Interview: Ash Kilmartin + A Shop Called LIFE

Artist, performer and “committed amateur” Ash Kilmartin has, for the past couple of years, been mining a remarkable seam in Rotterdam’s alternative art world. An active participant in many grassroots and alternative art initiatives in the city, Kilmartin is now the driving force behind LIFE , a shop on the Keileweg in Rotterdam. LIFE is a “huiskamer for portative works: books, jewellery, and small-scale objects by artists; and artworks by people who may not consider themselves artists. LIFE is concerned with the things people make that are not often given emphasis in their professional practice, rather, with the useful-everyday, small experimentations and tokens of gift-economy among fellow makers.” WORM caught up with her for a quick chat about the new space.

WORM: Tell us about the new initiative you’ve started up Ash, LIFE. How is that going?

Ash Kilmartin: LIFE is going great! Even when lower-case life is complicated, LIFE as a project brings me a lot of pleasure. I’d had the idea for quite some time of starting a tiny shop, to sell things small made by artists – things that don’t necessarily fit into their ‘usual’ public practise, or that feel a little too risky or personal for a white cube or institution. Things that you can use, or wear, or that are small enough to carry around. I’d seen so much great work on this intimate scale but no space dedicated to making it available. When Wilfried Lentz relocated his gallery to Keileweg, he remembered my plans for this little project and invited me to make it happen in the Villa alongside him and CINNNAMON gallery. I have a room that’s about 8 square metres and it suits me perfectly.

At first the opening plans were dashed by lockdown, but in fact having a very slow and cautious launch, where visitors have to book in advance to come see all three spaces, has worked well – people visit more deliberately, it feels more relaxed and friendly than galleries often do. It’s also taken away the pressure to have everything perfect from day one. I’m not interested in perfection or over-professionalisation, so I’m happy to be developing the concept as I go with each presentation.

Initially the space was really going to be a platform for making conversations happen between makers from different places – there are so many artists and craftspeople in New Zealand, Australia, the UK I want to present in the shop – but the pandemic brought some necessary limitations. I’m very grateful that, thanks to a shift in programme to exclusively Rotterdam-based artists for the first few months, CBK Rotterdam were able to step in with some cash for me to distribute to the artists exhibiting. It feels good to pay artists at any time, but especially at a time when we’ve lost most of our usual gigs. Once we’re all feeling more comfortable meeting strangers and spending time in enclosed spaces, I’ll be out searching for the secret makers in Rotterdam who are making cool stuff and not (yet) showing it anywhere…

WORM: Looking in from the outside at your work it feels like you place a great deal of faith in being a “participatory” artist, one who is active, and public. Is that fair comment?

AK: I just enjoy making art happen together with others – whether that’s in a collaborative studio mode with another artist, or when I’m physically and socially present with the audience. It can be demotivating to work alone all the time. If I’m working with someone else, there’s no excuse: I have to show up with the goods. Likewise, in performance work, it’s necessary to be ready to receive what the audience is prepared to give and embrace it. The magic of course is that your collaborators and audience bring it in return! Performing Stonecarver’s Dilemma with Bergur Thomas Anderson, or sitting in on meetings of the Groningen Experimental Vocal Choir and developing work with them – it’s fun! It’s important to prioritise pleasure when you set the conditions for your own working life.

WORM: You work in a lot of disciplines, too: performance, sound, comedy (I think)?

AK: Yeah, I get distracted easily and find it hard to commit to becoming expert in anything. Or, I’m committed to the role of the amateur, in the fullest sense of the word.

WORM: We know you well at WORM, what drew you there?

AK: I suppose I came for the sound studio, and stayed for the special role WORM holds in the city – it’s the meeting place for so many very different groups of people. In 2019 Tracy Hanna and I began a karaoke night in the foyer bar, called ‘Trash Hits’, with [WORM Pirate Bay] Rae Parnell’s help. The audience is usually 50% diehard karaoke fans who show up every time, and 50% Wunderbar punters who wander over to see what the awful noise is, and end up sticking around the whole night. There’s a supportive and experimental mood to it. I don’t know where else we could find such an open and generous vibe among strangers on a Sunday night. And I 100% endorse the vegan kapsalon menu.

WORM: And by extension to Rotterdam, what is it about the city for you?

AK: After 5 years here I still don’t know how to articulate that – to be a foreign artist, choosing to live here (for now), is to choose a life without much stability. To be here is to learn how to live well with constant change. I’m lucky to have that option. Phew!

Ash Kilmartin: