Current Projects – Dan Thompson Studio

This is a selection of current work, at the end of summer 2021.

Peace: an ongoing series of connected works.

Interbeing: at the Powell-Cotton Museum, Kent, August-December 2021.

Newcastle Common: a three year empty shop programme in Newcastle-under-Lyme, with Appetite.

Art City: telling the story of radical theatre company B arts and their work.

Manifesto of Care: Bernadette Russell’s manifesto for Frequency Festuval, designed by me, exhibited at the Albany, Deptford.

I’m also writing a new poetry collection, Towerblock, and planning a new series of workshops with Company of Makers, for veterans, to be delivered in autumn 2021. Alongside this are new projects in development, and some one-off workshops and Zoom sessions. In my studio, I’m playing with an Adana flatbed letterpress, making badges, and creating a series of large collages on board.

If you’d like to work with me in 2021-2022, drop me an email.

New Work in 2021

My new work feels a lot like old work. From 2008-1015, much of my work was around High Streets and empty shops. I was never comfortable with the term ‘meanwhile’ to describe this work, because that always suggested that the arts were there until the grown ups came back to the spaces and my analysis was, they wouldn’t. Well, one month in to 2021 and more chain stores have collapsed while independents have shown their resilience and usefulness in a crisis.

Appetite Stoke logo

At the end of 2020, we announced my project with Appetite in Stoke – The Newcastle Common. I’m Lead Artist. This will look at a number of city centre spaces over a period of time, suggesting and testing new uses, and also demonstrating how a more mixed ecology of use supports other businesses. We announce our first commissioned artist this week.

Another project around empty shops will see me supporting Mooch, on a project for Historic England which connects High Streets in Ramsgate and Ryde. There are a couple of other empty shop projects I’m involved in, too, which should be public soon.

I’m also mentoring Connor Sansby, the founder of Whisky & Beards, as he develops a new publishing project.

B Arts logo

Up in Stoke again, I’m leading a year-long programme of learning with B arts, who started out as a bunch of stilt walking, fire breathing feminists and … well, they haven’t really changed much. They’re a brilliant woman-led organisation who run a massive art factory and an intimate community bakery. I’m looking at their history and their future, holding conversations with their current associates and former artists.

That dovetails with a personal project – writing a book about my work over the last 20 years. I’m looking at key projects, common themes, and the tactics I have used. It seems like now is a time for reflection, and Prof Martin Parker, Lorna Dallas Conte, and Bernadette Russell have added their perspectives to the book.

I’ve also been writing for a historical project in Ramsgate, with a long piece about Sir William Curtis and his connections to the slave trade, and a series of short architectural portraits.

Last year, I also joined forces with James Gough, who I worked with on Pop Up Culture Southampton, to launch a wider conversation about where we were all going – Rewild The Arts. We’re planning a big online open space in the next month.

I’ve also been working with Jon Adams and Flow Observatorium, on a report into the problems facing neurodivergent people in the arts, which will be published soon. As part of that, with Threshold Studios we commissioned artists to respond to the report’s findings. We’ll be sharing that work soon.

In development, I have a bunch of seaside projects, building on last year’s Back & Fill – hopefully there will be announcements about those soon. I’m excited – I’ve always lived on the coast, and seaside culture is something I love.

Down here in Margate, Turner Contemporary has given seaside culture a twist. I was poet-in-residence for their webcam last year. Well, they’re holding an Open Exhibition this year. A number of community groups are involved in the selection process, including one I sit on. I’m also working with Joseph Young and Kay Aplin, on a commission which pairs me with a Hong Kong ceramic artist to respond to the collections at the Powell Cotton Museum in Birchington.

To give me some extra space, I’ve added Beth to my studio team, to help with book-keeping and admin. All in all, 2021 looks good so far – but, as somebody who travels a lot for work and who hasn’t left the Isle of Thanet in a year, I hope we’re able to return to something like normal life by the end of 2021.

