Interview: Cotton Reels, Lost Gloves and Unquiet Moments
Getting to know the 2020 MA Curating Team
by Izzy White & Ellie Perry 10th August 2020
After a resounding opening week that saw them named The Guardian’s "Exhibition of the Week", Izzy White and Ellie Perry sat down with the Courtauld’s MA Curating team to chat about their end of year virtual exhibition Unquiet Moments, learning to code and the things they’ll remember from this strange moment in time.
IZZY WHITE: Congratulations! We saw that The Guardian picked you as the Exhibition of the Week! How have you found the reception to be generally? JULIE BLÉAS (Press and Marketing and Communications Co-ordinator): The Guardian has definitely been a massive highlight! I think overall we have been really pleased with the reception and the feedback we have heard. What is interesting to see, is that writers that might have an inclination towards art but are not writing for art publications have been interested in covering the exhibition. We’ve been [covered] by two lifestyle magazines! But I think that just goes to show that people are really looking to art during a time that has been so difficult. People overall have been praising the website and how they relate to the exhibition, so that’s the greatest praise of all to see that we’ve looked at art in a different way. ELLIE PERRY: You were inspired by the history of Somerset House as the registry for births, deaths, and marriages, how did you come to this as a source of inspiration and how did it develop into Unquiet Moments? ELIZABETH KETO (Lead on Interpretation, Catalogue, and Image Licensing): For the past several years, the exhibition put on by the MA in Curating has taken place in the Embankment Galleries at Somerset House, and the exhibition’s theme has been in dialogue with the summer program at Somerset House. This year they chose to focus on a chapter of the building’s history, and its function as the registry housing the public records of births, deaths, marriages, and wills in the UK. It is an incredible archive of these individual and social rites of passage and significant moments in human lives. So for us, [when] we were given that brief, we were really struck by what the archive might exclude or elide. In the sense that, there’s all this fine print and details of life that goes on in between these significant and recognised moments of birth, life, and death, so we were drawn to the idea of an archive of the vernacular, showcasing the everyday intimate joys and tragedies. We felt like this was a really appropriate theme for an exhibition because it is often artists that do the work helping us to draw close to, interpret, and understand the everyday. Day-to-day life is the water we all swim in without seeing it. Artists and the attention that they give to everyday subjects and, in turn, the attention that their works then demand of us as viewers, helps us to see the water and the challenge within it, deepening our perceptions of the lives we live daily. The title ‘Unquiet Moments’ – which we actually arrived at quite late in the process! – evokes the idea of something that’s fleeting but also resonant and these works of art are those that you need to spend time with, pay attention and listen to. IZZY: For sure! And that absolutely came through! What was the process behind selecting the works in the show? Did you find the collections available inspiring or limiting? Was there anything you would have loved to have in the show but couldn’t? ZAENA SHEEHAN (Project Manager and Events Coordinator): In terms of working with two collections, I think one of the lovely things about the Courtauld MA Curating program is that it’s transhistorical. Going from French 18th century works to contemporary feminist performance and American photography - we’re all quite diverse in where we’d like to go! But I think integrating and creating meaningful dialogues between two such different collections was a really important aspect of our curatorial approach. So from the very get-go, we consciously tried to integrate the Courtauld collection into our narrative. Something that was really important for us to remember was to do so in a meaningful way – we didn’t want to create artificial juxtapositions just for the sake of balance so we had to be careful, but I think we managed to find a nice balance in the end! In terms of narrowing down our selection, it was really a collaborative process. We had numerous meetings whereby we had all gone away beforehand, tasked with bringing five to ten works to consider which were then put through - at times a totally brutal - process of gradual elimination and constant refinement until we had something that felt cohesive. Obviously this was informed by feedback from our course leaders Martin Caiger-Smith, as well as Sam McGuire and Joanna Woodall who teach our language and interpretation course and have been amazing mentors to us throughout this process. There is a lot we would have liked to include that we couldn’t. We were very lucky that most artists were willing to have their work shown online - it is new territory and we were careful to make sure we had everyone’s approval. Unfortunately, there were two works that were problematic in such a format, one of which we ultimately couldn’t include at all. With the other piece - Bridgit by Charlotte Prodger (2016) - we eventually came to an agreement with the artist to show the work as a film screening instead of having the film on the website at all times. This suited all parties because Bridgit was a really important work for us from the beginning and it would have been such a shame not to include it! It just demonstrates the complicated processes, and hoops you have to jump through when displaying works online.
