It is undeniable that we are affected by our environment — our geographical environment as well as the people we come into contact with on a regular basis (our family, teachers, friends, classmates) all contribute to the formulation of our own particular psyche. Art has the quality of allowing us into the mind of another person as it is the rendering of an individual’s inner thoughts and ideas into visual or physical form. Furthermore, art allows us to create relationships with a person we may never meet, the artist whose presence is signified symbolically in the work we engage with. Through mentally interrogating the physical object (or digital image) before us and what it means, we build up a relationship with the creator, even in their absence. In short, it is the aim of the artist to communicate a message to the viewer and it is up to the viewer to decipher, then dialogue, with it.
Ergo, by extension, art can act as a bridge between different cultural outlooks — in theory, a French person could visit a gallery and look at a piece by an artist who lives and works in Ghana, hence interacting with ideas formed by the consciousness of an individual whose immediate environment has shaped their thoughts and ideas in a completely different way to their own. However, without those who work to facilitate this kind of cultural exchange behind the scenes, the gallerists and curators for example, this situation remains a hypothetical one. While it is easy enough to use the internet to look up works of art, helping to open up access to the arts for all, it is important that the role of exhibitions does not become undervalued.
Perhaps it is worth noting that, while internet art has managed to bypass the gallery system and need not be shown in an exhibition-type setting, this is not the way all art need be shown. Indeed, while one of the distinctive elements of art practice today is the way in which artists are obliged to use social media as a platform to display their work to a wider audience, it is easy to overlook the need to see these works in person in order to build your own, personal connections with them. For example, conceptual works often require rigorous interrogation by the viewer on multiple levels, not just the visual; anyone approaching the artwork must consider how it uses the gallery space allotted to it, the atmosphere which is created within the gallery, even the way it feels. In addition, a lot of contemporary artists are producing work stressing the physicality of the work which they produce. As a rebellion against the presence of art in the virtual plane of the the internet, against the flattening effect of seeing an image through a computer screen, artists can be seen to be working with a renewed focus on texture and materiality.
The latter does not, however, entail a return to the traditional dominance of the art gallery system. Rather, one could argue that young creatives who seek spaces to exhibit their work are less concerned about associating their art with big-name galleries and “getting ahead,” and are instead drawn to more collaborative, community-based exhibition opportunities. With the ability to showcase their works 24/7 on social media, exhibiting becomes more about process, artistic development and collaboration with other creatives; hence the importance of ESAF.
ESAF offers student artists from a diverse range of backgrounds to come together, helping to achieve an interconnectedness within Edinburgh’s artistic community, and not only presents visual art with what would be traditionally classed as performance art, but brings this together with a series of creatives working in other branches of performance-based art such as theatre, music and comedy. In this interdisciplinary approach, ESAF embodies the cooperative spirit which resonates in the work being produced by artists today and forces attendees to question their own conception of “art” and its boundaries. This, in itself, stresses the importance of exhibiting today by proving that it is not only the artists but the curators, who make important creative decisions and display art in interesting, thought-provoking ways, who open up dialogue between art and viewer.