Founded in 1998 by a group of local artists, Deptford X proudly plunges into its nineteenth year as the longest running visual arts festival in London. Taking place over ten days from September 21st – 30th, the festival aims to celebrate cutting-edge contemporary art in every form imaginable. The festival’s content is split into two curatorial frameworks; Platform 2018, and the Fringe, and all performances and works of art can be found within a one-kilometre radius of Deptford train station.
Edward Green caught up with the festival’s director, Patrick Henry, to find out what keeps the festival fresh each year, how Deptford has influenced his own curatorial approach, and what the festival is doing to help keep the arts inclusive, innovative and free.
You were appointed by Deptford X in 2015, following successful curatorial positions at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery, The Great Charter Festival, and the National Media Museum. What drew you to Deptford X?
It was partly because I wanted to keep working on festivals, which I enjoy because of the unpredictability and intensity of them. But it was also partly because both Deptford X and I needed a new chapter. So I was drawn to the opportunity of being able to rewrite the organisation in many respects, and reshape the programmes. Within a small organisation with limited resources like Deptford X, you have all sorts of challenges, but you also have a kind of freedom, because there’s no hardwired bureaucracy embedded into the organisation.
So part of what appealed to me, and part of what my job entailed when I first started here, was to help get the organisation into better shape and make some structural changes. When I joined, the festival had already been going for 16 or 17 years, and at that point an annual arts festival like Deptford X has already been through many incarnations; passed through many pairs of hands. So it was that opportunity of being able to reshape it, rethink the programmes and rethink the fundamentals, which appealed to me.
And how has the Deptford area helped you to rethink some of those fundamentals? Do you think the festival’s longevity and success is somewhat down to the area and its social conditions?
Yes, and no, I think that the social conditions here are definitely unique. Deptford has a really interesting and exciting history, and the different cultural ingredients that make up Deptford, to me, are very compelling; it’s the kind of place that I’m drawn to personally. But it also reminds me of other places where I’ve worked, like Liverpool for instance, where there’s a similar community spirit.
I just really love this idea of putting contemporary art into public spaces, into places where you wouldn’t normally find art; taking it out of the cloistered space of a gallery or a museum, and taking it directly into the flow of everyday life. Particularly in a place like Deptford, to me that’s a proper challenge. It’s almost too easy to curate in a gallery. Putting your artwork in this sort of festival is a real test of some of the claims that contemporary artists and curators make, about how their work has a genuine political message, and a purchase on everyday life in the contemporary world.
When you arrived in 2015, you brought a new initiative with you and set up the Platform programme. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
Yes, so there are two key ingredients, programme wise, to Deptford X. One is the Fringe, and the other is a set of commissions under the Platform 2018 programme. With Platform, the idea was that we would commission work from a small group of carefully selected emerging artists, who are at a pivotal moment in their careers. It’s about helping artists who have great potential to make the transition from perhaps a master’s degree or a series of residencies into what could be a sustainable professional practice.
The Platform programme has a very structured process. We invite five new nominators each year, who are all established in the field and well placed to help us identify the five right artists to work with each year. They give us a longlist of fifteen, which we then choose five from. So it’s a mixture of drawing on other people’s networks and knowledge, and then making a curatorial decision on finding out who we want to work with and who’s going to work well for the programme.
When you’ve worked in the field for a while, you see a lot of amazing people who just don’t make it. If you don’t have the benefits of substantial personal resources then it’s really tough and a lot of people have to give up practicing as artists just because they can’t pay the rent; they start taking on more and more jobs that do pay the rent, which aren’t art related, and this as a result chips away at their ability to keep working and developing. So I wanted Deptford X to intervene, strategically in that, and try to help a small number of artists each year by giving them a real opportunity and some real exposure.
But the Platform programme is also about trying to tap into what’s at the cutting edge of contemporary art practice. The artists we’ve chosen for Platform 2018 are really close to the ground; they’re doing really interesting things and haven’t yet got to that point when you’re in a bit of a bubble. It’s often those people who are just breaking in; just beginning their professional careers, who are doing some of the most exciting or interesting work.
Is the Special Project, which you’ve chosen the fantastic Louise Ashcroft for this year, part of Platform 2018, or is that something separate?
No, that’s a stand-alone commission. Each year I personally invite an artist that I feel can bring something a bit more strategic to the festival. With Louise, I simply felt like there was a really strong resonance between her practice, my interests as a curator, Deptford and Deptford X. It just felt a like a very strong, natural selection. But yeah, that’s a standalone commission.
How about the Fringe then, how does that differ from the curatorial processes of Platform 2018?
The Fringe is an open program of independent projects, so it’s not curated, there’s no selection process, there’s no curation. In a way, the spirit of the Fringe program, in contrast to the commissioned Platform 2018, is: whatever kind of artist you are, if you see yourself as an artist, come and do your thing under our umbrella. The point of it is to let people do what they want to do; all Fringe work is produced and resourced by the artists themselves. So we get submissions from people who run galleries, people who produce exhibitions, open studios, workshops, screenings, and loads of individual artists’ work. All you need to do is meet our deadlines, give us the information we need, and then you are in. So it’s massive, we’ve got around 90 projects taking place in the Fringe this year.
But I guess It’s meant to be slightly more anarchic. It’s an embrace of ‘outsider’ art practice, or amateur art practice, as well as professional practice; everything is equally valued and equally valuable to the Fringe. And the Fringe program as a whole has equal status with the curated program. In our marketing we give them equal status; they’re both absolutely essential parts of Deptford X.
And that’s an important part of the ethos of what we’re doing. We don’t want to make a hierarchy between professional artists or established artists, and what someone who has no training likes to make in their bedroom. We want to bring the two together, and create a space for them to happen and interact together. So there’s a little bit of an idealistic, utopian spirit behind that. And that’s what the fringe embodies.
Finally, how do you propose to keep the festival, which has been running for so long, fresh and innovative in the future?
In a way, the shapes of the artistic programs that I have designed for Deptford X are intended to continuously create content that can always be different. For example, with the framework for the Platform 2018 programme, the nominators change each year and therefore so does the range of artists. It’s designed to be an open-dynamic framework, which is almost self-sufficient, so different energies can flow through it which capture the changed energies of contemporary art practice.
And it’s the same with the Fringe. There’s a big constituency of people who always participate, and then there’s an even bigger constituency of new people who contribute each year. And because the Fringe is the bigger program, each year is going to present a wider range of artworks. All of this is facilitated by Deptford X, but not directly curated by us, so in a sense, as long as there are artists producing work, whether independently or within a collective or organisation, then the Deptford X festival will always be relevant, and it will always be exciting.
Deptford X takes place from September 21st – 30th in various venues.
Visit https://deptfordx.org for more details.
Interview, Edward Green – @nedgreen