Liz Orton

Every Body Is An Archive

Book review by Diane Smyth

When Liz Orton’s daughter was 13 months old, she had to have a nuclear imaging scan at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital. Though it’s a hospital famous for its work with children, and though Orton was assured that the scan would be non-invasive, the procedure turned out to be traumatic. Injected with a dye, her daughter had to be kept motionless for about 20 minutes, something very difficult for most wriggly toddlers to achieve. So she was strapped to the bed with Velcro restraints and immobilised with sandbags, which felt, says Orton, anything but non-invasive.

The experience got her thinking about medical imaging and the ‘medical gaze’, setting her off on a very long path which has now culminated in a book, Every Body Is An Archive, designed by Valentina Abenavoli of AKINA. Funded by the Wellcome Trust, Orton realised the project from 2014-19, working with the medical imaging team at University College London Hospital, sitting in as scans were taken of patients, teaching herself to use medical imaging software, doing collaborative re-enactments with individuals who’d had scans, and plundering the photographs in the Clark’s Positioning in Radiography manual (1939). Every Body Is An Archive includes essays by John Hipwell, computational medical imaging scientist; Professor Steve Halligan, radiologist at UCL Hospital and Head of the Centre for Medical Imaging at UCL; plus Dr Henrietta Simson, artist and fine art lecturer, and throughout, Orton aims to do something deceptively simple – to unpick the medical gaze.

As a term first proposed by Michel Foucault in his 1963 book The Birth of the Clinic, it refers to the dehumanising medical separation of the patient’s body from his or her person or identity. At the hands of the medical profession, so the argument goes, we’re supposed to abandon our cultural, sexual, or personal understanding of our bodies and think of them as medical objects; if we’re the only naked ones in the room, this isn’t supposed to feel strange, and if we’re touched in intimate places, we’re supposed to take it on the chin. “Paradoxically, in relation to that which he is suffering from, the patient is only an external fact; the medical reading must take him into account only to place him in parentheses. Of course, the doctor must know ‘the internal structure of our bodies’; but only in order to subtract it, and to free to the doctor’s gaze ‘the nature and combination of symptoms, crises, and other circumstances that accompany diseases’,” writes Foucault. Later he adds: “If one wishes to know the illness from which he is suffering, one must subtract the individual, with his particular qualities”. But as Orton points out, we don’t have different cultural, personal or medical bodies, we have just one, so in real life, this separation isn’t easy to achieve. Orton’s book is a deliberate refusal to try.

The images she uses from Clark’s Positioning in Radiography are meant to be diagrams, for example, helping professionals achieve the best results in their X-rays; Orton strips them of their context to show how surreal, kinky, and even fashionable they also are. Legs are placed akimbo, faces crudely bisected by lines in ways that cut across social norms for (female) bodies and the ways they’re represented; elsewhere computer-generated images create weirdly inhuman depictions of the human body. The re-enactments she staged, meanwhile, reinterpret the sometimes disempowering experience of being scanned to give back a sense of autonomy and control, to show scenes that look loving, threatening and even funny.

Orton’s book is also peppered with short phrases from those who have undergone scans, as they try to describe the images that have been taken of their insides. Patients often don’t get to see these images, Orton points out, and if they do, they usually lack the skills or the vocabulary to interpret them in conventional, medical terms. She lets them give it a go, and their homespun attempts are also surreal and witty, and heavily reliant on metaphor. “when you are poaching an egg, and the egg is a bit old, and all the white goes into the water”, reads one; “a ghost waiting for an embrace”, reads another.

For Orton, it’s the fact that these interior shots are just that, interior, that’s so compelling – taken without physically puncturing the body but invading it all the same. It’s an approach that she deliberately eschewed, teaching herself to use radiological software but using it to build pictures of the outsides of bodies rather than breaching their boundaries. As such many of the resulting images are clustered together onto black pages in the book, where they’re printed with silver ink like X-rays. They look descriptive but also eerily strange, artefacts and interferences giving a distinctly digital effect.

