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

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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).

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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

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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.

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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

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#11 Alona Pardo

Alona Pardo is a Curator at Barbican Art Gallery, the Barbican Centre London. She has curated and edited several exhibitions and accompanying publications, including most recently: Masculinities: Liberation through Photography (2020); Trevor Paglen: From Apple to Anomaly (2019); Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing (2018); Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds (2018); Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins (2018) and Richard Mosse: Incoming (2017), among others.

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

The exhibition form has always held a particular attraction for me because of its inherent multiplicity of form. By that I am referring to the often-lengthy process involved in curating an exhibition, which happens over time and is a process that allows for space to reflect, probe and further refine ideas. I love the process of casting the net wide and researching artists and specific works, playing with different permutations and ultimately allowing a narrative and inherent logic to emerge. It’s a like a huge jigsaw puzzle that you lovingly put together. However, without a doubt the most rewarding aspect of exhibition making is working closely with artists and giving them space for their ideas to coalesce through the exhibition form. Often when I’m working with artists I really see myself as an enabler or facilitator, my role is really to guide them through the spatial complexity of working in the Barbican. Equally rewarding is meeting lenders and experts in the field who are often so generous in imparting their knowledge.

On a more serious note, I believe exhibitions play a vital role – above and beyond retinal pleasure – which is to make manifest ideas through the agency of artistic practice and by extension curatorial practice. Ultimately, I believe curatorial practice has a social function and that this collision between artistic and curatorial practices can activate processes and generate structures that facilitate a dialogical space, a space of negotiation between curators, artists and the public, that hopefully allows for knowledge to form in the curated encounter.

Reflecting on my own experience as a curator, I think it is critical to take into account the space in which I curate – not as an architectural paradigm – but the unique characteristics; in my case, of the Barbican as the largest multi-arts cultural centre in Europe. This very particular dimension informs what we show, how we show it, the connections we make and the curatorial decisions we take, even at a subliminal level. I’m convinced that if I curated shows at the Tate or Hayward they would, by default, take radically different forms, creating other connections perhaps on a more formal or aesthetic level. I would also argue, particularly in my role predominantly as a curator of photography and film, that at the Barbican we have consistently demonstrated our desire to address issues that stretch beyond art and aesthetics, to help us, and by extension the viewer, reflect and understand the world from more complex and nuanced perspectives.

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

I recently came across a quote by James Baldwin where he says that “artists are here to disturb the peace”. So while it is true that we live in an age where there is a glut of images and information, it strikes me that we need artists more than ever to help distil ideas, visually and conceptually, to pierce through conventional ways of looking at the world and offer us new ways of seeing.

In a recent interview in ArtReview with Catherine Opie, whose work is featured in Masculinities: Liberation through Photography that is alas currently closed due to Covid-19, she says: “Everyone’s asking: aren’t there too many images now, Cathy? Well there’s too much of everything, but it’s how you decide to disseminate that information. That’s what’s interesting to me – this idea of criticality.” And so in this ‘post-truth’ era, I think it is incumbent on artists to make work that questions and overturns received truths and in turn curators need to be supporting artists, whether through newly commissioned work or exhibitions, to bring their work and the ideas embedded in the work, to the attention of as wide an audience as possible.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

Curating is a shared endeavour and so if I had to highlight one quality above all else it would be a spirit of generosity and collaboration with artists, lenders, estates, peers and colleagues. But there are many other qualities that are essential to be a successful curator: conviction in your ideas and clarity of vision, resilience as, no matter what, you are entering into fraught territory by putting forth a particular position or choosing to give weight to one aspect of an individual’s creative life over another; being both a team leader and a team player; communication coupled with honesty and openness and, last but not least, the ability to compromise, be flexible and listen.

What was your route into curating?

My route into curating was fairly conventional. I studied French and Art History at undergraduate level before embarking on an MA in Curating at Goldsmiths College in the early 2000s at a moment when curatorial practice was undergoing seismic changes and a certain professionalisation. I was fortunate to graduate from Goldsmiths at a time of exponential growth in the museum sector, marked I guess by the inauguration of Tate Modern in 2000. Having had the opportunity to curate shows independently at a time when it seemed access to funding was considerably easier, I was lucky enough to land a job as Assistant Curator at the Barbican a few years later where I’ve been for well over a decade.

