1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#7 Christine Eyene

Christine Eyene is an art historian, critic and curator. She is a Research Fellow in Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire where she works on Making Histories Visible, an interdisciplinary visual arts research project led by Professor Lubaina Himid CBE RA (Turner Prize 2017).

Eyene is Artistic Director of the 5th Biennale Internationale de Casablanca 2021. She was curator of the Summer of Photography 2018 at Bozar, Brussels, with the exhibition RESIST! The 1960s protests, photography and visual legacy. Her previous photography projects include Regards: Photographie Camerounaise, BIC Project Space, Casablanca, 2019; RESIDUAL: Traces of the black body (part of FORMAT International Photography Festival), New Art Exchange, Nottingham, 2015; WHERE WE’RE AT! Other Voices on Gender (part of Summer of Photography), Bozar, Brussels, 2014; Reflections on the Self: Five African Women Photographers, Southbank Centre, London and England (Hayward touring exhibition), 2011-13; 3rd PHOTOQUAI – Biennial of World Images, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, 2011; Pimp My Combi (GWANZA: Month of Photography), National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Harare, 2011. 

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

When I curated my first exhibitions, I was interested in putting my ideas into forms, in a physical space. At the time, my practice was predominantly focused on art writing and a lot of it had to do with the new discourses on contemporary African arts from an African perspective. Because there had been a long-running absence of Africa ­­in contemporary art scenes, to me, physical exhibitions were, and to some extent still are, about reclaiming space for underrepresented art practices.

Now, fifteen years in, I am interested in space as a canvas, and transformation. I love visiting exhibitions and seeing how space metamorphoses. As an independent curator, I develop exhibitions for various venues, rarely in the same venue, although that’s been the case at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe (Harare), Bozar (Brussels) and New Art Exchange (Nottingham). But usually it is a one shot. So, once I am commissioned for a project, I try and visit all the exhibitions in that space to see those transformations, and to have a feel of the audience.

That’s also a major difference between writing and exhibiting. One gets to engage with audiences in a more immediate manner. You would get visitors who know about art or are professionals in the field, and people who are not specialist and visit for leisure. Knowing about one’s audience is also a way to address the imbalance that still exists in terms of diversity. This can only be appraised through the tangible form of an exhibition.

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

Speaking as a curator who is African, black and a woman, when I look at society, I find that there are still too many cases of under-representation or misrepresentation of our communities in the media. We’ve seen how, in recent years, nationalisms and bigotry have spread around the world. What the arts can do is challenge those views by providing visual counter-narratives that can also be disseminated through information channels. Especially now with digital media. In many respects, that is the intent behind my projects with African or Diaspora photographers and my feminist exhibitions.

Maybe I should add that, I do not only curate photography exhibitions. For five years now, I have been developing sound art projects because I am interested in sharing with my audience other forms of sensory experiences. Photography is the starting point of my journey into the arts, but I also want to challenge myself and experiment. For instance, the theme of the next Casablanca Biennale is, for a large part, inspired by my research on the links between image-making processes in the work of South African photographer George Hallett and African literature. This is leading towards text-based practices in which an ‘image’ becomes a metaphor.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

One skill? I’m sure each curator would give you a different answer. It’s difficult to only give one answer. Curating is a combined set of skills and they depend on each curator’s approach or practice.

It could be the ability to bring together ground-breaking research, knowledge, or sensory experience, with meticulous organisational skills. But I also believe that ethics and values need to be brought into the mix. Because beyond the skill(s), and in fact at the heart of curating, is the notion of care. Caring for the artists, their art, and the audience. And, behind an exhibition is not just the curator. We work with teams and we need to create an environment where everyone feels valued. This means knowing how to delegate and to create a sense of collective ownership.

You also need determination and persuasive skills. Because, every so often, you have to make sure your ideas, or curatorial vision, is respected. Especially when collaborating with institutions that have their own artistic direction, or an agenda that might be informed by the funding streams upon which they depend.

I could say more, but it’s already more than one skill.

What was your route into curating?

The first projects I worked on, I was part of a team at the French Institute in Rabat, Morocco, between 2000 and 2001. The exhibitions were conceived by the Director, French curator Nadine Descendre. I learnt a lot with her. We put on exhibitions by designer Pierre Paulin and artists Christian Boltanski, Kazimir Malevich, Alain Fleisher, Shirin Neshat and Mona Hatoum. This organisational aspect opened up a whole new world for me, beyond art history as an academic practice.

When I came to England at the end of 2001, I focused on writing. I approached French journal
Africultures, became visual arts correspondent, and I think the first article I proposed was about the Africa Centre. I went to the Centre, interviewed the staff and they gave me access to their archive of events and exhibitions. At the time, South African artist and scholar Mario Pissarra worked there. We casually talked about South African art. The following day I got a call that they were looking for a bilingual person to write on African artists. While working there, Gus Casely-Hayford (recently announced as Director of the new V&A East) who was Director of Africa 05 festival, and Roger Malbert, then Senior Curator at the Hayward Gallery, visited the Africa Centre to invite us to develop a programme for Africa 05. Gus subsequently invited me to curate a specific project as part of the festival. This gave me the confidence to independently organise the London touring of Design Made in Africa, an exhibition produced by the French Institute, and to curate my first George Hallett project. 

I began working internationally after curating Uprooting the Gaze: foreign places – familiar patterns (2010) a group exhibition that included award-winning photographer Zanele Muholi. The exhibition was part of Brighton Photo Fringe then Co-Directed by Helen Cammock (co-winner of the Turner Prize 2019) and Woodrow Kernohan (now Director of John Hansard Gallery). Together we brought a larger presence of African photography to the Brighton Photo Biennial.

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

One of the first exhibitions to have impacted me is probably Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance, co-curated by David A. Bailey and Richard J. Powell. I saw it at the Hayward Gallery in 1997. At the time, I was living in Paris and studying history of art. It was the first time that I was exposed to an exhibition by black artists, articulating a history of Modern art that was different from what we were taught at university. To see this in a major mainstream art gallery, surrounded by black visitors, felt really good. I felt like I belonged. Which was rarely the case in art spaces in Paris in the 1990s. Although, earlier that year, there was an exhibition called Suites Africaines, organised by Revue Noire and co-curated by Simon Njami that was very important to us within the French context.    

My first visit to a biennale was also memorable. It was the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale curated by the late Okwui Enwezor. I immersed myself in all the exhibitions in Johannesburg and Cape Town. To me it was a real discovery of contemporary art on a truly global scale.

More recently: Nick Aikens’ The 80s project at Van Abbemuseum (2016) that led to The Place is Here at Nottingham Contemporary (2017); Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power curated by Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley (2017); Streams of Consciousness the Bamako Encounters – African photography biennial in Mali curated by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (2019) and Nirin, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney that opened in March, curated by Brook Andrew, both were great exhibitions organised under really challenging conditions.

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

Working in Africa or in the West are two different contexts. This can sometimes reflect on those responsibilities. Generally speaking, curators have a responsibility towards the artists, the venue and the public. If you invite an artist to be part of an exhibition, you need ensure the conditions are fair and clear. When it comes to presenting the work, you need to respect the integrity of an art work and present it as intended by the artist. This also means working within the technical and financial capacity, or limits, of an institution.

Consideration for the audience begins with selecting the artwork. You need to think about who the exhibition is talking to, who you want to engage, and how you are going to create bridges between the artwork and the public. There are contexts that can be more challenging than others, especially when addressing sensitive issues. Sometimes you need to tread carefully with topics that may attract forms of silencing. Especially if you work outside your usual environment. You need to consider what the audience can take and what is considered crossing the line, and also what the risks are for the artists or the exhibiting institution.

