Tessa Giblin's 2020 reflections
Despite the fact that festivals have been unable to go ahead this year in their usual form, the university has still been able to produce a fantastic amount of events. Tessa Giblin contributed to our collection of reflections illustrating some of the ways the University of Edinburgh has supported cultural life in the city this year.
Please tell us about yourself and your role at The University of Edinburgh?
I am the Director of Talbot Rice Gallery, a contemporary art gallery situated in the University’s Old College and consisting of two iconic spaces: a neo-classical former natural history museum, which we call the Georgian Gallery, and a modern white gallery – no prizes for guessing what we call that. We are also part of Edinburgh College of Art and focus our aim and objectives upon what we can produce within contemporary art that is uniquely borne of this diverse sixteenth-century university. We’re a small core team, just seven of us, so we all share a variety of projects, and team working is really important for us.
- Had 2020 been a standard year, what work would you have traditionally been working on with regards to the city’s festivals?
We had conceptualised our year around a demodernising agenda. This is a term we’ve adopted to foreground diverse voices, concerns with how institutions operate and a critical approach to western narratives of progress. So, around now we would have been finalising the planning of the exhibition of an indigenous artist from the South Pacific island of Niue, including new works, editions, a catalogue and loans of historical cultural artefacts from Museums across Scotland. And prior to that, during the Festivals, an exhibition with four artists from around the world, more or less involved with the political and social consequences of architectural spaces, which was due to be a lovely partnership with Collective Gallery. At the same time we were working on a new commission of Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh in partnership with the Edinburgh Arts Festival. Of the ten emerging artists in residence with us (Talbot Rice Residents), five would have been gearing up to complete works that have been in development - supported by colleagues in ECA and other departments such as Geology.
- How did that change for you in the wake of the Covid-19 Pandemic?
At the time of writing, we are still not back in our building. Like many other galleries and museums, our ‘pandemic plan’ (yes, there is actually an excel spreadsheet with that title) is an endless cascading plan of shifting time-scales, impacts and opportunities. We were also left with a stunning exhibition that had only seen two weeks of life before lockdown, so my colleague who curated Pine’s Eye, James Clegg, has been breathing life into it throughout 2020, making a suite of videos about it from his living room. We wanted to share the best of our thoughts about art and curating, and something we’d always prioritised before the lockdown was the exhibition tour – this was James’ way of continuing that practice which you can see on our website. The pandemic also prompted us to really think about how exhibition-making and creative practice in general might change as a result. Our interests were really piqued by the way the virus, lockdown, healthcare, changing working routines, will all profoundly change people’s outlooks – leading us to develop a new exhibition for spring 2021 looking at the idea of ‘the normal’. The Talbot Rice Residents have all had to work from home, as have most people, and although we remain committed to every artist we were working with prior to the pandemic, our Niuean exhibition will sadly no longer happen. This loss has given rise to a really exciting exhibition of Australian artist Angelica Mesiti that I’ve curated during lockdown, and is now going to be our Festival exhibition of 2021.
- What have been your observations of working during lockdown?
Working during lockdown was, to be honest, bananas at times. Within our team of seven, there are five of us who have either very young or school-aged children, and thus we were in a bizarre cycle of working and home-teaching, and no matter how well you tried to do both, things got a little hairy at times. I made the early decision that we’d work creatively as a team during lockdown – not just perpetuate a treadmill of shifting logistics and postponements – so we took the challenging but ultimately fulfilling route, of embarking on a new conceptual group exhibition during lockdown which we’re calling The Normal. We wanted to work with artists and thinkers who were trying to grasp the shape of what we’re all going through – socially, economically, ecologically, politically – and ask some cold, hard truths of ourselves, and art, as well. I pushed everything back in the schedule, to make sure that The Normal was the first new show that we’d re-open with – as long as that ‘pandemic plan’ doesn’t slide around any further. I think creative working saved us – it certainly saved me. There’s nothing more invigorating and heartening than to be able to have a video call with an artist, co-worker or funder, about new ideas that are slippery and exciting. It meant everything in that time when our worlds shrank so dramatically in just a couple of short weeks. We were also able to collaborate with our colleagues in Design Informatics to think about the social distancing challenges Talbot Rice Gallery would face, which has been a brilliant collaboration of people who look at problems in very different ways, all bringing diverse expertise to the table, and energetically committed to real life solutions that we can actually use in the gallery. Thinking and working creatively is really the pulsing heart of what we do in contemporary art. How much the challenge of creative thinking benefits our wellbeing and sense of fulfilment has never been more palpable.
- Have the projects you have been working on surprised you in any way?
Just before lockdown, the Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh came to Edinburgh to discover the city, and see some of the sites we thought he could consider for his sound art commission, which is still under production as it has been postponed to 2021. What surprised me during his visit, is how elegant and complex an idea can be when it is the result of the right place, the right context and the right people all collaborating to think inside an artist’s practice. Emeka has a knack for making bold, emotionally charged political statements that operate in a beautifully lucid way. And his visit was perfectly timed, as had he planned to come two weeks later we would have been scuppered. I won’t say more about it now, as there are many contingent parts to pull together before it becomes a real artwork, but the new work that Emeka Ogboh is developing for the Edinburgh Arts Festival in partnership with TRG is shaping up to be really special – it will have us all humming a very familiar tune in poignantly different ways.
- What else have you learnt from this situation?
I’ve learned about the abundance and diversity of honey that has been produced in Edinburgh this year, about the beauty of birdsong when it doesn’t compete for a stage. I’ve learned about the resilience and vulnerability we all share, that it is possible to affect large-scale global change and that the train of progress can be derailed. I now understand that our leaders could steer us away from this catastrophic path of ecological destruction if there was a strong enough collective will. I’ve learned about racism and the blind spots that perpetuate within liberal, egalitarian communities. I’ve also learned and experienced much about my neighbours, my local shops, our school and what Edinburgh looks like in the summer without millions of visitors. But no matter how much I appreciate all the efforts that have gone into virtual experiences, digital platforms, screens and streams, I have also learned about how much I deeply and addictively love the experience of art in the real – exhibitions, performances, concerts. The smell of a gallery. That spine-tingling feeling that an artist has constructed the situation that you’re participating in – the very real sense of thoughts being created inside you that need to be grasped in the moment – that can’t be paused, buffered, bookmarked or returned-to later. These are the experiences I yearn for.