Sunday, 2 October 2011

anticurate and the role of the curator: one of my lessons of Summer 2011

What does the word 'curate' mean to you?

By taking part in anticurate at mac Birmingham this summer I feel a bit more enlightened on the topic. Since graduating in 2006 I have bust a gut trying to ‘make something happen’. It has been full of adventures, exciting, exhausting and at sometimes disappointing.

Actually at the low points i.e. when I have received another rejection (or shall we say, when I haven’t been successful in being selected for a show) then I have had to take encouragement and strength from the wise words of other artists more experienced than myself. When questioned about rejections an artist I know said that he could build a pyramid with the rejection letters that he had received over the years and he wasn’t meaning any fancy origami hand built pyramid he was meaning just piling up all the flat pieces of paper on top of each other. (This artist is Egyptian so pyramids are especially symbolic to him.)

This summer Trevor Pitt, curator and clever type devised a crafty plan. At first I thought that anticurate was a bit of a gimmick. Invite anyone, professional or amateur, newbie or established artist to submit a piece of art to a series of six exhibitions taking place over a six week period. I thought to myself, "Mmm so no artist fee and mac Birmingham gets a whole summer of exhibitions for free". But then on the other hand there was also no application fee. So many exhibitions these days have artists paying for the chance to be selected.

And also the thing that I hadn’t bargained for was that I would actually learn something about curation myself.

So on the submission day I arrived at mac to drop in Fin. I was pleasantly surprised to see it thronging with people of all ages and with artworks in all sort of mediums. The plan was that over five weeks of the summer five different groups would each curate a week-long exhibition. They would draw from the same pool of art. Each of the groups of curators/ anticurators had varying experience of curation. In fact some had absolutely no experience of it at all. For a final week there would be a sixth exhibition and in it all of the submitted artworks would be shown.

The official blurb said,

anticurate is a project devised as a challenge to the authorial figure of the curator. Imagined as a version of an open exhibition the

project will unfold over six exhibitions in which democratic and collective approaches to exhibition curating will test conventions of the visual art space”.

Fin was one of 350 pieces of art submitted to the anticurate pool.

This is Fin in the holding pool. It was a nice idea of cutting a peephole in the wall so we could look in to get a view of all the other pieces of art.

When we delivered our art we had the opportunity to meet and have a brief chat with each of the anticurator groups. This was our chance to ‘pitch’ our work to the anticurators.
The publicity text said,
" that you could influence the anticurators in an attempt to ensure that your artwork was chosen for the exhibition".

To be honest I just had a very enjoyable morning talking to a wide range of people.

I did speak to each anticurator group and I tried to take into account what little I knew about them when I spoke about my work and Fin in particular.

So this was the first lesson that I was later to learn, it doesn’t matter whether the curators seemed to to be interested in and like Fin, in reality when they came to select work for their show they had their own themes in their minds, their own plan and truthfully with 350 artworks to choose from they would have had lots of interesting conversations with a lot of artists that morning.

Had my pitch improved my chances at all?

Well for four of the groups I would say no but for one of the anticurator groups, Alison Tarry and Tim Stock of Eastside Projects Extra Special People Programme, then it would have mattered. In retrospect it would have been helpful if I had given a better ‘performance’ when speaking to Alison Tarry. I say this because I didn’t realise just how important what each artist said was to have on Alison and Tim’s show.

See / Hear was the first anticurate exhibition and Alison chose pieces based on things that the artist said during their pitch. Tim, who wasn’t present on the submission day, made his selection based on the works when he saw them in the pool. and some of Alison's (Hear) and Tim’s (See) actually matched up! The first anticurate show was a mix of well known names from the Birmingham scene with a lovely sprinkling of others.

Hanging on the gallery wall was a set of clipboards with ipods with audio recordings of each of the Hear selected artists speaking when they first chatted to (made their pitch to) Alison. I remember that she had her iphone on the table and that she said that she just wanted to hear what I said about my practice/ work rather than look at the piece I was submitting but I had no idea that I was being recorded when I made my pitch! (Maybe she told me and I hadn’t taken it in or maybe she just pressed the record button without mentioning it?)

So week one I wasn’t selected, but it was a good show and beautifully presented.