A challenging aspect of being an independent curator is that, even if you are the face of a project, and as such assuming responsibility for it, sometimes there are parameters upon which you have no control due to institutional procedures or opacity. That being said, there has also been occasions where I was able to raise questions about certain situations I observed within institutions. Which is easier for me to do as I come with an outsider fresh outlook.

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

The idea that being a curator is limited to the creative aspect of developing an exhibition. That is sometimes the case. But generally, behind the scene, there is so much administration that can range from artist liaison at the very least, right to being involved in the fundraising process, especially in contexts where there is no immediate public provision for the arts.

And also, the notion of power that tends to create a top-down hierarchy where the curator is placed at the top and you’re lucky or privileged if you are selected for a project. An exhibition is the physical form of a conversation, of shared ideas. It’s a lateral process. With time, I’ve also grown fascinated by how technicians are geniuses that solve complex installations. A show looks good because of them. Sometimes they are artists themselves. They understand the vision behind an art work.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

Curating is a field that is both challenging and competitive. Therefore, it is important to develop original projects that bear your ‘signature’, so to speak. Be aware of what is out there. Not to follow the trends, but to figure out where you are positioning yourself. Start with topics close to your own interests or field of knowledge; subjects that you are passionate about. Try and engage with curators whose practice addresses the same topics as yours. But also, be curious about unfamiliar territories. Be open to dialogue. Treat all the people with whom you work with respect. Not just those at the top. You may find many obstacles along the way. But if curating is really what you want to do: persevere. There is room for a diversity of voices in the arts.♦

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-Christine Eyene

2-Installation view of Embodied Spaces, Framer Framed, Amsterdam, 2015. © Michiel Landeweerd.

3-Installation view of RESIST! The 1960s Protests, Photography and Visual Legacy, Bozar, Brussels, 2018. © Philippe De Gobert.

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#6 Yining He

Yining He is curator and writer specialising in photography. Yining’s curatorial projects have taken place in museums, biennales and galleries, as well as in other institutions in China and Europe. Exhibitions include: The Abode of Anamnesis (2019, OCAT Institute, Beijing); Troubled Intention Ahead: Confusing Public and Private at the 3rd Beijing Photo Biennale (2018, CAFA Art Museum); The Port and The Image: Documenting China’s Harbor Cities (2017, China Port Museum, Ningbo); A Fictional Narrative Turn (2016, Jimei Arles International Photo Festival); and 50 Contemporary Photobooks from China 2009-14 (2015, FORMAT International Photo Festival, Derby, UK). In 2014, Yining launched the Go East Project, which aims to promote contemporary Chinese photography in the West through exhibitions and publishing activities. 

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

You never know who’s going to walk into the exhibition space, and you never know if this exhibition will affect the viewer as much as the exhibitions that inspired us to pursue a career in the art industry. My love for the exhibition form comes from my own experience as a museum-goer. When I’m able to understand and interpret artworks and create opportunities for such understanding and interpretations through commissioned projects, the exhibition form is a perfect way for me to communicate with new and old audiences.

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

As an independent curator, I always look at artworks in the context of the evolution of image art. For example, I recently worked with the Guangdong Museum of Art on an upcoming exhibition titled Walking in the Digital Sublime. With the pervading presence of AI technologies in our world today, the mission of this exhibition is to explore the relationship between human beings and images produced with the help of AI technologies from different perspectives – social, cultural, technological, philosophical, etc. – by examining the works of more than 30 artists from around the world that comment on the production, dissemination and storage of digital images.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

For professional curators, the willingness and ability to keep learning, researching, and renewing one’s skills is essential in addition to having a basic, systematic knowledge of art history and exhibition planning. Of course, curiosity is also very important. When it comes to the actual practice, you learn on the job more than you do from books. Aside from coming up with feasible proposals, the work of a curator also entails a large amount of communication between artists, venues, and other individuals and organisations involved in the process of putting together an exhibition, and there are all kinds of details to attend to. A capable curator should be able to handle all these things effectively.

What was your route into curating?

After completing my first MA in London in 2010, I came back to Beijing and started working as a writer and translator for photography within the art related press. I soon became aware of my lack of professional knowledge, however, so I returned to London and completed the MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London in 2013. I curated my first group exhibition in China the following year. For me, curating is a platform where I can combine my passion for photography alongside research, exhibition planning, and communication.

As my experience grows, I’ve also started thinking about things like the commissioning system of museums, support for independent image artists, knowledge production, and ways to help the audience examine and re-examine the world around them through images. In the process of exhibition planning, my role switches between the researcher, the commissioner, the producer, the collaborator, and the narrator, etc.

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

One of the exhibitions that made a great impression on me recently was 25 Years! Shared Histories, Shared Stories in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Fotomuseum Winterthur (2018-19). The exhibition was curated by the new Director Nadine Wietlisbach and her team. Staff members, artists, and curators from all around Europe were invited to choose their favourite artworks from the museum’s collection, which combined to form connections between the history of the museum, the stories of said artworks, and the future of photography. The exhibition featured the works of more than 50 artists who had influenced the history of contemporary photography, including John Baldessari, Lewis Baltz, Luigi Ghirri, Nan Goldin, Sherrie Levine, Paul Graham, and Bertien van Manen. The exhibition labels not only contained descriptions of the artworks themselves, but also explained how these artworks had influenced their nominators’ knowledge and understanding of photography or inspired them in their own work. This exhibition was an exciting curatorial experiment that encouraged social dialogue and collaboration in the museum environment.

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

As a curator based in China, I can’t answer this question without talking about the environment I’m living and working in. If we consider Chinese photography as an ecosystem, it’s easy to see that the different systems revolving around it – including art academies, photography festivals, photography galleries, art fairs, auction houses, publishers, and research oriented institutions – have evolved a lot over the past decade. Chinese photography has its own unique mode of operation. It has certain advantages in the speed of knowledge renewal and the diversity of activities, and there’s a large base of photography enthusiasts and professionals in China, which have both contributed to the vitality of Chinese photography in recent years. It’s my fortune to be part of this process and to produce China-focussed exhibitions with artists, institutions, publishers, and the wider art community.

That said, compared to Europe, America and Japan, for example, where photographic practices are long-established and well-organised, Chinese photography is yet to make a lasting impact in the industry. On one hand, this is a result of practical issues, such as ruptures in history, underdeveloped systems, the relative lack of education, and the shortage of artists and other professionals. On the other hand, language is also a barrier, because most academic writings and art criticism are published and communicated in English. In response to these challenges, I’m currently working to help promote the development and the influence of Chinese photography in the global photography industry with my peers.

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

“Everybody can be a curator” is a myth that’s quickly turning into reality. Nevertheless more and more young artists today have chosen to curate different types of exhibitions on their own in order to challenge the power and function of the curator in traditional curatorial practices, which has become a trend that cannot be ignored.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

It’s crucial to communicate with artists as much as possible in order to understand their practices and career goals in depth. This is the first step of being a curator, and will always be important.♦

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-Yining He

2-Installation view of The Port and the Image: Documenting China’s Harbor Cities, China Port Museum, Ningbo, 2017.

3-Installation view of The Abode of Anamnesis, OCAT Institute, Beijing, 2019.

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#5 Roxana Marcoci

Roxana Marcoci is Senior Curator of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. She holds a PhD in Art History, Theory and Criticism from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. The recipient of the Center for Curatorial Leadership Fellowship in 2011, Marcoci chairs the Central and Eastern European group of MoMA’s C-MAP (Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives in a global world). She is the co-founder of MoMA’s Forums on Contemporary Photography, held three times a year since 2010.

