Holly Argent, a white artist with chin-length brown hair and wearing a white T-shirt, is standing in front of a backdrop of trees and buildings.

Dialogue: Holly Argent

Holly Argent is an artist based in Newcastle upon Tyne. Variously alongside, overlapping with and, increasingly, as a core part of her individual practice, she is Librarian for the Women Artists of the North East Library.

Conceivably both a project which contains artworks and an artwork which is a container for projects, Holly established the library in 2017, and now manages its growing collection alongside a public programme of events and artist commissions as a means of setting up contexts for exploring the artistic legacies of women and non-binary artists associated with North East England.

We talk with Holly about starting out after university, the visibility of women in the academy and performing the ‘librarian’.

ANNE: As I see it, there are two facets to your practice: your artistic practice and your more curatorial or research-based practice as the Women Artists of the North East Library. Is that fair to say? And I suppose a related question is whether these different aspects of your practice are merging, or will merge?

Holly Argent: Yes, these are questions I have for myself at the minute, actually: what makes up a practice? Certainly, a pertinent question for me right now is how librarianship is part of my artistic practice. I think in the past, library work and studio work have felt quite separate — perhaps because one form of ‘work’ resides with me being in the studio by myself, and the other in this library ‘space’ with others.

Working with the library has, I guess, over time had many facets to it, both curatorial and administrative, but I think I’m now at a point after running the library for five years, that I’m starting to think a little bit more about how that work is part of my  creative practice. Because I’m definitely not undertaking it as a curator or art historian: I’m doing it as an artist. I’m looking for the language to articulate what this practice is, because a lot of it is about facilitation – about supporting other artists’ work – and much is also administrative; being a librarian of sorts. 

At times it doesn’t necessarily feel as though it occupies the same head-space as having a studio practice, but I think that itself has something to say: what is an artistic life, for instance? For me, I don’t feel like it’s this separate project where I put on a ‘curator hat’ — and maybe that’s just because a lot of it is collaborative, working with other artists and organisations. Maybe this is where the creative element exists, and perhaps this act of forming relationships with other artists is where a direct connection between the library and my previous individual work exists. In the past this has taken place via the archive, looking for historical figures to create work in relation to, but the library is a project with artists who are alive and I can have a real conversation with.

The library is less about connecting with the kind of historical, fixed narrative or chronology that you might find in an archive, and a little more like shaping what a relationship with another artist is. For me, one of the most enjoyable parts of running the library has been the commissions, because I get to work with wonderful artists also interested in this relational space that happens in archives and libraries and between us, like Fiona Larkin (co-commissioned with Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art 2021-23) and Kate Sweeney (WANE Library Writing Commission 2022), and with each artist it’s a very different relationship, formed by the dialogue and the context of each project. Through my previous work, I was corresponding with artists I’d come across in archives: it’s a similar connection (I’d also say it’s an emotional one), but it’s not reciprocal in the same way, at least not tangibly.

So I guess something that does connect all my work is an interest in where reciprocity lies within the practice. But this thought process has only happened, I feel, through working on the library: the library’s trajectory wasn’t what I thought would happen. And sometimes the library definitely feels very non-creative, but I think other aspects of a studio-based practice also feel similar: a lot of admin, organising, budgeting.

ANNE: It’s interesting to hear about these links between an archival practice and the more immediate connections you’ve made been able to make via the library — itself an archive, of course, but one whose parameters you’re in control of. One reason I asked, really, was that I thought in the past you had conceived of them as separate. Is it fair to say they had been more separate, and you’d been keeping them more in separate boxes?

HA: Yeah, definitely. I think I found it helpful to do that at the very beginning — and they were physically separate. The library started at The Northern Charter via the Graduate Bursary in 2017 for which artist Rene McBrearty and I created a call out for donations to a library of women artists of the North East. I had a studio there, as well. It was very physically separate: the library was outside of my studio in a project space, and I would close the door to my studio, and it’d be like, ‘Okay, switch hats!’ and have time for making, drawing etc. And then over time, I think it’s just become slightly blurred: parts of the library have entered my studio, like the books I’ve carried around for research.

Another way is through writing, trying to use text and language to articulate what exactly this library is. I’m always looking to history for artists who have also become custodian’s to archives. Also the social aspects of the work (I am not sure if social practice is the right term for me) but all these different aspects merged, almost, and now the library is in my home! So it’s been encroaching more and more on all aspects of my life. 

ANNE: As though it’s chasing you…

HA: Yes!