Folkestone’s on the edge of something

England’s seaside towns are unlike anywhere else in the world. They were the places that the country’s industrial workforce went for rest and relaxation, certainly, but the mass market that appeared there meant that they were also the places that industry carried out its research and development. Seaside towns are scattered with rusted remains of prototyped cutting-edge technology, from concrete seawalls and cliff paths secured by man-made stone to mechanical marine lifts and electric railways. So Folkestone, overlooked on the South Coast because Dover, Hastings and Brighton have more pizazz, is an interesting place for an international arts festival, especially as it became a prime stopping-off point, as people abandoned the south coast’s seaside and headed for the continent.

There are two strands to Folkestone’s festival – the ‘official’ bit is the Folkestone Triennial, titled ‘Lookout’. Running alongside it is the Folkestone Fringe, on the theme of ‘Future Now’. Both run from 30th August-2nd November, and together, they’re a very good reason for (at the very least) a daytrip to Folkestone. In all honesty, you’d need a weekend to fit it all in, especially as events, installations and interventions are spread out across the town, with some walking needed to get from one to another. Our one-day visit with children was certainly not long enough to get more than a glimpse of an interesting event.

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We started at the Art Car Boot Fair. This I was excited about; I’ve seen reviews of this in London, but never been able to make it (not living in London, I can’t always get there). The idea is simple; well-known artists and emerging artists side-by-side, selling affordable work from the boot of a car. The reality, though, was a little different. Emerging artists and small galleries made all the effort, with new work and a degree of performance in their presentations. Tom Swift and Paul Hazelton‘s De-In-Stall, Heidi Plant and Julia Riddiough (pictured), Bayle Window Lost Pigeon Archive, Quiet British Accent, Hello Print and Sadie Hennessey stood out. Collectively, these artists created a chaotic carnival atmosphere.

The name artists, meanwhile, knocked out work to a willing audience of ebay dealers who were throwing cash at them. At the Emin International stall, a proper fight broke out between two pushy dealers. Meanwhile, Peter Blake didn’t make an appearance, but you could buy a colour photocopy of an old Folkestone postcard with his signature on it for £60 from a trestle table. Now – I’m a huge Peter Blake fan and own half-a-dozen of his works, but even I can see that’s just lazy.

Just round the corner from the Art Car Boot, on the platforms of the abandoned Folkestone Harbour station, Tim Etchells has installed ‘Is Why The Place’, a pair of neon signs, one on the ‘up’ and one on the ‘down’ platform. This work is simple but effective, occupying the space well. We saw it twice; on the first visit, families were wandering along the abandoned rail tracks and climbing across both platforms, unguided urban explorers. On the second, a steward had stopped people leaving the platform they entered on; the work was far more powerful when you could explore the station, rather than being a passive viewer, standing on one side and looking across to the other. And I think people can manage that slight risk for themselves.

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Adjacent to the station, in an old waiting room or ticket office, is a small exhibition, presumably part of the fringe but unsignposted and unlabelled. It’s well worth finding – the work is about travel and journeys and the atmosphere of the unloved space (pictured below) is a perfect complement to the art.

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We wandered along the seafront after the station, visiting the Folkestone Future Choir‘s ‘Lookout!’ before stopping at a battered white shipping container under AK Dolven’s piece ‘Out of Tune’. This bell, suspended high in the air between two poles, is a beautiful piece of public art, and a permanent addition to Folkestone’s seafront since the 2011 Triennial. It rings out over an abandoned space, left when a seafront amusement park closed.

The booklet explaining the work in the shipping container, Centipede, wasn’t available to take away. Which fits – the container was a secret research laboratory, funded by the EU, with a range of equipment monitoring the local area for signs of the mysterious centipede. Secret equipment, mounted on a tuk tuk, was wrapped in tarpaulin. Everything’s waiting to be uncovered here and I like the mystery.

