Though she now has more than thirty years experience in gallery work, Veronica Sekules began her career working for environmental non-profit Friends of the Earth. In 2016, she opened GroundWork Gallery in King's Lynn, dedicating all activity in the space to the environment, with the aim of making clear its connection to contemporary art. In this Industry Insight, we speak to the curator, researcher, writer and project manager about how to embed environmentalism into your practice, how her pressure group roots have informed her art world career and the importance of rural voices in creative and environmental spaces.
Veronica Sekules at GroundWork. Photo by Michael Usher
MN: Hi Veronica, how are you today?
VS: Busy - there’s various things I’m juggling. My next exhibition is called ‘Japan Water’ and I’m just writing texts for it. It’s a lot of very complicated thoughts - how we are part of the ocean, we are mother of the ocean and our bodily fluids are related to the ocean’s water, and so we shouldn’t pollute the ocean. And that’s my sheer simplification, it’s much more complicated than that.
MN: I can imagine. When it’s something that your practice is centred around you know it so intimately that it can be quite hard to make it accessible.
VS: Yes, when you are so steeped in it. But also, it’s interesting because they are thinking very differently about spiritual things. I’m getting more and more interested in the way in which cultural difference shapes the way we see the environment.
MN: That sounds fantastic. Do you have a date for the show yet, or has COVID left that still up in the air?
VS: Well, it was supposed to be last year, but it’s now likely to be in May. There will be a virtual opening on 1st April, which we will be doing with Assembly Online, who are based in Norwich.
MN: I’ll definitely be watching out for that. One thing I found really interesting about your career was that you spent a formative period working with Friends of the Earth - I’d love to hear a little about your time there and what prompted your crossover to gallery work, and where you see the intersection between art and environment.
VS: It was pretty much a straight line, in a way, though I didn’t realise it. It’s been an inevitable consequence, and I wish I’d known earlier that that was where I was heading, because I definitely would have done it sooner. But anyhow, Friends of the Earth was absolutely formative for me, because I learned, right at the beginning of my career, the power of being part of a pressure group. Pressure groups work from the top-down and bottom-up method simultaneously, so it is essential to communicate at eye-level with your community. One person convinces another person, and so on, and then you form a network. And then that network forms a nucleus with other networks, and you create your structure by juxtaposing these networks. You also have a lobbying arm that works politically, communicating with people in power to make the decisions that you want made. These two arms have to work together. That was such an interesting thing to learn and be part of. But also being part of a protest culture. I hadn’t realised at the time how early in Friends of the Earth’s life it was, and we were quite radical for that time; even now, looking back. We did lots of things in the street. It taught me to take risks and to not be afraid of that.
The thing for me is to show that art is important for our understanding of the environment. It’s not an add-on, or an extra, and that people who are serious about the environment need to embrace perspectives that art and artists can bring.
MN: Has having that foundation of engaging with various networks and meeting a community at eye-level, to use your phrase, become a central part of what you do with GroundWork? Are there similar aspects in the way you operate as a gallery space?
VS: Yes. In between that, I ran the Education department at the Sainsbury Centre, and ran projects and did a lot of work internationally. We did a lot of European grants, and things like that. My time at Friends of the Earth taught me that community building needed to be a part of it. GroundWork has kind of been a solo thing - for both economic and practical reasons - but it has definitely also been about community forming. I never saw it as a solo thing when I started, and I certainly don’t want it to continue that way, and I feel I’ve got as far as I can get working like that. Now I need to widen my base, and make it into a bigger organisation. Which means money! I don’t want it to become dependent on state funding. I’ve had a life doing that, and I want to try a different way. It’s much, much harder. It means I have to embrace Capitalism - and I’d really rather not, I’d rather it was all done on bartering and exchange - and as far as possible, it is, and that’s how I’ve managed to run it on a shoestring. I will never ask someone to do something that I am not prepared to do myself. I’m the Director, but I’m also the cleaner - it has to be done on that basis. And on that basis, people are prepared to come and help, and work side by side, and I love that.
MN: Having that approach is so special - how have you had to adapt the way you’ve run the space during the pandemic?
VS: As with everyone, it’s been frustrating. I’ve had to find other ways round. I started doing a lot more with Instagram, and I noticed a lot of people were noticing their environments much more - noticing nature, birds, flowers - so I thought we should play with that idea, and put out a Doorstep Environment Challenge. It was a series of different words, one for every day of the month, and I posted something to go with the word, inviting others to do the same. That was really successful. Another really fascinating thing happened on Instagram - I saw there was a comment from Tempo Rubato, which is a music venue in Melbourne, Australia. I looked through their feed and saw that their building looked really similar to GroundWork - like a little box, with horizontal windows. So I wrote to them commenting on this, and they wrote back ‘Yay, sister buildings!’ And so we formed this relationship.