ANNE: It’s as though it’s asserted itself in some way. My last real engagement with the other side of your practice was Interleaving the Archive: Group Action With KK which you presented at Tyneside Cinema, and later at Berwick Film & Media Art Festival, and the link then between archives and establishing relationships with artists across time was already clear, as was the sense of care and attention, and generosity that you brought to that project working with KwieKulik — so it’s interesting to hear that you view these parts of your practice as moving closer together. I wonder if you could say something to situate the library and where it came from. What was the genesis of the library?  Did it come straight out of the end of your time at Newcastle University?

HA: Yeah, pretty much. It came about through feeling quite frustrated in my final year of university around a position that the Fine Art Department took around a student and staff campaign to rename one of the gallery spaces [currently the Ex Libris Gallery] ‘Rita’, a name which was a cipher for many things eventually, but for me, and I think for other colleagues, it was a direct reference to the artist Rita Donagh, who was an artist and teacher at the university: she’d been a student and then taught there. As a student myself within that same department, I wondered where these narratives were. It felt very much like there was one narrative around the Basic Design Course of Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton in the 60’s. Where were the other figures that have built this space we’re all in? 80% of the students in my cohort were women, which I think is still pretty much the case, so where are those figures, as people to live up to?

ANNE: How did you settle on her — why her in particular as a figure?

HA: There was a call-out from George Vasey, the Curatorial Fellow, for ideas to rename the Ex Libris gallery space (which ironically was the old Art Library that got removed and absorbed by the university library) and which suggested that names could reference the history of the department. So there was already a prompt there to do some research, and I think there must have already been a conversation around Rita’s name, through staff members: there really was a lively, galvanised movement, of sorts, to rename it. But the response from the department was a strong ‘No’, and here wasn’t even any curiosity around it. It was just ‘no, we’re not going to do that’. 

It was that attitude, I think, that I felt quite frustrated with, and ended up feeling that this was a conversation that just couldn’t happening here, in terms of other legacies around the North East, or other artists who have influenced students, teachers, a whole art scene in Newcastle and beyond: that isn’t happening in the art department at all. So the idea of a library was a reaction to that, in some senses: if that conversation felt really difficult in the institution, now I was outside of that institution, as a graduate, could it happen another way? I also wanted to say, figuratively, there are all these artists here who you could look to or you could be interested in, more than two men, anyway. It came from a bit of anger, I suppose, at the end of my degree.

ANNE: … and a need to reassess visibility; relative visibility. Was it always a desire to look back at the history of the region, too?

HA: I think so, yes. I was definitely interested in it. And I think because I’d been working with archives as well in my practice already, and enjoyed that process: you know, the idea of looking for something you don’t even know you’re looking for. That’s what I enjoy about those spaces. So I definitely thought, OK, well, I want to know more, on an individual basis as well.

ANNE: And then you curated the exhibition Women Artists of the North East Library at Workplace Gallery (22 June – 9 September 2018).

HA: Yes, so George Vasey was invited to present a show there in partnership with Cafe Gallery Projects in London (CGP, now Southwark Park Galleries) to coincide with the Great Exhibition of the North but he ended up being unable to produce both sites, so he got in touch and asked whether I’d be interested to curate something at Workplace instead. And I was — but it only gave me about three and half months before the exhibition was due to open. So I did it. 

ANNE: Was that the first public manifestation of the library? 

HA: It was the first opportunity, at least physically, I’d had to bring the library – the physical donations – together with artists and their work in the same space, and for the library to have a home where people could visit on a more regular basis.. Prior to that it was at The Northern Charter, which wasn’t publicly accessible because it was artists’ studios. It was difficult for people to see it without someone being there every day. So that was the first opportunity, yes, and to bring artists who were making work into a shared physical space with the library. 

I invited other artists who were also working in some capacity in dialogue with another figure: another artist, a historical figure, a family member or a community. Tess Denman-Cleaver’s work for that show was created through a phone conversation with her mum; Phyllis Christopher‘s work was documentation of lesbian communities in places she was living and in some ways Phyllis’ approach was similar to the library’s aims. Kate Liston’s work had arisen from research into Ella Bergmann-Michel, a prominent Modernist I had no idea had showed work in the region in the 60s. And Harriet Sutcliffe’s work was also research-focused; in her case looking at the women who had studied on the Basic Design Course. 

So yes, I was interested in other artists who have an interest in bringing other figures into their work. But it was very much an experimental proposal. It was a case of bringing togther a bunch of people whose work I liked: what will they be like together and with a library? It was thought through but assembled fairly quickly, and everyone showed existing work: we couldn’t commission anyone to make anything new. What was really exciting about that show, which then prompted everything that happened after, was really having a physical space in which to run a collaborative programme. The exciting thing for me was to use the library as a space in which to host events and for the library to be touched, read, made messy. We presented one event a week: I think we did 10 events for that exhibition alone!