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From the seafront we wandered back into town, through the Creative Quarter. These steep, narrow streets are giving Folkestone a new heart, full of quirky and interesting shops. Somewhere in here (but we overlooked it – ironic in a festival called Lookout, no?) is Andy Goldsworthy’s shop. We did watch Strange Cargo scanning people, though.

We headed for Wilkinson’s, instead – in search of both flip-flops and Hollington & Kyprianou‘s The Castle, art inspired by the idea that as every Englishman’s home is his castle, so he should carry out DIY improvements. Some great interventions in the shop are confusing shoppers.

In search of fresh air, we headed back towards the seafront, walking along the clifftop and stopping to watch the headless chicken of Whithervanes before catching the lift down to the beach again.

We headed back towards the harbour, where most Fringe and Triennial activity seems to be happening. Gabriel Lester’s bamboo pagoda over the unused railway line was closed, officially, but is actually uncloseable so was soon reopened by people-power. Straddling the line and with a view down to the station and ‘Is Why The Place’, it’s a calm space in a place that should be inaccessible and busy.

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The pagoda looks out towards the Grand Bustin, a monolithic hotel with architecture like something from Soviet Russia. Perched just above the highest balcony is Alex Hartley’s Vigil. Hartley has installed a climber’s camp, hanging outside the top floor rooms. This spot, the artist says, is ‘a unique vantage point from which to look out over the sea and back over the town [from which] a lone occupant will inhabit these exposed ledges, acting as a lookout over the sea, harbour and extended coastline.’ That’s a beautiful, poetic explanation, so I was looking forward to seeing Vigil – and I enjoyed the feeling, walking around the town, that there was somebody up there, watching over us. However, it’s not unique vantage point nor a lonely spot, as hotel visitors have much the same view from their balconies, and I’m not sure the work stands up to this contradiction.

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Round the corner from the pagoda is a piece which really isn’t quiet. Michael Sailstorfer has rather won the Triennial with Folkestone Dig. £10,000 worth of small gold bars have been buried on a small beach by the harbour. Dig, find them, they’re yours. This simple idea has created an incredibly powerful work, bringing hundreds of people together every day in a communal activity with a selfish end. It’s a spectacle, worth watching from the harbour wall – but it has also created an incredibly social space, where strangers happily talk to each other while doing a job of work which they know has little chance of success. And that’s totally in the spirit of Folkestone and the seaside town; a place where holidays were an industry, where work is about leisure.

So, with the Triennial and Fringe, it seems that Folkestone is finding a way of reinventing itself, presenting challenging art in public places. It’s certainly worth your time to visit, and you’ll find meaning, challenge and enjoyment when you do. But Folkestone’s still very rough around the edges (it felt much, much harsher than Margate, say) and while that adds an edge, it also left me a little uneasy. A couple of times, I saw locals reacting angrily to the art – similar to the problem faced by Turner Contemporary in Margate.

I really believe that good art (considered, careful, made for the site and calmly explained) can make the places we live, better. And I hope that with events like the Folkestone Fringe and the Folkestone Triennial, we can persuade other people of the power of art in public spaces, too. That, yet again, England’s seaside towns are the research and development spaces for society. Spectacle, yes; challenge, for sure; but enjoyment, shared experience, education, and enlightenment too.

London Road

P1130382Stoke’s London Road connects the buzzing, active communities of Boothen, West End and Oakhill to the town centre along a long, straight road that’s full of history, unusual buildings, old architectural features and public spaces waiting to be brought to life. It’s a beautiful street, as the photos I’ve taken so far show.

So it’s going to be a great place to spend the next year as artist-in-residence for the whole road, collecting stories, working alongside local people, and making connections between communities. I’ll be living for a quarter of the year in Penkville Street, one of the steep terraces that climb off London Road.

To see some of what I’ve found so far, you can download a map of London Road’s significant people and places.

