Don’t be intimidated by Blackwater Polytechnic‘s ominous name. The British artist collective and alternative art school has a very benevolent goal: To nurture and promote the work of artists and artisans based in Essex. To that end, the group will be showcasing members’ works at Brooklyn’s Theodore Art, along with Seattle’s Season gallery, as part of this week’s Exchange Rates expo in Bushwick. (For the record, the name “Blackwater” comes from the creek that runs through the group’s rural property, not the defense contractor now known as Academi.)
Ben Coode-Adams, the co-founder (with Freddie Robins) of Blackwater Polytechnic, took a break from installing to answer some questions about the exhibition — which will feature his own works alongside pieces by Robins, Paula Kane, Simon Emery, Justin Knopp, and Sara Impey — what appealed to the group about participating in Exchange Rates, and what distinguishes Essex artists from their counterparts in London.
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Benjamin Sutton: For those who are unfamiliar with Blackwater Polytechnic, how would you sum up the project?
Ben Coode-Adams: The Polytechnic began when Freddie Robins and I started converting a barn to live in. It is on the family blackcurrant farm in beautiful North Essex. Construction remains at the heart of our work. During the building process it transpired that our approach was quite novel compared with how building contractors work. We used extreme craft skill combined with an ad hoc expediency, taking ourselves way beyond normal although we have come to think of this as normal. Artists who have gravitated to the Polytechnic share that rigorous high level of skill. There is an oscillation in their work between seeing the craft and the artists being so fluent in their medium that it becomes invisible.
BS: What will the group be presenting at Exchange Rates, and how did the expo’s themes of exchange, currency, and conversion influence your selections?
BCA: Laying the show out yesterday I was reminded that all our artists work in what might be considered sub-genres of artistic practice. So we have knitting, letterpress, embroidery, car body spraying, painting, and watercolor. We’ve always just butted this work together without really thinking too much about it. It seems natural to us. Each artist is well known in their own field and showing them in a fine art gallery context outside their usual worlds brings a whole new dimension to the work that I really like, something to do with texture and surface. It catalyzes an exciting set of contrasts like the best curry you have ever had. Showing with Season and Therodore Art seems to just compound that. There are great and profound conversations going on. It’s a rich, tasty show.
I feel like the three galleries coming together, indeed Exchange Rates as whole, is like a nomadic exotic caravanserai: You go hoping to come away with more than you brought and maybe some magic beans.
BS: Blackwater Polytechnic is predicated on highlighting the work of local artists around your home base in Essex; have you found this to be an increasingly common stance in the art world, or do you think that the “bland internationalism” you deplore on your website continues to dominate?
BCA: I think bland internationalism will continue to dominate. Don’t get me wrong, though. I like a good deal of that work. It’s often very good. It tends to be curator- and institution- and, dare I say, text-driven. I like artist-led. I like bottom-up. I like visual things rather than written. My feeling is that I want to go to a place and see something I wouldn’t see anywhere else. In music, different cities have different sounds. Why not in art? At least in the UK, I don’t think a love of the local is becoming common.
BS: In many ways it seems that Essex and Bushwick have similar histories as far as being longtime centers for artisans and artists; is that something that attracted you to participating in Exchange Rates?
BCA: I love the thing that Exchange Rates will do, which is create a cauldron for the magic to happen. There is definitely an affinity between our corner of Essex and Bushwick in terms of an interest in crafted, athletic art, which is absent from say London, where, to bluntly, unfairly, and wrongheadedly caricature, artists spend a lot of time lumpenly illustrating theory. Hey, that’s what it looks like from here! All your exhibitions are books! I’m teasing … a bit.
Blackwater Polytechnic will be showing at Theordore Art (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) October 23–26 during Exchange Rates, of which Hyperallergic is a media sponsor.