Some of you may know me primarily as a lecturer in the Visual Culture here at Edinburgh College of Art. In addition to that I am also a freelance curator, a role which I consider to be an integral part of my practice. I also studied sculpture at GSA in the 1990s. Both my practical and academic training inform my curatorial practice. In the past decade or so I have been involved in conceiving, selecting and realising numerous exhibitions. And so, Susannah has asked me to speak today, to discuss some of the knowledge and practical skills required to co-ordinate, install and promote exhibitions in a variety of contexts.
I wanted to begin with this quote by the American critic and cultural theorist, Dave Hickey."Here is some stuff I found. Isn’t it interesting. Excuse me while I get out of the way.” Fundamentally, Hickey is outlining what he considers to be the optimum position for a curator, one that doesn’t proclaim any authorship over the work or impose any reading or interpretation on it, he sees that as the job of the critic.Hickey’s stated ‘arms length’, or rather ‘hands off’ curatorial stance, is at odds with my experiences, which are reflective of howthe curatorial position has expanded from the traditional archivist institutional curator to a more hands on engaged position.In discussing my role as a curator, I inevitably position myself in within the shifting and at times contentious, contemporary curatorial discourses, which you may have covered, or certainly will cover this semester.
Recent curatorial discourse, has, amongst other things, attempted to identify the characteristics that distinguish the artist / curator relationship. Clearly, as this quote from Hickey, establishes, there is, at times, an antagonism between curatorial and artistic practice, with them sometimes being pitted asrival modalities. With the role of the curator being subjected to increased scrutiny in the past couple of decades. This quote by Hickey provokes our consideration, and perhaps a defense, of the subjective and authorial nature of curating, and the importance of a growing awareness of the curator's part in shaping exhibitions. It may also raise questions about the difference between artist and curator, and perhaps hints toward the idea, that curators mediate the artworks.Whilst Hickey may lament the fact, it is clear that curating has clearly reinvented itself to a degree that it is unlikely to return to the situation in which the curator is perceived as facilitator or caretaker.
I want to consider the idea that curation can be considered as a creative practice.The point being that, installation, presentation, curation are as important as the object/image etc on display.The argument goes, that: Curators think in terms of encounter, of the visual, psychological and expressive effects as much as of the techniques, materials and forms of the works which they are interested in.That said, curating is only a tiny percent of what needs to be done in order to realise exhibitions.
As with any project curatingrequires some thought, some ideas, need, opportunity, reaction, stimulous –Evidently there are practical and intellectual aspects of commissioning, programming exhibitions, and as a consequence there is now a long list of metaphors that attempt to reconcile diverse modes of practice, with the curator envisaged as editor, DJ, technician, agent, manager, platform-provider, promoter and producer…
Another issue I want to acknowledge is the dialectical relationship which exists between the artist, curator, critic, and audience. And my practice does or has occupied each of these position, often concurrently. Focusing specifically on the roles of the curator and critic, Hickey makes the point that critics only argue about whether an exhibition is worth seeing or not. Curators, however, decide what is included/excluded from an exhibition. He states that:The simplest way that I can explain it is to say that criticism is a consumer side practice and curating is a supply side practice. The critic is trying to make sense of the art before his or her eyes. Curators present things to people that they might wish to try to make sense of. A critic is trying to say one thing; a curator is trying to create a situation in which a lot of people might see and think and say a lot of different things. Critics try to stabilize; curators, ideally, try to destabilize, to create the possibility of new meanings.
This statement from the cultural criticStewart Homes’ more readily reflects my position, that curator, critic, artist, and indeed audience, are no longer mutually exclusive positions.I am both a consumer and producer of ideas, curation, as I stated, is an extension of my practice; from making art to making exhibitions…to making sense of it all!I might more accurately describe myself as a project-based producer
In order to unpack, and illustrate some of these positions and contentions I thought I would focus on the curating I have done for three very different contexts:The Embassy gallery, an artist-run gallery, founded in 2004.The Talbot Rice Gallery, the public art gallery of the University of Edinburgh, established in 1975.Edinburgh Art Festival, a city-wide art festival that around 45 of Edinburgh’s galleries participate in, and which began in 2003. Each of these case studies share a lot in common but they also have, for instance, different remits, different audiences, and budgets. And my curatorial roles within each also differed somewhat.In discussing them I will explore the way in which exhibitions are arrived at, taking into account the ideological considerations, and the necessity to account for the theoretical and historical grounding for exhibition making, or curating.Its also worth noting that all are publicly funded, and so each has to negotiate its responsibility to its public, its audience? Be that varied concerns relating to accessibility and education for instance.
