Another year, another culture minister triggering blood-curdling battle cries in response to the prickly subject of private donation in the arts. The degree of distance between the experience of an average punter/user of cultural services and the government’s belief in the existence of the lesser-spotted-philanthropist, sighted prowling nearby moorland and worrying sheep, seems as freakishly large as one of those blackboard-scrawled algebraic distances between far-flung stars. Between, we float helplessly amidst the soupy rhetoric, attempting to doggy-paddle toward the realisation of our fevered imaginations.
It was this disconnect between us and them, coupled with the realisation that the times, they are-a-changing and that public and makers both needed to apply CPR to alternative funding routes, that led to the first incarnation of Sketch-O-Matic in 2011. The almost-instant portrait booth mimics its photographic cousins, but where the machinery should be is a tiny, fully equipped artist studio staffed by 50+ artists, illustrators, cartoonists, poets and wordsmiths, celebrating all forms of response with one exception – no caricature. Of that cruel and humiliating dark art, we shall not speak, nor suffer to allow. Back to the beachfront!
You, the public, are invited to sit inside the booth as if for a photograph and make a minimum donation of £1 to an artist through an anonymous slot in return for a self-portrait. Wait five minutes (give or take) and the image will appear. It may be a pencil drawing, doodle, cartoon, collage or even a word-poem. Take it, frame it, consider it. Now you are both patron and muse! Although clearly a bit of fun, it was underscored by a serious intention in substituting each user for, say, the Mona Lisa or Countess of Poshbury, the exchange of coin being a symbolic act depicting patronage and its role in the production of art.
Although I had hoped we might imitate last year’s success, the queues exploded beyond expectation with immediate effect. Peak periods (weekends and booze o’clock), resulted in a wait as long as two hours (that’s longer in durational terms than the queue for the log flume at Alton Towers during Summer season). This led to some exasperation by those unwilling to wait or expecting immediate access, but it also conjured an air of something special happening that required effort and yes, investment of cash AND time; the latter being something I hadn’t previously considered as a unit of contributory value, but perhaps I should.
This time I made sure that either I or another helper managed the queue at all times, the better to both temper expectations but also to help explain our purpose and intentions. This resulted in an increase in the amount of payment/donations made direct to the artist through an anonymous slot, although a minority still felt it should be a free service, revealing the dyed-in-the-wool difficulty of unpicking habitual belief: culture at no personal cost, like a self-seeding, self-pruning, self-fertilising garden. Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown has a lot to answer for, but there surely must be a compromise between an auteur-heavy team of cultural landscape shapers and overgrown, weed-addled desolation.
We had more £5 and even £10 notes pushed through the slot, but also a couple of buttons, Euros and even a single ProPlus pill (initially thought to be an E, throwing up all sorts of interesting angles as to previously unconsidered income streams). But for the most part, the minimum donation remained just that – £1. Incredibly we maximised the amount of sitters, although quantifiable numbers is a dangerous foundation to lean upon. There’s a limit to the amount of people processed and drawings produced within a set timeframe and date period. But following 854 sitters in 2011, we hit an astonishing, ring-ding-a-ling culmination of 1,084 by the end of the ten-day residency.
Highlights of Sketch-O-Matic year II included the bloke who stripped off to go topless and asked to be drawn with an otherwise absent six-pack, whilst his two friends sat either side attempting to tune into a radio signal using his nipples; the lady who dropped a box of a eggs from her shopping bag which proceeded to separate, leaking whites only across the floor and wall, giving the appearance of a less salubrious type of personal booth; and a drunk man with a rotted front-tooth stump who roared with delight once the artist delivered a picture clearly featuring the gnarly molar instead of ignoring it.
But it was the marriage proposal that topped it all off, featuring artist Hammo sweating it out as the tool for this romantic overture. Staff had been approached earlier in the evening by the boyfriend, who requested of the artist that he draw him and his girlfriend in wedding attire, handing over a snapshot to recognise them by. When she emerged afterwards, collected the image from the slot and turned to question it, her fella had the ring outstretched. She said yes, there was clapping, champagne corks and a bewildered Hammo pulled into the engagement photos.
My intention was to initiate debate, just that alone, a best foot-forward as we tentatively stroll through a new funding landscape, one where the primary paths are pitted and closed for repair, with no particular end-point in mind. Positioning the booth in the public space of Cornerhouse, as opposed to the more rarified gallery environment, had an impact that cannot be underestimated. Free of the curatorial bog-stink that formal presentation can so often generate – be it imagined miasma or intentional, back-slapping collusion – visitors approached the project without hesitation or intimidation, hungry for intervention in public space and supportive of our wish for transparency, albeit notional.
As our carnivalesque A-board outside the booth read, ‘Artists bloodied in chains! Illustrators bound and gagged! Poets shackled and blinkered! The imagination tamed for your portraiture needs! Feed the godless maw with gold and silver! Enter if you DARE!’ But on the reverse, ‘Saatchi – who he?’
You give us dollar? We’ll make you holler. But caffeine supplements and haberdashery supplies may suffice.
Participating artists, illustrators, writers and poets include: David Bailey, Dominic Oliver, Matthew Burrell, Sophie Hadfield, Steve Hockett, Kim Thompson, Hammo, Paul Hallows, Ben Mather, Richard Shields, Hilary Judd, Gabrielle Emily Anderson, Lydie Greco, Darren Adcock, Eight-Bit, John Powell-Jones, Jennifer Khan-Perez, Lyndsey Winnington, Lee Crocker, Bethan Hamilton, Hebe Philips, Steph Pike, Ashley Fauguel, Mike Chavez-Dawson, Christine Wong Yap, Geraint Hacking, Pascal Little, Rosana Ibarrola, Pascal Nichols, Jamie Roberts, Simon Misra, Gemma Parker, Pablo Melchor, Stef Elrick, Daniel Russell, Charlotte Harvey, Camille Smithwick, Steve Hockett, Tasha Whittle, Anna Violet, Abid Javed, Ben Harrison, Abi Whitehouse, Karen Little, Gaby Powell, Clair Graubner, Lucy Burscough, Jonathan Edwards, Dan Berry, Ross Phillips, Mac Toot and Adam Cadwell.