The most common definition of a residency seems to be ‘a place where artists are given time and space to create new work.’ Who says though, that that place has to be the in the same location each year?
Tomma Rum-Swedish for Empty Space-is an artist run residency that changes location every year. Each summer, they visit an empty space somewhere in Sweden and participants come and go for a duration of about eight to ten weeks, experimenting and creating new art work. They work together with Swedish municipalities and artist run initiatives, to trade space for culture.
When I first heard about this project, I thought it was an amazing concept and I really wanted to interview someone to learn more about it. A few emails later and I was in contact with Inez, who lives in Gothenburg and has been working with Tomma Rum for quite a few years. We met up in Gothenburg to have a chat about the project, the concept behind it and how it has developed over the years. I think it’s very impressive that even though it’s been going on for fifteen years now, the project is still so close to it’s core values and vision. I would love to experience Tomma Rum for myself, and I hope this interview has you inspired as well!
If you want to read more about Tomma Rum, this is their website.
Can you start with telling a bit about Tomma Rum and how it got started?
It started with Jenni, she was an art student at the time at the Royal art academy in Stockholm and Tomma Rum was her masters project. She had realised from living in Stockholm that it was very hard for people to find studio space, and when you get it it’s very expensive. And since Sweden is such a large country, in the countryside there are a lot of places just standing empty and the municipalities don’t know what to do with it. Jenni started to make phone calls around to different municipalities, asking if they had empty spaces that they could use. The first year was very small scale, if you compare it to now, the first year they had like ten people, in about a month, and the same people for the entire period. After that first time, it started to live it’s own life, other municipalities started to get interested and so the project kept on running and growing.
So it got started from a very practical idea then, the idea that there’s not enough space in Stockholm but too much empty space in the countryside and they wanted to combine those two things.
Exactly. The trade isn’t economical means, the trade is; you give us space, we give you culture. Jenni had a clear vision from the beginning that it would be a very open project, in the beginning it didn’t cost anything at all. Now, we have a participants fee that’s about 30 euros and for that you get a membership and meals for a week, so it’s not much. It should be like; if you don’t have money, that shouldn’t stop you from participating in the project.
Also, no application process, except for actually applying and if the project still has space, you’re welcome. We try to be clear on the website but sometimes people don’t get the application process, we get people sending their CV’s, and links to websites and different projects and they are like, where are the forms? What documentation do you need? No, one of the important things of Tomma Rum is that you don’t have to have gone to art school, you don’t have to be a professional artist, you can just come because it sounds interesting and you want to explore it.
How do you find and choose the next place, what’s that process like?
When one project ends, that’s usually in the middle of August, we take about a month break, to take a breather. Then in September, October, there is a group that starts making contact with different municipalities. The last few years we’re not only talking to municipalities but also to artist run organisations in the area, we had the cooperation with Konstraft a few years ago, that was one of the first clear collaborations. Some years we email all municipalities and find in general where there is interest and possibilities, some years we focus on one area where we haven’t really been yet, it depends. That process is in the autumn, then in the new year we do some research trips to see if a possible place has everything we need, like beds, a kitchen, meet the people on site, stuff like that. Then, we have an annual meeting where all Tomma Rum members come, we have a presentation of about three options and then the members vote. Then we lock the last bits and pieces for the project and it goes up on the website! It’s all volunteer work, so in the ideal world it opens for applications on the first of April but then the reality comes in and it’s more like..April-ish. But it’s all volunteers and it’s a big project, so it’s fine.
Are there sometimes places where you really want to go but it’s just not practical?
All the time! Most of the time it’s lack of money from the municipality, one time I was in contact with a municipality in an area where we really want to come and we got in contact with the person who did the culture there and she was like ‘well, I only work part time and I’m responsible for the culture, the football, the hockey, the etc etc etc..and I’m also the librarian.’ And we just realised…this is not going to work. There is the space, but not the manpower. That’s a common problem.
Sometimes it’s the other way around, the people really want us to come but the space just isn’t going to work.There was this one place, an old railway hotel and supposedly Lenin lived there when he came through Sweden, it’s only 500 people living there and the village is kind of famous for it. We came there and they really welcomed us but..there was no floor, no electricity, no water and they were like ‘but if you’re coming, the municipality will have to renovate it!’ They thought they had found the perfect solution but there was nothing there! It must’ve been a nice hotel when Lenin was there but now it was just a wreck and it was like four months before the project was supposed to start so yeah..that was not going to happen! It happens quite a lot, that we find places we really like but something comes in between and it’s about finding compromises.
If you compare the very first edition of the project to the latest one, how has it evolved over the years?
