Choosing the right residency

  • Gamsutl (film still) by Taus Makhacheva (Photography, 2013)

Residencies are a big part of how artists develop their practice and support themselves. But there is a huge range of opportunities out there, and the task of working out which are worthwhile can be daunting. To help you with that process, here artist and writer Maija Timonen discusses how to choose the right residency for you, and the right moment to do it

There are a huge amount of artists’ residencies around, of varying types, and perhaps just as many ways of thinking through what one might want from them. Residencies can offer financial and infrastructural support that allow for a different kind of concentration on one's work than is possible with the demands of everyday life prevailing. The considerations arising around them, however, can be more complex than just whether your application is successful.

Finding out about residency opportunities that are right for you is perhaps the most basic of these considerations. Online arts directories such as Re-title have residency listings, and Residency Unlimited, aside from their own residencies, have a very comprehensive page of application deadlines for international residencies. To narrow down this sea of opportunities, following the mailing lists of specific institutions you feel have relevance to your practice is a good idea. For example, for film and video makers, LUX weekly and monthly newsletters list opportunities relating specifically to moving image.

What it often comes down to for a lot people though, is word of mouth, and hearing about residencies from friends who have done them. Even if you have not come across a particular residency through this route, it is always a good idea to ask around if there is someone within your reach who has experience of a particular institution. As there are such huge differences between different types of residencies and residency-offering institutions, asking a real person about their personal experiences will definitely help form an impression of what is on offer and how it fits in with what you are doing or would like to be doing. Rather than tailoring an application to fit in with the perceived demands of a particular residency, it is a good idea to instead look for residencies that fit in with or offer specific things to your existing practice.

The first thing I would consider is the degree of financial support on offer. This may sounds very pragmatic, but making sure you are indeed offered a ‘break’ from the demands of daily life is significant. Naturally, people have different degrees of resources available to them and you may decide that other benefits outweigh and justify some financial outlay on your part in specific cases. My own overall position on this is that I would want to make sure the institution is paying for accommodation and travel at the very least, and many other artists agree.

Correct timing of a residency is also important. It is worth thinking through carefully what your commitments are with regards to work, and how flexible your living situation is. Are you able to easily leave or sublet your flat or room for the duration of a residency? Logistics like this can be more complicated than you might have initially thought.

Another thing to raise is the relationship with the host institution. How involved do they get with your work – do they have a structured programme of activities or will your time be more self-directed? Is there perhaps an expectation of something specific being produced during the residency? Some residencies are more oriented toward production, while others are about giving the residency holders the freedom to pursue new ideas and avenues without any projected outcome.

This is something that has great relevance to the way you actually spend and structure your time during the residency. There is a big difference between going into a situation with something specific you want to achieve and approaching the residency period as an occasion for re-booting your practise, without expectations. Both are equally valid approaches but will probably suit different residencies. For example, I myself found the relative isolation of a residency I did in the Baltic Art Center in Visby, Sweden, incredibly helpful for finishing an edit of film, which I had otherwise not had the possibility to focus on in a way that would help push it beyond my previous work. It is easy to get jaded with your practise sometimes, and residencies are good for challenging your own preconceptions and reflexes and for offering new perspectives on your work. Filmmaker Redmond Entwistle puts it like this: ”The extended uninterrupted time outside the immediate pressures of production or exhibition have on the past provided a space to recognize more of my own priorities in my work. This clear space to work can be both a challenge and a chance to recalibrate where ones interests really lie and an opportunity to rethink first principles.” He also warns against moulding your work to fit the demands of a particular residency: “I find the pieces that I've made strictly in response to residencies the most unsatisfactory, but if timed well a residency can give you space for imaginative or critical thinking rarely afforded outside, and in a depth that can be expanded on in less ideal conditions”.

The degree of support available to you during the residency (and whether you need it or not) should also be a consideration. Artist Patrick Staff, a residency veteran, says, “Smaller institutions can be very intimate, social, professional and casual time all mixed together. … larger programmes have had moments where you feel out on a limb, but I've never experienced being left totally to myself and without aid, though friends and peers often speak of this happening on residencies.” Besides the support you get during the residency, another question you might ask is if an ongoing relationship with the institution is likely to continue after it’s over.

Lastly, you may want to delve into the specifics of what a particular residency has to offer with regards to facilities. Do they have technical resources relevant to your work? On this point, its worthwhile asking the institution for details, especially if your needs are specific. I myself work with film, and I would check what technical equipment a residency has to this effect (cameras etc), and if they have (or have access to) editing or post-production facilities beyond my own laptop.

The chance to meet other artists and curators might not be the sole goal of a residency, but can form an significant part of what you end up getting out of doing one. Some residencies offer studio visits, and this can be a good way of not just thinking through your own practice but of getting your work seen. You can never predict how gratifying or not the social dimension of a residency will be, but they can be a lot of fun and lead to great friendships and collaborations.

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