Open exhibitions are a great way to have your work seen by a large and 'interested' audience.
What you send is often the selection committee’s first contact with you and your practice.
Gone are the days when selectors sat round a table with sheets of 35mm slides, holding them up to the light and checking paper submission applications.
Much (if not all) is now via digital submission and often projected onto a large screen so the selectors can all see your work at the same time.
One of the most significant regional opens, which consistently presents innovative, critical and ground breaking work, is the Nottingham Castle Open. Since 2013 it has been a completely digital submission, as well as being anonymous. We mention this here, not only because it is our local 'Open' (we are made just down the road from Nottingham Castle!) but also because it reflects a significant trend in the field, one for completely online submission. It is also free to enter. Many opens cover their administration and exhibition costs by charging a submission fee for each work, or group of works ranging from £5- £20. Check what it will cost you before you spend time gathering your material.
This fully digital process has a number of advantages: It levels the playing field and means that there is less chance of influence through personal connection and networks (your name is not visible with the image). Also everyone is ‘seen in the same light’ (quite literally), and in the same format.
What that means to you as an applicant is that your images are now very, very important. Including an out of focus image, a badly framed picture or one which contains anything other than the work (unless that is part of the piece) will put you at a disadvantage.
You need to 'tell a story' and establish a visual and critical credibility in a very short amount of time. We know this from experience, which is why we have put this guide together!
An easy way to prepare your submission is to put yourself in the position of the selector. There may be hundreds of submissions, made up of thousands of images, titles, dates and statements. They all need to be looked at in a limited amount of time, so – if you do not provide materials and information in the format the organisers asked for, you will be less likely to be seen.
We have put together some of the key points to check as you make your submission.
BEFORE YOU START
Check the submission criteria – there is no point submitting a sculptural installation to a show which is looking for wall-based works of 6 x 6 inches!
Take a look at past shows organised by the people you are submitting to. Try archives on their websites or printed material they have distributed in previous years. What have they been showing and does your work either fit the profile or offer something different, which you think selectors might be excited about?
1 - TIME
Give yourself time to prepare. Leaving the submission until the last minute will encourage you to cut corners and, often, not follow the guidelines you have been given. Guidelines can be tedious and complicated to follow – but follow them.
It is often helpful to print out any guidelines and check them off as you go. Reading them on screen, when you are trying to edit text and images, is often difficult.
2 – ORGANISATION 1
The way you organise each part of your submission makes a real difference. If the organisers ask for images in jpg format, with a particular file name (so that they can connect the image to you), then make sure you follow this.
Generally cameras give images numbered file names (SANYO254490.jpg for example). If you leave your image with that name and it becomes detached from your submission, it will be impossible to connect it back to you. It will probably not be shown to the selectors.
3 – ORGANISATION 2
If you are asked to write a 300-word statement, do not include a longer one. In these situations, organisers and selectors want clear information as succinctly as possible. They also want to know that you can articulate your practice and edit your material. For advice on writing statements take a look at (links here)
Make sure the file with the statement is labelled in the format they are asking for.
4 – IMAGES 1
Be detached for a moment. Being engaged with your practice means that you are embedded in its production and development. You take many things for granted, particularly the way you ‘look’ at your work. This often results in images which are difficult to ‘read’ by people who are unfamiliar with what you do.
You know what something is supposed to look like and, on occasions, you do not see problems in a photograph because of this.
If your work is painting or wall based/framed, make sure the image is centrally located and ‘square’ to the frame of the image.
Use a clear background so that viewers look at the work, not the architecture it is displayed in (unless this is important for the site-specific nature of the piece).
Consider whether you need the frame to contextualise the presentation of the work.
If work is framed behind glass, remove reflections by taking out the glass.
For objects, consider their shadows. Try different lighting situations so that the view of the object is enhanced by the shading which occurs. If your camera has a white balance setting – experiment with this. One common mistake is to take pictures which have a blue cast due to the camera not adjusting to the light it is recording. It makes work look ‘cold’.
For installation and work in public spaces, consider if you need to include surrounding architecture, or people, to give an indication of scale.
For time-based or video work, you may be asked to submit a short, edited, selection as a moving image file. Consider how best to represent the durational aspect of the work (which you have control of here) or if it is better represented as a selection of stills.
Consider making a composite of multiple stills to present an indication of the changing aspects of the work in a single image. You can use image editing programmes to copy and paste several images into a single file.
Although not image-based, it is worth considering how you might present sonic work here. One suggestion is to make a specific edit to represent an element of the piece and give selectors a ‘taste’ of what you are attempting. This is a difficult area, as works are often much longer than the requested ‘clip’. If you cannot accurately offer an edit of your work, perhaps you should not submit it and find another location where longer works can be considered.
4 – IMAGES 2
Make your images the right size. If you are asked to submit pictures with a minimum size and resolution, check this.
If you have an image editing programme such as Photoshop, open your image and select ‘Image – Image size” from the top menu. That will give you the width and height in pixels. Tip – start with a large image and edit it down in size – not the other way round as this causes pixilation and degeneration of the ‘look’ of the image. If you change these settings, make sure the small ‘chain link’ icon is selected so that you maintain the format of your image.
If you do not have Photoshop, Macs have their ‘Preview ‘ utility (often found in Applications – Utilities), Windows has its Photo Edit utility (often found in Programmes, Utilities) or you can use an online editor such as Pixlr (www.pixlr.com www.picmonkey.com www.fotoflexer.com www.web.photocat.com). They all offer basic size, cropping and adjustments - you upload your image to their site, edit it and save it back onto your computer. These are NOT Photoshop replacement but offer quick and simple basic editing. There are also a number of free image editing programmes you can download and install if you do not want to be online during the editing. Just search online for “Free photo editing”.
5 – AN INDEPENDENT VIEW
Show your text and images to someone you trust who might not be too familiar with your work. Their ‘detached eye’ can help spot things you take for granted.
6 – PUT IT DOWN TO EXPERIENCE
We hope that by following some of these suggestions you will make a submission which attracts attention and presents your practice succinctly and professionally, but manage your expectations. Do not take it personally if you are not selected – you will be one of many. It hurts, but it happens. Use it to consider what you might submit next time and how, or chose another open competition which connects more directly with your practice. Feedback is always helpful, but do not ‘pester’ the selectors. The volume of submissions means that they can’t possibly feed back to those who were not selected. Do get together with other people in your field of expertise to talk over submission and what they did next.
You can also find an edited version of this information over on the Nottingham Castle Open Exhibition site where we have been helping out with a little advice.