Instant Art

By Rajesh Punj - Wednesday, January 13, 2016
Instant Art

Redefining art as cultural product, the two front men of Unit London, Jonny Burt and Joe Kennedy appear driven by a desire to see aesthetics as a consumable item, and to give their technologically tapped in audience the opportunity to experience everything as is happens in real-time. Carried by the social energy of instagram and twitter, art delivered by Unit London appears as appealing as music television, in which a constant feed of coloured images, muted messages, artists lead actions, and advertising styled sound-bites, have created an inclusive brand that has successfully taken them from a small space in West London, to a centrally located gallery.

Instant Art

Redefining art as cultural product, the two front men of Unit London, Jonny Burt and Joe Kennedy appear driven by a desire to see aesthetics as a consumable item, and to give their technologically tapped in audience the opportunity to experience everything as is happens in real-time. Carried by the social energy of instagram and twitter, art delivered by Unit London appears as appealing as music television, in which a constant feed of coloured images, muted messages, artists lead actions, and advertising styled sound-bites, have created an inclusive brand that has successfully taken them from a small space in West London, to a centrally located gallery.

Able to talk eloquently of the unmitigated value of social media as a branding tool and mechanism for societal exchange, Unit London are entirely in-sink with their collective ambition for the virtual and visible existence of art in and outside of the gallery setting. By fashioning an instagram style storyboard that unravels aesthetics of its cultural preciousness, in order an audience can witness more of the creative process. Where the appearance of blank canvases, idle sheets of paper and incomplete artworks are added to a rolling news styled narrative that for their immediacy sit somewhere between choosing a new pair of shoes online, and deciding on your next holiday destination. As everything is available as a technologically gifted experience. Yet as much as the smartphone and the tablet have amplified, possibly even exaggerated their success, they are still committed to the physical sensation of works of art being curating into a public space.

Accumulatively Unit London have as much virtual strength as they do visual presence, with their gallery at the epicentre of London’s cultural commotion, and from where they have been able to act upon their desire to champion contemporary art as though modern music; as much available and infiltrated by new technology. In conversation they bullishly explain the added theatricality of their openings that are for them as much a part of the exhibition experience as the art object itself. And it can be no greater testament to their fledging success, than the tens of hundreds of attendee’s to their event openings, and tens of thousands of virtual followers, who they emphasise are happy to invest in their artworks without having seen them. Crucially their impressive and very pressing branding of the art object has proved a triumph, having harnessing the communicative clout of such electronic enterprises as facebook and instagram, in order to promote and position Unit London as a new kind of aesthetic experience. Talking as they do in terms of ‘branding’, the strength of ‘social media’ through ‘instagram’, an invisible ‘collector base’, and of their seeking to ‘promoting an experience’, for which they see art as an ingredient for a new age of accessible experiences.

Unit London Co-Founders, Jonny Burt (left) and Joe Kennedy (right). Courtesy Unit London 

Rajesh Punj: You have already talked about the forward programme. To add to that how many artists do you represent?  

Unit London, (Jonny Burt & Joe Kennedy): We have sixteen (artists) on the roster now, all totally global; so it is a very international roster. We have artists from South Africa, China, Europe, the UK and The States. It is really really international. And that is part of what is exciting about what we are trying to do, is to bring global artists to the UK for the first time, and showcase them here. When we started it was more UK based artists that we could reach out to. Jonny was actually blogging when we started, and I was working in advertising. And Jon has a few contacts of artists he had written about on his blog. And we literally sent a few emails to those guys to say ‘can you give us a canvas? We are trying to start a gallery here.’  And we had this tiny shop in Chiswick. And a lot of them said ‘no, who are you?’ But a few of them were gracious enough to give us a few canvases.

