a cylindrical wall drawing robot about the size of the span of your hand hangs on a wall having just drawn seven faces

Lyn Gardner – A Portrait Without Borders

Profile picture of Lyn Gardner

Lyn Gardner on A Portrait Without Borders, which premiers in Hull’s Freedom Festival September 2020.

The handprints found on cave walls in Spain and Indonesia are estimated to be around 40,000 years old. These earliest known artworks speak to us across the centuries, reminding of the human urge to make our mark and leave something behind. To say “we were here”.

Kaleider’s A Portrait Without Borders, which arrived in Hull this week as part of Hull’s Freedom Festival, the annual boundary-busting, cross-artform event which this year is taking art and provocation directly into people’s homes across the world, offers a similar opportunity to leave our own small trace on the world. It arrives at a time when social distancing keeps us apart and has upended the idea of community and shared public space.

Wide-angled photo of a deserted auditorium. empty red seats face a stage with white walls where wall drawing machines draw portraits of the public

Photograph: Tom Arran

Physically located in the UK on Hull Truck’s empty stage in an empty auditorium but conceived as a global act of participation and solidarity, A Portrait Without Borders invites members of the public to take selfies and submit them via a website. The selfies are then drawn by robots on the empty walls of the theatre creating giant murals bringing together strangers from across the world. At a distance. The public are able to watch the robots drawing via a live stream, and those who submit selfies are sent a copy of their robot portrait to print at home. A reminder that they were part of something bigger; that they did indeed leave their mark.

Led by Seth Honnor, Kaleider has always been small, agile, networked and responsive. It creates projects that do not fit into any art-form box, which are almost always participatory, and are startling in the way they make us engage with the world and interrogate our own responses to it.

In The Money, which played in Hull’s Guildhall last year, the participants have to decide under time pressure how to spend a pot of money. Unless there is unanimous agreement the pot rolls over to the next night and next group of people. The result is fascinating– full of reflection, angst and high drama–as the piece becomes an active demonstration of negotiated power, and the processes of decision making and working together.

Two police officers, one holding a large gun, look sideways at a large transparent pig. A boy watches on.

Pig in Marseille, France Photo: Didier Verdureau

Another on-going project, Pig, previously seen at Hull’s Freedom Festival, where it created quite a stir, is a provocation in outdoor public space and takes the form of a giant plastic hog with money visible inside. An LED message tells us it is a community fund. The public are invited to contribute to the fund and/or open and spend or distribute the money as they see fit. Like The Money, it puts its faith in the individual and community to come to a decision, to self-organise and think about who is part of the community, who isn’t, and who does and doesn’t police them.

One of the things that defines these projects is that they test the assumptions we make about human behaviours, and the way the world works. They challenge the existing structures and make us look at things a little a differently. They always implicate the audience while holding them in a place of safety. Honnor talks about the work being “sticky”, it adheres to the audience in different ways. Even those who shrugged and walked away from Pig may have found themselves talking about it that evening over the washing up. It sets up an itch.

These are projects that are themselves different, and if that means they sometimes find it difficult to get traction with funders until those funders have had a chance to experience them for themselves, perhaps Kaleider’s moment has come under lockdown and its aftermath because we are all experiencing a different way of living.

A Portrait Without Borders was originally conceived as a street artwork called Robot Selfie in which the robot could draw everyone or be programmed to select individuals to draw on the basis of different characteristics, perhaps gender or age or skin colour. Something that of course AI does every day in our surveillance society where in cities people have their photograph taken hundreds of times a day without even realising it is happening. Pass through an airport and you are profiled and like all profiling it has inherent biases.

An artist impression of people looking up at the side of a building in a public space, where a wall drawing robot draws their portraits on the outside of the building.

Artist impression of Robot Selfie

Robot Selfie will indeed manifest in street settings when the pandemic is over, and as Honnor says, it has an inbuilt politics that can be dialled up or down. But in its current manifestation A Portrait speaks to a sense of community and solidarity at a time when people are being kept apart. The mural comprising portraits of the living are a form of celebration, but one that is ghosted by the galleries of the dead that have been seen on the front pages of newspapers during the pandemic. It highlights the vast difference between emptiness and absence.

The portraits will exist on the walls of building that the pandemic has made off-limits. Technology will make them visible in the same way it has kept us connected during lockdown. But Portrait also raises questions about public space and publicly funded spaces such as theatres, how it is accessed, who owns it, who can go there and feels comfortable there, who can leave their mark there. It speaks to all sorts of issues around accessibility and diversity and who our cultural spaces serve and what and who they are for.

In placing those whose images have been drawn by the robot together in silence in an empty building, Portrait reminds that while how we might have experienced the pandemic will be very different, depending on circumstance, that we have lived through something and experienced it together. It is a marker.

Lots of drawn faces and a robotic wall drawing machine drawing them.

You can take part in A Portrait Without Borders in Hull by going to portratiwithoutborders.com/hull

Portrait is in Hull until Sunday 6th September 2020, after which it will move on to Northern Stage in Newcastle.

A new home for Kaleider

In March 2019 Kaleider will launch Kaleider Studios, a new home for us and our Resident community to make our work in.

In January 2016 Kaleider launched a “studio”. It was a humble space. We took on the floor above our small office in central Exeter. When I say floor, it was one room, albeit a fairly big one, that had been used by one person as an office. We stripped it out, painted Kaleider on the wall in a C4 ident homage, made some massive tables and called it a studio.