And that’s of interest too since, as Orton points out, the medical body is now on the threshold of change, as computer sciences become more integral to healthcare. Medical images, for some time captured by computers, are increasingly interpreted by computers too – and unlike older forms of diagnosis, in which a doctor might talk with a patient about their symptoms and also their life, the patient need not even be present. Furthermore the image data sets are valuable too, both helping to train up the interpretative software but also as a resource in their own right, one that is governed by strict rules around privacy and ethics but, even so, one prominent radiologist has spoken in terms of a ‘gold rush’. In the era of Big Data, it’s worth considering what that data might reveal in conjunction with other information sets, and also about who owns them – medical imaging is a force for good, but considered as a means of surveillance, it’s at least got the potential for something less benign.

“Computer software and hardware systems operating across different sectors, through common platforms and constantly expanding networks, allow for an unprecedented integration of interests and systems in medicine,” Orton has written on her Digital Insides website. “The body is becoming part of this new informational economy, facilitated through new forms of biomedical management. It is being propelled into the fields of medical image computing, post-image processing, computer aided diagnosis, automated analysis, image-guided surgery/treatment, machine and deep learning, and image mining. The image is potential: in a computerised system, it is becoming generative in new ways, both as product and process.”

Or, as Professor Steve Halligan puts it in his accompanying essay to the book: “Ultimately, [the] work shows us what we have often forgotten due to pressure of work and what is obscured: that there is first and foremost a human being behind the image, and secondly that the experience of imaging often makes patients feel highly vulnerable.”

All images courtesy the artist. © Liz Orton

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who works with publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, the British Journal of Photography, Foam, and others. Prior to going freelance she wrote and edited for the British Journal of Photography for more than 15 years, and she has also curated exhibitions for The Photographers’ Gallery, Lianzhou Foto Festival and the Flash Forward Festival.

Erik Kessels

Artist and DBPP nominee 2016


Continuing our Interviews series, Diane Smyth speaks to the trailblazing Dutchman Erik Kessels – art director, collector, curator, editor and, of course, head of unorthodox advertising agency, KesselsKramer – whose project, Unfinished Father has been shortlisted for The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2016. Here they mull over the genesis of his curatorial ideas, the importance of failure and why he believes the art of photography is no longer the preserve of specialists.

Diane Smyth: How did you get the idea for Unfinished Father?

Erik Kessels: Last summer I was invited to do an exhibition for Fotografia Europea, which happens in Reggio Emilia, Italy every year. They asked me if I was interested in working with the city archive or something from the city, but I didn’t have much time to go to visit because of the situation with my father who had had a stroke. I looked through images of the city from the 1930s, 40s and 50s and saw a lot of Fiat Topolinos, which reminded me of him. He was working for 15 years restoring these cars, and was working on the fifth one when he fell ill. It was not an option to finish.

The idea was to take the car from the workshop and show it together with the photographs he took as he was doing the restoration. In the back of the synagogue where the exhibition was originally staged I also exhibited more pictures from locals. I often research images by other people and this was just the same, though of course you have more of a connection if it is your own family. I had never thought about doing anything with my father’s archive of Topolino restoration shots, but when you get a request it all comes together. I just continued step by step until it was complete.

DS: Do you consider yourself the creator of this work, or the curator of your father’s photography?

EK: I’m the artist. If you are curator you take parts of other artists and put them together; my father is an amateur – in a good way – and the images have no interest if they are not presented with the story. When I tell the story, people say they’re beautiful. One image shows a car’s rusty underside. At first I thought it had been shot on a white background but then I realised my father had just put it down on the snow. He just put it there because it was easy to photograph, with no other intention, but because of how the show is put together, it becomes very metaphorical. That’s what I’m interested in – how I can take the emotion from within me and make something.

