'Retreat' is an annual residential workshop, for the past two years based in a large house in Nefyn, on the Lleyn peninsular, North Wales. Nefyn is a tiny village, almost abandoned in deeply off-season February. The invitation reads 'This is not a holiday; this is an opportunity to enjoy communal living and intensely debate artistic practices'. Michael Whitby, the organizer of the event, invites a range of artists, gallerists, musicians and theatre practitioners who each give a presentation of their own practice, or something else, during the course of the seven-day trip.
The idea originally came from Michael's interest in groups like the Black Mountain College, Atelier Van Lieshout, even apocalypse-fearing survivalists. Within the concept is an assertion of independence – from art school and from cities, specifically London where most attendees travel from. The hope is to temporarily establish a productive isolation, where insularity breeds constructive debate. The near-empty Llyn peninsular (bereft of art galleries, Biennials, or whatever else usually draws groups of artists to a place) provides a perfect backdrop, its deserted beaches and hillsides littered with broken boats, dead animals and rusted machinery – a melancholic setting for a very lively event.
The structured part of the trip consists of a communal evening meal, then several presentations afterwards – the days are left free to variously explore the local countryside, hang around nearby seaside town of Pwllheli or sleep off the night before. This simple format works extremely well, with debate around the presentations often continuing for hours after and each one remaining 'open' for the rest of the week. The house sleeps twenty people, mostly in odd home-made bunk beds, with people coming and going over the course of the trip.
Although based on models of discussion learnt at art school, the focus on each other rather the production of our own work makes Retreat feel very different – it's a different thing to look at someone's work after having eaten a meal they have cooked and shared a ten miles walk earlier in the day. The practices we had all put on hold for the week became things to reflect upon – perhaps in truth Retreat is a holiday, for (rather than from) one's practice, giving it time to rest and be analysed during a hiatus, at a distinct remove from its usual surroundings. Rather than leading to soft, overly generous critiques, the strong feeling of camaraderie increased our investment in worthwhile, constructive questioning of each other, the presentations providing only a starting point for conversations to be continued throughout the week.
This year's talks included an introduction to Meantime gallery in Cheltenham, a exploration of contemporary nostalgia, a selection of films on undiscovered peoples, paintings by Aidan Doherty, sculpture by Swiss artist Stephanie Backes, theatre designer Isobel Dunhill's trip to Jerusalem and an activity involving throwing eggs out of a second story window – all of which were received with gusto (as was a prodigious amount of food and alcohol).
Personally, the trip was a wonderful mixture of regression back to childhood holidays and youth-group trips (after all, I am from Liverpool, where North Wales was practically an obligatory camping holiday destination – and on top of that the organiser is my brother…) and very definitely progressive discussion of very diverse practice. This is a rare and precious combination, and it was an absolute privilege to be part such a wonderful trip.