My Sussex: Helen Cammock

Helen Cammock, Turner Prize winning multimedia artist.

Are you local?

I’ve lived in Brighton since 1989. I came to University of Sussex aged 19 from Somerset because Brighton felt like a safe space for me to start finding out who I was. Although it was a very white city it had other things in terms of a radicalism and an openness that meant that as a Black woman I could still be myself here. I used to sing on the folk circuit, I knew I would be able to gig here. There was a great queer scene, at that time I was clubbing a lot. I stayed on for different reasons: it felt like a space where I could make friendship groups, networks; I was a social worker here for ten years before I went to art school.

Why the shift of career?

My job fundamentally changed because of all the cuts to the social care sector. I decided to do an art degree to take a bit of time out, with no intention of becoming an artist. Suddenly my life took a completely different turn. I had a great internship at Photoworks when they were based in the centre of town. And then on the day I graduated I was offered the co-role of taking Brighton Photo Fringe through into its third festival in 2008. The artist and teacher Peter Kennard came down from the Royal College of Art and saw a film of mine I exhibited with fellow graduating students. He left his card, saying: ‘give this to the person who made that film, if they want to do an MA, I want to teach them’. And I thought ‘do I want to do an MA?’ And I realised that, actually, I did.

You co-won the Turner Prize in 2017, when it was in Margate. Did it have a positive effect on the town, and is that likely to be the case in Eastbourne?

We spent a lot of time in Margate, and there was a real buzz about the place, not just from the resident art community but also people in the street. There’s an energy that comes as people feel part of something that’s happening on a national level. Eastbourne is a town with hidden and surprising histories which I’m hoping will somehow be revealed as people visit for reasons other than tennis and the beach. Towner director Joe Hill told me that Paul Robeson used to play to packed audiences at the Winter Garden, where the Turner Prize announcement dinner is going to happen. And that Marx and Engels used to holiday in Eastbourne and use the time to think, write, debate, strategise…

The Turner Prize divides opinion. Might it change local people’s views about art and broaden perspectives?

I hope it will win people over, but if it doesn’t, so what? Because people will engage with it on some level, school groups will visit, and young people are perfect audiences for any kind of contemporary art. Also Eastbourne Alive (which is running alongside the Turner Prize) is installing artists’ work across the town, which people will engage with (in some cases accidentally) and the ensuing dialogue is perhaps the most important thing.

Will you be involved?

I was meant to have a summer commission at Brighton University CCA, which, devastatingly, has just been closed down. Instead, I’ve been asked to do a commission which will be displayed at the front of the Winter Garden for Eastbourne Live alongside the Turner Prize. It’s about how we navigate space and histories –and how this translates to our inner worlds; our inner garden, if you like.

Fabrica has lost funding, too…

Yes I feel pretty devastated about what’s happening to the Brighton art scene. It feels it’s getting progressively worse with much of the infrastructure being dismantled without replenishment or reshape. Other towns on the south coast have public art institutions where you can see contemporary and modern art: Hastings has a thriving scene and Hastings Contemporary, Eastbourne has Towner. Chichester has Pallant House. Now the only place in Brighton is the Museum and that’s as stripped back financially as anywhere else. Many artists and curators are migrating to Margate, St Leonards and Hastings and so hubs are growing elsewhere. There’s a complacency that Brighton doesn’t need them, but it really does. Phoenix Art Space, Brighton Photo Fringe, and Photoworks remain, but they need realistic support. Of course there should be more public investment from the Council, The Arts Council and the universities, but we need to engage in a wider conversation about who values the arts.

What are your favourite Sussex landmarks?

I love the University of Sussex campus: the ACCA building, the Meeting House, the Library. But it’s the natural landmarks that most affect me. The hills, the sea, and the cliffs. And now that I have a dog, the different woodlands. They are my touchstones, a big reason why I’ve stayed here so long. If the Sussex landscape hasn’t directly affected what I make, I think it’s affected how I make it. Walking is really part of my working process. Sometimes I think I’ve written something quickly: but that’s usually untrue, I’ve spent a long time thinking about it either consciously or subconsciously while walking in the local landscape or lying in bed at night. The landscape has held me and nurtured me.

Tell us about your University of Sussex commission, which will be unveiled this September.

I’m told it’s the first permanent artwork in decades commissioned by the university. It’s going to be on the top circular wall of the new Student Centre, looking across campus and visible from the new library. White words on a colour background, reading: ‘whisper tones vibrate foundations’. Speaking somehow of how new ideas often unsettle (vibrate) old ideas and how the vibrations of old ideas – if we hear them – always rumble within the new.