Prism Textiles: A virtual festival
The pandemic has hit the world hard. For artists, a multitude of exhibitions have been cancelled or delayed, and opportunities for showing and selling work are much diminished. Earlier this year Prism Textiles made a swift decision to host their annual exhibition online. The team knuckled down to the complex task of rapidly organising a digital route to showing this year’s selection of work.
Then an idea began to germinate. Why not extend this into a longer virtual festival? A way to give added value to an art-hungry audience while supporting their artist members.
Now that their festival is in full swing, discover some behind-the-scenes insight from the Prism Textiles team. In this article, find out how they exhibited their members’ work and engaged their new audience online. The curators share what it took to make this happen and how they supported their artists with gallery-style presentations, sharing their work-in-progress and enabling workshops online.
While social distancing restrictions are in place we are craving culture and arts programmes. Prism Textiles have bravely leapt into unknown territories to get their exhibition out into the world, and there will be more of this type of digital showcasing to come.
In Search of (im)Possibilities
Prism Textiles are an international exhibiting group of textile artists. They work together to dispel the common preconceptions surrounding textile art, while embracing both the contemporary approach and the rich traditions of cloth and stitch.
Each year, their exhibition selects and showcases its members’ artwork using a curated and themed approach. Their exhibition titles are proposed, debated and voted on by their members. Maria Walker suggested this year’s choice, thinking that “this title would open up the exhibition by encouraging a variety of responses in subject matter and experimentation in processes”.
When the members voted for “In Search of (im)Possibilities” no-one could have envisaged how relevant the title would be. In a short space of time, the world has changed irrevocably with the onset of the global pandemic.
An unexpected relocation
After several years at Hoxton Arches, Prism were due to relocate to a new gallery, the Art Pavilion in Mile End, London. The curators were excited to be planning a show in such a light and airy space. But in the middle of March, two months before the exhibition was due to open, they began to consider the possibility that the show might not go ahead. The timing was less than ideal after all the hard work that had been put in. For the organisers, walking away from all that that collective creativity and resultant energy was unthinkable.
Discussion of a postponement raised numerous questions. Would the work produced for this year’s show still be relevant next year? Would the artists feel that they had moved on, in response to the pandemic or lockdown? How would the pandemic affect the artists’ lives? A hasty meeting was convened to work out the way forward and a decision was made that the show would go on, albeit in an entirely different format in a virtual world.
At the time the group had a new website in development, so the timing was perfect. As lockdown began, they began to tailor the website to launch their virtual exhibition. In going online, Prism Textiles realised they could reach a much wider audience without the restriction of geographical limitations, and at the same time they could support members and keep in touch with regular exhibition visitors through these self-isolating times.
But the curators wanted to take things a step further and capture a sense of the exhibition as it would have been presented in the physical world. They wanted to take the audience on a virtual journey of the gallery, showcasing a selection of artworks from each artist. So along came the idea of a digital festival.
The festival opened with the online exhibition, running for fourteen days in May. Each day focussed on curated images of artwork, taking centre-stage as a gallery style slideshow. The themes of Environment, Materials and Place were explored through the daily presentation of several works, each with the artist’s statement.
“In a gallery the initial impact and cohesive flow through the exhibition is paramount, whereas the arrangement online turned out to be entirely different. The subjects tackled by members became the guiding force behind the presentation of their work.”Marian Murphy, Exhibition Co-Curator
The team had to embrace digital transformation at speed, with online meetings and new video technologies to learn. They even figured out how to conduct an exhibition Private View online (with members providing their own wine and nibbles!). It was well attended and allowed even more members to attend than usual.
Seeing the artists’ process
After the exhibition, the curators moved into the festival phase, broadening their scope to share more about their artists.
Prism members were asked to propose works responding to the existing theme. They could choose to develop their work further, or come up with something entirely new. Their contribution could be unfinished, or a verbal plan, a video of them making art, or a sketchbook idea. The curators began to share these ideas online, with a plan and to revisit the artists later on in the festival to see how their work is progressing.
Nerissa Cargill Thompson shows the detritus of PPE discarded on the streets, touching on environmental damage, and explains how she will develop ideas using her signature sculptural methods using concrete.
Sue Burley uses face masks stitched with phrases and figures, portraying the mood of the nation during lockdown.
Julieanne Long talks about the continued development of her work on Darwin’s famous barnacle, Mr Arthrobalanus, using slow stitching to represent ideas around isolation.
Maria Walker presents a series of amulets based on museum research and found objects to explore protection.
The Prism team also took advantage of their new online format to open up communication with Prism alumni, by inviting them to make guest appearances and share interesting insights, such as those from former member Ali Brown.
Engaging the audience
Prism wanted to engage the audience more fully in textile practice, but their workshops had to be postponed. However several members were able to adapt their workshops for the online festival. Puppeteer Willeke Klaassen even filmed short fun performances to support her workshops, which use felt-making to develop puppets.
“Even though I, as one of the artists, miss the warmth of our actual being together, this festival has a wonderful advantage. I can really share this exhibition in my own environment, much more and better than “just” putting pictures up [online] with my own enthusiastic comments. This festival allows Prism to widen the scope of the exhibition a thousand-fold!”Willeke Klaassen, Prism Member and Exhibitor, Netherlands
With many artists dealing with the everyday restrictions of lockdown, income loss and social distancing, plus the loss of exhibition and teaching opportunities in this changing world, Prism Textiles have shown how a digital art experience can be beneficial. The curators are delighted that their annual exhibition continued despite the pandemic. Their festival format has allowed them to go even further, engaging a wider audience from all around the world. And it’s helped to keep their artists active and focussed when this could so easily have become a period of dormancy and demotivation.
Blending the physical and virtual
What will happen in 2021? The curators want to extend this year’s title into next year, showing new work alongside this year’s exhibition work. For a physical exhibition there may be difficulties, though; perhaps a glut of rescheduled exhibitions, audiences may be unable to travel, and there may still be social distancing. But this year’s solution has given the team new skills, which they can develop no matter what the future may bring.
Currently, the team is exploring the combination of a physical exhibition and an online follow-up, to blend the best of both worlds. Like so many other arts and culture organisations, their experience over the last few months has led to them push the boundaries of what they can do to engage their audience while becoming more interactive in the digital world.
Interview developed from text supplied by Anita Bruce, Hannah Heys, Jackie Langfeld and Katharine Paton King, on behalf of Prism Textiles.
Explore the festival yourself at prismtextiles.co.uk
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