P1130397This year-long artwork commissioned by Appetite uses the whole street as a venue. As I uncover stories from London Road, they’ll be marked by the reanimation of unloved spaces, restoration of original features, reinvention of forgotten buildings, gentle reminders of why the road is special, and regeneration from the bottom up.

It will end in the publication of a book. This will be a psychogeographical, slightly fictional telling of the story of London Road, from one end to the other, from the Roman to the modern day. In that writing, focused on one special road and the people who use it, I’ll tell the whole story of Stoke.

You can follow the progress, and join in with the project, with the Twitter hashtag #allabouttheroad or on a Facebook page.

#payingartists

If you want a job doing, you should pay somebody. It’s a statement that seems perfect, doesn’t it? Except of course it’s not. We all, to some degree, rely on barter and exchange; you help me do this, I’ll do that in return. In times of austerity, particularly, that sharing is especially important; it’s been part of British life for hundreds of years. Meet anybody that lives and works in the country, and you’ll find it’s very strong – eggs for book-keeping, meat for clearing drains, and so on.

Sunny WorthingAnd this sharing is particularly true in the ecology of the arts. I’ve been immersed in this world since I was 13, when I started working at Worthing’s Connaught Theatre. And at every level, there’s reciprocity – together, we can make this thing happen, and in doing so we all prosper and profit.

But like any ecology it’s a fine, balanced system.

As an artist, I won’t work in schools for free: if I’m replacing a teacher, I should be paid, just as that teacher is. I won’t do free design work, either; it may be ‘great exposure’ and ’good for my portfolio’, but that’s a job that needs doing and should be paid. I recently saw an arts group in Australia, unpaid after having provided murals for a local café; of course they should be paid. They’re doing a job of work – decorating or shopfitting, if nothing else.

WritingBut there are other areas where, as an artist, I expect a little give that other people might not get. I have been using empty shops since 2001; I don’t expect to pay full commercial rent, and never have. Yes, I’m using a commercial space and as letting agent, landlord or local authority you could expect a full rate; but both sides know that this relationship only works if we both give, both take.

And of course, there’s an extra layer to this as well. If I’m being asked by a local authority to do a job they want doing – to help regeneration, to talk to the local community, to nurture new jobs – then I will be paid. If the other staff involved are being paid, I will be too.

The difference is between continuing my own practice as an artist, and doing somebody else’s work for them. Nobody pays a plumber just to be a plumber; he’s paid for the services he provides. And (if we want to make the argument that the arts have an economic benefit to Great Britain) we have to accept something similar for the arts.

As artists, we receive direct subsidy, in the form of venues and infrastructure which couldn’t be commercially sustained but are funded directly from government. (That’s not unique, by the way – the arms industry receives massive subsidy, for example.) And we receive money from the public too: the National Lottery is a public subscription which through schemes like Arts Council England’s Grants For The Arts, supports artists.P1020430

And as artists, we are fundamentally selfish creatures; we think that this thing we’ve made is so special, you should love it and want it. I’ve been running Revolutionary Arts for 13 years, and in that time have commissioned artists, paid them to do work, employed them on many projects across the country. But I’ve also organised lots of things which could only happen when artists work collaboratively, letting me use their image on the poster for a group exhibition or contributing towards the costs of design, print and marketing an event. As I said, there’s a balance, between me helping artists continue their own practice, and asking them to do work for me.

There’s one extra layer of detail, even more complex to add, and that’s the art gallery. It’s easy to see ‘the gallery’ as one big type of thing. But as I said, when I’ve organised artists to come together and exhibit, creating a pop up gallery, I expect the artists to share the costs. As an organiser, I receive no subsidy so can’t pay everybody. So that’s one gallery model.

P1110293And that’s true too for many small, rooted-in-the-community independent galleries. They’re small, dirty and while they aim to make enough to survive from sales, I don’t think we can reasonably expect them to pay for all the work they stock up front. Another gallery model.