In general I’m not interested in a single photograph. I’m more interested in a story, or the story behind it, or how a series of photographs can tell a certain story. I have done an exhibition using single images – Album Beauty, which is a lot of single images from family albums, through which I try to show how people behave in albums, first shown at FOAM, Amsterdam in 2012. In art and photography, I think the idea is becoming more important, not the craft needed to make it. Everything is made as so much has already been shot, and anyone can make anything since cameras are so easy to use now. It’s totally different to the period in the 1980s and 90s when photography was still entirely analogue, and photographers were masters of their trade. Everything then was a big mystery. Now it’s much more democratic and anyone can do it – so what you do is the question. Once the technique is there, once you can do everything, what do you photograph?

DS: Were you surprised to be nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize?

EK: I’ve been on the long list a few times so no, but I was very emotional because it is such a personal work. I was surprised maybe two years ago when Mishka Henner was nominated for No Man’s Land, a series of images taken from Google Street view. I thought that that was not typical, not the usual finalist, and marked an interesting shift.

DS: How do you choose the images you work with? And how do you choose how the format in which you end up presenting them?

EK: There’s always a certain starting point, whether it’s an image, a series of images, a personal matter and so on. The preferred outlet for the idea will only come at the end of this. Some ideas work better in an exhibition, others as a book. Luckily there are no rules for that. Books and exhibitions should express themselves totally differently and I see a lot of exhibitions, which makes me feel it’s nice to try to do something differently in the installation, because a lot of stuff is like museums with walls with stuff hanging on them. I find that completely stupid.

For example in Unfinished Father I had pictures on the floor, because my father photographed the objects top-down from above. The installation of Album Beauty had different proportions than normal, i.e the prints were much bigger, as the idea was that people visiting the exhibition would have the feeling of walking through a physical photo album. In 24 Hrs In Photos we started a collection of images found online and took them out of their original context by printing them out and putting them in a huge pile to make people look at them differently. It’s a question of how you can point to things and make people look at them another way.

DS: What did you hope to point to with 24 Hrs In Photos?

EK: We’re exposed to an overload of images, a glut that is in large part the result of image-sharing sites such as Flickr, Pinterest, and Imgur, networking sites such as Facebook, and picture-based search engines. Their content mingles public and private, with the very personal being openly and unselfconsciously displayed, and of course they are facilitated by incredibly accessible technology such as digital cameras, which appear on even the cheapest smartphone. The art of photography, once the preserve of specialists, is now open to everyone. For 24 Hrs In Photos I wanted to explore this overwhelming flood of pictures, and give the gallery visitor a physical means of grasping its vastness.

By printing all the images uploaded in a twenty-four hour period, I visualised the feeling of drowning in representations of other peoples’ experience. This is a sensation you can’t have by flicking through online galleries – though spend a few hours doing it and you’ll get pretty close. But by allowing the public to stroll around the mountains of photographs, walk over them, pick them up and inspect them, the experience can also become more intimate. The installation is at first sight impressively monumental, but when people start looking at the images, they are hopefully moved by the individuality of so many image-makers, each with their own unique take on the world.

DS: Album Beauty seems to have come from almost the opposite impulse, is that right?

EK: It was made as an ode the vanishing era of the family album. Once commonplace in every home, the photo album has been replaced by the digital age where images now live online and in hard drives. These visual narratives in the traditional album are testament to the once universal appeal of documenting and displaying the mundane. Often a repository for family history, they usually represent a manufactured family as edited for display. The albums speak of birth, death, beauty, sexuality, pride, happiness, youth, competition, exploration, complicity and friendship.

DS: You’re an unusual figure in the art world because your day job is as a creative director in an ad agency. Would you like to give the agency work up?

EK: Never, I enjoy it. I have learnt a lot in advertising. Also the combination of advertising and art is interesting. Each one is different, but they both influence each other. If I work on a commission for a client, I can think about something because it has some parameters, also I can do things on a big scale because it is well-financed. On the other hand, I very much enjoy getting commissions from festivals because I can come up with ideas completely freely and with no parameters. I think my role is to communicate, whether that’s how to communicate something with my own work or how to convey something on behalf of someone else.

