It’s that time of year again. The crowded summer is definitely over and the year is slowly winding down. The leaves are just at the turn of colour – give it another fortnight or so and those golds and reds will be in their prime. Already the sun is lower giving longer shadows and bringing shape and texture back to the fells. There’s an overall warmth to the light bathing everything in a cosy glow while the evening air is filled with the first of the log fires.
While there’s still a bit of warmth around and a good full day’s daylight it’s my favourite time of year – the landscape is at its best around now.
Back in 2004 this was also the time a bunch of us like-minded artists decided to shake up art in our rural corner of England.
Art in Cumbria at the time was dominated by the tourist landscape painting market. There were very few opportunities for artists to show their work outside the souvenir gallery scene. A few years previous a series of open studio events had started which began to open up the market a little. However, the open studio model only works for a distinct portion of artists – namely those who made work to sell clearly. Those who only worked to commission or outside of the commercial realm were still invisible to most people. Yet Cumbria – and the Lake District in particular – had a huge potential audience – in tourism terms second only to London in the UK. Clearly we were missing a trick.
The solution as we saw it was FRED – a 10-day ‘Art Invasion’ where artists created work outside the gallery environment and brought it into the path of everyday life.
It was an idea which turned into a vision which gathered pace and became something that just had to happen. So it did.
The first year was done on an absolute shoestring budget. I still wonder how on earth we managed to do anything at all that first year, but we did. With no sensible budget we encouraged artists to realise projects they always wanted to do but for whatever reason had never got round to doing. By getting enough artists to do those little projects at the same time we would generate a critical mass where the sum of all that activity became a much bigger thing. Well, that was the idea. To hold it all together we needed a brand and visual identity. We wanted this to look and feel like an artist uprising. For that it was important that every detail was regarded as a work of art.We managed to persuade David Haldane – a cartoonist for The Times – to come up with a branding which would be an artwork in itself. This idea that FRED was art everywhere – a bit like the ‘Humphrey’ milk marketing campaign in the ’70’s. Davids FRED cartoons became postcards and stickers and spray-painted roadside placards.
We also managed to secure the unused advertising space on the back of car park tickets right across the main tourist spots in the Lake District. Adele Prince was commissioned to create a series of artworks which turned car park stickers into artworks – not advertising. It was all very low-fi and more than a little anarchic. But something happened.
On the very first day the BBC news picked up the story of the parking ticket artworks and the ‘outdoor art festival in the Lake District’ and ran it on the half-hourly news slot on the ‘Today’ programme on radio 4. Probably the biggest radio audience in the UK. By the end of the day every BBC radio station in the country had phoned me up, followed by regional TV and a couple of national newspapers. It even made the front page of the local newspaper. This might not seem a big thing, but art NEVER featured on the cover of the Herald, let alone crazy contemporary art.
Around 40 artist – some alone, some as groups – created temporary projects all over the county – from park benches to railway stations, dry stone walls to shops. We even had piece in the tiger’s enclosure at the zoo.
The media coverage alone far outweighed anything that had ever happened art-wise in Cumbria before. Bigger than most stuff outside London even.
The Arts Council were a bit embarrassed at its success having turned it down for funding and so suggested doing a book on it to get their logo somewhere.
Over the next couple of years the festival grew in size and ambition. In 2005 the marketing work of art was done by Graham Rawle who at the time had a regular slot on the Guardian with his Lost Consonants series
Following on from the success of the car park tickets we wanted someone to do something on the back of till-roll receipts at the service station on the M6. A couple of probably quite cheeky emails enlisted fellow rural-based artist Jenny Holzer to create a coupe of new works. The new versions of Truisms and Survival Series as ‘For Cumbria’ appeared on the back of over half a million receipts over the 16 day festival and helped attract more serious arts coverage in the national press.
