CIVIC | Curator’s Perspective: Bella Kerr

How did this exhibition come about?

Local architect, Huw Griffiths’ initial idea, suggested to Amanda Roderick, Director of the Mission Gallery, was for an exhibition of a series of architectural models – proposals for the failing spaces of Swansea. Amanda spoke with me about this idea while I was producing Keeper(s), a collaborative and participatory exhibition at the Gallery and asked if I might want to curate* the project. We soon saw that the plan had to be developed further, and in particular directions, to work within the remit of the gallery and to create a valid and exciting response to the city.

Photo credit: Emma Cartwright

Photo credit: Emma Cartwright

Discussion revealed that ‘the problem’ was that we had to locate or identify ‘the problem’  – and that if there was a problem, or problems, they probably didn’t have an answer – but there might be a hope for many answers. And that while some of these might be in the form of practical ‘problem-solving’ – structures and rearrangements of space and objects – other possibilities, such as changes of vision, viewpoint or policy were emerging – ideas that were both broader and less tangible than the comfort of specific project proposals for a particular sites.

We started to understand that wider philosophical or political views might clash with some of the current directions within urban design and planning, such as a focus on simply encouraging business – ‘shopping’ – back into the centre of the city, and the evident intention to eliminate ‘trouble’ by removing the possibility of public use of much of the public space in the centre of Swansea. (A complaint reiterated in initial conversations with possible exhibitors had been that many open areas have now become car parks or are blankly paved and devoid of seating –  and that, cold and wet, they had become not ‘indefensible spaces’, but deserts, ‘defended’ from use, or ‘misuse’ by sheer bleakness.)

Huw Griffiths had introduced his proposal by saying ‘Swansea is s**t’.

So are cities a problem? Is Swansea a problem? Whose problem? Artists and architects are often required to provide ‘solutions’ or to fill the gap between the broader issues of urban planning, economic pressures and ‘the public’. It seemed as if this exhibition could provide the space for debate away from the direct pressure of the ‘project’ and the need for ‘results’.

What happened next?

Amanda Roderick and I approached local artists and architects and found four architects/architectural practices interested in exhibiting, 4 artists – two a collaborative pair – and a writer.

We walked and talked the city together and discovered that walking and talking was a productive method – when we are physically active we think in a different way and find turning left one day instead of right might take us around a corner to a place we had forgotten or never seen.

So – how does change happen? What do we want to change? One idea that emerged as we planned the work for this show is that we change ourselves and others, or change ‘rules’ and perceptions, rather than the fabric of the city. That through creative thinking, through narrative, through drawing, making and asking questions we can change the way we see and use Swansea.

The work started to ask that we consider time, scale and duration – the short span against the permanent, the ephemeral in relation to concrete, brick and stone, cell change in place of the larger project – and that history, often ‘plagiarised’ for the heritage industry, might be considered with the present – that we might see the past emerging in small artefacts, memories and anecdotes to inhabit the same space as the imagined and the now.

The practitioner pairings produced a variety of models for how architects and artists might work together and how their methods and processes diverge and overlap.

Jason and Becky have extended sensory understanding through sound walks and investigated with Niall Maxwell how collaboration might be achieved through social media. Niall Maxwell’s responses through drawing return to the basic common language of artist and architects.

Huw Griffiths and Anna Barratt have met in the most complained of space in Swansea – The Kingsway – to charm and challenge with possibility and poetry.

Owen Griffiths and Andrew Nixon started with the shared concerns of the greening of the city and the re-use of lost spaces and have taken separate but complementary paths to the potential of flat rooftops, guerilla gardening and skateboarding the city.

Lindsey Halton and Catriona Ryan will encourage us to be active participants, to look from our windows and to change how we see what we see, and make poets of us all.

The possibilities that have emerged may dismay, excite, please or bore those who encounter or engage with them.

Could Swansea be a ‘theme park’ devoted to experience not shopping?

Could we remove the traffic from the Kingsway, leaving it to trams and bicycles?

Can we look out of our windows and see the city differently?

Can we all be poets and fill the streets of Dylan Thomas’ city with poetry?

How could we report on Swansea and how might it exist through anecdote, social media or drawing?

Who is already using this city and other cities creatively – what can we learn from them?

Can we find the lost or hidden spaces and use them well?

These ideas are starting points for discussion and permission to dream about what we might want here and to see what we have here already.