Major exhibitions she curated or co-curated include Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW (2017); A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde (2016); Zoe Leonard: Analogue (2015); Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960-1980 (2015); From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola (2015); Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness (2014); The Shaping of New Visions: Photography, Film, Photobook (2012); Taryn Simon: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII (2012); Sanja Iveković: Sweet Violence (2011); Staging Action: Performance in Photography Since 1960 (2011); Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography (2010); The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today (2010); Take your time: Olafur Eliasson (2008); Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making (2007) and Thomas Demand (2005).

Marcoci is also visiting critic in the graduate programme at Yale University and a contributor to ApertureArt in AmericaArt Journal, and Mousse. She has co-edited and authored Photography at MoMA, a three-volume history of the expanded field of photography (2015/17), and is currently at work on a Wolfgang Tillmans retrospective.

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

Exhibitions are grounded in asking questions, and in that sense their initial form is investigatory. But the making of an exhibition is an active statement of positions. Its unfolding entails exchanging ideas with artists, engaging with objects, narratives, and processes, or in conceptual art, non-objects, and introducing creative models for collective or collaborative authorship in ways that unsettle the past and imagine the future. I’m attracted to all these aspects, and also to the fact that an exhibition pays attention to the structure of reception, or spectatorship – the form of address by which art seeks a rapport with its viewers.

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

It has been suggested that today there are more images of the world than the world itself. Of course none of this is as new as it sounds. As early as 1927, in his essay “Photography” the film theorist Siegfried Kracauer compared the mass-media explosion of photographic and film images to a “blizzard” of images. Then, in 1983, in Towards a Philosophy of Photography, media philosopher Vilém Flusser likened the function of photography to a dam that has absorbed all traditional images. The revolutionary potential and, at the same time, aberration of the technical (photographic) image was its built-in potential to collect all traditional (prephotographic) images. According to Flusser, our collective memory is formed by technical images circling to and fro on their own axes and around us. In the age of Covid-19, we experience much of culture in the form of digital culture. The pandemic crisis and our physically distanced lives are enacted on zoom and social media platforms. This mediated relation to the real has resulted in an excess of images and information. We are seeing digital exhibitions with high-resolution renderings of art works, virtual cultural events, and live streaming studio visits with artists. Much of our curatorial initiatives have moved online: #MuseumFromHome. At MoMA online viewing has far surpassed (by millions) the traffic within the institution’s tangible walls. The museum’s analogue and digital platforms are complementary. Personally, I don’t have an issue with image excess as long as we develop the critical apparatus to interpret visual information – one issue to keep in mind is who is visible, who is invisible, and what vision signifies.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

More than a skill, I think it’s the desire to create a legacy for what is happening in the now and generate new ideas and scholarship. For me that means connecting photography’s first 180 years to contemporary ideas, to lens-based, time-based, and digital practices, to a larger visual culture that expands photography’s ability to reveal things about the world around us. There is invaluable power inherent in looking at art – and at the world – in a new way. And that is a sine qua non quality for a curator.

What was your route into curating?

Curating means to be engaged in the creation of culture. I always had an interest in the humanities, and I arrived to curatorial work by studying art history, theatre and film criticism, and sociology. And by seeing lots and lots and lots of exhibitions.

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

Feminist, global and multimedia in approach, dOCUMENTA (13), curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, across multiple venues throughout Kassel, Germany and three major outposts in Kabul and Bamiyan, Afghanistan, Cairo, Egypt, and Banff, Canada, remains one of the most memorable exhibitions of the new millennium. Its emphasis on the trauma of war, violence of history, and artistic solidarity is still very present with me. So many of the artists I admire, including Jérôme Bel, Trisha Donnely, Pierre Huyghe, Sanja Iveković, Goshka Macuga, Julie Mehretu, and Zanele Muholi were presented in that exhibition. But, equally important was the work of artists with whom I wasn’t familiar beforehand, such as the 1930s figurative tapestries by self-taught weaver Hannah Ryggen, or the botanist paintings of priest Korbinian Aigner, or the abstractions made since the late 1950s by poet and writer Etel Adnan. This is just to offer a few references since the exhibition featured work by more than 300 artists, writers, and performers as well as research by scientific thinkers in the fields of genetics and quantum physics.

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

Curators should advocate for artistic diversity, equity, and inclusion. We have an ethical obligation to take political and social stands on how we present art history – from multiple perspectives, not just the standpoint of dominant Western-centric narratives. At MoMA we have various initiatives, such as C-MAP (Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives in a global world) and the Modern Women’s Group, which consist of curators and affiliated colleagues who think a lot about these questions: How do we go about unsettling established art historical narratives? Activating new readings? Unfixing the canon? Researching counterhistories? Expressing transnational synchronicities? Constructing resistance? Opening alternative models of solidarity? Envisioning oppositional practices? Proposing unexpected linkages? Investigating why
 particular lacunae subsist? Critiquing from inside the institutions in which we work? Envisioning the political extent of our scholarly jobs? All this translates in our continuous ability to respond (“response-ability”).

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

The word “curator” has certainly been abused and misinterpreted, but I like myths. Let them accumulate because they belong to the process of interpretation. Mythology, parables, allegory, reversals of perspectives are entirely necessary.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

Make lasting friendships with artists, and don’t be afraid to think large, creatively, outside the box. As Oscar Wilde said, “An idea that isn’t dangerous isn’t worthy of being called an idea at all.”♦

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-Roxana Marcoci in the exhibition Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2017.

2-Installation view of Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014.

3-Installation view of Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2017.

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#4 Azu Nwagbogu

Azu Nwagbogu is the Founder and Director of African Artists’ Foundation (AAF), a non-profit organisation based in Lagos, Nigeria. Nwagbogu was elected as the Interim Director / Head Curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art in South Africa from June 2018 to August 2019. He also serves as Founder and Director of LagosPhoto Festival, an annual international arts festival of photography held in Lagos, and is the creator of Art Base Africa, a virtual space to discover and learn about contemporary African Art. He has served as a juror for the Dutch Doc, POPCAP Photography Awards, the World Press Photo, Prisma Photography Award (2015), Greenpeace Photo Award (2016), New York Times Portfolio Review (2017-18), W. Eugene Smith Award (2018), PHotoESPAÑA (2018), Foam Paul Huf Award (2019), Wellcome Photography Prize (2019) and is a regular juror for organisations such as Lensculture and Magnum.

For the past 20 years, he has curated private collections for various prominent individuals and corporate organisations in Africa. Nwagbogu obtained his MPhil in Public Health from The University of Cambridge. He lives and works in Lagos, Nigeria.

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

The directness and freedom it engenders. The notion of presenting ideas in a visual and experiential format that allows for multiple interpretations but that still involves sensibilities, and a certain order and logic is always exciting. I like to build shows from research in other words, moving between inquiry and imagination as a recursive process. Curating is about hosting these ideas for a wider audience within the format of an exhibition. It offers, in an ambitious sense, a chance to create something that could perhaps fossilise for the future. That is to say, if researchers sometime in the very distant present were to inquire as to how we lived through our time, what would we leave behind for them to analyse? The exhibition, and its audiences, become our emissaries.

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

In our digital age, we produce and consume more images than at any time since the dawn of humanity. We apparently also live longer. Our epoch is the information age where digital content – produced, transmitted and consumed – is our most important commodity. The curator’s responsibility within this milieu is daunting. It is the responsibility of the curator to help to make sense of what we are feeling, seeing and experiencing. I would add that in an age when opposing ideas rarely engage due to all sorts of algorithms, curatorial practice has to become all the more dialogical.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

There are two broad notions beyond skill: the intellectual and the ethical. The intellectual involves curiosity, diligence, and self-criticality. And the ethical broaches humility and respect for artistic endeavour.

What was your route into curating?

It’s a long and elaborate journey that started with studies of epidemiology but diffused into art through a family interest in curating.

