Constellation, The Undercroft, Norwich, 2-17 July 2016
Dialogue, discourse, conversation and sometimes just chatting are the often hidden elements in visual art practices. But these exchanges between artists inevitably find their way into the work as ideas and processes are pulled apart and put back together again.
Curating something as nebulous as the subtle impact of dialogue upon artists’ thinking and working processes requires a different approach. Gone is the reliance on a ‘theme’ whereby the curators select works that provide a coherent walk-through a particular subject matter with clear chronological, geographical or ideological approaches. Instead, there is the notion that somehow the works themselves, by continuing the dialogues between their makers, will generate new connections and conversations. In curating Constellation, we cannot even rely upon there being a common thread with which to link the works through either medium or subject matter. Nor do we know (only six weeks before the exhibition opens) what works will be delivered for installation. This is indeed curating in the dark, founded on speculation, not-knowing, and a considerable amount of trust.
Can we, we wonder, even call ourselves ‘curators’ when we have neither initiated the project, nor selected the works and will not even be the sole arbiters of the installation? In this, the first of two articles, we attempt to give a flavour of what it is like to curate and to be curated through such a free-form approach.
In the context of postgraduate fine art education, the exchange of dialogue is embedded in the teaching process. Support structures (to use Céline Condorelli’s term) are in place to facilitate said dialogue, and to accommodate the pulling apart and putting back together of work that hopefully results in the development of something more interesting. This often looks like a negotiation, involving multiple participants, in and through which the ideas of the work, its physical form, and its presentation are problematised, developed and ultimately resolved. And whilst one might imagine that the teaching in fine art education takes a didactic sort of format, reminiscent of the traditional ‘master and apprentice’, the process is instead often reciprocal, taking place not only from tutor to student, but between students themselves and also from student to tutor. Particularly in postgraduate fine art education, the master and apprentice model is inevitably eroded, as discussions between tutors and students become more of an exchange between equals. This model is demonstrated even by this text, whose authorship also negates the typical boundaries of and between curators and exhibitors, tutors, students and graduates. Within the context of Constellation, the role of the individualistic curator, who marks quite intentionally his or her understanding of a specific selection of work, is replaced by a group whose onus is both to stretch and challenge, even possibly to dispute and disagree, forming something wholly unachievable by a single curator working independently.
What can an exhibition with a less measured agenda seek to accomplish, particularly given that Constellation will take place with the British Art Show 8 as its backdrop? There is not only no theme to this exhibition, there is also no single voice or driving force behind its presentation. Instead there are multiple aims, interests and ambitions. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Constellation is its implied critique of exhibitions themselves: the often over-produced, over-controlled presentation of objects to be revered. Here instead something more exploratory is offered, no less serious but more tentative, something more representative of the manner in which work comes into being. And as with the way work in progress is pulled apart and re-formed (thus encapsulating the dialogue and conjecture that in part helped to form it), this exhibition will become manifest through this kind of developmental process, and in a similar and unspoken sense the dialogue will find itself woven into the fabric of the project.
In adopting such an approach (one that favours uncertainty and chance over any form of predetermined structure or convention), Constellation requires a particular type of space. The Undercroft, a Grade II listed underground space in Norwich city centre, has hosted a range of projects, often artist-led, seldom boasting a curated programme. Instead, this space (like spaces of a similar ilk) is available for use by practitioners who utilise them for testing out ideas. This seems particularly pertinent as after all postgraduate fine art education itself is about research, speculation, hypothesising and testing out, for both tutors and students.
Interested in exploring the potential of Constellation’s installation period, in which many months (and for some more than 2 years) of speculation and logistical planning will begin to take a tangible form, our approach has been to emphatically avoid dictating outcomes. Instead the speculative nature of this project, to find out what exactly is possible, is the interesting element in a process that will continue to develop long after the exhibition has been and gone. In this context, both ‘curating’ and ‘installation’ seem inappropriate terms, being far removed from a process of merely installing works in or through a largely pre-determined plan. Installation here will, in no uncertain terms, involve making the creative (artistic/curatorial) decisions that one typically associates with the preliminary stages of planning an exhibition.
To allow this to take its course, our meetings and email-based correspondence with the other artists has been appropriately vague, consisting largely of guidance about what will or will not be possible within the space. The emerging partnership between NUA and PZI adds a further dimension to these preliminary stages, as the certainty that is brought by each participant’s knowledge of their fellow alumni and tutors from the respective institutions is disrupted. Submitting works into such a speculative context can prove to be a daunting process for artists and in this instance, particularly for those outside of the steering group, there has been a sense of working in the dark. Not having been privy to the dialogues in the earlier stages of planning, the curatorial intent (or perceived lack thereof) could appear rather opaque and has inevitably resulted in instances of misunderstanding and confusion. It will be interesting to discover the extent to which the project aims have been successfully transmitted.
Now preparations begin to move into the practical stages, we have to start thinking about what will be required during the 10-day installation phase. How will we prepare the artists for the task of installing their own works whilst simultaneously contributing to the curatorial discussions? How will we negotiate the inevitable (given the timing of the exhibition in relation to the academic calendar) absences of key personnel? Enlisting student volunteers to document this process will, we hope, not only allow us time and space to reflect on this process but should provide a body of research upon which we can build the next phase. As the platform for this discourse widens into a public arena, it further extends conceptions of dialogue between the artists, their works, and their audience.
Constellation has its origins in the longstanding importance given to dialogue in the teaching of Fine Art at Norwich University of the Arts (NUA). The project was devised by Paul Fieldsend-Danks (Head of Taught Postgraduate Courses at NUA) and Carl Rowe (Course Leader for BA Fine Art at NUA), and curated by Dr Judith Stewart (MA Fine Art tutor at NUA) and Joseph Doubtfire (MA Fine Art Alumnus at NUA). In the sprit of opening an international dialogue, the exhibition welcomes invited graduates and staff from MA Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute (PZI), Rotterdam, under the direction of Vivian Sky Rehberg (MFA Course Director at the PZI).
The artists forming Constellation are: Sol Archer, Joseph Doubtfire, Paul Fieldsend-Danks, Gregory Hayman, Sarah Horton, Bernd Krauss, Hunter Longe, Alice Mendelowitz, Melissa Pierce Murray, James Quinn, Carl Rowe, Tim Simmons, Sarah Smith, Judith Stewart.