A Brief History of /blankpage
A Collaborative Art Project Undertaken by Members of Freelance 2003 to 2004
A personal record by Borin Van Loon, Chair, Freelance (2004)
This is a brief history of a collaborative art project involving the participation of seventeen members of the Ipswich-based support group Freelance, plus a bookbinder. Freelance is a voluntary self help and support group for creative professional freelances based in Ipswich, with members in Suffolk and further afield.
Little did we know when we embarked on this quest to produce a book as an art object, the blizzard of emails (that's when you print them all out, as I had to), handouts, newsletters, discussion documents and information updates that would ensue. Not to mention the heartaches and headaches caused by the obstacles which fell across our rocky path and the sheer stress of creating a modestly sized exhibition of sufficient quality to do the participants and Freelance justice. Oh yes, and there was the little matter of an ambitious programme of art workshops the planning of which ran in parallel to and occurred simultaneously with the exhibition.
/blankpage dates back to the dying moments of a regular monthly Freelance meeting at the Hogshead public house in Ipswich in April, 2003. Steve Joyce, then a relatively new member of the group threw into the general discussion the suggestion of a group project based on the production of a book; perhaps we could show it to the public in some way...
Our Annual General Meeting in May, 2003 acted as a forum for the first real explication of the idea. Notes circulated to members prior to that balmy evening in our host, painter Derek Jarvis's home, in Little Bealings, acted as fuel for discussions and several of those present were enthusiastic. Perhaps a knitted page? How about using other, unusual materials? I don't know what to contribute, but I want to be involved! Then it all went a little quiet for a while and we all waited for something to happen.
By August Ip-art '03 had finished. The first ever community arts festival in Ipswich had made its faltering initial step. I wrote an encouraging review of the parts of the festival I had experienced as a consumer, little realising that very soon I would be in the thick of Ip-art '04. Several of us were keen to push the project forward and Steve Joyce led an inspiring evening back at the Hosghead in October, 2003. We looked at some of the books-as-art-objects which Steve brought along and a couple of us drew inspiration from an exhibition of 'work books' by school students at Wingfield College galleries. All these seemed to push the concept of 'the book' to its limits in some way. A book you can't close because it's so stuffed with three dimensional material. A book with, amongst other things, a baked clay page. A book inside which you can conceal other things (the Victorians were rather good at this). As people were leaving, we even pinned down the eventual title of our project!
Thus started the push and pull of discussion and argument which would mark the collaborative passage of /blankpage through the ensuing meetings to its fruition. A detailed 'prospectus' mailed out to members gave an account of the evening and the enthusiasm it engendered. The twin themes which had been suggested for our book were 'a blank page' (the one we eventually adopted as the overall title), plus the idea of 'alone together', summing up the ethos of Freelance: to link and support a group of people usually working in isolation by the definition of their artistic activity 'professional creative freelance'. At the following meeting, the suggestion was made that 'Blank Page' as a theme was replaced by 'The Circle Of Life' or 'Rites of Passage'. In faithfully reporting this in follow-up notes distributed to participants, it wasn't universally welcomed. Eventually we reverted to 'Blank Page' as the most open theme with 'The Circle Of Life' fitting in rather neatly as one interpretation of it. This was particularly aimed at those of the group who had already started down the latter thematic path.
The timescale of the project was initially seen as elastic, however, in the knowledge that things tend not to happen if a group of people have too much time to do them, it was suggested that we aim to have a finished product to exhibit at the Ip-art 2004 festival in June and July. This concentrated the mind wonderfully and suddenly we had to work out a timetable and put our marker down with Ip-art that we were participating, find a venue and get entries into as many arts listings as possible!
Gradually, we managed to get as many people as possible to 'sign up' for the project and ended up with eighteen; despite cajoling by yours truly, a last minute drop-out left us with seventeen (despite us using the original figure in pre-publicity). As it turned out - and by the skin of our teeth in the case of one particular contributor, who got up early and made her page from scratch on the morning of the hand-in day - those seventeen stalwarts stayed the course and the worthy inclusion of our bookbinder made up the eighteen participants. We encouraged them all to involve others in Freelance in the creative process, mail ideas and exchange images. This last almost immediately came to grief when one participant, who works heavily on a powerful Mac computer at home, emailed attachments of colour images to all who could receive it and managed to gum up more than one person's low-spec machines: to the point of crashing in one case!