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

My first Les Rencontres d’Arles in 2014 though I really can’t mention all the fantastic shows that year. Georges Didi-Hubermans’ Uprising was unforgettable. Okwei Enwezor’s 56th Venice Biennale 2015 and documenta11, 2002 were significant. And even though I was involved in it, I have to mention William Kentridge’s largest ever presentation in South Africa: Why Should I Hesitate: Putting Drawings to Work at Zeitz MOCAA. Then there is The Repatriation of the White Cube directed by Renzo Martens, an exhibition that featured works both by Kader Attia, Marlene Dumas, Carsten Höller, and Luc Tuymans, as well as Congolese artists such as Sammy Baloji and Jean Katambayi, and members of the CATPC in Lusanga.

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

The ability to build on knowledge gained. I ignore shows that are weak on research. Shows that purport to be “the first ever so and so”. Stance and humour are vital. With curating there is a process, and respecting this process from conception to execution is often taken for granted.

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

That it is glamorous and that we know it all.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

If all fails, make sure you learn to write.♦

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-Azu Nwagbogu. © Kadara Enyeasi

2-View of the exhibition Maïmouna Guerresi: Beyond the Border, Lagos Photo 2019 at African Artists’ Foundation.

3-View of exhibition installation at African Artists’ Foundation.

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#3 Danaé Panchaud

Danaé Panchaud is a curator and lecturer specialising in photography. Since 2018 Panchaud has been Director / Curator of the Photoforum Pasquart in Biel, Switzerland, one of the principle Swiss institutions dedicated to photography. Her programme focuses mainly on emerging contemporary photography practices as well as the social and vernacular uses of photography.

She trained in photography at the Vevey School of Photography before completing BA Visual Arts with a specialisation in Critical Curatorial and Cybermedia (CCC programme) at Geneva School of Art and Design (HEAD) in 2008. In 2017 she obtained her MA Museum Cultures at Birkbeck, University of London. She has held positions in several Swiss institutions in the fields of contemporary art, design and science, including the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, where she was a research associate from 2007-12, the Gallery SAKS in Geneva, and the Mudac in Lausanne, where she was in charge of the public relations. She has curated exhibitions for several Swiss museums and galleries, including the Fondation Verdan in Lausanne, the Fonds d’art contemporain de la Ville de Genève, standard-deluxe in Lausanne, the Photoforum Pasquart in Biel, the CEPV/Festival Images in Vevey and the mudac in Lausanne. She was a lecturer at the Vevey School of Photography from 2014-18.

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

To me it’s a medium that offers unique possibilities to connect different elements; to craft a narrative with depth, nuance and complexity, by using and often combining different visual and narrative strategies.

I’m also interested in the fact that it engages the body of the spectator, who chooses the distance they want to watch things from, their duration of looking at a particular image, installation or object. I think that it gives the spectator a form of agency, beyond the binaries of looking/not looking, that keeps you on your toes: you have to work to convince your audience to look closely at this image, to read that text in its entirety, rather than just cast a glance at the whole thing and move on. And this is sometimes you can even play extensively with. I once co-curated an interdisciplinary exhibition that had several hundred objects and where the overabundance of the material meant that the visitor really had to choose where to direct their attention. On the one hand, we had to get our meaning across, counting on the fact that the spectator would look at about 20% of the objects and read 10% of the texts (with everyone looking at and reading a different selection, at least partly), but on the other hand, we could also work with the overall effect of the scenography, the different atmosphere of the different sections, and the visual saturation to convey part of the meaning of the exhibition.

In that sense, exhibitions are a very challenging format, one that demand, to a certain degree, that you reinvent your approach for every project, and which require you to really take into account the spectator, anticipating their response, their interests, as well as the baggage they bring in with them and how that will impact their reception. That is not completely unique to exhibitions, of course, but that is in large part why I like working with them.

Working with photography as a curator is particularly interesting for me because it is a material that retains a certain plasticity: its materiality is not necessarily defined when we start working with the photographer, and this aspect is almost always part of the discussion as well as the challenges of making an exhibition. Photography is also a material that often does not belong to a single field. Of course, some practices fully belong to the contemporary art scene but so much of photography comes from different fields, from journalism to science or vernacular uses. Being the director of an institution specifically dedicated to photography, I can address issues with a single medium (in a broad sense that includes moving images or installations for instance) but from a variety of perspectives thanks to the ubiquity of photography in society.

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

I think it is an incredible privilege to work in an era of such abundant, accessible and often highly qualitative material. However, it comes with an increased responsibility. For every project, theme or artist we select, there are 2 or 10 or 100 which are equally relevant but that we cannot not choose because of the limitations of our spaces and programmes. On the one hand, I think this overabundance increases our responsibility and on the other, it means the museum is far from the only player in town: there are a lot of other avenues for images, with different purposes and audiences, and thus, different types of persons curating different contents in different contexts. Which is undeniably a good thing, but with the caveat of an increased risk, possibly, of creating more silos and less exchange between different practices and different communities. I feel that, more generally in contemporary society, the role of the editor or curator is more and more important: of people with a knowledge of a particular field (or more), who are able to select and combine contents and contributors, be it in the museum or in journalism for instance.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

I would say (intellectual) adaptability. A capacity to adapt your approach to the project at hand, to the photographers you are working with and to their vision, to engage with the material and envision different possibilities  – without wandering off into gimmicky territory of course – and to adjust your project to the context it will be presented in.  

I think it is a very important skill generally, but it is becoming even more crucial nowadays as we also have to think beyond the walls of the exhibition, to think of the different receptions, notably digital, of a body of work or an exhibition. We need to be able, more and more, to translate projects into a diversity of formats, for a diversity of audiences and at different times.

That’s on the intellectual level and then, the reality is also today that there are a number of practical skills are very, very, useful if not indispensable in an age when budget restrictions and micro teams are becoming increasingly the norm: being able to design some elements of your scenography, or to supervise printing processes, or to figure out technical solutions, for instance. It can be pretty much any type of skills involved in the production of an exhibition, but any kind of technical skills will come in handy – or could be a base requirement of a curator’s job.

What was your route into curating?

Photography. I initially trained in photography, enrolling in the Vevey School of Photography when I was 19. I then gradually realised that photography was very much a field I wanted to be involved with professionally, but that being an image-maker, which initially seemed like the obvious choice in a way, was not my main interest. To this day, however, having briefly been a photographer is still an experience and a perspective that informs my practice as a curator, and my way of engaging with the material. I then gradually became more and more interested in museums themselves – as institutions with social roles and implications – when I joined the curatorial programme at Geneva School of Art and Design, which is also to this day an important influence on my work. Almost a decade later, I studied museology at Birkbeck, which gave me additional perspectives on my practice.

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

A tough question, in part because terrible exhibitions are often the most memorable to me! And I have a bad habit of rage-visiting some museums I know I will hate. But I do really think that there is value in seeing bad exhibitions in that they often provide relevant learning opportunities (as well as opportunities to vent and come up with theories on museums and psychosis).

But among the many extraordinary shows that most informed my practice and my thinking about curating, the photography exhibitions at Musée d’Orsay curated by then Conservateur en chef Françoise Heilbrun stand out. Despite the collections covering photography from its inception to 1918, and an extremely classic scenography, each of her exhibitions had a very precise point of view, and were completely contemporary. They really had an impact on me.

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

The number of Swiss institutions dedicated to photography, or with a strong focus on photography, is relatively limited, though we do have some excellent institutions. This to me means that I have a responsibility to take this context into account and to contribute to a balanced, institutional scene for photography in Switzerland. Therefore, I do pay a lot of attention to what is being shown at the other institutions, and aim to also provide a platform for what, or who, might be receiving less attention – not because their propositions are less relevant or not as strong but because they do not quite fit into other institutions’ missions and programmes. For instance, this led me to reconsider and expand the definition of ‘emerging’ photography, which is our core focus. Indeed, while there are a number of venues and many awards for emerging photographers (mainly in the sense of young photographers), there are fewer opportunities for mid-career photographers. This is something we are now aiming to mitigate, while of course still presenting many photographers at the beginning of their career.

