The intentions for the Constellation project held in the Undercroft Gallery, Norwich, outlined in Curating in the Dark (Part I), appeared here in July 2016. It will become evident that these intentions were not entirely realised, and with hindsight were probably always going to be unachievable. The project’s original premise, an examination of how dialogues continue beyond postgraduate education and proposing that the work be curated through dialogue during the installation period, proved a step too far. This may have been a ridiculous (or perhaps idealistic) proposition in the first place but it was also one which circumstances beyond our control meant we were unable to test.
On completing Curating in the Dark (Part I), we expected that Part II would follow closely on the heels of the exhibition itself. What could be easier than to reflect upon a curatorial process? In fact, reflecting on the project and putting together something that is vaguely comprehensible has been much more difficult than anticipated. The multiple issues Constellation raised concerning artist-led projects, competing responsibilities, hierarchies and power relations (institutional and individual) for us, as curators, came to overshadow the project itself and we have struggled to make some sort of sense of what happened. Because of this, and the multiple voices involved, this article presents our own individual perspectives and adopts the conversational format to reflect both the many discussions we have subsequently shared and our own continually changing views of the project.
Judith Stewart: On the evening that British Art Show 8 (BAS8) opened in Norwich there was a downpour of biblical proportions. This being the fourth day of installing Constellation in the Undercroft, we had locked up knowing that the exhibition was almost completed: works in place, conversations beginning, a general sense of satisfaction. Driving home through flooded rural roads with visibility practically non-existent, and knowing that the gallery is liable to leak in heavy rain, I was inevitably apprehensive about the possible effects of this on the exhibition. At approximately 9.30pm the phone rang, confirming my worst fears. Sharing my concerns, Joe had deemed it prudent to leave the glamour of the BAS8 opening to make a quick inspection. Opening the doors to the gallery, Joe, Tim, and Sophie found the floor flooded, with murky brown water lapping around some of the works.
The contrast between the establishment endorsed and coddled exhibits that were left in order to spend two hours salvaging works and mopping up flood water could not have been more marked. The organisational and installation processes had already reminded us of the disparity between artist-led projects and those which are institutionally supported: the latter with the space prepared and polished to within an inch of its life, armies of technicians allotted to individual artists, equipment provided and installed. For the former: mopping up dirty water, begging and borrowing equipment, putting in hours of unpaid labour, co-operating to install each other’s works and, perhaps above all, problem-solving.
Gregory Sholette, conscious of the hierarchical nature of the art world, refers to the vast majority of artists as ‘Dark Matter’ (2011); in a House of Lords debate in 1999, the Earl of Cloncarty (himself at that time an impoverished artist) likened the art system to football leagues, where a handful of players (the premier league) receive unprecedented rewards whilst the majority struggle (Cloncarty,1999). If we think of the Dark Matter or lower leagues as those artists unable to survive on their practice alone, what we experienced in Constellation has implications of which curators need to take note, for as Sholette observes, without the ‘Dark Matter’, not only celebrity artists, but galleries and curators, could not exist.
Our initial, fundamental premise that the work would be curated through dialogue during installation fell at the first fence. Torn between employment and/or domestic responsibilities, the majority of artists in Constellation were unable to be physically present for more than a couple of days during the two-week installation period. The most extreme example being one of the Piet Zwart Institute artists, who only managed a single evening before personal circumstances forced him away again, leaving us curators the unexpected challenge of constructing as well as installing his work. With no dedicated technicians with expertise in sound equipment, we relied upon his PZI colleague and the co-operation and collectivism that are often a hallmark of artists’ projects, to ensure that the work was ready for the opening.
So in this conceptually muddled (and physically muddy) space, what was the curatorial process? Whilst we knew what to expect from most of the artists, some turned up with works that were a total surprise and we were faced with the task of absorbing these into the space and finding a way to install them that made some sort of sense.
Joseph Doubtfire: With work moved from the flood water’s path, the exhibition we walked into the next morning looked quite different: cardboard statues were being balanced between bricks, paintings hung precariously over ladders, and tables, plinths, and other floor-based objects were scattered, shifted from the path of a small stream running down the centre of the space, ensuring their safety from further flooding. We nevertheless rebuilt the exhibition (albeit in a slightly different formation) and although this was met with frustration, we continued several times over to re-work the show, for reasons unrelated to weather! In terms of the arsenal of the artist and the institution respectively, my thoughts go immediately to the practical nature of our approach. It appears that whilst the artist may adopt a responsive approach (not necessarily out of choice), making the best of their circumstances through resourcefulness and grit, institutions have the means to dictate the process.
As set out in Curating in the Dark (Part I), we were not aiming at an ‘overproduced presentation of objects to be revered’. (Doubtfire, Quinn & Stewart 2016). (This approach perhaps signifying a facet of Constellation’s distinction from BAS8.) Instead we adopted a developmental and uncertain process, further complicated by not knowing what works would be delivered, how they would be installed, their technical specifications, or last minute changes. We thought, initially of our decision to exhibit alongside BAS8 as foolhardy, perhaps perceiving a sense of competition and pressure. However the comparison seemingly emphasised the fabric of both projects. The Undercroft, previously providing storage for the (once temporary) Norwich market, as well as toilets for the stall holders, is an industrial space with a concrete ceiling and painted floor, exposed drains and pipes, no natural light and stark strip lighting, something quite different from the sort of institutional spaces you describe.
