Local artist Leila Houston may be as well known for her work championing visual arts in the city as for her own artwork. In the spirit of Leicester’s cultural community, Leila has not only exhibited in almost all of the city’s gallery spaces, she has several years work producing, more recently curating exhibitions with local arts collective Silver Vine Arts.

Leila helped to build the city’s Summer Art Trail from the ground up, offering artists residencies and exhibition space in the process, converting non-arts spaces into galleries and bringing non-arts audiences in to see new work.

This year, however, a successful arts council application sees Leila take her own artwork overseas. And for her second time exhibiting internationally, securing a spot at the Venice Biennale is no small feat.

Opening 12 May, Leila’s video installation Venice: A Conversation Series III has been chosen to exhibit as part of the major touring exhibition EMPIRE II: A British Art 57th Venice Biennale Collateral Show. An artist led satellite project, this exhibition showcases artists from the UK, devised and curated by the London-based contemporary artist Vanya Balogh. Houston’s film will be featured as one of 115 short films programmed to play on a continuous loop throughout the exhibition, alongside artists such as Gavin Turk, Ann Grim and Sarah Sparkes.

Continuing her exploration of the relationships between people, place and history, Venice: Conversation Series III (2017) focuses on the impact of mass human activity and tourism on Venice, contrasting and colliding sound and video recorded there to immerse the audience in the city and its community. For this project, Leila decided to collaborate with local band Sepia Sun to help her create an ambient soundtrack for the film.

“I’ve been working in sound for 10 years and used my knowledge to create inside and outside sounds,” Houston says. “I wanted to match the sound with video, letting it fill the darkness between visual images, so that the viewer has to imagine the scene through sound, creating space between what we see and hear.”

“I commissioned Sepia Sun for the Venice project specifically for their brilliant ability to create a dream-like space, which matched the scratchy, spacious mood of my film.”

Leila’s work has been predominantly an exploration of spaces and our connection to them; often using well-known, derelict local spots such as Frog Island to reflect on how we form ideas of society, history and culture. Previous exhibitions include From the 12th Floor, a photographic series which showed images taken from the top floor of the New Walk Centre before it was demolished, and Points of Departure on the upper floors of The Queen of Bradgate before they were renovated, which used recordings of visitors, conversations and artwork made during her residency there.

With Venice. Conversation Series III the focus shifts beyond the role of different spaces, delving into themes of isolation and community and the necessity of communication and support networks within society.

“The Conversation Series is based on thoughts and investigations around the importance of talking and isolation today,” Leila says. “This work is one part of this investigation and created from the journey of discussing and sharing personal experience and interaction.”

In a society where centres of community and artistic exchange are being forced to close, the arts are under increasingly brutal conditions to monetise in order to survive. As someone who suffers with ADHD and dyslexia, art and conversation has offered Leila a means of expressing her ideas. Yet, as a result, the recent cuts have been a double-edged sword.

“There’s a lot of judgement around artists or creative people who are not in work,” Leila says. “There’s a label and a stigma around being an artist, where people think you are not trying hard enough to get work, which is obviously not the case.”

Returning from Venice, Leila will be collaborating with economist Damon Gibbons (Centre for Responsible Credit, London) and local sculptor David Meredith as part of a new project funded by Arts Council England, Vulnerability and Anxiety in Today’s Financial Climate.

This project will see Leila invite people into her studio space at LCB depot, as well as allowing the public to take part in her work, culminating in the creation of a large, collectively-made sculpture, which will eventually be put on display during Leicester’s City Festival. She will also be hosting a free clay workshop that hopes to involve an open dialogue with other artists and all members of the community.

EMPIRE II opens Friday 12th May and runs until Sunday 26th November 2017. City Festival takes place Saturday 12 August – Monday 28 August 2017.

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Natalie Beech is a playwright, freelance journalist and Deputy Editor of Great Central.

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