That is only one example, among many other significant issues, but it certainly is one that impacts my programming. It touches on the broader issue of representation, where I feel we do also have an important responsibility. It is equally a matter of the diversity of the exhibiting photographers, or of the genres of photography that we exhibit, and of who is represented on the walls. We saw it recently with the exhibition on contemporary masculinity, Her Take: Rethinking Masculinity we had an increase in attendance as well as a different public, because some people, who did not necessarily felt concerned by our previous exhibitions, felt represented and came to the museum.

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

I don’t know that we are such mythical creatures :). But I’d say: a lot – and I mean A Lot – of my time is spent on administrative duties: grant applications, final reports on said grant applications, sponsoring proposals, annual reports for the funding authorities or the board, and so on. And that is only on the curatorial front, without taking into account the other managerial aspects of directing an institution (HR, finances and accounting, etc). It is obviously absolutely not limited to the museum world, nor was it unexpected to me, but there really seems to be across the board a generalised increase in the bureaucratisation of professional activities, be it for nurses, teachers or many other professions. Our field, which is notably reliant on external funding, is far from not immune to it.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

I guess this is absolutely banal but go see exhibitions, and not only in the field you want to work in, and not only the ones you expect to be good. The terrible ones will also help shape your point of view and your practice as a curator. Most bad exhibitions are not a waste of your time but instrumental in that sense.   And on another level: be prepared that it is a profession that very often involves a lot of management (and not only in the sense of administrative duties, as mentioned above).♦

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-Danaé Panchaud. © Olga Cafiero

2-View of the exhibition Sillages at Photoforum Pasquart, 2019.

3-View of the exhibition Lisa Lurati: Scherzo. Molto allegro quasi presto at Photoforum Pasquart, 2018. © Lea Kunz

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#2 Lisa Sutcliffe

Lisa Sutcliffe is the Herzfeld Curator of Photography and Media Arts at the Milwaukee Art Museum. From 2007-12, she served as Assistant Curator of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Among the exhibitions Sutcliffe organised at SFMOMA were Naoya Hatakeyama: Natural Stories (2012), developed in association with the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, and The Provoke Era: Postwar Japanese Photography (2009), the first survey of SFMOMA’s internationally renowned collection of Japanese photography. In her current role she has curated numerous exhibitions including Rineke Dijkstra: Rehearsals (2016)Sara Cwynar: Image Model Muse (2018)The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison (2018); James Benning and Sharon Lockhart: Over Time (2019) and Susan Meiselas: Through a Woman’s Lens (2020). She received an MA in the History of Art from Boston University, where she specialised in the history of photography, and a BA in Art History from Wellesley College.

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

I like making an argument through a sequence of images – telling a story about history and culture through objects. This kind of context is so important – it can transform our understanding of ideas large and small. Walking through an exhibition with the public is so rewarding because you can watch as people learn to see.

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

We’re experienced sifters of visual information. I immediately think of historical references whenever I see a great picture, and I can sort through “the rest” much more efficiently. I think it is our job to interpret visual language by pointing to historical and cultural context and references.

Our field will undoubtedly be shifting due to the current pandemic and I wonder what it will mean to be a curator in an age of social distancing. I hope we can see this as an opportunity to find new ways to engage the public.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

I think one of the most invaluable skills is having an excellent visual memory. It’s like being fluent in a language and knowing how to find all the references you need to put together an argument.

What was your route into curating?

My mother was a painter, so art has always been an important part of my life and a tool I use to understand the world. I was always particularly interested in photography, but found that I enjoyed interpreting photographs made by others more than making them myself. So I began interning at galleries and museums when I was in college. Afterwards, I went to graduate school to study art history and continued seeking out internships (at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum). My first position after graduate school was as a curatorial fellow at the deCordova. These kinds of opportunities for emerging curators are so important! From there I became an Assistant Curator in the photography department at SFMOMA, and now I am the Herzfeld Curator of Photography and Media Arts at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

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

I’ve seen countless exhibitions that I have liked for various reasons. In terms of what makes something memorable for me, I think it again has to do with context – when an exhibition is site-specific or conceived for a space/time/place, for example.

Sophie Calle’s exhibition at Paris’ Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in 2017 was a wonderful example of an artist inserting her work into a unique collection (of objects and symbols of hunting) in a way that both gave new meaning to her work and transformed our understanding of the collection in which it was shown. How fitting for Calle, whose work examines themes of absence, love, death, often by constructing conceptual games for herself, to interact with a collection dedicated to the hunt. It was playful, vibrant, cerebral, and fresh.

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

I think this is a vital question right now. As curators we are responsible for considering equity and inclusion in how we conceive of exhibitions, build collections, and advocate for artists. We have a responsibility to provide a platform for diverse voices and narratives and we must ensure that the institution provides a responsible framework for the conversations we engage in with our public. It is not enough simply to add work to the collection, we must also advocate for artists, which includes providing a platform for their vision and paying them for their time and ideas. W.A.G.E. is a good resource for this in the US.

We must also ask how our institutions are responsible to the communities we represent and serve. When I organised The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison in 2018, I formed partnerships with local and national groups and it was imperative that we didn’t exploit any of these collaborations. One of the most important ways to effect change is to ensure there are diverse voices represented and heard within curatorial/museum staff.

We can’t allow this important work to be sidelined when the economy tightens. The world needs artists and photographers more than ever to make sense of and help us recover from this pandemic.

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

That curating is something that can be done with recipe lists and the shoes in your closet. Curating is about caring for objects – making sure they are preserved and conserved – and interpreting their cultural and historical narratives.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

You have to be a great advocate as well as a mediator (and sometimes a therapist). You have to be willing to fight for your ideas, for funding, for artists’ rights and dozens of other things, and you have to do so without creating any conflict. Collaboration is vital when you work for an institution; it takes an effective team to get projects accomplished. ♦

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-Lisa Sutcliffe

2-View of the exhibition Penelope Umbrico: Future Perfect at Milwaukee Art Museum, 2016.

3-View of the exhibition The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison at Milwaukee Art Museum, 2018.

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#1 Duncan Wooldridge

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator, and is the Course Director for the BA (Hons) Fine Art Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London. He is the curator of the exhibitions Anti-Photography (2011, Focal Point Gallery), John Hilliard: Not Black and White (2014, Richard Saltoun) and Moving The Image: Photography and its Actions (2019, Camberwell Space, as part of Peckham 24). He is working on an exhibition around photographic abstraction in the contexts of mechanical and industrial production, for 2020-21.

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

Exhibitions for me are like thinking made visible in space. They can be animating and generative, because you are constructing dialogues and arguments between works, where echoes and contrasts bring qualities and values into the foreground, as something you can see, sense and think through. I normally begin at that granular level – the conversation two works have with each other, before working up to the larger display. As an ensemble, groups of work construct trajectories, and show how connections are made and remade continuously. They’re inherently propositional, I think, though they remain to this day frequently used to claim a conventional historiography that says this is how it happened, especially when a single artist is shown, or when the material is historical in nature. I’m definitely seeking to propose a different history or narrative when I’m making an exhibition. That’s what draws me to it. I like to think of how the brain is sparked by the encounter of works seen together, and how the meaning of works change by the encounters they have.

