SalonRT was founded by Lina Stallmann, Jerry Guo and Makesa Kaizen during the pandemic. The trio met whilst studying at Central Saint Martins in London and are vibrant, young and talented curators and dealers. The platform is centred around the domestic space of Jerry’s home in West London. Visitors invited to experience art in the physical setting of his hallway, bedroom and rooftop. The domestic space is mirrored in an online viewing room, which emulates game-like design by 3D scanning Jerry’s home. I spoke to Lina, Jerry and Makesa about collaboration, curating online and setting up a commercial venture in a grass roots fashion.
From speaking with Lina previously, that for SalonRT you had devised the concept before the pandemic, how and why did you come to SalonRT? How do you find the practice of working collaboratively?
MK: We wanted to find out how we work together but also to present a show with two artists, Jack Somerville and Daniel Spivakov. Obviously due to the pandemic, and restrictions in London, we weren’t able to carry that show over. The formation of SalonRT was an alternative to that particular show.
JG: Also if we’re going to promote these guys we love, how do we do the job better? I always had a tendency for art in a domestic space, whether in the curatorial format or from a collector’s point of view. That’s one of the reasons I got into contemporary art. The idea was to utilise my living space and access the rooftop. At the same time, I knew that there were different aspects that I couldn’t take care of on my own, and I pitched the idea to Makesa and Lina. We had some discussions and they both liked how it was going. At that point, the main aspect for us to develop on was the virtual gallery, which is a digital rendering of my hallway, bedroom and rooftop. So we thought about using that space as an alternative viewing room to OVR formats on other gallery websites. It was a good opportunity and we had our first show with Daniel and Luc Wearing. We’re having a second exhibition in the physical space at the start of April.
LS: I think different aspects came together and we were like okay let’s do something about it. I remember Jerry always telling us he wanted to use his space, but we didn’t really pick up on that. Then we wanted to do this show with Jack and Daniel, and Jerry also wanted to be part of it. He said let’s do something with my space. Lockdown hit and it was perfect timing to say, let’s do it virtually, let’s make it happen.
MK: I think what’s also worth mentioning is that between us we all have an intense interest in the arts and collectively there’s always been an energy to work together. Besides being partners, we’re also really close friends. It makes working together really easy, so it was almost like a no brainer at that point, especially given the limitations, we had in terms of actually being able to have physical shows, this was the best alternative.
Boring question, but do you need planning permission to use the rooftop?
MK: They often say sometimes it’s best to ask for forgiveness than permission.
JG: I mean when people ask me this, the example I bring up is Aptart, there was this apartment with a gallery in Moscow in the 80s; for three years, they had a consecutive programme and then the KGB came and took it down. Then it became part of art history and I really looked up to that. We don’t have any connections in the industry, and I’d say from a personal point of view, it was a niche industry to get in to. As a start-up, as young aspiring dealers or curators, it is extremely difficult to show art consistently and to bring people in constantly. Guts Gallery are trying to find spaces all the time: they are quite well established and it’s proving difficult even for them. In our generation, we have to keep thinking about how to innovate, how to utilise what we have, and try to do the best we can with minimal resources.
Everyone is talking about online curating, but not as much about how it works practically, could you talk me through the technology you use to create the online space?
MK: The technological side is still very much in its beta stage, its not necessarily at the most advanced stage at the moment. You have to be extremely imaginative, we could have gone for the conventional white space, but we wanted to opt for a more domestic setting, we wanted to very much mirror the onsite space, which is Jerry’s space. We didn’t seek to necessarily reinvent the wheel, but we wanted to create the platform in a different way, which kind of spoke to the average individual, that felt more accessible.
LS: We were working with a programmer very practically, and we might look for another to see how we can actually develop the vision a bit further. We are also new to programming and Unity, which is the platform we’re using. Also 3D rendering, it’s no witchcraft but it’s something we’re still wrapping our heads around. We have the next show planned in the online viewing room and someone is helping us to implement it. We’re constantly like can we do this, can you do that, how can we make this move and this go away? Also we’re exploring the technical side of it, there’s so many opportunities but it takes a lot of time to code things, put things in. That was also a learning curve for us to see it’s not just like dropping things on the programme and they pop up. There are a lot of fine little renderings you need to figure out. Maybe they were not all perfect the first time, but there were so many things we needed to consider, how the light and virtual light hits the paintings. We weren’t aware of a lot of details initially but after the first time, we saw how many opportunities there are to really play around. There’s so much more than just looking at paintings in a virtual space. You can create an experience people might enjoy and want to explore more. Also, we wanted it to be more realistic at first but then we saw what the programmer did and we actually liked this not clear, not realistic rebuild of the room and the background of this weird sunset, which looks really cool. That was fun to see.
