1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#5 David Campany

David Campany is a curator, writer and educator. His books include Indeterminacy: thoughts on Time, the Image and Race(ism), co-authored with Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa (MACK, 2022); On Photographs (Thames & Hudson, 2020); Walker Evans: The Magazine Work (Steidl, 2013); Photography and Cinema (Reaktion Books, 2008) and Art and Photography (Phaidon, 2003). His curatorial projects include #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis (2020), The Lives and Loves of Images (2020) and A Handful of Dust (2015).

At what point did you start to write about photographs?

‘About’ is a complicated word. I first started to write during my undergraduate years. I was on a wildly ambitious 50/50 programme, half image-making, half writing, informed by a number of disciplines: semiotics, psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, post-colonial theory, theories of institutions and ideology, aesthetics, phenomenology and film theory. Reading preceded any writing. Lots of it. I was struck early on by the difference between writings that began from the particular – this or that image – and writings that began with a theoretical abstraction, and deployed photographs as illustrations or examples. Both have their merit, of course, and I wrote in both ways at that time. Seven or eight years later, opportunities came my way to write for magazines and books, and I had to figure out if I could do something. By then, I had already been teaching for a few years. I suspect the daily practice of getting complex ideas into sentences comprehensible to students shaped how I began to write. As the years passed, I became somewhat averse to writing ‘about’ photographs, preferring to write around them, off them, in parallel, leaving the image as something for the reader to consider for themself. This came from the realisation of how little words can do in the face of the image, and to pretend otherwise was folly. That ‘little’ is vitally important, but it is little.

What is your writing process?

Everyone has their own creative rhythms and must accept them, because they cannot really be altered. I’m not all that productive but I don’t waste time. I usually work on two texts at once because I get stuck so often, and instead of doing nothing I can switch.

Most often, I write in order to find out what I think about things, and I try to write in a way that will carry me and the reader through that thinking. That means that the form of the writing is always in play, and cannot be taken for granted. I never know if a piece of writing is going to work out.

Occasionally, I’ve written polemics, and polemical writing was certainly the strongest kind I encountered as a student. I still relish reading strident texts, past and present. They do help to clarify. But I discovered I was temperamentally unsuited to that mode, which is premeditated and programmatic. Writing to discover what you think is quite different. It is speculative, risky, uncharted. Against that, I enjoy the parameter of the word count. If there’s no limit, my writing gets baggy. Not always, but often. (Maybe that’s why I’ve never blogged.) Interesting writing can be any length. A hundred words, a thousand, ten thousand.

What opened me up was the realisation that I could include images alongside my words. The richest experiences I’d had as a reader were with writings that included images, mainly in books on cinema. I liked it when the choice and sequence of images threaded through a text seemed almost like a form of writing. My own writing is done this way wherever possible. If I can get the ‘image track’ to feel interesting, to me at least, I can then begin to write. I don’t know of many other writers who do this. My interest in this approach is why I also became a curator and an editor of photographic books. There are parallels. I have often encouraged students to write this way, beginning with the choice of images. I’ve noticed it can work wonders for smart students who thought they had no chance of writing well, or in a way that they might enjoy and benefit from. If you fear the blank page, put an image on it. (Having the image on the page for the reader to look at for themselves is also a great discipline for a writer.)

I rewrite a lot. Partly, this is because my first drafts are lousy, but I’m trying to get my words to work well on the ear. I’m sure that comes from teaching, but also from the fact that I’ve always been impressed by good public speaking. If my words are dead to the ear, I know I need to rewrite. That’s not a rule for all writing. It just works for me.

The invitation plays a key part. I am fortunate in that institutions, publishers and image-makers often ask me to write. That element of surprise is really useful, as is the feeling of confidence one gets when someone likes your work and thinks you could do something worthwhile. I’m as likely to write for a little-known artist as for a major institution. Follow the work, not the reputation.

Sometimes I would rather not produce a text on my own, feeling I have more interesting things to discuss than to write. In these situations, I’m likely to suggest a conversation or written exchange, rather than an essay. Some of my published conversations – with Jeff Wall, Anastasia Samoylova, Stephen Shore, Sophie Rickett, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa and Daniel Blaufuks, for example – are among my favourite writings. I should say here that these conversations really are conversations. They are open-ended, speculative, responsive and all about the exchange of ideas. I know this project has the word ‘Conversations’ in its title, but it doesn’t really contain conversations. What I’m writing here is a response to a questionnaire: an efficient way to solicit formatted ‘content’. That’s why the questionnaire is such a dominant form these days. A conversation is the opposite.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

Mixed feelings are the best motivation for me as a writer, and as a viewer. If my feelings are too clear to begin with, then there’s little in it for me. As for problems, I think the largest one has been the growing gap between writing that takes place in the academy (universities) and writing that takes place outside. I think this is worrying for a society. When I became a writer, having worked in a university for a while, that gap was already becoming very real, and I could see it had political consequences. The smart stuff wasn’t getting into the world, and when it did, it was not often understood. As neo-liberal capitalism marched its violent way onwards, the academy retreated from the public square, making its critiques and presenting its alternatives to its peer group, in ways its peer group appreciated. I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. As an emerging writer, I had to face that in a very immediate way. I made the decision, for good or bad, to publish outside of the academy. I’ve written very few “peer-reviewed” essays for academic journals, for example. (Seriously, who wants to live in a peer-reviewed culture? Sounds vaguely Stalinist to me. Sure, I want my brain surgeon to have read the right journals. Culture is different.) The essays I have written for academic journals were to see if I could do it on those terms, as an exercise. Once I’d ticked that box, I wanted other challenges, other audiences, which I didn’t know existed but I had a feeling they might. (I’m always fascinated to see how people who write about photography describe themselves. ‘Theorist’. ‘Art historian’. ‘Critic’. ‘Academic’. The aversion to the term ‘Writer’ says a lot.)

There is such anxiety around images. Rightly so, and for a lot of reasons. But there is a tendency for writing, for writers on the visual arts, to step in and overwrite, to attempt to supply the ‘script for looking’, to take away the anxiety the image produces and stabilise things. More often than not, this is prejudice and preference masquerading as reason. One sees this in everything from museum wall texts, to reviews, blogs and critiques. Images get ‘explained’ in terms of authorial intention, biography, strategy, what we ‘ought’ to be thinking, and so forth. This runs the risk of diminishing us all as viewers, patronising us while pretending to enlighten. Moreover, it refuses the essential ambiguity of images. There are forms of writing that don’t do this, that keep the door open, however awkward and painful that can be. Ambiguity, the openness of the image, can be an anxious problem… But it is the only way out, so we ought to embrace it.

The other problems that motivate my writing are self-imposed. They involve finding new relations between image, thought and language. 

What kind of reader are you? 

Pretty voracious and wide-ranging. I am also a re-reader. Texts can be returned to, in order to figure out how they were written, and as a way of measuring one’s own intellectual and emotional development. There are novels and philosophical essays I make an effort to reread every few years. They stay the same. I change.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

I had no idea curation was so prominent. Nevertheless, writing is writing and curation is curation. They share some concerns and approaches, of course, but, as a writer and a curator, I’m interested in the differences.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

Unimprovable sentences. The ability to get paid. (As far as I know, we’re all doing this project for nothing.)

What texts have influenced you the most?

Influence is largely unconscious, so don’t ask me. I am not being flippant. The answers we give about our influences are merely the answers we are able to give. Among my conscious answers, the ones that come readily to mind are the writings of Roland Barthes (on almost anything other than photography), Susan Sontag (same), Jacques Derrida, Fred Moten, Susan Stewart, Fredric Jameson, Raul Ruiz, Clarice Lispector, Marguerite Duras, Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze, Victor Burgin, Frantz Fanon, Adam Phillips, George Orwell, Lydia Davis, Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf. I would give a different answer tomorrow, I’m sure. Between what we know and what we don’t, there are hunches and intuitions. I have a hunch that the texts influencing me most profoundly were, and are, song lyrics. Words as sung. I cannot memorise a line of poetry, even if it means the world to me. I remember songs without even trying. I cannot imagine this has not had an effect, but I am not sure I could define it.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

There are many places. It’s good to be mindful of this.

The space of critical refusal interests me. For example, how would discussions about identity take shape if one considered the possibility that the most interesting and profound things about identity do not offer themselves to the camera, to visibility? Or, what do we do about the fact that the narrowly consensual categories of both the mass media and art world demand certain conformities? At what points and in what situations might a commitment to photography be a walking away from it, and a turning towards something else, either as a maker, writer or viewer? There are photographers who face these questions and find other ways. And there are writers who have advocated for this too. The endless ‘commitment’ to photography, the presumption that all things of value can and must be available to its often-crushing and limiting embrace, is a very real issue. This should be faced as a matter of some urgency. (I don’t feel committed to photography at all costs, merely fascinated by it, and life beyond it is rich.) Critical refusal ought to be a vital part of the way photography is thought, discussed, taught and written. It should always be on the table. There are many positive signs that this is happening.♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-David Campany

2-Book cover of David Campany, On Photographs (Thames & Hudson, 2020)

3Book cover of David Campany, The Lives and Loves of Images (Kehrer Verlag, 2020)

4-Book cover of David Campany, Walker Evans: The Magazine Work (Steidl, 2013)

5-Book cover of David Campany, #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis (G Editions, 2021)

 

1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#4 Taous R. Dahmani

Taous R. Dahmani is a historian of photography, researcher and writer based between London and Marseille, France. She is currently writing a PhD on the relationship between political actions and photographic gestures. Dahmani is also editor and content advisor at The Eyes, a trustee of the Photo Oxford Festival and on the editorial board of MAI: Visual Culture and Feminism.

Recent writings include “Heeding time: reviewing and rereading Périphérique” in Mohamed Bourouissa, Périphérique (Loose Joints, 2021); “A meeting between the thought of Stuart Hall and the films of John Akomfrah” in Penser avec Stuart Hall (La Dispute, 2021); “Racism and anti-racist struggles in 1970s London: When the walls speak, placards respond!” in Le phototexte engagé – Une culture visuelle du militantisme au XXe siècle (Les Presses du réel, 2021); “From a space of resistance, to the institution’s place: the history of Autograph ABP, between 1988 and 2007” in Marges #33 (2021) and “Bharti Parmar’s True Stories: Against the grain of Sir Benjamin Stone’s Photographic Collection” in PhotoResearcher #30 (2018).

In 2022, Dahmani will contribute a chapter about Polareyes, a magazine by and for Black British women photographers, in Resist, Organize, Build (SUNY Press, 2022), and serve as the curator of the Louis Roederer Discovery Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles, France.

At what point did you start to write about photographs? 

The very first time I wrote about a photograph was eight years ago in a university exam for my history of photography course. We had three hours to write a “dissertation” – a methodology-heavy French way of writing a “paper”. And it was actually the last time I wrote anything with a pen. I only vaguely remember that I wrote about a Bill Owens photograph and its relation to capitalism. But I vividly remember my eagerness and nascent aspiration.

Fast forward slightly less than a decade and I’m now writing up my PhD as the end product of my journey in French academia. Looking back, this education – its numerous rules and regulations – was a process of acculturation. One way of writing, to perpetuate one way of thinking. On scholarly work, Edward Saïd wrote that it is an ‘on-going activity within an already constituted field of discourse.’ It exists only to be perpetuated as it is.

In 2019, when Tim Clark, Editor in Chief of 1000 Words, invited me to write about a photobook, I welcomed the invitation as a breath of fresh air. I also welcomed the proposal as an opportunity to transcribe, for a wider readership – a conscious reasoning – the accumulation of knowledge and experience that has shaped me as a researcher. This experience started my interest in non-academic writing – its forms and meanings – and its potential for accessibility. As such, this experience was another “first time”.

Today, I feel like I’m playing a tug of war with myself: one team trying to follow presiding ways of writing a PhD thesis; the other exploring the freedom of essay writing. At the end of a long and laborious project such as a PhD thesis, I am embracing the feeling of re-starting, re-becoming an apprentice writer. Originating from the French verb “essayer” (to try), “the essay” is a great form for critical thinking, and I will attempt to weave my academic background into this new form in the future – asking myself, as Daniel C. Blight asked himself a few years ago: ‘What is the politics of essay writing on photography?’ Blending disciplinary disregard and acute consideration for this form.

What is your writing process?

[I’ll answer this question for essay writing only.]

On good days:

  1. I place my phone behind my computer screen – on airplane mode – and have a cuppa to hand.
  2. I put on my earphones with the curious “focus music” which populates YouTube and which helps me create a sort of “concentration bubble”.
  3. I read something: either from the digital pile of PDFs under my “research” folder or from an article I have received in one of the many newsletters that arrive every day in my inbox. Reading gets me focused but reading also produces two things: quotations and ideas.
  4. I jot down reflections about a selected quote. In her book In the Wake (2016), Christina Sharpe points out that: ‘thinking needs care.’ I consider quotations a profound demonstration of care for thinkers and their ideas: they are “thank-yous” to the people who produced knowledge before us. They are also invitations for curious readers: footnotes open never-ending “reading pathways”.
  5. The accumulation of quotes and notes – and sometimes interviews with photographers – form my “base”. When I’m not rushed by a deadline I let the reading, the note taking and the “base creation” percolate. The longer the better, the essay will “live” and “evolve” in my mind, creating new possible directions.
  6. When the deadline is approaching, I start a new Word document and write a first draft “from scratch”. The first sentence takes courage, the second trust. I can’t start writing an essay if I don’t have a clear orientation – often found during the “percolating period”. I tend to think that essays need to make a point, be a demonstration not a decoration. But, might not the best one be precisely both?
  7. I go back to my “base” to “feed” the first draft of the essay. I add precision. Because of which kind of photographs/photographers I am writing about, I am wary of ambiguity or obscurity. I make sure any complex ideas mentioned are mobilised in an intelligible way: I want to make sure they are accessible and in accordance with the assumed readership.
  8. I think and write in French and English. Early drafts of most of my texts are written in both languages which ultimately leads to me feeling sorry for myself when something “comes out” fine in one language but doesn’t translate well. Often, this kickstarts a process where I juggle between a French-English dictionary and a Thesaurus. Another challenge of writing in both these languages is having to navigate different levels of “discourse acceptance”: concepts and ideas are not similarly established in different countries; references and words might need to be explained differently (especially in the fields of critical race theory and postcolonial studies).
  9. I remove the earphones to read the paragraph written out loud, I correct and I rectify. I repeat the process as many times as there are paragraphs. This list was read at least five times.

