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Makers Open Interviews: Roanna Wells

2 Aug

In this first interview in a series of conversations with each Jerwood Makers Open exhibitor, Roanna Wells, an artist interested in the aesthetic possibilities of crowd formations, delves into the concepts and contexts underpining her practice.



Were you attracted to crowd patterns for their formal possibilities, aesthetically speaking, or was there something about the nature of group gatherings and the contexts they occur in (demonstrations, concerts, festivals etc.) that made the subject interesting for you?

My fascination with crowd formations started out as an aesthetic interest. It arose when I was testing out abstract mark-making methods with simple traditional stitches. Various comments given to me by visitors to my studio linked the work to swarms of bees, flocks of starlings, groups of flowers etc, but the one comment which stuck was that it reminded them of a crowd of people. This got me researching and I soon discovered there was a wealth of imagery available that would be really interesting to see interpreted into stitched drawings.

After this initial spark of inspiration, it became apparent that not only was the aesthetic shape important, but that it could be created with a hint at something more socially connected and contextually relevant. After this recent work for Jerwood Makers, where the project was given a much greater depth through me being able to visit the location of the source image and be involved in the capturing of the photography, it has definitely shown that the relevance of the image is equally as important as the nature of the outcome.

Your technique of hand stitching seems like an incredibly labour intensive and time consuming process. Why does this particular method of mark making appeal to you as oppose to say drawing or painting?

I suppose I inherited my love of stitch through my mother who is a textile artist, I grew up surrounded with threads, fabrics, paints etc, however I took my own direction whilst studying Embroidery at Manchester School of Art. I was introduced to the idea of looking at the relationship between drawing and stitch through experimental mark making processes, first with various drawing materials and then in both hand and machine stitch. This really struck a chord with me, and it was this element that I took away with me to continue developing as I started out with my professional practice.


Some of my projects are abstract and purely process led, as I discovered that the physical process of creating marks, especially the motions required for stitch, are something that I find great joy and contentment in. I am a patient person, so the time consuming nature of hand stitch is something I find comes easily to me.

The way that a stitch becomes totally integrated with the surface, probably never to be undone, leaves a subtle message about the time taken to create it, the commitment in the marks made, the decision making process and personal connection with the cloth and the maker.

Could you talk a bit about your experience attending the Kumbh Mela? Am i right in thinking this was the first mass gathering you have depicted after actually attending? 


Visiting the Kumbh Mela was such an eye opening, and at times moving, experience for me. I had heard lots about the festival before and even remember watching a documentary 12 years ago when the last big celebration took place. When I was awarded the Jerwood commission, I realised that this could be the perfect opportunity to not only commission specific photography, but actually visit the location too.


I wanted to be able to have an even greater depth of meaning to my work, and gain an insight into the nature of this particular crowd. It is the largest gathering of humans on the planet and I was intrigued to see first hand that amount of people in one place and experience the faith and devotion that drives so many to the river Ganges. It was a creative mission first and foremost, but it was also an opportunity to strengthen my interest in different religions and philosophies. I’m not particularly religious, but I am very open minded and philosophical in my approach to spiritual ideas and I was interested to know more about the Hindu faith and how their devotion to it leads to this awesome commitment.

I came away feeling very privileged and honoured to have been part of such an event, and it made me aware that for the majority of the pilgrims attending, it was not merely a decision to enjoy the spectacle, but an instinctive, almost magnetic necessity to be present at this sacred occasion. The belief that their souls will be cleansed is so strong that pilgrims will overcome great distance, pain, poverty and hardship to get to the city, some travelling barefoot for weeks carrying all that they own. It was very humbling, and certainly gave the finished piece much more gravitas and depth.

In seems to me that we are living in an epoch characterised by collectivity. From the rather pathetic attempt to outsource governance in the ConDem party’s ‘big society’ rhetoric, to the ubiquity of social networks and comment based inclusivity saturating the mainstream mediascape. Are you interested in these developments at all? 

I suppose different cultures have many different ways of trying to work collectively. Some are successful, others not so, and some are even harmful or destructive.  It is difficult to say which methods are best. After experiencing extreme poverty (by our western standards!) at the Kumbh Mela, it struck me that often developing countries, although appearing to have very little in terms of material possessions, in fact have the greatest wealth of spirit, compassion, community values and devotion to each other and to a higher faith. Although we would consider many of the pilgrims at the Kumbh to be living in poverty, the manner in which a community is formed to cater and provide for this amount of people is staggering, and I do believe that the Western, supposedly developed world, could learn a lot from this.


Because the majority of us have everything we need on a basic level, we turn to other ways to connect with others and this is mainly through the freedom of speech we see in social networks etc. While I believe this is extremely important in today’s society, I do also wish that there could be a greater understanding of the need for physical and wholesome connection with the people around us.

Of course we embrace technological developments, I’m all for Twitter and Instagram! However I believe that the balance of this with community spirited gatherings would be the best way for us to connect with those around us. 

