What I Learnt During My Residency

For those uninitiated in art world lingo, a residency is a place – usually hosted by a museum or other arts institution – where an artist, curator or writer goes to produce work during an extended period of time, often accompanied by a group of other artists. It’s almost like an exchange programme, except that you’re not swapping places with someone, and the sole purpose of the trip is to engage with the arts in a new environment.

Having just returned from a residency at the Lab at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan, there are a number things that I have learnt, which may or may not be useful for artists about to embark on their first residency. So for those about to jet off to be an artist-in-residence, or if you are just curious about what the process involves, here are my pearls of wisdom.

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Imagining Home workshop, facilitated by Lizzy Vartanian Collier with Leen Jarrar, Darat Al Funun, Amman, Jordan, September 2019

It’s a good idea to do your research before you go

This sounds obvious, right? But then life gets in the way and all of a sudden you’re on the plane to somewhere you’ve never been before. Ask lots of questions before you set off so that you know what you’re walking in to. Don’t be afraid of people thinking you’re annoying. It’s better to be annoying than unprepared.

 

It will feel like going back to school

Arriving at a residency is a weird and surreal experience. It’s like your first week at uni. All of a sudden you’re living in a new town, a new building and with strangers. Everything is new and you’re expected to dive right in. While it is exciting, it can also be a little daunting. My advice would be to take each day as it comes, and make the most of every opportunity sent your way.

Group readings and conversations are likely to feel like seminars at the beginning, with everyone expected to contribute, and with certain egos fighting for attention. At first it may feel like you’re going backwards in time to your classroom days, but by the end of the process, you will appreciate the opportunity to critically engage and swap ideas.

Not everyone is going to be your best friend

You might think that you are destined to be best friends with your co-residents right off the bat, and while that may be the case, it’s unlikely. Of course, you’re going to make friends for life, but you’re not going to form those tight bonds with everyone within seconds. Just like your first day of school, there may be cliques within the residents, or people who knew each other before hand. Don’t feel hurt if you don’t find your best friend on the first day, real friendships take time to develop.

 

It’s what you make of it

Unlike at school, nobody is going to hold your hand during the residency process, so it’s really up to you to get the most out of it. Immerse yourself in the new culture and the institution that is hosting you, you certainly won’t regret it.

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Embroidery Workshop (Tatreez With Lizzy), Manara Culture, Amman, Jordan, September 2019

Art is always emotional

Those of us who work in art will be able to testify, that art is nearly always personal, and without a doubt, it can be very emotional. No matter how prepared you are for a project, there is likely to be at least one moment that is a little difficult. Give yourself time to recognise when a situation might feel difficult. You’re in a new environment, so it’s natural for these moments to happen. Take a deep breath; everything is nearly always fine in the end.

 

The time you spend away from the institution is just as – or even more – important than your time there 

In my personal experience, the time I spent exploring the country, meeting new people and trying new things was almost just as important as the time I spent working with the institution. Make the most of the friendships you make and the places you visit in this new space, it’s an amazing opportunity for both personal and professional growth.

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Away From A State Of Things, The Lab, Darat Al Funun, Amman, Jordan

People who run residencies are mad (but in a really good way)

Imagine having to deal with multiple artists all the time, all craving your attention at every hour of the day. At least when you’re curating an exhibition, the artists aren’t at your beck and call 24/7. Looking after artists during their residency doesn’t just mean dealing with their artistic woes, but coordinating personal issues, transport queries and whatever else they might throw at you. Having been one of eight such artists, I have a whole new level of respect for those lucky (or unlucky) enough to manage so many creative souls.

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Bait Reimagined, Lizzy Vartanian Collier, 2019

You’ll end the experience tired, exhausted and bursting to go home, only desperate to return as soon as possible

The whole residency experience is likely to leave you high and dry. Whether your stay involved producing work, running events or curating exhibitions, it is a physically and emotionally demanding ordeal. I personally didn’t have a day off in bed for six weeks, and by the time I returned to London, I felt like a zombie. In your final weeks, you’ll probably start to miss home terribly. That said, one definite perk of being part of a residency is the ability to avoid the reality of whatever is going on in your hometown and I promise you, once you leave the residency, you’ll be dying to go back.

 

Away From A State Of Things, the exhibition that was produced through the residency, remains open at The Lab, Darat Al Funun, Amman, Jordan until 24 October 2019

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer and curator. She is the founder of Gallery Girl - a London-based curatorial platform and website dedicated to modern and contemporary art from across the globe. Her work is primarily focused on supporting emerging female artists from the Middle East and the Caucasus. She has written for Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, Suitcase and Vice Arabia among other publications. Her exhibitions in London and Armenia have been featured in Vogue Arabia, The Art Newspaper, The Art Gorgeous and numerous other news outlets. Gallery Girl has also spoken in the UK, UAE and Belgium about the contemporary art scene in the MENA region, and is planning further events in London and Amman.

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