Alek O., Edward Higgins White III (2011), embroidery, 43 x 22.5 x 3.5 cm, Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London (Courtesy the artist)
ELLIE: So how did you find speaking and liaising with the artists involved in the show? Did they have any concerns or ideas regarding the presentation of their work in a digital space as opposed to the original space? If so, how did you accommodate these? ANNIE BIRCHENOUGH (Working with the Arts Council Collection and In Artists Liaison): Ah! - before I answer your question, I just want to add on to the back of what Zaena was saying and mention that there was one piece that really stayed with us for such a long time which was The Kiss (2000) by A K Dolven. It is an artwork that was really central to a lot of our thinking, the work portraying the intimate and youthful moment of an embrace that we as young curators saw and were like ‘okay, so these are the moments that mark the every day.’ It never came into the show for various reasons, but there were just a couple of situations and artworks that posed difficulties like that. Interestingly, when we realised we were moving onto an online platform, we thought that would lend itself to digital work like film and photography - but actually as the most easily replicated, downloaded or pirated formats, they ended up causing the most concern! Really, all of our artists were incredibly supportive and responsive and a massive advantage to the situation was that we were able to work very closely with all of them. We were in touch with all of our living artists, talking directly over the phone or even hosting a Zoom session with twelve of them which was quite unusual - particularly for an MA curating group! Some of them were concerned about making sure we didn’t have things like right click downloadable capability, so we had to work quite closely with both the artist and the web developer to make sure that didn’t happen. I would say the main concerns about the online platform were over losing any sense of scale or interaction with artworks that exist as physical encounters. We also had to make sure that no quality in the artwork was lost - which artists themselves and the Arts Council were really helpful with, providing us with high quality images of works like Edward Higgins White III (2011) by Alek O , which has a textured surface. We also tried to use our sections pages to communicate these differing senses of scale by formatting images as comparatively sized thumbnails. This was an ongoing challenge, and if we had many more hours and even more digital capability I wonder if we could have found a more creative way of doing it, but it seemed to be the most straightforward way! IZZY: No, I think that’s a really clever approach! That comparative scale definitely comes through once you know that! ANNIE: I think it is a little difficult to get that nuance across though. Going back to the Alek O for instance, I thought for a very long time that it was a large, almost tapestry sort of work – but it’s actually quite a small and delicate piece. It’s made from the unwoven threads of lost gloves. So the material the artist is working with already dictates that it’ll be quite small. I think we could never fully achieve an accurate sense of scale without people reading the sizing but we got a gesture of it through the thumbnails! IZZY: Definitely! And knowing the depth of thought and process behind that layout makes it even more impressive. That aside, I imagine it’s quite difficult to signpost a virtual show in a web format - is there a particular order to the “rooms” of the show or a way you wanted your audience to move through the works? - and if so – why? SIA PINESCHI (Website Development Lead): I think from the very beginning we were interested in the idea of giving the viewer autonomy within this exhibition - purely because it is such a different experience to a physical show in which you have a stricter route. The digital platform gave us an opportunity to think about movement and arrangement in a very different way. Our intention was that you can move freely to any of the rooms from any other room and select your way through the exhibition without feeling like there was any one set way through it. We really wanted to emphasise freedom as a feature of the show and didn’t want it to feel like an afterthought. In this digital format, you get the opportunity to see all of the works on each of our section pages at once in a way you might not be able to in a physical exhibition. So, the viewer is able to select whichever work speaks to them most and then see that work in conversation with almost every other work on the section page - I think this allows more to be drawn from a piece in terms of relationships and dialogue as opposed to a setting where what you see is in a specific order. IZZY: It definitely encourages you to think more independently about what you’re experiencing and how you can bring your own opinions and connections to an exhibition in a way you don’t always realise – instead of being told what to see or feel and when. SIA: Especially because the exhibition was centred around the concept of everyday moments and personal experience, it would have felt very artificial if we were then to say ‘oh this is the way you should experience this.’ We really wanted to capture the everyday experience in terms of how you know your own life better than other people, so choose what speaks to you and listen to other people speak about their own lives.
