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Guy Armitage Interview

The founder and CEO of Zealous talks about his background in AI, building creative communities, and Amplify – an art competition celebrating creative works inspired by mental health and wellbeing

Guy Armitage - Zealous CEO

  Guy Armitage, Founder and CEO of Zealous.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background in AI?

I graduated in Artificial Intelligence in 2004 (before it was sexy). I was laughed out of job interviews for having chosen a field which had not moved forward much since the 1960s. And as all the coding jobs were being outsourced to India, I found myself moving into the only field that would have me, finance. 

The London Stock Exchange took me in. I spent 3 wonderful years there learning about the markets, how I coped under pressure and what made a good manager. But watching money move from side-to-side did not excite me. I discovered what I really wanted to do was to create something.

A friend and I picked up our bags and founded an IT contracting firm in Egypt, before being an entrepreneur was sexy (can you see a pattern?). We dedicated our lives to work, dreamed the same dream, and slept in the same bed (not a great setup when temperatures reached 40 degrees). The company was a success, but our vision began to diverge. Instead of trying to create something that would suit neither of us, I sold my stake in the business and came to the UK. That is when Zealous was born.

How has AI informed your approach to creativity and the arts?

AI requires you to look at human behaviour and attempt to reverse engineer parts of it into code (e.g. making a chess move). Doing so forces you to think of the thought process as a series of inputs translating into a series of outputs. 

What makes us complex is the massive amount of information available to us and how quickly it translates into decisions through the vast interconnected experiences we hold in our brains. [Aside] Although, surprisingly, some complex natural systems can be stimulated with as little as 3 rules, like the flight patterns of birds.

By thinking in such a systemic way, art no longer depends on passively waiting for the muses to breath ideas into your ears. Instead it requires you to actively go out to feed your mind (inputs) with experiences to allow it to be fertile enough to breed new ideas (outputs).

Although an idea might strike you at rest, those ideas depend on you actively filling your mind with new inputs. Just like a diet – what you feed your mind will directly affect your ability to be creative. 

What led to you starting Zealous and how has it evolved over the years?

Zealous was born in 2011 out of a simple idea. At the time, services on the web were built for audiences and siloed into content types (e.g. Photography, Design, Film). There was no place where creators from across the creative industries could find one another to collaborate. I thought that bringing everyone together from across the sector in one place would naturally create more opportunities for everyone (Filmmakers need artists for set designs, artists need models, and models photographers. ad nauseum)

I coded the first version of Zealous and built a community of about 1,000 people. Instead of flourishing, the platform flatlined. My initial assumption was wrong; offering creators new ways to collaborate was not an immediate need. The community wanted quicker access to money, experience, and spaces to exhibit. This forced me back to the drawing board. I began to think about how to generate opportunities for the creative ecosystem more directly. 

The only way to do so was to pivot the company and serve a different audience. Zealous became a submissions management platform, streamlining administration for competitions, awards, open exhibitions, residencies, grants etc. The idea was that by saving organisations time and money on generating opportunities for creators, they would reinvest those resources into creating more opportunities.

Although the core product serves a different audience directly now, the reason behind my passion and the purpose behind Zealous is still anchored deeply in supporting creators thrive.

Night photography by Guy Armitage

  Night photography by Guy Armitage.

What was the impetus behind launching an art competition around mental health/wellbeing?

We have been subjected to so much change in the last five years – the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the cost of living, etc. 

We have been forced to change our behaviour to deal with that change. Some of us were furloughed at home in isolation, others overworked, managing our jobs and dependants in restricted spaces. 

To exasperate things, we are increasingly dependent on a digital world which feeds us increasingly extreme content (the content that gets “the most engagement”). This makes us aspire to impossible beauty standards, feel like we don’t have enough, that we don’t work hard enough, that we are failing as parents… It also makes us feel the world is much darker, polarised and dangerous than it really is.

These changes have put a lot of pressure on our mental health. It is no surprise that when we are continuously bombarded with life-changing things to worry about (some real, most artificial). 1 in 4 of us suffer from mental illnesses. 

Although we are better connected than any generation before us, we have also never felt so alone. 

With these increasing pressures on society, we felt it was the right time to create an open dialogue around a topic which may often be cast aside or hidden. We chose a creative competition since art is a fantastic medium to present complicated concepts in an accessible way. It also allows us to fulfil our remit in supporting creators with exposure to their work, cash prizes culminating and a digital exhibition.

By sharing our stories and challenges, we hope to remove some of the stigmas and help others who may feel they are alone in facing adversity.

How can we as artists help support each other in our mental health?

We are all so different. Some people need their space, and others need attention. One generic answer might not fit your needs. 

However, there is perhaps one rule that might work.