As a result, when the process works as it can, the exhibition is much more than a line of objects. It becomes a dynamic four-dimensional encounter in which your concentration and senses shift gear and become more acute. It’s like Artaud’s conception of the theatre: some senses, contexts, or details are dramatically heightened, and others temporarily subside. Being inside an exhibition can be so focused, and so concentrated, that the world outside seems to be temporarily suspended. That’s not a negation, but a reset, from which something can be built: if it holds any subsequent weight or urgency, an exhibition will subtly continue into your other encounters thereafter. Our return to the world from inside the exhibition might allow us to see and feel that it can be remade and rethought.

I realised early on in my studies that I was equally interested in the works of other artists as I was interested in making things myself. I’ve always liked this as a balance, to be neither fully the maker, the I, nor fully subservient, the classical curator/carer, occupying the supposedly neutral third person role who disappears. I am an active interpreter of the work I bring into the exhibition, but I have neither full control over the meanings, nor am I absent from their construction. When I curated an exhibition of John Hilliard for Richard Saltoun Gallery in 2014 (John Hilliard: Not Black and White) and the parallel book we made with Ridinghouse, it was to cut through John’s practice and see it a specific way with him, to read his work with my eyes, and to compare what it meant from both of our perspectives. I’ve realised since that it’s still a relatively rare model, to have an active curator of an artist with a solo presentation – I found it very illuminating, with a friction that was productive. I’d like to work more with artists like this.

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

I feels like this goes very much against the ongoing narrative, that of democratic photographies or the positivism about recording our lives and our sharing economies, but I feel that the curator is meant to be demanding. And I think they should demand more of images. Our image world is so passive: most of the language about agency and participation in our work and life is a rhetorical cover, a smoke screen, for how we produce information, and for the dominant economics of our time, which currently is finance capital and advertising. To cite Sherry Turkle, we are alone together. We are producing images and we are consuming them. We are not interacting through them, at least not as we might be.

The widespread adoption of the word curator – curators pants (trousers), curated lists, and a whole lot more, a long and growing comedic list – we really should understand as an attack on careful selection, an attack on deep engagement, and a negation of specialisation, rigorous knowledge and perhaps expertise. Its comedy masks it, but it is an attack. I am not going to argue that the curator is special (we have seen of course that curators can and do maintain bias and reproduce existing relations of being subject to power), but I would have to say that the trend for curating everything is the banalisation of what can and should be a slower process of thoughtful choice. We aren’t using ‘curating’ in all of these contexts as something passionately laboured or specialised, are we? Curated pants aren’t really the best, and curators coffee isn’t any more considered, not before, not during and not after.

This is where it is directly tied to our information and image excess, to more than a rant about capital: because, like the coffee or the other commodities, we’re all hurrying to make ever more images, we’re making more and looking at more, but we’re also looking with less detail, broadcasting with less filtering, and looking with less time or expectation. The curator used to see more art than most people, but today, I wouldn’t set that as a benchmark. The curator who only wants to scan the room, or know about the new work is accelerating the process, and doing the same thing. They’re participating in what Byung Chul-Han has called the Burnout Society. Instead, the question should be, who gives work the most time? I often say that I am only occasionally a curator, and I think in the current moment, few of us are curators very often: we’re rarely given the time, or take the time, to be. Colleagues working in public institutions, who have job roles as curators, spend the majority of their time in administration, in fundraising, in organisational tasks. Curating would be a fraction of their time right now. The temptation is for this to take less time, to be more decisive, and to go with the flow of endless production, but I think a curator who is really committed to this activity will instead slow things down, and take the time to develop understanding. Being a curator is something that anyone could do, but I’d want to propose that to curate, after its original meaning, to care, is to take images and artworks outside of that cycle, and to give them an attention over long durations.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

Patience, especially in the light of the last question.

In my experience, I can also say that I think the capacity to solve problems is a recurring skill you have to put to work. Logistically, if you don’t have an endless budget but you are ambitious, you’re going to face challenges about how to get works from distant locations to the site of your exhibition, and you’re going to have to make decisions about how the show changes as a result of its contexts. I think the biggest budget I ever had for collecting works was for the Anti-Photography show I curated at Focal Point Gallery in 2011, where we had the budget for one collection of works in Europe, though we had new works arriving from the West Coast of the US, and works from several European cities. I enjoy that kind of working things out. It’s about knowing which compromises are acceptable and which ones have a serious effect, about knowing what you can solve, and who you can work with to make things happen.

What was your route into curating?

I encountered the process of exhibition making really in Norwich at the Norwich Gallery, where I volunteered for a couple of years, working on the great East International exhibitions, and some of their other shows. I would volunteer in the summer and autumn during my studies. Lynda Morris was there and her exhibition programme had many great connections to conversations in the artworld. I think that was where I learnt to find inventive ways around making exhibitions happen: for East they would just drive a van into Europe to go and collect everything! I remember the detail and care in preparing spaces, for example repeatedly painting and sanding a wall for a Sol Lewitt wall drawing, calling artists and arranging the collection and return of their works; the politeness and friendliness, and the ways of doing things. Andrew Hunt was there at that time too as an Assistant Curator, and he was a great, encouraging voice: ultimately our good relationship led to my first major curatorial project. Around that time I studied Photography at the Royal College of Art, and that equipped me to have a critical voice, to feel that as an artist you could participate in the discourse – you could and should make exhibitions as an artist, you could and should write and produce criticism too. When I was studying there, I was working at the Serpentine Gallery, invigilating, working front of house and handling limited editions, and so all of those different inputs gave me a rounded idea of making exhibitions and what they involved. At the beginning of a show, you’d sometimes get a tour from the artist (though not always), but you would, every time, get a walkaround where you’d be shown what was fragile, what was dangerous, how things were made, which works had high insurance values, all of the practical hidden details. It was a hidden education.

As I said, Andy Hunt gave me the first opportunity to curate a major show. I was working in my Serpentine job when I saw him again one day. I remember he asked what I was working on, and I told him about a show I was planning, called Anti-Photography. I was applying for a curatorial open call that Hayward Gallery had made. I remember that he said ‘that sounds a lot like our programme’, and told me to get in touch if the open call didn’t happen. It didn’t, and I went back to him. I think a key thing at that point wasn’t that I was an artist or a curator, but that I had a strong investment in the work of other artists, that I was developing ideas, regardless of whether the opportunity was there or not.

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

I don’t know if I can narrow this down, but I’ll try. I would like to say Rei Naito’s work Matrix in Ryue Nishizawa’s Teshima Art Museum, the single best installation of a single artwork I’ve ever seen. But perhaps that’s not an exhibition – it’s a permanent environment. I think it would have to be the 20th century collection displays called The Making of Modern Art, at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, which were specially curated by artist Goran Đorđević – Đorđević has however hidden himself under an alias of an institution of his own making, The Museum of American Art in Berlin (he is known as a ‘former artist’ who would make lectures as Walter Benjamin and making Piet Mondrian paintings with contemporary dates). Using a combination of works in the museum collection and copies, Đorđević quizzes and challenges the 20th century art museum, it’s construction of value, it’s definitions of art, and its appropriation of objects across historical and geographic contexts. Rather than just talking about it, this display actually does it, dares to put artworks in new circumstances to see what happens. Each room proposes a problem – how objects gain and lose and the name of art, how collections are formed, and how the cultural politics of the 20th century drive us towards certain relationships to culture. It ends in a proposed cultural reversal, where artworks from the western ‘canon’ are taking out of a white cube and placed into a room of controlled lighting and museum cabinets that are familiar to any viewer who has seen how artefacts are displayed in the Far East, in wall-lined vitrines and wooden display cases behind glass. This is only a proposition of course, but it reveals the commodity status of the artwork and the spaces it has depended upon. The museum commissioned the display and opened it in 2017, and it’s due to stay open until the beginning of 2021. I’ve been twice and will try and go again.

