Preview: The 5th Annual Empty Shop Open

It’s fair to say that Durham isn’t exactly famous for its booming contemporary art scene. ‘Emerging’ is the term used by Nick Malyan, co-founder (along with Carlo Viglianisi) of Empty Shop, a non-profit independent arts organisation that is seeking to change this conception.

Unlike the proverbial ‘white cube’ spaces that spring to mind when talking about art exhibition, Empty Shop has a more nomadic quality, taking over unused buildings and shops and turning them into temporary exhibition spaces (starting with a former off-license in Gilesgate back in 2008). The idea was to provide a platform for showcasing work by artists local to the North-East; one that was open and accessible to both artists and the public alike.

Fast-forward to this year, and Empty Shop has since established a permanent HQ in Durham city centre, while continuing to set up temporary ‘pop-up’ spaces in unused buildings around the city. It has played host to numerous local artists, pop-up cinemas, poetry-readings, and student productions and events (including The Bubble’s very own White Walls event, which saw dozens of paint-happy people merrily doodling and painting across its bare white walls).

In line with the democratic ethos underpinning Empty Shop is what has now become its flagship event (and a key feature of the Durham cultural calendar), the Empty Shop Open, now going strong in its 5th year. Speaking to The Bubble, Nick told us: “The Open is kind of the perfect embodiment of that democratic spirit. Submissions are welcomed from artists of any age, background or level of experience and the work can be any size, medium or theme. The word ‘open’ is a deliberate reflection of the things we set out to do when we started.”

The very first Open saw more than 150 people turn up on the first night, a figure which Nick said astonished them. “We were blown away that art could have that sort of impact in Durham. It was kind of our way of testing the water in a way that included lots of people.”

This year’s Open marks a major anniversary in Empty Shop’s history, and as such looks all set to be bigger and better than ever. Spread out over 5 different venues across Durham and running for 9 days from February 1st 2013, it will feature work selected from over 400 submissions, and is curated to emphasise underlying patterns in the works themselves. Nick said: “We also try to select the pieces based on how we feel they will work individually within the space; because we don’t do “white cube” the character of the space comes into play. It’s a creative process in it’s own right.” Included too in the programme are various companion pieces complementing the main showcase – a conceptual performance by ‘Super Les’ in a former motorcycle accessories shop, and a collaborative illustration project called ‘The Big Windoodle’. “We also welcome an interactive piece of art courtesy of Left Leg Gallery which has to be seen to be believed.”

Operating in an art world which can seem increasingly exclusive and alienating to the ordinary viewer (just read The Guardian’s recent feature on ‘International Art English’, an indictment on the increasing pomposity in commercial art circles), the Empty Shop Open comes across as refreshingly unpretentious with their sense of inclusivity. Nick elaborates: “The worst thing in the art world is when you see people in a gallery moving from one piece of art to another to another in total silence, then as soon as they leave they say to their friend “Wow! That was amazing!” or “Oh my God, that was so shit”. Our galleries are places where you can have that conversation in front of the art or even the artist and that’s fine. I think that’s an important distinction.”

Why not go along and take him up on that?

The 5th Annual Empty Shop Open is running from Saturday 2nd Feb – Sunday 10th Feb, 11pm – 4pm. Millennium Place, Durham City, DH1 1WA. For more information check out the Empty Shop website here.

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