ANNE: So you really established the model for what the library was to become.

HA: Yeah, definitely. A lot of that was inviting other people: curators and artists.

ANNE: So that was really key to it as well — its invitational structure. This is about exchange and reciprocity, like you said, and working in partnership. That was 2018: when did you go on to apply for funding for the library and present the series of commissions and events that have formed the shape it has taken most recently?

HA: Tess Denman-Cleaver (who then became Producer of the library) and I wrote the funding application during the first lockdown for money for a long-term programme, commissions and residencies in North East institutions, and research time. It hadn’t really had that much funding — or all its funding until that point had come from producing small events. You know, I’d get a fee for an event or something. And I think commissioning is something I’d always thought about: the idea of the library being responded to, being a generative thing, in a way probably similar to how I was responding to archives in the past, wanting to make work from things I’d found in collections, or not found in collections. 

I was really interested in how other artists might do that with this library. Equally, I still wonder, sometimes, what do you do with this thing? It’s become a thing in its own right: it’s got a shape now; a physical library. How do other people want to use it? It doesn’t have to exist; it doesn’t have to have a structure like an institution does.

ANNE: That’s what makes it exciting, its provisionality; that fact it’s mobile. It can mould itself to the next iteration of whatever happens. So you were successful in getting Arts Council funding, and it was able to realise certain ambitions, is that fair to say? You were able to commission and to present a series of events with institutions as well. You’ve worked in partnership with institutions across the North East; artists have produced work with you, and you’re now at the end of that process, in terms of the funding, at least, so have you got a sense of what you want to do next, or are you taking stock? Is it going to be a case of having to get more funding to make more things happen, or working more with institutions, or do you not know yet?

HA: I think definitely a period of rest and taking stock. Over the past five years, even though I wasn’t producing events the entire time, I’ve presented a lot of events-based activity and never really scheduled in a break or time to reflect on what it is. It became one thing after another, and I wanted to try something new each time. But the last two years – the period the library had funding – I could work with Tess as Producer and Taryn Edmonds as Programme Co-ordinator, the library became a team. We were doing it together, which I loved, and that’s one way I think it can work, being led by a collective. 

Something I have always thought about since the beginning, but haven’t had the capacity to take further, is creating a structure or a process by which anyone who’s making a donation can play a bigger part in what it is. Because there are over 300 items in it: there are a lot of artists that make the library what it is. What ways of working could share that responsibility somehow? But I think it’s about finding a structure that works and might be sustainable. 

ANNE: It’s defined by the sum of its parts in some ways: what if donation were to mean something more than depositing material?

HA: Yeah, exactly. Maybe you donate a physical object but you might also donate time. Something that means that it can maintain itself. A huge part of it is maintenance. It’s about care for the objects and the artists but it’s also care of the structure and decision-making of where it goes. How can I dissolve a bit of that, I wonder?

ANNE: Exactly. So how can you resist becoming the de facto administrator — which changes the nature of it, I suppose, but also for you means that all this kind of admin work could be distributed. I didn’t realise it already contained over 300 objects: that’s a lot. And so it means that presumably at some point, it’s not going to be able to fit in your house any more, and you’ll need to house it somewhere. What would that mean? 

It will change the nature of it in some way, and there are pros and cons to that. If and when you have to physically house it somewhere permanently, how do you think you might reconcile the need for it to be physically sited somewhere, even if it still remains mobile, with the fact that its provisionality is what has animated it so far?

HA: Yeah, I guess the way it’s worked when the library has been situated in another organisation has always been an in-residence arrangement, so it has always been a temporary relationship. It’s parasitic in that way, and I like that about it! It’s also been a way of housing the library rent-free: at Workplace, for example, we had a space for 10 weeks. Whatever that relationship is, it has to be the right organisation — one which also has the capacity, maybe, to facilitate its potentially changing nature, because I think the worst case scenario is that it goes into an archive.

ANNE: And that’s the thing an institution can’t do. It can’t accommodate something that’s in flux, because it needs to fix things — so it’s at odds with that. It’s an interesting problem to have to grapple with. But it sounds like you need some time now to work things out for the future.

HA: I think so, yes, time and a fallow period. And also, I guess, as I was saying at the beginning, it’s about working out where this sits in my whole practice, as an artist.

ANNE: That perhaps leads back to thinking about the other side of your practice: the making of both performance-based and moving image work. Is that something you’re still working on at the same time as well, or are you hoping to return to it?

