Door's Always Open: An Interview With Dan Goodman

Art displayed in hidden corners of the wildest wood or politely hung in a stately hall evokes a reaction, whether joy, disgust, interest, fear... or maybe it only teases out admiration or adds colour to a wall of blandness. Whatever the purpose, Newcastle upon Tyne indisputably has range, but accessibility to what is submitted means different things to different people. Artist, curator, gallery director and more Dan Goodman- a Northampton lad originally- placed his flag in our cultural hotbed of Toon to study and never left.

'Accessible' is often used to describe a presentation of art that is customer service-y but still essentially hierarchical. I like venues where you feel everybody is on the same level and there is a co-conspiratorial mucking-in; this is one strength of many artist-led and independent spaces: you are being invited to potentially be a part of something rather than to witness something. I like areas where there is an easy point-of-entry to have a show or hold an event, and essentially to have this blurring of audience and artist or producer’.

Someone may feel more comfortable going to the BALTIC rather than pressing the backdoor buzzer of some co-opted office block, whereas others feel the opposite. There is a need for all sorts of venues, which Newcastle has been very good at.

Lapping up disused spaces became chic in the city over the years, but we all knew deep down that it was a temporary measure when commercial development took hold and showered us with grand plans. After the forced vacation of the East Pilgrim Street block, recovery is occurring with steely grit and determination, and organisations are in the process of standing back on their feet, but a sturdy emergence is uncertain.

The trouble is that the damage is already done. The sheer waste of energy, time, and potential with each cycle of having to find another venue is exhausting. With System (Dan's gallery) a small venture, the cost is relatively small, but I know from my time as part of More Than Meanwhile Spaces (a collaborative research project with Newcastle University, Northumbria University, Newcastle City Council and The Newbridge Project looking at longer-term space provision for artist-run initiatives in the region) that Newbridge’s previous move to Carliol House, from just around the corner, took several years of planning and five full weeks of moving.

And here they are now in the same position again and could well be in the next five years. As a sector, we all too often resort to platitudes of resilience, resourcefulness and mild acceptance rather than calling bullshit. Some really exciting things will be happening, but we will also never know what we have lost or potentially never hope to gain with things as they are.

Dan was perhaps the first person to attend university from his working-class family background. But he never lacked encouragement and a supportive nudge from his beloveds, even though art was not their thing especially. Gaining a degree in Fine Art Painting & Drawing, a Museum Studies MA, and currently, in the throes of a PhD at Newcastle, his viewpoints on his practice have shifted exceedingly. As an undergrad, his centre was object-based works, producing paintings about the activity of painting. Whereas now, he delves into the social world of art and what it means to submerge in it.

System is an artist-run gallery that provides an opening for creators to develop, test and investigate concepts within a low stake and collaborative environment. Often this transpires to students and recent grads taking their first baby steps of exploring outside the university context. It is also the site of Goodman's practice-based PhD research looking at forms of value generation within artist-run initiatives. As I have become embedded with System, it has become a kind of moniker for my practice as a socially engaged artist. It is very hard to distinguish between when I am working as Dan or as System.

It started as Moving Gallery in 2009, founded by Leann De La Hay and Alex Breeze. Established as a nomadic gallery that co-opted various venues for one-off shows and events, funding was awarded aiming to increase student retention by offering exhibition opportunities for graduates and students from the region. The last venue - around the time of its funds running out- was the top floor of Bar Loco. They managed to stay there for free for over ten years on a handshake agreement. At this point, it was named System and had charity status under an umbrella charity. This way, the bar could claim rate-relief on its unused floor; this was treated as rent-in-kind.

The founders moved on. Alex is now one of the directors of Breeze Creatives. System passed hands several times until I ended up with it. I was using it as a venue for pop-up shows as part of a curatorial collective, around the time that the people curating System were looking for someone to take over as they were making plans to move down south. That was about five years ago, and I’ve been running it since.

Working as a tutor before and while building a website capable of hosting Digi-residencies, Dan got on board with a 2nd-year Fine Art scheme, Blue Light, at Newcastle University at a moment where life relied substantially on technology. It was a curatorial strand where most of the students had not curated before outside of making displays for assessment, and it was open-ended with no theme and little structure. The goal was for participants to figure how to develop a project and cooperate.

