In Conversation: Grace Collins / George Gibson / Elizabeth Challinor

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Grace Collins is an artist from St Helens who researches how people work together and documents collaborations to create new artworks. This interest led to them to becoming a member of School of the Damned, The Collective Studio at Newbridge, Short Supply and Castlefield Associates, they also have a studio in Warrington where they paint, draw and write.

George Gibson is a bookmaker interested in deep dive research and fanaticism; obsessed with obsessions. Often using print to archive digital imagery and lost webpages. Their books have covered a range of topics branching out from fandom; societies obsession with sexy fish, non-human identity, the folklore of Twitter, and witchcraft for Millennials. In 2016 they co-founded Shy Bairns. SB are a collective interested in the intersections of bookmaking and contemporary art.

The National Library of Argentina is the last known whereabouts of the infamous Book of Sand – a book about a book that can never be finished. Forty-five years later, artists Grace Collins & George Gibson will recreate this magical text.

You can check out their ongoing IB21 project here – 

https://independentsbiennial.com/artists/grace-collins-george-gibson/

Contact details:

Grace: @onethousandprinces (Instagram), https://gracecollins.cargo.site/, ge_collins@outlook.com 

George: @georgegracegibson (Instagram), https://www.gggibson.co.uk, georgegracegibson@gmail.com 

When did you first start your project and how did you get involved with IB21? Also how did you start collaborating together? Is this something you have done together before?

Grace: We started the project in spring 2020, through a commission with St Helens Art in Libraries, we linked up with IB21 quite late into the programming. The two of us have known each other for a while through mutual friends and School of the Damned (an alternative arts programme) but haven’t worked together before this project. 

What are you both working towards during the biennial/what are you looking to achieve with your experience here? 

We’re making an impossible book, based on Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Book Of Sand. Unfortunately “impossible” within our capabilities  just means “a bit complicated” — but I like to think we’re working more towards something that documents the process of collaborative research and bookmaking,, rather sticking to the story word for word. Our Book of Sand is more of an attempt at creating a physical outcome of various interpretations of the story and it’s themes. 

What are your individual practises about generally & what processes/methods do you typically use? How has your work that you’re doing for the biennial evolved from this? Is there a big difference between this specific body of work & the work that you usually do? Do your individual creative practises have any similarities to each other?

Grace: We’re both into researching niche things and pulling that research together into something visual, using found text and images. The longer period of working on this project and working together remotely has meant the way of working is a bit more ‘professional’ in that we pass the baton back and forth with different tasks to be completed. Initially, our proposal relied heavily on visiting libraries in St Helens, but due to the circumstances we’ve had to adapt and perhaps have been a bit more insular/secretive with what we’re making.

Did you have plans for your work (& to present it physically) before the festival was moved online? Did this change in platform affect you (& your work) much, or has it always been suited to being available digitally? How do you manage your work collaboratively when working remotely? 

We planned this work almost a year ago now, right at the start of the pandemic. I think I assumed by the time we made it everything would be back to “normal”, we’d be able to visit libraries and run workshops, maybe host a book launch. But the not-so-normal reality and platform has kinda lent itself to the work. The back and forth whatsapp’s of what a book can be, screenshotted zoom calls transferred into pixelated zines that can barely be made out…I like the idea of our book being made in bedrooms and silently posted out to the world. 

In terms of collaborating, we’ve done everything via zoom or whatsapp. Luckily for me Grace is an admin god and has been great at keeping track of everything and hassling me along. It definitely would have been fun to have Grace in the studio and do a little bit of skill swapping… but I’m sure we won’t delete each others numbers after this project ends.  

Have you been working as part of your residency prior to the launch, or have you only just started working on your work/project?

We’ve been researching, testing things out, doing workshops and sharing ideas for around a year, but the deadlines set by IB21 have been useful in forcing us to share that process. 

What’s it like (or been like so far) working with the Independents Biennial? Do you get much support from the organisation?

Admittedly it’s been mostly Grace who has been in chats with IB (admin god), but I’ve really enjoyed being part of the festival. It’s an honour to be included alongside the rest of the artists, and I got a proper buzz out of seeing the newspaper publication. I also want to note that we were both paid an artist fee — as someone who works mostly collaboratively this isn’t always the case. Too many times I’ve divided an artist fee into quarters. 

What is the “Book of Sand”, and how come you’ve decided to focus on it?

The “The Book of Sand” is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, a book about a book that ends up fraying the narrator’s nerves. I was doing some research around time and quantum theory and a friend recommended Jorge Luis Borges’ writing, as he uses the library as a metaphor for the multiverse, a fitting focus for a commission with St Helens Libraries. 

You did a workshop a few weeks ago (which sadly I couldn’t make), but what was the premise of the workshop? How is it feeding into your project? 

In the spirit of time loops, this is a repeat of an online workshop we did with St Helens libraries a while ago. We always wanted the book to include more peoples’ input than just our own, so both workshops created a space for people to chat about time travel and local history, while making their own time travelling books (with George’s great instructions) that will be included in the final work. 

Considering you planned the project like way over a year ago, did any of your plans or ideas change throughout this time? Or have you stuck with all of your original plans? 

We haven’t been able to connect with people in the way we wanted to. The content of the book should be a collection of the expertise of library users and librarians in St Helens, informed by friendly chats over a brew, but we haven’t had the opportunity to have chance encounters and we also know a lot of people who visit libraries don’t frequent Zoom workshops. This book definitely exists very differently in a parallel universe. 

How do you feel about working together? Do you think it would have the same results if either of you had decided to work on this with a different artist?

I’m really pleased we’ve been able to work together on this. George has the skills to make a really good looking object and also the openness to experiment and play, a rare combo that’s made this really fun to work on. I work in ‘duos’ with a few different artists (myself and James McColl just finished a residency with 11:11 and I’m working on a film with William Lang for the LB x a-n artist bursary) no collaboration is comparable as everyone works/thinks/plays differently – this is what makes it fun!

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