Q&A | City Lit Fine Art students Francesca & Mike on their recent collaboration

Q&A | City Lit Fine Art students Francesca & Mike on their recent collaboration

30 May 2022
Posted in: Courses, Stories

City Lit catches up with City Lit Fine Art students Francesca Giuliano and Mike Abrahams to talk about their recent collaboration. 

Best of Times? Worst of Times? is a new permanent artwork in Kensington Central Library, London, that captures the zeitgeist of difficult times.

We are now ‘just living with Covid’ but it wasn't that long ago we were told ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’. Lockdowns spanned from March 2020 to January 2021 and it was only in April last year that public buildings including libraries reopened.

So was living in lockdown the worst of times or the best of times?

Kensington Libraries were keen to find out and invited Francesca Giuliano and Mike Abrahams to investigate and respond. Their new artwork was unveiled in Kensington Central Library on 11 May 2022.

Best of Times? Worst of Times? is a new permanent artwork in Kensington Central Library, LondonBest of Times? Worst of Times? is a new permanent artwork in Kensington Central Library, London
Best of Times? Worst of Times? a new permanent artwork in Kensington Central Library, London

Q: What were your individual experiences of the 2020 onwards lockdowns? 

MA: My very small studio is located in my home and I loved the peace and quiet of being alone there before the pandemic. Lockdowns meant my family were now working from home which I found a distraction. However, I did like the atmosphere in my neighbourhood of everyone feeling like we are in it together, and we’ll sort it together. 

FG: The first lockdown was fine. I heard a lot of people actually enjoyed it. I was one of them. I felt like I was part of a huge national effort. The other restriction periods were the complete opposite. I had a terrible time. I felt like I would never see my family in Italy again. At its worst I went into a kind of fugue state where I was barely connected to reality. The thing that saved me was clearing out old books which I brought, in small batches, to the freebie bookshelf at my local tube station as part of my daily exercise allowance. That walk and the ability to connect through books was small but crucial to my mental wellbeing.

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Q: How did the 2020 lockdowns affect your artwork? 

FG: My artmaking took a nosedive during the lockdowns. I hardly made a thing. I took lots of videos of my walks. I have only just started making things with them. Short films. Because I had to relocate my studio to my home in a carpeted room I restricted myself to dry materials so I did a lot of drawing. I was on City Lit Fine Art [CLFA] Course Year 1 and Tony Hull got me really excited about markmaking. I developed a way of drawing movement that I’d like to go back to one day. But it’s possible that the whole thing has left such a bad taste that I may never want to revisit any of that.

MA: The first lockdown occurred during my second term of CLFA 2 and while I missed the massive benefit of studio based studying, our Zoom days were OK up to a point. I find it easy to make my art almost anytime, anywhere and in retrospect, I think a number of my projects were in response to the lockdown restrictions imposed.

I am a member of Riverside Artists Group and we set ourselves a task of making a drawing for 30 minutes over 30 days – see the work here.

I am also part of a local community group (Clapton Commons) and helped establish an outdoor performative activity for communal grieving – remembering those who had died during the pandemic when funerals and commemorations were limited to very few attendees. It was called ‘We Grieve’ – see the work here (a further piece re Ukrainian refugees is called ‘We Welcome’).

When galleries closed and we couldn’t have our end of course exhibition (but people could still meet outdoors), I took out an ad in Tate etc, (Tate’s magazine) offering to take my art to people if people could not visit art. This was picked up by Monocle magazine’s daily newsletter.

During lockdown, I also created, curated and exhibited in an exhibition called ‘Unfinished business’. It struck me as perverse at best and anti-culture at worst, that galleries, museums, libraries and other community anchors were closed while estate agents could still show people round houses. So I found a development in Peckham of four houses being built as shells (owners can then configure the unfinished spaces as they wish), and installed the works of 12 artists (including Frankie and some others from my CLFA course). The show was visitable by booking with the estate agent. We had a closing private view when galleries subsequently opened – see the work here.