But then there are the monoliths, heavily-subsidised icons of regeneration, cluttering old industrial towns and crowding seaside promenades. With salaried staff at every level, from maintenance men to marketing directors, these can – and should – pay artists. Another, final, model.

So I’m proud to put my support to the Paying Artists campaign, with all the conditions outlined above – and that’s not just words, it’s based on work, understanding and commitment that goes back a long way. It’s really quite simple; if everyone else around you is getting paid, you should be too.

The Social Artist Podcast

Lloyd DavisThe trouble with being a social artist in a small town is that it can be rather solitary. And it’s an area of work that’s fed by discussion, debate, a bit of discourse. So – good fellow, fine chum and all-round top chap Lloyd Davis (left, photographed on our Workshop 24 project) have decided to address that, by having a conversation regularly, and recording it as a podcast.

Here’s the first one. A little rough, sans exciting jingles, and Lloyd sounds a bit quiet in places; but where else will you get happiness, Mary Portas, Jeremy Deller, Humphrey Lyttleton at Conway Hall, Bryony Kimmings, William Gibson on bohemias, the tidal Thames, The Story conference, a mysterious trunk belonging (maybe) to Powell-Cotton and the Arcadia Sweetshop all in one podcast? Nowhere, that’s where.

Download the Social Artist podcast – it’s about 30 minutes long – here.

Bedford Happy Club

P1100877The biggest chunk of the first quarter of 2014 will be taken up with a commission from Bedford Creative Arts. Their hometown was voted the unhappiest in Britain, and their director Dawn Giles approached me after seeing my work elsewhere and my talk to TEDx Bedford about placeshaking. Could I spend three months placeshaking, and making Bedford a happier place?

I started over Christmas, collecting information about happiness, data about where and when people are happiest, and looking at work by other artists who’ve explored the theme.

And I don’t think anyone else has quite got to where I want to be. There’s some great work, like Invisible Flock’s Bring The Happy and the 100 Happy Days project. But most of it is about remembering, capturing moments of past happiness, nostalgia and memory. I want to go further, and help people do things that make them happier now.

I don’t think that happiness is just contentment; it’s more than not being unhappy. It’s always temporary, not a permanent state. It generally comes from interaction and the social – it’s rarely solitary and self-contained. But it is also autonomous, something we do to ourselves: we can choose to be happy.

So I’m currently wrestling with plans for 25 workshops in Bedford. I genuinely want these workshops to bring people together to explore happiness, to be part of the process of discovery and to inform the end artwork; but (quite understandably) Bedford Creative Arts want more plan and structure, and to know what we’ll be making.

I know there’s going to be an event, a day of happiness, a game played across the town centre’s underused spaces. But what fills the spaces on that giant board game? That’s for the people I meet to decide.

The work starts this week, and while it’s not going to be an easy commission, it’s certainly going to be interesting.

Agile Arts – a manifesto for 2011

I was asked today to predict how the arts will be in 2011. The more I think about it, the more I realise the model I trust, believe in and want to use is the one which I used to use in software development.  So this manifesto for Agile Arts (which will be developed further in 2011) is lifted almost word-for-word from the Manifesto for Agile Software Development:

Manifesto for Agile Arts

We are uncovering better ways of developing arts projects by doing it and helping others to do it.

Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working projects over excessive administration
  • Creative collaboration over contracts, conditions and criticism
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

We follow these principles:

  • Our highest priority is to satisfy our audiences through early and continuous delivery of valuable activity.
  • Welcome changing requirements, even late in a project. Agile processes harness change for the good of artists and their audiences.
  • Deliver activity and engagement with audiences frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months.
  • Creatives and those that commission them must work together daily throughout the project.
  • Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  • The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation, but Twitter and other social media are a valuable support.
  • Arts activity is the primary measure of progress.
  • Agile processes promote sustainable development.
  • The people commissioning and those creating should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  • Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  • Simplicity – the art of maximizing the amount of work not done – is essential.
  • The best arts projects emerge from self-organising teams.
  • At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.