How to be here
Alice Yard began not with a mission or an agenda, but with an opportunity and a series of questions. The opportunity was to take a modest domestic urban space – literally the backyard of a house in west Port of Spain – and open it to the imaginative investigation of artists, musicians, writers, and others. The questions were if, why, and how this creative community would respond.
Their answers have been unpredictable, illuminating, occasionally frustrating, occasionally inspiring. And they have challenged us to devise a language focused enough to discuss the particularities of our space and time, but also expansive enough to comprehend the organic openness of a process that has never had a specific end in sight.
The pre-story of Alice Yard begins in the 1960s, when a woman named Alice Matilda Gittens bought the house at 80 Roberts Street in Woodbrook, a residential neighbourhood laid out at the start of the twentieth century on what was then the western edge of Port of Spain. The property has remained in the family for half a century, passing down to Alice’s descendants. The backyard of the house has been a space for neighbourhood children to meet and play, a space for the creative projects of the Gittens and Leonard families, and home to several masquerade bands during Trinidad’s annual Carnival.
This history of collaborative and creative practice is part of the genealogy of Alice Yard, founded in 2006 by Alice Gittens’s great-grandson Sean Leonard, an architect by profession. It was a long-considered impulse, informed by Sean’s efforts over more than a decade to support the work of artists and others, and instigate a kind of creative “play” that revives the imaginative freedom of what was a childhood haven. Sean quickly invited the collaboration of the artist and curator Christopher Cozier and myself, a writer and editor, and we have remained the three “co-instigators” of Alice Yard, as we continue to debate the motives and means of an experiment that is now approaching its tenth year.
As befits an initiative founded by an architect, Alice Yard’s activity has often been shaped by its physical space, and vice versa. Beginning merely with a paved courtyard linked to the street by an open driveway, Alice Yard has evolved to include exhibition and working space, a rehearsal room for musicians, and a terrace for social encounters and performances. Since September 2006, we have curated or hosted over three hundred public events: artists’ projects, exhibitions, talks, readings and discussions, performances and screenings. And Alice Yard also includes a modest living space which has allowed us to host several dozen artists-, curators-, and writers-in-residence since 2009.
There is a page on our website that describes our residency “programme,” but this is a good example of the dilemmas posed by vocabulary – because the word “programme” suggests a methodical structure we’ve never achieved or desired. Our artists- (and others) in-residence are simply colleagues whose work or ideas we find engaging. Our “application” process is disarmingly straightforward: We invite people whom we wish to draw into our ongoing conversation, and when prospective residents previously unknown to us make contact, we simply say: Tell us what you want to do here. If the reply intrigues us, if we think a particular project or line of enquiry seems likely to challenge us in some interesting way, we issue an invitation.
Because Alice Yard has no external funding – we have never sought nor received state support, never applied for a grant – we require that visiting residents cover their own travel and subsistence costs. What we offer, in the mode of traditional hospitality, is living and working space, and the resources and resourcefulness of our local collaborators. What we ask is that residents come to the yard in a spirit of openness and open-mindedness, prepared to experiment and improvise, and above all prepared to participate in Alice Yard’s organic social network.
We measure the success of each residency not merely by any volume of work produced, but also by the extent to which each resident is able to change the way we understand our physical and social space. The most successful residents arrive with an understanding of Alice Yard’s modest physical infrastructure and capacious imagination. This demands a generous flexibility. Alice Yard, we are careful to explain to visitors, is not a quiet retreat, but the opposite.
Open to the street and to our urban neighbourhood, the yard is a daily thoroughfare for musicians, artists, and casual visitors, and a venue for impromptu meetings. This openness is both deliberately planned and accidental. As a physical space, the yard insists on conversation and encourages collaboration. Its social architecture is informed by Trinidad’s long tradition of urban “yards” – communal spaces for meeting, learning, and making, open to all – a mechanism for engineering serendipitous encounters.
It is also, we dare to suggest, a mechanism for engineering generosity. The original and enduring animating force that makes Alice Yard possible is the altruism of Sean Leonard and his family, who have given so many people permission to “play” in their yard on Roberts Street. Another fund of possibility we’ve been lucky to draw on is our always changing network of collaborators here in Trinidad and around the world: artists, designers, writers, musicians, doers, and makers of all kinds who have responded with energy and eagerness to our invitation to step into the yard and imagine with us. I’ve come to understand that in circumstances such as ours – with a history of treating resources as scarce, and opportunity as a territory to be defended – one of the most radical ways an individual can respond to uncommon generosity is to pass it on, distribute it widely.
Small artist-run initiatives and contemporary art spaces like Alice Yard are often asked about “sustainability,” and usually what people mean is: How do you pay for all this? We’ve been criticised before for not being “serious” enough about finances and funding, and what’s implied is the idea that the value of a project like ours should be measured in successful grant applications, international donor relationships, plane tickets, and appearances in the art world’s event circuit.
We came to realise years ago that “value” and “sustainability” mean something very different to us. What sustains Alice Yard is our sense of curiosity and the sheer enjoyment of engaging with the ideas and aspirations of everyone who steps into our space. Trinidad and Tobago is a small and frequently mercenary society where official culture institutions are weak, there is almost no tradition of private philanthropy, and no wealthy expat or tourist population to “support the arts.” Our agenda and our reward are to make room in this context for imagination and generosity, and serious work that at the same time is also serious play.
The motive is to keep ourselves challenged and fascinated, and in conversation with people who energise us. “I am still playing around with the idea of the yard,” Sean remarks, “still figuring it out. Nothing has been defined, and I am enjoying the play.” What we hope for (and from) our artists-in-residence is a reciprocating “playfulness,” a willingness to imagine with and through our physical and social space. Often, that means abandoning preconceptions of what a “residency” is and does, and discovering invigorating new ways of possessing and sharing a space. As we continue to wrestle with vocabulary, perhaps in time to come we’ll arrive at an apter word than “residency” to talk about this subtle process.