Jan Verwoert offers a kind of ‘do it or drown’ approach to self-organisation, it being not only what is do-able for the vast-majority of artists (or the ‘dark matter’) but what is necessary (2013). It may be interesting here to note that several artists exhibiting with BAS8 have, and will, show simultaneously in other respected institutions. Student volunteers who worked on both Constellation and BAS8 noted the dichotomy between the two: the artist-led representing exhibition-making in which artists must perform multiple roles as technicians, curators, invigilators, and marketeers. With Constellation representing a realistic experience (or perhaps a differently realistic experience to BAS8’s), volunteers were involved in a process in which they were able to fully engage.
Whilst it is fair to state that Constellation was not curated through dialogue, at least in a collective sense, dialogue was present throughout the process; insofar as continuing conversations, planning and realising this project kept a group of people talking who had, since graduating, dispersed. It prompted the continuation of dialogues between staff and alumni, which for many normally conclude shortly after study, and it forged new dialogues, in the form of developing relationships with staff and MA graduates from the Piet Zwart Institute. Whilst we may declare the notion of collectively curating through dialogue as untested (or even failed), as a project, Constellation was and is a catalyst for dialogue of other sorts. And although this collective curatorial method was never actually tested, few occasions within our installation period saw us acting in isolation, and other voices were usually present.
Judith Stewart: Constellation was certainly successful in initiating dialogue on a number of levels and I think it was inevitable that, at that time, its positioning against BAS8 would dominate our thoughts. However, I have since been thinking over the distinction between institutionally- and artist-led exhibitions and have concluded that it would be a mistake to see them as polarised opposites, or to present the artist-led as somehow ‘better’. Whilst the experience of Constellation made us acutely aware of the inequities of the current exhibition system and underlined the different spheres in which many artists and artist-curators operate, it also revealed a fundamental weakness in our own approach: namely consideration of who the viewer might be, and whom this exhibition was for. I will stick my neck out here and suggest that Constellation, like the majority of contemporary art exhibitions (whether or not they are institutionally supported), was primarily aimed at an informed audience rather than a general public. An analogy might be the way that scientists write for each other rather than a general reader, not having to consider whether or not their work is ‘accessible’ to non-scientists.
This is a problem for curators and artists alike, and I struggle to think of another area outside the visual arts where an outcome has to strive to be as relevant and engaging to the casual bystander as to the informed professional. Major exhibitions such as BAS8 not only provide funding and support for artists, but are accompanied by a host of cultural workers (often freelance, ‘dark matter’, artists) whose job is to act as the bridge between the work and the viewer. Exhibitions such as Constellation cannot, and arguably should not, be expected to provide that layer, but with hindsight I can see that, as part of the steering group, we should have discussed in much more depth who our target audience was. Obviously we were considering the BAS8 viewers, but we made assumptions about the way that the intended curatorial process through dialogue would create meaning without taking into account the way in which some works were never going to make sense when put together. At the time we felt that the difficulties were caused by the impossibility of physically getting together during the installation, but now I wonder whether such dialogue might not have made things more rather than less incoherent. The post-installation meeting to discuss the future development of the project only served to highlight the different ideas and ambitions for it and, had we looked more carefully, we might have seen that these differences were already present in the works.
This is not to suggest that the project was a ‘failure’. In keeping with the original premise (our dialogue as postgraduate tutors/alumni), risk-taking and the possibility of ‘failure’ are an inherent part of the work of artists and artist-curators. And this is possibly one of the biggest advantages of the artist-led project: we can not only afford to fail, but can examine our failures with a degree of honesty. In our conversations leading to Artists on the Gallery Payroll, (2016) Lawrence Bradby talked about the reluctance of galleries to speak of their exhibitions in anything less than glowing terms, conscious of the pressures to succeed at all times.
So where does this leave us as curators of the project? In our June article we expressed our unease at calling ourselves ‘curators’ on the grounds that we had selected neither the artists nor the works. Nor did we anticipate having curatorial control over the installation. Your recognition of the role of the Undercroft makes it very clear that the physical and cultural characteristics of the gallery became the overriding curatorial voice, but after that the organisation of the works within the space became our responsibility. Which brings me back to the question of the intended audience.
Constellation in the end appeared to emphasise less the continuing dialogue between postgraduate tutors and alumni, and more the shared concerns of contemporary artists regardless of their location or institution. Themes of politics, the found, the everyday, and place were clearly present in the show and a different curatorial approach involving selection could have produced the core of several interesting exhibitions where the works (and artists) genuinely entered a dialogue with each other.