The show for week two was curated by a group of mac staff however they were staff in non art roles; either working in the cafe or front of house. This show was much busier as they had selected a lot more pieces than week 1 had. I have to say that my comment in the visitors book was a bit negative mentioning the awkwardness of the minimal sineage.

But there were other positives in the visitors book. I noticed one visitor saying how nice it was to see ‘proper’ drawing and painting... this section presumably. (See image below.)

By week three I had decided that I had to collect the complete set of exhibition brochures/ guides and see each show for myself. This week was the turn of a group from Ikon Gallery’s Youth Programme. With either an A Level in Art or being on an art Foundation or Degree course this group of anticurators had more of an ‘eye’ than week 2’s anticurators. I preferred it to the previous show.

As part of visiting I also had to read the comments in the visitors book and also leave a comment of my own. I noticed that various visitors were wondering why some works had been in more than one of the shows while there were still about 300 pieces of art in the central holding area (treasure trove).

They obviously hadn’t got it; they didn’t understand that each group had the same pool of work to choose from and that whether or not it had been chosen previously was immaterial to their job of curating their show.

So week 4 was the turn of the Young At Heart anticurators. By this time the pain of being rejected was becoming less. Every Tuesday I would check the mac website to see if I was one of the selected artists and a quick scan did not show my name even by week 4.

I was quite disappointed by the Young At Heart show. I felt that they hadn’t broken free from their very traditional tastes but actually to be fair it was their show and they could choose what they wanted. There were four ladies in the Young at Heart anticurator team and I did notice that three of them had also entered artworks themselves which they had also selected for their show. (But in their shoes wouldn't I have done the same?)

The mac is a community art venue and the gallery is visited by a huge range of people from all backgrounds and levels of interest in art and by now I realised what a brilliant idea Trevor had come up with. anticurate was being very effective in getting more people see see art and some visitors were coming on a weekly basis to see what was on offer each week. It seemed that local people especially, were getting interested in the anticurate project. So despite me not thinking all that much of the anticurate week 3 show I am also sure that there would have been a good number of people connected with the Young at Heart anticurators who loved their show.

I really liked the week 5 show. The anticurators were Carli Francis and Rosie Carmichael of ‘No Aloha’ a Birmingham based zine.

Their show was full of energy and the PV was really buzzing too. They had pulled a big crowd, possibly partly due to their publicity mentioning free drink(s). There was music, sofas a big crowd and No Aloha had put their stamp on the show by adding more of their own artwork. It was also nice that they showed a full screen version of J Copplestone's anticurate mix-tape too.

Ever the completer finisher I had to go to the final show.

Week 6 was a salon type show where every single piece of work that had been submitted was on display. I anticipated it looking like a big jumble sale but thanks to the clever flexible exhibition structures, folding partitions, tables and shelves designed by Juneau Projects I think that it really worked and Fin finally got to come out of the central storage area.

So some lessons that I have learnt about the curation process?

Well it is absolutely nothing personal when you are not selected but it can be personal when you are.

Curators, like artists, have topics or themes that they want to explore. It is patently obvious now that getting to know appropriate curators ie curators for whom your work is of interest is absolutely vital. It is the first step after actually making work.

The purpose of anticurate was to explore and question the notion of curating, and the hierarchies that are normally attached to the process.

Trevor Pitt and Craig Ashley (mac Birmingham’s Visual Arts Producer) invited artists, curators, critics and arts workers to respond to the question, “ What does the word curate mean to you?”

The responses were fly-posted onto the walls of the Terrace Gallery and made very interesting reading. I was especially touched by these ones.

So having had Fin rejected five times in a row (from anticurate curators and not including other submissions made this summer) did it put me off applying for other shows?

Speaking with an artist who I admire very much I felt encouraged to hear that even for someone of his standing his rejection to success ration is 10:1.

So I am very happy to announce that I now have not one but two of my beings selected for the Nottingham Castle Open.

Colin and Strange One will be on show at Nottingham Castle from 8th Oct - 6th Nov.


Trevor Pitt said...

Thanks for such personal and poignant observations on the anticurate project. Really appreciated and adds to the ongoing debate. Trevor

frillip moolog: said...

Thanks for that Trevor. Yes it would be good to hear some other artists experiences. In my opinion an experience is always worthwhile if I have learnt something from it. I definitely got more than I expected from anticurate.
I can imagine that it was quite a thing to organise.