On bad days:

I generally love listening to podcasts or watching interviews of people who talk in detail about their craft and practice. So, on bad days, I turn to writers who have written about writing. I often think of this Marguerite Duras quote: ‘One cannot write without bodily strength. One must be stronger than oneself to approach writing; one must be stronger than what one is writing.’

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

The last five years of my life have been dedicated to my doctoral research. My thesis is articulated, in a nutshell, around the photographic representation of struggles and the struggle for photographic representation in England from the end of the 1960s to the end of the ’80s. Most of my essays, so far, have been more or less inspired by my ongoing obsession with image-making and political action whether expressed in iconographies or ecosystems (or ‘worlds’ to reference Howard S. Becker).

That said, most of my essays have been dedicated to very contemporary artists/photographers and, as such, most of them have tried to “respond” to image-makers that ‘create dangerously’ to quote Edwidge Danticat, who describes that process as such: ‘[It] is creating as a revolt against silence, creating when both the creation and the reception, the writing and the reading, are dangerous undertakings, disobedience to a directive.’ I’m motivated by disobedient artists-photographers. I’m driven by the problems defiant image-makers highlight. Their insubordination can be found in their craft or form, in their practice or discourse. They are oppositional in their way of behaving with, around or against photography. Their rebellion can be loud or whispered – I’ll listen.

What kind of reader are you? 

As a doctoral researcher, reading is a great part of my day-to-day work. As such, libraries become toolboxes and books instruments towards the completion of a project. The Stakhanovic nature of a PhD means that I rarely re-read books – with the significant exception of bell hooks whom I could read every day. If I re-read an article, it is often in order to “double check” or “make sure”.

However, the first lockdown taught me the power of re-reading and reading several books at the same time: realising that, often, as with a person, you need the “right time” to truly discover a book’s content. To take an example, I had always “used” Roland Barthes’ theories (and taught Camera Lucida (1980) in exactly the same way it had been passed down by my professor), but, with my recent dive into essay writing, I started paying attention to the confidentiality, familiarity and sensitive nature of his work: making him a thousand times more interesting.

So, as I’m trying to become another kind of writer, I’m becoming another kind of reader: trying to find the route towards an embodied strategy of narration that exists at the meeting place of gut (biography) and brain (history/theory). A delicate balance between decency and intelligibility. I have to say that I have come a long way: French academic education forbids expressions of subjectivity or opinion – or more exactly, uses objectivity to hide the dominants’ point of views. The first time I wrote “I” to start a sentence I felt a blast of freedom on my keyboard. In How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983), Johanna Russ wrote: ‘Although crammed with facts and references, [women’s writing] has the wrong style; it is personal and sounds unscholarly, a charge often levelled at modern feminist writing. That is, the tone is not impersonal, detached, and dry enough – in short, not patriarchal enough – to produce belief.” As you can imagine, reading beacons such as Saidiya V. Hartman, Sharpe and Tina M. Campt for the first time was extremely arresting.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

I struggle with this question. For me, one can only compare similar elements and the contrast between the experience of reading and the experience of visiting an exhibition is too dissimilar: providing disparate bodily and intellectual experiences. Being a reader and being a viewer/spectator are two distinct positions. However, I guess we could maybe examine the knowledge produced by catalogues vs. magazines, journals and other sorts of publications. Such an investigation might quickly lead us back to accessibility (price, printed/online, language, themes, etc.). The performative aspect of exhibitions – if the work of going through the doors of a gallery/museum is achieved – makes it probably more approachable. In the age of social media, we face very different ethics of attention and, as a result, disparate receptions/reactions/effects.

That said, if I really have to answer the question, I would say that the “prominent” status of exhibitions over theories/histories that you seem to detect is probably only the result of radical and forward-thinking theorists and historians. Good exhibitions are made by curators (and artists) who read. I have a hard time imagining the act of thinking – or giving shape to ideas – without writing, so I’m guessing curation is another form of writing. Curating can then become a translation and even a visual/embodied comment on theories/histories. Exhibitions can be powerful rhetorical demonstrations. Yet, the limitations of exhibition-making are much more real than the limits of words on paper (publication aside). For me, the main question is who writes and who curates and which platforms these people are given. How we know what we know and who is allowed to share what they know?

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

This is an extremely hard question. But to answer, I would say 1. their politics 2. their attention to detail 3. their humanity.

  1. Marguerite Duras wrote that writing is: ‘Screaming without sound’. When I read Hartman, Hannah Arendt, Ariella Aïcha Azoulay, Etel Adnan and Trinh T. Minh-ha, I hear their screams. If anger is pain with nowhere to go, writing then becomes a sort of socially accepted “place”. Political anger translated into words is definitely something I admire in these writers. I would also like to mention a young generation of badass writers such as Legacy Russell and her Glitch Feminism manifesto (2020) or Durga Chew-Bose’s singular writing in Too Much and Not the Mood (2017).
  2. A focus on a detail, such as a cup of coffee let’s say, can be a powerful rhetorical node, as revealed beautifully by Mahmoud Darwish in Memory for Forgetfulness (1982). I’m not a very patient person, and struggle with the exercise of description, so, recently, when I read A Black Gaze (2021) by Campt, I was quite mesmerised by the attention she seems to give to descriptions of the art works she mobilises (the same consideration/scrutiny can be found in Listening to Images (2017) for example). A detail can also be an anecdote that becomes a compelling argument. In the same book, Campt explains the effect of the weather on her experience of an exhibition: this opened many threads of thought.
  3. I’m a big reader of autobiographies and in-depth interviews because of the possibility of hearing the artists’ voices. But, the ability of writers such as Olivia Laing, for example, to emphasise her own and artists’ human experiences is definitely something I admire. I never thought I would care so much about someone like Andy Warhol until I read The Lonely City (2016). I also love artists such as Coco Fusco who write about other artists – they tend to reveal a very distinctive perspective on the artworks they write about. I like books that are accounts of being and guides for becoming. I also like writers, who are not “writers” as such: recently I read a text written by a photographer, for the first time, wrote about a decade of work. Vasantha Yogananthan’s essay, in his latest photobook Amma (2021), moved me greatly because of his bravery in writing about his journey as a photographer with the most generous vulnerability.

What texts have influenced you the most?

[Influence seems like a big word, but, off the top of my head, here is a non-exhaustive list of names, in no particular order, with endless recognition for carrying me through years of doctoral research.]

Edwidge Danticat Jacques Rancière Gayatri Spivak Marie-José Mondzain Allan Sekula Frantz Fanon W.J.T Mitchell Fred Moten James Baldwin Shawn Michelle Smith John Berger Paul Ricoeur Susan Sontag Sara Ahmed Stuart Hall Judith Burtler Simon de Beauvoir Eric Hazan Julia Kristeva Angela Y. Davis Adrienne Rich Nicholas Mirzoeff Edouard Glissant Christina Sharpe Elsa Tamara Trodd Dorlin Jo Spence Sarah Lewis Victor Burgin Kobena Mercer Laura Mulvey Chris Kraus Steve Edwards Lucy R. Lippard Val Williams Elvan Zabunyan Mieke Bal Jacqueline Bobo Hazel V. Carby Eddie Chambers Patricia Hill Collins Sandra Harding Elizabeth Edwards Anna Backman Rogers Siona Wilson Harriet Riches Paul Gilroy bell hooks Heidi Safia Mirza Griselda Pollock Rozsika Parker Liz Wells Deborah Willis Pratibha Parmar David A. Bailey Roshini Kempadoo Sarat Maharaj Gilane Tawados Ambalavaner Sivanandan Maurice Berger John Tagg Albert Memmi Saul Alinsky Antonio Gramsci Audre Lorde C.L.R. James Edward Saïd Homi K. Bhabha Fatima Mernissi Walter Rodney Achille Mbembe Frieda Ekotto Derek Walcott Patrick Chamoiseau Mahmoud Darwish Paul B. Preciado Tina M. Campt Saidiya Hartman Hannah Arendt Ariella Aïcha Azoulay Etel Adnan Aruna D’Souza Teju Cole Trinh T. Minh-ha and many others that I’ll regret not naming once this interview is published.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

I am tempted to give a somewhat literal answer to this question: addressing geography and platforms. The hegemony of the English language and concomitantly the predominance of the global North in knowledge dissemination (not production) questions “the place of criticality in photography writing now”. Published and widely circulated criticality in photography is not diverse or inclusive enough. However, the recent publication of Dark Mirrors (2021) by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa is an inspiring step for critical writing.

Then comes the question of where does one find critical thinking (as opposed to journalism) in photography today? A few online platforms (in English) exist, a couple of publishers defend it – that’s it (in France, outside academia, it’s almost non-existent for example). Critical consciousness certainly exists, the lack of platforms to express it is, for me, an important aspect today. Without sounding boards, it is difficult to develop true debate and exchange or create space for a diversity of equal voices to express themselves.

Lastly, I feel like the place of criticality in photography writing now is in complexifying “recently acknowledged” notions/ideas/struggles. Lately, oppositions around photographer Deana Lawson’s iconography are for me fascinating “places” of criticality, for example. Debate is probably one of the greatest signs of the recognition of a multi-layered artist and a complex body of work.♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-Taous R. Dahmani © Lynn S.K

2-Book cover of Joanna Russ, How To Suppress Women’s Writing (University of Texas Press, 1983)

3-Book cover of Christina Sharpe, In the Wake – On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, 2016)

1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#3 Joanna Zylinska

Joanna Zylinska is an artist, writer, curator and Professor of Media Philosophy + Critical Digital Practice at King’s College London. She is an author of a number of books, including AI Art: Machine Visions and Warped Dreams (Open Humanities Press, 2020) and Nonhuman Photography (MIT Press, 2017). She also co-edited open-access works, Photomediations: An Open Book and Photomediations: A Reader, as part of the Europeana Space project funded by the European Commission. Her art practice involves experimenting with different kinds of image-based media. In 2013, she was Artistic Director of Transitio_MX05 Biomediations, the biggest Latin American new media festival, which took place in Mexico City. She is currently researching perception and cognition as boundary zones between human and machine intelligence, whilst trying to answer the question: ‘Does photography have a future?’.

At what point did you start to write about photographs?

I came to writing about photography (rather than just photographs) relatively late in my career. I had been working as a media academic at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching the philosophical and cultural aspects of digital media for many years. I had also had an active research interest in art, particularly new media art. But photography had been my secret love, something I had practiced “on the side”, so to speak, but that I hadn’t brought into any of my more “proper” academic work. It all changed in 2007, when, still working at Goldsmiths, I decided to enrol on a practice-based MA in photography at the University of Westminster. I did that a little bit in secret too! Doing that MA changed everything. It encouraged me to start incorporating practice into my written work, to change the way I write and to address photography more comprehensively as a key medium of our times. It also led me to develop a new philosophy of photography, culminating in my book, Nonhuman Photography (2017). (Analysing photographs that were not of, by or for the human, that book looked at the photographic medium across the scale of so-called ‘deep time’. It positioned various ‘impressioning’ practices, from fossils through to tanning, as forms of photographic practice, alongside its more conventional forms such as photograms, analogue film frames or digital snapshots.)

What is your writing process?

Because I try to maintain that dual track of having an image-based practice as well as working on photography philosophically, I am very mindful that writing about photography shouldn’t use photographs just as illustrations. Rather, in recognition of photography’s agency, I would say that I write with photographs. Often these will be projects by other people (artworks, social media practices) or social and technical networks in which photographs play an active role (Internet search engines, image databases for training AI algorithms). But I also try to develop some aspects of my theoretical argument from photographic practice. So I often start with an idea and a project – like with Active Perceptual Systems, where I wore a necklace-like Autographer camera for two years whilst writing about nonhuman vision, or when I hired workers from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk labour platform to take a photo from the window of the room they were in with a view to creating a collective portrait of invisible ‘undigital’ global workforce, as part of my work on AI and art. So, in my work, I try to get writing and image-based practice to speak to each other, to push each other and then also, inevitably, to converge.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing?

The primary concern of my work over the years has been the constitution of the human as both a species and a historical subject. Adopting this geological probe of ‘deep time’ mentioned earlier, I have looked at the emergence of the human in conjunction with the surrounding technologies, such as tools and other artefacts but also communication in its various modes – be it everyday language, storytelling, ethics, art and, last but not least, photography. In an attempt to challenge human exceptionalism without giving up on my own curiosity about my phylogenetic kin (i.e., other people), in my writing, I zoom in on the signal points of the human such as intelligence, consciousness and perception. With this, I aim to explore the entanglements of human and nonhuman forms of intelligence, including the promises and threats offered by AI and machine vision. Currently, I am working on perception as arguably the key mode of engagement with the world in different species. This project involves looking at the reconfiguration of ‘the eye’ in the digital age and at the humanist blind spot in machine vision. As part of this work, I am investigating the role played by images, especially mechanically-produced images such as photographs, in human becoming. Looking at the transformation of photography by computation – and the transformation of human perception by algorithmically-driven images, from CGI to AI – I am also trying to figure out what it means to live surrounded by image flows and machine eyes. This radical transformation of the photographic medium is currently leading me to explore a question which is also a provocation: ‘Does photography have a future?’

