IIt’s a bright summer Saturday in the old Cornish mining town of Redruth. White clouds sweep picturesquely over Carn Brea, the hilltop monument that towers over the city, but Liam Jolly has no time to admire the view.
“It’s manic!” says the artist as he ducks into the darkness of the auction house, his tiny, ramshackle gallery just off Main Street. Inside, it’s buzzing with activity. Amplifiers and mixers are stacked against the walls. Gallery visitors with headphones shake their heads. Projections dance across the walls showing distorted fractals, psychedelic Cornish landscapes and street signs that have taken on a lively life of their own. Ambient beepers and drones drift onto the street, prompting shoppers to stop. Confused, they peer inside to determine the source of the noise.
“You don’t normally see something like that in Redruth on a Saturday,” laughs Jolly. “Most people are just shopping. But it’s such an exciting thing for the city, especially for young artists showing their work for the first time. And all thanks to Mark. It would never have happened without him.”
The Mark is Mark Leckey, the Turner Prize-winning artist best known for his video work, from 1999’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore to O’Magic Power of Bleakness, 20 years later at Tate Britain. Throughout June, Leckey has been working with 10 young people taking part in his Music & Video Lab, a month-long program developed in partnership with West Cornwall auction house and arts organization Cast and funded with £15,000 by Arts Council England.
It’s the realization of a long-cherished goal for Leckey: to start his own art school, offering opportunities to young people locked out of mainstream institutions by the prohibitive cost of living and sky-high tuition fees. “Unless you’re middle class,” he says, “art school is still seen as something you can’t get to. I came out of art school thinking I wasn’t intellectually equipped to be an artist. I felt I lacked knowledge and intellectual reasoning – just lacking. I’m not entirely sure I’m over it now. I’ve always thought that there must be other ways to learn artists than art school. That’s what the Lab is about.”
Following an open call for applications, the students were selected from locations across Cornwall, with a focus on “young people who would not normally even consider the idea of an arts college”. Throughout June they worked three days a week with Leckey, Jolly and producer Stuart Blackmore, experimenting with video software and editing tools to create work, with guest speaking from artists such as Gazelle Twin, Lee Gamble and Patten.
“We deliberately didn’t mention art,” says Leckey. “We talked about it being a music and video course. The biggest obstacle to creativity is feeling like it’s not for you. We’ve tried to avoid criticism and encourage them to be as free as possible to create.”
The fact that the project took place in Redruth is of particular importance. Once one of Cornwall’s wealthiest towns, thanks to the mining boom of the 18th and 19th centuries, the area of Redruth is now one of the most deprived in the county, worlds away from the sanitized vision of Cornwall immortalized by fluffy TV shows and glossy property brochures becomes.
“Visually and symbolically, it seemed like the right place for it,” says Teresa Gleadowe, Chair of Cast and a driving force behind the project. “Young people in Cornwall are quite isolated, but Redruth is a good meeting place. Part of that was just putting them in a room together and letting artists like Mark and Liam take the lead. To me, the strength of the project is that Mark doesn’t come across as a teacher: he’s just someone talking about why he’s doing work, what it’s good for, how it makes you feel. That is very inspiring.”
The lab’s success has inspired the team to consider future plans, perhaps further workshops in London, Manchester or Liverpool. Leckey will also feature music from the lab on his weekly radio show on NTS. “I was hoping for something incredible and new,” says Leckey. “That was the dream. And that is absolutely true. I would like to do it again.”
It was a life-changing process for the students. Among them is Kittie Smith, a 21-year-old singer-songwriter from Helston. After dropping out of music studies in Brighton due to rising costs and the demands of caring for three young children, she was able to reconnect with her songwriting and rediscover the confidence to perform.
“Working with Mark and Liam,” Smith says, “has given me the freedom to be who I am without fear of someone telling me I’m not good enough, which is something I constantly hear in music school.” have. Everyone was supportive: we were all just Cornish kids trying to do something creative. The education system neglects this. Creativity cannot be graded, it is all subjective. No one can create what you create.”