PVA - LabCulture

Dominic Thomas has spent the last six months travelling around Europe in a VW camper with his family. Here he describes his experiences as the journey nears its end. His web site is at www.mundusloci.org

What motivated you to plan mundusloci?

A number of different factors came together in the development the project. I think the original motivation to do a major trip came from my partner, Gerry and her itchy feet. It was, in the first place, a family decision to radically, if temporarily, change our situation. Not so much a case of having to escape, but more about it being possible and having the will to do it. Although our resources where/are pretty limited we are both self employed - living on a pretty low income but not tied to a permanent or even part time employment. We are in the lucky position of owning our home which when let at a market rent gave us a small monthly income. This, along with some savings, made the trip possible. It was also a kind of now or never situation as far as our children were concerned. Finn who is nine and Milo five, were both in school but we were not (unlike current obsessions) so concerned with training them to past tests and felt confident that they could do just as well, if not better, in the ‘primary school of life’ as it were.

For some time my work has involved travel either directly or indirectly and ideas of location are central to my practice. So it was an obvious step for me to look at this life decision in terms of an art project. Like most artists, my practice has to compete with various other money making jobs and responsibilities. I had been heavily involved in co-ordinating and curating the artistic programme at Re.projects and I felt I needed to spend some time concentrating on my own work. I had been investigating the possibilities of international residencies, but I kept coming up against the same problem. None of the organisations I found could cope with an artist with a family. They all seemed to be based on the romantic model of the artist as lone creator who only has himself and his work to consider. It became clear that I would have to invent my own kind of residency. This false idea of the artist as outside real life was also behind my desire to include my family in the presentation of the project, particularly through the web site.

Before Mundusloci I had been involved in a number of international projects both as an individual artist and as a the co-ordinator and curator working with Re.projects. I knew the benefits of international collaboration especially when one lives and works, as I do, in an artistic backwater. So the idea of developing new contacts with artists and organisations in new places and opening up possibilities for my own work and for future collaborations was another motivating factor behind mundusloci.

How did you test your ideas and concepts?

I think the only real way of testing ideas is through practice and presentation. There is the natural process of testing ideas through dialogue with colleagues and friends, not to mention family. I also presented the project to a number of organisations I hoped would support or collaborate with the project. I was short-listed for an Arts Council SW award but failed to get it. I think they balked at the ambiguous nature of my work. I had positive noises from a couple of galleries and of course PVA made an invaluable contribution with a equipment grant and continuing support.

Given the time scale of mundusloci, how have you tailored your approach and decided your priorities?

Where I went wrong was to imagine that a six month lead-in and a six month project would give me plenty of time to do all I wanted.

I have been working to a number of different agendas. Some things had been set up beforehand like taking part in the 25hrs video festival in Barcelona and spending time at Farrera, in the Pyrenees. I also had other deadlines to meet along the way, like producing a work commissioned by the Pineapple in Malmo. So some priorities were predetermined to some extent. And of course getting the web site up and running was important so we could keep some kind of communication going. But I also wanted to leave things open enough to allow ideas to develop out of the activity of travelling and being in different locations.

To what extreme would you go to make new work?

Leaving the country for six months seemed quite extreme to some, but it’s not really.

Do you support yourself wholly from your practice as an artist?

Ha! No. Although I do get commissions and occasional paid exhibitions I have to supplement this with whatever other work I can get. Quite a lot of the work I have been doing in recent years has been art related, as in working at Re.projects and Stroud Valleys Artspace - it has always been easier to get paid as an administrator than as an artist! But I now view the co-ordinating and curating work as part of my practice and I think it does bring a different perspective to my own work. Besides this I still find myself doing all sorts of other temporary work to raise cash. In the last year before leaving the country I have been a roofer, tensile membrane structure erector and a web designer. While travelling I have also been carrying out some research for the organisers of a arts conference planned for next year.

What's your favourite breakfast?

Strong black coffee, fresh fruit - melon, peach, fresh figs - with yogurt and honey (The availability of above items in S. Europe was in fact main motivation for project).

How have you balanced working as an artist with caring for your children on this trip? Do you see any distinction?

Some things just have to be done. Which is why I haven't finished anything yet! There is always a balancing act to be done, wherever you are. And I do still see a distinction. My life and my art are not that perfectly intertwined! But it’s not just childcare as such, it’s the whole thing of travelling as a family. It takes up so much time - like moving house every week or two. It’s not just time spent on the road, which takes time, but the finding a place to stay, setting up your home, feeding everyone, finding the food, communicating in a language you don’t understand. And when you have recovered from that you can think about doing some work - after locating a reliable internet connection, sourcing the materials you need, finding the right location for filming or whatever.....

What is your worst technical nightmare?

Making art with computers. Or maybe being stuck in a beautiful mountain village with a new mac lap top with un-configured e-mail and a dodgy Spanish dial up connection from an old PC whilst trying to get a major new web project up and running.

PVA has supported many artists in recent years and much of the work is experimental. Is mundusloci experimental? What will be the finished, 'curated' approach?