JB: Ryan (Hewitt) was a really good example of that. The last exhibition we had sold out. I was a huge fan of his and he literally influenced my work, and I messaged him on facebook and said ‘I would love to write about your work if it’s okay? If it’s not too much trouble is that alright?’ And he was nice enough to say ‘fine yeah’. After he shared it on his page we shared a relationship on line. And a year later when we had the idea to start the gallery, I said ‘hey I am starting a gallery’. I wasn’t expecting him to say yes at all. Who am I really, just opening this gallery. But ‘could we have a piece? Would you be open to that?’ And he was like ‘yeah sure’. 

It was really lucky because he had two paintings with his photographer in Ealing. He had a UK photographer and he had sent them two canvases, and the works were just sitting there. So we got in a van and literally drove to this guy’s house and knocked on the door, and he took us through to his shed and pulled out these two canvases, and we said ‘oh my god’. And we put them in the van and drove back, as we were so excited when we got back.

So excited, we would just be like fans of this guy. And literally we developed a relationship, and to begin with we had him in pretty much every group show we did. Where we would always sell his work consistently. And then we came to the decision that it made sense to have our first solo show with him. So then we had that first solo exhibition in April, and we sold out three weeks before it opened. And it was an amazing journey to have come from that hit-and-hope email, and me writing about him yonks ago.

Unit London, 147-149 Wardour Street, London. Courtesy Unit London 

RP: Were you aware of what was happening?

UL: We were aware of it. I got a call from a journalist artist saying I heard about this show.

RP: So it was all about timing.

UL: Yes it was really good timing, but we had already sold out the show. And those two canvases he gave us for our first exhibition in our Chiswick gallery, we were selling them for fourteen hundred (pounds) each, and now in that recent solo show that sold out, those sized works were going for triple their original price. So it has been really nice. Those artists that initially put their faith in us in the beginning, a lot of them, well pretty much all of them are still on our roster. And now we have this platform to really show case their work. To show them off to the widest possible audience. Which is the whole ethos of the gallery. And being in Soho now is the best kind of reflection of that ethos, because we were looking at a gallery in Fitzrovia, and it was ready to go. It had an amazing storage space, it was perfectly fitted out for insurance purposes. Nice gallery which we could have had half the price of this, and it was wasn’t as much of a gamble as this. But it didn’t feel right because it was more a destination gallery. And everyone who goes there, goes there to look at art and buy art, but for us it is more about getting as many eyes on the work as possible, and (crucially) opening up to new people who may never have thought about coming into a gallery to look at work. People come in off the street and say ‘oh wow’. And then we get to come along and educate them about the work, and suddenly they start getting involved in art and get an interest for it. And for us that is the most rewarding thing. All sales aside that is why we do it. To make sure we can build these artist’s profiles to the widest possible audience of people. And we now have an amazing collector base which is again very international.

Unit London, 147-149 Wardour Street, London. Courtesy Unit London 

RP: And how has that come about; is it entirely instagram’s doing?

UL: As Joe said to begin with we had no collectors, we had no journalists, we had no funding, nothing. So we relied on social media to build a community that people could get involved with, and that was all we had. So for two years ago we have built a huge community on social media, which has us now connected to big collectors, journalists, enthusiasts, everyone. But we have a lot of our big collectors, who we have not even met before living on the other side of the world, who have been buying from us consistently for the last twelve months. They found us on instagram. And what is even more fascinating is that they were never really collectors before they landed on our page. That journey of discovery is so important. But having found our page it is all about a story. Of a time-line and following our page over a period of time. They have built that enthusiasm for the brand and of what we are trying to do. And we essentially turned them into collectors. Whereas previously they would have never of even fathomed buying art. So that is what is amazing for us and the power of social media. Because instagram now is the most popular online social forum for art. It just is. Which is quite an amazing truth. And for us it was never inadvertent sales talk, which is what we always say. We use it solely as a promotion tool. To promote us a brand, the gallery and the artists we represent. And through that inadvertently it has created sales. But we never perceived it as a sales platform. We started it just to promote us, to promote the artist, as ‘free media’.

