I am Ariel Cotton.  I'm an artist, product designer, & maker of interactive things.

I craft beautiful, human-centered interfaces for web and mobile applications. I draw and write comics about life in Berlin and New York City. I even tinker with electronics and make interactive art from time to time.

The Colorful World of Artist Residencies

16 October 2016 Categories: Art, Travel

Dear Internet, it has been a while, hasn’t it? I’ve been busy. Ever since I last wrote, I’ve turned into a crusty Berlin freelancing bum who barely leaves the house acquired a visa that permits me to live and work in Germany for a while, documented some of this year’s whirlwind of life changes and adventures in comics (which I intend to publish in a graphic memoir within the next few years…LOOK OUT), completed two artist residencies in Spain and Hungary, gotten into arguments with people about whether self-indulgence in art is a drawback or not, learned a pitiful amount of German, produced some new UI/UX design work for my clients, been interviewed for a Hungarian comics blog, and I am now preparing a talk on design, empathy, life, pain, everything in between, and how they all inform each other, for the Beyond Tellerrand conference in November. Most of these events warrant their own blog posts, but for now I will focus on my experiences with the three artist residencies I did this year, as well as what an artist residency is and what to expect from one.

ariel cotton berlin artist residency
The Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, where I did my first artist residency.

What is an artist residency? There is a degree of confusion regarding what an artist residency is, probably because a residency isn’t required to follow a specific model. Wikipedia sums it up best:

“Artist-in-residence programs and other residency opportunities exist to invite artists, academicians, curators, and all manner of creative people for a time and space away from their usual environment and obligations. They provide a time of reflection, research, presentation and/or production. They also allow an individual to explore his/her practice within another community; meeting new people, using new materials, experiencing life in a new location. Artist residencies emphasize the importance of meaningful and multi-layered cultural exchange and immersion into another culture.

“Some residency programs are incorporated within larger institutions. Other organisations exist solely to support residential exchange programs. Residencies can be a part of museums, universities, galleries, studio spaces, theaters, artist-run spaces, municipalities, governmental offices, and even festivals. They can be seasonal, ongoing, or tied to a particular one-time event. They exist in urban spaces, rural villages, container ships and deep in nature. Hundreds of such opportunities and organisations exist throughout the world.

“There is no single model, and the expectations and requirements vary greatly. The relationship between the resident and the host is often an important aspect of a residency program. Sometimes residents become quite involved in a community – giving presentations, workshops, or collaborating with local artists or the general public. At other times, they are quite secluded, with ample time to focus and investigate their own practice.”

Indeed, the three residencies I did this year couldn’t possibly have been more different from each other. I went from a program with group critiques, life drawing classes, field trips and studio visits in former East Berlin; to a 19th century hippie villa in the middle of an orange grove 30 km from Valencia, Spain, where I was left entirely to my own devices; to a studio in a socialist realist building (“Don’t they mean a glorified communist building?!” I exclaimed at my computer upon reading this) that once served as a service house in the sleepy little city of Zalaegerszeg, Hungary. They varied massively in terms of vision, culture, cost, location, facilities, and structure. Each one facilitated a completely different set of experiences and revelations.

ariel cotton berlin artist residency
Berlin, du bist so wunderbar!

What is the purpose of a residency? It varies depending on the nature of the residency, but generally speaking, the benefits of a residency are as follows:

  • It’s an impressive credential to have on your artist CV. It can open the door for exhibits, grants, fellowships, commissions, and more paid opportunities.
  • It’s a good way to network with other artists around the world.
  • You usually get an exhibition out of it.
  • You often get professional exposure out of it as well. I got my first international interview ever through the residency I did in Zalaegerszeg.
  • If the residency is international, cultural exchange, and exposure to a different type of artistic environment.
  • Getting a chance to escape the day-to-day grind of life and focus exclusively on art-making.

Some residencies are also paid. These are more like fellowships. They will cover all travel expenses, and many even give you a stipend on top of it. These residencies are significantly more difficult to get accepted to though; so far I haven’t gotten into any. In fact, all the residencies I have done charged me money, mainly to cover rent for the studio, which is a very common practice. As an emerging artist, I am not surprised that these are the only residencies I’ve managed to get into. My hope is that if I do enough unpaid residencies I will eventually build up enough credentials to turn the heads of some of the paid ones. Many emerging artists follow this strategy.

