In Conversation: Sam Venables / Elizabeth Challinor

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Sam Venables is an artist whose work explores fandom, advertising and ideas around what makes something feel ‘local’ to a place. The things we choose to discard and the items we cherish form a personal narrative within her work, and photographs she takes inform her installations. Sam Venables’ work, “Bonanza”, considers the street as a space of refuse and discovery; the photographs of streets become part of a wider story about what and why we collect the things we do and how they come together to build a story around particular cities.

You can check out her ongoing IB21 here –

https://independentsbiennial.com/artists/sam-venables/

Contact details: 

@sam.venables (Instagram), zaamvenables@hotmail.com

When did you first start your residency with Open Eye Gallery/Independents Biennial? How did you initially get involved? 

I saw an open call that Open Eye had put out probably like 2 years ago or something now, but it was to show some work in the window gallery. As part of my practise, I’m really interested in windows as a mechanism for display, and the interaction people have with windows and what they’re used for, like selling or showing, and what is the motive of using a window. I’ve actually worked for Levi’s for a very long time, looking after the windows and visual merchandising, like window dressing and stuff around their UK and Nordic stores as my day job, and my interests as part of my practise kind of crosses over with that, like interests of windows and shop fitting and the visual element of why people are drawn to things really. So I saw the open call the Open Eye put out to show some work in their window gallery and I thought it was pretty cool, I’ve got thousands of photos that I’ve taken from years and years of travelling around, mostly the UK and bits of Europe. I think most of the photos I’ve taken are of piles of rubbish or signs in windows and custom things people have done to their cars, and I think that is a massive base for my practise through being able to visit all these mad places for my work. I have this bank of thousands of photos, and I thought it’d be cool to be able to show some of those in the window in Open Eye. So yeah I just applied basically and just said all that and gave them a few examples of photos that I’d taken. I didn’t actually realise it was for the Independents Biennial at all til I started getting emails from Patrick, and then obviously it got delayed, and then I had  another meeting with Patrick where he said he’d managed to secure funding for all the artists which is really great, and you know it’s quite important cos I was asking Open Eye about what the possibility was if there was any funding available or anything, so it was really great that he managed to secure funding for the artists to be part of the independents biennial. But yeah at the time I didn’t really realise it was part of that, I just kinda applied to this open call and that’s how I got involved.

What are you working on during this residency, and what do you hope to achieve during the time here? 

The fact that it was put across to me as a residency, like I didn’t really know that was something that was happening til I was informed by Patrick that the opportunity for the residency was available. But when you say residency it can mean so many different things, so I didn’t really know what that meant, like obviously could it be physical, or like what does that word residency even mean. When I think of the word residency, I think of going somewhere you wouldn’t usually go, which obviously isn’t really possible so for me the residency was with the funding, and the money Patrick was able to secure has really paid me for my time to sort this whole project out. I’ve literally got like 30,000 photos not sorted out, so I’ve spent hours and hours going through everything and getting all the higher res images, and also I needed money to be able to pay someone to make the film because it’s beyond my technical ability. It’s just kinda paid for my time to sort through and it’s taken a long time to get through everything because it’s just stockpiles of stuff basically. So in the traditional sense of a residency it’s not really manifested into anything like that, it’s kind of just gave me the opportunity and paid for my time to do something that I’ve really wanted to do but not really did have time to do. 

What is your practise about generally & how do you usually go about making/coming up with ideas for your work? Is this an entirely new body of work? How have you adapted your work for this residency?

So I’m really into signage and obviously shops and windows and shopping and story and fandom and why people are really into specific things and collections, and I think that’s the basis for my work as a whole. The work in Open Eye is a collection of photographs from the last 10 years of things that really kind of influenced my work. I’ve never really shown photography, and I wouldn’t really say I was a photographer at all. When I was looking through some of the pictures, some of them are so low res, and the lad that was making the film for me was like ‘what the hell’ like, but you know I’m not a photographer so I don’t really take that much care in what I’m doing, I just kind of snap things with a phone or if I see things I like. But that’s why it only goes back to the last ten years, because before that obviously phones were terrible and I didn’t really have a camera. I really like it and it really informs my practise taking all these photos, and remembering, and storytelling, and things like that, and when I sifted through all these photos from the last ten years it kind of inspired and reminded me of things that could spark ideas for new work. 

Did you have any plans for your work before the festival was moved online? Has the change in platform affected your work at all, or do you think that because the work is mainly photography it’s more suited to being accessed digitally? 

No it’s not really changed that much. My turn in the Open Eye window gallery ended on Sunday, and I know a few people who went to see it because I don’t live in liverpool, but they said that you couldn’t really get into the building and it was quite hard to actually get in and it was really light inside. I saw some photos and stuff,  but because of lockdowns and where it is I doubt that anyone really saw it. The videos I’ve seen of it, you couldn’t really see it because it was so bright, so that was a bit of a shame, but I’ve still got the film so I can just show it somewhere else so it’s fine. But I had the chance to do the residency on Instagram, so that was quite a nice thing to do as well. 

