The old adage goes that a problem shared is a problem halved, but when it comes to producing art, the act of collaboration can often be more fraught than when just one mind is put in total control. Equally, the results can be exceptional. Juneau Projects are a duo that is still working out just how a shared practice should work and the products of their professional and personal journey are exhibited publically, available for all to see.
Ben Sadler and Phil Duckworth have more than ten years of collaborative practice behind them, coming together firstly as musicians whilst studying at university, then embarking on a journey in the contemporary visuals arts together. Talking with them in the stately surroundings of Cheshire’s Tatton Park, in the midst of their contribution to the estate’s Biennial, Ben and Phil take a little time to reflect on how their partnership began and is continuing to evolve. They begin right back to where it all started.
Phil recalls: “We met in 1998 around the time that we were just finishing our degrees. We started doing some music together in a band called OHNe with fellow artists Matt Golden and Andy Turner then started having ideas about artwork. It came together in a way that wasn’t really planned, we didn’t have any intention of forming a creative duo or anything like that; we just had some similar ideas. Although we were making work that looked very different, we started to see that a lot of the ideas we were coming up with were the same. So, as a way of working on these ideas together, we tried to branch out and make some pieces that would work alongside the band.”
Music was their catalyst and continues to play an integral part in Juneau Projects’ work to this day, as the pair create work in their Birmingham studio that explores their individual and shared interests and ambitions. Contemporary culture and technology provide them with running themes, influences which, in the wrong hands, could appear lightweight or derivative. Their ability to take an idea from something obvious to them, perhaps what they’re listening to in the studio, and create something with intriguing depth – using objects, sound, performance or video – appears to stem from not just their voyage into further education, but also from being adopted early in their careers by forward-thinking advocates.
Grizedale Arts, the Lake District project that sucks city-bound artists into its rural wilderness to consider the complexities of the countryside, looms large in the history of Juneau Projects. Ben explains: “We answered an open-call opportunity advertised in Artists Newsletter to make an artwork in Grizedale Forest and ended up going there to work up a piece under the banner of the band. Our piece was a sound piece, a Perspex bird box that played record crackle. It turned out that the project was organised entirely independently of Grizedale Arts but we did get to meet Adam Sutherland, the Director of Grizedale, and learned a bit about the place and decided to put in a proposal as Juneau Projects as by this time the band was starting to dissolve.”
How did they feel when they first arrived to take part in the open call project? “We were really scared,” Ben says, bluntly. “We turned up with this Perspex box that made sounds, and the other artists were confidently saying they were going to do this and that with string and leaves and things like that. We spent most of the weekend a bit worried, and I think Adam quite liked that when he met us. After submitting a proposal we were invited to make a number of projects for Grizedale Arts. The place was instrumental in the first body of work we produced together.”
This introduction to the rural artist’s space saw Ben and Phil thrust into what was and continues to emerge as a visual arts project with an enviable reputation for innovation and playing a part in the progression of numerous rising stars. The duo soon realised that they had been brought to a place that was open to new ways of working, and that they weren’t expected to toy with twine and bracken to fit in. Ben recalls the watershed, explaining: “It was an interesting place to work, as it had a real history, particularly in respect to Andy Goldsworthy’s legacy. But things appeared to have moved on when we got there, with Adam looking at how artists respond to the community around Grizedale rather than working within the forest itself. It tied in quite nicely with both of our feelings at the time. We weren’t interested in working to bring new objects into the world, more working with things that already exist to create something new.”
So, Juneau Projects arrived in the Cumbrian idyll and dropped a Walkman into a lake until its functions were compromised entirely by the water. A simple, smartly executed idea that reinforced Ben and Phil’s desire to bring less ‘stuff’ into the world – certainly an object-obsessed art world as well as a commodity-rich world outside. This was the start of them systematically, and tastefully, destroying items that had a diminishing monetary value as consumerism piled ‘em higher and sold ‘em cheaper. Ben says: “It was around the time that technology like mobile phones became really affordable and everybody suddenly had them, or you could buy a Walkman for a fiver. There was this proliferation of technology, and Grizedale was a great place to create these destructive pieces.”