I know people who have created fundraising campaigns on sites such as Indiegogo and GoFundMe to help them cover the costs of their residencies. I haven’t done this yet. I just deduct the costs as professional expenses when I do my taxes.

How would someone go about attending an artist residency? Sometimes artists are personally invited to attend them, or hear about them through word-of-mouth. I’ve been invited by a friend to do a residency in an old house that’s being remodeled in Lima, Peru—an opportunity I’m still waiting to take advantage of until I can afford the plane ticket. However, a lot of the time, artists submit an application to attend a residency, and then wait to hear if they are selected or not. The selectiveness varies wildly from one residency to the next. The best place to find residencies to apply to is Res Artis, the worldwide network of artist residencies. They list tons of open calls and deadlines each month, and I have found nearly all my residencies through them so far.

ariel cotton berlin artist residency
The Berlin Wall is an ever-changing canvas.

Takt Kunstprojektraum was the first residency I ever attended. It is divided between the neighborhoods of Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain, which are both in former East Berlin. The studio where I stayed is about 50 feet away from the ghost of the Berlin Wall. The founder and director of the program grew up in Leipzig, so to some extent the historic roots of East Germany provide a foundation for this residency.

Takt was a more structured program than either of the next two residencies I attended, providing resident artists with a weekly Google calendar full of events (“That’s so German!” they remarked at the Spanish residency I attended, which, by comparison, had no structure or schedule whatsoever). There was one group critique per week. I was disappointed by how friendly and mild the critiques were; after being indoctrinated in the ruthless bloodbaths of Cooper Union, growing up in New York, and being in a five-year relationship with an opinionated, argumentative partner, I’ve developed a tendency to be skeptical when people only have nice things to say. Takt also organized visits to other artists’ studios, field trips to museums and galleries around the city, life drawing sessions, German classes, and even day trips to Leipzig, where we would explore sites such as Spinnerei, a former cotton mill that now houses galleries and an artist residency. Leipzig is also a burgeoning art hub affectionately known by many as “Little Berlin.” It’s a two hour bus ride away from Berlin, and it costs roughly €16 to get there and back, give or take, depending on the time you go and when you book the ticket.

ariel cotton berlin artist residency
Stairway to graffiti heaven.

There are pros and cons to attending a residency in such a bustling city bursting with creativity. The resultant cultural osmosis and exposure to artist subcultures is stimulating, fruitful, and at times it carries professional benefits as well. Berlin is still recovering from its sordid, oppressive past, and subsequently, numerous art collectives, artist and punk squats, underground clubs, hacker spaces, and galleries are emerging from its bleak industrial recesses. It is an incredibly fecund environment for an artist to exist in.

However, if part of the purpose of a residency is to provide a place where artists can temporarily disconnect from day-to-day life and focus exclusively on art-making, then perhaps big cities are not particularly conducive to achieving this. Personally I found that I accomplished more during my time in Spain and Hungary than in Berlin. In Berlin I was constantly distracted by the myriad things to see and do. The other residents and I would go on nocturnal excursions out to gallery openings and industrial dance clubs. Berlin has a notorious techno and clubbing scene, the clubs stay open all night until well into the next day, and it was not uncommon for us to stumble back to our studios as the sun was rising, our clothes reeking of cigarette smoke, after a long night fueled by sweaty dancing and Club Mate spiked with vodka (and for others, drugs). It was fun but the novelty quickly wore off, leaving me drained.

ariel cotton berlin artist residency
A relic of old East Berlin drenched in idiosyncratic summer light.

Half a year later, I found myself walking down the streets of the quiet, remote city of Zalaegerszeg, with the founder of the residency I did there, listening as she explained that there isn’t an art scene in Zalaegerszeg. “I could have chosen a bigger city like Budapest,” she elaborated, “but I intentionally chose a small city, because I think it’s better for an artist residency. Makes it easier for the artists to escape the day-to-day grind and just focus on their work.” The memory of my lurid nights out in Berlin swam into focus, and I nodded in agreement.