So to begin with the EMBASSY gallery, it is a non-profit making artist-run gallery, which was founded in 2004 by a group of Edinburgh College of Art graduates. The gallery holds a yearly programme of exhibitions and events and exhibits at off site projects. Each year they also co-ordinate the Annuale festival, which is a presentation of grassroots artistic activity in various venues throughout the city. EMBASSY has a rolling committee of 5 to 7 members who work on a voluntary basis and are supported by a members base. The committee are responsible for all aspects of the gallery and serve as directors for, on average, around 2 year period.One of the main impetuses for starting the Embassy was as a means of self-empowerment, of wanting to ‘do something’ rather than sit around and wait for ’things to happen’. In this sense, artist-led galleriesbring into question the definition of contemporary curation, and question the idea is to generate a space where members share equalized responsibilities for the role they perform within the aims and objectives of the organization.
I was on the Embassy gallery committee from 2005-2008, and during this period, I curating over twenty exhibitions; video and performance nights as part of eca’s professional practice programme; exhibiting at art fairs in London; and co-ordinating the Edinburgh Annuale which as I just mentioned, brings together artist-run activities and galleries for a month long independent festival of grassroots production in the city and includes publication launches, live events and exhibitions. From an ideological position, artist-run gallery, working with peers, questions authorial hierarchies of established institutions, e.g. not waiting for their validation, Doing It Yourself. Working as part of a collective, there are a number of strategies that need to be employed in curating the gallery programme: cooperation, negotiation, and re-negotiation are key.
Artist-run initiativeNot-for profitVoluntary basisInherent instabilitySweat equity I am referring to the contribution made to a project by those who contribute their time and effort. It can be contrasted with financial equity, that is the money contributed towards the project. One impact of artist-run initiatives being dependent on the voluntary labour of artists, is that their strategies and outcomes are therefore highly variable. Through its various manifestations of co-Directors, the Embassy has endeavoured to curate a diverse exhibition programme at the gallery. This has been achieved, not always successfully, both through the specialisation of individual committee members who actively seek interesting artists, and through considering proposals from open submissions. The gallery exhibits the work of emerging artists and also that of more established artists, and the differential boundaries are not always clear. In part this is a deliberate strategy towards encouraging discussion and comparison between artists at different stages of their careers, with a view to show that creative development is a continuous and wide ranging progression.The second Embassy committee, after the founding members, consciously advanced this agenda with an exhibition pairing together Alasdair Gray and Stuart Murray in 2006. Gray graduated in Design and Mural Decoration from Glasgow Art School (GSA) in 1957, and Murray also graduated from GSA some forty-four years later in 2001. One of the intentions and benefits of such cross-generational exhibitions is that they present various stages of practice development, as artists develop, influence and are influenced.
TRG: an institution require a distinct expertise when it comes to installation, designing and art experience from within an institution. Employed as a Curatorial Researcher: This role involved taking the ideas that had initially been seeded and engaging in critical and creative research/interpretation in order realize an number of outcomes, an exhibition, a symposium, a discussion forum, all structures for articulating, debating, contextualizing, and theorizing the ideas embedded and suggested by the exhibition. As an interesting case study, I want to talk about one exhibition that I was involved in at TRG, Beholder, an exhibition that purposefully dismantled and examined the curator’s authority. The Principal Curator, Pat Fisher, consciously renouncing the role of the single authorial figure. The impetus for the exhibition was the tercentenary of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, who notable stated that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.Beholder, an exhibition exploring taste and subjectivity in the visual arts. The premise was simple: we invited artists, individuals and organisations across Scotland to nominate a work of art they consider to be beautiful. The works were then displayed in the gallery space, setting up dynamic visual dialogues to form a contemporary portrait of beauty.
My colleague James Clegg, playing the part of curator
Sitting in the gallery,engaging with visitors to the gallery, discussing Hume, the purpose and function of Art, as well as Beauty and the concept behind Beholder. He is interested in the social engagement potential of the artistic experience.As an artwork in itself, I will hopefully be highlighting (but also subverting/reversing) the participatory nature the exhibition by declaring the visitor the most beautiful aspect of the show.
AnthonySchraga slow walk from the gallery towards Calton Hill, exploring various aspects of the city and its relationship to David Hume, touching on “the history of beauty” and the (un)changing nature of beauty. the walk followed the Fibonacci spiral: the line of beauty.The second strand will be a led conference/discussion around a bonfire on Calton Hill – a sort of open-ended discussion on beauty as lit by firelight. Hot Toddy’s, Hot Chocolate and Good people to guide the way. Depending on budgets, I’d like to invite a couple key folks that might have a curious/interesting insight on beauty (preferably users of Calton Hill, but that’s open to discussion….)
