On Day 1 of the Tilting Axis conference, just before the first coffee break, the main support beam of the Fresh Milk wooden studio, cracked under the weight of thirty-two participants gathered from around the region and further afield to speak about the Caribbean’s visual arts sector. I had never heard this sound before — it was different to that of the mahogany pods that regularly fall on the zinc roof with a loud explosive noise followed by the sound of them rolling down the shiny, undulating galvanize surface with a clamor. This unfamiliar noise, (which few people heard), a dull sudden thud, begged the obvious question about support mechanisms for the visual arts sector in the region. As I write this some weeks after the conference, additional support beams are being installed to buttress the modest wooden space where Tilting Axis happened.
It is critical that this gathering took place on Caribbean soil and that the visual arts sector was considered from within the archipelago as a counterpoint to many decisions that are often made about the region from external locations.
The symbolism was apt given we were addressing sustenance for the arts and determining ways in which we might bolster the sector in very practical ways. Although more than a dozen major grant applications were submitted requesting financial assistance for the conference, the lack of investment from local and regional funding bodies revealed a dearth of understanding by Caribbean governments and regional corporate entities about the value of the arts to wider society. Funding for Tilting Axis confirmed the region’s reliance on Europe for most of its financial support — although six weeks after the event, the Art and Sports Promotion Fund in the Barbados Prime Minister’s office confirmed their financial patronage for the meeting.
Those of us working in the region confront issues of sustainability on a daily basis and often wonder if the bottom will collapse from under our feet. International visiting artists and researchers in residence at Fresh Milk often express surprise at the conditions under which we work and are shocked by how little support there is for the arts in Barbados and the Anglophone Caribbean. Knowing this, we decided not to spend the limited time we had lamenting the working conditions but rather, determine what we could do to solidify our relationships and proactively move the sector forward.
We decided to host Tilting Axis in Barbados as it would likely mirror the challenging working conditions for our colleagues across the Caribbean while confirming the power of the visual arts’ third sector organisations collectively blazing trails for the visual arts sector in the Caribbean and internationally. Meeting in the Southern Caribbean would also reveal the operational environment to those coming in from outside of the region, unaware of the inner workings of this context.
Challenges included balancing the local, regional and international participants’ expectations, negotiating local desires versus participating in larger art conversations and figuring out what role we each have to play in shifting the ground.
Some local participants suggested that the conference should have been exclusively a regional affair and that the inclusion of ‘outsiders’ was reminiscent of an earlier international conference held in Barbados (Black Diaspora Visual Art Symposium / 2009) which, it was expressed, had caused considerable damage to the local (Barbadian) art community and was the death of the National Art Gallery Committee.
Contrastingly, to my mind, Tilting Axis was driven by a regional collective focused on sustaining and reinforcing an intra-Caribbean contemporary art community as a matter of priority, while at the same time considering ways in which the region might become part of larger conversations taking place in the Global South and the Global North.
Tilting Axis brought together a network of individuals interested in finding ways to support the production of art works by Caribbean artists, and increase the visibility and understanding of such production. It was clear that in spite of limited infrastructure in the region for the contemporary visual arts, there is (i) an abundance of talent across the region and in its diaspora worth supporting; (ii) a commitment among participants to create opportunities for this talent; (iii) recognition of the important work being done by third sector arts organisations and (iv) increasing international interest in the region’s creative output which should be capitalised on.
It appeared as though the tilt, or the shift, was collectively expressed as a reframing of this territory, to become more expansive and mobile — continuously opening up to varied possibilities and diverse conceivable futures.
A decidedly open approach to the two-day conference allowed participants to equally contribute to shaping the discourse. It was agreed that the work being done in the region be consolidated and that mechanisms of support be developed to expand the sector, allowing artists and cultural workers flexibility to remain in the region or return and work here if they so choose. Delegates broke into self-selected clinics, tabled a variety of suggestions and proposed action plans out of which three main areas of focus were determined: (i) Education, (ii) Programming and Exhibitions and (iii) Artist Movement and Mobility.
The desire for Tilting Axis to become an annual gathering confirmed a commitment to shape a community of creative activists within an archipelago of islands simultaneously linked and fragmented as a result of varied colonial encounters, post-independent challenges and more recent economic trials. The exchanges that took place over an intense two days and nights, were akin to a unified group of cartographers reimagining and remapping a critical space within which we could each navigate our way forward. It appeared as though the tilt, or the shift, was collectively expressed as a reframing of this territory, beyond linguistic divisions, national borders and the insular Caribbean, to become more expansive and mobile- continuously opening up to varied possibilities and diverse conceivable futures.
Hosting an annual Tilting Axis gathering annually in a different place will deepen the relationships already established, open up participation to cultural workers on the ground in new spaces and constantly expand the network to include others who wish to join and continue the critical work. Several entities generously offered their sites as potential sites for future iterations of Tilting Axis including the PAMM (2016), the NAGB (2017), the NGCI (2018) and Quintapata/DR (2019).
Already we are seeing a variety of outcomes as a result of the February meeting including examples outlined below:
- Support for Marsha Pearce’s Caribbean Futures project.
- An interest in finding ways to contribute to the sustainability of ARC.
- NGCI has invited the NLS and Fresh Milk to travel to the Cayman Islands and offer a workshop/lecture on how to build an artist led initiative and develop a residency programme.
- The sharing of the ‘Double Dutch’ exhibition model by Amanda Coulson which can be freely used, once the model is credited.
- The desire to facilitate educational exchanges at the tertiary level between the COB and the IBB as a pilot.
- An offer from the IBB + China Residencies to assist with web development.
- A suggestion form Videobrasil to create awareness about Tilting Axis at their upcoming festival in October 2015.
- A suggestion to use the Dakar Biennial — both the official platform and the fringe events, as a space to showcase the Caribbean and engage with curators from Documenta and Venice etc. Consider submitting an exhibition or a panel to make the Caribbean visible.
The tasks at hand are to:
- Develop a roving, collaborative administrative desk to manage the coordination of the annual Tilting Axis meeting (currently Fresh Milk, ARC, Res Artis and PAMM who meet regularly to move this forward).
- Source funding to design and maintain a Tilting Axis website to archive the data.
- Facilitate the Action Plan which includes the realization of proposed projects tabled at Tilting Axis in Barbados 2015 through the self-selection of participants to get the activities off the ground and lend support where feasible.
- Keep the network of communication going, possibly through a closed Tilting Axis Facebook page.
Fresh Milk was honoured to host the inaugural Tilting Axis conference given that the goals of the meeting mirrored our own mandate as a social practice project nurturing contemporary art practice and encouraging excellence. Echoed throughout the two days of meaningful exchange was the sincere desire to construct, collaborate, and envision different possible futures’ and share resources and knowledge, both bolstered by the collective expression of a genuine interest to work together. The dynamic and powerful assembly of Caribbean and non-Caribbean participants inspired critical thinking and hopeful enthusiasm as we considered constructive ways in which to be more sustainable, connected and competitive.
Tilting Axis was a long time coming. The ground has shifted and the gathering was a catalyst for practical engagements and subsequent meetings to take place, beginning with the PAMM in Miami in 2016 to which I look forward.