This would explain why I felt slightly more productive at the second artist residency I did, which was about 30 kilometers outside of Valencia, Spain. It was in a 19th century villa belonging to the family of artist Manel Costa*, who decided to temporarily host a residency for the month of May 2016. The setting was absolutely bucolic; we were situated in a massive orange grove, with only a couple of tiny towns and a beautiful river within walking distance, and the Mediterranean Sea about a fifteen minute drive away. The villa does not even have a proper mailing address, which I learned when I lost my debit card during a layover in Rome prior to arriving, and I had to have my bank mail a replacement card to Manel’s home in Valencia instead.

ariel cotton berlin artist residency
Valencian orange groves.

The director of the residency, Silvia*, was only around every few days, and thus, we were largely left to our own devices. Free of distractions, my days were spent drawing to my heart’s content, eating juicy oranges fresh from the grove, and taking walks through the trees, along the river. If I needed to do grocery shopping I would take the fifteen minute walk into town. There wasn’t much else to see or do. Artists and hippies would drift in and out of the house. Manel had an eclectic group of friends: there was a flamenco guitarist, an organ grinder, and a woman who made rag dolls and was temporarily living in a trailer outside the house. Most of them hardly spoke much English, and I relished the opportunity to practice my high school Gringo Spanish. There was plenty of communal cooking; I tried rabbit for the first time there, and Manel would often whip up paella in a massive cast-iron pan. He would generously open the villa up to friends of his who were struggling with substance abuse, and let them stay indefinitely as long as they promised to get clean.

I had just endured a breakup with my boyfriend with whom I was still in love, as well as the move to Berlin, the tedious process of applying for a German visa, the excruciatingly long Berlin winter, and a grueling pile of freelance work that put me through many sleepless nights. This idyllic environment of sunshine, oranges, and gentle hippies was exactly what I needed to jumpstart my creative process again, after nearly half a year of being too broken, exhausted and desolate to create anything.

ariel cotton berlin artist residency
Sunrise from the balcony.

That being said, not all the residents were as enthused. There were residents who had expected the residency to be in Valencia proper, and were disillusioned when they arrived only to find it was about an hour away from the city by car. One of the residents had arrived expecting to be able to purchase all her art materials there, and when her expectations weren’t met, she begrudgingly used found objects around the villa and the grove in her work, as opposed to painting, the way she had been planning. She had been anticipating a structured, rigorous program, and she eventually grew so bored with the slow, quiet pace and laissez-faire attitude that she packed up and left for a week in Barcelona. That is not to say that the villa was utterly devoid of revelry; there were jam sessions, wine drinking, drug use and sex. A resident walked in on a threesome in progress. One of the men drove me to the beach at night and attempted to start up with me. He then cooked me dinner, and I felt so guilty that I wouldn’t be giving him what he wanted in return that I did all the dishes and cleaned the entire kitchen.

Later, I spoke with my friend who left for Barcelona, and she told me it had provided just the kind of experience she was seeking. “The art scene is fantastic there!” she gushed. “So many galleries. It’s really a perfect place to be if you’re an artist.” Quiet, remote environments clearly are not optimal for everyone’s creative process. There are those who are more stimulated by the sounds, colors and movement of a big city’s hustle and bustle. Then there are those who go back and forth between the two.

ariel cotton berlin artist residency
These flowers were growing on the balcony, like ivy.

I definitely fall into the latter category at times. In the last year I’ve noticed a greater synergy developing between my life and my art. They inform each other in an ongoing feedback loop. I am constantly on alert for ideas and experiences to turn into drawings, to the point where I almost can’t tell if I’m just living for the story or not, and where my life feels like performance art. I’ve been working on a comic about being in Berlin immediately after my breakup, the internal hell I battled—and am still battling to a great extent—and the way it was exacerbated by Berlin’s backdrop of bleak communist architecture, the long winter, and the loneliness of being in a new place far away from all my family and friends. While I work, I play Radiohead’s Kid A, Hail To The Thief, and A Moon Shaped Pool: the perfect melancholic trio. The melancholy doesn’t stop when I put the pen down and leave my desk. I shove on my headphones, put on A Moon Shaped Pool, and go out into the desolate gray landscape riddled with decades full of morbid, oppressive history, with the physical pain burning in my heart. I come back home and draw pictures of myself walking alongside those buildings. Then I go out again. Rinse and repeat.