Does your concern for writing about positions beyond anthropocentrism impact on how you write? Is there a way to write beyond our human positionality?

My work is produced from within the theoretical standpoint recognised as critical posthumanism, a position that does not mean any straightforward overcoming of the human (were such a thing even possible), but that rather involves a rewriting or re-enactment of the human under the conditions of the planetary crisis resulting from the nexus of colonialism, globalisation, technoscience, late capitalism and climate change. You could say that I’m trying to write myself out of the conceptual and political strictures of humanism, with its constitutive forms of violence. I’m trying to accomplish this both in the content of my writings and in its style – which is often hesitant, minimal as well as ironic. This attempt also involves mixing different genres, different modes of enquiry and different media. At the same time, I’m aware that, even though many animals are known to leave traces – i.e. surface marks which could be seen as forms of inscription – grammatological writing is a specifically human practice; a practice that both makes sense to and is valued by humans. So, I’m also writing in full recognition of writing being a species-specific behaviour to which we humans have assigned a particular cultural value (a value which I of course also hold dear).

What is the role of writing in relation to what you have described as photography’s proximity to extinction, to climate transformation? Is this, in part, a recognition that photography’s industrial conditions feed into extinction whilst representing it?

My work, both written and image-based, is indeed produced within the horizon of extinction, which represents the awareness of the eventual expiration of the human species and other species alongside us, and of our planet as a whole. But it’s also driven by a sense of urgency prompted by the foreshortening of this horizon as a result of the destructive human impact on planet Earth. Photography has of course been part of this impact – from the extraction of minerals needed to produce cameras and the use of harmful photochemical materials through to photography’s participation in the extractive data economy which is extremely resource-heavy (even if it’s sold to us through images of immaterial flows and clouds). Yet photography, as you point out, has also been used to represent, record and challenge practices leading to this accelerated extinction. Last but not least, there’s an existential dimension to photography for me. Photography, a par excellence practice of imaging and imagination (i.e. a practice of copying, making likenesses, mapping, making mental pictures and ideating), can serve as a conduit for asking bigger questions about our own ‘thrownness’ in the world – of which we are only temporary inhabitants – and of imagining different futures for ourselves and our planet. This future-oriented horizon of extinction, beyond the death of singular humans (be it that of Roland Barthes’ mother or our own), makes photography into what Swedish philosopher Amanda Lagerkvist has called ‘an existential medium’.

What kind of reader are you?

Committed, engaged, playful – but also forgetful. You could say that I read for an experience of an idea rather than for the purpose of constructing world systems out of the previously existing ideas.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent?

My previous answer might signify that I don’t care much about historical unfoldings and coherent linear trajectories. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. I recognise that meaningful photographic curation requires expertise, which needs to involve familiarity with theories and histories of photography. We also have to remember that these theories and histories are already forms of curation – and that they can be rewritten, restaged, rearranged.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

A mixture of rigour and vitality and a desire to say something interesting and new about the world. I appreciate writers who have an awareness of their own writerly task – and who take this task (but not necessarily themselves, under the guise of ‘Here I Am as a Great Writer Speaking to You My Dear Reader’) seriously. My ideal writerly voice would be Roland Barthes from A Lover’s Discourse (1977) – but not, for the love of God, Camera Lucida (1980) – hybridised with Donna Haraway and Rebecca Solnit, and then remixed through some postcolonial epistemologies and affects, such as those coming from Eduardo Viveiros de Castro.

What texts have influenced you the most?

There are so many – from texts on photography by writers such as Vilém Flusser, Geoffrey Batchen and Tina M. Campt, through to those whose authors have shown me the way with words and concepts: Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, Tim Ingold, Juhani Pallasmaa, Stanisław Lem. The book I wish I had written myself is Pandora’s Camera: Photogr@phy After Photography (2014) by Joan Fontcuberta.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

We now live in image flows – we are surrounded by photographs on screens large and small, and are mediating our relationships with others through images. Photographs and other images form a transparent layer through which we see the world. I am increasingly concerned about the fact that this layer remains largely unseen. So, for me, the function of criticality in photography writing would consist in drawing attention to that seemingly transparent photographic layer, to see it for what it is, for what it’s made of and for how it’s made. This would need to involve going beyond semiotic readings of individual images – although I believe there is still need for developing an image literacy of an interpretative kind. But it would also need to involve developing an understanding of image infrastructures and of the way those infrastructures are involved in shaping our socio-political reality today. With this, we could perhaps go so far as to argue not only that photography writing needs to include criticality but also that any form of critical theory and critical writing today needs to engage, seriously and profoundly, with photography.♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-Joanna Zylinska

2-Book cover of Joanna Zylinska, Nonhuman Photography (MIT Press, 2017)

3-Book cover of Joanna Zylinska, Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene (Open Humanities Press, 2014)

4-Joanna Zylinska, Planetary Exhalation, 2021

1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#2 David Levi Strauss

David Levi Strauss is the author of Co-illusion: Dispatches from the End of Communication (MIT Press, 2020)Photography and Belief (David Zwirner Books, 2020, and in an Italian edition by Johan & Levi, 2021)Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014)In Case Something Different Happens in the Future: Joseph Beuys and 9/11 (Documenta 13, 2012); From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010)Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture, 2003, 2012 and in an Italian edition by Postmedia Books, 2007) and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia, 1999 and 2010)

He has also co-edited To Dare Imagining: Rojava Revolution, with Michael Taussig, Peter Lamborn Wilson and Dilar Dirik (Autonomedia, 2016, and in an Italian edition by Elèuthera, 2017) and The Critique of the Image Is the Defense of the Imagination, with Strauss, Taussig and Wilson (Autonomedia, 2020). From 2007–21, Strauss directed the graduate programme in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts, New York, US.

At what point did you start to write about photographs? 

In 1975, when I was a 22-year-old poet, I went to study photography with Nathan Lyons at Visual Studies Workshop, which, at that time, was the best photography school in the US. MIT Press had just published Nathan’s landmark book of photographs, Notations in Passing (1971). When I first attended Nathan’s seminar, I handed him a handwritten copy of an essay I’d written in response to Notations in Passing, titled “The Ontology of the Eye, or A Stall of Cows, A Stall of Images”. It began this way: ‘The eye cannot be separated from the brain or memory. Visual data, like all sensory data, are immediately plugged into the complex mega-memory of the brain/soul.’ The other students in the seminar thought this was the most impertinent act they’d ever witnessed, but Nathan liked the piece. That was the beginning.

What is your writing process?

My process is ridiculously labour intensive and inefficient. I write 50 pages to get a page. I first produce an unwieldly mass of language, and then carve it down. It takes an incredibly long time. It’s a sculptural process, from the inside-out. I use montage and magic. The first sentence usually comes last.

It feels like there is something very photographic about this, the quantity of writing and the carefully selected final outcome, its compulsive recording and intensive editing. In the same way that a photographer develops a series of strategies, shortcuts and go-tos, are there tools or strategies that facilitate your final montage? How do you know that writing reaches the stage where you can write that first sentence?

I’ve never thought about my writing process having a correlative in photography, but I think you’re right. It is a process of selection. Each word is chosen from a very large number of possibilities, and, when each word is chosen, it affects every other word around it. The larger currents that determine form are rhythm and rhyme, at the level of phrase, clause, sentence and paragraph. If you get too attached to the individual words, you lose the music, and, if you lose the music, you lose the reader.

In the end, you’ve got to be able to separate yourself from the writing, and look at it as if someone else wrote it. Only then can you get to that level of absolute ruthlessness that is necessary in rewriting.

For me, the process is endless. At a certain point, someone takes it away from me and then it’s done. Like Duke Ellington said: “I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.”

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

I write to find out what I think about things. I try to focus on the persistent questions: Why are we here? What does it mean? How and why do we believe technical images the way we do? How do these images actually work? Who benefits from this?

Right now, I’m trying to write about the End of the World, and the first question is: What is the world? This puts me immediately back at the image of the world. Most of the questions I deal with send me back to the image.

Something really distinctive in your recent writing is the way that images not only record the world but are informing it, producing it even. And your writing, dialogically, seems to want to change the image in turn. Do you write in order to challenge, and even change what the image might be?

Yes, absolutely. I want to change the image of the world, in however limited a way I can, through enactment and persuasion. One of the biggest problems in our time is that we no longer have a viable social image of the world.

What kind of reader are you? 

I’ve been a driven, voracious reader since I first learned to read, before starting grade school, and that has never changed. I read to live. When I was a child, my father discouraged me from reading, and sometimes punished me for it, thinking that it was an excuse not to work. So, I read in secret, sometimes literally in the closet and under the sheets. The act of reading always felt illicit to me, and this feeling never really went away. When I began to be encouraged to read in school, I always thought someone, surely, would realise that what I was doing was wrong, that I could go anywhere and be anyone when I read, and those in charge would realise how dangerous this was and stop me, but no one ever did.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

More significant than ever, I think. Photographic images are a significant part of the mechanism of social control in the world today, and we need to understand how they work and where they came from in order to resist this control.

I taught from 2001–05 at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, New York, and I became dismayed by the prevalence of what I came to call “curatorial rhetoric”; writing that borrowed terms and concepts from various specialised languages and used this jargon to protect the writer, and the reader, from experiencing the art in question. When I despaired of getting curators to abandon this kind of prophylactic rhetoric, I began to encourage them to hire outside writers, instead, to write catalogue essays.

You were Chair of the School of Visual Arts in New York’s celebrated Art Writing programme until very recently, overlapping with your time at Bard. In what ways did teaching writing inform your own practice?

By the time I became Chair of the Art Writing programme, I had been writing seriously for over 30 years, and had already gone through many transformations. But teaching certainly made me more aware of the difficulties and the dilemmas of writing in the present, as experienced by my younger students.

Teaching is a fundamentally optimistic act, like writing. In both, you’re imagining your reader/student into existence – imagining the very best of them. And I’ve been extremely lucky to have so many of my students join in this mutually transformative act.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

Courage, honesty, generosity, risk and kindness.

What texts have influenced you the most?

The writings of John Berger, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, Paul Virilio, Vilém Flusser, Jacques Ellul, Edward Said, Aimé Césaire, Albert Camus, Paul Valéry, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Marsilio Ficino, Leo Steinberg, Leon Golub, Jimmie Durham, Amiri Baraka, Linda Nochlin, Lucy Lippard, Elena Poniatowska, Guy Davenport, James Baldwin, Flann O’Brien, Samuel Beckett, Peter Lamborn Wilson, Michael Taussig, William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Jean Genet and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

And the poetry and prose of Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, John Keats, William Blake, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, Diane di Prima and many others in this lineage.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

The more pressing question is: What is the place of criticality, or critical thinking, in the social realm today? Our current communications environment has reduced critical thinking to personal preferences and opinions, and amplified anger and fear, and that has made it difficult to engage difficult questions in the larger social frame with criticality. We need to find new ways to talk about important things.♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-David Levi Strauss © Sterrett Smith

2-Book cover of David Levi Strauss, Co-illusion: Dispatches from the End of Communication (MIT Press, 2020)

3-Book cover of David Levi Strauss, Photography and Belief (David Zwirner Books, 2020)

4-Book cover of The Critique of the Image Is the Defense of the Imagination, eds. David Levi Strauss, Michael Taussig and Peter Lamborn Wilson (Autonomedia, 2020)

1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#1 Tina M. Campt

Tina M. Campt is a black feminist theorist of visual culture and contemporary art. She is Owen F. Walker Professor of Humanities and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, US, where she leads the Black Visualities Initiative at the Cogut Institute for Humanities. Her early work theorised gender, racial and diasporic formation in black communities in Europe and southern Africa, and the role of vernacular photography in historical interpretation. Campt is the author of four books: Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender and Memory in the Third Reich (University Michigan Press, 2004); Image Matters: Archive, Photography and the African Diaspora in Europe (Duke University Press, 2012); Listening to Images (Duke University Press, 2017); and A Black Gaze (MIT Press, 2021). She is the founding convenor of the Practicing Refusal Collective and the Sojourner Project.

At what point did you start to write about photographs?

I started to write about photographs after writing my first book, which was an oral history of the Black community in Germany in the Nazi regime. I started writing about photographs of these individuals because I was asked to do a sound installation on their accounts of their life at that period of time. What forced me to actually start writing about images is that when we did the sound installation, when we were designing it and trying to think through it, what I realised is that there is no way to get people to listen to anything without giving them a focal point to look at. It was a real challenge because I had strenuously avoided including photographs of the individuals who I had spoken to, because I felt that anytime I presented my work, someone in the audience would ask: “Well, what did they look like?”. “What did they look like?” became this way of indexing whether or not their account would be true, or could be true, based on how they looked, so that their race had to register in their bodies and on their faces in order for their accounts of their experiences in the Third Reich to be considered true. I had always avoided using photographs because I didn’t want to put those individuals and their stories in that position. But when I faced the challenge of having people be in a sound installation and to stop to absorb it, I started looking for their photos, collecting their photos [to do that].

After that sound installation, I was just so incredibly impacted by their photographs because they resonated with me so much, even though they were of families that were very different than my own. And I started writing about the photographs in order to give voice to the responses that I was having that I couldn’t explain. And it really was just an experiment because I never studied photography, art, history, any kind of visual culture in college or in graduate school. I strenuously avoided that as well, and these photographs kind of lured or tantalised me. They provoked me to try and articulate what they solicited in me, and that became a practice that, ever since I started writing, has been both terrifying and truly exhilarating.

Would you say that your writing is about that, that encounter? Recording an encounter, but also facilitating an encounter, mobilising it?

Yes, it is. I was just reading this morning about Generation X and suddenly realised that I am Generation X! I always thought I was another generation! In this article I was reading, I recognised myself because Generation X was the generation of MTV. We were the generation where images inundated us in a way that was unfiltered. And previously there had been so many more filters on images and their circulation. So, as somebody who from childhood – I got my first television when I was six years old, a tiny, tiny Sony Trinitron that my grandmother gave me – I have been inundated with images all of my life. At the same time, that has made me someone who can easily gloss over images because I’m so used to them being such a strong part of my life. With photographs, I had the exact opposite experience, which was that I couldn’t gloss over them. They grabbed me and I would just get lost in them. And so the practice that you’re talking about is really about trying to linger in that experience of encounter and to share it in a way that makes others linger in the same process. So that’s always been the motivation. It’s always been a little bit like: “Does this image do the same thing to you as it does to me?” And I’ve never expected a “Yes”, but the nature of my writing is to ask that question and to get people to think about the answers.

What is your writing process?

I had one practice and it’s changed more recently in the last couple of years. The first writing practice was with photographs, and it was about spending some time looking at a photograph, and then putting it away and writing about what I thought I saw, or what I thought I was experiencing in relationship to it, and then bringing the photograph back and reading what I wrote while looking at the image and seeing what I got wrong or what the gaps were. My next step was not necessarily to correct the gaps, but to write about where they came from, if there was a disjuncture between what I thought I saw and what I saw. I tried to articulate why that was; so why, for example, did I think that I saw a kid that looked really happy when the kid looked really sullen? There was something about me bringing something to that image that led me down that path, and I think that’s important, to not just write about images to describe them exactly. What I try and do is to describe a relationship to them that develops both through seeing and feeling, and allowing yourself to feel and respond. And so that sort of ‘look, look away, look, look away’ was the way in which I wrote about vernacular photographs.

Since I’ve started writing about contemporary art and film, it’s kind of changed. It’s become much more physical because I rarely have the images. I’m rarely in possession of them, or I rarely have an extended period of time with them. With contemporary art, I usually sit on the floor. I sit on the floor of the museum and just literally look and write, look and write, for as long as I possibly can, before people start to make me feel uncomfortable. I then take that away and go home and continue writing. I set this intention or aspiration. The first part of that process is ethnographic: I’m sort of writing about myself encountering an image or a piece of art. And then it’s about unpacking the rest of what that relationship looks like, like what are the larger contextual things? And then, more recently, I’ve started writing about film and that has also become this extraordinarily spatial and haptic encounter, where I usually have to set up my computer with a sound system that will allow me to have contact with the audio, because the audio and the visual are so intertwined that I need to be able to feel the sound of a film. This is much harder for moving image; it’s harder to write in relationship to, and so I find it to be a really tedious process where usually I have my computer and I have an iPad and then I’m typing and I’ll pause and then I keep typing. It’s literally simultaneous to the moving of it, and once I get the whole thing down, I re-watch it, and then I’ve usually memorised the actual film by the time I’m done, and I can tell you what it is, frame by frame.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing?

That has also shifted over time. When I first started writing about the family photographs with Black German families, what motivated me to write about them was trying to account for visual intimacy at a moment or in a circumstance where that seemed impossible. Those photographs were able to capture care, intimacy and relation in ways that I had never seen written about before. I carried that forward into writing about the vernacular images of the Black British community (the Afro-Caribbean community in Birmingham), where, in their staged photographs, I found a level of identity that was expressed so profoundly, and so profoundly beyond words.

That was a moment in time when I was thinking about “what do photographs allow people to do, or to say?” That was really the question of Image Matters (2012): what do they help us to do, or to say when we don’t have the other resources to do or say that? When I was writing about compelled photographs, it was the same question: what do these images allow those individuals to do and to say beyond what the state is telling them to do and to say through their image making.

More recently, the question that that has motivated my writing is how does the work of contemporary artists challenge us to see our world differently and to see it by feeling our implication in some of the injustices of this current moment? Those artists’ lenses – and those lenses can be cameras, can be clay, can be a stage, can be can be all sorts – give us a frame that takes us outside of ourselves and puts us in proximity with things we don’t want to be in proximity with. And so the question I have had is: how do they do that? How are they able to put us in proximity to things that we don’t want to be proximate to, and how does that change us in the process?

What kind of reader are you?

I’m a bad reader! I am the reader I tell my students not to be, which is I skim. It’s a kind of excavation. I read really quickly and I’m searching for something, and when I find it, I read it over and over and over again. It becomes a wormhole. I got my PhD in History, and I was trained to be a reader of footnotes, and so I’m somebody who, once I get there, that sends me elsewhere to find all these other things. My synapses start going. And so I am both the reader that I tell my students not to be, which is to skim, and then I am who I tell them to be, which is to read openly and capaciously and connect the dots, and read people who are in conversation with each other. I tend to read in clusters.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent?

You know, the thing that is most noteworthy to me is that curation and theories and histories of photography are completely intertwined, because we are at a moment when the curators themselves are so deeply invested and so deeply conversant with those histories and theories. There’s a sort of changing of the guard. I don’t know if it’s the same over in the UK, but in the United States over the course of the pandemic, everybody seems to be moving: curators moving from here to there to there, and there’s been this reshuffle and it’s exciting because so many are new curators, young curators and curators of colour – they are people who didn’t come out of the art world; they come out of a world of critical theory around photography and the practice of art.

You see it in wall texts and in catalogues where the curators are referencing different theories and histories and are trying not only to put photography in conversation with genre, which used to be the way. Every curator was an Art Historian; that’s what it used to be. That isn’t the case anymore. It used to be that a catalogue would give you a kind of genealogy of the genre, of the form, of the content or context. And now I feel that curators are actually invoking the language of theory in order to talk about the impact of the work. They feed on one another.

The other thing is that photographers and artists are more steeped in theories of photography than they had been, and that’s another ongoing conversation. I’m finding right now that one of the delights of my work is that I am being asked more and more often to be in conversation with artists, who know my work, and I know their work, and those two things are no longer separate. It used to be that the history and theory of photography used to write about photography and photographers. Now we’re talking to them, and they’re talking to us, and it’s not an argument, it’s a conversation!

The leading art schools (in the US) like Yale, RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and Cal Arts (California Institute of the Arts) have theorists amongst them and that is recognised as valuable, and I have felt that. I do at least one art critique at the end of every semester, where somebody asks me to come to their studio class and participate in a nine-hour critique, which is exhausting but I also learn so much from that!

What qualities do you admire in in other writers?

I always admire clarity. I admire the writer that doesn’t only seek to draw you in to their writing, but also takes steps towards you in their writing. Some of the most inspirational writers to me are friends of mine, whose work has been a model and an inspiration. Christina Sharpe’s work, Hazel Carby’s most recent work, Imperial Intimacies (2019), my friend Saidiya Hartman. What they’re doing is they’re putting themselves in the mix, and, in doing that, they’re emphasising the stakes of both what they’re writing about, and how they’re writing about it. The “how” becomes an intentional intervention, of: “I am going to write this to you, in a way that addresses you, which doesn’t make it easier to read what I’m writing about, it raises the stakes of reading it.”

That’s what I really do admire, and that’s what I try to do in my own writing, is to let you understand what the stakes are of both what I’m writing about and how I’ve chosen to write it to you. Which I hope allows you to enter it, and take certain risks as well with your own engagement.

Which texts have influenced you the most?

Some of the writers I’ve just mentioned. I teach (Christina Sharpe’s) In the Wake (2016) over and over again. I teach (Saidiya Hartman’s) Wayward Lives (2019) over and over again. I also teach Laura Mulvey. Right now, I’m in a love affair with Laura Mulvey and Kaja Silverman: not because I absolutely agree with what they’re saying, but because they open my mind every time I read them. bell hooks I teach over and over again, and I read her over and over again. Fred Moten as well. And you know who else I can’t quit? Stuart Hall! Can’t quit him! Ever relevant. Every time you go back to him, you really you can’t believe he wrote it so long ago.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

I hate to answer a question with a question but it really does depend on where that photography writing is. One thing I’ve been noticing is that there’s a lot more general writing about photography, in newspapers and in reviews, in daily circulating publications, and I don’t find that critical very often. But again, I feel like criticality has taken a front seat in the art world, among curators, amongst this entire Third Estate that’s no longer journalism. So I guess it’s a Fourth Estate, which is the critical commentary that you get in blogs and in podcasts and on social media, because the general public is at a point right now where they feel empowered to critique and to critique photography in particular. I think that’s also because of the role of photography in documenting the horrible state that the world is in right now, be that on race relations and social justice, or the pandemic, or immigration, or housing. Those images are mobilising and, at the same time, they are documenting certain kinds of injustice. (They record) not only the acts of injustice, but the acts of injustice that the camera perpetrates as well. So it has become this invitation to a broader form of criticality than used to be prevalent.

I wondered whether you could talk a little about the importance of everyday experience in relation to your writing. Your writing reveals how a seemingly modest image contains so much possibility and all that it starts to bring into being. Your writing is drawn to the necessity of thinking through everyday experience, and its representation.

The importance of the everyday, for me, is that our most intense struggles occur in the everyday. There is a desire in me to be accountable not to the extraordinary, but to the ordinary. And when we’re accountable to the ordinary, then we are valuing the experiences of those who rarely get much attention. When you ask about its significance to me, I think that’s how we learn practices of survival. We don’t learn practices of survival in the extraordinary circumstances of a car crash or a plane crash, or being marooned on an island. We develop these strategies incrementally over time. That’s what I see in everyday photography and vernacular photography. When I come to those images, I’m always asking how did we get here, and what is it that connects us to mundane images: in their mundane-ness, you find these jewels, these jewels of love, of kindness, of generosity, of care. And you find the flip side too. You find the quotidian violences that are also brought to bear. There’s this image in Image Matters that I try to take apart, of a woman on a table in a corner. When you take it apart you realise that she’s in a gynaecologist office and there’s a procedure that happened or didn’t happen. Every woman has been in that situation, but to have an everyday photograph of it, an anonymous one… When I saw it at an exhibition, I just stopped in my tracks. It’s not because it was exceptional, it’s because it was so ordinary. We can illuminate so much about our lives by lingering in relationship to the ordinary and thinking about how we survive it and how countless other people survive it as well.

Listening to Images made me conscious of how the stakes are there in the image of the everyday. Perhaps this is what’s most resisted by positions of power? They are the most essential images in a sense, to just be seen, to be seen to be living, to be loving, to be sharing.

That is one of the tricks of ideology: to highlight the exceptional as that which you are supposed to be striving to be or become. That then becomes this impossible striving towards something you can never accomplish. And it keeps you in your place. But when you value who you are, it becomes a powerful source of identification and affirmation. And that’s my resistance to the exceptional: I don’t want to be exceptional. I want to share a world with others where we have some sense of equivalence. I think that’s a beautiful world, as opposed to the one where there are some who are exceptional and others who are not.♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-Tina M. Campt © Dorothy Hong

2-Book cover of Tina M. Campt, A Black Gaze (MIT Press, 2021)

3-Book cover of Tina M. Campt, Listening to Images (Duke University Press, 2017)

4-Book cover of Tina M. Campt, Image Matters: Archive, Photography and the African Diaspora in Europe (Duke University Press, 2012)

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020

False signals and white regimes: an award in need of decolonisation

Editorial | Tim Clark

Tim Clark on Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize’s reproduction of structural inequality, Mohamed Bourouissa’s ambivalent ‘victory’ and the implications for curatorial responsibility


Algerian-born artist Mohamed Bourouissa has been announced as the winner of the £30,000 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020, an award founded in 1996 by The Photographers’ Gallery, London and now in its twenty-fourth year.* Bourouissa was among a shortlist of four artists that included Clare Strand, Anton Kusters and Mark Neville, having been nominated for his mighty impressive exhibition Free Trade first staged within Monoprix at Les Rencontres d’Arles 2019.

Free Trade was a survey showcasing fifteen years of Bourouissa’s creative output. His work examines the value and visibility of marginalised and economically bereft members of society, as well as productions of knowledge, exchange and structures of power. Video, painting, sculpture, installation and, of course, photography are routinely put to powerful use. So too is an impressive range of imagery that encompasses staged scenes, surveillance footage and even stolen smartphones. Ideas come into focus and vibrate against one another, laying bare some of the terrible realities and injustices of late capitalism, all the while questioning the means of an image and politics of representing the ‘other’. It felt sharp, sobering, confounding, mysterious, critical and intelligible on its own political terms. In the context of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize display here in an extended run at The Photographers’ Gallery, Free Trade has been very capably distilled into a satisfying-enough iteration of the work, despite the typical space restrictions and challenges of staging this annual group show.

Nevertheless Bourouissa’s ‘victory’ betrays an alarming fact: he is just one of four artists of colour to win this highly-coveted prize during its twenty-four year history, joining Shirana Shabazi (2002), Walid Raad (2007) and Luke Willis Thompson (2018) who have come before him.** In tandem with this disturbing revelation we must also consider another uncomfortable truth: no black artist has ever won the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize as it approaches its first quarter of a century in existence.  

What this amounts to is curatorial malpractice on the one hand, and capitalist oppression on the other – a form of reproducing and perpetuating racial inequality, both in material and ideological terms. A quick, top-level calculation of the monies awarded to just the winners alone (these figures exclude the smaller sums given to runners up) shows that a total of £485,000 has been awarded to white artists (82%), in comparison to £105,000 awarded to artists of colour (18%)  – a wildly unequal distribution. Not only this, but it subsequently impacts on the discrepancies in levels of press coverage received, as well as interest from galleries, museums and collectors with implications for their markets and price points of artworks. Clearly no honest observer can say that such devaluation, in every sense of the word, isn’t a problem. And it’s a white problem that needs to be urgently addressed going forward.

It may also come as no surprise then, but is still nonetheless shocking, that the five members of the jury for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020 – including a non-voting chair – are all white.*** However highly-respected and accomplished they may be as artists, editors and curators, this too is shameful and inexcusable. Regardless of this year’s outcome.

Whitewashing on the part of the establishment is obviously harmful to our profession, and therefore to society and culture at large. In effect it’s sending out the message to young artists and curators of colour that ‘there are no opportunities for you and your chance of attaining this level of recognition are slim – there is no space for you, and your work is not valid within the narrow parameters of this prize’. It makes it seem like a rigged system, blocking the development of black and brown excellence, while depriving us all of richness of the contemporary photographic landscape we deserve. Indeed that’s precisely how the whiteness project manifests itself over and over again. For this is a continuum, not an isolated incident. We know that as a ruling principle whiteness is most effective when it is unnamed and unseen, an idea that is consolidated by upholding status privilege while neglecting other non-hegemonic modes of being in the world, thereby reasserting itself and the normalisation of its proponents’ limited worldview. But it’s detected here in the case of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, an award in need of decolonisation despite last night’s seemingly positive result. Only then can we begin to generate the right conditions for a level playing field.

We might think of one of Stedelijk Museum’s newly appointed Curator-at-Large, Yvette Mutumba’s conception of the task of decolonisation and what it entails. In her recent interview on frieze.com she commented: “It means understanding that decolonization is not a matter of ‘us’ and ‘them’, but concerns all of us. It means acknowledging that this is not a current moment or trend. It means recognizing that BIPoC/BAME/POC are not necessarily particularly ‘political’: we simply do not have the choice to not be political. It means admitting that having grown up in a racist structure is no excuse.”

Of course we all need to check ourselves, and what we’re doing in order to be mindful of our own privilege and positionality. It has obviously occurred to me that as a cis white man mine is a voice that certainly doesn’t need liberation but we can’t just sit and wait for change to come. I am also aware many people who look and sound like me don’t speak at all – let alone take action – lest they might ‘fail’. A perennial double bind. This is something the photographer and writer Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa reminded his audience during an ‘in conversation’ with Sunil Shah early on in lockdown, as part of Atelier NŌUA’s Once Upon a Time talks series, in which he summoned Samuel Beckett’s sage words: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” It’s worth noting that Wolukau-Wanambwa also shared his more general observation relating to the false consciousness that somehow, by default, those working in the arts, given that they are creative with a proclivity to ‘openness’, are not thought of – or think of themselves – as adopting racist and discriminatory practices.

At a minimum it would certainly give some meaning to the countless statements of solidarity that accompanied black squares during Instagram’s #BlackOutTuesday, not to mention the performative allyship that ensued, manifesting in platitudes such as “we must fight systemic racism” or “don’t stay silent” only to never hear from such people again on the matter or see any changes in their respective programmes and activities. Now is the time for white people who are genuinely taking on anti-racism work to attend to what we say and do. The comments from Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (2017) author Reni Eddo-Lodge in an interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 continue to orbit my imagination: “those annoying white liberals, who luxuriate in passivity as it’s not directly affecting them. They are like, ‘I support this and want everyone to do well but I’m not going to do anything.’” In short, it is a matter of deciding to use white privilege to end white privilege.

Of course, there exists no absolution. All white people run the risk of “the danger of good intentions” as Barbara Applebaum has articulated it in Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility and Social Justice Pedagogy (2010). We must though “foster an attitude of vigilance”, in the words of bell hooks. Turner Prize-winning artist Tai Shani reminds us of this in Why Art Workers Must Demand the Impossible on artreview.com: “The bewildering ethical paradoxes of the artworld have become as much part of the artworld as art itself. These paradoxes have been sustained by a façade of equilibrium, of a liberal centrist political position that has been hardwired into the operational models of galleries, museums, institutions, art schools, and art organisations.”

For my part, it would be particularly remiss not to name these issues in light that I led the first Photography and Curation ten-week course at The Photographers’ Gallery in 2018-19 on the invitation of and in collaboration with London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. This public course examined the various ways curating can shape our encounter with and the understanding of the photographic image. Participants were exposed to various key philosophical insights – from defining what an exhibition or curator is to future practices in the era of the networked image – as well as practical insights relating to the constantly evolving display, organisation and public dissemination of photographs. At its core lay the fundamental question of what constitutes curatorial responsibility?, drawing on Maura Reilly’s Curatorial Activism: Towards An Ethics of Curating (2018) as the key reading, in which Reilly encourages us to not only listen to others but ourselves: “What are my biases? Am I excluding large constituencies of people in my selections?; Have I favoured male artists over female, white over black – if so, why?”

I’m therefore duty bound, since evidently black and brown colleagues have bore this burden for too long, which by all accounts is exhausting and dispiriting. Halting this long-standing pattern of suppression should be all of our project. I’m aligned with Holland Cotter’s piece Museums Are Finally Taking A Stand. But Can They Find Their Footing? written on nytimes.com this June: “…which raises the question of why is it left to a black-identified institution to address the matter? Because race consciousness is widely assumed to be somehow a black issue, not a white one? Even people who once believed this can see, just from watching police violence and protests on recent news, that they’re wrong.”

The collective task then, is one that partly extends beyond the reach of and even precedes The Photographers’ Gallery and Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation’s work. To a certain extent it falls to the academy of 150 nominators of which I am part – who are proffering their two selections to The Photographers’ Gallery on an annual basis every September in order to create the long-list – to properly interrogate ourselves and consider any ‘unintentional’ biases before submitting. It’s a matter of individual responsibility and institutional accountability – a single voice that must advocate for and pursue change. It therefore also begs the ‘controversial’ question: should The Photographers’ Gallery be imposing a quota to ensure equality across the genders, sexes and races? Whatever it may be, some mechanisms certainly need to be introduced in order to fight the prize’s in-built and long-upheld discrimination given hierarchies and biases are repeating very close to home. So too is a sector-wide paradigm shift required, right through from the reading lists university lecturers set their students to who specifically galleries support and represent; from the type of media coverage allotted in the art press to museums boards, directors and curators diversifying their organisation from within, all with the view to resisting, confronting and challenging these deeply-entrenched problems within our industry.

If the tragic lynching of George Floyd and countless others at the hands of the police – Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Elijah McClain and Ahmaud Arbery in the US alone – has taught us anything, it is the following: “You can feel that this is different. These [Black Lives Matter] protests are not driven by empathy but by implication – ‘I am complicit and responsible therefore I must act’; this is a much more honest relationship to white supremacy and anti-black violence,” as affirmed in an ‘in conversation’ hosted by Lisson Gallery in June with the artist John Akomfrah that was led by Ekow Eshun, together with academics Tina Campt and Sadiya Hartmam.

But it is also going to take some serious soul-searching, vulnerability and ontological insecurity. As Daniel C. Blight has written in his book The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization (2019), this “means white people must work to accept that they are sutured to whiteness and that removing those stitches is a lifelong pursuit rather than a single, narcissistic point of arrival.” Blight also cites a particularly pertinent extract from George Yancy’s Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race in America (2017), in which the firebrand philosopher notes that this requires “a continuous effort on the part of whites to forge new ways of seeing, knowing and being.”

In wake of this I am compelled to ask: how, in good conscience, is it possible for an Arts Council England-funded organisation of this size and stature, in a city like London which is known for its vast range of cultures, nationalities and ethnicities – those that make up our diverse communities and multiple publics – to achieve such a historically woeful lack of representation in the case of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize? How can this feasibly be considered productive or desirable when it comes to composing a jury for arguably the most prestigious prize within our medium? Is there genuinely that little interest to engage some of the perspectives of non-white artists, writers, publishers, curators, and so on? Did the jury members not stop to question that being part of an all white jury is problematic?****

And, in any event, what sort of meaningful, or realistic, statement do the implicated institutions really expect to make on the state of photography, given that their high-profile prize is predicated on exclusion and erasure, having enabled artists of colour to be largely subjugated and therefore not granted their share of resources and funds? How can it possibly be a viewed as a legitimate history of contemporary photography, or, at the very least, a snapshot of those artists who have made significant impact on the medium during the past three decades? Why is there only, at most, one artist of colour on any given shortlist during the prize’s history? Is that all that is allowable? Is a bare minimum ever really enough? It reeks of tokenism.

The bigger question, of course, is whether The Photographers’ Gallery, under its current direction, is properly equipped to deal with the brave new world into which we have been thrust. We need cultural leaders within contemporary photography and visual culture to step up and lead the way. Those individuals that can offer long-term and enduring strategies of resistance, create solutions that will ensure equal opportunity, exposure and remuneration; and for them to harness art’s potential for change, championing work, ideas and concepts that infuse and enrich the world and the world of images. To tackle difficult issues head on – or at least back their skilled curators to do it – all the while understanding and insisting on the difference between diversity and anti-racism to avoid any institutional hypocrisy and opportunism. “In order to move into a white self-critical space beyond anti-racism,” Blight explains in his book, “whiteness must do more than make liberal gestures in the form of pro-diversity work. We must transform our comfortable denial and unwitting ignorance into something that is, in essence, new.”

Part of that new world could be a publicly funded gallery and a prize not centred on whiteness, one that takes those vitally important, other ways of being, seeing and thinking into a traditionally white institution in order to dismantle processes of marginalisation and instead collectively build an abundant space for difference to thrive. Ultimately, we need new regimes of truth that are more compatible with the present moment, similar to what Novara Media’s Co-Founder Aaron Bastani cites in Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto (2019) as “a strategy for our times while carving out new figureheads for utopia, outlining the world as it could be and where to begin.”

With an eye to the not-too-distant future, I hope this deeply unjust cycle can be disrupted and that the prize makes amends in the forthcoming years. Let Mohamed Bourouissa’s fantastic, albeit somewhat ambivalent, ‘win’ be the start of something new. But whether or not there is an actual appetite for meaningful, positive change remains to be seen. Clearly there is much woke work to be done, curatorial correctives to take place, new support systems to be built, destructive enterprises to be divested from, uneasy conversations to be had, discomfort to sit with, spaces to give up, injustices to be called out (and acted upon), interventions to be made. And it is going to hurt.♦


Tim Clark is the Editor in Chief at 1000 Words, and a writer, curator and lecturer at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University
. He lives and works in London.

Images:

1-Mohamed Bourouissa, NOUS SOMMES HALLES, 2002-2003. In collaboration with Anoushkashoot. © Mohamed Bourouissa, Kamel Mennour, Paris & London and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

2-Mohamed Bourouissa, Installation view. Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020 The Photographers’ Gallery, London. © Kate Elliott and The Photographers’ Gallery

3-Mohamed Bourouissa, NOUS SOMMES HALLES, 2002-2003. In collaboration with Anoushkashoot. © Mohamed Bourouissa, Kamel Mennour, Paris & London and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

4-Mohamed Bourouissa, Installation view. Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020 The Photographers’ Gallery, London. © Kate Elliott and The Photographers’ Gallery

5-Mohamed Bourouissa, BLIDA 2, 2008. © Mohamed Bourouissa, Kamel Mennour, Paris & London and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

*
Support

The Photography Prize has been realised with the support of Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation (ongoing), Deutsche Börse Group (2005-2015) and Citigroup (1996-2004).

**
Previous winners

1997 Richard Billingham £10,000
1998 Andreas Gursky £10,000
1999 Rineke Dijkstra £10,000
2000 Anna Gaskell £10,000
2001 Boris Mikhailov £15,000
2002 Shirana Shahbazi £15,000
2003 Juergen Teller £20,000
2004 Joel Sternfeld £20,000
2005 Luc Delahaye £30,000
2006 Robert Adams £30,000
2007 Walid Raed £30,000
2008 Esko Männikkö £30,000
2009 Paul Graham £30,000
2010 Sophie Ristelheuber £30,000
2011 Jim Goldberg £30,000
2012 John Stezaker £30,000
2013 Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin £30,000
2014 Richard Mosse £30,000
2015 Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse £30,000
2016 Trevor Paglen £30,000
2017 Dana Lixenberg £30,000
2018 Luke Willis Thompson £30,000
2019 Susan Meiselas £30,000
2020 Mohamed Bourissa £30,000

***
The 2020 Jury

The members of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020 were Martin Barnes, Senior Curator, Photographs, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom; Melanie Manchot, artist and photographer, based in London, United Kingdom; Joachim Naudts, Curator and Editor at FOMU Foto Museum in Antwerp, Belgium; Anne-Marie Beckmann, Director of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation, Frankfurt a. M., Germany; and Brett Rogers, Director of The Photographers’ Gallery as the non-voting chair.

****

I am deeply ashamed to have taken part in my last all-white panel for an award as recently as February 2020. I have since turned down two other similar invitations and will ensure this never happens again.

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#15 Renée Mussai

Renée Mussai is Senior Curator and Head of Curatorial & Collections at Autograph, London. Mussai has organised numerous exhibitions in Europe, Africa and America, and over the past few years curated a series immersive gallery installations with contemporary artists, including Zanele Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness (2017–present), Lina Iris Viktor’s Some Are Born To Endless Night — Dark Matter (2019–21) and Phoebe Boswell’s The Space Between Things (2018/19). Other previous monographic exhibitions include Aida Silvestri’s Unsterile Clinic (2016), Miss Black & Beautiful (2016), and James Barnor: Ever Young (2010). With Mark Sealy, she has co-curated group and solo exhibitions such as Omar Victor Diop: Liberty/Diaspora (2018), Making Jamaica: Photography from the 1890s (2017), Congo Dialogues – When Harmony Went to Hell (2015), Rotimi Fani-Kayode (2011), and W.E.B. Du Bois: The 1900 Paris Albums (2010). With Bindi Vora, she recently curated Lola Flash: surpassing (2019) and Maxine Walker: untitled (2019).

Research-led curatorial initiatives include multiple iterations of The Missing Chapter – Black Chronicles programmes, including most recently Black Chronicles IV (2018), The African Choir 1891 Re-Imagined (2016-18) and Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits (2017) at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Independent curatorial and editorial projects include the collaborative Women’s Mobile Museum (2018, with Zanele Muholi and the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center) and Glyphs: Acts of Inscription (2013, with Ruti Talmor).

Mussai is a regular guest curator and former fellow at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University; Research Associate at the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre, University of Johannesburg; Associate Lecturer at University of the Arts London; and part-time PhD candidate in History of Art at University College London where she is completing her doctoral thesis on nineteenth century ‘raced’ portrait photography and contemporary curatorial care. She serves on various awards and steering committees, including Fast Forward: Women in Photography, and publishes and lectures internationally on photography, visual culture and curatorial activism. Her writing has appeared in artist monographs and publications such as Aperture or Nka, and her edited volumes include Lina Iris Viktor: Some Are Born To Endless Night — Dark Matter (2019/20), James Barnor: Ever Young (2015) and Aida Silvestri: Unsterile Clinic/Even This Will Pass (2017).

She is currently working on several forthcoming publications in development, and co-managing a new series of artist commissions entitled Care, Contagion, Community at Autograph.

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

Exhibitions – whether staged inside institutions or as interventions in public realms; monographic, retrospective, thematic etc – appeal to me as locations of enquiry, as situational spaces of discourse, as sites of visual pleasure. I enjoy the collaborative nature of exhibitions, and myriad possibilities they offer… as sensory places for engagement, as experimental laboratories, as zones of reflection and contemplation. They enable us to show/do so many things simultaneously: to create openings where different exchanges can take place, encounters occur, imaginaries manifest, ideas evolve, dialogues emerge, positions take shape.

I think of the exhibition as both proposition, and provocation – as an invitation to enter a conversation – between the artworks on display, the architectures of the space, between artist and curator, between the past and the present, and importantly with and for those who visit, navigate, participate, and affect its modalities. On a practical level, I am attracted to the multiple dramaturgic dimensions the exhibition offers – discursive, textual, spatial and otherwise: the idea of an empty stage to play with, infused with colours, objects, texts – I like the idea of exhibitions as ‘visual essays’ where constellations of words and images, thoughts and objects, co-exist inside these temporary curatorial ecologies.

Exhibition-making for me is a creative, generative ‘doing’ activity – dialogic, and activist at its core… the desire is to create a visceral experience – yet one that is at once emotional, intellectual, political, personal, sensual – that is felt in the body and the mind, and hopefully, proves restorative and transformative for/to some… encourages different ways of seeing, thinking, and being – even if only temporary – and invites us to reflect and think critically about our core values, the changing worlds we live in, the historical conditions that have shaped us… and to imagine possible futures and different modes of futurity.

And crucially, as sites of evidence, exhibitions enable us to showcase the work of visionary – and often underrepresented – artists and foreground artistic voices still too often marginalised within the art “world”… to advocate for those forged into/from various registers of difference,  working at the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality – in my case especially female, and non-binary/queer artists of colour from the African diaspora who use their practice to raise awareness to socio-cultural thematics, including conceptual artists-activists such as Zanele Muholi, Lola Flash, Aida Silvestri, Phoebe Boswell or Lina Iris Viktor.

So, the exhibition can be a space of refuge, offering both critique and hope: I see the making of exhibitions, and curating as a praxis, as a form of resistance – and insistence – an opportunity to ‘practice refusal’: to stage a disruption of the traditional white cube space – and deluminate its metaphorical and literal whiteness. I am interested in the communion between art and activism – its disrupting power, if you will – and in the transformation and activation of space(s): painting gallery walls black, for instance, is a favourite curatorial gesture/pleasure … especially inside mainstream institutions!

What does it mean to be a curator in an age of image and information excess? 

This depends entirely on what we understand by/as excess, and what kinds of images and information we feel exist in surplus? I would say, in response, that this is ultimately a question of perspective. What constitutes too much, and not enough? Too little or too many images of which kind – still too many afro-pessimist images yet still not enough afro-futurist images, for instance? Do we really see enough images of non-white people in positions of power or moments of leisure? Too many images of people of colour suffering, of black and brown and queer bodies under duress circulated without care? Do we have enough images and information to make us see the urgency of climate crises unfolding? What about indigenous image archives? Where is the excess when it comes to images by people from the majority world in global picture libraries?

For me, working as a curator in the decolonial mode means to continuously question both excess and lack in relation to images and their affective registers. It means to continuously look out for blind spots, and trace proverbial ‘black holes’ in existing image repertoires – searching for ‘missing’ images within information excess marked by notions power and privilege. We know that the photographic archive/history of photography – both past and present – is full of omissions, gaps and misrepresentations. What type of information and imagery continues to be buried? Who remains invisible, in this ‘age of image and information excess’? Who produces the critical context of these images? Who controls the flow of information and image?

In other words – as I contemplate your question, I am deeply immersed in ongoing research into Victorian image repertoires and the recovery of photographs of black figures in nineteenth century Britain – part of our critical curatorial labour to activate the archive as a radical locus for knowledge production and diasporic visibility. Until very recently, both information and images on this topic were scarce – with hundreds of images ‘lost’ in the archive for decades – remediated only now by the long-term curatorial research initiated by Autograph under the the Black Chronicles – The Missing Chapter rubric, a programme that began in 2013 and continues today with forthcoming publications in progress.

Thus the location and implication of image/information excess is a critical and complex question to answer – especially when viewed through the lens of cultural politics of race + representation. It is also one intimately linked to the notion of ‘whose eyes’ – who is producing, curating and excavating our image and information archives? Who is looking? Who is affecting – and affected by – these oftentimes raced, classed and gendered optics through which both excess is constituted and lack maintained, and wherein certain images remain fugitive?

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

In many ways curators, one could argue, are perpetual/involuntary professional shape-shifters, so perhaps the only skill truly invaluable might be the ability to adapt and combine different competencies… although the capacity to develop additional tentacles to better multi-task and problem-solve would be really helpful, too!

Critical thinking, writing and organising skills are important in my view – the ability to think differently – and transnationally, sensitively, curiously, inclusively, patiently, collaboratively and dialogically – to think with rather than about – and to think diagonally as well as non-hierarchically: curators tend to fulfil different roles, often simultaneously, operating in several occupational zones comprised of fragments from a range of hyphenated ‘curatorial’ identities: fundraiser–salesperson–gallerist–organiser–registrar–researcher–archivist–commissioner–writer–critic–editor–publisher–lecturer–educator–strategist–activist–educator–translator–designer, etc. A lot of the time we are administrators and project managers… at other times, some sort of curatorial agent-obstetrician – tasked with the birthing of partnerships, representation of artists and delivery of projects.

Since a majority of curatorial efforts, especially large-scale exhibitions, are joint operations with many collaborators and co-conspirators, being able to work collaboratively with people is key – the ability to connect, communicate and build caring relationships with others, especially with artists, first and foremost – but also with the many other stakeholders involved: colleagues, gallerists, designers, printers, framers, installers, technicians – as well funders, collectors, patrons, etc – and of course with audiences, for whom the work is staged.

What was your route into curating?

I have been fortunate to develop my curatorial practice within the trajectory of a unique, flexible, multifaceted small arts organisation with a strong mission – advocating for photography, film and lens-based media that addresses cultural politics of rights, race, and representation – and with the support of committed colleagues with enlightened curatorial visions.

I joined Autograph (led by director Mark Sealy who is also a very accomplished curator and writer) almost two decades ago, when I was in my early twenties, and an undergraduate student studying photography at the University of the Arts London. This long-term, sustained organisational/institutional affiliation has been deeply rewarding… I initially worked across different areas – including education, print sales and artist liaison, with job titles ranging from researcher to archive project manager and eventually curator. I also spent my formative curatorial years at Autograph working inside our permanent collection of photography: collections and archives are wonderful – and often underrated – sites for any fledgling curator to acquire invaluable skills and knowledges; absolutely crucial in my view as spaces to help formulate thoughts, practice curiosity, and explore ideas for future exhibitions, or publications. My first big curatorial project, a retrospective of James Barnor, and later exhibitions such as Miss Black & Beautiful – were born out of early curatorial archive and collection work.

And, because Autograph operates internationally through an agency model based on partnerships with peer organisations, I’ve learned a lot from working in a guest curatorial capacity within different spaces and institutional structures, both ideologically and geographically. As gallery, publisher, and commissioning body, we have over the years placed great emphasis on developing a space of making, and working closely with artists has been, and continues to be, the greatest privilege. Much of my curatorial work is developed through in-depth dialogue and exchange with artists, often over long periods of time. We have just launched an exciting new series of artist commissions at Autograph entitled ‘care – contagion – communion: self & other’, in response to the wider context and implications of Covid-19.

My route into curating is also a story of migration in reverse: my educational background is both academic and practice-based, having trained as an artist for five years, after studying combined humanities at the University of Vienna – history of art, film studies, theatre science, and philosophy. Curating offered a way to bring these various areas of interest together, and engage in visual politics as creative practitioner, scholar and facilitator, while also developing my writing and teaching practice.

What is the most memorable exhibition that you’ve visited?

The most memorable exhibition? Perhaps Alfredo Jaar’s The Sound of Silence, which I first saw at Fabrica as part of the Brighton Photo Biennial in 2006, an ingenious installation which features only one single photographic image visible for a matter of seconds… the critical questions the exhibition posed – about the limits of representation, the failure of photography, the psycho-social and political implications of the documentary genre, the precarity of human rights and our responsibility as image makers, image takers and image consumers – have stayed with me palpably ever since.

I often return to the Walther Collection’s inaugural exhibition Events of the Self: Portraiture and Social Identity curated by the late Okwui Enwezor whose pioneering curatorial vision placed the work of celebrated African and German portrait photographers – such as August Sander and Seydou Keïta – in close dialogue with one another. It opened up a discursive dialogue across different geographies, modernities and temporalities, while inadvertently questioning how canons are made/maintained, and photographic traditions constituted as separate rather than parallel and intimately entwined histories.

A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965 – 2016, Adrian Piper’s retrospective at MoMA was infinitely memorable: an incredibly rich unpacking of fifty years of conceptual art practice, and a truly generous curatorial offering. A beautiful gift of a show… even reproductions of Piper’s seminal Calling Cards were freely available to visitors as printed tools to confront recurrent acts of racism and sexism many of us experience regularly: as relevant now as they were when Piper first produced them in the 1980s and 90s.

An exhibition I often wish I had seen is Like A Virgin organised by the late Bisi Silva at her Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Nigeria in 2007. Bisi was a wonderful curator of contemporary African art and photography – and this was a courageous and bold exhibition to curate about African women’s radical sexualities in a place that does not openly welcome such dialogues (LGTBQIA+ politics on the African continent are still deeply precarious and living is dangerous for those who advocate for freedom of expression and equality). I have spent so much time talking, thinking and imagining this show, that it somehow feels ‘memorable’ although I haven’t actually seen it. 

What constitutes curatorial responsibility in the context within which you work?

To me, curatorial responsibility is intimately linked to the notion of curatorial care – curating as a praxis of care. Etymologically, curate derives from the Latin cura/curare, meaning ‘care/to care’. In the context of my own curatorial praxis/practice – and in the wider context within which we work collectively at Autograph – curating is tied not only to ideas around the ethics of care, but also the notion of repair: a remedial doing and undoing, a continuous addressing and redressing, a suturing of broken archaeologies, an offering of an alternate (curatorial) ‘otherwise’.

I think of this affective cultural labour as remedial curatorial care work – a feminist, activist, decolonial kind of antidote and embrace… which also reflects the critical thinking of black feminist scholarship (from Audre Lorde to Hortense Spillers to Saidiya Hartman, and others) and, in particular, the sentiment the brilliant scholar Christina Sharpe posits as critical wake work in her beautiful mediation In the Wake, On Blackness and Being. I am currently developing these ideas further, in my ongoing writing/thinking for a series of essays and chapters in progress – hence reflecting deeply on the question of curatorial responsibility, and how to make a difference.

Within this ecology of curatorial care, our responsibility is first and foremost to the artists – and the work entrusted to us, and then, if appropriate, to the archive, as well as to our audiences: to operate ethically with integrity, sensitivity, and respect, while opening doors, and – where possible – break down barriers of access. As both praxis, and process, this remedial curatorial care work I describe entails a deep commitment to diversity, and within that our curatorial responsibility – or response-ability, to borrow Toni Morrison’s phrase – is to continuously support new and different voices – to act and activate our power(s) to create inclusive spaces for solidarity and multiple occupancies: it means a long-term promise to work towards cultural and structural change and social justice – towards a counter hegemonic ‘otherwise’, if you will.

Ultimately, curatorial responsibility for me constitutes a continual – not intermittent –commitment to tackle notions of heteropatriarchy and euro-centrism, and other deeply engrained regimes that must be undone: all those structural inequalities, empty policies and toxic ideologies that so stubbornly prevail within institutions and societies at large – from systemic racism, sexism, classism, ableism, to queer/trans/lesbo and homophobia, and countless others. How do we best – collectively and individually – challenge such sentiments and unfix oppressive, established narratives? The key I believe is to practise the doing and acting inherent within the notion of response-ability, to keep speaking up against discriminatory, exclusionary practices – both actions or non-actions – and doing our part in helping to accelerate this slow process of diversification, cultural reform and gradual change within institutions, and beyond – taxing and difficult as this affective labour is at times, and of course often disproportionally burdened onto black and brown professionals in the arts (and academia, too)… efforts imbued with a renewed sense of urgency in the wake of Covid-19, the recent killings of people of colour in the US and elsewhere, the ongoing protests and monument ‘wars’, the decolonising and dismantling campaigns, and of course, crucially, the Black Lives Matter movement.

It also entails a sense of critical self-reflexivity – including an awareness and regular assessment of our own privilege(s) and biases, as well as our agency. Are we doing the work? Are we doing enough? Who do we represent? Are we empowering others? Might we be complicit in upholding certain existing power structures? Does our care include care for the climate, care for others, care for the self – e.g Do I really need to take this flight, or speak on this panel? Might there be someone local who could speak to the topic instead, someone less privileged or less salaried perhaps? May I rest?

What is the one myth that you would like to dispel around being a curator?

There is value in myths, and on a tired day I’d be inclined to say just allow them to grow … The term ‘curator’ has become both terribly charged, and strangely desirable lately – so many other ‘titles’ we could use instead: cultural facilitator, exhibitions organiser, or creative producer… It would be nice to dispel the inherent ideas of authority, of curators as gatekeeper, and undo the ‘top down’ hierarchies often implied… Curating, in my experience, is rarely a solitary form of creativity or activity that warrants recognition through individual/single authorship – curating is relational, situational, and inherently collaborative. I think we should speak more about how curatorial pleasure – and curatorial resilience – is often forged in those moments of intimate, and sustained, dialogue – especially with artists, but also peers, colleagues, collaborators, and audiences. It’s all about working together, mutual support and learning from one another.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

Be brave, and courageous. Care, and dare. Make trouble… Take risks. Nurture what the brilliant speculative fiction writer Octavia E. Butler coined as ‘positive obsession’: decide what you want, aim carefully, go for it and keep going.

Research meticulously. Build your curatorial toolbox. Gain as much practical experience working on different projects as possible. Keep learning and un-learning… Think global, and decolonial. Don’t be afraid to seek counsel from others, be open to the possibility of failure, and course-correction… build bridges, and resilience. Challenge existing power structures. Be reflexive: why am I doing this? What’s at stake? What contribution am I making to the field? Does what I propose shift or enrich the conversation? Is it urgent? Is it relevant? Who needs it? Why now – is this the right time? Who is it for? Is the audience ready for this?

And don’t forget to think about the ethics [of curating], be conscious of your own position/positionality. Always look after and protect your artists… and look for allies. Collaborate. Learn from others. Find your tribe. Reach out. Share. Be generous. And enjoy….♦

Further interviews in the Curator Conversations series can be read here.


Curator Conversations is part of a collaborative set of activities on photography curation and scholarship initiated by Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University), Christopher Stewart (London College of Communication, University of the Arts London) and Esther Teichmann (Royal College of Art) that has included the symposium, Encounters: Photography and Curation, in 2018 and a ten week course, Photography and Curation, hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery, London in 2018-19.

Images:

1-Renée Mussai in the exhibition Lina Iris Viktor: Some Are Born To Endless Night — Dark Matter, Autograph London, 2020.

2-Installation view of Lina Iris Viktor: Some Are Born To Endless Night — Dark Matter, Autograph London, 2020. © Ben Reeves.

3-Installation view of Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, Autograph London, 2017. © Zoe Maxwell.

4-Installation view of Black Chronicles II, Autograph London, 2014. © Keri-Luke Campell.

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#14 Holly Roussell

Holly Roussell is Swiss/American independent curator, museologist, and researcher with in-depth knowledge of contemporary art and photography from East Asia. She is a specialist in post-1976 Chinese contemporary art, avant-garde artist groups and exhibition histories. Roussell served as coordinator of the worldwide traveling exhibitions program and photography prize, the Prix Elysée, for the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, from 2013-17. In 2017, she co-founded the Asia Photography Project, a non-profit curatorial collective and platform for photography from East Asia. As an independent curator, some recent projects include Stars星星1979 (co-curated with Dr. Wu Hung) for the Beijing OCAT Research Institute for Chinese contemporary art with accompanying publication; acting as curator for the 4th Shenzhen Independent Animation Biennale (2018) under the direction of Li Zhenhua; Pixy Liao Experimental Relationship at the Rencontres d’Arles (2019); Dai Jianyong: Judy Zhu at the Shanghai Centre of Photography (2019), Jimei x Arles Foto Festival (2018) and Lianzhou Foto Festival (2019) and the major publication and travelling exhibition project, Civilization: The Way We Live Now (co-curated with William A. Ewing) that toured the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, (2018), UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (2019), NGV, Melbourne (2019), Auckland Art Gallery (2020), MUCEUM, Marseille (2021) and other venues. In 2020, Roussell joined the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, South Korea as International Curatorial Researcher in residence. She lives and works in Suzhou, China. 

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

The exhibition form is a challenge. I am attracted to the process and the comprehensive nature of the exhibition. It often begins for me with an idea and an ideal: what is the purpose or direction of this project? What would this project look like if everything goes perfectly? Which artists or artworks should be part of it? Where could it be exhibited? As projects evolve, constraints begin to appear, and the ideal morphs into something new. It is about problem-solving, and that challenges not only your patience but also your idea – that original concept – along the way. This aspect is an unseen part of the exhibition for visitors, but they are the unknowing beneficiaries, because the challenges help you better formulate and understand your own concept. A curator creates rhythm in a space, to tell a story to the visitor.

Working primarily in contemporary photography, something else that attracts me to the exhibition form is that my role is often a technical and a creative one. It happens, perhaps more often than one would expect, that work on an exhibition will extend beyond the selection and disposition of artworks in space, but involve also the production methods of those artworks. An example of this sort of collaboration is my work with the Shanghai-based artist Coca Dai (戴建勇). He is an extraordinarily active photographer and a wonderful, eccentric book-maker. Most of his projects existed only as multiple versions of self-published photobooks or digital scans from his hundreds of thousands of negatives. I discovered these when we met in 2016. A few years later when I was invited to nominate artists for the Discovery Award at the Jimei x Arles festival, I seized the occasion to work with Coca. For that show, we worked together to translate a project conceived as a book using the exhibition form. We did so by designing an exhibition that combined both prints and “books” on the walls. Groupings of 10 to 30 images, printed on thick rice paper literally hung from the walls, becoming “mini-books” interspersed in a constellation of single prints distributed throughout the space. These “books” on the walls recalled his original project not only as a formal reference point, they also require a similar intimate engagement from the visitor. Once the visitor begins flipping the pages, they are drawn into the personal memories. The viewer must spend time interacting with the narrative one photograph at a time, which is as Coca intended – analogous to how these moments were lived.

What does it mean to be a curator in an age of image and information excess?

It means remaining focused. Nowadays there are limitless possibilities: exhibition ideas, artists to collaborate with, magazines, journals, conferences, etc. This greater access to information creates a sort of “weight” when you begin to build a project. There is pressure to know about everything going on everywhere in the world, to have an opinion about it, to go see every show, to read articles, to always be up to date. Sometimes I relate it to a treadmill that’s been turned up a bit too fast. You feel like you could fall off at any time.

Access is no longer the problem for a curator. What to do with that material, however, is challenging. It is our job to edit that information, to filter it, to be inclusive, to be discriminating (in a positive sense), to find artists that need support to share their vision and artworks that are meaningful.

I deal with this by creating frameworks for my projects. I think being a curator in an age of information excess means accepting you will not always have perfect balance in your exhibitions. You may not always reach the “ideal”. It means there will be more people with similar ideas to yours perhaps than ever before, because we all have greater access to information. It means reinventing yourself, homing in on your own specific focus as a curator to adapt to the needs of the current world.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

One skill? We have to be pretty polyvalent! I can’t speak for every curator, but for me it has been meticulous attention to detail, and cool-headed problem-solving. In recent years, I have begun travelling with my own laser level. 

What was your route into curating?

My route into curating was first through a passion for art history and then, mentorship.

When I graduated from university, I knew I wanted to work in art, and specifically art from China. After two years of working various jobs (mostly unpaid, so we can call those “internships”) in Beijing I worked as an artist assistant, curatorial assistant for a photo-festival, and as a translator. I knew I wanted the experience of an institution and was very fortunate upon relocating to Europe in 2011 to join the Musée de l’Elysée as an intern in the External Affairs and Travelling Exhibitions Department. My work at the museum was not necessarily “curatorial”, but it related to everything surrounding exhibitions. When that internship finished, Pascal Hufschmid, my manager, and the department head at the time, was kind enough to connect me with someone he knew who was looking for an intern. Little did I know that person was going to be one of photography’s most distinguished curators, the former museum director, William A. Ewing.

William and I met for coffee one late morning in Switzerland in 2012. We had a mutual interest in representations of landscape (I had written my undergrad thesis on the role of the land in Chinese Revolutionary and Contemporary Art). We decided that day to begin working on our first project together, Landmark: The Fields of Landscape Photography. This was the first exhibition I ever worked on as a curator. Landmark was already well along in planning stages, William had the theme in mind for more than ten years, and he took me on as his assistant curator at the moment he had secured a venue. He was a fantastic mentor. He included me in every aspect moving forward from research, to contacting artists, to discussing which works would fit best in each section. He gave me a lot of responsibility and encouraged me to develop my own opinions about the artworks, the artists, and how it could all come together in the space. The timeline for the project was extremely short. We travelled to London only about six months later to install the show at the Somerset House.

It included work from more than 70 artists loaned directly from galleries, artists, and private collectors – it was all organised within that half year window. This was an incredibly formative experience in that it showed me how dynamic this profession could be with the right combination of powerful personal vision and logistical organisation.

After Landmark, I went on to complement my Art History degree with a Masters in Museology. That year I took a fixed position at the Musée de l’Elysée as coordinator of the photography prize and the travelling exhibitions programme. William and I continued to work together (mostly during weekends) and have produced – as co-curators – the exhibitions Works in Progress: Photography in China 2015 which was presented at the Folkwang Museum in Essen, and our ongoing travelling exhibition, Civilization: The Way We Live Now. In 2017, I officially left the Musée de l’Elysée to become an independent curator full time. Now, based in China, my time is entirely dedicated to research and exhibitions about contemporary photography and post-Mao Chinese art and the avant-garde.

What is the most memorable exhibition that you’ve visited?

I think it wouldn’t be honest to say one exhibition stands out transcendently for me. I try to visit as many exhibitions as I can, but there are also plenty I have wanted to see and been unable to make. Visiting shows is a professional activity – I look at how the space was used, the tone of the texts, the scope of the project, any new ways of interacting with the public, the use of vitrines, and so on. I also want to feel the discomfort of the details that impeded the effectiveness of a project. Every exhibition I visit teaches me something new about curating exhibitions. Recently, I saw an ambitious exhibition in Washington DC that was fantastic at the Hirshhorn curated by Stéphane Aquin, Manifesto: Art x Agency, and, a few years ago, Xu Bing’s retrospective at the UCCA curated by Phil Tinari as also standing out.

The visit, rather than a specific exhibition, that was the most memorable for me as a curator, however, was to an art district. In the summer of 2008, I travelled to Asia for the first time and visited the 798 Art District in Beijing. It was a sweltering day, and 798 is in the far north-east of the city (at that time not yet connected by metro) so we had to take a taxi. Without traffic, it’s at least 40 minutes from the second ring road (which includes many famous historical sites and the Forbidden City), but, with traffic, considerably longer. When we arrived, we found a mix of former East German-built Bauhaus style factory buildings and small boutiques stationed along narrow, dusty streets. Part of the zone was the art district, and other areas were abandoned lots, office buildings, or crumbling apartment blocks. We wandered around in the maze of buildings and tunnels, between the cavernous former factory spaces that serve as contemporary art galleries until we found a small brick building with glass windows covered in vines. It was a bit off the beaten track. At the time, this was one of ShanghART’s Beijing galleries – S Space. ShanghART was founded in 1996 in Shanghai by the Swiss expatriate Lorenz Helbling, and by 2008 it already had multiple spaces in Beijing and Shanghai. The gallery team took me through their stable of artists, presenting works by Geng Jianyi, Shi Yong, Birdhead, Zhao Bandi, Sun Xun, Zhang Ding, Zhou Tiehai etc. As a student of art history at the time, I couldn’t believe all this was going on and we knew nothing about it back at my university. I had never felt particularly drawn to contemporary art until that moment, and what I saw there literally changed everything. This was my introduction to contemporary art from China, and the catalyst to start learning Mandarin and relocate my life there a year later. I don’t think any visit to an exhibition has ever been so memorable.

What constitutes curatorial responsibility in the context within which you work?

I believe curatorial responsibility is about vision and respect.

First, it is necessary to understand the importance of your role within the art ecosystem. It isn’t enough to make exhibitions, meet artists and put up shows of their work. As a curator you have access to people, resources, and visibility – what will you do with it? That is our biggest responsibility. We should fight for artists whose work has substance and understand our responsibility to skillfully navigate a world rooted in churning trends and nepotism. We should aim to make statements with our projects, to help people to step back and reflect on the things we take for granted, and not simply produce shows that will increase our own individual visibility or fame.

Secondly, and, perhaps, less evident, I believe we also have a responsibility to respect other curators, researchers, and individuals with areas of expertise. We should be generous and collaborate rather than be competitive and exclusive.

Finally, as a foreign curator working in China with many Chinese artists, I feel there is a crucial responsibility to listen and not to allow my presuppositions to cloud my ability to understand a work. There are certain challenges working outside one’s own culture, and it can be tempting to want to classify an artist’s work as X or Y because those are ideas we recognise from our own cultural history and can comprehend, but, it is our responsibility to not allow cultural bias or reference systems to take over.

What is the one myth that you would like to dispel around being a curator?

One myth is that everyone who makes an exhibition is a curator. I don’t think making an exhibition is enough to claim to be a curator. Conversely, if we subscribe to an expanded notion of curating, making exhibitions is not necessarily a requisite. Making exhibitions necessitates some level of logistical, legal, relational, and financial fluency, but being a curator is a subjective profession; it is about the vision and the storytelling of one person, or a small group, guiding you along a path of ideas they have constructed for you. The curator is, in many ways, a creator of new content.