Whilst the ambition and profile of the festival grew year on year, the budgets didn’t really. The marketing commissions remained the only paid commissions. All the other projects were only paid travel, accommodation and materials expenses. As such they weren’t commissions and the artists consequently had complete artistic control. Despite that each year we waded through up to 500 proposals from all around the world and whittled it down to just 30 or so projects.
On top of expenses covered we also provided the artists with project management, marketing skills training and got them the audience and exposure many public funded galleries only dream about.
The whole event was one big learning experience for everyone involved. An annual contemporary art event like this had not been done before so we had no one to learn from except ourselves. Over the years we developed and refined the programme always looking to see what worked best and what failed completely. What worked best year on year was being able to take risks and exploiting the untapped potential of the rural environment.
Scale was one of the biggest assets. We could do things that even the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern would struggle to cope with. Engaging with the landscape was more than just about the visual presence. The experience of landscape was just as powerful. For some of the really remote pieces that journey to get to them was all part of it.
The complete lack of light pollution preempted the ‘Dark Skies’ projects and illuminated artworks took on a whole new level of engagement with their surroundings.
However, we never tired of the opportunity to take risks. The very human connection you get working in small, often isolated communities, meant it was easy to find like-minded souls who welcomed and even encouraged real subversiveness and damn right cheek most art institutions would never get away with.
FRED was more than just about spectacle or art in beautiful landscapes. It was also about local issues and connecting with the people who live there. The real rural issues overlooked by the urban media and politics – public transport (or lack of), disappearing petrol stations and libraries, Eastern European wagon drivers, the decline of upland farming. FRED wasn’t just about tourism, at its heart was engaging and speaking alongside rural communities. This wasn’t about trying to replicate an urban notion of contemporary art. It was about finding a rural voice – doing something that simply cannot be done in any city anywhere. It was about being rural and proud of it.
FRED’s strength came from looking outward rather than within. Projects weren’t restricted to the geographical boundaries of Cumbria. There were plenty in all the neighbouring counties and even one running in Bavaria one year. So many rural initiatives suffer from being too parochial. Less than a quarter of the artists came from the county. By the final year there were more proposals from overseas than from NW England. I guess to an overseas artist the draw of travelling abroad and creating a piece in stunning landscapes and having all your expenses covered is quite strong. Rural issues are similar around the world also, and the ability to voice them anywhere is rare. But that mix of the local and international often ended up strengthening everyone’s work.
Doing an event working with up to 80 artists in maybe 60 locations over 2,600 sq. miles, every year is a huge undertaking. I certainly didn’t do it single-handed. There was a team of 5 or 6 dedicated artists every year working ceaselessly for what little crumbs we had to spare. All doing their bit and without who it would never have happened. But the funding was never right. In five years of bringing in thousands of people contributing hundreds of thousands to the local economy each year on top of developing the contemporary art environment in Cumbria, we never received a single penny from the County Council. Only in the final year did any of the local councils contribute more than £100. Raising the money was a year round job – each festival took 18 months to fund, plan and organise. The lack of enough money meant I was also creating all the print design, building websites documenting half the works and reinvesting my own money just keeping the thing afloat.
After five non-stop years it was decided to call it a day and quit while we were still on top. Initially the excitement and momentum kept me going, but after all those years it left me physically, mentally and financially broken. FRED finally finished in October 2008.
FRED was a product of its time – the right people in the right place with the same idea. It happened but there’s no going back. I doubt anything like it will happen again in the same place. Behind the scenes it ended up in such a messy way I’ve deliberately avoided looking back at it for years. However, wherever I go people still speak highly of it – both local people who remember the mad things that happened in their village and rural communities around the world in awe of its energy and ambition.
Over the past few months I’ve finally come round to being able to look back on it and see all the things it done. It may not have generated any Turner Prize winning art – it was far too anti-establishment for that – and it was always a bit ragged around the edges. But it was raw and real.
And that glorious early autumnal light made it just look amazing.
P.S. There’s a rough archive of all five years of FRED online here: www.fredsblog.co.uk