It’s kind of the opposite side of the Eat, Pray, Love coin.

When you have that kind of seamlessness between art, work, and life, sometimes it is much more poignant to do a residency in an area that reflects the subject of your work. For many people the city holds more relevance than the middle of nowhere. Spain provided a much-needed respite, but being in the midst of the melancholy of Berlin fuels my work in a powerful way. The balance between the two is necessary. When I get too depressed, I stop listening to A Moon Shaped Pool and making heartbreak drawings, and I switch over to In Rainbows and drawing pictures of my time in Spain, or comedic little gripes, such as the struggle to find a decent brisket for Rosh Hashanah in Berlin.

ariel cotton berlin artist residency
Who needs medicine when you have sunset walks?

Another reason for my friend’s dissatisfaction at the Valencian residency was their lack of focus on professional growth and exposure. Unlike Takt, which ended with a big group exhibition in their Tapir Gallery and gave residents opportunities for solo exhibits if they desired, this residency had one ad hoc show in a junk shop. I understood her disappointment completely, but it did not bother me personally, and that was because I arrived at the residency knowing what I was getting into. There is a place for everything, and there are times when one type of residency is more appropriate than the other. Commercial success and introspective withdrawal may lie on opposite ends of the spectrum but that doesn’t necessarily make one less important than the other.

If there is anything I have learned from my residency experiences, as well as listening to fellow residents airing their grievances, it’s that expectations determine a pivotal role in how much you will gain from the residency, and how much you will enjoy it. The same can be said for many things in life, but it is particularly true here. I knew just from the residency’s internet description that it was not an intensive fellowship geared towards commercial success, but rather, an opportunity to unwind, decompress, explore, and reconnect with nature. “In Spain, people are big on relaxing,” Silvia said to me the day she picked me up from the airport. “People here don’t care so much about time, schedules, deadlines. They have siesta from 2pm to 5pm. They drink wine. Here in the residency, we try to give people a taste of what Spanish culture is like.” We would spend many nights eating tapas, drinking wine, relaxing and chatting for hours, often on the couch outdoors, basking in the Mediterranean breeze and gazing out at the stars.

ariel cotton berlin artist residency
The river was a fifteen minute walk from the villa.

Following my two blissful weeks in Spain, I flew into Hungary for my final residency at D’Clinic Studios in Zalaegerszeg. I arrived in Budapest, and after a traditional meal of halászlé, pickled cucumber salad with sour cream, túrós csusza, and somlói galuska at my favorite restaurant, Darshan, I boarded the bus to Zalaegerszeg. From that point on, for the rest of my time in Hungary, English speakers and foreigners were a rarity. Three hours later, after a picturesque journey through the Hungarian countryside, I found myself in a tiny city that I hadn’t even known existed until just a few weeks prior. The sun was setting, and by the time I had gotten settled in, dropped off my bags, been shown around, and arrived at the art studio, it was already 10:30pm and the only place open to get dinner was a dingy pizzeria. And that was how I wound up in this obscure city in the dead of night, getting Hungarian pizza and communicating in my broken German with the guy behind the counter, because that was the only language he and I both spoke in common.

Welcome to Zalaegerszeg.

Zalaegerszeg felt like a time capsule that had not been touched since the Cold War. Half the buildings had old world European charm and the other half had clearly been erected during the communist era. The Szolgáltatóház, a former “service house” where our art studio was located, fell into the latter category. Our living and sleeping quarters were in a cute little house a fifteen minute walk away, but that didn’t stop me and another resident from collapsing on a pile of cushions in the studio every night after working into the wee hours of the morning. There was a cherry tree in the front yard, and every morning I would eat cherries for breakfast. There were some stores and restaurants and a small town square, but not a whole lot otherwise. The residency was relatively calm compared to some of the antics of the previous one. The other two residents and I would work all day. Little was explicitly required of us. At one point we each gave an artist talk in a cafe, and we had an exhibit at the end.

ariel cotton berlin artist residency
The Szolgáltatóház, a facility that now houses the D’Clinic Studios residency.

