Erik Block

Teresa Grimes
on Essex Road

Currently illuminating the window of Tintype gallery, on the Essex Road, in the London borough of Islington, is the sixth edition of the Essex Road project, which commissions eight artists each year to create a moving image work in response to the road itself.

At the helm of the gallery is Director Teresa Grimes, who has created a dynamic programme featuring UK-based and international contemporary artists, including exhibitions, talks, workshops, performances and walks.

I spoke to Teresa about how the Essex Road project got started and about this year’s artists, whose films are screened daily (from 5pm) until 9 February.

The Essex Road project first came about as an experiment, and now has become a permanent part of the gallery’s programme. What was the initial motivation and how has the project evolved over the years? You’ve worked with some great artists.

The initial motivation came from two elements. We have a very large window looking out onto a busy part of Essex Road. I sit in the gallery all day so looking out of the window is a treat, time away from my computer screen. There is always something going on. You see so many little vignettes, strange sights, snatches of conversation, sometimes full-blown rows – the butcher’s staff carrying half a cow slung casually over their shoulders. Once there was a big wedding party crossing the road and the bride had bare feet. A horse-drawn funeral procession. Then the sheer variety of people that make up multi-cultural London.

Essex Road is essentially cinematic, a place containing hundreds of stories waiting to be told. Secondly, the fantastic Peer gallery in Hoxton had shown films in their window and that gave me the impetus – and Ingrid [Swenson], who runs it, was very helpful in sharing information on ways to project films onto a glass window.

The programme has evolved practically in certain ways – the first year for instance, all the films were silent. Then we experimented with different ways to have sound, and eventually found that fairly basic speakers were the best solution. But because there is a lot of traffic noise, we’ve found that the human voice is the hardest thing to hear clearly, so subtitles are advisable. That also puts a premium on the visual – no bad thing for a moving image programme.

In terms of working with artists, we set the bar high right from the beginning so I think it quite quickly established a good reputation – and that in turn helps to attract artists. I strongly believe in diversity, so having young, emerging artists is just as important as higher profile ones. You need to be adventurous. The project has also evolved in terms of related events. For the past four years we have worked with a local primary school on a specific project, and for two years running artist Michelle Deignan worked with 90 children to make two animated films. We also offer a series of walks and events.

The artists create films in response to Essex Road. You must get some surprises?

Well yes, that’s the joy of doing it: the diverse, inventive, imaginative ideas that the artists come up with. I love the idea – George Vasey called it ‘strategic regionalism’ ­ – that turning a close-up lens onto one particular area, produces a magnificently magnified response. Perhaps this encourages us to look at where we live with a more appreciative eye. Two artists for instance, have made films about the South Library in Essex Road, an incredible building right on our doorstep – as is the old Criterion Cinema, an art deco gem, which has also featured in past Essex Road films. Then there are places that you had no idea existed – Adam Chodzko’s film this year was shot in Islington Sea Cadets, opposite Essex Road station, a training facility that is built to mimic a ship. Adam only discovered it from a chance encounter and conversation when he was walking around the area

What was the selection process in choosing this year’s artists?

I look for artists whose work in the past responds to place, and/or artists whose work is distinctive, singular and that you feel will respond well to the brief. I make a long-list, and from that a short list. Then you simply ask them. I saw Melanie Smith’s work in the Liverpool Biennial last year and loved it. I assumed she would be way-off the radar partly because she has such an international profile and because she lived in Mexico City. Then I heard that she’d moved back to London and someone I know gave me her email. So, I gave it a go. We met, and she said yes.

As ever there is a great variety this year, from 16 mm film to animation. Does the diversity in subject matter occur organically or do you play a part?

It was a deliberate choice to include an animation strand, but not 16mm necessarily. That is very much the artist’s choice. Subject matter is also left to each artist – though obviously they put in their ideas and I give my feedback. Occasionally, I have suggested ideas or areas of research but in fact that rarely works! It’s much better if the artists come up with their own ideas. I sometimes put in some editing notes once there is a rough-cut – and that is invariably to cut and make the films shorter.

How is showing art out onto the street different from having visitors come inside?

That’s a really good question, and one that’s hard to answer, because in a funny way you have very little sense of how people respond. It’s very different from people coming into the gallery where A) you see them, B) you sometimes strike up a conversation, and C) you might get some sense of how they respond to the work. With Essex Road – apart from the opening night, which is always packed and a great feeling to see so many people crowded on the pavement watching the films – it is actually very hard to know how many people see them, how long they stay, what they think. On the other hand, there is a huge difference between people choosing to walk into an art gallery (which can be intimidating if it’s not something you normally do), and the work being out there on the street. This is our gift to Essex Road!

Any thoughts on how you see future iterations of the project?

We are planning to invite a guest curator.


Interview by Erik Block.

Essex Road 6 features Ayo Akingbade, Adam Chodzko, Patrick Goddard, Lucy Harris, Rebecca Lennon, Maryam Mohajer, Melanie Smith and Webb-Ellis.

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