MN: That’s amazing.
VS: We made a ‘Sister Buildings’ Instagram challenge together. They’re pretty environmental as well. It was a great example of Instagram at its best, you really can build partnerships. It was a pretty intense month, though it’s somewhat fizzled out now.
It’s been a funny time, but it’s also taught me that I was probably doing too much. I was doing three shows a year, and that got me where it got me, but I began to think I probably needed to slow down. I kept ‘Bugs, Beauty and Danger’ on throughout the whole year, and pushed the other two shows to 2021. I will only do two exhibitions a year from now, and keep the summer clear. On the middle floor of the building, the space is multi-purpose: it’s a gallery and living space. So now I can do residency programs over summer, which I have always intended, but this time has given me the resolve to do that.
MN: Having that pause really made a lot of us evaluate how much energy we were putting out, and how special it can be sometimes to take things slower and gain a new perspective.
VS: Exactly. And to need to work in a slightly different way with a community. Rather than creating set pieces and putting on exhibitions in this way, which I love doing, I would turn it round the other way and enable some artists to do that through the residency. My requirement would be it should still engage the community in some way, which I would help with. It was a slight power shift in terms of what gets shown - a little more open.
MN: Do you have a particular environmental focus of your own that you would like to see represented in the work? Where do your particular interests lie and how much does that influence GroundWork’s projects?
VS: I tend to be guided by what comes my way. It certainly started that way. Richard Long suggested the title for his exhibition with Roger Ackling, ‘Sunlight and Gravity’, and I immediately thought how great that was - it connected the physical to the ethereal without being heavy-handed. From then on, I have been taking a bottom-up approach from the art I’ve shown - not trying to impose, but rather as a guide. I think the thing for me is to show that art is important for our understanding of the environment. It’s not an add-on, or an extra, and that people who are serious about the environment need to embrace perspectives that art and artists can bring. Because they’re not obvious, they’re often lateral, they often show things that we wouldn’t otherwise see. The way we understand it deeply needs work.
MN: And it’s important that that process is done collaboratively. Every artist is going to have a different way of approaching that conversation.
VS: One of my mentors in the environment world, who is not steeped in art, but likes looking at art, said ‘I don’t need artists to talk about the environment. I talk about the environment. Each work of art enables me to say something new’. And I’ve very much taken that on board. Richard Long and Roger Ackling weren’t campaigners, or environmentalists, they were artists - but I can talk about the environment through what they do with its materials. But I don’t see my role as a bridge, or as the art being a vehicle; the communication has to be developed.
The connections you make and the importance of what you’re doing make little centres. Nowhere is the middle of nowhere. Whoever looks is looking.
MN: Obviously, GroundWork is in King’s Lynn. Your book ‘Cultures of the Countryside’ explores ideas of rural identity and its relationship to museums and heritage. What is the importance of de-centring London as the epicentre of conversations about politics and contemporary art? What is the importance of championing rural voices?
VS: I think the whole central and peripheral thing, particularly in art historical and anthropological thinking, was ditched a long time ago. London doesn’t bother me at all. I know people in London think they’re the centre of the world, but I firmly believe you can make the centre of the world anywhere. I sort of learned that at the Sainsbury Centre. There was once a commemorative birthday dinner for Arthur Miller, and there we were, and there was a phone call, and it was the President of the United States wishing him a happy birthday. And I thought, in this moment, this is a little centre of the world. The connections you make and the importance of what you’re doing make little centres. In ‘Cultures of the Countryside’, I wrote ‘nowhere is the middle of nowhere’. Whoever looks is looking, and you can work with that. Occasionally it does bother me - sometimes I think I’ve never been in an art newspaper, and there was a blog that covered great art galleries that are concerned with the environment, and I’m not on it - but I do just think sod it, I’m not going to be put down by that.
MN: For sure. It’s their loss.
VS: They’ll find me eventually!
MN: What advice would you give to artists and aspiring arts professionals for embedding environmental activism or environmentalism into their practice?
VS: I would say don’t try too hard. I don’t look for people who call themselves environmental artists - in a way, that’s a bit of a constraint. You’ve got to make something that you’re passionate about. If it is the environment that drives you, then of course that is what you must do, but it shouldn’t be contrived. Always communicate, always try. More than half of the artists I’ve shown are people who have come to me and been interesting. Do deep research. For example, there are plenty of artists who do beautiful landscapes, and are very steeped in nature and are careful observers of their environment, but I feel that that’s not the world I want to represent in GroundWork Gallery. I would prefer to push a little harder - to go for someone who will go every morning at 5am to look at the same spot, to be incredibly committed, in a way that’s beyond plein air painting. I am a fan of that kind of art too, but there’s a place for it and I want to do something slightly different.
HOSTED BY MILLIE NORMAN