive works in which one artist is given the space for 11 days to try out an idea outside the constructs of a formal exhibition, aiming to encourage more gestural works - or proposing it for another space where like THC they would be more habitual to the exhibition space. 

With Vitrine Gallery, we have a big music festival coming up on Sunday 19th June. I've had the pleasure of working with Edwin Burdis since meeting him early this year - he was one of the artists in the RELICA show - and I'm incredibly excited to be organizing a day of music and screenings/performance, including LongMeg, Mark Leckey, Ed Akins and Man like Me, in Bermondsey Square this month. It will be our first large-scale event using the entire square since 'Sounding OFF' (our launch event last year) and it's going to bring a whole new group of artists into the Vitrine Gallery programme. I'm really looking forward to this. We also have a full programme organised for the following months, then a site-specific performance season I'm working on for the autumn and I definitely want to look at doing a HYBIRD 2 in 2012. So loads on and I'm sure other things will come up to keep me busy!

Ali MacGilp and Alys Williams

Alys Williams, Wildebeeste, 2011

Alys Williams, Wildebeeste, 2011

Alys Williams, Wildebeeste, 2011

Alys Williams, Wildebeeste, 2011

Alys Williams, Wildebeeste, 2011

Alys Williams, Wildebeeste, 2011

Alys Williams, Wildebeeste, 2011

Alys Williams, Wildebeeste, 2011

Elly Thomas, Installation (phase 1), Vitrine Gallery, 2011

Elly Thomas, Installation (phase 1), Vitrine Gallery, 2011

Hybird, Vitrine Gallery, 2010

Hybird, Vitrine Gallery, 2010