Words by Patrick Kirk-Smith. Photographs courtesy of Joe Cotgrave
Our featured artist’s been a busy one recently, not only finding new ways to engage with a new city, having made the journey home from Leeds to re-join the arts in Liverpool, he’s created a multi-region collaborative group, developed work with The Royal Standard and embarked on a Master’s Degree – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Joe Cotgrave seems to be clambering quickly up the ladder of clever ideas, and it’s starting to become a really fascinating watch. While it’s simple enough to call him a curator, he’s been getting stuck in to such a wide variety of exhibitions that there’s got to be more to it than that. I was excited to meet him, partly to find out more about the projects Art in Liverpool has been keen to keep up with, but also to what brought him back to Liverpool, having made a remarkably similar journey over The Pennines and back myself.
We grabbed some time with him just after his MA’s Node Nine group exhibition finished to pick his brains about Trans Pennine Artists, and what it’s like being one of the new kids on the block at The Royal Standard studios:
Can I just start by asking, what drew you back to Liverpool? Both of us seem to have been in Leeds at similar times, and both were brought back here by something around the same time. Is there something in particular happening right now that wasn’t here when we left?
I think in Leeds it was quite hard to get groups about in the city, because it’s quite a small city, and I thought ‘if I move back to Liverpool I’ve got a better chance of merging as an artist’. Especially getting the studio [at The Royal Standard]. That’s hugely helped. I think it’s nice that it’s quite a close knit community, and already I’m forming bonds with all the different artists from the studios and around the city, like Frances Disley, and everybody involved with 6GINS. I wanted to do my MA too, and Rory Macbeth was a real draw, one of the teachers at JMU who taught me in Leeds. It was nice to have him doing the MA, which helped with that choice. I’d kind of utilised Leeds too, I’d have loved to be going abroad, but Liverpool was exciting without the risk, letting me produce the art I want to be making without the financial strain.
And what’s the art you want to be making? Part of the other project, or more towards your own practice?
Third year of university on the degree, I was making very painterly installations dealing with site. Dealing with site in quite a problematic way, by making the viewer navigate in certain ways and have to look at a space from a pictorial perspective, through colour and material and composition. I carried on doing that during the residency in St Helens, but then I feel like that’s sort of been put on a back burner since I started dealing with work about HIV, which has a much more specific focus on cultural issues within the LGBT community. The work still has the same aesthetic, and it’s still made in the same way in terms of my practice and how I put everything together. I guess I’m taking on quite a challenging role to focus on some of this stuff, and allowing people to have a wider dialogue beyond ‘how is the work made?’ The last few shows I’ve done have all been around HIV: The TPA, with Pippa Eason, and Node Nine this week at JMU, as well as through working with 6GINS for GIN4.
I feel like the audience is grasping that work as an issue and I can take control of that dialogue
What was your involvement in 6GINS? I know you were part of GIN4, but was that something that you were a part of as an artist, or as a curator?
James Worley asked me, as a new studio member, if I wanted to have a go with the space and if I wanted a feature on the website as an artist for 6GINS so I tried some stuff out and it’s actually kicked off this process of dealing with HIV. It was a poster up on glass which I was destroying to get rid of those 80s preconceptions about HIV and then advertising posters pasted up on boards and painted over. It was all about pasting and removing, destroying the preconceptions.
It was really nice being there. They were offered the space straight from finishing the BA and they were only there six months. One show a month and it was curated to try and get the artists to change people’s work which helped it all link. Even then, the artists were all separate from each other, but James was always there making sure everyone’s work was in reaction to each other, in quite a site specific way.
TPA’s recent show at The Car Park space went down really well. How was it putting it all together?
Well, what that was, was I got the space all to myself and thought ‘sh*t, I can’t fill this. It’s too big.’ The idea was to have open submissions from different cities – we got Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield and Kendal – and tied the links up between those places. The week of the show we worked really hard to tidy the links up between each other’s work too, and again trying to make something more cohesive. We were trying to work collaboratively, even though we’ve got our own practices beyond TPA. We wanted to curate it together and bounce ideas off each other all the time.
What made TPA happen? Was it a desire to stay connected from your point of view? Is it more a project to develop links, or maintain them?
The five of us involved had done a show down in London on Brick Lane in the second year of Uni. Just a pop-up show for two days. We only had four hours to set up, but over the year we kept that going, doing loads of shows together, working in really similar ways. It was a way for all of us to stay connected to our practice, and a chance for me and Pippa to try controlling it a bit because we’re still working towards our MA’s. Hers in Leeds and mine at JMU. Really it’s just a crossing over of art forms at the same of time as crossing over the pennies. It’s a link that needs to be more formalized between all the Northern cities where there’s so much going on already, but nothing big to hold it together yet. I’m hoping it can get to that stage, with a TPA in each city, with artists connecting all the time.
So you’re a full time studio holder at The Royal Standard these days. Big step from studying in Leeds to being thrown into TRS’s busy atmosphere. How’s the transition been?
It’s been amazing at The Royal Standard, keeping that energy beyond Uni. Doing the MA I decided I needed to come out of the institution environment to make my work. It’s been great having that creative space, and the ability to bounce ideas off each other whenever you can. It’s a strong community there, something like 38 of us, so there’s a solid support network from other artists who are emerging or already set up.
You’ve had a lot going on recently, in a seriously busy, in no way exaggeratedly, way. It’s anyone’s guess what’s next on the cards for you, but what’s next for TPA or in your own space?
There’s another TPA in the planning for Leeds, and we’re part of Threshold Festival at the beginning of April. They want to give TPA a space, and me and Pippa’ll be creating the space, directing it, installing it. Maybe just do our own collaborative installation, but we might get local artists in from Liverpool who haven’t had that opportunity to exhibit work yet. And there’s Node Nine pt.2 on the 13th of January which is a reinvention of what we’ve got up in the space now for part one. I’m going to be completely recreating what I’ve done in the space.
Where did you find your stride? Was it university that got you to the point you’re at, or was there a point of practice outside all that which turned it?
I’d say it’s from my practice. In third year I decided to push what I could do. I’d already done a lot in second year, but I wanted to carry on doing the pop-up shows even though some of them might not be successful. The amount I’ve learned from those pop-up shows is what’s made my practice kick off. It’s what makes the work better, just getting it out of a studio.