The talk took place around a bonfire on Calton Hill, led by a selection of "Experts on Beauty" (a plastic surgeon, a few children, a poet, a couple civil servants, a chef) and was a sort of free-form, open-source discussion on beauty
Artachat, for those of you who are not familiar with it, is a research project set up with the intention of creating discussion and dialogue between artists and audiences. The aim is to foster an environment for the exchange of ideas and debate and act as a platform for further research.In collaboration with them I organised a round table, in the Talbot Rice Gallery, the intention being, to provide an opportunity for lively discussion about beauty; the theme of the current exhibition Beholder.What is beauty? Why is beauty? Who is beauty?We invited the audience, or rather, participant to bring an object, a painting, a person, an image of just a description or idea of what is beautiful to them.
Not only did the array of examples wildly differ in terms of their appearance, but also in the responses they elicited. Some very personal objects were shared, which inspired both interest and repulsion, (umbilical cord in a miniature jam jar) while others could not be passed around due to their fragile nature. These objects, and this discussion, proved to be an interesting forum to encounter a truly unusual objects and examples of embodied beauty. When compared to a number of the artworks presented in Beholder, they were considered without the weight of institutional representation and the political choices such professionals must make – It highlighted that many of the choices made for the exhibition were predictable in their relationships with particular artists. For example, Fiona Bradley, Director, Fruitmarket Gallery, selected a Karla Black work, Karla’s exhibition for the 54th Venice Biennale 2011 was curated by The Fruitmarket Gallery Toby Webster of the Modern Institute selected Andrew Kerr, one of the artists he commercially represents, and so on…In this sense Beholder also went some way to making legible the curatorial agendas in place.
At its core, an exhibition is the visual expression of an idea. It needs an underlying rationale, a combination of intellectual rigor and aesthetic creativity.Curatorial Researcher involvedResearch and IdeasConcept - Authoring/concept generation/methodsDevelopment - Methodology/analysis of ideasInterpretation - levels of understanding (audiences)Relevance - appropriate concept in relation to brief (invitation)Continuous practice - (is there) relation with other projectsThe symposium explored a range of critically important themes relating to the concept of beauty, taste and the influence of cultural tastemakers.
2001 Edinburgh Art festival exhibition in the ECA Sculpture court. ECA and Edinburgh University merger, high profile exhibitionUntitled, 2010 and an early pigment sculpture named White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers.
Rachel Mayeri: Primate Cinema during the Edinburgh Festival, in ECA’s Sculpture court
EAF: Rose Street, promenade. Linking projects, artist, audiences, and locations. Beyond set-up of the white-cube, the staging of work in a public space or without some of the physical constraints of the actual gallery building, come with its own set of constraintsBoth cases, employed to perform a task on behalf of an institution, and a mandate for a certain range of activity, which may involve a certain sense of institutional authorship, but emphatically, to my mind, does not include artistic claim to the artwork on which this activity is predicated. In realizing an exhibition, curation is a very small part of it, and the process itself engenders a number of practical and creative roles.which the curator becomes a producer of exhibitionsEAF, curator/producer: with regard to the boundary between curatorial practice and artistic production. On one hand it acknowledges the complexity of the collaboration that has to happen when something like an exhibition is organized or a project is carried out.Problematised…collaboration…authorship… questioning the boundaries of my involvement in the aesthetic and conceptual production. (I do not credit myself as a collaborator or co-author, I really do not think that many artists feel that collaboration with a curator is essential to produce meaning. To my mind, this type of claim would be an extremely unwelcome and unwarranted intrusion)
Commissioned for Edinburgh Art Festival, Harman’s new work 24/7 also involved a degree of stealth in its realisation. From 6am on Sunday 29 July, Harman spent a consecutive period of 24 hours in an AsdaSupercentre outside Edinburgh. His installation is created from everything he purchased during this 24 hour period. A present-day David Attenborough, Harman's work is a typically playful ethnographic study of our 24hr consumer culture, its implications and possibilities, as well as a literal representation of the time he spent in the supermarket.
In his installation, Harman make use of certain aspects of curatorial and organizational work by assuming the role of curator
Rose Street has always seemed at odds with the elegance of Edinburgh’s New Town. Renowned in the 19th century as a red light district, it then became known as the ‘amber mile’, home to the drinking establishments which once hosted the Gallic poets. The street provides a rich context for screenings of film works by artists who all offer oblique views of the city. The programme includes works by Anthony Schrag, Kevin Harman, Emily Speed, Calvin Laing and Tim Taylor.
