Preston Street Union
Preston Street Union (PSU) is an Exeter-based artists’ collective that started life as a project at Spacex. Three years later, they have been commissioned to make work for Exeter’s RAMM. We hear about their journey.
What’s the story of Preston Street Union?
Preston Street Union (PSU) is an Exeter-based artist collective that generates new work and learning through collaborative, social processes. We grew out of a residency by artist Trevor Pitt at Exeter's Spacex gallery in 2015, and continue to operate independently as a self-organised group. At the moment there are ten core associates – Bettina Amtag, Megan Calver, Daniel Cray, Gabrielle Hoad, Pete Kingston, Kathy Norris, Becca Nutt, Janet Sainsbury, Felicity Shillingford and Stella Tripp – but we sit within a much wider network of loose affiliations.
What do you do?
Our guiding principle, gifted to us by Trevor Pitt, is the idea of ‘artists making things and making things happen’. Early on, we were lucky enough to work with artists such as Clare Thornton and Emily Warner who introduced us to the playful, improvisational ways of working we still use today.
All the artists involved have independent practices spanning painting, sculpture, collage, sound, music, film, photography, live art, community, curation and education, but our collective projects tend to be participative and/or performative and unlike anything any of us would have produced individually. These have included Random Art Machine for Art Week Exeter 2017, Five Bridges & A Waffle for Makers of the Multiverse 2017, and Galleries R Us for Art Week Exeter 2018.
And what keeps you doing it?
We feel quite protective of the legacy of Spacex, which had been part of the city for 40 years when it closed in 2018. It was a nationally important contemporary art space and a sad loss for Exeter. Trevor Pitt’s residency was one of the last projects to happen in the building at 45 Preston Street before it changed ownership.
More than anything, however, we keep each other going! The group exists, in large part, to feed and challenge the individual practices within it. One of the benefits of delivering projects as a large and fluid collective is that if one person runs out of time or energy there’s usually someone else to pick things up. In that way, we’re quite resilient.
What does a typical project look like?
Galleries R Us was a modular, itinerant artspace developed, curated and worn by Preston Street Union. During Art Week Exeter 2018, we roamed the streets of the city, assembling our gallery at various points of interest and activity. We also commissioned a series of five-minute residencies from Nick Davies, Lucia Harley, Laura Hopes and Pete Kingston to take place in and around the artspace. Alongside their work, we presented a series of micro-events and performances such as spoken word and covert karaoke.
Who do you work with?
We often invite guest artists to make contributions to our projects (see above). In the past we’ve also worked with Juneau Projects, Tony Whitehead, Cannon Hill Art School and MA students from Plymouth University. We are currently Associate Artists at Exeter Phoenix.
Our audiences are less predictable. As we tend to work outside of traditional gallery spaces, our work is often simply encountered by passers-by as it happens or when they stumble over an intervention we’ve made in a public space or, perhaps, a library book.
What was the best moment of the last year?
Popping up at Exeter Bus Station as Galleries R Us during Art Week Exeter 2018 was a highlight. Lucia Harley performed her work Up Down, building a precarious tower of found objects. Our principal audience was a group of bus drivers on a cigarette break. We recreated it with Lucia for the Exeter Culture launch at RAMM in September 2018, where it felt very different, if equally unexpected.
And looking forward?
We are tremendously excited to have been commissioned by RAMM to present two pieces of work during 2019 that relate to the museum and the theme of ‘migration’. The opportunity to make more ambitious work with the support of a nationally renowned museum and art gallery is transformative.
One thing that would make your life easier?
The loss of 10 studio spaces at 45 Preston Street following the closure of Spacex has highlighted yet again the lack of low-cost, accessible resources for artists to make, produce and present contemporary and/or experimental work in the city. We hope the city will get behind initiatives such as MakeTank and Art Work Exeter to remedy this situation.
In what ways are you helping to put Exeter on the cultural map?
Limited budgets and the logistics of moving large groups around have meant most of our work so far has been presented in Exeter, but we have shared work in Birmingham and Cornwall. We also like to visit other artist projects/spaces for dialogue and exchange, and have flown the flag for Exeter visual art at Digbeth First Friday, Swarm at The Exchange Penzance, OSR Projects in West Coker, b-side on Portland, the Plymouth Art Weekender, and the Site Festival in Stroud. We also took part in a mentoring scheme offered by Visual Arts South West in 2016, during which we worked with Jo Leahy of SVA.
What if ….?
…there were more structured ways to share work and ideas with other visual artists and groups? Whether it’s studio swaps or cultural exchanges, we need regular traffic between us and other cities to generate ideas and keep us challenged. Exeter doesn’t have the pull of Birmingham or Bristol; we need to incentivise other artists to visit and connect us outwards.
How do we find out more?