The running project time is longer now, more like eight to ten weeks now and the number of participants has increased, now it’s more like eight to a hundred in total over the whole summer., We have more of an organisation form now with a board and annual meetings, in the beginning it was more loose. The project was growing so we needed some kind of a structure to even out the workload, and it also helps with applying for funding. Tomma Rum needs about ten people to get it to run, but those ten people tend to shift, it works fluently and if someone feels up to doing a certain task we can vote, or they just do it. It’s not really a contest, it’s more like ‘okay I have time this year, I’ll be chairman.’ It keeps it flexible, new people come in, other people get a break, it stays fun that way.
The project runs eight to ten weeks, how long do people usually stay?
It’s very, very different, some people just come for an extended weekend, some people stay the entire project time, or four to give weeks. Most people stay about two, three weeks, for practical reasons. It’s the summertime so people use their vacation time to come.I think a little bit more than two weeks is perfect, that’s what I do most of the time, you need some time to get to know the place and it’s very socially intense. People are coming and going all the time, the dynamic changes all the time. For me, that’s really fun for about two weeks and after that you don’t have the energy to keep adapting so it’s really nice to go home.
How to the local people of the municipalities you’re visiting react when they realise Tomma Rum is coming?
It’s very different, and also depending on the size of the place we go to. We went to a city of 100.000 one time, so then we did a collaboration with an artist run place so were were integrating with them and in a town of that size you don’t really become a big change in the dynamic of the town. But then, in a small village of 2000 people, it’s a big thing that we’re there. In 2015 we went to Ljusne where there were a lot of immigrants from Syria at that time and we lived together in the building with them. They were quite new to the village and not completely integrated in the village society yet and a lot of them were still waiting to hear if they could stay in Sweden. We shared spaces like the garden and the hallways with them so it was easy to invite them into the project. They have a lot of time because they’re not allowed to work yet and they can’t really go anywhere, so they would visit us, we’d have football matches with them and we felt very integrated with that part of the village society. That one was very nice, a very positive experience.
Do you feel when you go to a small place like that the impact you make with the project is larger than when you go to a larger town?
Yes, definitely. But then it also depends on how the organisational structure is that year. For our 10 year anniversary project we went to a place with about 20.000 people close to Karlstad which is the main city of that area. The municipality had a lot of funding so we did a lot of PR work and we got a lot of visitors that year. We were in an old factory of a meat factory, we had 4000 square meters to work in, the scale was so much bigger than other times. It was interesting, we had a couple of big openings and drew people from beyond the village as well.
It’s up to the people we organise with but also up to ourselves how much of a public project we want to do. We always want to contribute and integrate in some way to the society, but not always in the same way. The project is always about a process and what people exhibit is always almost a process, but how we exhibit varies, sometimes it’s open studios, sometimes it’s a bigger exhibition, that is decided by the participants as well. Loosely organised and open are two good words to describe this project. We don’t want to set too tight of a frame, the only frame we have is the place we chose to live and work and whatever happens depends on the participants, they shape the project.
I noticed when I was in Bengstfors, there was a very do-it-yourself attitude to the artists, if you have an idea you don’t wait for permission or funding, you just do it and it feels very easy as an individual to start something up or to have an influence. It’s something I see in Tomma Rum as well, and also in Konstepidemin. Do you think that’s a Swedish thing? Where do you think that comes from?
Hmm..this is the cultural context I’m used too, making art and culture in Sweden, I don’t have much experience of how it works in other countries..it’s interesting, I tend to think of Sweden of a well organised, welfare state where you pay taxes but the government takes care of you.
Maybe that contributes to it, that people feel taken care of and that gives them freedom to play?
Yes…it must be something like that, because usually you would say about Swedes that we’re very structured and organised people so it’s interesting because it kind of clashes with each other, those two notions! I guess we also have..as a civilian, you can apply for funding for an idea and you don’t have to go through an organisation to get different kinds of grants, so that maybe also creates this idea of: okay we have an idea, we’ll start and see how far we can get without funding and then we’ll see if we apply for something.
Like with Konstetpidemin, you have a vision and you go to the city and say ‘okay, we want to do this here and we want it to be this’ and then in the best world they say ‘oh, sounds cool! do it! Here’s some coffee cash!’ Konstepidemin is quite special, it’s a special space. I think places like that were easier to start up in the eighties, that was a different time, that kind of project is still possible but it’s more complicated now to create something of that scale. I grew up quite close to there so I’ve also thought of it like..of course this kind of place exists! Then I had an exhibition there and a lot of people came who weren’t from Gothenburg and they were like ‘this place is amazing!’ and hen you’ve been organising culture projects for a few years and you start to realise how complicated it is and all the obstacles and it’s like..wow this place, that this is possible, that is awesome. That was a new realisation for me!