Well, I’ve never done a project that involved spending six months travelling around Southern Europe before. Yes, I think it is experimental in terms of my own practice. I make no claims to it being a ground breaking concept or anything but I am definitely working in ways and with issues and technology that I have not worked with before. At this time the project is constantly developing - within the restrictions that I find myself up against - it is all work in progress. and although I put a lot of store in the art of process, there is often not a lot to show for it while that process continues. I think things will continue to develop when the travelling is over and there will be the opportunity to produce work that will be more ‘finished’ and to present the ‘curated’ project. I hope to have the opportunity to present some kind of ‘result’s in a gallery context next year.

How have you maintained contact and kept dialogue flowing with your audience and 'host' organisations?

Hmmm, bit of sore point that. E-mail and the web site were the favoured channels of communication but it has been a continuing problem - more of a series of fractured monologues than a dialogue. We have been able to get access to web mail practically everywhere but at times it has meant a three-day search for the internet cafe or a 3 hour commute by bus to check your empty mail box... Had I had the budget to kit out a high tech van with satellite links and all it would have been a different story. But then the fallibility of technology and communication is one of my themes, so....

Is mundusloci a good model for artist-led initiatives networking internationally and why/why not?

No, much as I wish it could be. I made far more international contacts at home in my office via the web and with easy and convenient e-mail connection. It has proved notoriously difficult to track down interesting artists on the ground. I did make this job harder for myself by avoiding main urban centres where artists tend to congregate, but even in the cities it can be very hard finding information about independent artists networks through any of the usual channels. Having said this I have made one or two excellent contacts that I hope will develop into continued collaborations of one kind or another.

Define three, essential qualities with regard to your development as an artist that mundusloci has brought to light.

1. I actually rather prefer working to a deadline. 2. There will never be enough time. And 3. I’d rather go swimming than sit staring at a computer screen....13. Do you ever feel you are working in isolation, from the 'real world', how did you resolve any problems - what mechanisms were put in place to ensure things ran smoothly for everyone?

I find my problem is not being able to get away from the ‘Real’ world. If fact, mundusloci aside, I try to keep in contact with the real world - I use that phrase advisedly - as much as possible. It is one of the advantages of living in an artistic backwater - and having to work in other fields - you can not sink completely in the art world swamp. Part of the idea behind mundusloci was to put myself in a position of working in some different real worlds. And making contact with other artists and organisations is a good way to avoid isolation. But having said that travelling brings its own kind of isolation. There is the isolation of having no firm connection with a place, of not having time to create connections. We have also been in the strange position of not quite fitting in with other mobile communities. We obviously most resemble the family on holiday but although it has indeed felt like a holiday quite often I have had other agendas. The whole notion of travel is a hard one to pin down. As far as putting mechanisms in place I think we have basically just make it up as we go along. It is an experimental project you see.

What has this experience brought to your work as an artist? And to you and your family?

I kind of find it hard to say at this stage what it has bought to me and my work. I think I will need to gain some distance from the process before I can assess these things properly. It has certainly been an interesting experience from a family perspective. We have learned how adaptable our kids can be. We are also now sure of the absolute futility (for us) of attempting home education. I don’t think anyone regrets taking the decision to do it.

How, after this road trip so far, would you describe or define your practice?

Defining my practice has always been something I have had difficulty with. I hate that question "so what do you do?". It seems a pointless exercise trying to name a category that my work might fit in to, although I’m sure there is one described in some thesis somewhere. But as I was saying earlier, the process of developing ideas has always been important to me, being there is often half the work, or there may be no ’finished product’. The ‘results’ of the process may be a video, an installation or a web site, but it could rarely be described as documentation. I see these ‘finished’ works as points in the process not end results. Material my be reused in new work -years later sometimes. But the process it self is often invisible to the audience, maybe only alluded to in written texts accompanying works. It is this difficult line between art and life I guess. The line between ones experience of life, as an artist (a normal person, that is) and the attempt to communicate those experiences, ideas, doubts through this weird medium called art.

Can you write 'hello, good-bye, be seeing you' in the language of each place you have visited?

Si, si, oui, si, da, da.
Hola, hola, bonjour, ciao, bog, zivjo
Adios, adue, au revoir, ciao, do vidjenja, nasvidenje.
Or as my computer spellcheck might have it.
Is, sin, our, sir, dad, Dom.
Holier, hole, Bangor, Cairo, bog, Ziv
Adios, ado, au revere, Cairo, do ?, ?
but of course everyone understands English!
What is the worst and the best thing anyone has ever said about your work?
Oh, that’s nice.

What is the piece of work you most revere (not your own!)?

Maybe James Turrell’s Rodan volcano in Arizona. Because of its/his outrageous ambition and sense of scale in both space and time even though you have to admit to a certain distaste for its American imperialist undertones. Incidentally my last big piece of work in England was a shanty town garden shed built out of the wreckage of Turrell’s Cornish Sky Chamber.

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