Having said that, I started my agency, KesselsKramer, 20 years ago and I can’t imagine working at another one. They are too narrow-minded – it sounds bad to say it – whereas I always had different interests. We work for a lot of cultural organisations and museums, often with people who aren’t advertising photographers. I’ve done jobs with Hans Eijkelboom, Mitch Epstein, Bertien van Manen and Carl de Keyzer, for example, which can be a strange combination but exciting. We did a campaign for a mobile phone company using migrants and other non-stereotypical people compared to the typical mobile phone ad. I hate advertising to be honest, but I really like to try to find things in a different way. It’s advertising for people who don’t like advertising. KesselsKramer released a book on this back in 2012.

I do remember when I started to work in advertising, if I went to a party and someone asked me what I did, they would change the subject when I told them. It’s changed now but for years it was very uncool to work for an agency. In 2007, the first time I exhibited a big scale show in a museum, I was surprised there were no critics saying, “who is this commercial guy?!”. But by that time KesselsKramer had already won a reputation for doing sophisticated ads, so maybe that helped.

DS: I’ve heard you say that art galleries are often just as commercial as an ad agency anyway.

EK: Of course, some galleries turn into a BMW showroom, metaphorically-speaking. It’s such a facade – I love sneaking in at the back of these art fairs and seeing the other side, the galleries’ tape and bubblewrap and empty bottles. But maybe I’m naïve. Maybe it has to happen.

DS: You have a book coming out soon encouraging people to make mistakes, Failed it! which will be published by Phaidon in April. Given that your piece is called Unfinished Father, do you think both are interested in showing process, rather than the perfect final product?

EK: Of course it can be nice to have that quality, to feel a bit of process, but it’s not necessary to always have that. Failed it! is more about the idea of how you can be creative, what the creative process is. In photography or design or art I think it’s important to deliberately go in a wrong direction or go towards a mistake, because by expanding the field you may come up with a new idea. Often people only create in their back garden – the front garden is where you show things, but the back garden is the place where you can mess around because no body sees the rubbish. The back garden is the place where work is done and you come up with ideas, and maybe eventually a good idea. Then you take it through the house and show the finished work at the front. But some people have never even been in their back garden! This is what I mean by failure.

DS: One final personal question: Your sister died after being hit by a car when she was 9 years old and you were 11, something which you also produced a tremendous short film on. Do you think your own trajectory has been influenced by this tragedy?

EK: I think it has a lot to do with my work. My parents obviously experienced a lot of grief after the accident and began looking frantically for her last image, for something to hold onto. Eventually they found one just taken at an amusement park, the kind where a photographer takes your picture. It’s printed there and then, and put on the gate for you to buy. My parents took that photograph, cropped the rest of us out of it, and took it to the printers, who made a negative in black-and-white and printed in black-and-white. That is the image they keep in their living room. It’s very mundane, but, quite randomly, suddenly it is very iconic. For me, that image is burned into my brain. I know every detail of it.

Images courtesy of Erik Kessels. © Alek Photography

Charlotte Cotton

Curator in Residence at International Center of Photography (ICP)

New York

For the latest addition to our Interview series, Diane Smyth catches up with the newly-appointed Curator in Residence at the International Center of Photography (ICP), Charlotte Cotton, on the occasion of releasing her new publication with Aperture, Photography is Magic. They discuss what makes a great photobook, process-led aspects of photography curating, the role of institutions such as galleries and museums now, and how digital imaging and distribution has shifted photography.

Diane Smyth: In your article Nine Years, A Million Conceptual Miles, you reference the challenges that digital imaging and online distribution pose for traditional museums and institutions. Hasn’t photography always had a complex relationship with institutions though? How has digital changed that?

Charlotte Cotton: For most traditional institutions (and also the development of photo-centric non-profit spaces), the framing of photography as a cultural subject began in earnest in the 1970s. I agree that the edges of that frame – how to include the stories of non-art photographic practices as well as reflect the movements of contemporary art photography – have been present throughout. In the main, the traditional institutional approach has been to single out a handful of photographers and their oeuvres to epitomise their respective genres and represent an era. The biennial and triennial formats have become an established way to look at the most contemporary aspects of photography in a more en masse way, often without much of a proposal beyond the practitioners’ newness and collective energy. I think that one of the reasons I have enjoyed curating and writing about fashion photography is finding ways to give cultural meaning that genuinely seeks to represent its character, one that exists outside of the curatorial conventions used by traditional institutions.

