Visting Unit44's HQ in Newcastle upon Tyne, END. dive into the curator's multi-faceted world that champions an unconventional use of space and a vision that celebrates the whole.
Pirouetting between curation, consultancy, installation, and collaboration, Unit44 has spent the past ten years cultivating an approach to working within the world of art and culture that delivers a holistic ideal – a bold statement of intent that stretches across disciplines and forms a fresh vision of what a gallery can be in the modern age.
Founded in 2011 by Danny Hughes and Steven Dunn, Unit44’s perspective sought to celebrate street-inspired art from the international stage, bringing esteemed artists such as Shepard Fairey, D*Face, Jon Burgerman and Jamie Hewlett to the North East of England and beyond. A chameleonic creative force, the project’s shapeshifting essence is driven by a mentality that champions ideas that deliver a symbiotic relationship between space and the artwork being exhibited.
Focussing on exhibiting artwork in unusual spaces, the project has seen Unit44 expand beyond a permanent space to seek out uncompromising venues to showcase their curatorial vision – an expressive use of space that delivers high stakes opportunities alongside a bevy of unique challenges to overcome.
Sitting down with Danny and Dunny at their headquarters in Newcastle upon Tyne, END. discuss the history of Unit44, the importance of space to their curatorial practice and the appeal of printmaking.
A multi-faceted project, Unit44 has built quite a repertoire over the past ten years - how would you describe your practice with Unit44?
Danny: Exactly that, really. When it started it was always supposed to be more of a project space, and project driven. Newcastle still feels like uncharted territory with what works and what doesn’t – which you can see in what has come and gone. Our longevity has been rooted in our ability to do different things – we can do a show, we can do a takeover, we can work on an international project just as readily as we can do an exhibition here. That was the only way for us to survive at the start – by doing loads of different things.
There’s only a certain amount of people in the city, and a certain amount of people who are buying and investing in art, so you can’t rely on your friends to just keep buying your shit. As our internet presence started to get bigger, our audience got bigger and we’ve always been able to entice bigger artists on the back of doing weird projects in weird spaces. That was kind of the formula that we ended up with – create a cool idea, pitch it to the artist and win them over with the idea, which comes before the fact that it is in Newcastle, because most of the time they aren’t familiar with the place. It’s always the concept or the idea that wins them over, then they see how beautiful the city is. The days of it just being about an exhibition in a white wall space is just not inspiring anyone anymore at our level. If you’re wanting to do that, you’d pitch for the Tate or a museum show. We’re firmly grounded in the experiential – that’s why there is always a lot of music and art.
Dunny: There wasn’t really a plan at the beginning, either. We didn’t just sit down and decide to do shows or commissions. We both collected art, and we came together through that appreciation of art.
What led you to first opening your gallery space as Unit44?
Dunny: It was around when Danny met Charlie Hoult, and he showed us round Hoult's yard and there were all of these incredible spaces – this was back at the beginning of his journey turning it into what it is now - a lot of it was run down. We first started organising painting the huge walls, then we happened to see a space, Unit44, which is obviously then where the name came from. It was such a nice space that lent itself to being a gallery space.
Danny: It was the undesirable space as well – it was empty, with concrete floors and bare walls, nothing was smooth or level.
Dunny: We didn’t have to spend tonnes of money to get it ready either. We just cleaned it and painted the floors. It was cold though.
Danny: That space definitely ended up helping us form our visual identity, because most other galleries were white wall spaces, whereas this had sandstone walls and painted concrete floors, no white walls at all, with a DJ set up at one end – it was a great place to be, we loved being there. During those first few years, the artists actually used the space as a studio before their show, making the artwork in the gallery. Like when Stormie and Remi Rough came, they each created a body of work in just over a week in that space. To be able to have a space without the restrictions of a white wall or commercial gallery was amazing – it was set out as a project space from the off, and that idea and approach has continued on to the point that we’re at now.
Dunny: We took on loads of different, interesting, and exciting projects. It wasn’t that we were reaching for the biggest artists – Philip Lumbang’s show sold out on the night and at that point he was pretty unheard of. It was a bit of gamble, but it’s always good when you put something like that on and it does well.
"After we’d taken it all down there was an eerie quiet and a lot of fears about whether it had all worked properly – had we got everything we needed? What if we all had a corrupted memory drive? It was genuinely terrifying."
How does unconventional space factor into your work with Unit44 now you have left the permanent exhibition/studio space?
Danny: It super freeing leaving that space, really. We have our basecamp, our HQ, now, where we process the work and do the day to day running of Unit44. So the individual spaces that we end up using will inform the project more directly. We have a bit of a reputation for our interest in these odd spaces, so people will invite us to come and have a look at a specific space to see if there is anything we’d want to do with it. Like when the National Trust invited us to do something in the Victoria Tunnels in the Ouseburn, as they were struggling with breathing new life into their membership and the space. That project ended up with us getting some of the biggest artists in this realm – Shepard Fairey, D*Face, etc. They all wanted in because of the space – you can just see that email cutting through, you know? While I wouldn’t say that we were people who are predicting what’s going to come next, we’re always thinking about projects that we could do and then wrapping it around an artist or a collective of artists. The Victoria Tunnel was like that, Steve was itching to get in there. That show was 12 artists, and you can only go down in groups of 12 because of safety issues as it was a former air raid shelter, you have to wear hardhats etc. It was a completely bespoke experience for people, really.