‘Table-talks’ across the city will make further discussion visible as panels including the artist and architects meet to talk about the work and the issues around it.

The Show

I have now let go of the project a little – let it lift and grow – working with the Mission Gallery staff and volunteers – especially Deirdre Finnerty, Emma Cartwright and Karen Tobin – to make it happen and gently pat the work into being.

The skill of the designers involved in the project has moved the exhibition to completion.

Design: Jason&Becky

Design: Jason&Becky

Jason&Becky’s Civic logo has provided a unifying and ongoing identity for the project. While their exhibition design, utilizing the distinctive C, has given eloquent shape to the idea of flexible exhibition space, formed to hold the work, to adapt to and with it, and to accommodate and to encourage the collaborative and discursive activity across the seductively tactile central concrete table. Eifion Porter has made the exhibition furniture with a craftsmanship pleasing to both hand and eye.



J&B’s Civic logo has been developed by Matthew Otten and Rhiannon Pepper into laser-cut building tiles – ‘Civic lego’ – for the Play Build Learn space which occupies the upstairs education area of the gallery. The P B L space is a manifestation within the exhibition of open-ended play as an educational possibility – or imperative – for participants of all ages. Terri Saunders’ Civic sandbags and a variety of building materials, gathered in discussion with Kath Clewett and Ian Cook, permit visitors to explore the idea of free construction as way of thinking and learning – to focus on questions about building and the city – or to ‘de-focus’ and work intuitively with 3D forms, structures and compositions. Learning through making and discussion are central to the exhibition’s intentions and the overall remit of the Mission Gallery.

CIVIC Catalogue

CIVIC Catalogue

Matthew Otten’s design for the online/printed material accompanying the exhibition has accommodated the collaborative, improvised approach with a ‘zine –like collection of loose-leaf A4s. A short run has been photocopier printed and clipped together for display and distribution in the gallery, while the online version can be downloaded and printed by individuals. Through online expression the space of the gallery is extended beyond the city, encouraging engagement with a wider audience and development of the project into the future – watch this space…


*What’s a curator to do?

Why does this exhibition have a curator – what does a curator do?

Role: curator, caretaker, carer, keeper, minder, co-ordinator, facilitator, organiser, administrator, middle-manager, cat-herder, nag…

To make what? – an ‘exhibition of ideas’, an essay, or anthology of art works?

But what of form – design – space – the visitor?

I’m looking  for the bridge between some kind of accessibility and current practice -  between the art language of social engagement and engagement itself – somewhere within the haptic, conceptual, physical, participatory, interactive spectacle – where something that can be said – be made – a communication and an experience(s).

Bella Kerr

Bella Kerr

Dear Laura

Dear Laura,

Many thanks for your letters. It’s been very interesting to find out a little more about some of the things you’ve been thinking about recently.

One word crops up several times in the letters, I had to look it up to check what it means – stereoscopic. As I understand it, this refers to a kind of rudimentary 3D way of presenting an image, that relies on the pairing of two images, almost identical but representing slightly different perspectives, in the same way that our two eyes give slightly different perspectives on whatever it is that we’re looking at. It would appear that we can trick our eyes into seeing ‘through’ these pairs, to get an impression of depth. I quote Wikipedia: ‘eye focus and binocular convergence are habitually coordinated. One approach to the decoupling the two functions is to view the image pair extremely close up with completely relaxed eyes’. And then, presumably, our eyes would refocus, and the image pair would somehow merge and look as though they were solid?

In thinking about stereoscopic viewing, I’ve been wondering about how it might apply to other aspects of your practice. Firstly, the idea of the paired, but slightly different images – an original and a double, or a fake, even. You mention a few of these. Like your Father’s stuffed owl, a pile of lifeless feathers and cotton wool (or whatever it is that taxidermists use) posed in imitation of when it was capable of flying away; or your Mum’s plastic orchid, the only sort of plant she would put up with in the house. (By the way, did you know you share your name with an American bodybuilder? I’ve not been able to find out much about her, other than a few images online, of her in a bikini with straightened hair, flexing her enormous muscles). And then secondly, how it might apply to your relationship with John Dilwyn Llewelyn, the Victorian photographer and botanist who you’ve been researching during your residency. I wonder what it would mean for you to be stereoscoping with him? He as a ‘gentleman amateur’, that obsolete breed who contributed so much to the development of human knowledge, but who today would probably not be taken seriously; and you as a contemporary artist, perhaps in certain respects the modern equivalent? (Though not, as a rule, so wealthy!!). What would the ‘illusory whole’ glimpsed between the pair of you look like? (Of course, I’m not interpreting you as his fake!).