I was there to guide and encourage them, but the idea was to get them to a point where they were managing the project themselves. Before starting, I was very conscious that students had been missing that interaction with each other, and so I wanted this to be central. What they produced was fantastic in terms of the exhibition, but the real advantage was them learning how to collaborate effectively.

Over lockdown, Goodman got stuck into volumes of ROM hacks. These fan-made not-for-profit games adapt the graphics and mechanics of regularly released titles, for example, ROM hacks of classics such as Super Mario and Pokémon. The idea struck to repurpose popular games, akin to how System piggybacks on venues from larger organisations or even how artist-run activity often adopt ways of working; this can alter them in slight or quite dramatic tones.

There is also an interesting ROM hack community that regularly and openly shares code and artwork for others to use. I was interested in how, on the surface, the artist-run and ROM hacking may look quite different, but actually, they are some interesting similarities. There is an element of both where they choose to spend their time that way as means to connect with others, to share ideas and concepts, support each other etc.

It is also a way of storytelling, particularly in role-playing games, which is the type of game I’ve designed System around. I also want it to be a collaborative open-ended story. For this, I was thinking about what System is: you have one exhibition and then the next, and it’s a daisy-chain way of telling stories. The game itself is designed never to be finished, and it’s just somewhere where people can add to the narrative.

I am working with Meaghan Stewart and Oliver Hoffmeister to apply video or text, or gameplay. I want them to integrate their art practice into the game whilst also reflecting on their interactions with System. It is a way of opening up a conversation really and also telling a story.

GAS Contemporary, located in the salt of the earth, coastal town of North Shields and managed by East Street Arts covering costings through rate relief and studio rental, offering the gallery space for free. Decided by a calendar that Dan, the studio holders, and a few others have access to, they are permitted to book rooms out for their artistic needs on a first-come-first-served basis.

It reminds me a lot of when System was above Bar Loco. We shared the space with Marxist discussion groups, salsa classes, and all sorts. I thought that was one of the most exciting things about it; it felt like a proper shared space. I think the role that GAS serves us all for our benefit. There needs to be more spaces like that. Often, we work for funders who push this agenda of working for an audience rather than working out ways of being together on the same level and perhaps, having involvement that individuals can define for themselves preferably than imposed on them.

I think the challenge is communicating that people can work with me and the venue in that way. It is something which took a long time with System and something that I put a lot of work into through talking to people at previews and stressing if you want to work with the venue, then you just have to email me; we’ll start the conversation.

Goodman savours discussion with the folk of Shields and fathoms, 'they are happy just to see something happening'. It is socio-economically deprived when compared to some of the surrounding areas. The ramshackle appearance and its location in a shopping centre helps deal with some peoples' apprehension about entering white cube venues. A tested solution: offering curious parties a sociable cuppa as means of an invitation to discuss the work or in general. People are people. Most people appreciate sincerity and openness.

And if some of the people of Shields do not like the arts or the gallery itself, then that’s perfectly fine. Dissension is okay and a vital part of civic life. I do not think that all arts venues should be there to serve all people - instead, there is a need to have different venues doing different things. My job is not to imagine what art the people of North Shields want to see, or even worse, to tell them what they should appreciate. The people I primarily work with are artists using the space.

The way I select artists is based on, through conversation, how much use I think myself and the venue could be for them. Then the public is there to give the artist an audience to gauge reaction and respond. So, I work from the artist to the audience, rather than developing an exhibition programme built on my imagining of what the audience might want.

That is not to assume the audience is seldom considered and left high and dry; their benefit derives from the affirmation or reaffirmation of a sense of self and comprehending a place in the world through observing pieces and forming their conclusions, in whatever shade that may take. If they think it is shit or a load of bollocks, that is completely fine. As long as they feel validated rather than like they are missing something or failure on their part, I think it is a good thing. The shoddy appearance of GAS’s venue lends itself to this. It is not fancy, and artwork isn’t presented in such a way that is lofted above everyday life."

Article by Beverley Knight