Calvin Laing performance in Scotts Bar
The primary explorations raised here are questions about the context of the work, and the content that defines its engagement.
The key principles that link these projects are trust, audience engagement, risk, economics, space and authorship in contemporary curating.And at this juncture it may be worth considering where curatorial practice enters your practice?
"Here is some stuff I found. Isn’t itinteresting. Excuse me while I get out of the way.” Dave Hickey
“The curator is a more or less inspired art herder.” Dave Hickey
Curation as a creative practice?There is now a long list of metaphorsthat attempt to reconcile diversemodes of practice, with the curatorenvisaged as editor, DJ, technician,agent, manager, platform-provider,promoter and producer…
Has the curator replaced the critic?“The simplest way that I can explain it is to say thatcriticism is a consumer side practice and curating is asupply side practice. The critic is trying to make sense ofthe art before his or her eyes. Curators present things topeople that they might wish to try to make sense of. Acritic is trying to say one thing; a curator is trying tocreate a situation in which a lot of people might see andthink and say a lot of different things. Critics try tostabilize; curators, ideally, try to destabilize, to create thepossibility of new meanings.” Dave Hickey
Has the curator replaced the critic? “I wish to overcome capitalist canalisation and specialisation: and thus abolish separated roles such as those between curator, artist and critic…” Stewart Home
Artist-run gallery, founded in 2003 The public art A city-wide art festival that around 45 gallery of the of Edinburgh’s galleries participate University of in, and which began in 2003Edinburgh, est. 1975
Artist-led galleriesbring into question thedefinition ofcontemporary curation,the idea is to generate aspace where membersshare equalizedresponsibilities for therole they perform withinthe aims and objectivesof the organization http://www.embassygallery.org
Alasdair Gray and Stuart Murrayhttp://www.alasdairgray.co.ukhttp://www.stuartmurray.co.uk
Beholder, anexhibition that purposefully dismantledand examined the curator’s authority
Anthony Schrag sat in the gallery, engaging with visitors to thegallery, discussing Hume, the purpose and function of Art, as wellas Beauty and the concept behind Beholder
Schrag led people on a slow walk walk from Talbot Rice towards Calton Hill, exploring various aspects of the city and itsrelationship to David Hume, touching on “the history of beauty” and the (un)changing nature of beauty. The walk followed the Fibonacci spiral: the line of beauty
Schrag led an open-ended discussion on beautydiscussion around a bonfire on Calton Hill
Artachat is a research http://www.artachat.orgproject set up with theintention of creatingdiscussion and dialoguebetween artists andaudiences. The aim is tofoster an environmentfor the exchange ofideas and debate andact as a platform forfurther research.
The audience brought an object, a painting, a person,an image of just a descriptionor idea of what is beautiful to them
Symposium: “My cow is not pretty, but its pretty to me.” David Lynch Key-note speaker: Dave Beech Symposium speakers: Dr Angela McClanahan Andrew Sneddon Fiona Jardine Alex Pollard Chair: Deborah JacksonAt its core, an exhibition is the visual expression of an idea. It needs an underlying rationale, a combination of intellectual rigor and aesthetic creativity.
Rachel Mayeri: Primate Cinema during the Edinburgh Festival, in ECA’s Sculpture court
Linking projects, artist, audiences, and locations. Beyond set-up of the white-cube, the staging of work in a public space or without some of the physical constraints of theactual gallery building, come with its own set of constraints
Kevin Harman, 24/7 (2012)From 6am on Sunday 29 July,Harman spent a consecutiveperiod of 24 hours in an AsdaSupercentre outside Edinburgh http://www.kevinharman.co.uk
Harman’sinstallation wascreated fromeverything hepurchased duringthis 24 hour period.A present-dayDavidAttenborough,Harmans work is aethnographic studyof our 24hrconsumer culture,its implications andpossibilities, aswell as a literalrepresentation ofthe time he spent inthe supermarket.
In his installation, Harman make use of certain aspects of curatorial andorganizational work by assuming the role of curator
Alexis Milne introducing Bunker Mentality at Scotts Bar, Rose Street, Edinburgh http://www.alexismilne.com
Calvin Laing performance in Scotts Bar http://www.calvinlaing.com
The primary explorations raised here are questions about thecontext of the work, and the content that defines its engagement
The key principles that link these projects are trust, audience engagement, risk, economics, space and authorship in contemporary curating.