MK: I would add on to that that I think SalonRT and the digital space is a true example of being able to execute something on a small budget and very limited resources. None of us here are necessarily tech savvy, we’re not coders ourselves, but being able to present something in a very unconventional form that I would personally say, not because I’m biased, I believe rivals any other platform in being very unique and very refreshing.
Moving on to artists: From your first two exhibitions, ‘Paintings without Walls: Daniel Spivakov and Luc Wearing’ and ‘Bradley Childs: Jack of All Trades’, it seems that you like working with anti-establishment artists who challenge the notion of traditional fine art practice, how do you see that as reflective of the gallery?
MK: I think that’s very reflective of us, we are all quite anti-establishment. We don’t necessarily come from a background of collectors or dealers or even have access to that world. I remember very early on, possibly 2018, when I first met Lina, we had a conversation about if we were to begin an artistic movement or gallery, whether individually or together, that it would be like almost having to create your own kind of party and become your own establishment. And then those from the outside, who deal within the art world can always take light to that in some shape or form. You kind of have to ballsy, brave enough to be like we’re going to start something and eventually people will begin to pick up on that. I think its very much reflective of our interest in art and the kind of individuals we work with too.
LS: I agree but I think we want to have new things, fresh things that you might come in and be like I’ve never seen this before. That’s how we can also make our stance, because we’re as good as we can offer. We really want to push ourselves so that we can find not only emerging artists, but also the best we can find and the best we can see. A potential to change the course of art history or to really nudge people into new direction. I mean that’s what I’m very much interested also with Stallmann Gallery, you know it has to be fresh and crisp. I think the viewing room also has this very fresh thing, its’s exciting to see something new. Also with Bradley, I feel very much that he’s really onto something. A new way of making people view his art, also within the space, painting and sculpture. We can also offer something new to the conversation in the art world, because we have something people don’t have yet and haven’t seen.
JG: I think I was very fortunate to start building a community unconsciously. Meeting artists, reading about art and trying to see more art. I met Jack, who then introduced me to Daniel’s work and then introduced me to Lina. If you have a similar energy and the same drive, then you’re orientated towards your kind of people in the end.
I find it really inspiring that you’re all sticking your finger up to the establishment, being like I’m not going to wait for my chance, I’m going to go out and get it.
MK: 100 % you've got to look at it like, number 1, no one owes you anything and, number 2, you have to create your own opportunities. I think all of us are quite ambitious in that way. Cool you don’t want to give me a job, alright fuck you I’m going to make a job.
JG: For me, I’m kind of giving up on the idea of finding a job when I graduate and just trying to work on SalonRT and other projects, to turn them into functional enterprises that speak to the new generation and try to find my own audience.
MK: Absolutely, I think one thing that’s important to stress is that you need a team. Although we may do our own thing individually, we all, either indirectly or consciously, support each other.
Talking about your current exhibition with the artist Bradley Childs, Makesa, I know you mentioned that the show was “almost like an act of revenge on the environment”. Is this an act of revenge on the gentrified neighbourhood of West London?
MK: I think most definitely indirectly, not necessarily directly. I was making a point about the domestic space that Jerry lives in. It’s quite hard to categorise Bradley’s work, he uses a lot of natural elements and every day materials but presented in a way that probably belongs in a museum or traditional gallery space. Once presented in a domestic space it elevates that entire experience. So almost a heightened, refreshed perspective on the actual environment, it’s something that’s extremely captivating.
LS: I was thinking today, they’re like radiant objects, because they’re not really these panels on the walls, not really like paintings because they’re objects. They’re very radiant, they have a lot of energy giving back to the space.
MK: Bradley’s been able to collide different chemicals and textures together to create form.
JG: Also in being a domestic space, compared to a big open floor gallery, the pieces are much harder to ignore, you’re almost confronted by them. I live there so I’m being confronted all the time. You really have to look and think about what they’re trying to say. That’s how we organised this show, making sure that all the pieces speak for themselves.
When you’re working with the artists do they orient themselves towards this notion of site-specificity? (Lera)
JG: Absolutely, I think Bradley specifically, when we started talking about the show was very aware of the context. He’s actively trying to engage with the environment, trying to confront things. If it’s on the rooftop what can you do to the work, if it’s on the wall how do you look at it. Even using existing infrastructure on the roof, for example there is a painting that’s screwed on top of the watershed. He tried to emulate the texture from that environment in his own work to create a dialogue.
