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Interview: Gonzo Unit

29 November 12 interview: Tom Norton

Gonzo Unit - a collaboration between Anna Schwanz and Rachel Murray - aimed to bring together artists from Notts and beyond to create and perform new works. Problem was, they didn’t have gallery space - so they got really creative and found space in an unexpected place...

So what's the story behind Gonzo Unit?
Anna: We’re both Nottingham Trent Fine Art graduates, artists and curators, and we've been working in Nottingham and at Surface for the past few years.

Rachel: That’s where we met. We were both exhibitions co-ordinators and for the past couple of years we have been directing and developing the exhibitions programme there.

Anna: I used to work at the old venue a number of years ago when I was a student, but then I moved to London and then Turkey. After a while it felt like the natural thing to reconnect with the art scene in Nottingham. We did a few shows together and realised we have the same kind of outlook and just got more involved working quite closely to shape the programme.

What’s kept you in Notts?
I’m from Northamptonshire and there wasn’t an awful lot going on there. Nottingham just seemed like a good place to stay with what was going on in the arts scene at the time.

Anna: I’m from Nottingham. Over the years I’ve had a bit of a love/hate relationship with it, but I think its normal to feel you need to get away from the place where you grew up, at least for a while. Years ago I felt that Nottingham had a really exciting art scene, with the Angel Row gallery putting on a lot of really great shows, then there was a bit of a lull when that closed, and then Contemporary opened. When I moved back, there was some kind of new energy in Nottingham with all kinds of independent projects running, so it felt like there was a lot going on but a lot of people had moved away, so it was kind of starting again. I went back to Surface Gallery and quickly had a hands-on role in curating exhibitions. It's been hard to leave Surface because it’s like a family and you get so involved: you start one project and you want to see it through, and while that is happening, you get drawn into another new project.

What are you liking about the art scene at the moment?
Anna: There’s a strong arts community and obviously the art schools, with hundreds of new art students every year, also have a big impact in keeping the scene fresh and lively. Things like the British Art Show in Nottingham are really great.

Rachel: There are also exciting independent projects, like NotLost festival, which we were involved in as well that tried to bring together more alternative venues around the city.

How long did it take for you to start thinking about working together?
Anna: At first at Surface we were just getting really involved with developing the programme, but maybe over the past eighteen months we had started to work on other things together.

Rachel: We also both took part in a residency in Mumbai last year, so we got a chance to have a break and think about what we might want to do ourselves. It's after this that we realised we wanted to do something where we could be curators and collaborators.

What’s your artistic manifesto?
Anna: For a while now, I think the pendulum has been swinging in the direction of community based projects, and often the impetus for galleries and funding bodies seems to be audience reach or community participation. Although that’s interesting and important, personally, I wanted to swing it back, to where the starting point is creative expression... to work on something exciting, conceptually challenging, or just fun or experimental.

Is Gonzo Unit about being counter-culture like the name suggests?
Anna: It is to do with rebellion; as Gonzo Journalism is about writing yourself into the dialogue and admitting to being subjective, this is the same. It’s about saying no, we are not impartial observers. We are opinionated and biased, and we are going to express ourselves through what we show and who we work with.

Your current gallery space is a barber shop on Pelham Street. How’s that going?
Anna: That wasn’t originally our intention, but it’s evidence of how artists can adapt. Originally we were looking for a permanent more traditional art space. However, in the interim, we ended up using the space at Twenty-Eight, and its actually a kind of happy accident. Jay Martin - who runs the Twenty-Eight Girls and Boys Barbers - is interested in other creative outlets. I talked to him about what we were doing and how we were looking for space, and he suggested the top floor. Maybe this is the way forward in a time without much money or arts funding; maybe it should be more about inserting art into awkward spaces.

Rachel: We thought, “we’ll just use this for a while” but it’s actually become quite exciting in itself, and developed all these new challenges and pushed us in a new direction.

What do people coming in for a haircut think about all the contemporary art?
Rachel: On our first opening we had some customers and friends of Twenty-Eight’s come down, and they maybe just came down to the party, but we found that they were really engaging with the work, taking photos and tweeting about it. It was strange but cool, seeing the artists respond to the space and make work that seemed to be inspired by hair.

Anna: It isn’t our intention for the exhibitions to be about hair, but so far people appear to have taken that meaning away from it. Our first artist, Leila Al-Yousuf, produced an installation with strands of wool hanging down from the ceiling to the ground. It was not intentionally linked so literally to hair, she was drawing with the material, but once that installation was up, all the hairdressers were saying “oh she’s made loads of hair!” They even pinned it back like hair, so they could work in the space.

Anna: I mean there isn’t a right or wrong way to experience art. I got into art as a child because I was intrigued by things that I saw, moved in some way and driven to just make. I don’t think you should always have to get into a great amount of research to 'get' it. There is something lacking in work for me where you can only experience it on an intellectual level.

Rachel:  I think that was Leila’s most successful work to date because it was totally immersive, even to view the work you had to stand in the middle of it. At the private view it was actually quite funny to see people drinking and having serious art conversations with bits of wool just hanging all over their faces. It was like a magical hair forest.

Does working in these unexpected places give you the luxury to manipulate your audience?
Rachel: Not intentionally, it’s not our aim to manipulate least, not at this stage.

Anna: I think for now there's enough scope running each project on its own merits and we don't want to prescribe our intentions to each artist. I think the restrictions on the space are already enough without us being too prescriptive about the expectations.

How do the artists feel about working in such unusual spaces?
Anna: I have felt a bit awkward about them turning round and saying, “Are you crazy? this space has got barber’s chairs in it!”, but so far the reaction has been excitement about the space and the scope.

Rachel: Sometimes that awkwardness, that thing about it being really different, adds something that can turn things on their head a bit and take you in a different direction. Sometimes having restrictions or constraints can force you to think in a different way and that's quite exciting for an artist.

What’s the big picture going to be?
Anna: For the space at Twenty-Eight, we want to continue working with different practitioners. We’ve already worked with Leila Al-Yousef and Simon Raven, who’s now on a residency at Camden Arts Centre, but we’ve got other established artists like Kashif Nadim Chaudry who we're planning to work with next year, and Rachel Parry, who will be using the space for a residency-like series of experimental new performances in October. We’ve also got a lot of interesting collaborations lined up including one with Pole Palais, a pole dancing centre in New Basford. We’re not going to give too much away but we think there’s a lot of scope for exploring cultural crossovers and fine art and pole dancing is just one of them.

Pole dancing? Go on, tell us more...
You’ll have to wait and see! There’s lots of avenues on that one and we’re still exploring the options. There's potential for us to take on different spaces, both in the city and elsewhere.

Most importantly, why should people be getting enthused about Gonzo Unit?
Anna: Because it's fun and the things that we're showing are a little bit different or experimental... but you know, whatever, I don't want to persuade people to come. Sod 'em!
Actually, I think I worry that art is way too self-indulgent anyway and when we first opened, we did joke that it would be us, Jay and the artists, and that's why it's quite exciting and strange for us that so many people turned up.

Rachel: We're giving artists the opportunity to make new work - you're not going to see this work anywhere else, and it's often very immediate and a departure from what people will see elsewhere.

Gonzo Unit on Facebook

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