There is also the mutual interest in collecting that you share with JDL – him with his orchids, you with your selected instances of domestic recall. I’ve been thinking about how this, the collecting impulse, relates to stereoscopics too – the desire to gather together disparate items unified by a quality that perhaps only really exists in the mind of the collector, a desired characteristic, that creates another sort of illusory whole, here gone beyond a binary phenomenon to include multiple (infinite?) facets. Yours and his work might seem quite different, his scientifically rigorous and yours more vulnerable to the vagaries of memory, perhaps. But I would rather focus on the similarities in your ways of systematising perceptions to create an understanding of the world, or, at least, the impulse behind them.

Because one of my eyes doesn’t really focus, I am unable to see any sort of stereoscopic image. The last 3D film I tried to see was Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and after trying with the goggles on, I felt so strange I had to take them off, and instead put up with the weird double-vision images on the screen. I am aware that similarly, the significances and connections around aspects of your practice that I have attempted to see, and that I have written about in this letter might be misperceptions (likewise my understanding of what stereoscopics is in the first place). But I hope they are not entirely unhelpful.

Hope this finds you very well anyway. See you soon, no doubt. Phil,x.

Dear Visitor

On my desk is a book of Sylvia Plath’s letters that she wrote to her mother. I read her novel The Bell Jar in my early teens and I remember parts of the book but never really wanted to read much more of her work after that. I brought the collection of letters on a whim at some point while I was at university and it has been in every studio space, big or small, that I have had since. Sometimes there are things around you that you don’t realise are important for quite some time.

The series of Dear Visitor letters occurred while I was struggling to find form for the large body of research made during the residency with Mission Gallery. Almost every morning I had at the studio I would go to visit the free bookshop first before I did any work. Set up to save unwanted books from landfill ‘customers’ are allowed to take three free books per day. Needless to say I have acquired some amazing books through my continual visits and searching through their sometimes peculiar Dewey Decimal System.

One of my favourite categories is ‘Makes You Think’ where I found a copy of beat poet Gregory Corso’s Gasoline, that was a small run of 15,000, disguised under a Support Your Local Squatting Group flyer. On another visit I found in the education section a copy of The Teach Yourself Letter Writer. This series of books have particularly appealing covers with blocks of black and yellow and the rather square typeface that just screams 1950’s publishing. The book begins with a chapter on layout and information required for writing letters, then moving onto types of letter and the language appropriate for each; such as business, neighbours, letters of friendship and even letters of love, courtship and marriage. (For the less inspired lover.) Needless to say the book is now very dated and a hilarious read but somehow I got to a point where I decided, after making some failed photographs and bad video with dull voiceovers, that I would just write a letter for each day for the visitors of Mission Gallery.

I began the letters on my typewriter using some paper from an old notebook that had been unsuccessful. It was good to use the ripped paper. It felt un-precious and I could just get on with writing. It was always my childhood dream to write and illustrate my own book. When I was growing up my parents had a typewriter that I would use to write my stories on and I would pretend I was the author of a book.

Now I have a pile of letters which tell stories about my residency. The things I’ve discovered or remembered; walks through woodlands, friends sending me photographs of orchids, things I saw, memories I had or the plants growing in my living room. They are unedited and the thought of showing them as they are is a little worrying. My spelling, grammar and punctuation aren’t very good, or maybe that should be isn’t very good, and it is scary to let the world see your flaws but I didn’t want to ruin these letters by making them perfect.

I have only read Sylvia Plath’s letters in parts, but when I first dived in I read the last letters first. I, like many people, was morbidly curious at the story of her suicide. The last letters are surprising upbeat, there is maybe the odd mention that she is not feeling herself, or maybe a bit down but you would never think that she was going to gas herself in the oven. Even in the letters to her own mother Sylvia wasn’t really telling the exact truth.