Do you feel the project has made a difference to the places you’ve visited?
Yes..more for some than for others, but definitely. There is a few really good examples, like Traunos, my first project, they have actually started an annual residency of their own after we were there. Tomma Rum is a kind of a testing ground, sometimes municipalities have an idea and it’s getting more and more common that municipalities in Sweden want their own residencies because they use it for gentrification, which is a blessing and a curse and artists have to find a way to position themselves in that If they want a residency it’s nice to experiment and try it out with Tomma Rum because we’re not an annual thing for them. We come once, and they see what does this mean for us, how does it look, how can it be organised. A few of those write to us in the past years with that interest and they want to try it out with Tomma Rum, see what it’s like to have a residency in the area.
Do you feel artists and projects like this have a social responsibility?
Through the years and different situations, we have started discussing this and we feel for Tomma Rum that we have a social responsibility that expresses itself in different ways. You don’t want to come in and exotify rural areas, like big city people coming in and be like ‘oh this is cute!’ you don’t want it to be like that, you want to do it with respect. That is important, treat the site with respect.
But also in terms of working with companies and sponsors, because with the industrial municipalities there is a tight connection between the big employer of the area and the municipality, especially historically. Is it okay for us to be sponsored by a corporation that exploits people in Sweden or globally? We have in our rule book that we never have a corporation as head collaborator, it should always be a cultural organisation or a municipality. There can be discussions for getting materials and things like that through a company like that but the head collaborator should never be a corporation.
Those rules developed from the time we were in a mining village in the North of Sweden, there was a big mining company there and we didn’t really have any experience yet with a place where the municipality and the mine were so intwined you can’t really separate them and that makes you a part of the mining company, who did questionable things both with the people in the North, the Sami, and also globally..afterwards we started creating rules that helped us keep us on track and help us learn from these kind of experiences where you don’t realise what a problem is and how you might become part of the problem until you’re actually there. We try to take both kinds of responsibilities.
I can imagine that is a challenge that also comes with this kind of residency, most residencies have a fixed place and people come there, you go to a place instead. What do you feel are some of the challenges of running this kind of residency?
The most obvious challenge is to find collaborations that feel fruitful both for the members, the participants and for the municipality. I think that is the biggest challenge. Also, there are very few people organising a project that involves a lot of people. We try to keep it even and not to get the workload to exhaust the organisers, and we try to keep an air of a very flat organisation where everybody has a say and there’s a democracy and openness.
What kind of artists come to Tomma Rum?
I think we have covered sort of everything during the years! We have..filmers, photographers,painters, sculptures, performance art, installations, architects, landscape architects, writers, poets..if it’s an artistic expression in some way, they’ve been at Tomma Rum.
When artists apply, do they usually have a set project in mind or is the outcome flexible?
Mostly it’s quite flexible, most people come with an idea in mind and use it as a ground for experiments. Sometimes people come with a clear project or even a deadline, but most of the project is coming to the site and see what happens, and perhaps take it as an opportunity to discover a new medium or practice.
Do you see that people start collaborating?
I thought about that a lot this summer and I think that if people collaborate they usually come there together to collaborate. Because the project is so socially intense, you share everything and live You work on your own together, that’s a good sentence to describe the artistic work at Tomma Rum.
Do you have any tips for artists who want to come to Tomma Rum?
Have time to stay. I think that’s the only one. Take time to stay. A lot of people, the first time they come they want to check it out so they book like four days and then they say ‘I’ll book longer next time!’. Come longer the first time and if you totally panic you can always leave. Other than that..you don’t have to know anything about the site other than how to get there and we provide that information. If you like to work in a specific medium, bring what you need because we can never promise that you can find stuff. You can also not bring anything and just work with what you find, that can be nice too. Usually what stops people from coming is having the time, It’s not money, t’s the time that stops people from coming and discovering the project, giving themselves the time to do it. Take a week or two and just go.
How do you see the future of Tomma Rum?
It feels like it’s hard to see it not being, it’s been running for fifteen years now, every year or sometimes even twice a year when we do mini projects in the autumn if we find a suitable place. People around Sweden start to learn about residencies and that this is possible, more and more projects are being realised, new people coming in. I think it’s like a force that’s going to keep going. Once more concrete thing to say is that we’ll work more and more together with different artist run organisations, have them as head collaborators and have the municipalities in the background for practical stuff. We’ll just keep going!
Thank you for this interview Inez, it was great to meet you and I hope to visit Tomma Rum in the future for myself, whereever it might land next!
If you want to learn more about Tomma Rum, this is their website.