by Charlotte Russell
"By forming collectives, artists are kind of creating their own autonomy."
Formed from a mixture of art school graduates and local artists, ZEST Collective have taken up studio space in Southampton’s Old Northam Road - a once thriving street that housed Southampton’s antiques quarter, which in its heyday was even compared to London’s Portobello Road.
The introduction of an unwelcome bypass in the 80s saw this creative quarter disintegrate - foreshadowing the slow demise of our country’s cultural climate at the hands of governmental disinterest.
The city of Southampton perhaps isn’t best known as a regional artistic hub due to negative perceptions that perhaps could often be put down to bad press. "It's less [that] there’s not stuff going on and more of a PR or marketing problem," says ZEST member Ellen Gillett.
Listing the many burgeoning creative endeavours that the city has to offer, Ellen reminds us that Southampton’s absence of cultural recognition is also the obvious product of ‘a lack of funding’.
ZEST’s recent collaborative work, Signs of the Times was a direct response to the Old Northam Road’s rich cultural past. Working with their local community, this project intended to recreate the signs that once would have been seen on this road, whilst slipping in and out of the meaning of the word ‘sign’ to include a body of work made by both artists and the local youth.
In turn, Sign of the Times, rejected the often unwelcoming nature of the white cube; displaying art in a democratic setting: "We're making art with the community, for the community, in the community, [that’s] actually displayed in the community as well."
As artists are caught between vying for institutional recognition or applying for highly competitive Arts Council bids (where there is currently only a 30% success rate) collectives are providing a crash mat for those who may not have support from either the institution or other forms of funding.
ZEST exists as a place for artists to come together, to motivate each other, to work either independently or collaboratively whilst sharing a common goal, ‘by forming collectives, artists are kind of creating their own autonomy.’
In turn, these artistic communities are providing new spaces for people to create, away from the pressure and constraints of the establishment.
Community engagement appears to be a running theme amongst the art collectives we have featured. The Arts Council have put it at the top of their priorities, often only dishing out grants to projects that directly connect to their local neighbourhood.
Ellen says that the ongoing hangover of austerity has meant "these communities aren't being supported and so in a way away, yeah... [artists have] got to kind of pick up the slack for that." This heightened focus on community engagement in recent times has led to a shift in how artists perform a social role.
Collectives such as ZEST appear to serve an almost utopian function, but can they patch up the holes in our communities that have been left bare by our government’s failings?
It’s a big question to answer, but for one, it appears with the community at the core of these collective’s work, their art is heading in many compassionate, interesting and relevant directions.