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

I think all cultural producers share a responsibility, I’d begin there. That responsibility begins fundamentally with looking at and thinking critically about the world, to work in response to that, to act to improve the world, not necessarily by making things which are political, but by thinking and understanding the ecologies in which we all operate, and provide models or gestures, perceptions and sensations that generate cultural progress before and sometimes against economic progress.

Isabelle Stengers has a great way of describing ecology when she describes it as thinking and acting par le milieu: a milieu, she reminds us, is something that can only be understood by a combination of the through and the around, and I think this describes what a curator should be doing whatever their subject or their context or their method. To think through and around is to think beyond oneself and to think of the context we and our cultural production belongs to. In my mind, I’ve linked Stengers par le milieu to Édouard Glissant’s mondialité, his modification of universality. In mondialité, you can’t remain at the abstract generalisation of universality – simply saying that it applies a priori to all, you have to see what it does in the world. It’s to try and think the world, but to also deal with the specifics, thought put into action. And so, for me, this connects us to thinking through and around, and to think about the exhibition and its consequence. We don’t talk about the consequence of an artwork or an exhibition often enough, we treat it like it just is or was. It’s not enough to go to an exhibition and leave again. What stays with us? What might it allow us to do? How do we react and in what way? Are we put on the defensive or made to feel overwhelmed, or enabled to think that we can have some kind of impact? What enables us to do this?

Deleuze and Guattari in their writing in Capitalism and Schizophrenia argued for the importance of what they called the micropolitical, even before we talked of micro-aggressions. Micropolitics is the politics contained in each and every action, the underlying politics of our interactions with each other. I think that especially relates to the present epoch, the age of self-interest and atomisation that characterised our society before we reached the coronavirus pandemic. It’s easy to say we are radical and forward thinking when public facing, or working into the macro-political realm. What, in our actions or in the consequences of what we produce, makes this manifest in each interaction? How do we work to support people or work to resist the logics of self-interest? Hopefully, on the other side, we might have learnt to think through and around.

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

I think I’d like to dispel the notion that being a curator places you at the centre, that being a curator, or being an artist for that matter, puts you in the middle of the art or photography worlds. I think this is behind the fashion for curating everything. We appear to have a model that places creators and producers in the centre, which radiates out, which perhaps includes artists and curators, and then collectors and gallerists and critics and then students and audiences. I think we should be really critical of this model and its hierarchies. If you believe as a maker or producer that you are at the centre, then you are replicating an exclusive model of culture, based on outdated ideas of artistic production, propped up by money as something which limits access to many, and permits easy access to others. We must differentiate centrality from criticality, and privilege the idea of being both rigorous and generous over a desire to be the centre of attention. We should establish our own sets of values, and make them clear. Thankfully, there a number of people working within this culture who are both deeply knowledgeable and generous, and as a result, in some cases, those individuals become great connectors and facilitators. But you’d have to have your head in the sand to not see that there are plenty of people who direct everything, even indirectly, to themselves or their gain. They are maintaining the claim that culture circles around them, whether it structurally does or doesn’t. They’re both parts of the same problem.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

Jean Baudrillard wrote an exceptionally beautiful book that is lesser known than his writings on simulations and the conditions of Postmodernity. It’s called The Agony of Power. In it, he says that the biggest question of all is what you do with the power that you have, however small or big it is, however much it might come to be. So my advice is this: be generous. Be generous with your time, with your attention, with your labour and efforts, and with your own power to impact others. ♦

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-Duncan Wooldridge

2-View of the exhibition Moving The Image: Photography and its Actions, Camberwell Space, as part of Peckham 24, 2019.

3-View of the exhibition Moving The Image: Photography and its Actions, Camberwell Space, as part of Peckham 24, 2019.

1000 Words

City Guides

#6 Paris

Jeu de Paume
1 Place de la Concorde
75008 Paris
+33 1 47 03 12 50
www.jeudepaume.org

Located at the entrance of the Tuileries Garden, Jeu de Paume operates at the forefront of the capital’s photographic scene. Since the arrival of director Marta Gili in 2006, the institution has hosted a range of major retrospectives, celebrating some of the nest photographers of the
20th century such as Ed Ruscha, Cindy Sherman, Joel Meyerowitz, Susan Meiselas and Robert Adams, but also younger artists like Mathieu Pernot, Cyprien Gaillard and Ismail Bahri, as well as writers and thinkers such as Pierre Bourdieu and Georges Didi-Huberman. With each exhibition accompanied by a rich programme of in-house talks and conferences, Jeu de Paume has also extended its internet presence, most notably through the online magazine Le magazine, an invaluable educational source intended to stimulate debate around the role of the image in the digital age.

Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP)
5–7 Rue de Fourcy
75004 Paris
+33 1 44 78 75 00
www.mep-fr.org

For over two decades since its establishment, the MEP has been a
key player in the evolution of Paris’ photographic scene, with Jean-Luc Monterosso, founder of the now legendary Mois de la Photo in 1980, directing the gallery until May 2017. While the MEP has somewhat lost a bit of its aura in recent years – the curse of any institution led too long by the same personnel – the fairly recent appointment of British curator Simon Baker, former Curator of Photography and International Art at Tate in London, as the gallery’s new director announces a promising new era.

LE BAL
6 Impasse de la Défense
75018 Paris
+33 1 44 70 75 51
www.le-bal.fr

After seven years as a Director of Magnum Photos, Diane Dufour co-founded LE BAL in 2010 with the vision of providing Paris with a contemporary space dedicated to documentary photography. LE BAL serves as a compelling photographic platform, a place to discover visual storytellers working in locations across the globe, particularly in the Middle East. Critically engaged, LE BAL doesn’t shy away from explicitly political and conceptual work, such as that of Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Samuel Gratacap and Mohamed Bourouissa, including in the mix giants like Mark Cohen and Chris Killip. Offering exhibitions that boast innovative, scenographic design and a rich educational programme to boot, LE BAL occupies a bold position in the field of documentary image-making and dissemination.

Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire
17 Rue des Filles du Calvaire
75003 Paris
+33 1 42 74 47 05
www.fillesducalvaire.com

Directed until recently by curator extraordinaire Christine Ollier, the Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire is resolutely contemporary. Though not exclusively dedicated to photography – or perhaps precisely because it is not – the gallery makes a large contribution to today’s conversation about the medium. Amongst the works represented by the gallery are the strange constellations of the artist Thierry Fontaine, the raw bodies of Antoine d’Agata, the black-and-white diary of Yusuf Sevincli, and, more recently, the feminist investigations of Laia Abril. The curator’s voice also expands beyond their exhibitions since the gallery organises in-house discussions as and co-produces numerous exhibitions shows throughout France and internationally.

Centre Photographique d’Ile-de-France (CPIF)
107 Avenue de la République
77340 Pontault-Combault
+33 1 70 05 49 80
www.cpif.net

Located in the outskirts of Paris, the CPIF embodies the cultural dynamism of the French suburbs as well as the appropriation of local heritage by art institutions. Set in the barn of an old farm, the CPIF is devoted to conceptual photography, from the study of chaos by David De Beyter to Clare Strand’s mise-en-scene of the unexpected. Its programme reflects an ongoing preoccupation with the intersections between photography and the moving image, as well as digital interventions in the medium. A space for  endless experimentation, the CPIF also offers two residency programmes – one which explores production, while the other focusses on research and creation.

Laurence Cornet

Image: View of the exhibition Sigmar Polke’s Photographic infamies at LE BAL, 2019. Photo:Mathieu Samadet. Courtesy: LE BAL

1000 Words

City Guides

#5 San Francisco

Pier 24
The Embarcadero
San Francisco, CA 94105
+1 415 512 7424
www.pier24.org

Located on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, and home to the Pilara Foundation permanent collection, Pier 24 offers an expansive and contemplative environment for viewing photographic works. The institution actively engages with the community through its exhibitions, publications, and public programmes, and welcomes members of the public, academic institutions, and museum groups for two-hour, self-guided tours by appointment from Monday to Friday. Perhaps its most generous offering, as high museum entrance fees threaten to drive down attendance in the Bay Area, Pier 24 is free and open to the public.