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

As a child I remember visiting the Saatchi Gallery at its original location on Boundary Road and coming across the work of Jeff Koons. There were numerous pieces by him on display, but I distinctly remember a piece in which 3 vacuum cleaners encased in Perspex boxes were stacked one on top of the other and being utterly perplexed. The work is Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Two Dr J Silver Series, Spalding NBA Tipoff), 1985. I don’t know why this encounter left such an indelible mark on me, but it certainly made an impression and from that moment on, and being a precocious child, I knew I wanted to understand what it meant. I think that experience was incredibly formative.

However, in terms of ambition and scope, Okwui Enwezor’s documenta11, 2002 certainly tops the bill, for me at least, as the most impactful and meaningful exhibition experience. It felt radical in the way it directly addressed socio-political issues of globalisation and advanced a narrative of decolonisation, both artistically and historically, that I feel has genuinely impacted on both artistic and curatorial practice.  

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

A curator bears a responsibility towards the work they show and the artists they work with, to the institution they work in as well as to the public. It is a complex triangulation!

On a personal level, I believe curators have a responsibility in giving a voice or platform to those who have been marginalised within the art historical canon, be that women artists whose work has been overlooked, such as Dorothea Lange or indeed Vanessa Winship, a British artist who had been overlooked in her home country but equally to artists of colour or queer-identifying artists in order to relocate them in art history. A curatorial platform for advocacy and activism is a great responsibility, and one no curator takes lightly.

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

“Pity the beleaguered museum curator. Mired in administration, fighting scholarly turf wars, courting egomaniacal benefactors and collectors, and attempting to infuse critical heft into the next blockbuster show, how does she find time to respond to the reconstitution of her profession as an art form open to every gifted flaneur with a knack for designing brochures?” Michael J. Kowalski, The Curatorial Muse (2010). I think that says it all!

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

To be confident in your opinions, to look critically at the world, visit as many exhibitions as possible, engage with current debates around artistic practice; and, most importantly, to independently curate in all sorts of venues, organise talks or write reviews etc (even if only for your own pleasure). It’s all about gaining experience and confronting new scenarios from which we learn more about ourselves. I have always found the most torturous scenarios the ones from which I learn the most!♦

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-Alona Pardo

2-Installation view of Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Barbican Art Gallery, 2020. © Max Colson

3-Installation view of Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins, Barbican Art Gallery, 2018. © Justin Piperger

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#10 Mariama Attah

Mariama Attah is a photography curator and editor with a particular interest in the power of photography to re-present visual culture. She is Curator of Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool and was previously Assistant Editor of Foam Magazine. Prior to this, Attah was Curator of Photoworks, where she was responsible for developing and curating programmes and events including Brighton Photo Biennial and commissioning and editing Photoworks Annual. She completed her BA Photography at Wolverhampton University and gained an MA in Museum Studies from University of Leicester. Attah has worked with a number of national and international artists and previous other roles include Exhibitions and Events Manager at Iniva and Assistant Officer, Visual Arts at Arts Council England.

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

Storytelling is the element that drew me back to the exhibition form. I love shaping a narrative and space that people can physically experience. Alongside that, I’m interested in working with artists to help them outline a context beyond the frame of the artwork. I see the curatorial process as one where all the references, links, research and ideas that I gather and am inspired by are projected from inside my head to the outside world – they can come alive and be further shaped and enlivened by audiences.

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

The early role of the curator was that of a guardian of collections and to act as a barrier to access. This slowly adapted into curators acting as channels to serve audiences but still maintained an aspect of authoritarianism on value and taste. Today, the curator is more of a point of introduction and reference. They can guide people towards themes, ideas, practitioners, etc. but they aren’t a single voice or route in determining what is relevant or what should be ignored. That isn’t possible or desirable.

I’m also curious about the idea of an excess of imagery and information. Are we in excess, and is that a new occurrence? How many images are too many? I don’t necessarily believe there is too much information or imagery, instead I think there is an excess of feeling obligated to engage with everything around us. Our worlds have always been filled with imagery and information. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to choose what we look at and how we engage with it.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

I think more than anything, curiosity, and a drive to share your thoughts and ideas are the most invaluable skills a curator can have. Being curious about your surroundings; about history, visual representation and communication, and wanting other people to engage with that will take you far.

What was your route into curating?

I didn’t know what a curator was until the last few weeks of my photography degree when we were organising our end of year degree show. I decided then that I was more interested in working with photographers than being a photographer. I also realised that I didn’t have the personality or desire to make a living from taking photographs. From there, I was very lucky to get a job curating at a museum while I did a MA in Museum Studies, though it took a few more years before my first role working purely with photography. This isn’t the role that I originally saw for myself but this is absolutely where I want to be.

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

John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea, which premiered at the 56th Venice Biennale, as part of Okwui Enwezor’s All the World’s Futures exhibition in 2015, is the most vivid and meaningful exhibition I have encountered. The body of work combines found archival footage from the BBC’s Natural History Unit with contemporary images shown on a three channel video installation, referencing Moby Dick and Whale Nation. Vertigo Sea uses the ocean as a metaphor for understanding migration, colonialism, ecological ruin, the movement of people, goods, and people as goods, and the long history of humans endeavouring to prevail over nature. The ocean is presented as a site of transport, industry, beauty, control and disinterested rule. It is indifferent to whether you’re fleeing or sightseeing or being moved against your will, and Akomfrah captures this force in an utterly compelling way.

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

My curatorial responsibility is to use my position to advocate for and work with artists, communities and groups of people in helping to spread a shared message. Collaboration and representation are key to me.

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

Curators are not gatekeepers or all seeing eyes. We can’t make or break a career and we haven’t seen every exhibition, installation or publication. I’m just as eager to learn or be shown something new as anyone else.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

I would tell any aspiring curators to visit as many exhibitions as possible to gain an idea of what does and doesn’t interest you about the physical exhibition space. Pay attention to the details that guide people through the space, the design decisions and details that are used in presenting and displaying artworks, the pauses that are built in to prompt visitors to start forming their own opinions and how and where additional information and materials are presented to support this.

Curating isn’t only about the artists you work with, it’s also about the communities and audiences. I would advise aspiring curators to think about who they want to curate for and how they can include the voices of these groups in exhibition making.

I also think that there is an easy affinity between photography and writing and having worked as an editor makes me a more confident curator. Take any opportunity to read and write on subjects you’re moved by and don’t shy away from feedback. Being able to form your ideas on paper will help other people to better understand your vision.

Alongside this, I also think that curators should have a basic understanding of both the private and public art worlds, no matter which sphere you work in, in order to be able to support the careers of the artists you are working with.

Start curating, reading, writing, visiting, learning, and then repeat until the end.♦

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-Mariama Attah

2-Installation view of Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015: Matthew Finn, Joanna Piotrowska, Tereza Zelenkova, Jerwood Space London, 2015.

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#9 Kathrin Schönegg

Kathrin Schönegg is a photography historian and Curator at C/O Berlin, Germany. She holds a PhD in Art and Media Studies from the University of Konstanz. She worked on exhibitions at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, Kupferstich-Kabinett in Dresden, Münchner Stadtmuseum in Munich, and the Folkwang Museum in Essen, including (Mis)Understanding Photography: Works and Manifestos (2014). In 2017 she co-curated Farewell Photography: Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie in Mannheim, Ludwigshafen, and Heidelberg. She is the recipient of the Thomas Friedrich Grant in Photography at the Berlinische Galerie (2017), the DGPh History of Photography Research Award of the German Photographic Association (2018) and the Exhibition Research and Production Fellowship by Les Rencontres d’Arles (2019). At C/O Berlin she leads the funding programme for up-and-coming talents, the C/O Berlin Talent Award, and co-develops C/O Berlin’s exhibition programme. Recent curation for C/O Berlin includes Robert Frank: Unseen (2019); Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques: Sub Rosa – C/O Berlin Talent Award (2019); Christopher Williams: MODEL: Kochgeschirre, Kinder, Viet Nam (Angepasst zum Benutzen) (2019); Francesca Woodman: On Being an Angel (2020); and Sophie Thun: Extension (2020). A regular writer on photography, her most recent publications include Heinz von Perckhammer. Eine Fotografenkarriere zwischen Weimarer Republik und Nationalsozialismus (Berlin 2018) and Fotografiegeschichte der Abstraktion (Köln 2019). Schönegg is currently preparing a thematic group show engaging with photography and the cloud.

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

The exhibition is one of various forms that research can take. Not every project is necessarily an exhibit; some function better as a book, a magazine, or an online format. Compared to these forms, I would describe the exhibition as seeing and thinking in space. This also implies that it triggers not only a visual but also a physical experience. Creating narratives that unfold through a combination of images and objects that viewers explore while walking through the space and constantly changing or expanding their perspective is a thrilling and unique activating form of argumentation.

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

There was a feuilleton discussion in Germany last summer about the status of the curator in the era of social media. It was started by art and media theorist Stefan Heidenreich who polemically claimed that all curators should be done away with, since they represent a nondemocratic, illiberal, corrupt, and obsolete system of power. By contrast he identified social networks as the democratic future for a curational practice by everybody. Just as Joseph Beuys stated decades ago that everyone is an artist (“Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler”), Heidenreich now calls for everyone to be a curator (“Jeder Mensch ist ein Kurator”).

Despite the questionable claim that social media ever was or can be a democratic tool (bear in mind the lack of universal accessibility of digital technologies, the racism underlying our algorithms, or human-content moderation that is executively exercised by leading Internet companies such as Facebook and Google, and the standards and categories they set), I believe that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the tools and tasks of curating in an age of omnipresent images and information. Precisely because we all “curate” our own lives with social media, expert knowledge is needed more than ever to critically mirror those developments inside exhibition halls and elsewhere. As curators of photography we need to shed light on those mechanisms of our everyday use of imagery that are hidden beneath technical infrastructures or intentionally kept invisible to users by capitalist companies.

At C/O Berlin we are collaborating with pictorial specialists to develop an exhibition focusing on our contemporary ways of communicating by means of images (the working title is Send Me an Image: From the Postcard to Social Media, planned for 2021). We aim to explore the utopian dream of global accessibility and, conversely, the boundaries of free image transmission. Being a curator in the age of image and information excess means to deal with this new paradigm of our digitised worlds by, for example, taking it as a topic for an exhibition, working with artists to translate net-based phenomena into the physical space, conquering the institution’s digital space (websites, etc.) with content, and thinking critically about the abundance of images that we are constantly confronted with.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

The flexibility to be active in various roles and positions at the same time: being a companion for the artist as well as their assistant and adviser, having a curatorial style while being objective and invisible as the selecting subject and author of the show, being an advocate for your medium while also criticising it, being a representative of your institution and also challenging it, being confident and persuasive as an applicant for funding and humble when looking for sponsors, being self-critical of your own role while manoeuvering gingerly through conflicting expectations confronting you every day.

What was your route into curating?

I wrote my dissertation on abstraction in photography, covering a wide historical spectrum from the medium’s early experimental beginnings in the 1830s to contemporary fine-art photography. My sources were scattered all over the globe, and I did a lot of research in museum archives in different countries. This was a starting point, since it gave me an insight to archiving and collecting (and exhibiting) from the user’s perspective. I then switched sides and did several internships, followed by a wonderful scholarship that the Alfried Bohlen von Krupp und Halbach-Foundation runs in Germany. Titled “museum curators for photography,” it teaches photography historians about curating by sending them to various photography collections in Germany and abroad. This experience paved my way into freelance curating, which I did for a couple of years until I joined C/O Berlin as a permanent curator last summer.

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

One that I often think back to is called Großvater: Ein Pionier wie wir (Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us), an exhibition on the famous “exhibition maker” Harald Szeemann in 2018. As part of the acquisition of the Szeemann estate by the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles in 2011, two shows were developed and then sent on tour; one of the venues was Bern, Szeeman’s hometown in Switzerland. Großvater: Ein Pionier wie wir was also the title of Szeemann’s first curated show following the monumental documenta 5. The exhibition, which was held in his own apartment, tells the story of Szeemann’s grandfather, a prominent coiffeur. The show included many physical objects from the family’s private archive. While at the venues in Los Angeles and Düsseldorf Szeemann’s show was reconstructed in a white cube, in Bern the exhibit was shown in exactly the same apartment in which Szeemann had originally installed it in 1974: a private room with vintage furniture. This total simulacrum still sticks with me, since it demonstrates, in a very powerful way, that the circumstances of the presentation fundamentally change the perception of the objects. In the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf it was obvious to visitors that they were being confronted with a reconstruction made for an exhibition hall. In contrast, in Bern it was impossible for visitors to know if they were walking through a contemporary presentation or not. It was quite baffling, like a throwback in time.

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

I am currently curating for an exhibition house that functions differently than most other German institutions. The cultural landscape of Germany is mainly built on museums, exhibition halls, and Kunstvereine. C/O Berlin doesn’t fit into any of these categories. As a nonprofit foundation financed through admission fees, book sales, sponsorship, donations, project funding, and contributions from C/O Berlin Friends, it has not received any regular funding over the past twenty years. However, starting in the financial year 2020/21, C/O Berlin will receive support from the Berlin Senate Department for Culture and Europe. Besides balancing finances, visitor numbers, and content more carefully than public-run institutions, it is my responsibility as curator to sharpen my institution’s profile; that is, in comparison to museums. Similar to general exhibition halls, we foster contemporary perspectives and promote a discourse around our medium through talks, panels, and education, that could be adapted by museums. Our content-related orientation, the design of our presentation, and our historical approach to art and photography often differs from this form of institution and I feel we have more freedom to speculate in our exhibition programme. Unlike general exhibition halls, C/O Berlin is dedicated exclusively to photography. This makes us responsible for the medium itself. We do not have our own collection anchoring us in history. Although we regularly present photographers from the canon of the second half of the twentieth century, our focus lies nonetheless on the developments of the last three decades – precisely the period when photography was freed from all restraints. We deal with a medium in transition and we have to constantly ask ourselves what photography was, is, and will be. Today a photograph can be a high-valued vintage print as well as an Instagram snapshot made by a digital device. The medium increasingly disappears somewhere in between the classical museum presentation of the departments of drawing and prints and digitally circulating net art. I believe that our curatorial responsibility toward our medium is to define its future between those two extreme poles. We need to develop a new understanding of the medium and the material we engage with. We need to think about what types of new displays we can develop to mirror photography’s various forms of applications – that have always been diverse and are becoming increasingly so – in order to put us in the position to deal with fine art, science, press, amateurism, social media, and many other aspects.

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

If there is a myth about being a curator, it is a misunderstanding. The term is used extensively these days for everything connected to combining – from music and food to art. Since the rise of autonomous curators in the 1990s, the term has taken on a notion of glamour and power. However, the reality is quite different. Most curation is done for institutions that involves a lot of bureaucracy: acquiring funding, writing reports, and doing administrative work. It is a hands-on job that has little to do with drinking champagne at nicely made-up representative events and openings.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

You should care about and focus on content. Most of the curatorial study programmes that have been popping up in recent years seem to mainly teach the history and theory of curation or they practice display methods. I am convinced that it is more important to know the field and the subject that you aim to work on well. Aspiring curators should be researchers who view the exhibition as one of various forms for conveying content. Don’t curate to curate.♦

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-Kathrin Schönegg in the exhibition Francesca Woodman: On Being an Angel, C/O Berlin 2020. © Stephanie von Becker.

2-Installation view of Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques: Sub Rosa – C/O Berlin Talent Award 2019, C/O Berlin. © David von Becker.

3-Installation view of How Your Camera Works as part of Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie 2017, Wilhelm Hack Museum Ludwigshafen © Andreas Langfeld.

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#8 Charlotte Cotton

Charlotte Cotton is a curator, writer and creative consultant who has explored photographic culture for over twenty years. She has held positions including Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Head of Programming at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, and Curator and Head of the Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography at LACMA | Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Her books include Public, Private, Secret: On Photography and the Configuration of Self (Aperture/International Center of Photography, 2018); Photography is Magic (Aperture, 2015); This Place (MACK, 2014); Words Without Pictures (Aperture, 2010) and The Photograph as Contemporary Art (Thames & Hudson, 2004), which has been published in ten languages and is a key text in charting the rise of photography as an undisputed art form in the 21st century. The fourth edition will be published in September 2020. She is also the co-founder of eitherand.org.

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

For me, it’s the scope of possibilities within the exhibition form that is enticing. I return to exhibition-making when a physical orchestration – a spatially-led staging – is the form that an idea needs to take. I think about where in the body an experience is held – in the gut, the throat, fingertips, or immediately laid out for the mind’s eye. I think about the shift in the tonality of conversations from bedrooms, kitchens, and formal dining rooms and how that translates into exhibition design – the meaning of thresholds, acoustics, vantage points, enclosures, and twists and turns that you build into an exhibition’s narrative, embedded into the architecture of the space. I absolutely love the process of making exhibitions – from the openness of an idea in gestation, the critique and testing of a concept, through to the coming together of the exhibition form. My favourite part is the exhibition installation when all eyes are on the job and everyone is aiming for the same idea of excellence, and responding to the planned and unexpected of giving form.