Often, the broader that person’s curiosity or interests are, potentially the more interesting the connections they can make to the art will be, and the better they will be at relating to their audience in new ways. As Anne d’Harnoncourt has said, “curators a(re) enablers, if you will, people who are crazy about art and they want to share their crazy with other people”.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

If you are working in photography, look all the time at everything you can. Look at books, look at exhibitions, look online at artists’ websites, look at magazines, look at advertisements, look at newspapers. Try to understand what the images are telling you. Which images move you? Have a vision. Why are you curating exhibitions? Why this artist? Why is it important? I think if you cannot answer these questions about an exhibition you are putting on, you should revisit your motives.♦

Further interviews in the Curator Conversations series can be read here.


Curator Conversations is part of a collaborative set of activities on photography curation and scholarship initiated by Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University), Christopher Stewart (London College of Communication, University of the Arts London) and Esther Teichmann (Royal College of Art) that has included the symposium, Encounters: Photography and Curation, in 2018 and a ten week course, Photography and Curation, hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery, London in 2018-19.

Images:

1-Holly Roussell © Amber Tang

2-Installation view of Works in Progress: Photography in China at Folkwang Museum, Essen, 2015.

3-Installation view of Stars星星1979 at the Beijing OCAT Research Institute, Beijing, 2019.

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#13 Tom Lovelace

Tom Lovelace is an artist, curator and lecturer based in London. Recent curatorial projects include With Monochrome Eyes (2020), Rehearsing the Real (2019), Concealer (2018) and At Home Shes a Tourist (2017). As an artist Lovelace works across photography, sculpture and performance. He studied Photography at the Arts University Bournemouth before reading Art History, Curatorial Studies and Museology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He teaches at the Royal College of Art, London South Bank University and Glasgow School of Art.  

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

The exhibition as a space and a stage opens possibilities to create live, meaningful encounters between artwork and audience. It is the exhibitions that allow visitors to step into and onto this stage that interest me; inviting one to roam and to engage. Here, wonderful friction can happen.

Photography, once disseminated into the world can become controlled. The viewer dictates, whether that be flicking through the pages of a book or meandering screens. My formative relationship with photography took place somewhere between intimate encounters with photographs within photobooks and through exhibition experience. The former allowed me to return, time and time again, to the same image or page as a way of understanding and unpicking photographic history. The latter brought surprise, excitement, unexpected encounters and fulfilled my desire for materiality. 

What does it mean to be a curator in an age of image and information excess?

It means that I feel ever compelled to create visceral and meaningful encounters with contemporary photography. The digital as a phenomenon has broken and expanded conventional forms of territory regarding looking, disseminating and engaging. What this time of image and information excess has provided is new contact points and access to artworks and artists, which did not previously exist. The challenge is to attempt to make sense of this. There are some exciting examples currently of artists and students playing with and testing these territories, which have expanded further during the Covid-19 lockdown, as physical spaces retract, across most of the globe. 

In terms of curatorial research, it is important to dig deeper than the slick surface of social media platforms. For perhaps younger, emerging artists, graduation exhibitions continue to provide unique insights into an artist’s practice, endeavours and sensibilities. 

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

To be flexible and collaborative without compromising the core concept and initial vision that started off the process. I have found that most invested artists will surprise you or test that initial idea that you thought held clarity. And so the challenge is to embrace the creativity from artists whilst ensuring the idea, message and in turn exhibition does not get pulled apart. Close to this, would be the ability to stay calm within the midst of exhibition chaos. There will be moments, either on the day of public opening, or with weeks to go, when the walls are seemingly falling in. Everyone will have an opinion, but perhaps not always with the group or larger outcome in mind. The ability to think with incisiveness amongst the noise will be vital. 

What was your route into curating?

I studied art history and curating at Goldsmiths College in London. I then spent the best part of a decade trying to build momentum within my own practice of making, whilst staging exhibitions in my flat in East London and working on the Late at Tate programme at Tate Britain. In retrospect, these two complimented each other well. One was small scale, shaped by solo ideas and DIY. The other was relatively huge, complex and collaborative. Late at Tate presented monthly happenings encompassing performance, film, music, installation and a talks programme. I worked under the wing of Adrian Shaw, an inspiration in the ways in which he operated as a catalyst for collaboration and creativity. Two to three months of work and ideas were packed into one evening. The Late at Tate programme felt important and malleable in structure. It provided refreshing counterpoints to the larger scale, more long-term exhibitions that are characteristic within large institutions. I worked with countless artists and curators during that period and it allowed me to decide how I did and significantly did not want to work and behave. 

I started to develop my own exhibition programme five years ago as my desires to make and respond began to break out and beyond my own art practice. I am indebted to Peckham 24, the photography festival in South London, for providing me with a platform to experiment, develop and stage what I hope have been interesting and meaningful exhibitions over recent years. 

What is the most memorable exhibition that you’ve visited?

Of Mice and Men, a collection of exhibitions, which formed the 4th Berlin Art Biennale, held in 2006. I went to Berlin alone to see the Biennale, which was jointly curated by Maurizio Catalan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnik. Two days of wandering through converted buildings on Augustrasse, simply spending uninterrupted time with artwork. It was here that I first encountered the work of so many powerful artworks the first time including Nathalie Djurbgerg’s disturbing yet strangely enchanting animations, Tino Sehgal’s Kiss, Michael Schmidt’s photographs, which were displayed in the same space as works in other media by Thomas Schutte, Susan Philipsz, Michael Borremans and Anri Sala. So many memorable displays and moments. I remember there being so many people, however I also remember it being very quiet, a collective sense of hush, as visitors negotiated the exhibitions housed in abandoned schools, factories and apartments, in which the harrowing local history felt present. Those exhibitions and in particular the dynamic created between the architecture and art left me even more certain that I wanted to dedicate my time and contribute to the artworld. 

What constitutes curatorial responsibility in the context within which you work?

Providing platforms for an emerging generation of artists to display their work. Further, staging exhibitions which are intentionally structured by a diversity of career stage and status. I don’t care whether an artist has been making work for 30 years or if they have just stepped out of art school. If the artwork is brilliant and relevant to the project then it needs to be seen and heard. 

Also, striving for inclusivity and shutting down exclusivity within the culturally lopsided field of lens based media. And to critically analyse one’s own position and identity within this landscape. As a white man, it is crucial to engage with the problem of cultural diversity, or lack of it, and to consider how the territories of the art world can and should be used to provide important spaces for the under-represented. 

What is the one myth that you would like to dispel around being a curator?

That curators swan around, basking in an easy life. The responsibilities and work required to get an exhibition up and running can be huge, especially for those curators working within museums and publicly funded galleries. An incredible amount of dedication and work goes on behind the scenes in terms of research, relationships and liaison with artists, health and safety and untangling logistical conundrums, etc. The admin involved is often overwhelming. 

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

Invest as much time as possible visiting exhibitions, on all levels – museum, gallery, satellite programmes, displays in homes, derelict buildings, cafes (my first exhibition was in a cafe) and students shows. Probably in the reverse order. Get excited and be inspired, but equally and significantly, do not be restricted by these encounters and influence. Think outside of the box. What have you not seen and what have you not experienced? 

I have intentionally worked with a DIY methodology, one does not need a large budget and a beautiful expansive white cube for an exhibition to manifest and become real. So start early and perhaps low fi. Make it happen. Lastly, look within and collaborate with the artists, writers and spaces that form your peer group. Consider the possibilities that could emerge whilst working in the shadows of the mainstream.♦

Further interviews in the Curator Conversations series can be read here.


Curator Conversations is part of a collaborative set of activities on photography curation and scholarship initiated by Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University), Christopher Stewart (London College of Communication, University of the Arts London) and Esther Teichmann (Royal College of Art) that has included the symposium, Encounters: Photography and Curation, in 2018 and a ten week course, Photography and Curation, hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery, London in 2018-19.

Images:

1-Tom Lovelace © James Pearson-Howes

2-Installation view of At Home She’s a Tourist: Emma Bäcklund, Mette Bersang, Julie Boserup, Jonny Briggs, Julie Cockburn, Gabby Laurent & Dominic Bell, Louise Oates, Eva Stenram, Clare Strand, Dominic Till, Tereza Zelenkova, 2018.

3-Installation view of With Monochrome Eyes: Eleonor Agostini, Elena Helfrecht, Mahtab Hussain, Ben Jeffery, Äsa Johannesson, Kalpesh Lathigra, Ryan L. Moule, Martin Parr, Giovanna Petrocchi, Silvia Rosi, Martin Seeds, Senta Simond, Deo Suveera, Esther Teichmann, Paloma Tendero, Simon Terril, 2020. © Elene Helfrecht

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#12 Thyago Nogueira

Thyago Nogueira is the Head of the Contemporary Photography Department at Instituto Moreira Salles, Brazil and editor of ZUM photography magazine. He has curated exhibitions such as Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle (currently at Fondation Cartier pour L’Art Contemporain, Paris); William Eggleston: The American Color (IMS, 2015); and Body Against Body: the dispute of images, from photography to live transmission (IMS, 2017), among others. He has also guest edited Aperture issue dedicated to São Paulo photography (2014), chaired the 2020 Hasselblad Award, and curated the Offside project with Magnum during Brazil’s World Cup (2014).

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

The fact that it is a spatialised way of thinking, of presenting ideas through the articulation of objects, architecture and their relation to our vision and body. I am also stimulated by the fact that it is a collective endeavour and shared experience, like cinema or a music concert. It is a chance to put objects to the public and see if they reverberate. I see exhibitions as breathing hearts, as an injection of flesh and blood into art museums in order to avoid the risk of them becoming mausoleums of good taste.

What does it mean to be a curator in an age of image and information excess?

It is like being a biologist in the Amazonian rainforest, constantly excited by the diversity of things. You have to work hard. I don’t feel there is an excess of images, as I don’t feel there is an excess of words, sounds or languages. The more the better. It is always a matter of stopping, slowing down, looking and thinking carefully about what you are seeing. And inviting people to do the same. As Luigi Ghirri said about the famous photo of the Earth seen from the space, taken in 1969: “One single image may contain all others, the entire world.”

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

A serious voyeuristic drive, a true interest for the all types of images, regardless of their sources.

What was your route into curating?

It was very winding. It probably started unconsciously during childhood with my parent’s obsession to photograph our routine night and day, and organise volumes of family photo albums. As for the conscious part, I remember deciding to study cinema or photography right after graduating from Law School. So I went back to study art, which I did for 2 years while working as an editorial photographer. But art school had a monotonous interest in photography, and the editorial work as photographer was depressing. I then found an escape in reading and books, so I jumped from art school to literature school, and applied for a job as a proof-reader in a big publishing house. I read, and read, and read, and became a full time editor of literature and non-fiction, with a special interest in art and photography. Years later, I was able to unite the interest for books, editing, and photography when I was invited to create the editorial project of ZUM photography magazine at Instituto Moreira Salles. And then to expand that experience into curating when given the task to build an entire department of Contemporary Photography at the same institution, where I work now. I must say I am still driving that route.

What is the most memorable exhibition that you’ve visited?

Even a bad exhibition can give you a memorable idea. But the 24th São Paulo Bienal in 1998, when I was 22 years old, was mind blowing. Based on the concept of cannibalism and anthropophagy, it brought together hundreds of artists, from Albert Eckout to Cildo Meireles, also including Van Gogh, Francis Bacon, Lygia Clark, Jeff Wall, Louise Bourgeois, Helio Oiticica, Sigmar Polke, and many others. I visited it a dozen times, notebook in hand, trying to absorb what I could. It gave me that expansive feeling of learning a new language, and I am always trying to revive that. But I also like to think of the world we live in as a memorable, ever-changing and ongoing exhibition. Every single day, I am astonished by the images that come my way, from the moment I open the newspaper in the morning to the encounters I have on the streets, from the scenes on my phone or computer to the images I encounter when travelling, spending time in nature or just dreaming. I am constantly trying to connect them, trying to make sense.

What constitutes curatorial responsibility in the context within which you work?

It means supporting the artists so they can take risks, studying and sharing new ideas about their work with as many people as possible, and also preserving these works for future generations. I also feel a responsibility to look at the politics of what I do: how do I increase diversity? How do I adapt to the artists and not the opposite? How do I avoid an authoritarian view? The history of art is not always the history of creativity but also a history of economic power and erasure, so working from Brazil in a globalised field imposes extra responsibilities. How do I do justice to Brazilian artists? How do I challenge the entrenched and excluding Euro-American narrative? On the top of all that, right now Brazil is under a right-wing government that rejects culture, so I have to ask myself: how can we use institutions to safeguard people’s diversity, experimentation and freedom of expression? How can we use our collection to learn about the errors of our past and prevent them from happening again? I have more questions than answers, but asking is also part of my responsibilities.

What is the one myth that you would like to dispel around being a curator?

We don’t dispel myths, we study, dissect, interpret them.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

Try to work for art, not for the system of art.♦

Further interviews in the Curator Conversations series can be read here.


Curator Conversations is part of a collaborative set of activities on photography curation and scholarship initiated by Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University), Christopher Stewart (London College of Communication, University of the Arts London) and Esther Teichmann (Royal College of Art) that has included the symposium, Encounters: Photography and Curation, in 2018 and a ten week course, Photography and Curation, hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery, London in 2018-19.

Images:

1-Thyago Nogueira

2-Installation view of Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle at Fondation Cartier pour L’Art Contemporain, Paris, 2020. © Luc Boegly

3- Installation view of Body against Body: The battle of images from photography to live streaming at Instituto Moreira Salles, São Paulo, 2017. © Pedro Vannucchi