INTERVIEW: TNG Magazine talks to ARTISTS RESPONDING TO … founder Polly Bates

ARTISTS RESPONDING TO … (A.R.T) is a new initiative that aims to create exhibiting opportunities – both digital and in person – for artists who are using their voices for change within the rapidly growing arts community. 

Founded by artist Polly Bates, one of A.R.T’s first activities involved sending postcards to 200 UK artists at the start of the country’s second national lockdown in November 2020. Having invited the artists to reflect on the past year and create artwork directly onto the postcards, Polly brought the responses together for an exhibition on Stoke Newington High Street in August 2021. The Net Gallery was thrilled to have the opportunity to scan the exhibition, capturing the amazing range of artworks that encompassed paintings, drawings, lino prints, textile artworks, collages, photography and much else besides.

We spoke to Polly to find out more about both her and A.R.T.

Installation view of The Postcard Project Exhibition, taken from scan footage captured by The Net Gallery.

TNG Magazine: You recently graduated. Where did you study and how did the pandemic affect your course?

Polly Bates: I graduated from a Fine Art Degree at Staffordshire University in the Summer of 2020. The pandemic affected my course massively, as all of a sudden, we weren’t able to attend lectures, seminars, or even have access to facilities such as our studios and workshop rooms. This was from February/early March, so only 3-4 months after anyone was even aware of Coronavirus, which is now so crazy to imagine a time before!

It was an incredibly scary time full of so many anxieties about my family, friends, and what it meant for finishing my degree. We were told that we weren’t able to have a degree exhibition quite soon after the university closed, and the department worked hard to find a way around this, tweaking our modules so that we could still complete the year. 

I ended up travelling home to North London during the first lockdown, which was great to be with my family during quite a traumatic and uncertain time, I was lucky. But whilst my family was making the most of a bad situation, being together and building crazy golf courses in the garden, I was completing the most hectic, time consuming, and at the time, most important few months of my life. It was stressful to say the least, but I am very fortunate that we didn’t suffer a loss during this time, like thousands of families throughout the world. I can’t imagine what those families went, and still are, going through. 

TNG: If the pandemic hadn’t happened, do you think you still would have created something similar to Artists Responding To … ?

PB: I would like to think Artists Responding To … would’ve always been in my future. The thought manifested from my artistic practice – after graduating I planned to sculpt or paint a monthly artwork responding to an environmental disaster or happening. Environmental activism is always at the heart of my practice, and I truly believe there is no better way to impact others than through the power of art. 

I ended up running with this idea, and one day in late July (2020) I had an ‘AHA’ moment at around 4am – my best ideas always seem to be late at night when I can’t sleep. This idea was to include as many other artists as I could and create a platform for international politically engaged artists to share issues, movements or happenings that are important to them. Together we could share our stories, our experiences and our anxieties, with the hope of igniting change. 

The pandemic definitely influenced the method of how I would share the artworks. Creating a monthly publication seemed to be the best way to make art accessible in a time where no one was able to leave their homes. A.R.T. has now published 11 Zines which have featured a whopping 352 international artists and writers. Our Zines are published for free online, with the option to purchase a printed copy. They have been published online for free as I hope that the publications can be a form of news and spreading information. 

Now that the pandemic restrictions are reduced, I look forward to creating more physical and in-person exhibiting opportunities for our ever-growing online arts community. 

Work on show at The Postcard Project Exhibition.

TNG: How did you come up with the idea for The Postcard Project and how did you go about selecting the artists to send the cards to?

PB: The Postcard Project was a development on the idea behind the Zines, removing the obstacles of the pandemic and creating an opportunity for art to be accessible during the second national lockdown in November 2020. 

It was clear that the year 2020 had been incredibly challenging and life altering for everyone. Nobody came out from 2020 unscathed. As the year was coming to an end, I really wanted to capture as many experiences and events as possible that emotionally or physically affected communities in the UK. After some careful consideration on how this could effectively and safely be carried out, I decided on sending postcards to a selection of artists across the country. 

The postcards soon became quite metaphorical. As I was sending the exact same postcard to each artist, this meant everyone started with the same clean slate – quite like how we begin a new year, full of endless opportunities and possibilities. However, there is a restriction of size to a postcard, similar to how COVID-19 has limited our experiences and freedom during 2020. 