The traditional depiction of crowds, by people like Gustave Le Bon and Sigmund Feud, has been of a wild and unthinking mass, a collectivity in which rational individual choices are surrendered to the irrational, simplistic, and primal will of the group. Recently net enthusiasts like Clay Shirkey have espoused the virtues of groups and a belief in the noosphere. Where do you stand in relation to crowds? Are these idea of interest to you?

The formal discussion into the nature of crowd formations and their relevance to cultural or social ideas is something I have only lightly investigated so far. My exploration into the use of crowd imagery is fairly recent in my practice and as yet, I have been mainly interested in the image as an aesthetic shape and the immediate relevance of the subject matter.

However, now that I have realised the potential for this as a theme and the wealth of imagery available, along with the success of my technique for depicting the representations, I am going to focus much more on this and would like to read up on the academic side of research towards crowd formations. This may hopefully add yet another level of meaning to my work.

What do you have planned for the future in terms of projects?

The Jerwood Makers commission has really opened my eyes to the possibilities available for me in terms of travel, first hand experience and cultural relevance, along with scale of work and ambition of my projects. I want to work on making the crowd formations series a major focus of my practice, as I now realise the scope for source inspiration and the diversity of subject matter available.

I don’t have any other major projects planned as yet, I’m having a little breather after what was my most ambitious work to date! but I hope that this is the start of something quite interesting! I feel at an exciting stage of my career.

Jerwood Makers Open 2013

19 Jul

 Nahoko Kojima installing Byaku (2013)


Last week, Wednesday the 10 July, saw the opening of this year’s Jerwood Makers Open. Featuring work handcrafted by Maisie Broadhead, Linda Brothwell, Adam Buick, Nahoko Kojima, and Roanna Wells. Each artist was commisioned to create something new and ambitious for display.



Over the coming weeks I’ll be talking to them about what inspired the resulting works, their chosen working methods, and the ideas, concepts and contexts that underpin their respective practices. I’ll also be looking at Object Oriented Ontology (spookily abreviated as OOO), trying to make sense of the concept (it’s the current art world theory of choice), and seeing how it might facillitate a novel reading of the “things” exhibited at Jerwood Space.


Graham Harman (the OOO originator) pictured with other ‘deep thinkers’. Guess who Graham is.


24 Jun

What happens when designers make work that is free from a client, brief or fee?

Part 2


In the book Time Binds American queer theorist Elizabeth Freeman pulls apart and interrogates temporal givens. For her, time – that is the setup of seconds, minutes, and hours; days, months and years – is not a benign naturally occuring phenomenon, it is a man made system, an artificial grid that divides physical and mental life into discreet moments of temporally assignable activity. This conception of time is the fundamental basis from which institutions – schools, corporations, governments – monitor and rationalise the regulation of human behaviour and the construction of lifestyle norms based on ideas of procreation and progess. Freeman calls this chrononormativity or ‘the use of time to organize individual human bodies toward maximum productivity’. For Freeman ‘chrononormativity is a mode of implantation, a technique by which institutional forces [the eight hour working day and five day working week] come to seem like somatic facts’.



One of the basic differences between artists and designers (of all ilks) is that artists are traditionally, or romantically, percieved as individuals who don’t follow normal routines and societal norms. They’re drop outs, misfit citizens outside of time. Artists don’t punch a clock or form part of a production line, they’re slaves to nothing except their own wills and whims; designers, by way of the client, brief, and fee, are inextricably yoked to it.





However, through After Hours’ curatorial device of allowing work to be produced for its own sake, the designer is able to step outside of their temporally locked condition. That is to say their mode of being is no longer superimposed onto an artificial temporal grid, like the British photographer Edweard Muybridge’s chronographic subjects.





The benefit of standing outside a system is that you’re able to survey it from a position of detachment.  From outside the framework of chrononormative time three designers in After Hours exhibited artworks considering aspects of their previous conditions within it. Most direct was Jamie Ellul’s Time is Money (2012), a functioning clock whose numbers have been replaced by coins. The signification couldn’t be more clear: minutes, hours and seconds are linked to the loss or gain of capital. Jack Renwick’s Metamophosis (2013), a wardrobe full of mothbitten clothes Renwick mended with badges, at first seems a battle against  material degradation, but the neat labelled compartmentalisation of her cupboard, separated according to clothing type (i.e. sundries, pyjamas, underwear, ties), speaks of a certain beuraucratic fastidiousness, a technique of organisation designed to minimise time wastage that has seeped from the office into everyday life. Finally Nick Asbury’s conceptual work Pentone (2006-2013), pictured left. A linguistic version of the pantone colour match system, Pentone presents different samples of English language types. With categories like political, drunk, persuasive, and comments, Asbury also highlights a certain residue of time management through the suggestion that modes of communication can be broken into a categorical system. A system that could, if necessary, function like a cognitive lookup table in which the messy business of interellation is broken into neat, machine referable chunks.