Sometimes the project and space will completely inform the art we use – the best examples are like Obonjan – going to this meeting where the person you’re meeting with just says “we’ve bought a Croatian island, we’d love you to do some art there.” It’s going into the unknown. It’s amazing to have that kind of brief for an artist – there’s a reason why we’re curators and they are artists. When you tell an artist something like that, their head just starts thinking and the brief and space instantly starts to inform their work. We’re working with a similar process, because we’re instantly thinking about who would be good to use for the project, going through the space that way – “we should work with Darren Henderson on this because his work already relates to nature” and you come out with a collection of artists and push your chips across the table. It ends up informing everything, really.
“Hidden In Plain Sight” saw you venture into the world of digital exhibition – how did that experience rank alongside a more traditional gallery opening? What challenges did you face entering the digital realm?
Dunny: It was really frustrating because we couldn’t open it up to the public – but it was amazing to create the 360 degrees walk through. For us to be able to do that was great. There wasn’t much else going on at the time because of COVID - there were a lot of challenges in actually creating that exhibition though.
Danny: There were a lot of conflicting emotions around it, because we organised the whole show, hung it all, lit it all, shot it all, got the Matterport done – which took hours to fully capture the whole space - then once that was done we put all the work straight back in the van. Normally, you do a show and go through hell to get it all ready, but then you can step back and people come to visit it and you can see the reaction. This had none of that – we had to get it up and get it down immediately, which was really odd. After we’d taken it all down there was an eerie quiet and a lot of fears about whether it had all worked properly – had we got everything we needed? What if we all had a corrupted memory drive? It was genuinely terrifying. But once we started getting photos sent through, and parts of the Matterport, that only had a bit of the staircase and two pieces, we realised how special it was going to be. After things being cancelled for a year, from whatever point we were at, to see this, it felt as close as we could get to getting people actually in the space.
Dunny: It was on the cards to open it up to the public for a while, but the logistics ended up being too challenging. We could’ve opened it up, but then maybe people wouldn’t have come along because of COVID, and we’d have had to do it one way, with security etc. Plus there were hundreds of pigeons that kept coming in, so we had to get rid of them. The landlord did a great job to clear it out, but we were met with some pretty challenging weather on the day in the end. Like Danny said, we had to install it and clear it out straight away.
Danny: It was filling up with water basically – it was like having a water feature in there. It couldn’t have been more important to be in and out. If we’d done it the day after, it could’ve been really bad.
Dunny: At about six or seven in the evening on the second day we decided to bring it all down and take it back to HQ because of the rain, which then started to get through the wall. If we’d just gone home then, all of the work on the north wall would’ve been ruined – which is a terrifying prospect – some of the big hitters were over there. There was enough to cause tears. Luckily, we’d managed to get it all out. We’d love to do it again, but it would definitely be hard to top. It’s a shame that we weren’t able to open it up to the public though, as people are really interested in seeing what it’s like inside the Tyne Bridge after that New Year’s Eve Rave that happened a couple of years ago. If it had gone ahead, it might’ve even been a bit much for us to handle. It feels like a purpose-built night club inside. The results were incredible though, we’re definitely keen to try and do something there again.
Printmaking sits at the core of Unit44’s curatorial practice – what is it about printmaking that specifically excites you?
Danny: That’s how we came together in the first place, really, as we both collected art and prints. Prints are awesome because they are often accessible and more affordable – you can get a great print by an amazing artist for around £100 to £200, whereas an original might be five/ten times that. That became a focus point for us, because we were thinking about what we would invest in if we went to a show or an exhibition, because not everyone has five to ten grand for a piece of artwork. It’s a little bit more of a casual approach – someone who enjoys a show, or an artist, or what the curators are doing can purchase something at a more affordable price point.
I also totally fell in love with the process itself – we very, very rarely do anything digital. It’s mostly all physically screen-printed, which is art-making in itself. To see it in action, with layers being pulled by hand through a variety of meshes, with a variety of colours, kind of takes your breath away because you can see the depth in the process, whereas digital is quite flat. Screenprinting offers further depth and layers to the artwork. That has been an incredible learning curve for us to play with – we’ve always done screenprinting and we’ve always done it in the same place, so they’ve nurtured our experience from creating one or two colour prints in the early days to doing ten colour prints now, or using gold leaf and metallic colours, glitters etc. That’s the investability of it, too. If someone has just sat and pressed “print”, it’s hard to fall in love with that as a process. There is craft and charm in the process in something that has been done by hand. And when you pair that with the signature and the number – you can see why people want to invest. It always comes from a place of “would we invest in this ourselves?” If we can’t answer that question then we shouldn’t really be making that release. That informed our decision to work with things that might seem quirky like tea towels and merchandise that we’ve put our spin on over the years. Doing the laser tea towels was super fun, because we had this canvas that was a bit weird but everyone has a kitchen – so we thought "maybe we should do a tea towel?"
Dunny: It’s nice to not only do the stereotypical art pieces to sell on the website. We were racking our brains to think of what additional things we could make, so we did tea towels and frisbees to start with as everyone has done mugs and tote bags etc.
What does the future hold for Unit44?
Danny: More of the same, really! We’re getting more ambitious with the scope of our projects. Because we’re in a little corner of the UK here in Newcastle, it's easy to undersell yourself, and maybe we’ve been guilty of that in the past and we haven’t cast our net too far and stayed within our lane. The last two years have definitely been a big confidence boost in what we can do and who we can work with, because I don’t think that there is anyone that I don’t think I could go into a meeting with and could hold our own and create a cool project with. We’ve got some great releases, some international collaborations, artistic projects, bespoke spaces and continuing to try to do as much of this as possible. There’s much more to come – but I can’t say much more than that!