Talking of computers, an integral part of our project was to create a set of pages on the Freelance website. This site at www.creative-freelance.org.uk has become an important part of Freelance activity: all our newsletters and arts reviews are there as well as galleries of members' work. /blankpage, the namestyle given to the project by our webmaster, Andrew Smith, established its place on the site and images, write-ups of progress and eventually a web version of the whole book were to be unveiled. The last of these went 'live' on the night of our Private View. Andrew also offered to take on the lion's share of the design work for all the publicity we would need. No mean feat.
Our post-Christmas meal and social gathering in January, 2004 led to an ad hoc meeting of Daniel Rounding: Freelance Publicity & Funding Officer, myself: the Freelance Chair plus progenitor of the project: Steve Joyce. Daniel had attended a one day course run by Arts Council East in Cambridge in December to learn about the intricacies of applying for money to help us achieve our aim. Everybody in the /blankpage collective was giving their creative input and the materials they were to use for no recompense. The Freelance Committee and several of the group wound up having to take on additional heavy workloads to deliver the project, not least Daniel all without payment for their time and effort. Funding application seemed a good option for all the expenses which we would incur.
Daniel reported that the upper limit of the Grants for the Arts scheme set by the Arts Council was £5,000 for 'small' applications which would receive a relatively rapid decision (those for larger amounts would require a much longer decision period). Given the short amount of time available to us, we clearly had to go for the former method and Daniel proposed applying for two separate grants below the £5,000 ceiling, one for the /blankpage book and one for the art workshops which he was organising, utilising Freelance members as leaders. He was to work closely with the staff at Arts Council East to ensure that we were doing everything correctly.
Looking around at possible venues to display our book, we decided on Christchurch Mansion as the ideal, with perhaps Ipswich Museum as a second choice; this resulted from Ferial Rogers' discussion with Tony Butler (of Ipswich Museums and Galleries) at an Ip-art Project Management Group meeting. Ferial, leading light of Ip-art and /blankpage contributor, played a key role in securing our venue. Steve's initial meeting with Rebecca Weaver of the Mansion's galleries wasn't promising, however, Ferial, Daniel and myself met Tony Butler at the Museum in the High Street and he offered us use of The China Room, with the Suffolk Artists gallery upstairs as a standby due to a possible overrun of building work at the Mansion. We also laid out plans for two Freelance evening events utilising the large grond floor entrance hall. Our collective foot was in the door...
Daniel continued with the mammoth tasks surrounding compilation of our applications for funding from Arts Council East. One example of the obstacles will suffice. With the preparations for the art workshops which Freelance was to run during Ip-art, we thought that all was going reasonably smoothly until we found out by chance from Arts Council East that all seven workshop leaders would be required to have clearance by the Criminal Records Bureau. This had not been mentioned in Daniel's course. It fell to me to register with a local association, procure the official forms and visit people in their homes to fill in the details and see proofs of identity. We also had to find a fee for each application from Freelance funds. Eventually all had their certificates. We also had to contend with requirements of certain of the workshop venues that we take out public liability insurance to cover the possibility of a participant stabbing themselves during the creative writing course in a freak biro accident. More expense.
The handing-in day of the contributions to our /blankpage book took place at the Mansion on the morning of Saturday 15 May. All but three of the contributors were there and all the pages (except one!) were laid out on the flagstones at the rear of the Mansion. Fortunately it was a sunny day with a little breeze, so Andrew used this space to spread boards, erect a tripod and take digital photographs of the pages. It really was exciting for us all to see the variety and quality of work. There was a definite buzz in the air and we all worked hard to record all the pages, carefully repack them and enable Sally Launder to carry them off in her car. Sally was a vital link in the book's creation. Not only was she a contributor of two pages, but she happened to have a friend who worked at a bookbinders in Battersea. He was excited by the project and came up with an ingenious solution to accommodate pages of different thickness, weight and material into a bound case. We even agreed on the cloth in which the book would be bound on that day (at the last minute) and Sally took away the chosen sample. She and her husband travelled down to London by train to carry the (rather heavy and delicate) pieces and Dan Wray, our bookbinder, took delivery. Able to work only on Saturdays, he met his deadline and Sally picked up /blankpage and bore it home on the train, with a taxi to carry the weighty object to her house. 'The book has landed in Ipswich' was the tantalising email she sent out.
It was touch-and-go gaining possession of the China Room in Christchurch Mansion. Repeated 'phone calls and emails remained unanswered. It transpired that Tony Butler, the person who was facilitating our use of Ipswich Borough facilities for the exhibition, Private View, Presentation Evening and some of the art workshops would be in post at the start of Ip-art and would have left to become curator of The Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket by the end of Ip-art. We were getting frantic. One of the major expenses of the /blankpage exhibition was to be the hire of the display screens and we'd need the full number for the China Room and a very slimmed down exhibition for the restricted space in the Suffolk Artists gallery. Would the work on the roof have been completed? In the end, the China Room was available and the display equipment hire company had let the screens earmarked for us go off to the Norwich Show; however, they did provide something even better and on time, too! As they required to be paid in cash on delivery of the screens, this brings us to the fraught subject of finance.
Oh yes, there was the little matter of Arts Council East giving their final judgement on the two funding bids. The noises Daniel was receiving from Arts Council East had recently been along the lines of: 'it's good that you're thinking about an exit strategy...' Eventually, they said 'yes' to the art workshops and 'no' to /blankpage. This was a major blow and, as we had already been forced to start spending money which we didn't really have on publicity and other expenses, our Treasurer Mo Galvani marked the impending crisis with the rather understated email: 'I think financially we're in a bit of a pickle.' The top priority suddenly became bumping up our requests to Ipswich-based Suffolk County Councillors to assist us from their Locality Budgets. We originally asked for a total of 10% of our funding from them (as stipulated by Arts Council East grant regulations); now we were asking for a whole lot more. The additional obstacle to getting funding from this source was a fear of gerrymandering! The initial approach revealed that there was to be a local council election in Ipswich on Thursday June 10, 2004; this meant that locality funds were closed in the period leading up to that date and no money would be available to the councillors until Friday June 11 (exactly two weeks before the Private View). This, to say the least, was cutting it a bit fine. The Councillors weren't even allowed to say a definite 'yes' to our requests for fear of being accused of swaying the vote... Tribute here must be paid to Inga Lockington, John Le Grys, Sandy Martin and particularly (in view of his generous donation), Graham Manuel. Without them we wouldn't have been able to pull it off.
Monday 21 June saw Annabel Mednick mounting her suspended display to promote both our exhibition and art workshops in the double-sided glass display case in the County Library. Then on Thursday, Daniel took delivery of the screens at the Mansion and we mounted the exhibition through Friday with the Private View from 6pm to 8pm. Ip-art '04 would start on the following day. The drinks arrived at the same time as the first guests and Daniel was still finishing off his part of the display as we started to get busy. It was all a bit close for comfort, but the sun shone and attendance was gratifying. Interestingly, none of our County Councillor supporters were able to attend either of the evening events we organised. As I pointed out in my speech, we had actually achieved the position which we had originally set as our ideal solution. The finished /blankpage book as splendid an object as we could have hoped was housed in a locking glazed oak-framed cabinet supplied by Tony Butler and stood in front of the China Room window surrounded by our handsome displays of supporting material, visuals and text. There was a table with Visitors' Book (a bound 'blank' produced as a dummy by a book publisher) with pens and pencils for interaction and participation. To one side stood the Mansion's computer which proudly displayed a Powerpoint slide show prepared on the spot by Andrew Smith of the pages of our book in a constant loop. Freelance had made its mark in the most historic and prestigious art venue in the town, and I was justly proud of us.
All in all, we occupied our space in the Mansion for three weeks, the two of the art festival and a third week following the Presentation Evening on Friday 9 July. This event filled the entrance hall with more display screens which were covered with examples of the artwork produced by the participants at the art workshops. /blankpage was on show in the adjacent room, of course. The collaborative ethos of our project carried over into the sharing of duties so that one of the contributors could be in attendance at the Mansion between 2.30 and 3.30pm on every day that the Mansion was open during our three week stay. The appointed artist opened up the cabinet, showed the whole book to visitors and answered any questions they had.
In the middle of Ip-art 2004 came the well-established Music In The Park Day on Saturday July 3. The Mansion opens for the whole day and acts as a venue for a number of musical events; they generally receive more visitors on that day than on any other in the year. We arranged that four of us should make /blankpage available for most of the event and Daniel worked hard to hand out leaflets and put up posters to promote the art workshops. The fact that it rained hard and long during the afternoon didn't prevent this being a hectic and tiring day. We felt that during our stay the staff of the Mansion were supportive of this ever changing string of Freelance faces who were forever asking for the cabinet keys and asking for the computer to be powered up.
We achieved our goal and learnt so much on the way, not least that almost all our visitors really enjoyed /blankpage and were very pleased to meet the artists and browse the supporting material.
Borin Van Loon (December, 2004)
The /blankpage book and a CD-ROM containing the /blankpage web site and supporting images was deposited in the Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich, in 2005. You can request to see the /blankpage book by prior arrangement with the SRO.