James McColl: Plymouth Art Weekender 2018

James McColl

The weekend starts slowly. Friday morning doesn’t come with a sense of grandeur like previous Plymouth Art Weekenders (PAW) have, but it is still exciting to be in the city. There is an element of magic about PAW, like Christmas day for the arts. The first few hours are chaotic, some venues are missing boards or making makeshift ones with some events not taking place as advertised. Still, wandering through cobbled alleyways and tiptoeing around derelict buildings, PAW is the perfect opportunity to explore the city’s underbelly and discover the many hidden spaces unique to the city which open their doors for this annual event. A glance down a seemingly empty corridor can turn into a chance encounter with an experimental installation by artists Lisa Davison and Katie Upton in Me & You: Then & Now and a wander through the city centre can lead to an experience of  an interactive performance with Adam Coley in Cooing like a Pigeon In Front Of The Big Screen.

From Royal William Yard to the Hoe, spotting a bright pinksign advertising a PAW event, even in the event’s fourth year, is in itself exciting and an adventure for PAW’s attendees. For most, the first of many PAW destinations to head to is  Armada Way – the heart of PAW. This year it felt like some artist led events on this busy patch were somewhat dwarfed by the Atlantic Project, the pilot for a new international festival of contemporary art taking place across Plymouth that launched at this year’s Weekender. The question is, can PAW facilitate such a huge project whilst still supporting the local and lesser-known artists who are the heart of the Weekender?

Though the two events are twinned, the Atlantic Project should be seen as its own operation with massive commissioned works, site-specific projects and international artists. PAW, by contrast, overwhelmingly champions local talent, allowing anyone to take part over the three days with modest resources backing it. Aside from Armada Way, Coffee Mornings provided   a reliable starting point for visitors. A morning gathering with coffee, cake and friendly faces that was setup to help guide visitors through their PAW experience arming them with themed art trails to follow helping them to navigate the massive amount of listings. PAW accommodates a host of one-off events, open studios and workshops as well as commissioned work specifically made for PAW. The aim of PAW has always been to be an open platform for artists and galleries across Plymouth, showcasing the talent on offer here in the city and more widely across the region.

Trying to spot pink markers across the city becomes a pre-occupation. The visibility of PAW is one of its most valued assets, allowing people outside of the art world to experience all that PAW has to offer. This should not be downplayed as it helps remove the barriers between communities and for many people involved, is a key factor in taking part. Work by artists like Bridgette Ashton, one of this year’s commissioned artists, strengthens the city’s relationship with art – a relationship that hasn’t always been so visible. Her striking pink and gold cave models are tantalizing for the public, often seen swarming around them. One piece, Worth’s Folly, is two quarter-scale abstract replicas of a Palaeolithic bone cave discovered in Plymouth by R.N. Worth in 1886. These cross sectioned replicas give an idea of the contours and textures of the interior walls of the caves, and volume of the caves – a story belonging to Plymouth and largely glossed over but unearthed for many by the artist.

Other less attended events give the weekend its unpredictability and flavour. An evening at the Art Swap quickly turns into an open-mic night for a small group, while across town the Atlantic Project opening party has a monstrous wall of visual patterns backing a live set by Ryoji Ikeda playing to hundreds. Walking across the Hoe, two more Atlantic Project events, also supported by The Weekender through SOUP funding, have gathered audiences. Imperfect Orchestra manages to capture the spirit of collaboration, excitement and community that larger PAW events hope for. Dozens of swimmers brave the ice-cold sea, while accompanied by a live orchestra of musicians playing along from ashore. The crowds look on both in bemusement and awe. With some events only visible over the three days, is the longer Atlantic Project superseding PAW?

Previous PAW venues like Plymouth Art Centre’s main gallery and Plymouth College of Art whose main gallery was closed for renovations were sorely missed. This does however give more focus to events taking place outside. Performances were among the most engaging work, including Plymouth Platform artist Elena Brake’s Cleaning in Progress and Weekender Commission The Long Way by Go Happen, both disrupting the day-to-day happenings of Armada Way, a busy shopping area. Like previous years, artists have been able to use the unique spaces of Plymouth to showcase work that is directly linked to the city.

Smaller events like YEA’18, whose exhibition and zine sits nicely in between other exhibitions, gives people the chance to see the artists of the future. Other events seem crammed into the weekend. One Year Later (part of Plymouth College of Art) seems thrown into PAW with the hope of attracting a bigger audience at the price of stiff competition. One definite advantage in overlapping with the Atlantic Project has been exhibitions drawing bigger audience numbers through the support of the Atlantic Project’s marketing budget and the draw of some of the works in their programme. As well as this, new  venues have been opened up to the public, the Civic Centre, The Millennium Building and the Melville building have all been used in unique ways that would not have be possible without the Atlantic Project taking place.

Ultimately, PAW is shaped by the efforts of those involved, which is both the strength and flaw of the event. This year has felt like a transitional year, from the previous model into something new – with bigger international artists and curators taking sister events like the Atlantic Project and last year’s We The People Are The Work to higher and higher levels. As an event, PAW will need to decide where it fits into this model and where it goes from here. Should the bigger parts of PAW splinter off into the Atlantic Project leaving PAW as a strictly local affair? The relationship between PAW and the Atlantic Project has remained unclear. Anyone wanting to see PAW events would have a hard time avoiding the Atlantic Project, both events piled on top of each other in more than one instance. The worry is that audiences will be drawn to the spectacle of large-scale projects, leaving many smaller PAW listings out in the cold with the added advantage of many Atlantic Project events stretching beyond PAW’s limited time frame of three days. With the news that Plymouth will be one of the cities to host The British Art Show 9 in 2021, it will be very interesting to see how the city’s art sector evolves in the run up to the major art event. After all, the last time The British Art Show was hosted by Plymouth, the first PAW was a direct result.