These were live performances that gained the respect of their immediate peer group. Their intentions to turn up and document work, perhaps taking it as far as recording it on video, had been taken one step further than they’d intended to originally through the encouragement and suggestion of fellow artists and curators who saw their potential. Both of them admit, more than once, throughout the course of conversation that their comfort zone was almost immediately stretched. The next phase of their development would come when they realised that their audience would be restricted if they didn’t consider the bigger picture. They needed to find the answer to the question of how Juneau Projects would appear in more conventional gallery settings.
Phil explains the progression to their next phase, saying: “We realised that the numbers of people able to see our performances was limited, especially when the locations were in remote locations, as many of the works made at Grizedale were, and that we would need to think about how to present our work in galleries and to a wider audience. Our first solo show was going to be at The Showroom in London in 2004, so we began working out how to make installations around the performances we did. We started looking at how the props utilised in the performances could become elements of an installation and producing customised CDs of our performances. We started doing what we’d originally tried to avoid: making physical objects.”
“That first show was a full stop in a way,” he continues. “Breaking from those destructive performances to think about how we present what we do in a gallery. We were keen to have this immersive thing going on, so that individual pieces flowed into the next one and so on. As well as the destructive performances we wrote a radio play with characters that linked each piece, for example. It was quite a sprawling mess of stuff in a way. Making things for the show, like painting a computer monitor or producing a hand-etched vinyl record, made us realise that we did miss making stuff. It was useful in terms of thinking about how we could still do performance, but there could be an object as an outcome.”
Their debut gallery show was, to onlookers and the artists themselves, a huge success. Their emergence (quite literally) from the wilderness into the centre of a cosmopolitan bubble of critical acclaim and attention from collectors, potential collaborators and institutions was complete at the first attempt. Crucially, their partnership was showing a vibrancy and playfulness that persists in their work to date. Ben says: “The first show was an amazing experience for us, and Kirsty Ogg and Bridget Crone at The Showroom were brilliant to work with. It was the first time that we got reviews in things like Time Out, Flash Art and The Wire. It was an amazing feeling reading reviews of our work in magazines we really liked and respected. The show then led to us being in British Art Show 6, which felt like being selected for the British Olympic art team! The next show that we went on to do, with FA Projects, was bought in its entirety by the collector Anita Zabludowicz, which was amazing and a real boost for us.”
The touring exhibition of the British Art Show 6 put them on the same billing as the likes of Tomma Abts and Mark Titchner, both since touched by the golden hand of the Turner Prize, as well as talents like Gordon Cheung, Marcus Coates and Anna Barriball. Juneau Projects were also soon commissioned by Tate Britain’s Art Now programme, furthering their outdoor experience with the plywood and moss installation Trappenkamp that first lurked in the urban splendour of London’s Millbank, and was then reworked for a spell at Croft Castle in Herefordshire through Meadow Arts. The 2012 version of Juneau Project sees them settled in the supportive cradle of Ceri Hand Gallery, working regularly on more and more ambitious work. Few as ambitious as the plane they ‘flew’ into the 2012 Tatton Park Biennial.
Considering their proposal to take an aircraft’s fuselage, nestle it in the country estate and transform it into an eye-catching installation, Ben hints that, at times, they thought they might have bitten off more than they could chew. He says: “Combined with the wet weather, it’s felt a bit like the film Fitzcarraldo, where they try and haul a boat over a hill. Being powerless as we watched the rain wash away the paint from the tail section and things like that, it’s felt pretty mad at times.”