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

I don’t think that the vocation of being a curator is fundamentally changed by our present day image environment. Curating remains an act of creating (experiences and exchanges) for other people – of “taking care”. I prefer the verb version of “curate” (and also “photograph”) to their noun definitions – I like both to be acknowledged as metabolic action, and that levelling of the hierarchies of who has claim to what can be done in the name of photography – or its curation – is well overdue and called forth in this age of data excess, fake news, and hyper-surveillance. I don’t confuse curating with image editing or connoisseurship, or with the roles of impresarios, A&R’s, taste-makers, or academics. On a bad day, when I suspect that I’m in a situation where “curator” means something I am not comfortable with, because it’s too elite or co-opted in the given context, I’ll shift to being an interlocutor – “someone who is involved in a conversation”.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

Rigorous yet open curiosity.

What was your route into curating?

The earliest memories I have from childhood are pretty formative of my chosen path. Through the 1970s, my parents were antique furniture restorers, working with pre-factory production “vernacular” furniture (it was “country” furniture back in the day), from across the British Isles. They supplied antiques dealers, interior designers, and collectors, mainly in London and across the West Coast of America. Container loads of furniture would arrive for restoration and it was a total thrill for me and my sister to touch, open, and choose our favourite pieces, play, and invent stories about where the furniture came from. To watch the furniture transformed with care, and my parents’ subsequent research and writing of the first history of British regional, working class furniture-making – their articulate empathy for where creativity lies – was undoubtedly my curatorial education. We also met amazing, glamorous, charismatic people who would come to do business. Our 1979 family road trip along the Pacific Highway and my first trip to Portobello Road have pretty much defined where and how I like to live and who I am close to. This visceral training is something that I am thinking about during COVID-19 lockdown. You might be able to tell that I’ve returned to the town where I was born! I’m walking in the woods and lanes with my 17-month-old nephew and watching him experience the feel of moss, look up into the tree canopies with amazement, give hugs to beautiful trees, and his sheer joy at aesthetic experience, and it is the best part of my day. When I was a teenager, photography became my passion because of the aesthetic experience it gives me, its embedded-ness in lived experience, and the kindnesses, fellowship and joy of its interlocutors. Which leads me on to your next question.

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

There are many exhibition experiences that I can recall a visual memory of where I was standing, and what I felt. But one of my first memorable experiences was just after I graduated from my BA (Hons) Art History and I went to an exhibition spearheaded by David Elliott at Modern Art Oxford called Photography in Russia: 1840-1940. The constellation of photographs from a century of photographic practice was dense (in a good way), and overwhelming – perhaps some of the characteristics that can still impress me in classic exhibition making. In retrospect, I think I was responding to the way that the exhibition made me move in and out – step back and assess, peer in and engage. There was an autochrome self-portrait by the playwright and novelist Leonid Andreyev from about 1910. I’d never seen an autochrome before, and there was this beautiful man, depicted unexpectedly in colour. I encountered him. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I adore exhibitions that just glide you into paying attention – especially those where you get to think that it is constructed just for you.

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

I’ve never shaken off (nor wanted to) the abbreviated top line of my job descriptions for the twelve years that I worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum – “to increase the physical and intellectual access to photography”. That’s still a divining rod for when I commit to a curatorial project; whether I have faith that the situation and the team perceive that as the ultimate end goal. I feel great responsibility to the artists who participate in the curatorial projects I create and that they feel well-represented and understood, and I go deeply into channelling and animating historical archives and oeuvres in ways that resonate with contemporary viewership. I actively enjoy the responsibility of understanding, nurturing, publicly acknowledging the teams in which I work. On all levels, I recognise that my curatorial life has been supported, encouraged and allowed to roam by others, and being collegiate in a true sense is one of the last vestiges of why I try to not entirely give up on now-historic frameworks for our labour. Like everyone, I am responsible for acknowledging my inner biases and shortcomings and that’s only possible if you invite in wise counsel and fellowship that calls you out and helps you restructure your thinking. And, finally, (this is a long list of responsibilities, you may be able to tell that I started my career as a museum curator in an age when that meant you were a public servant) you have a responsibility to yourself – I respect my craft, my purpose, my processes, the merits of urgent curiosity, shifting my vantage point, and having something to say.

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

That it’s a solitary form of creativity that merits recognition through single authorship. Curating is relational, situational, and collaborative. That’s the joy of it for me.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

Try it! Hold your vision and your ideal viewer in close communion, and you will find that right form. And let me know if I can help.♦

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-Charlotte Cotton © Christian MacDonald

2-Installation view of Public, Private, Secret, International Center of Photography, New York, 2016-17.

3-Installation view of Public, Private, Secret, International Center of Photography, New York, 2016-17.