This year marks the tenth anniversary of the frieze writer’s prize, a yearly open call to encourage and promote promising, young (but not only young) art writers seeking an opportunity to publish their writing in a contemporary art publication. Sadly, for an aspiring art writer the chances to publish and, importantly, be paid for your writing are becoming more and more scarce so when co-editor of frieze magazine, Jörg Heiser, noted while judging the award in 2006: ‘There are many prizes for artists and curators – almost none for critics,’ I feel the prize is just as relevant, if not more so, than when it started.
But why does fostering new art writers matter? Reading back over a decade of winning entries it’s encouraging to note, not just how many of the winners, runners ups and highly commended have gone on to carve a name for themselves, but interesting to consider just how much has changed with the format, and importance, of the review in a wider context. Just as art reflects the time of its making, so too do the words written about it. It’s perhaps inevitable that a review of an exhibition holds a different aura than it did ten years ago, and, given the rise and popularity of social media, now inhabits a more crowded, noisier, space. Access to information about shows from around the globe – images, press releases, through Instagram and Facebook – has meant that exhibitions have never been so widely promoted and easy to view, at least online. The review has no time to rest on more generous print lead times; nor can it rely on the heft of the printed page – that increasingly expensive and rare thing – to justify its existence. A review now must jostle with the other types of content shouting for our attention online.
In short, the review is one of the hardest types of pieces to write that we run in our magazine. That we at frieze usually start a young writer with a review is, then, a baptism of fire. Some magazines, for a number of reasons, have done away with the format altogether, but I think that’s a mistake. Exhibitions are the life-blood of the art industry, the places where artists get the opportunity to exhibit work in the sometimes daunting glare of their peers, the press and the public. And for the writer the exhibition review is the coalface where they can hone their thinking in response to what they see in front of them, not on a smartphone screen.
Social media has been a game changer of course, and at frieze we’ve recently started publishing a daily review on our website, readable for free, of a show still up. (Print deadlines being as they are, unfortunately most reviews in the magazine would be of shows closed or just about to.) What we hope is that reviews can circulate and ‘live’ while a show is running, acting as a starting point for debate rather being a mere historical record.
The winner of this year’s prize is a Bristol-based writer and poet called Holly Corfield-Carr. Perhaps it has something to do with a reaction to the changing shape of the digital landscape I mention above that she won with a highly personal and evocative take on a exhibition by Katrina Palmer that took the form of a site-specific audio walk of the South Dorset island of Portland (you can read it here: http://www.frieze.com/writersprize/). But then maybe it’s not surprising at all. Just as the idea of an exhibition will continually, restlessly change, so too will writing about it.
Paul Teasdale is editor of frieze.com. He was a judge of the frieze writer’s prize this year along with Mexican-born, London-based author Chloe Aridjis and Hamza Walker, co-curator of the forthcoming survey ‘Made in L.A.’ 2016.