The first part of your question about whether ‘digital’ has changed the dynamics of institutional appraisal of photography is answerable in a number of ways. I do think it’s possible for photography departments in museums to continue along the route of collecting photographic prints and folding the twenty-first century climate into an established history. There are, as you know, many photographers who are creating bodies of work with museums and collections as their end goal, with some choosing online culture as their subject, not unlike landscape and portraiture in the late twentieth century.

But, for me, the bigger questions are about the relationships museums and galleries have with the image environment at large, and on terms not set by institutions themselves. In an age where the defining of photographic practice is happening much more broadly than in the late twentieth century, I think it deserves something of a rethink of what photography departments and organisations can meaningfully provide, given that they are neither the final home nor taste makers of the bulk of current ideas about photography. In practical terms, that’s about putting more curatorial thinking into cultural forms beyond exhibitions and catalogues.

DS: How can photographers fund their work in this shifting landscape? Is the art market still an alluring prospect because of the possibility of selling self-generated projects?

CC: I think this is such a personal dilemma – about how you fund the work you want to do. For each of us, it’s a constant dynamic of checking in with our own reality. I have become very conscious of how I differentiate between my work and my labour of late, no doubt influenced by the undeniable collective feeling that working life is inherently precarious and redrafts our learnt behaviours about how to have a sustainable creative life. I tend to think of my labour as the work I can do because I have a proven track record of expertise and it is to be undertaken only when there are acceptable terms and conditions that make it transparently worth my while. I actually like to labour and have projects where I am playing just a part in something much larger than my own endeavours. I also like to be useful. My work is something that I ‘own’ and I’m unlikely to be directly paid for it because it needs to be on my own terms, often as a kind of counterargument to prevailing models and, hence, not easily packaged. The labour/work distinction is helpful for me at the moment, and maybe for others working in creative industries, especially for when I get the nagging feeling that we are ultimately subsidising an industry’s mechanics on a somewhat false premise that we have a career in the twentieth century sense.

DS: How do you think the current focus on photobook publishing fits into this new landscape? Is it a bubble?

CC: Photobook publishing is a really creative and energised area of photographic practice and I don’t think that energy is a bubble, exactly. It’s not a market bubble in the sense that the business plan for making and disseminating a book doesn’t tend to have a profit line! But I actually think that’s why photobook publishing is so alive and well – because, like visually-led social media, there is not a business model, it’s pretty much driven by ambitions and creative competition between makers. I think the conversation that is happening between makers who are self-publishing and small presses is an absolute joy because it has spectacularly failed to be co-opted into conventional publishing business models. Long may it continue!

DS: What makes a great photobook? Have you seen any recently that particularly impressed you?

CC: The photobooks that resonate with me the most are ones where I can see and sense that an idea is truly manifest in the form. I don’t think that there are many really solid ‘shoulds’ in independent publishing so my attention is especially drawn to photobooks where I feel every element is an active choice by its makers and is deployed in aide of the idea. I sometimes feel a bit sad when I see a great idea muted by the conventions (in design and production values) that permeate the landscape of contemporary photobooks. I’m someone who appreciates not being given too much of a helping hand by a book’s design and prefer ones that provide its own encounter, not one spelled out by half title pages and forewords, et al. Making a great photobook that defines its own terms is really hard! My viewing preferences mean that I am impressed in lots of different directions – from trade books that make a departure from the expected format right through to a zine I may have stumbled upon or some oblique curation within small presses.

DS: Your exhibition Photography is Magic at Daegu Photo Biennale in 2012 and your edit of CPhoto 7, Photographicness, published in 2014 centred on a new, Post-internet generation of photographers. How has digital imaging and distribution shifted photography? And what would you say to those who say this work focuses on form at the expense of, say, emotional connection or documentary campaigning?

