The Caravan Gallery
The Caravan Gallery is a collaboration between artists and photographers Jan Williams and Chris Teasdale to document the reality and surreality of the way we live today. It is also a mobile exhibition space that engages with people and places 'normal' galleries might not easily reach. They use colour photography to create accessible but thought-provoking images which frequently celebrate overlooked and occasionally bizarre aspects of everyday life.
Since setting up in 2000 The Caravan Gallery has travelled thousands of miles and exhibited in hundreds of locations in the UK and abroad, sharing images from their ever expanding photographic archive with the most diverse audience imaginable. Equally at home exhibiting in a shopping centre car park or prestigious arts venue, The Caravan Gallery welcomes visitors to respond to their observations of their locality. People's enthusiasm to share their own impressions inspired them to devise participatory Pride of Place Projects in partnership with local arts organisations. Part evolving exhibition, part alternative visitor information centre, these projects give local people an opportunity to explore their surroundings in a creative way by contributing to the display.
Simultaneously seduced by and suspicious of the rose-tinted tones of tourist information brochures, and frustrated by their yawning omissions, The Caravan Gallery likes to look beyond brown signs and interpretation boards to discover their own undesignated 'attractions' and 'unattractions'.
Favourite themes include: Local distinctiveness and regional identity; pyschogeography and people's connection to place; clichés and cultural trends; leisure, landscape and lifestyle; the language of marketing - dream versus reality; absurd anomalies and curious juxtapositions typical of places in transition; chance encounters and serendipitous discoveries; incidental art and everyday creativity; maverick enterprise and small scale human interventions. Many of The Caravan Gallery images tell stories and raise questions. They might be tawdry, topographic, touching, tragicomic, typical and sometimes irreverent but are always real. The Caravan Gallery advocates looking with a big L. This essay by Alistair Robinson, Programme Director at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art sums up their approach.
The Caravan Gallery travels have inspired a growing range of merchandise including publications such as 'Welcome to Britain - a celebration of real life', three volumes of 'Is Britain Great?' , subversive city Visitor Guides, postcards, greetings cards and gift wrap-cum-posters that show the world from The Caravan Gallery perspective. The Caravan Gallery produces limited edition prints and also work in other media such as drawing and collage.
The nature of their work, both subject matter and presentation, makes it uniquely accessible to an extremely diverse audience. The Caravan Gallery as a venue has an undeniable novelty factor that attracts curious passers by as well as appealing to the art cognoscenti. Sometimes it feels like a mini social club on wheels bringing together people who would never normally connect. The scope for interaction with individuals from all walks of life is enormous and their feedback makes an valuable contribution to the project.
The Caravan Gallery works in partnership with galleries and arts organisations, festivals, social enterprises, community groups and professional associations, schools, colleges and universities and are accustomed to exhibiting in a wide variety of settings. Venues include empty shops, village halls and mainstream gallery spaces where The Caravan Gallery can show work on a larger scale than the caravan allows. Sometimes the caravan itself becomes the centrepiece of an exhibition e.g. during 'Is Britain Great?', a Caravan Gallery retrospective at Aspex gallery, Portsmouth. Afterwards the exhibition toured to fashion designer Paul Smith's SPACE in Tokyo then to Fukuoka and Kyoto.
Other projects include a collaboration with Pilgrim Films and pop group St Etienne on 'The Other South Bank', a comparison between areas and communities of London and Middlesborough. ARC, the Architecture Centre in Hull commissioned them to produce a photo essay on 'Hullness', a psychogeographical quest for genius loci. The Caravan Gallery participation in 'Kunst&Zwalm', a contemporary art festival in rural Belgium in 2011, led to an increase in international activity and an enduring love affair with Belgium. Local people are always fascinated to see how Jan and Chris perceive their locality as they frequently unearth overlooked details.
Much of 2013 was devoted to Merseyside. Their exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool 'Merseystyle: Photographs by The Caravan Gallery', was a key part of LOOK/ 13 Liverpool International Photography Festival and was complemented by Pride of Place Projects in Liverpool and New Brighton, Wirral.
Arts organisations see the value of employing The Caravan Gallery as 'art missionaries' to engage with new audiences and encourage people to visit their galleries. Wolverhampton Art Gallery, for example, commissioned them to produce an off site exhibition while their building was closed for refurbishment. Other organisations have been interested in their research methods and public interaction.
As a result The Caravan Gallery has reached a far more diverse audience than many galleries and have become a catalyst for interaction with people in a large information gathering and sharing exercise using a variety of media. Their approach is based around the concept of psychogeography which explores the relationship of place to its social and cultural history, past, present and future.
Education and experience
Jan and Chris give talks and exhibition tours to gallery audiences, students and special interest groups and devise tailor-made workshops for all ages and abilities. Great importance is placed on personal development and confidence building, especially when working with people who are unfamiliar with art and creativity. They devise special projects for schools exploring 'sense of place' through art and creativity to help young people appreciate the community in which they live. A great example of such a project took place at Fulbridge School, Peterborough thanks to a Creative Partnerships commission inspired by The Caravan Gallery. They accompanied the children on a trip to the seaside resort of Hunstanton and helped them produce an exhibition based on their observations. The results were displayed in a caravan - now a permanent fixture - in the school playground.
Jan and Chris have explained that "We tend to do most things ourselves but enjoy collaborating with like minded souls. We have the most fantastic designers in IDprojects aka Natalie Dowse and Phil Illingworth, both talented artists in their own right, who work with us on publicity material and publications. An Arts Council England Strategic Touring Grant for our national Pride of Place Project Tour 2015 - 2016 has enabled us the luxury of a part time project coordinator, currently the magnificent Michael Davidson. This role was admirably filled by Helen Statham before she secured a permanent position elsewhere. We are also supported by local coordinators, gallery staff and volunteers in each tour location. The Caravan Gallery itself is the handiwork of Lynne and Richard Stark at The English Caravan Company. This wonderful pair reincarnated our original 1969 Bluebird Europe, incorporating original body parts and features, to create a rather more sturdy and glamorous version of the original."
The Caravan Gallery exhibits at an eclectic range of locations, rural, urban and suburban, from small-scale community events to major festivals and arts venues. Typically they are commissioned to make a photographic study of an area during a research visit. They totally immerse themselves in the location in question, walking for hours and miles, driving through and around places with the aim of distilling the essence of a place through their photographs. Sometimes they chat to the people they encounter en route and follow the leads they give, but they explain that "usually it's a case of following our noses and seeing where we end up. Some of our photos might reflect characteristics unique to the area in question whilst others are symptomatic of 'the way we live today'.
We feel we've done a good job when - as outsiders - we discover things that local people have overlooked or never really considered. When we were commissioned to produce a photo essay on Wetteren in Belgium, for example, we were accused of making their town look unusually interesting! We aim to create exhibitions that are visually stimulating and thought provoking on many levels and, most importantly, to get people talking and looking for themselves."