The city had its own unique brand of charm. It borders a big forest and a river, both of which are easily accessible by bike. Almost all the stores and restaurants shut down by 10pm. It is almost completely untouched by tourists, and as a result, it is a good place to catch a glimpse of “authentic” Hungarian life. At the train station I asked two teenage girls if they could help me translate some directions, and when they learned I was from New York, they began giggling and swooning profusely, as though I were a rock star. The other residents and I also arrived just in time to experience the annual Egerszeg Festival. The streets shut down for several days. Vendors opened booths to sell delicacies such as chocolate-covered marzipan balls, fried fat, fruit wines, sweet wine from the Tokaj region of Hungary, and langós—plates of fried dough covered in sour cream and cheese. There were concerts, and a parade in which all the fire trucks and police cars in the city drove down the street, sirens blaring simultaneously. I had to cover my ears. Kids were sitting in the backseats, having the time of their lives.

Some of the sights the city had to offer were also sobering. I came across a synagogue that had been converted into a “cultural center,” or rather, an art gallery and performance venue. As a Jew, I’ve been hearing all about what the Nazis did to us ever since I can remember. I’ve been to the Jewish Quarter in many of Europe’s major cities, I’ve visited the synagogues that somehow evaded the Nazis’ destruction, I’ve seen Anne Frank’s house and the children’s artwork from the Terezin concentration camp in Prague, and I’ve even done an urban exploring trip to an abandoned former SS bakery near the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen. Yet, something about this particular synagogue struck a chord in my heart in an unprecedented way. The fact that it had been repurposed into a facility that had nothing whatsoever to do with its original function was a grim reminder that there once had been more than a thousand Jews living in that city, and that nearly all of them had been deported and killed, and thus there was no longer a reason to run a synagogue there.

ariel cotton berlin artist residency
This building used to be a Jewish-owned hotel until its owners were deported during WWII and the place was shut down.

Even today, Hungary is notoriously antisemitic. Having spent nearly my entire life in a city that literally has the highest population of Jews of any place in the world other than Israel, I naively grew up thinking antisemitism was a relic that died after World War II, and being treated exactly the way any other white person in New York would. Hungary was one of several locations I’ve visited in Europe this year where I’ve felt cautious about revealing my ethnicity. It has been an eye-opening experience, and one of the few instances in my life when I haven’t felt “white.”

When I harken back to my time in Zalaegerszeg, one of my favorite things to think about is the fact that I never would have learned of its existence, let alone ended up there, if I had not been accepted to the D’Clinic Studios residency. Several years ago, when I first learned about the concept of an artist residency, I was hell-bent on doing residencies only in specific cities, such as Berlin. However, now I prefer the opposite. For me, the thrill is greater if I have no idea what to expect, and if it results in me visiting a city, town or village that I didn’t even know about prior to that point. When I scour the Res Artis website, I feel as though I am going through a grab bag. I never know what I will end up with next, and that adds to the excitement. At times it can also end up being a more enlightening experience than visiting a popular locale such as Paris, London or Rome. Embracing uncertainty and venturing into the unknown richly informs the artistic process.

ariel cotton berlin artist residency
Our studio inside the Szolgáltatóház.

Meeting people from all over the world can also play an integral role in enhancing the quality of your work. The more unique viewpoints you absorb, the easier it will be to create art that reaches people universally. I’ve encountered fascinating people through these residencies, and they have elucidated ideas and perspectives to me that have blown my mind. One of my favorite residents who I met is my friend Claudia María. We bonded quickly when we realized we shared similar tastes in music, art and clothing, and ended up taking an overnight trip to Maribor, Slovenia together. She is from Lima, Peru, and I learned so much about the country’s politics, lifestyle and traditions just from listening to her talk. She told me incredible stories about her life, including how she lived through the terrorism of Peru’s Internal Conflict as a child, spent ten nights sleeping in the Amazon once, and was part of a feminist punk collective that spray painted graffiti throughout Lima protesting the country’s strict anti-abortion laws.

