Plymouth’s new contemporary art space.
Originally published in Nom de Strip, Issue 2 / Right Here, Right Now.
Before last year, 22 George Place had been derelict for five years. Originally the site of a chapel bombed during the war, the industrial space has functioned as many things: an abbatoir, a printing press, a laundrette and a pharmaceutical distribution centre. It now functions as a gallery and studio.
It’s hard to believe that KARST isn’t even a year old yet. Run by Carl Slater, Glen Johnston, and new addition, Donna Howard, we have been following the progress of Plymouth’s new contemporary art space since August last year. It has seemingly exploded into existence. Walking past the gallery on my way home last week, I discover the exterior walls of the building have been painted a slick grey. Even though it’s late in the afternoon, there are builders around and drilling can be heard. The team are in preparation for the first exhibition of their curatorial program and the launch of new studio spaces for local artists. Whilst developments have moved quickly, this has been the result of relentless and passionate toiling on behalf of everyone involved.
KARST’s building is situated in Stonehouse, an area of developing social and urban infrastructure. The immediate area is rapidly changing, from one of the least affluent areas in the city to a suburban waterfront attraction, attracting new businesses and regeneration projects that have enhanced the Stonehouse community.
‘Three generations of my family are from Stonehouse, so I’m quite clued up on the area’ says Carl Slater. Indeed, the name of the gallery, Carl tells me, comes from its location on the site boundary of an old limestone quarry known as Battery Hill. KARST by definition, is a distinctive topography in which the landscape is largely shaped by the dissolving action of water on carbonate bedrock.
The project was born out of a simple desire for Glen and Carl, who are old school friends, to do some work together in the area. ‘We looked at buildings in Stonehouse with the intention of applying to the Arts Council for a small amount of money to do something, but what we found wasn’t really suitable’. After a long search, Glen discovered 22 George Place, a derelict industrial space owned by Plymouth City Council and due for imminent demolision. After a set of long negotiations, they managed to acquire the space and pick up keys in time for the British Art Show’s arrival in Plymouth. ‘When we heard the British Art Show was on, it was only natural that we would participate as part of the Fringe programme.’ says Glen. ‘It was an amazing opportunity to do something big and I think coming out at that time raised our profile’
Their contribution to the British Art Show Fringe program was VESSEL. The industrial space became a container for works of installation, film, performance, photography and sculpture. The curatorial vision was to make a show about Plymouth, about the space and how site specific artworks can exist in a building in a state of temporary flux. ‘It was all about regeneration in those contexts, from the way we found the building to showing art work in an area that is run down’
Both describe the lead up to the opening of VESSEL as ‘painful’. Firstly, there was the arduous task of getting the building ready which involved ‘lots of gutting and getting rid of stuff’. In its initial state, Glen tells me, ‘the ceiling was on the floor and the windows were smashed in; it was cold and damp and there was rat shit everywhere’. Key to the buildings temporary renovation were donations and contributions from local businesses in Stonehouse, and funding secured by VESSEL project co-ordinator, Emma Corkery, from Millfields Trust, a not for profit company set up to enable local people to contribute to the regeneration of Stonehouse.
Then there was an unsuccessful Arts Council application for funding towards the cost of transporting artworks. ‘When we didn’t get it, we were gutted and annoyed. But in the end, we said “sod it, we’ll use our own money”‘. Both invested £1500 each into the project. ‘I went into my overdraft and Carl went into his, but if we hadn’t done that, we couldn’t have done VESSEL and we wouldn’t be where we are now’
With their own personal investment, a team of volunteers and support from local businesses, they got the space and the show together. On 21st September, we were introduced to VESSEL showing works from 17 artists, all responding to the building and the wider social and economic contexts of the exhibitions location.
Elena Bajo’s Multiplier Effect used building materials found in and around the exhibition space, namely window frames and glass, spaced with concrete blocks, and the subtle insertion of a mirror, creating a multiplier effect of the objects boundaries.Martha Rosler’s photomontage Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful, depicted war scenes against images of domestic comfort and high design as a subtle way of connecting distant wars with class wars closer to home. Then there was the visceral, energetic and unnerving debut UK performance of A Morphological Journey on the Borders of our Bodies by VestAndPage.
VESSEL inevitably impressed people, it was baffling to conceive that an exhibition of such quality was made on next to nothing. It was here, that Donna was introduced to Carl at the opening of VESSEL, through a mutual friend. A brief conversation turning into a new addition to the team. With a background in business, finance and European funding management, Glen and Carl were quick to snap her up.
‘Donna brings a certain level of business acumen and smooth talking to the project’ which Carl admits they needed, ‘I’m a YES person and I find it hard to negotiate. I couldn’t get £1 off a pair of socks, but I’m learning. I think Glen’s a little bit better than me but we both agreed that we needed to get someone involved who has business experience and who can communicate well.’
As a team of three, and with several dedicated volunteers, KARST have made a number of new developments since VESSEL.
The team have just signed a three-year flexible lease on the industrial unit which now accommodates artist studios, a large exhibition gallery and a project space to host other pop-up projects and events. They have also received Arts Council funding for a one year curatorial program of international exhibitions, that they hope will illuminate and expand the public’s understanding and appreciation of contemporary art in Plymouth.
For its inaugural exhibition, KARST will host Space Invader, the UK debut show of German-based architectural artists, Lars Breuer, Sebastian Freytag, and Guido Münch, collectively known as KONSORTIUM. They have designed a site-specific piece for the venue.
Following shows include Multiple Choices in collaboration with Bristol Diving School, later next year. Multiple Choices features Ricardo Basbaum’s work Would you like to participate in an artistic experience?, previously shown in Oslo Kunstforening; Plymouth Arts Centre, in documentary form and DOCUMENTA12. The starting point of the exhibition at KARST will be an offering to individuals, groups or collectives from Plymouth, to take an object home for a certain period of time and realize an artistic experience with it.
Key on KARST’s agenda is sustainability. Alongside its exhibition programme, KARST also aim to provide a support platform for local emerging artists through its designated studio spaces, and a volunteer programme to manage and develop creative opportunities for local people. The team have a strong interest in how they can invest in students and graduates through grass roots initiatives, and build a cultural offer in Stonehouse that keeps people in the city. As part of their education program they have developed an intern program and residency-focused graduate scheme for graduates in Plymouth.
Current interns include MA students from Falmouth, London and Lithuania. Yes, Lithuania. Vaidė Legotait, from Vytautas Magnus University in Lithuania, responded to KARST’s open call for interns earlier this year, following funding for a Euro Pass to support her studies. She will be working with KARST over the summer to develop and implement a blog and support on key administrative duties.
There is a real integrity and genuine commitment to developing something special for Stonehouse, and more widely, for the city. What started as a fringe event can now be a more permanent fixture. ‘Hopefully, we can help clean the area up a little bit’ says Glen, acknowledging that they are based in the midst of Plymouth’s red light district. ‘The city seems to have migrated north to where the university is – creating a big void around this side of town – I think we are filling that hole by bringing some contemporary culture to the area, we’re a nice stop off point between Royal William Yard and the City centre’
As for the long term future, things are still in flux. Currently, the building has no future at all, because it isn’t commercially viable. It is still due for demolision in five or six years. This seems a great shame but the team are optimistic, ‘you never know, they might keep it if they see us doing well.’