HA: Over the last couple of years with the funding, no: I did prioritise the library and that did take up all my capacity really, outside of other jobs. Something I found really interesting that I felt as though I couldn’t do in the context of this two-year programme was to respond personally to some research I was doing about a video artist called Tamara Krikorian which came out of the research residency I undertook at Northumbria University. I presented a screening, Tamara Krikorian and Peers in May 2022 at the end of a couple of months’ research in other archives. 

I just wanted to know more about Tamara. I’d come across her because Elaine Drainville, a researcher and sound recordist who has worked with Amber Film and Photography Collective and filmmakers like Melanie Chait, had mentioned in an interview for Andy Robson’s PhD that she was taught by Tamara at Northumbria University in the 70s, and I thought, who’s this video artist I don’t know anything about, I love video and film, and  Elaine has been really influenced by her. I was interested in who this person was whom I knew nothing about. She’s obviously been in the region; she’s influenced people who were still here. Tamara taught at Northumbria University, only for a short amount of time, in the late 70s and early 80s — but in this exciting first decade of British video art. 

I learnt Tamara organised the first symposium on video art in the UK, at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow, which is now the CCA. She was really influential, working at the very beginnings of video art first for the then-Scottish Arts Council but then as an artist, and was a founding member of London Video Arts. But she only made work for 10 years or so, and then she stopped. She was also a writer, writing a lot for Art Monthly and elsewhere; and a teacher at various colleges. She lived in Edinburgh (just around the corner from Margaret Tait on Rose Street, whom she visited on Orkney too) but later moved to Wales and became the head of the Welsh Sculpture Trust. She had a practice which was quite expansive and very connected, but seems to have drifted out of focus perhaps because of the many different ways in which she worked, but also perhaps it of the specific time in which she was making moving image work, when the mass media technologies were very different. So for me she’s a really interesting figure. I’m interested in making more work in relation to her because I think she could potentially demonstrate for me a model of working which incorporates different relationships and practices. Also, her work feels somewhat topical again, thinking about the state of TV and journalism now.

ANNE: She sounds like you: resisting a singular trajectory. Certainly the trajectory that people would want or expect you to plot when leaving art school, for instance, but it also feels a little like a male-centric auteur narrative — the idea that you’d need to ascend this pyramid in an easily understandable and documentable way. Something more fragmented or dissociated in this way is harder to pin down or fix.

HA: I agree and I think this is also a way of working that is often found in non-male practices, taking on various different forms of work, different jobs…

ANNE: Because needs must…

HA: Yes. The artist Felicity Allen has defined a term called the ‘disoeuvre’, in opposition to the artist’s oeuvre, which is easy to document and assemble a chronology around. It’s a way of looking at practices, often feminist practices, and thinking about an alternative to the easily-digestable ‘oeuvre’. It’s also about finding artists who aren’t working in a super-commercial way or always making work that is easy to sell: those not focused primarily on gallery representation. 

ANNE: Also maybe it’s a strategy for resisting that.

HA: Definitely, and I would hope so. Being in residence with the library led me to this artist who, on a more personal level, I’m interested in researching further, and making more performance, writing or moving image work in relation to her practice. Whether that then ties in with aspects of the library, I’m not totally sure yet. 

Through conversations with friends, I have been thinking more deeply about this role of ‘librarian’, grappling with what it means to have this library and having to act or perform the librarian — as distinct from the relatively established area of practice in which artists work with archives, which has been around for a long time.

ANNE: Yes, and that’s sometimes more about using archives as assets to pick from, whereas what you’re doing is establishing a situated, long-term engagement with the material. Returning to that question about the two facets to your practice, of course, you needn’t: there’s no need to resolve things or make them less messy. These things could exist in parallel, sometimes come together, sometimes drift apart.

HA: Yeah, I like that idea. It feels good not to be fixed in that way.

ANNE: I’m interested to know about people who are based here in the North East. You came here to study at Newcastle University. One thing I’m interested in is why you stayed: what convinced you to stay, and was it happenstance or planned? 

HA: I think it was the fact that when I was at university, I saw other students graduate and stay. That first iteration of The NewBridge Project, when it was on New Bridge Street West and studios were £50 a month: it was insanely cheap and super DIY, and it was two Newcastle University graduates who had set it up. So I think it was really the fact that I saw that people graduated and were then able to do things – to make stuff – and that they could afford it. I was also able to get a studio pretty much straight after graduating and I could afford it by working part-time. 

I think I was encouraged by seeing other young artists make things possible and lead activity. I do wonder whether graduates leave with that same sense now. 

ANNE: There’s not the same obvious centre in Newcastle which houses all sorts of disparate practices and events, so it makes you wonder whether there’s the same sense of possibility, or at least the same coherence or ease of access — but then things are happening in a more dispersed way now, which is interesting in a different way. 