So was the digital window gallery that’s in the Open Eye, was your workalways gonna be displayed in that way, like was that always the plan?

I believe so. Patrick mentioned being part of the newspaper and like doing other stuff but it’s not really my gig, like I just wanted to show in the window because obviously I just explained all that to you, and like the newspaper isn’t really anything to do with my interests. Unfortunately though it’s been lockdown so not many people have been able to see it in real life, but I’ve got documentation and stuff of it, and I’ve still got the show reel that shows a load of the photos going back and forth, a bit like a fruit machine. 

What’s it been like so far working with Independents Biennial/Open Eye Gallery? Do you get much support from the 2 organisations?

The guys from Open Eye are really cool, and they’re doing a talk on 6th May which I’m involved with too so that’s really nice. They’ve been really supportive, and posted stuff and taken photos for me. Patrick’s been sound, like sending things over and managing to secure funding which was really great, because obviously paying artists is really important. I think for me, the fact that everything moved online didn’t really matter for me anyway because I just did the same thing that I was going to do anyway, so it hasn’t been a massive issue. 

Outside of photography, what other work do you do/what other mediums & techniques do you use?

Yeah I’m definitely not a photographer which you can see by the resolution of my pictures, but I do a bit of everything really. I’ve recently made a film, and I do a lot of sculpture, using a lot of traditional methods in shop fittings, laser cutting and stuff, and then I’m really into sign writing and the traditional methods of sign writing. I’ve been on a few sign writing courses and stuff, like to be a master signwriter you have to do something like 5000 hours of sign writing which probably won’t happen to me. 

Are you exploring the same themes & influences in your photography work as you would in your usual work? 

Well I think obviously work changes over time. A film I made recently is about old buildings, and buildings of importance that were central to a community, like a pub or a town hall or community spots, that have actually been turned into a McDonalds, and weirdly there’s quite a lot of them kicking about. But yeah the use of buildings that was once for social importance and now what they’ve become, and is that a good or a bad thing, but that’s the film I’ve made recently that’s called “Eagle and Child”. It’s called that because there used to be a pub in Aigburth called Eagle and Child, and it was knocked down and it became a McDonald’s. Really historical buildings of importance, like I guess Wetherspoons have done the same thing where they kind of save buildings and they’re quite famous for doing that, like opera houses and buildings of importance. But these McDonald’s ones are crazy because they’re all like standalone buildings and they just basically stick a Maccies sign on the front and build a road around so it’s a drive-thru, and it’s just mad. There’s loads around London and down south, not much in the way of up north. I’ve got about 40 now, so I just drive past filiming them and make them all into a film, with whatever musics in the background of the car. 

So on the website it says your work explores what makes something “local” to a place, but is location crucial to this? 

Maybe like a localism as something you would say or something you would do. A good example is my first solo show I did in a gallery in Elephant and Castle in London called Plaza Plaza. The show title was “slummy”, but you’re scouse so you’ll know what that means, (loose change), and a lot of people don’t really know what that is at all, I didn’t realise. Something like that is something I really enjoy, like a localism, and I’ve been to lots of places. I’m originally from Ellesmere Port so I’m not scouse, I’d be known as a wool or something. I lived in liverpool city centre for a while and I used to run the royal standard a long time ago, and then I lived in Glasgow for like 5yrs, and then I lived in Newcastle for a couple of years, London for a couple of years, and now I live in York, and I studied in Leeds so I lived there for 3yrs as well, so I’ve lived in quite a lot of places, and I enjoy getting to learn and understand these kind of significant localisms in terms of what people call things and the way people go about things, and that’s just something I’m kinda interested in yeah. 

Do you think having to move around a lot has affected your work?

I think so yeah, like it’s definitely not coincidental, because like with work I’ve been to every single shopping centre in the uk, which is a weird thing to have done, but I like that, and I love going to places that I’ve never been to before. I think doing that and learning different ways and about different communities, and learning the way people work is kind of important to me, and it’s really reflective in the kind of photos that I take as well, which obviously leads back towards the window show documentation I did for open eye, because they’re all kind of localisms as such. 

How do you feel about being involved with the Independents Biennial overall? 

I think for me, as an artist I don’t really chase opportunities or apply to a lot of stuff, because I don’t have a lot of time, and I only really apply to things that I know I’d actually really want to do. My time is really precious to me cos I only get 5 weeks off a year and I’m working 40hrs a week, and it’s not just about the hours you work but also the headspace it takes up, so the fact that I really wanted to show in the window was good, and the Indy biennial was able to facilitate me to do that, so getting paid for my time made me feel like it way okay to take time off work to be able to do that because it’s not a holiday and I’m still getting paid. It made it feel like it was an actual job to do rather than like a hobby, because otherwise having to take time off to sort through all those photos would just feel like a horrible task, but the fact that we’ve been paid to do it, it feels like it’s facilitated in a way that makes it feel like a job, so it makes me feel a lot better about doing it. I’ve got to a certain point in making art now whereI used to be up for doing everything for free, but you get to a certain point where you’re like I can’t do this anymore, like my time is more precious to me. I think that’s the main point for me, like the facilitation of that has been excellent. 

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