How did this collaboration come about?

MA: When galleries closed and we couldn’t have our end of course exhibition, I made a 13 minute film about my process (appropriate for online) and an exhibition of my work that I envisaged. At the end I invited people to contact me if they were interested in talking about art or collaborating…

FG: We have different versions of this story. Mike was finishing up on CLFA 2 and I went to the online private view. I’d seen his video that invited collaboration so during the PV I told him I’d be in touch. He remembers me forcefully jabbing the screen with my finger. I remember being the epitome of grace and good manners. Anyway, I was as good as my word. The reason was that I loved his work and the thinking behind it. I saw loads of parallels with me but expressed differently to me. I thought he was super clever and talented. Subsequently we discovered we'd met many years previously through my brother.

MA: The feeling is totally mutual! I’ve collaborated with many people in the past, but normally there is one who dominates. Very rarely is the collaboration totally equal. In the projects we have made I have no idea which bit is mine and which is Frankie’s from concept to material choice to format. But at the heart of the collaboration is our shared interest in and love of words.

FG: We started with the idea of a pop-up exhibition and when we looked at a space we were put in touch with the building contractor doing extensive work in Dalston Square, presenting us with some 250m hoarding as our canvas and a small budget.

MA: That led to us making First Words in Dalston, where the principles of our collaboration were defined. It starts with public engagement. We collect authentic stories from participants which have the power to paint pictures in the minds of others and create emotional connections. They also elicit self-recognition from the participants themselves when the work is made and they see their contributions within it.

FG: We take the participant-created content, based on a moment of zeitgeist, and use it to create both material (physical) and immaterial (digital/audio/performance) installations.

MA: And we also both make the marks!

How would you describe this artwork?

MA: Best of Times? Worst of Times? has two components. A diptych comprising two 270 x 135cm paintings each made from 18 by 45cm square panels, and an ongoing digital presentation displaying readers’ recommendations. 

FG: We asked the local community in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea to share their experiences that lockdown and emerging from lockdown had on their reading habits. More than 300 comments, insights and recommendations became the content of the two large-scale paintings in Kensington Central Library and on the digital screens across all the libraries in the borough.

A few examples:
“I always read, regardless of pandemics.”
“Found it difficult to read anything serious or with long chapters.”
“Lockdown encouraged me to read again and I will continue it now.”
“I used to read a lot on the bus but don't commute any more. I miss it – reading, not the commute.”
“I’m very sorry for those who can’t read at the moment (or ever) – books are my escape. I just bought a T-shirt which says ‘A book a day keeps reality away’!”

Sifting through all the comments, we distilled the responses to: “I always read” and “I wish I’d read”. Sentiments that were as true during lockdown as they are today and will be tomorrow. These aphorisms are used in the physical diptych with quotations from the contributions scraffitoed into the paint.

It’s not too late to contribute to the digital aspect of the project. You can add your recommendations to the ongoing screen displays in the borough’s six libraries. This time it isn’t just limited to books but includes film and music. Tell the library about it

Where do you hope to take your collaboration next?

FG: We have properly sat down to figured out how our collaboration dovetails, what our combined strengths and interests are. And decided to make a go of it. We are very different but the combination of our thinking is really effective. He drives me mad with last minute ideas that seem to me to come from left-field. But when I stop to think about it, that's a good way to keep our thinking fresh and challenged. But it still drives me mad!
Our next project was inspired by the destruction of Afghan libraries. Libraries are frightening places aren't they? They contain knowledge and escape. Two things that authoritarian regimes detest.

MA: But it’s probably going to be much wider than Afghanistan. In the UK almost 20% of all libraries have closed in the last 12 years. In Sarajevo, Ukraine and elsewhere libraries have been destroyed by war. In Cape Town, the university library was severely damaged by fire destroying much of its anti-apartheid archive. Books are being cancelled in the USA. At each turn, the possibility for knowledge and escape is reduced. We find that frightening and want to tell a story about it.

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