This is the fourteenth post in my series of monthly posts where I speak with people in the creative industries and ask them questions about the things that "I Wish I Had Known" when I started out as a creative myself.
I recently spoke to Owen Thomas, co-curator of the Four Corners gallery and projects coordinator of the London Creative Network programme, about his love for music and film-making, and the role of Four Corners in the history of the visual arts in the UK:
1. We met through LCN - the London Creative Network - delivered by Four Corners and several other centres in London. How long have you been a part of Four Corners and what is your role there?
I’ve been at Four Corners for over 25 years. When I first joined, the organisation worked solely in film. In those days, we’re talking primarily 16mm / super 16mm. We hired out production equipment as well as providing cutting rooms, sound transfer facilities, rostrum camera and a small cinema/screening space all offered at subsidised rates. We also provided unique free training opportunities targeted at those under-represented within the film and broadcast industries. This is something we continue to do today with current schemes such as Zoom.
2. How does it feel to be part of an organisation that is such an important part of the history of contemporary visual arts in the UK?
Because of the length of time I have been here, I’ve seen the development of various careers as well as radical shifts in technology. We used to get old-school film editors like John Trumper popping in to give advice while people cut their short films. He edited Get Carter, The Italian Job, Up the Junction etc. We also had Tacita Dean editing all her early projects here.
I guess what is particularly interesting to me is that I’ve experienced the whole change in technologies in both moving image and photography. When I started working at Four Corners in the early 90’s, we didn’t even have a computer. All communication was done by phone or post. Email and the internet were still very much in its infancy. A few years on and certain forms of analogue video technology had started to challenge film.
All very primitive compared to what we have today. By the mid-nineties, we had managed to raise money to purchase an Avid editing suite. This was the first in the UK to be owed by a non-profit organisation. At the time it cost something in the region of £70K and was a revolutionary way of editing film. Now, of course, you can do the same kind of thing on a phone!
3. Where does your love for imaging come from?
When I first went to art school, my primary interest was painting. However, I soon shifted to a more conceptual way of working, which freed me to explore different mediums; film, sculpture, sound, text, whatever best suited the ideas.
I only really touched on photography in my final year, when the university had just built a whole new photographic facility, giving me the opportunity to dabble in colour printing etc. Even in those days (the late 80’s) photography really wasn’t regarded as a fine art medium. It was being taught as a craft skill.
4. You are project coordinator by day, guitar player by night, having played with Blood Sausage, Cee Bee Beaumont, the Graham Coxon band and The Bristols. What comes first? Music or film-making? Or is there a happy middle?
I’d say it’s a healthy balance. I’ve always loved music and to me, music can embrace all elements of culture, be it fashion, visual arts, photography, etc. In a way, music gave me my first real appreciation of photography - exploring my parent’s record collection as a kid. Those iconic 60’s LP sleeves like Bob Freeman’s elongated Beatles on Rubber Soul or David Bailey’s Rolling Stones No2. The super cool, visual representation of a band – the look and their sound contained within a 12” square format.
I’ve been making music since the early 90’s, playing in all kinds of bands from lo-fi independent through to major label supported projects. Much like my experience with film and photography, I’ve managed to catch the music industry at various stages of transition, from the days when there were reasonable budgets for recording, promo videos, photo shoots through to the situation now which is basically no money for anything!
I’m currently working with the artist Bob & Roberta Smith on a musical project (The Apathy Band) which is very much an amalgamation of sound, art and activism.
5. In a world where the boundaries between still and moving images seem to be disappearing and where most clients expect a photographer to also shoot video, what is the future of the stills photographer? Or of the videographer who doesn't shoot stills?
Currently the converging of different technologies feels quite exciting. Lots of people are back shooting on film, be it still or moving image, plus a growing interest in alternative & historic processes. I guess part of the reason for this is that photographers are trying to re-instate value to what they do.
In a world where everyone is a photographer or film-maker, it is increasingly challenging to stand apart from the mass of image making out there. As for the future, I’d like to think that, at the end of the day, talent does ultimately stand out and there is lots of really interesting work out there.
6. Four Corners and Camerawork artists where around at a time when the world as they knew it was drastically changing and they became the visual voice for the social issues of their generation. With the state of the world right now, do you think that contemporary artists still have the responsibility to document these issues? And how crazy is it that we are still fighting for the same issues that they fought for 40+ years ago?
History does have a tendency to repeat itself.
As today everybody has access to photography, and the means to instantly publish and distribute, it will be interesting to see what kind of imagery will actually stand the test of time and whether we will be left with any iconic pictures that represent this particular place in history or just a mass of social media posts...
7. I write this blog not only to speak my mind but also to share what I learn in regards to the business of photography with my readers. That is why, the work that Four Corners does, specifically through LCN, resonates with me because I too believe in building a community and in the idea that through helping others grow, the industry becomes stronger, and so does my practice. Tell us a bit about LCN.
The London Creative Network is a partnership of four arts organisations; Space, Cockpit Arts, Photofusion and Four Corners. The aim is to support and help develop creative businesses, which in our case are photographers. We do this through a programme of specialist workshops, mentoring support, exhibition / showcasing opportunities and networking. The programme has been running for 3 years and we currently have over 130 practitioners working across a whole range of photographic technologies and processes.
8. Has Brexit affected the programme?
Well Brexit hasn’t happened yet and who knows, it may never happen...?
However, in theory, there will no longer be EU funding post-2020, so unless we find another form of support it is unlikely programmes like LCN will survive at least in their current form. We’re just going to have to wait and see…
9. How is LCN and Four Corners funded?
The LCN programme is 50% funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). Four Corners is mostly funded by specific projects. For instance, we’ve just been working on a Heritage Lottery funded archive project exploring the first 10 years of both Four Corners and Camerawork.
We also generate income from facilities hire and from building rental. We are in the unusual and very fortunate situation that we own our building. That has been one of the key reasons Four Corners has managed to survive when so many small arts organisations have bit the dust over the years.
10. How has the archive project changed your perception of what Four Corners is?
It’s been really interesting to reassess those early histories. Both organisations not only produced innovative work but also radical new/alternative ways of working.
I’d like to think that exploring this past will inform and inspire future developments at Four Corners.
Thanks so much, Owen, for taking some time off your busy schedule to chat with me about the work that you do at Four Corners! This is everything that I Wish I Had Known!