You would also usually send a postcard to a loved one when you are away, a note to let someone know you are thinking of them. They capture a moment in time, a memory. They are typically sent in the post, which was eventually how the artists received the materials. This is another reason why sending postcards seemed like the perfect material to encapsulate all the different experiences. 

They also weren’t too much of a commitment for the participating artists, the artwork wouldn’t require weeks of their time, if they didn’t want it to. As part of the brief, I asked the artists to spend a minimum of 2 hours on the postcard. 

Selecting the artists happened in quite a whirlwind really. I had created a submission form which included the brief of the project on opportunity platforms, for those to register their interest in the project, and created posts on A.R.T.’s social media accounts. In just 3 days 100 postcards for 100 artists were already allocated. The response was overwhelming and I wished there didn’t have to be a limit on the artists in the project, but as A.R.T. was funding the project ourselves, we had monetary limitations. 

The artists received in the post a ‘postcard pack’, which included a 300gsm postcard, a biodegradable film sleeve, a 1st class stamp, return label and a note of instructions in a cardboard backed envelope. We heart-wrenchingly lost a few in the post, and a few artists weren’t able to complete or start their artwork, as life got in the way! Which is something we prepared for, as I ended up sending just over 200 postcard packs. 

I was fully expecting to then go through a selection process once I had received all the postcards back, but every single artwork had such a powerful and important message, and the quality of the artworks blew me away. The collection of artworks published in The Postcard Project Book and featured in our exhibition is the entirety of the project. Every postcard and viewpoint we received back was showcased. 

The artists were invited to reflect on a year impacted by COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns.

TNG: Was it difficult to find a suitable venue for the exhibition and was it a challenge logistically getting all the postcards sent back to you and keeping track of them all?

PB: It was definitely a challenge finding the right venue for our show, especially as the exhibition was a pop-up weekend event. It took lots of research and hunting, but as soon as I stepped into One Four Seven in Stoke Newington, London, I knew it would be a perfect setting for the showcase. 

The project has also had its challenges, from trying to organise an exhibition during the uncertainty of restrictions and lockdowns. In an ideal world, the exhibition would’ve been in April, but it worked out well as in August we also celebrated A.R.T.’s 1st birthday. This made the exhibition feel like a real celebration; a celebration of our societal resilience, a celebration of the incredible artworks, of the easing of lockdowns, and of one year of artist-led projects internationally. 

As I mentioned before, we suffered a few lost artworks in the post, which was absolutely gutting. But other than that, the return of the postcards ran pretty smoothly. Keeping track of the artist’s addresses, contacts and postcards was a challenge, and my Excel spreadsheets quickly became imprinted in my brain, seeping into my dreams, or nightmares?  

TNG: Do still manage to find space and time for your own artistic practice, and what are you planning to work on next?

PB: My artistic practice has taken a bit of a back seat for the past year, as A.R.T. has taken up the majority of my time. However, it’s provided an opportunity to experiment more with curating, which I have thoroughly enjoyed! 

The artistic project I’m working on at the minute involves sculptures, digital paintings, animations and photographic images. These methods are used in isolation or combined into a singular work, merging physical objects within a digital environment. My practice is an ongoing investigation into what it means to be human, reflecting on our relationship with both the natural world and technology. I tend to draw on humour to explore the awkwardness of being human through pursuit of purpose and belonging, and the experience of living in a geological era shaped by humanity. My recent works are quite conceptual and weird, so you definitely have to have an open mind! I enjoy creating works that confuse and intrigue my audience, and when they dig deeper, they find hidden messages of environmental emergency. 

As for what’s next for A.R.T., our Zine will be transforming into a quarterly Magazine, with the first Issue out in December/January. The Magazine will include features of artwork reviews, conversations with artists, exhibitions to look out for, opportunities to apply to, and advice columns. I will also be working towards creating another gallery exhibiting opportunity in 2022. I see big things for A.R.T.’s future, and after a really exciting and successful first year, I can’t wait for the journey.

Installation view of The Postcard Project Exhibition, taken from scan footage captured by The Net Gallery.

Interview by Richard Unwin.

You can follow Polly via her profile on ANV.

The virtual tour of The Postcard Project Exhibition – scanned and produced by The Net Gallery – is available to view here.

You can learn more about Artists Responding to … here.

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