You said that you were able to start thinking about the library partly because of the bursary you received: that was while you were still a student?

HA: It was a graduate bursary. At that point I didn’t have a studio at The Northern Charter – that came shortly afterwards – but they were interested in supporting graduates, via a small fee, to do something. There was no expectation: it was about having an idea of something you’d like to do after graduating, and being given some support to start it.

ANNE: And that was presumably key, because it got you, straight out of university, into a place where all sorts of things were happening.

HA: Yes, totally. There were two programmers at the time: Dawn Bothwell, who’s now Programme Director at The NewBridge Project, and Tess. They really were key to starting the library. And it was also about doing something outside of the university; getting some help to navigate the city outside of student life.

ANNE: One more thing: you’re part of the LUX Tyneside Critical Forum, and were central in getting it re-established. Since moving image is part of your practice, and because you’ve been a key member of that group from the beginning, just thinking about the current moment, it feels a little as though moving image in Newcastle is in a position of some precarity. I wondered if you had any thoughts about that in relation to what you might perceive are opportunities or needs. 

HA:  Looking back at Tamara, she was in this city at the same time that students of hers were establishing the experimental space, Ayton Basement (later becoming the Basement Group, precursor to Locus+) where all these amazing ephemeral experiments in film and video and performance were happening. Where are those spaces to totally experiment — where you can you simply play and present work for feedback?

ANNE: Yes, and of course that’s wider than moving image. Perhaps we should forget about that specificity for now and consider it more generally as the opportunity to take risks and experiment.

HA: For instance, last year, I did a Super 8 workshop in London, but where could I do something similar here? I wish there was a pro-active film lab or editing suite: a centre or space which really focuses on moving image. There are such interesting histories here. I feel we need something or somewhere that connects that radical, political, experimental approach of the past and enables people to do the same now. I want to work with cameras: where do I go for that?

ANNE: That’s a really key observation: it’s about facilities, too. It’s ridiculous that you should have to go to London for a workshop. What ties the specific question around moving image to what’s going on more generally is that sense of experimentation — partly because that question is so central to moving image practice. It’s a wider question about project spaces, but also about setting up the conditions to be able to pass on and share knowledge. 

Either way, what’s next for you?

HA: I’m still taking stock. This is the first time in five years that I am being intentional about it.. I’m settling into that unknown and carefully thinking about that next ‘thing’! What’s next is following some of those instincts about what I’m interested in.

ANNE: You need this space in order to do that: you need to be on the other side of that project.

HA: Yes, and I’m settling into a new studio space, which feels really good. I adapted to not having one, but over time I’ve missed it: somewhere there’s no pressure, and I can play with whatever materials are at hand. For example, I’ve been trying out new writing about Sicilian hills and grief, learning a lot about moss and weather fronts right now, and thinking with Jack Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure (which I love!). 

I don’t enjoy the expectation that comes with being an artist and having to be able to say what’s next! If only I could forecast that! This period after the end of the funded library programme   does feel like a different pace to what I’ve been used to, and I am getting more comfortable  responding when asked “What are you working on?” that I am resting, and that I don’t know what’s next but I look forward to whatever it will be. The unknowns are becoming surprisingly exciting!

ANNE: That’s good to hear! Thank you very much for so rich and open a discussion, Holly — and let us know what the unknown looks like when you reach it.

About the contributor

Holly Argent is an artist based in Newcastle upon Tyne. Through her work she is interested in why we look for figures, particularly in libraries and archives, and what this searching might demonstrate; a perceived absence or lack in society, reappraisal, a desire for intimacy, belonging or community. This work finds shape through activities including, writing, moving image, sculpture, performance-lectures, reading groups, screenings and publications. Often these modes come together, encompassing ideas of expanded collage. Finding ways to explore and test models of kinship, whether these be speculative or manifest, runs through these several different strands of her practice.

Argent has shown work at Grand Union, (Birmingham), Tyneside Cinema (Newcastle upon Tyne), Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival (Berwick upon Tweed), Southwark Park Galleries (London), and curated exhibitions and programmes at Workplace Foundation (Gateshead) and Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA). She was awarded the Baltic Bothy residency on the Isle of Eigg (2021) and Paul Mellon Research Support Grant (2020) and ACE Project Grant (2021-23). She has had residencies at Hospitalfield, Arbroath (2019) and The British School at Rome (2017), and been in-residence with the Women Artists of the North East Library (est. 2017) at MIMA, Northumbria University and Visual Arts in Rural Communities (VARC).

Back to top