An anonymous evaluator: Experimentation, failure and incompleteness are part of an artist’s life

What makes an application interesting in the eyes of an evaluator? One of the experts who assessed applications to the Saari Residence this spring describes what happens behind the scenes during the evaluation process and what you should take into account when filling in your application.
Photo: Otto-Ville Väätäinen

I worked as a peer evaluator of residency applications for Kone Foundation’s Saari Residence in the spring of 2020.

I was delighted to be involved in evaluating applications from my own field of art. I have had the opportunity to participate in the Saari Residence myself, and it was one of the most important periods in my artistic career. It was rewarding to be able to take part in the selection process, as it gave me the chance to make similar experiences possible for other artists.

 

The process of peer review

I was given a large number of applications to review, most of which were carefully written and had clearly had hours of work put into them, but I was able to propose only about 2% of them as my final nomination. The first stage of the evaluation, which involved going through all the applications, took me three weeks, because I wanted to give each application the attention it deserved. Several of the applications also requested review by an evaluator from another field, and we assessed these applications together. It took about a week to decide my final nomination and, at this stage, all the evaluators got together to discuss their nominations. Kone Foundation’s Board of Trustees selected the artists for the residence on the basis of the nominations.

The themes of the applications this year included, for example, the relationship between nature and humans, the non-human, the anthropocene, posthumanism, the coronavirus and the changes it brings at the individual and social level, sexual identity and gender, whiteness and non-whiteness, feminism and shamanism. In addition, many of the applications revealed the desire to move beyond a society and activities that emphasise individuality and the capitalist consumer culture, towards more communal and ecological ways of being.

There were several evaluation criteria to take into account: the aim was to select artists whose work is regenerative, bold and topical, and at least some of them should represent new or marginal fields of art. In the evaluation of applications to individual residencies, diversity was also important, whether in terms of nationalities, age or career. This year, we also pondered the impact of the coronavirus in relation to the selection of artists. Should we choose artists from countries from which it would probably be possible to travel to Finland next year? This spring’s application round also offered, for the first time, the opportunity to apply for a grant for slow travel. What would happen to such travel plans now? However, when making the decision on the final nominations, it was decided that travel challenges were not a good enough reason to not nominate an applicant for the residency.

 

What makes an application interesting?

I personally felt that the biggest problems exhibited in the applications were vagueness and lack of clarity, as well as a superficial trendiness instead of a more profound topicality. The best applications, in my opinion, were those where the artist’s previous, compelling work merged with a work plan that took interesting, clear and even challenging directions without being too tightly nailed down but, instead, was given room to breathe. The time between filling in the application and starting the residency is fairly long, and many things about your work may change in that time. I particularly liked applications that revealed a person who didn’t feel the need for self-aggrandisement, but who seemed secure enough about their own work and what they were doing, was willing to experiment and also seemed able to accept incompleteness, the indefinable and failure.

 

Opportunity for interaction

What was particularly important to me during my own residency was the ability to reflect on my own work and thoughts together with the other residents. That’s why I also tried to assess how well the applicants, if selected, would get along with each other and support each other’s work. Of course, based simply on a written application, it was largely guesswork as to how the person would react and act among other residents. Yet I felt that the applications also provided information about this part of the applicant, because the application included questions about the applicant’s interests, what the applicant would like to share with the other residents and what they hope to gain from them. In practice, however, it’s very challenging to plan the personal dynamics of the residence in advance, and the fact that some of the artists selected may have to postpone or cancel their residency further complicates the issue.

 

Insights and new ways of thinking

During the evaluation process, I felt the desire to tell many of the applicants how much I enjoyed both their applications and learning about their previous work, and that they offered me new ideas and insights and challenged my way of thinking. Through the applications, I learned about many great artists whose works I probably wouldn’t have found by myself. So I want to thank you for letting me read your applications!

There were a huge number of good applications, and many applicants would have deserved a residency. I’m happy for everyone who was selected and I encourage those who received a negative decision to apply for the residency again. It was a brutal task to sift out so many truly great applications. My hope is that those who weren’t selected will not take the negative decision personally, because I know from my own experience that this sometimes happens when you have invested so much into an application.

I wish every applicant all the best, both in life and their art.

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