We had already started inviting artists, academics and scientists from the Met Office to share our space with us in the belief that if we huddled we’d build some relationships and ultimately things would happen that we couldn’t have foreseen. We also wanted to use whatever we had in our gift to support those with energy and ambition beyond their means to do something meaningful in the world. From January 2016 we built a community of Residents who have become the core of our global network from which we draw strength, solidarity, inspiration, friendship, knowledge and collaboration in spades.

Kaleider’s old studio

Fast forward to 2017 and we realised that, if the level of activity that we were planning came off, we were going to need a bigger space. And our studio at Bathurst House was up a flight of stairs with no lift. We were determined to have a more accessible home into which we could invite anybody, whatever their accessibility requirements.

We had a look into a couple of spaces. We had noticed that since the esteemed visual art organisation Spacex had moved out of 45 Preston Street the ground floor had been rented out adhoc, and we wondered if a longer term rent of that downstairs space would work for us.

We met the four landlords who had been holding the space in trust for Spacex for many years, and now that the gallery had closed down were keen to talk to us. We asked what the availability of the downstairs was – they offered us the whole building. It was a much bigger project than we had imagined we would take on, but over the next twelve months, and in close conversation with them and our board, we worked through how that could happen.

Ground Floor, 45 Preston Street

Many people will have visited Spacex over the years, as a contemporary art gallery. Few will have seen the upper two floors. They have been rough studios for artists for many years and have been a quiet home to many of Exeter’s established visual artists in that time. As such the fabric of the building has had little investment in it for a very long time, no investment at all on the upper floors.

In order to take it on and make the upper floors usable we had to make the building safe. In order to refurbish, even in a modest way, we had to ask for vacant possession of the building. It is an uncomfortable truth that this meant asking artists to leave their studios, which they agreed to with great dignity. And we recognise that the cost of a new direction for this building is not without pain for some, for which I apologise.

So the negotiations have been complex. To give you some idea of the state of the building, in August 2018 the upper two floors were designated “derelict”. This in turn meant we couldn’t take out a lease on the building. So our lawyers worked together to secure a license whilst we carry out the necessary building work to make the building safe. Once the building has passed its relevant inspections we will take out a lease.

First floor

I can only begin to describe the amount of time and energy put in on all sides, particularly by Kaleider’s General Manager, Peter Vanderford, and Stuart Robb from our Board. Our staff team has had to move around temporary office spaces, since leaving Bathurst House, too. And all this whilst internationally touring 3 works and kicking off SWCTN. University of Exeter’s Drama department were super-kind and gave us a home over the summer, where we were able to continue to offer our residents some space too. And Stuart is generously hosting us at 1 Barnfield Crescent until January.

So what’s our vision for this building?

Whilst being mindful that it’s all too easy for buildings to become the thing, we recognise that this building is an important cultural asset to Exeter and is a wonderful opportunity for Kaleider. It is undoubtedly a beautiful building.

Spacex had a long and prestigious life and we will endeavour to honour its integrity in all we do. But we will not open 45 Preston Street as a gallery space. Kaleider Studios, as the building will be called, will be a space of collaboration and support for Kaleider to make alongside the network of which it is part and takes a responsibility to nurture.

The ground floor will be a collaboration space.

To the left, as you enter the building, will be a co-work space, where Kaleider and our Resident community will work day to day.

We will reinstate the windows at the back of this space to make a well-lit collaboration space.

To the right will be a welcome space, and a small room in the basement will act as a meeting room and quiet working space. We will also use the basement for some storage.

To the back of the building, in a glass roofed area, we plan to build a DIY café for the Residents and visitors – a space where people can meet, talk, drink tea and coffee, and eat together.

What was the main gallery space will gain huge wooden shutters and will be used for big makes, and to rent out as events space. The possibilities for this space are really exciting, but we are holding those possibilities open as wide as we can for as long as we can. We – or more likely others, will be able to use this space at weekends and evenings too.

The idea is that the café and the events space can be rented out as conferencing/workshop space, whilst not disrupting the studio community too much.

There is a tiny outdoor space. Our Residents have already cleared it and we have grand plans for a tardis like garden and outdoor meeting space (It’s tiny, but it’s fresh air!)

The First Floor

We have opened up the central corridor on the first floor to give access to four studios and make space for a small kitchenette at one end and a light meeting space at the other. A new start-up film company, grown out of our Resident community, Preston Street Films, will take two studios. Whilst on the other side of the building Kaleider will retain two studios, one for meetings, co-working and renting out for others to meet, and one as a making space. We have no investment for the making space yet, but we’re super-excited to grow our fabrication capacity, albeit in a modest way to start with.

We have reinstated the central corridors on both the first and second floors

We are installing toilets on the first floor, and with our hearts full of hope for the investment needed for a lift in future years, one will be an accessible toilet, albeit, for the time being, up a flight of stairs.

On the top floor

We are making four studios and a meeting room.

On the second floor we will have a meeting room and four studios.

These we plan to rent out commercially. There is already quite a bit of interest in these four studios, and it’s our hope that we will be able to curate the occupancies of these studios so that they compliment the Kaleider Network. As with all builds, especially ones in very old buildings, two thirds of the work is known, and the other third just pops up, with inevitable surprise.

We had hoped to have finished the building work by mid-December, but, although we’re aiming for some of the building to be useable for the core team by January, we imagine we will be fully up and running by mid March. So we’re planning a house warming, which we’re tentatively calling Mikro Fest – a celebration of the Kaleider community, the things we all make, and our new home at Kaleider Studios. It will be on 15th and 16th of March, so pop it in your diaries and that’ll put an appropriate amount of pressure on us to get across the line by then!

If you want to read more about Kaleider then you can download our plan for the coming years here.
To contact us please drop us a line here.