CC: I’m responding to your questions just as my book with Aperture – Photography is Magic – has been launched. It has been my attempt to think deeply about how Post-internet practices are meaningfully recalibrating the idea of the ‘photographic’. I use the analogy of close-up magic (conducted in small venues, with a close circle of viewers) to talk about what I see as an artist-led (another small circle of viewers) set of prospects for photography. The fundamental connection is, perhaps surprisingly, about empathy and the aim to trigger ‘magic’ in the imagination of the viewer. Magic is not held in the mechanics or craft of sleight of hand, but in the responses it provokes imaginatively, in real time. A magician practices close-up magic flourishes using a three-faceted mirror, developing their routines from the perspective of the viewer – using the viewer’s pre-existing knowledge of how the visual world works – and this is what I see happening in the working practices of the artists included in my book. All of these artists seem to me to be creatively grappling with where their authored practices move and can be situated in the increasingly large and shared terrain of image-making.

What Photography is Magic is not is a survey of photography’s twenty-first century materiality – from revivalist analogue techniques to 3-D rendering. I do think materials are demonstrations of active choices but I’m not satisfied with the conclusion that a shifting set of values for photographic materials is the full explanation for the revisions that are currently taking place within cultural ideas about photography. I don’t share the view that making an analysis of Post-internet practices is about privileging form over subject, nor that there is some sort of photographic weighing scales that puts contemporary art photography and documentary photography (seen as genres, which I also don’t hold to) that have to be balanced or can cancel each other out. I’ve written about this before, that I see this as an ‘either/and’ rather than an ‘either/or’ epoch of practice.

DS: In your work on P2P at PhotoEspaña 2014, for which you curated a show called Contemporary Practices in Spanish Photography with 30y3 team, Iñaki Domingo and Luis Díaz and also for the show Photography in Everyday Life with Karol Hordziej as part of the Experimental Section of Krakow Photomonth 2012, you created installations in which photographers and visitors could make work, rather than just showing finished artworks. Is process something you’re keen to reveal?

CC: I’m a big fan of iterative and time-sensitive processes! It is ultimately about the types of relationships I want to create with viewers. This is, of course, absolutely nothing new within the story of conceptual and contemporary art but perhaps an aspect that photography curating didn’t fully take on until Web 2.0 and the added context of much more process-led and active frames for cultural viewership. Both P2P and Krakow Photomonth projects were collaborations with younger curators and this inevitably led to more conversational curatorial forms. In both instances, the exhibitions were visual manifestations of not only creative processes that got us to that point but also the beginnings of new ideas that would ripple out afterwards, so the exhibition form needed to be a mapping of an iterative process but also a prompt for something in the future. Both projects were developed at a time when I was on quite an intense learning curve and I didn’t feel that I wanted to curate as if I had a fully definitive and complete point of view on any aspect of photography. It’s not that I can’t imagine curating in a classical way ever again but I have been much more interested in being a participant in thinking and modestly acting out what feels most pertinent to the working groups that I’ve been lucky enough to be part of.

DS: At LACMA where you led the photographic department from 2007-09 you also worked on projects, which focused on live performance and discussion rather than displaying artworks. How do you see the role of institutions such as galleries and museums now?

CC: Working at LACMA gave me immense creative freedom, thanks to the support of the museum’s über-director, Michael Govan. His vision for LACMA has been to create a ‘town square’ for Los Angeles and my forays into envisioning that (with the Machine Project Field Guide to LACMA and the Fallen Fruits’ EATLacma) were some the most incredible experiences of my life. So much of this non-object-based emphasis in my curatorial work was about Los Angeles and its critical mass that is centred in the amazing art schools and artist-to-artist dialogues, and spawned Southern California’s rich history of conceptual art practices. I also greatly enjoy working in institutions at points of change – where creative risks and new paradigms can be developed because the institution actively wants to rethink its role and modalities.