Barbara Walker, Boundary I (2000), oil on canvas, 182 x 121 cm, Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London (Courtesy the artist)
ELLIE: So on that topic, you introduce the show as a reflection on the rhythms of daily life and loss, obviously these themes have sort of changed in their meanings right now - loss and changing routines are integral to the situation we find ourselves in amidst the pandemic – did this new normal have an impact on the theme of exhibition? and if not has it changed how you feel about any of the works? ELIZABETH: We felt that the themes of our exhibition – which we had sort of started to develop before COVID really hit - the documenting and paying attention to the routines of daily life, the small personal experiences of families and communities and, of course, loss and memory had really become more relevant and resonant in the context of the pandemic. So, it wasn’t that we changed the theme of the exhibition but rather that the exhibition took on this new poignancy. For me it’s definitely deepened my appreciation of the enduring timeliness of these works and how they continue to speak even in these unprecedented moments and within this new context that none of us could have anticipated. Personally, I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience and holding space for joy, and how people are maintaining a sense of community even in isolation. The photographs by Vanley Burke in particular, which show these weddings and baptisms and school outings, have become so moving to me in this new way as emblems of community. I’ve moved home and have been reconnecting with childhood friends and neighbours that I haven’t seen in years and works like these really feel relevant. Going back to the notion of loss, obviously so many are experiencing the loss of loved ones, jobs, routines and any sense of the ‘normal.’ We have so many works that speak to that in a way, for example Nigel Shafran‘s photographs of his father’s office after his death hold this haunting sense of emptiness. We also have works that speak to the idea of a necessary transformation and how we move from a sense of collective loss to a better future. For example, Andrea Zimmerman’s Estate, a Reverie (2015) or Mikhail Karikis’ Children of Unquiet (2013-14) are [both] about this idea that we need to take experiences of loss and hardship as calls to renew our responsibilities to one another - so I think the works really do speak to the way we are living now in new and profound ways. IZZY: So in light of these changes and the notion of the ‘new normal’, how did you find the transition from curating a physical space to an online one? Were there any major changes to the process? BILLIE GIMÉNEZ (in charge of accessibility and assisting web development): It was such a huge change and a different process, we had to get used to working in a way we had never done before. Making the online space itself involved working with a web developer which is something we’ve never had to do before - we’d been trained to work in a physical space with conservators and art transporters in galleries and instead there we were working with web developers. That’s something that was very new with this project, it was quite tricky considering we’d never done anything like it - most of us had no idea how to build a website or how to implement conceptual ideas in a website – but it was exciting! We all had to spend three or four days coding with the web developer to get everything ready for the launch and that was really surreal you know, nine art students sat there coding. But it was fun! I guess things like the hang of the artworks on a virtual page takes on a completely different meaning because you’re not putting them on a wall, but you are still putting them on a page – so it’s still important to draw the same connections between the them that you would when hanging them physically, but also not to think too much about the superfluous stuff and focus on the artworks themselves. It’s been a different experience for all of us though, the time zones are definitely a complication! Some of us have had to wake up really early every single day to be able to work at the same time as everyone else! I think it has made things a bit distant at times, but we’ve tried really hard to stay connected and keep communications open. IZZY: Do you reckon you’ll ever use your new coding skills? BILLIE: Definitely! I think it’s such a useful skill to have as we move into an increasingly digital world, especially for us as curators it’s something we’re going to have to get used to - I’m not suggesting we’re going to have to get degrees in coding! But knowing what your web developer is talking to you about is really important if you want to know what the exhibition is going to look like online – in the same way you would be taught the difference between normal screws and security screws to get your works onto a wall in a physical space, similarly you’re going to need to learn a little about websites.
Nigel Shafran, Fruit bowl collecting water (from Dad's Office 1996-1998), 1996-1998, c-t