Curated by Nick Eagleton,UK creative director of design agency The Partners, After Hours was in exhibition at the Jerwood Space from 15 May – 23 June, 2013. It closed yesterday.

Socialists and Revolutionaries

6 Jun

What happens when designers make work that is free from a client, brief or fee?

Part 1


The following is a response to the above question posed by curator Nick Eagleton’s current (15 May – 23 June, 2013) Jerwood Visual Arts, Jerwood Space exhibition After Hours. It is also a gross simplification of the complexity of things that could be pulled apart and refuted by any mildly inquisitive, scantly read humanities undergrad. That said: a neat binary capturing the essential difference between artists and designers can be found in the socialist versus revolutionary model. It’s a framework I stole from the above animated reaction GIF. Positions are as follows: artists as revolutionaries, designers as socialists. The distinction is arrived at through a question of utility, its status as an integral feature of production and where one stands in relation to that idea. Here’s how it breaks down.



The conscientious contemporary artist, although firmly committed to provoking cultural, political, or cognitive change in the individual,  or en-masse if lucky, makes objects and images with no inherent use value. In addition there are also no universally agreed features that allow the resulting useless creations to be qualitatively judged and assessed. However, what makes them identifiable as art is the recognition that they exist as such by a number of skilled, highly trained cultural workers (artists, critics, curators, collectors, academics, conservators etc.).


These arts professionals are capable of reading objects as if they were texts, and the importance of an object is largely determined by the complexity and elegance of its prose. Here, through the reading of the work, comes the transformative exchange, the eureka moment in which art is said to articulate something previously outside the viewers understanding; reveal a hitherto hidden reality; suture some immaterial rupture in the social fabric; or at the very least alter the viewers consciousness. The artwork, then, whether it’s Picasso’s Guernica or Goshka Macuga’s use of it’s replica, enacts and reaches towards a hands-free, nebulous and abstract revolution.

For the designer, a creative who makes something for something, utility is an inherent feature of production. Each work created to brief therefore fulfils a societal function by helping people to navigate or make sense of the world around them through an objects use.  This makes for a more efficient, productive and ultimately democratic world – i.e. Dieter Rams designs a clock face that is easy to read, Jonathan Ive creates information technology hardware that is easy to use, Eileen Gray makes chairs that are comfortable to sit it. The designer is therefore a socialist, an individual concerned, via the brief, with the specific, everyday needs of men and women. At bottom, theirs is an imperative to make tools that can be used, that posses some utility and durability, and whose value and importance are assessed in relation to the fulfillment of those requirements.


After Hours exhibition installation view. Works courtesy of the artist. Photo: thisistomorrow

So what happens when the utilitarian imperative is removed? What happens when a designer makes work that is free from a client, brief, or fee? The polarities shift. Temporarily the designer moves from a socialist to a revolutionary – an individual interested in abstraction and intellection as opposed to the concrete arena of rational choice, of means created to engender useful ends. The objects they make are removed from what Martin Heidegger would call the relational totality of equipment, design no longer dissolves in behaviour and things are freed from the necessity to be articulated through their function. They become useless objects that are difficult to qualitatively assess. They become texts to be read.

After Hours (installation view)



23 May

Picture your subconscious as an archive held in a series of large, black metal filling cabinets, cooled by a temperature regulated room. Inside, between subdividers, are index cards with short experiential narratives and accounts of past events, written by your long term memory. These documents of experience inform the development of what psychologists call cognitive scripts, sets of references that become psychological procedures, which tell you how to react to stimuli.


Take the mental state of anticipation, its symptoms of nervousness, anxiety and excitement, shortness of breath and increased heartbeat. The idea is that the mind recognises the conditions that produce anticipation and looks up past occurrences of that same psychological mode, and the events that caused it, stored in your archive of cognitive scripts. Examples of these past events for you might be: the moment before you opened that letter containing the results of your interview for a dream job; that time in a drama class trust exercise just before you fell back, blindfolded, into the arms of giggling classmates; or perhaps it might be the first time you were on television.


My name is Morgan Quaintance and I am the 8th Jerwood Visual Arts writer in residence. Each time I sit in front of a blank screen to write anticipation drops like a wet flannel over my consciousness. It covers my eyes, water draining down my neck, back and arms, dripping off the tips of my fingers, making it impossible to type. I become Steve Jobs, skittish, stationary but seasick. I become the nervous kid, jittery, spooked and paralysed by the gravity of my situation. Then I begin to type.

Until the end of August 2013 I’ll be writing about the forthcoming Jerwood Visual Arts exhibitions at Jerwood Space, exploring exhibition themes, talking to its associate artists, and investigating parallel subjects that might  lead to a deeper understanding of each. I hope to make my time in virtual situ as interesting for potential readers as possible and comments are most definitely welcome.