Phil elaborates on the source of their proposal, which was realised in its barmy entirety and turned out to be a focal point of an event that gathers a consistently high standard of international work: “We’ve been particularly interested recently in science fiction scenarios and that’s where the idea for the plane came from. We were told about the theme for the biennial, Flights of Fancy, so we were looking at that, but we wanted that to be more the narrative behind the piece. The story would be the ‘fancy’ if you like. It’s a post-apocalyptic scenario, imagining people reclaiming things such as planes that had fallen out of the sky to use as structures. The idea is that these two wildlife artists are working in the structure and they’ve gone a bit feral, doing their thing in a new society.”
So, there’s the back end of an aircraft in the middle of a country estate, ready for day trippers, dog walkers and art lovers to stumble upon. Until an inquisitive visitor gets up close, peering into the Perspex-protected cabin of the plane, there is little in the way of narrative to grab hold of, but once face-to-face with the interior, the narrative becomes more apparent. Painted motorcycle helmets, easels with unfinished work and strategically placed icons all point towards the new domesticity of the post-apocalyptic inhabitants. It spurs the question as to whether, with such keen minds to tell tales, could they just as easily transmit their ideas on the printed page?
The question brings Phil back to Juneau Projects’ core interests, saying: “There has always been a literary element to the work. Our first show was a series of installations that we threaded together with a narrative; this shifted for our second solo show for which we wrote a radio play that suggested the objects that could become gallery works to support the play’s narrative. The longest text based piece we have produced was Beneath the Floorboards of the Forest, Empty Space, which was a text-based computer game, almost like an interactive novel where you explore a post-apocalyptic version of Birmingham reclaimed by nature. The show toured and at each new venue we wrote a new section of the game.”
Participation is a key interest for the pair. Working with 1,000 school children in Sheffield, with the support of Site Gallery and Sheffield Children’s Festival, they have recently produced a film where each frame is unique as every one of them has been hand-painted by children of all ages and abilities. Whether working with the changing narrative of a computer game depending on their location, or the collaborative production of new music at New Art Gallery, Walsall, Juneau Projects are dedicated to including more people in their work. Ben says: “Sometimes it seems like the educational side of art is tacked on. Most of how we’ve developed our practice is out of practicality, like working out how the two of us are going to support ourselves. Education projects and workshops were a way in which we could sustain ourselves, but we were keen to work out how it could be more than an add-on and become absorbed into our practice. Now it’s a part of what we do”
Ultimately the thing that has made Juneau Projects a success to date seems to be Ben and Phil’s chemistry, their patience and easy way of agreeing where mutual areas of interest exist. Using that simple formula, surely any partnership can exist and thrive. They state that it is to the detriment of their social life that their interests become their work, and vice versa. They point to a low attention threshold, and even lower boredom threshold for their multi-platform, multi-discipline output that veers between audio, video, sculpture, installation and more conventional mark making.
With good humour and a colourful output, Juneau Projects take their ideas seriously, but it’s clear that they retain a sense of healthy perspective. Most importantly, it allows them to enjoy what they do; perhaps the key to what makes a great collaborative pairing tick. Ben sums up their harmonious existence, saying: “In much of what we do, there are elements of trying to make each other laugh. We do make work together, but we are also friends.”
1 – Gleaners of the Infocalypse, 2012
2 – Walkman/Lake, 2001.
3 – The Beauty Royale, 2004
4 – The Man of Speed’s Helmet, 2004
5 – Trappenkamp, 2008
6 – Čapexagon 03 (Lickey Hills), 2011
7 – Gleaners of the Infocalypse, 2012
8 – The Colour Bright, 2012
All images except Gleaners of the Infocalypse courtesy of the artists and Ceri Hand Gallery.
Gleaners of the Infocalypse images courtesy of the Tatton Park Biennial.
Info: Juneau Projects are Philip Duckworth and Ben Sadler, who live and work in Birmingham UK. Their work, Gleaners of the Infocalypse, can be seen as part of the Tatton Park Biennial until Sunday 30 September 2012. Their film, The Colour Bright, can be seen at Site Gallery, Sheffield until Saturday 28 July 2012.
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