Am I Local?

  Alistair Gentry  
  London, UK  

December 2018

What is a local artist? I come from East Anglia and when I lived there I didn't particularly benefit from being from a local artist. Many years ago I had some work in a group show at the old Firstsite in Colchester, long before they had their titanic art shed that sailed around in search of icebergs to crash into, spewing public money from the resulting gashes. The curator put my work on the landing of a staircase at the back of the building, and when I complained about that she put me in the children's play area instead, where it was shortly thereafter switched off because kids kept messing it up. Two or three of the dozens of galleries or venues around there were ever interested in me. I had to start an artist group just to provide for ourselves the support that regional organisations were being subsidised to provide for local artists and flapped their mouths all the time about giving. Nobody I knew ever got it, except for us because we supported each other.

It doesn't help that unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which are mostly beyond their control anyway, the regions of England tend to be regarded by the London-based funders and pontificators as vaguely located appendages to London. Their view of where everything is and what help is needed is like one of those medieval maps with Europe in the centre and the edges just guesses or blank spaces. Cornwall sometimes gets some recognition because they have their own language, but anyone not from the east of England who went to Bury St. Edmunds or Beccles wouldn't understand a word anybody was saying there either; why isn't East Anglian a nationality?

When I lived in Scotland, though, I wasn't really local either because I'm English. The best opportunity for me at the time involved moving to China, where my lack of locality was so blatant that people would constantly make racist comments about me because they thought I couldn't understand what they were saying, and one yokel walked right into a lamp post because I think he was staring at his first ever in-the-flesh white person.'s no wonder the phrase “I'm a local artist” makes anybody running a gallery or arts organisation want to plunge headfirst through a plate glass window to escape.

Alistair Gentry

In fairness there's a ghastly hinterland of properly local artists wherever you go in the UK or the world, so it's no wonder the phrase “I'm a local artist” makes anybody running a gallery or arts organisation want to plunge headfirst through a plate glass window to escape. In my Suffolk hometown some local artists have banded together to unironically call themselves FAG (Felixstowe Art Group). I genuinely don't think they realise what their name is spelling out. There's definitely nothing queer about their sub-Cath Kidston paintings of flowers and biscuit tin views of the town in 1900, except in the non-sexual sense of it being really queer, as in peculiar, to not acknowledge anything that's happened in art or culture for at least the past hundred years. It's not a case of rural, suburban, or urban, backwater or centre. The gallery on Brighton seafront that only sells relentlessly positive pictures of cows is probably still there, and if not plenty of others will be flogging oil paintings of flying spitfires and harbours full of yachts, or maybe some abstraction-for-dummies wall clutter from those local artists who've caught up with the mid-twentieth century. Hardly any artist in London is local in the sense that they come from there, but some of London's tiny galleries, whether in the West End or Stratford (sorry, darling, I know you tell people it's Hackney Wick) can be just as parochial in their own blinkered, metropolitan way. The same goes for the commercial art fairs and many of the artists getting big institutional shows, who can often be triangulated to both the first and second halves of particular London postcodes, none of which I can afford to live in.

As even this skeletal outline of where I've lived and worked indicates – and believe me, it's way more complex and messy than this – I've survived as an artist by going where the work was. That isn't really a viable option for anybody with a family, or a permanent job that keeps their practice as an artist going. These are just two of the many ways in which the precarious livings of artists relentlessly grind us down and out of our vocation: can't afford to live in or near one of the hubs, too poor in general, too much of a family life, too tied up with living in a particular place and your responsibilities there... you're gone. Being forced to stay put can be very bad for almost any occupation if you happen to get stuck in certain locations, because there's massive inequality of opportunity from place to place, even within the UK, let alone a whole world in which there's seemingly an ever-growing appetite for re-fortifying and weaponising the borders that many of us thought would be fading away by now. And it's happening precisely because opportunity and prosperity are so unfairly distributed that millions of people want to or have to leave their home countries.

Meanwhile the number of nations I'd fear to visit because of my politics, sexuality and my opinions being out in public keeps getting longer, not shorter. That list now includes the USA. And since in any case we're being made to feel bad for flying anywhere nowadays because it's tantamount to choking a baby whale's blowhole with a packet of plastic drinking straws, what are we meant to do even if we can afford – in any sense of the word – to go where the work is? Am I local purely by omission if I can't afford to go anywhere, or I'm not allowed to, or don't dare?  s

  Alistair Gentry is a writer, artist and performer.
According to a passing stranger who recently shouted out of a car window, he is also a fucking weirdo.
He is based, divides his time and works.

This interview features in the Autumn/Winter 2018 edition of the Sluice magazine.

The next Alistair Gentry column will appear in the Spring/Summer edition of the Sluice magazine, available April or May (if all winds are favourable). Subscribe or buy via the link below.