Laura Reeves



Orchids In Venice

Orchids In Venice

Yesterday when I was outside work at the Welsh Pavilion in Venice this discarded Orchid floated past still alive but flowerless. They are ugly plants when they are no longer in flower with rather plain round leaves and an almost bony finger-like stalk. Orchids appear to be as popular here in Venice as they are in the UK. Near my apartment is one in a window box which is also flowerless and a little further on by the Arsenale vaporetto stop a wedding photography studio has fake orchids scattered around the window display. On one of the main shopping streets of Venice is a grand and very green plant shop filled with all colours of Phalaenopsis just like Tesco.


The Fake Orchid

The Fake Orchid

On the kitchen shelf that overlooks my parents back garden sat a fake orchid, brought for my sister as a leaving gift. It is a replica of Phalaenopsis an orchid which is easily cultivated and is warm growing . Perfect for growing inside a house that is central heated and if treated well it can flower for months on end.
The next day I paid a visit to Orchid Paradise in Newton Abbot which is a greenhouse filled with specimens from continents across the globe. I walked around the greenhouse with my Dad and said ‘Some of these don’t even look real, some look like they are made of plastic.’

Laura Reeves


The Orchids ‘Gonna Make Him Mine’

And now for a record from those three little girls from Coventry – The Orchids.

Review: New Designers 2013 by Rhian Wyn Stone

The Graduates and the Show

For those of us who have graduated and gone through the process of finding our feet after University, we understand the importance of events such as New Designers. Degree shows can highlight our work yet depending on which university attended, it is a challenge to be seen – to get noticed. Shows such as New Designers cater to a wider audience and allow us to view Graduates work from further afield, to see what we are up against on the start of our creative careers.

I have been fortunate enough to experience this show on all three levels – as an exhibitor, visitor and as part of my role as Retail Supervisor. New Designers is an experience in itself – highly enjoyable, tiring, satisfying and sometimes (nearing the end of the day) frustrating.

As an exhibitor, this event was highly beneficial. Having graduated from a small course, the final degree show consisted mainly of family, friends and past students. It was more of a social affair than a professional one and so having New Designers as something to work towards drove us to work harder, and to consider our work within the wider art world.  It is easy to feel safe with those that have seen the work develop and change, there comes a point where an explanation isn’t necessarily needed – the absolute fear of having to explain my work to strangers, pushed me into thinking how best to describe the work clearly and concisely and what to include within the handout information. With such vast numbers of graduates and work, visitors tended to view work quickly, so peaking interest in that short amount of time was important – making sure to allow enough time for visitors to view work before introduction (without either scaring them away or awkwardly hovering), and to treat every visitor equally – as you never knew who you were talking to.

As a visitor, it was a far more relaxing experience – I could freely browse and chat with makers without worrying about getting back to the stand by a specific time. It allowed me to view graduate trends and see if current practice had moved on and developed.

As a returning visitor (with an aim) this year, research conducted beforehand was of utmost importance (an online presence, whether it be a blog, website or some information on the New Designers page is essential; it is very disappointing when you have liked a piece yet cannot find any information on the maker or work, or very limited information – such as only the final degree work, which by this point you may already have seen). With a short amount of time to view as much work as possible, it allowed me to pin point makers of interest right from the start. These starred names became the first point of call at the event, allowing me to either extend interest or to cross them off the list.


It is a very daunting experience exhibiting yet the ability to talk confidently about you and your work transfers confidence to those who are interested in it. PLEASE allow enough time for visitors to view work, there is nothing worse than being set upon before being able to take note of the work itself! A few minutes is enough, introduce yourself and the work (but don’t give everything away all at once) if the person in question is interested they will question you further.

Once the list was exhausted, it was time for a long and detailed sweep of the exhibition; navigating, collecting, chatting, moving on, returning, debating, writing. This was immediately followed by a nice cup of tea whilst delving though the information gathered (which consisted of a few names you may well see within our Craft Space in the near future). A final sweep of the event consisted of anything that immediately caught my eye; original and unique displays and the layout of individual makers and collective stands aid this.

So all in all a long but very satisfying day!

A few notes for future exhibitors:

  • Be confident in discussing you and your work
  • Treat every visitor with equal importance
  • Allow visitors enough time to view work before introduction!
  • Handout information – is there a way of condencing information as visitors will be collecting information from not only you. This WILL be appreciated!
  • Online presence – either a blog or website which includes more than just your degree work
  • Display – with so much to see and so little time, displays which catch the eye on first glance will attract more attention

Rhian Wyn Stone is the Retail Supervisor at Mission Gallery