Text originally publiched at The Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux blog
23 January 2018
Early stages of the project:
Last autumn, my colleague Timo Wright and I sat down for a cup of coffee in Helsinki’s city centre. Our gallery, Unknown Cargo, had not seen any major activities for about year now and we were both itching to start a new project. Timo had been toying with the idea of running some kind of residency programme for a while and brought it up again. The idea appealed to me immediately and that meeting became the beginning of Artist Residency Swap, or ARS. ‘ARS’ was used at first only as a working title, but we grew to like it so much that it became the final project name.
The project’s design had the same strong foundation of values that we believed in when we created Unknown Cargo: caring for the welfare and rights of the artist/practitioner, openness and accessibility. Artist residencies, both at home and abroad, we feel, are one of the most important ways of promoting artists’ work and self-driven networking possibilities. The biggest challenges, however, include the fact that there are not enough residency opportunities for all those in need, and that some artists’ access is hampered because of their personal situation, leaving these practitioners to fend for themselves outside existing residency models. These marginalised groups include artists in the early stages of their career, minorities, and especially those with families.
Our goal is to create an equal opportunity exchange programme in which anyone can easily participate. Our idea was to develop a website for artists to swap their home or studio space with another artist abroad or in their home country. The aim is to create a space where artists from around the world can use a profile to find other artists to swap studio or living space, as well as share experiences and insights.
Research and pilot phase:
Although the project took off quickly, neither of us could be certain of its success, or whether there was even a need for this type of residency model in Finland or in the world. We decided to start simple and created a questionnaire for visual artists, which Frame Contemporary Art Finland helped distribute to artists. The questionnaire explored whether there was a demand for this residency model, what artists’ hopes or fears were relating to exchanges, and what they hoped to gain from this kind of programme. The feedback was very positive and enthusiastic, and the possible social aspects of the residency swap were highlighted. It also became clear that many residency opportunities that can be applied for in Finland focus on restricted areas. ARS would meet this challenge by opening up the world to its users and making residencies possible even in remote countries and regions.
We also wanted to ensure the functionality of the residency programme in practice before its launch, so we decided to run a pilot phase. To thank the artists going on these ‘pilot exchanges’ for helping us develop the project, we wanted to cover their return travel to the destination residency. To run this pilot phase, ARS partnered successfully with the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux and the Finnish Institute in Japan, and the first pilot residency swaps took place between Finland and Belgium in the autumn of 2017.
The first artists to make the swap were Conrad Willems (Ghent, Belgium) and Sivi Valima(Helsinki, Finland). The residency period was short (only two weeks), but it was long enough for artists to gain inspiration from the other country and city and become acquainted with the new environment. It so happened that I was in Helsinki at the same time as Conrad and we had a wonderful day going for coffee, riding the tram and attending an exhibition opening. The participants in the second residency swap later that autumn were Eva Giolo and Pauline Miko(Brussels, Belgium) and Katariina Guthwert (Helsinki, Finland).
At the turn of the 2017/2018 year, the first exchange between Finland and Japan took place, sending the design duo ‘Saana ja Olli’, also known as Saana Sipilä and Olli Sallinen (Turku, Finland), and Yuna Yoshida (Kanasawa, Japan) on an exchange. The residency swappers were even able to spend time together in Turku before Saana and Olli’s departure to Japan, where Yuna’s cat awaited them.
ARS in 2018:
Although we are starting the new year on opposite ends of the world – I am currently living in Stockholm and Timo in Tokyo – it has not slowed down the development of the project. The success of the pilot phase has given us and future users the assurance that residency programmes like ARS are needed and that they work. In the spring there will be one more pilot swap between Sweden and Finland where we will be testing the functionality of the new website. In February, we will launch the website and it will be open to all users.
It will be a new year full of challenges, but I believe that it will bring adventures and new friends all over the world. We will definitely learn a lot more with ARS and hopefully others will too!
Have a wonderful and successful 2018!