SF Camerawork
1011 Market Street, 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94103
+1 415 487 1011
www.sfcamerawork.org

SF Camerawork’s mission is to encourage and support emerging artists to explore new directions and ideas within the photographic arts. Established in 1974 as a cooperative venture to promote photography as a new art form, the founding artists envisioned the institution as a space where photographers could showcase work not being shown at commercial galleries or museums at the time. Since its opening, SF Camerawork has invited experimental approaches to photography, and sought to foster a range of alternative aesthetics and techniques, including early support for the incorporation of conceptual, performance and language-based practice within photography. Over its forty-four year history, SF Camerawork has hosted exhibitions featuring a host of influential artists, including Robert Heinecken, Sally Mann, Allan Sekula, Robert Mapplethorpe, Donna Lee Phillips, Lew Thomas and Carrie Mae Weems.

Pritzker Center for Photography
151 Third Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
+1 415 357 4000
www.sfmoma.org

SFMOMA was one of the first American institutions to embrace photography, and now holds over 17,800 photographic works within its colossal collection, spanning the entirety of the medium’s history beginning in 1839. Nearly tripling the museum’s space to 15,000 ft2 the new Pritzker Center is the largest venue permanently dedicated to photography in any art museum in the US. The space is also home to the newly designed Photography Interpretive Gallery, featuring dynamic interfaces driven by camera-inspired controls and interactive installations which contextualise the museum’s photographic collection.

Fraenkel Gallery
49 Geary Street, 4th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94108
+1 415 981 2661
www.fraenkelgallery.com

Since 1979, Fraenkel Gallery has presented more than 300 exhibitions exploring photography and its relation to other arts. The gallery’s first exhibitions investigated the work of Carleton Watkins, Lee Friedlander, and NASA’s lunar photographs. Over its nearly forty-year history, the gallery has presented exhibitions by artists as diverse as Bernd & Hilla Becher, Walker Evans, Eugene Atget, Edward Weston, Diane Arbus, Sol LeWitt, and Hiroshi Sugimoto. In exhibitions such as Not Exactly Photographs (2003) and Nothing and Everything (2006–07), Fraenkel Gallery has brought together work across media, interweaving photography, painting, drawing, and sculpture.

Jenkins Johnson Gallery
464 Sutter Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
+1 415 677 0770
www.jenkinsjohnsongallery.com

Founded in 1996, Jenkins Johnson Gallery represents international artists working across disciplines, with a particular emphasis in photography and photo-based work. In late 2017, Jenkins Johnson Gallery opened a second project-oriented space in Brooklyn. The gallery exhibits the work of established 20th century masters including Gordon Parks and projects with the estate of Roy DeCarava. The programme features critically recognised, mid-career artists including Lynn Aldrich, Carlos Javier Ortiz and Lalla Essaydi, as well as emerging practitioners such as Julia Fullerton-Batten and Timotheus Tomicek. Taking the name of its formidable founder and arts advocate Karen Jenkins Johnson, the gallery is also celebrated for its diverse roster and long-term commitment to supporting artists of colour.

Roula Seikaly

Image: Pier 24 Photography, San Francisco. Photo: Tom O’Connor.

1000 Words

City Guides

#4 Berlin

Galerie für Moderne Fotografie
Schröderstraße 13
10115, Berlin
+49 30 23 45 67 70
www.galeriefuermodernefotografie.com

A decade ago, the Galerie für Moderne Fotografie in Berlin-Mitte was founded by Kirsten Landwehr. Specialising exclusively in the photographic medium, the gallery’s programme alternates between the exhibition of artists of international stature as well as showcasing newly discovered talents, for instance Karolin Klüppel, a former student of Bernhard Prinz. Ranging from the fashion photography of Roger Melis to the documentary style of Harald Hauswald, the gallery celebrates a variety of genres, modes and approaches. Exhibitions are regularly extended by presentations of work at the GFMF Salon; hosting talks, book presentations, and artist discussions at various locations in Berlin and abroad, the compelling event format provides endless opportunities to discuss and engage with photographic works.

Galerie Springer
Fasanenstraße 13
10623, Berlin
+49 30 31 57 22 0
www.galeriespringer.de

Founded in Frankfurt in 1991 as Springer & Winckler Galerie, after seven years the space relocated to Berlin, into the legendary spaces of Rudolf Springer. Run by Heide and Robert Springer as Galerie Springer since 2012, the gallery’s programme champions classical as well as contemporary photography, with represented artists including Saul Leiter, Joel Meyerowitz, Edward Burtynsky, Ashkan Sahihi and Catherine Gfeller. As well as staging four to six exhibitions annually, and their participation in national and international art fairs, the activities of Galerie Springer are completed by support service for private and public collections.

Robert Morat Galerie
Linienstraße 107
10115, Berlin
+49 30 25 20 93 58
www.robertmorat.de

Robert Morat Galerie opened its doors in Hamburg in 2004. With a focus on contemporary photography, the gallery has built an international reputation as a place for discoveries. It represents prominent practitioners such as Christian Patterson, Ron Jude and Mårten Lange, and actively exhibits at international art fairs such as Paris Photo, Photo London and Unseen Amsterdam. In 2015, Robert Morat closed his Hamburg gallery, moving into a beautiful new space on Linienstraße in Berlin-Mitte. Since then, the gallery has exhibited shows such as Christian Patterson’s Bottom of the Lake (2015), Ron Jude’s Lago (2015) and Andre Grützner’s Erbgericht (2013–15), all of which attracted significant attention amongst the city’s photographic community, giving the respective artists substantial visibility.

C/O Berlin
Hardenbergstraße 22–24
10623, Berlin
+49 30 28 44 41 60
www.co-berlin.org

Originally founded as a private initiative in 2000 by photographer Stephan Erfurt, designer Marc Naroska and architect Ingo Pott, C/O Berlin quickly gained international recognition as an outstanding exhibition venue for photography. First established in the historical Postfuhramt building in Berlin-Mitte, C/O Berlin has now presented more than twenty solo and group exhibitions of internationally distinguished photographers such as Annie Leibovitz, Martin Parr, Nan Goldin, Anton Corbijn, Sebastião Salgado, Peter Lindbergh, René Burri and Stephen Shore in 2500 m2 of the light-flooded space at Amerika Haus in Berlin-Charlottenburg. Through its educational programme, workshops and panel discussions, the organisation also offers numerous opportunities to engage intensively with the photographic medium. Since 2006, C/O Berlin has been supporting young photographers and art critics through their annual international C/O Berlin Talent Award.

Kehrer Galerie
Potsdamer Straße 100
10785, Berlin
+49 30 68 81 69 49
www.kehrergalerie.com

Klaus Kehrer, founder of the renowned photo book publisher of the same name, opened a new gallery space in 2014. Located in Berlin-Tiergarten, the gallery exhibits a breadth of artists all working within a range of photographic genres. Steffi Klenz, Eva Leitolf, Aapo Huhta, Gregor Sailer, Danila Tkachenko and Thibault Brunet are some of the names to grace its international roster. With the exhibition programme closely tied with the publishing house, the gallery regularly hosts book discussions to introduce newly-released publications. By providing the city’s photographic community with invaluable insights into the artists’ works and approaches, Kehrer Galerie thereby invites and stimulates fruitful conversations around the photographic medium more generally.

Julia Schiller

Image: View of the exhibition Mårten Lange: Recent Work at Robert Morat Galerie, 2017. Photo: Mårten Lange. Courtesy: Robert Morat Galerie