LS: He did specific works that were with the wall, connected to the wall. The environment that’s there is also part of the piece automatically, he very much thinks like that. Even if the work was not site specifically made each time, his intention was to work with where it was to be installed.
From your launch event, I know you mentioned that the platform is funded by sales. How do you create relationships with collectors? How successful have the commercial aspects been so far?
JG: We’re still very much looking into it.
MK: Still trying to find the best strategy that we can implement. It’s definitely not easy especially when you don’t exactly have a record of commercial sales.
LS: Having a shop front, people automatically have a different approach to what you’re doing. Buying is such a normal thing then, but when it’s not as clear the conversation changes so drastically. I wasn’t aware of that before but now being here in Berlin, its much easier. I mean not that I’m selling like crazy, but it leads to more sales. It’s much harder work with the online and domestic space. We are very much trying to figure out how to make back all the money we are spending now to really have a good financial flow. We do not come from any collector families, so we are really working from the bottom up. The fact that you can’t have conversations in the space makes things very different, like an online space, if I invite someone over and we talk about it together, it’s much more likely that they will want to buy it. It’s cool to have the space, I’m excited to see what will happen with the first onsite show. Where we can actually communicate and make more bonds, even though selling is a thing that takes longer, but starting to establish relationships.
We can’t help but ignore NFTs, is this something you would want to be engaging with on this platform?
JG: I’m much more interested in creating a market for internet art and for art that’s non fungible rather than jumping in on the bubble so to speak. We have a show after Bradley, which is this artist with a subtext for ecology and nature and the environment. Originally I said to him maybe think about how you can re-slice the virtual space and turn that into a non fungible token that he can sell and give the gallery a share. Personally, I feel that this NFT is slightly problematic and I’m not a fan of how much it’s costing the environment. I feel it needs to be more sustainable going forward. We’re seeing such high prices for these NFTs and I don’t think it’s going to last. If we want to have a presence in this market, we need to help it to grow organically rather than what’s been happening recently.
MK: I’m slightly on the fence, I agree with Jerry, in terms of it being very damaging or problematic for culture. Jerry mentioned yesterday that just to mint an NFT costs the same as trying to sustain your household. I think the reason I’m slightly on the fence is I think the platform is yet to establish itself and have a structure which is more democratic. Maybe even more decentralised in many aspects, given the fact that we’re seeing these very high profile sales happening at the very highest price margins. Not many people have access to the technology, nor do many people have access to that amount of funds. So inevitably I agree with Jerry, it’s a hype and it is going to crash. Yet I think in years to come it will be a very interesting way for people to profit off their art but it’s too early to say.
LS: It’s a good technology to trace your art, but as a gallerist it’s not really working for me, its rather contra galleries and the middle man. It’s a good thing that artists can put work on there and make their own money. I think the art is not great, it has to develop a quality that really makes sense and I think it would interesting to maybe provide better art or content that’s actually valuable. It’s probably staying, I don’t think it’s going to disappear but maybe it will calm down and it’ll be another tool. Instagram is great, you can sell art, but it’s not taking over everything. The NFT could also have a legit function for people in the art market but the quality needs to improve.
I know that you all run several different projects in addition to SalonRT. Could you expand on these? How did you form connections as friends?
MK: We all met through university, I met Lina through a mutual friend of ours. Lina introduced me to Jerry. I think what’s important to mention is how genuine our connection is. It’s about wanting to produce beautiful institutions and initiatives, there’s a real truth in wanting to see each other excel. Within our busy lives, I teach, I’m an associate lecturer at CSM, currently also working for Carlos Ishikawa as a registrar and aside from that I’m of course trying to establish myself as a gallerist and dealer with my own programme and SalonRT. I’m a bad arse, all around bad arse.
LS: We’re all from different courses, but somehow we kind of came together. I set up a gallery in Berlin in October 2020, I’m running a non-profit platform called artisall for emerging artists and designers. We make interviews but we also want to showcase works by graduates on our website and instagram. SalonRT and Stallmann Gallery are kind of reciprocal learning ventures.
JG: I’m still studying, I’m starting a coffee company. Im trying to export that and bring it to the UK and find a new market and promote a good product. Right now I’m mainly thinking about first graduating, I’m excited for SalonRT to go forward in the future. Lina and Makesa have given me a lot of help and guidance, how to operate a gallery and cultivate a programme.