Words Without Pictures was a website (designed by David Reinfurt and edited by Alex Klein) and series of live events. I liked the way we made a connection between what was locally important – and the emergent issues being explored by one community – with the online and global (although mainly within the US) discussion that ensued. I conceived of the project as a year-long discussion that would be summarised in a book that would be useful for more discussions in classrooms, published by Aperture in 2010. I felt like a year was the maximum amount of time before the project would institutionalise itself and become too knowing about its own behaviours. If I had stayed at LACMA, I’m sure we would have taken what we had learnt from the process and thought about the next version, one that might well have blurred the lines between traditional ideas of museum and university with another ‘journey’ that everyone was welcome to join us on.

DS: You started off working within the institutional framework as a curator at the V&A but, it seems, have increasingly moved away from this kind of role. I was interested to see that you’ve recently joined the photography agency, M.A.P, traditionally a way for freelancers to find projects…

CC: One very wise ex-colleague at the V&A made the observation that my career has been in reverse. I worked at the V&A for twelve years until 2004 and since then I have worked mainly in the US in different roles including at a commercial image-making agency, as a visiting scholar at a number of universities, at museums in quite heightened moments of change, and as a freelance consultant, curator and writer. I actively enjoy deciding where the best vantage point and place of new discoveries is going to be. It might be misguided but it gives me a greater sense of a self-determined journey in life than one that is pinned to the health and generosity of one institution full-time. I actually think that my critical faculties are made sharper and more pluralistic by the range of experiences I’ve sought out and I do genuinely believe that the absolute best that a creative life can be is constantly generative.

Leaving the V&A was very much bound up with my desire to know what would happen to me once I stopped being, ‘Charlotte Cotton at the V&A’, and to lose the weight of a lofty title, seemingly from the outside something that I could have held on to in perpetuity, as-well-as the projections and expectations that come with that responsibility. I sometimes berate myself for having a life that’s not overburdened with the trappings of middle age and I do occasionally get worked up about where I will be in a year’s time. But then I remember that to not think about these issues is not only a fool’s paradise but to run the risk of missing out on the real journey into one’s future.

DS: What do you think about the growth in MA courses focusing on curating as a career choice or profession? Has the term ‘curating’ become diluted?

CC: Curating has become an overstretched term for sure. But I can still remember a time when I would say that I’m a curator and people would ask me what that was! So I am all for curating becoming an active verb to reflect the way that this is now a recognised dynamic and modality in lots of creative careers. I think the graduate qualifications in curating suffer from the same issues as MFA programmes right now. Once a specific aspect of a creative practice becomes an established ‘career’ qualification, one with professional standards but without the back up of there being a buoyant ‘profession’ to match it directly, I think it becomes complex. I know that if I was 22 right now, I’d be experimenting, interning and collaborating in the real world to refine my skills as a curator rather than investing in a graduate qualification.

DS: What advice would you give a fledging curator?

CC: I think anyone who has already made a commitment to learning the craft of curating knows this but for what it’s worth, I’d suggest the following: Curate the things that you actively want to explore and express – whether that is overarching themes and behaviours that you want to dig deeper into or creating a vantage point onto your generation of practitioners.

Curating is so much about who you want to communicate with and creating a thoughtful invitation to whoever they are. I’ve enjoyed curating projects that are for very specific audiences and they tend to be much younger than me – I think I will always be grateful to the curators (who I didn’t know existed at the time) whose exhibitions I saw when I was just entering adulthood and they validated me and my passion for culture. I also really appreciate the training that the V&A gave me to think about your audience as everyone who was passing through the museum on a given day.

When I was an intern at the V&A, I earned money working in a hotel restaurant and planning out the minor details of wedding receptions. I think I learnt as much about how to make an environment inviting and how to observe people from the hotel as I did from the V&A! Be confident that any fear you might have of losing sight of your own authorship in collaborative curatorial situations is unfounded. Whether you are the curator within a project relying on a range of skills or working with other curators, if you share an aim, something amazing and substantial will happen.

Image courtesy of Charlotte Cotton. © Christian MacDonald