Because when you start you don’t have journalist contacts, and no-one really cares what you are doing. You have to go out and be active in making those connections with people, of building a brand and doing everything you can. So we were flyering. I don’t know if you remember in Chiswick we had painted footsteps on the pavement, and we were doing all sorts of things trying to build a brand. And with all of that you can extrapolate those little things that get applied to your social media page. You take a photography of it and then send it out, and suddenly it is seen not only everyone who walks by on the street, but someone in America. Suddenly those networks start interlinking, and growing and growing and growing. And yet it is just free media which we use relentlessly to try and tell people about what we are doing and about the brand. And yes as Jon said it has now resulted in our biggest collectors spending lots and lots and lots of money without even having met us and not having seen the artworks in the flesh. They will see the works on the instagram page and get in contact and then they will end up purchasing it, not having seen it, and then we will ship it off.

RP: I had a conversation this morning about just that. Buying works exclusively online with someone at Christies.

UL: There are a lot of online gallery platforms, including ‘Artsy’, who are trying to substitute what a gallery does. They are trying to substitute a physical space for something online, and it doesn’t really work I don’t think. It has been okay but it hasn’t taken off. Whereas social media and instagram is more of an experience. You are not necessarily going on there to buy art, you are going on there to learn. (Instagram) is kind of like a covert sales tool I guess. You go and you learn about (an artwork) and you are really excited by it, and then it’s ‘oh actually I could buy that’. And then they start the conversations with the gallery and it happens like that. But it’s not really overtly marketed for sales. It is just ‘oh this is really nice, I really like that piece’.

RP: So there is nothing aggressive or blatant about your methods. It is more of a ‘co-operative’ experience.

UL: It is a more comfortable environment for people who like art to browse, and unfortunately if you are browsing on ‘Artsy’ the first thing you see is the price. So there is no social experience with that. None at all. That’s what instagram gives you, it give you that social experience. Because we all know that collectors want that social experience, which is always more important than physical commodity. They want that story behind the artwork and the artist. And that’s what instagram offers. That story you get from a timeline. With Artsy it is a very cool ‘art to basket’ with a void of any kind of social experience. 

A lot of collectors will have it, as opposed to Artsy, just so they can have friends over for dinner. And they will talk about the piece and how they found it, and how they stumbled across this gallery; and obviously if you are buying by ‘add to basket’, you don’t get that story, or the cultural or social experience. And even though we have a very strong online following and instagram following, our gallery space is also so important. Which is why we have invested so much in a space like this, because it is all about the ‘physical’, the ‘human’, ‘social’, ‘cultural’ experience. That is what we are about. It is not about sitting at home on a computer and clicking to buy, because it is more than that. It has a unique place in culture, and collectors get a real kick out of that. It’s why people buy art, it’s why people like art. So it is the marriage of the physical and online through social media, which has basically allowed us to build the business to where it is now.

Rajesh Punj, January 2016  

Image above: Unit London Co-Founders, Joe Kennedy (left) and Jonny Burt (right). Courtesy Unit London. 

Rajesh Punj is a London based art critic, correspondent and curator. His academic background is in European and American art history and curating from Warwick University, and Goldsmiths College respectively. He has a special interest in Asia and the Middle East, and is currently correlating a volume of selected interviews with leading international artists, designers, photographers, and gallerists from India, due for publication in 2016. He is looking towards expanding this project to writing related volumes on the Middle East and China. He is regularly commissioned by international publications, including Art Paper (Beirut), ARC (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), sedition (London), Art Zip (Beijing), Flash Art International (Milan), and Asian Art newspaper (London). He has written extensively on emerging markets, and has curated shows internationally. He has previously worked with artists Andrea Zittel (USA), Anish Kapoor, (UK), Monica Bonvicini, (ITA), David Goldblatt (SA), Simon Patterson, (UK), Julian Opie, (UK), and Jake and Dinos Chapman, (UK), more recently interviewing Fiona Banner (UK), Richard Jackson (USA), Liu Xiaodong (PRC), and Dayanita Singh (IND).

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Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

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