Joseph Doubtfire: With speculation and uncertainty so high on Constellation’s priority list, failure could have, and perhaps should have, been an instrumental part of the plan, particularly as we discussed in Part I our intention to adopt a curatorial approach more similar to the way work comes into being. Historically the answer to the institutional reluctance to self-critique is to enlist the help of an artist (I’m thinking of significant projects or works facilitated by institutions: Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska’s Capital (2000) at Tate Modern, Hans Haacke’s MoMA Poll (1970), and Andrea Fraser’s Museum Highlights (1989) with the Philadelphia Museum of Art). It strikes me that artists are perhaps free(er)-agents, who are not as bound by precedents, expectations, or institutional values, and this is particularly pertinent in relation to our roles as both artist-curators, and as postgraduate tutors/alumni.
In On Accessibility (2014) Jo Addison describes her wariness of allowing the audience (metaphorically) into the studio, particularly when things are ‘nascent and unknown’. Given that the gallery is the site of production for the artist-curator, I share a similar scepticism. Audience appears to be an inherently institutional concern, and had it featured more prominently in our decision-making, insofar as considering more emphatically the experience of a non-specialist audience, Constellation may have been a very different exhibition. Though I know this is not what you are suggesting, I am curious whether, had we adopted a traditional approach to audience, such considerations might have compromised, rather than enhanced, the process, and whether, resultantly, this would have meant switching-off some of our informed audience. Whilst I agree that it is not the position for the artist-led to provide educational programmes or discourse around the work they show, within the institution, it seems that educational programmes are used to avoid compromising curatorial integrity and to ensure that an audience can access the work. It is possible that we underplayed the importance of information, not providing statements about the work or the exhibition more generally, and keeping what was accessible within the exhibition, to a complete minimum.
There is perhaps an interesting parallel, between the artist-led and Joanne Lee’s description of amateurism, referred to in Call Yourself a Bloody Professional as an ‘alternative to business as usual professionalism’ (2011). We, quite deliberately, played to the Undercroft and its overall industrial appearance, fabricating ply plinths and other display mechanisms with screwcap detailing, utilising exposed pipework to hang paintings, and building various forms of scaffolding for purposes ranging from hanging aluminium-mounted-photographs to stretching screens for projection. Several works used the wall and floor more deliberately, and inevitably in this sense the space became part of the work. The artist-led is often materially and monetarily resourceful and, on the whole, artist-led projects have to compromise on space, money, materials, and time: as such it is often associated with the haphazard, the ad-hoc, or even the slap-dash. I think our intention (which, to some extent dictated the curatorial approach) was to use the Undercroft in quite a different way than had been done before, resourcefulness absolutely came into this, although Constellation strayed from the typified idea of the artist-led.
‘Play’ quite nicely sums up what was, in every sense, an active process, and that (as discussed in Part I) the perhaps wrongly named ‘installation’ period was far from a process of actualising a pre-determined plan, and was much more involved with the creative aspects of exhibition-making. Drawing the exhibition to an interesting conclusion, we left a work of sorts and an important, appropriately speculative, and playful message for the artists to follow Constellation: the words ‘Doubt art’ made from our vinyl printed surnames.
We have very deliberately here laid out some of the problems we faced with this project, but it would be a mistake to go away with the idea that it failed to achieve anything. A Recurring theme throughout our resultant discussions has been the idea of selection as an important (if not critical) role of the curator. And whilst not selecting resulted in a challenging yet valid presentation of work, had we considered the dialogue that did or did not exist between the works in the selection of what ended up being shown, it might have been a more positive experience for the casual and informed visitor alike. Whilst the exhibition itself may have lacked coherence, it (somewhat ironically given that the EU referendum took place during the installation) resembled something more likely to be encountered in a Kunsthalle than an English provincial gallery. It underlined the need for a more diverse infrastructure to support not only artists, but a more speculative approach to exhibition-making. The gap that exists between the artist-run space that often fosters young artists, and the dedicated public gallery conscious of reputation, leaves many artists, artist-curators and freelance-curators with nowhere to test out their work and ideas. This means that when the chance to do something does arise, as we experienced with Constellation, there are often too many conflicting demands or aims: too many roles to fill; too much pressure to ‘succeed’ to allow for the interesting thing that might appear in the gaps, or away to the side, to be paid sufficient attention. Though the notion of play, which has been briefly mentioned, aptly describes aspects of curating Constellation (and the artist-led generally), there is also a sense of being constricted by a desire to match both the professionalism and aspirations of institutional standards. Our original focus on the importance of dialogue in the making of art was not diminished by our inability to meet our expectations, but merely highlighted the need to create the space where this can occur. This is why this article has been so long in the writing: the discussions about what Constellation was, and what it might become, have only just started.
Joseph Doubtfire & Judith Stewart 2016
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 spirit of opening an international dialogue, the exhibition welcomed 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 were: 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.
The project was supported by: Jeanette Bolton-Martin, Lily Troup, Liz Monahan, Stevie Burridge, Caroline Evans, James Tomlin, Victoria Clark, Adrienne Cameron, Sophie Purchase, James Snelling.
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