New volunteer Chris Barrow talks about his first days of joining Surface and entering the unknown world of Art...

Mathematics. Engineering. You’re either right or wrong. There’s no opinion, no discussion, no grey let alone colour. Purely black or white. The bridge is either strong enough, or it’s not, the light is either on or off...and for me it was truly off. Working in my particular field hasn't made me “feel” anything at work from the age of 16, but it pays. After 17 years of ticking boxes, filling in checksheets I was bored. Bored of having no interesting, exciting subjects to speak of when at dinner parties. Bored of listening to the boring topics that other uninterested engineers spoke of, working purely to pay a mortgage and cash in their pension. I don't care that payback on solar panels is 10 years and I certainly don't care that your loft insulation is double thickness. I craved something different to see, communication with excited, enthusiastic people, I craved feeling, passion, inspiration, colour. The older I get I realise I’m a chip of the old block, and after sleepless nights trying to figure out what direction to take I asked the block what to do “Just do what makes you happy Chris”

So I listed what I truly like doing for myself, what I would choose to do with my time without restrictions. I like music. I like art. I like helping people. That was it. One of my closest friends, of which I have few, doesn’t care for materialistic things, doesn't earn a vast amount of money but is probably one of the happiest and contented people I know. She volunteers for a number of charities and organisations so I took a leaf and typed in “Volunteering Nottingham”. I didn't really want to stand in the Oxfam shop, drive a bus for blind people….bla bla bla...ah….

“An Independent, volunteer-run, contemporary art gallery that supports the professional development of early and mid-career artists, curators and people wishing to work in the arts.”

Well I’m not bad with a toolkit, thanks to the expert teachings of my Dad,  I like art...and surely the people involved there aren't too bothered about the payback period on a set of solar panels, so I fired off an email and awaited a response. After a few days, Chris invited me down to the International Postcard Opening Night, not only to see the exhibition but to have a chat with him about what Surface was about and the type of things I could get involved in. I was greeted by, and hope he doesn't mind me saying, a guy who personifies “Arty” to an engineer. He was intriguingly awkward, passionate, excited, fashionably unfashionable and made me feel instantly comfortable at the gallery. Being an engineer and not having been exposed to the art world, I had preconceptions of how its a bit of a closed community. I thought that, if I got involved, one day I would be “revealed” as an imposter. The welcome I had on that first night, not only from Chris, but the other volunteers instantly quashed those preconceptions.

Having never actually produced any art (apart from the Santa Claus head, made out of a paper plate my mum brings out every Christmas) I thought I’d help the tech team out. So after painting a few walls and taking some shelves down, I put my hand up to help out at the opening night of the NTU Festival. My job was to be on the bar downstairs, invigilate and make sure everyone downstairs was happy. I hadn't a clue what to expect or what the artists were going to do, all I got told was that it was the part of “Stories in The Dark” and downstairs was called “Lost in Gloss”...that was it.

Now, I’d never been to anything like this before you understand, so if you’re expecting an in depth critical review, you’re going to be disappointed. I couldn't tell you if it was critically brilliant, or if it had some deep and meaningful message hidden within. All I can say is that, personally, I frickin loved it.

After walking in from the cold and miserable late winter’s evening, you were greeted by a girl holding a tray of blue bubble gum pieces in wrappers, of which you were encouraged to take a piece and chew. The girl was interesting alone, as she was dressed in black if I remember, with a whitened, emotionless face. After taking the gum, 3 videos were projected on the wall to the right, each projecting girls eating candyfloss hair. Each video was encapsulating and bizarre. I found myself watching them for minutes at a time, trying to work out, if anything, they symbolised. It amazed me how such a simple and original set of videos engrossed the  audience to such an extent as to make them stare at them for such a length of time.

Behind the videos was a pool of wet, blue paint which looked to have been shot high up the wall and drained down to the floor. What this symbolised, I don't know, though a few people did step in it leaving footprints around the gallery...the footprints themselves got me wondering if that was part of the piece?

The central, and focal point of Lost in Gloss were three girls sitting crossed legged in the middle of the room. They had large, wire-mesh headpieces on with candyfloss stuck to them. They sat, emotionless, dressed in white, on white bedding and occasionally eating the candyfloss from their heads.  All this, with rather gross sounding chewing noises being played through a set of speakers at the rear of the room. The girls sitting down, were the same girls in the video and were equally as encapsulating and intriguing to watch.

When leaving the gallery by either going upstairs, or through the front door, you were encouraged to spit your blue gum on a square piece of board labelled “Spit Before Step”. This again must symbolise something, what I dont know. What I do know is that it was weird, gross and interesting, adjectives never used in engineering. Somehow everything in the room was linked and what's exciting to me is, that in time, I’ll learn how to recognise the symbolism of exhibitions like this.

So in summary, I’m afraid I can't give you an indepth explanation of the symbolism of Lost in Gloss …. you’ll have to ask one of the more experienced art bods for that. What I can tell you is that the piece has made me feel excited about the future, intrigued and, along with the Surface Gallery community, inspired to be creative. If this is what art is, then you’ll see me at Surface -  a lot.


(Oh - and thanks for the advice Mum)