Be kind to each other. A smile, a hug (if wanted), and a sympathetic ear can be enough to support someone (look into active listening, it’s more efficient).

However, I am not an expert. Incredible organisations exist for the very purpose of mental health support and know far more than I do. The Samaritans have a great article on what signs to look out for and how to deal with them

What creative practices have you found helpful for your own wellbeing?

If you tell me to get lost, I might smile at you. I like getting lost. 

I used to pick my camera up and walk out of my door in any direction late at night to capture a sleeping city. The more lost I got, the more rewarding the experience was. Seeing new places, meeting new people recharged my batteries and allowed me to discover new things that inspired me.

Getting lost is more difficult now that I have young kids. I am lucky enough if I can get an hour to do nothing and let my mind catch up. Clearing time in a busy schedule to do nothing makes a huge difference; that is often when my best ideas will strike. I am learning not to kick myself (too hard) for not being as productive as I used to be. This short period in my life will pass and (hopefully) lead to a renaissance later.

Finally, and this is the least exciting tip (and perhaps the hardest!). Getting a good night’s sleep. Everything is much simpler when I am rested.

Night photography by Guy Armitage

  Night photography by Guy Armitage.

Amplify has an impressive jury that includes novelist Emma Freud and psychologist Guy Winch. Can you tell us some more about the jury choices?

Since Amplify is opened to any medium. We needed to ensure we had a balanced jury which would reflect the richness of the type of entries we would receive. We set out to bring artists, curators, funders, journalists, experts in the field and NGOs together to help us focus on the impact and story behind the works, as well as their quality.

We also wanted to bring together individuals from as diverse backgrounds as possible, be it socio-economic, gender, race, etc. We know potential candidates look at the panel for representation before they submit. We want the competition to appeal to the broadest possible audience. This will also allow us to celebrate works based on mental health issues felt more strongly by specific communities. It is not always easy to strike that balance.

We’re thrilled with the panel that accepted to join and cannot wait to see who they pick as the winner.

You’ve talked of art as an ‘interface between people’. What kind of conversations are you hoping to raise with Amplify?

The beauty of having no control over who will submit and who is selected means I also have no control over the conversations people will have. 

It can be scary to give up control, but it also means what we are creating is bigger than us. This requires us to learn and grow too. 

Any conversation which challenges the stigmas; normalises something which impacts so many of us, and help generate empathy towards the many facets of mental health are great. When someone struggles with their mental health alone, being left to deal with it in silence is destructive.

What matters perhaps more than the conversation is who takes part in those conversations. If we can reach people who know less about the subject and inspire them to be curious, that’s a big win. If we can reach someone who struggles with their mental health in silence, and make them feel less alone and more accepting of themselves, that would be fantastic. 

Ultimately, I want people to discover something new, to learn, to grow and to feel less alone.

Guy Armitage Photography

  Night photography by Guy Armitage.

What’s a favourite artwork that adds to your wellbeing?

The act of creating is heavily linked to my wellbeing. The need to make is something that has followed me through life. When I ignore it, it impacts me.

The act of making is powerful. It gives you value and allows you to synthesise complex emotions, reframe your experiences and translate them into something you can comprehend. Creating is incredibly healing. It is one of the reasons we chose Create as a charity to raise funds for when running Amplify – they make creating available to those who need it most. 

Making has the greatest impact on my wellbeing.

In terms of art I have experienced, I do not think there has been just one work which has perpetually added to my wellbeing. Instead, I feel I have experienced some works at the right time in my life, which increased their impact on me.

At this moment, one that stands out is “An Occupation of Loss” by Taryn Simon. An immersive performance of professional mourners from all corners of the globe, set in a vast dark space. 

My partner had just given birth to our daughter. The hauntingly beautiful chants used at funerals forced my mind to think about new life and death. I had essentially started the clock, and now I needed to make the most with the time we have together. I am happy I did not wear mascara that night; I would have come out of that space a mess.

It was not a happy thought, but it was enriching and reminded me of the important things in life. 

That is the beauty about art, it grabs you and takes you on a journey, the destination is personal and almost always unknown.

Amplify is a UK-wide online competition looking for creative works inspired by themes of mental health in order to raise money for the charity, Create. Winners will have their work celebrated in an inclusive online exhibition and shared with over 70,000 social media followers. Guest judges include novelist, Esther Freud & the director of Multistory, Emma Chetcuti. This is a great way to get your work seen by industry professionals and to have a chance to win cash prizes! Deadline is 22nd July at midday.

Thanks again to Guy for being so generous with his time and to Dan for helping get this arranged so late in the day! Amplify is free to enter and Zealous is well worth a visit for creative submissions and opportunities.