It was Claudia María’s first time outside of Central or South America, and I enjoyed living vicariously through her as she experienced a multitude of pleasures for the first time, pleasures which I—as well as many of my North American and European counterparts—have come to take for granted. While meandering the rainy streets of Maribor, we happened upon a cafe that advertised a mouthwatering display of cakes in the window, and decided to try a particularly decadent-looking flourless chocolate one. I’ll never forget the expression of ecstasy that overtook her face as she had her first bite. “This is the best cake I’ve ever had…I’ve never had anything like this in Peru!” she exclaimed. The conversation then gave way to a discussion on our mutual love of classical music, particularly Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” Sometimes it’s that perfect blend of sharing so much in common with someone who comes from a wildly different background from yours that creates such delightful moments…particularly when those realizations are had over chocolate cake, watching the rain outside and letting time pass by slowly, in a beautiful old city in central Europe.

ariel cotton berlin artist residency
If you ever visit Maribor, be sure to climb up Pyramid Hill!

Engaging in these experiences and conversations with new people has had an undeniable effect on my drawings. For my entire life I lived in the same city and mostly hung out with other native New Yorkers who were my age. During more recent years, I realized what a bubble I lived in. For all its cosmopolitan diversity, New York can be quite provincial. As this realization dawned on me, I began to question just how many lives outside of millennial New York my work would touch. My work reflected that bubble I lived in, focusing on very localized, demographic-specific themes. I am now working on a graphic memoir about the adventures and misadventures I’ve had since leaving New York: the epiphanies, revelations, devastation, and euphoria, none of which I would have experienced the same way if I had not left my home city and done these residencies. I am also including some episodes dedicated to the people I’ve met along the way and their stories.

This is cliche, but traveling really does transform you, and consequently it changes your art as well. As I’ve said, the separation between art and life frequently becomes nebulous. The two affect each other. Therein lies an important benefit of the artist residency experience. Seeing the influences that travel, new experiences and listening to other people’s stories have on your work is almost like seeing what substance use or sleep deprivation can do. The effect is neurological, sensory, emotional, perhaps even spiritual. When you travel, you are touched in ways you haven’t been touched before.

ariel cotton berlin artist residency
Breakfast at D’Clinic.

Going to Berlin for my first residency a year ago irrevocably opened up a whole Pandora’s box that eventually bled out into the life I have now. It lasted six weeks, and nothing in my life was the same afterwards. Part of why I left to begin with was because I was feeling terribly confused about my long-term relationship and I wanted space to think. During that time, I had a number of incidents and conversations with people that profoundly affected the course of events in my life from that point onward. What also happened was that I finally felt brave enough to start making drawings about issues that I had not been able to explore in New York, because they were difficult, taboo, hurtful, and involved people in my social circle in all kinds of uncompromising ways. The geographical distance and relative anonymity of being surrounded by people other than my friends made it feel easier and safer to do. I have been continuing to make work on the subject of these themes all year, and I am still not ready for most people back home to see it yet.

My boyfriend and I broke up right after I came home from the residency, and I found myself returning to Berlin less than two months later for an open-ended amount of time. I am staring the abyss of uncertainty blatantly in the face, and it is downright terrifying some days, to the point of being nauseating. I have suffered through some of the worst emotional pain of my life this year. However, sometimes it is necessary to temporarily give up security in order to explore the unknown. I am facing many feelings that scared and frustrated me, after more than a year of suppressing them and hoping they would vanish eventually. Instead of dismissing emotions that make no sense to me, I am getting acquainted with them and learning to embrace them. I desperately want answers, but some days I am able to look at the uncertainties meditatively, as though I’m watching a film, watching them in the greater context of the universe, growing smaller and smaller against the backdrop of my life, then my social circle, then Brooklyn, then New York City, then the United States, North America, Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way, and whatever universal intelligence may lie out there, if it exists. It may take me years to answer the questions I have, but if that’s what it takes to achieve honest, thorough answers, so be it.

Art can do that for you. Travel can do that for you. When you bring the two together, the results can be transcendent.

ariel cotton berlin artist residency
Street decorations for the Egerszeg Festival.

*names have been changed

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