Curating Unstuck in Time

Matthew Cowan,  The terminalia of funny-land , 2014 (performance still). Commissioned by Te Tuhi. photo by John Cowan

Matthew Cowan, The terminalia of funny-land, 2014 (performance still). Commissioned by Te Tuhi.
photo by John Cowan

PUBLISHED IN: 
UNSTUCK IN TIME
EDITED BY REBECCA LAL
TE TUHI, AUCKLAND
2015
ISBN: 978-0-908995-52-3
DOWNLOAD THE EBOOK

 

Exhibitions are made of time and at war with it. For despite being a product of duration, process and performance, conventional curation keeps such aspects of exhibition production hidden backstage to maintain the illusion of a hermetically sealed and timeless context. Over the last 30 years or more, the demystification of such traditional practices has been influential in informing many alternative curatorial approaches, ones that acknowledge the time-based qualities and potential of exhibition making. From this, various methodologies that incorporate discursive, interdisciplinary, collaborative and performative principles have been championed and an accompanying discourse has flourished extolling their virtues of institutional critique. By and large, these approaches have effectively challenged the agency of the curator and the rational for creating an exhibition’s context by requiring greater rigour around transparently declaring process.

Yet, despite the benefits that such modes of working have evidently provided it is important to be attentive to a curator’s actual practice to ascertain whether there is substance behind the words being performed. As the curator Paul O’Neill counsels us, such forms of curatorial rhetoric can manifest as a type of masking, by operating as a social and cultural construction that is passed off as natural, in which certain relations to power are obscured, or glossed over, and in which references to tensions and difficulties are blocked out, with their threat defused as part of a naturalization process.[1]

Here we are confronted with a double bind that while innovative methodologies might be claimed to be exercised it is inevitable that the ‘re-mystification’ through the proliferation of rhetoric will occur to some degree. For we are all guilty of using certain language in the conscious desire of attaining artworld cachet or to subconciously perpeptuate forms of personal and institutional bias. In this sense, the proof of process is a particularly crucial aspect in the politics of curating because it can reveal veiled power relationships and disclose the constraints placed upon the artists – all of which forms context and influences the creation of meaning. Curator Elena Filipovic explains the importance of curatorial methodology by stating:

[A]n exhibition isn’t only the sum of its artworks, but also the relationships created between them, the dramaturgy around them, and the discourse that frames them . . . What is at stake is an ethics of curating, a responsibility toward the very methodology that constitutes the practice. That responsibility is also the responsibility to attend to artworks in a way that is adequate to the risks that they take . . . The exhibitions . . .  I’ve admired most and have found most engaging and thought provoking seem to have developed their methodology and form from the material intelligence and risk of the artworks brought together. In these, the artwork was generative of the exhibition itself.[2]

Therefore, it is vital that all aspects of the curatorial process are scrutinised so that accurate self-reflexivity can occur and for words to be paired with works so that an exhibition’s form might be analysed for its influence on the creation of meaning. This train of thought is what has been weighing on me while curating Unstuck in Time – an exhibition that wrestles with the problem of its form in relation to its topic.[3]

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Chicago, a spring afternoon some time in April 2007. After a few intense weeks of meeting, conversation and debate about what form our project would take, I found my collaborator Chuck Thurow on his front porch clutching a restorative gin and tonic and relaxing in the Midwest sunshine. He claimed to have had an epiphany. His idea was that our international exchange should be based upon an initial series of experiences that would be organised for the artists as the starting point for a programme of new works. We then decided that it was important that both artistic and curatorial development would occur in tandem as much as possible.

This project became Close Encounters and was loosely governed by an interest in what motivates social encounter and the spaces in which communities form. Eight new artworks transpired, each created on various timeframes which were determined by the needs of the artists and the limitations of the host organisation, the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. This process was vital in achieving each work and it was not without moments of great creative freedom or heated contention in which the curation and institutional parameters were challenged by the artists. This tension bred a productive energy, developed a stronger curatorial rational over time and arguably gave a greater degree of agency to the artists.

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Pakuranga, at an unconfirmed time in 2014. This was the ambiguous start date given to me in early 2013 for the preliminary roadwork construction of the Reeves Road Flyover, a 20-metre-high four-lane motorway extension to be built only 5 metres from Te Tuhi’s front entrance. Due to the motorway’s proposed location, literally on Te Tuhi’s doorstep, it was expected that the initial works would limit public access to the organisation. Therefore, the challenge was to develop an entire year’s exhibition programme that would be offsite.

Unstuck in Time was conceived to be one of those exhibitions – a show responsive to the impending uncertainty of urban change while also absorbing the potential disruption to the gallery space as a point of conceptual interest. It was to be created by employing a process-led commissioning methodology, echoing that used in Close Encounters, resulting in a series of new offsite artworks that would explore the perception of time in relation to the region of Auckland, Tāmaki-Makaurau. As a project focusing on the perception of time it became evident to me that the curatorial process would be crucial in allowing the selected artists as much creative freedom as possible while also aspiring to establish a compelling form in relation to the chosen concept.

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Downtown Auckland, 9 a.m. on Thursday, 30 January 2014. The artists Matthew Cowan, Phil Dadson, Sally J. Morgan, Shannon Te Ao and Layne Waerea joined Te Tuhi staff to embark on a unique ‘time-travel’ fieldtrip throughout Auckland. This intensive three-day excursion was designed to give the artists the opportunity to simply pause their daily lives and to experience numerous perspectives of local time. The trip required just as much planning and resources as a small exhibition and also involved extensive consultation with various experts and the workshopping of ideas among Te Tuhi’s staff.

The resulting experiences included undertaking a sensory exercise, forecasting the impact of climate change, exploring ancient fossilised kauri forests, viewing the urban history of Auckland through archived film footage, spending time in a historic bach on Rangitoto Island, watching a little known 1970s sci-fi film produced in Pakuranga, being perplexed by quantum physics, delving into Auckland’s deep time with a leading volcanologist, learning from the tangata whenua of Ihumātao about their rich history and ongoing struggle against land confiscation and pollution, and sitting sonically transfixed in a live performance by experimental pianist Chris Abrahams.[4]

Throughout the three days, emphasis was placed on creating jarring juxtapositions between the sequences of locations visited. This required transitions and meal breaks as vital periods to enable impromptu group discussion and individual contemplation. It also included traversing the region on multiple modes of transport such as water taxi, train, car and by foot to subtly explore the history of Auckland.[5] One of the great challenges with this outing was to create a series of experiences that would truly disrupt the artists from a place that they were more or less familiar with. Most of the artists were based in the city or had lived in Auckland in the past. To ensure that their sense of time and place was suitably unstuck, the sequence of events was crafted so that genuine surprise was created or involved visiting locations and talking to people that the artists would not have had the prior inclination or invitation.

During these visits, staff preserved a sense of mystery by not revealing the programme to the artists. While this ‘mystery’ was admittedly one of the more cliché aspects of the project it did prove useful in injecting some light humour and required the artists to relax, relinquish their expectations and have confidence in others to direct their movements. Key to this was the compulsory confiscation of their cell phones so that they would be fully committed to being present in the programme and attentive to the group.

The group dynamic was also considered at length. Artists were selected not only for the strength of their work and the relevance of their practice to the exhibition concept but also for what they might contribute within a group situation. Chuck Thurow and I had learnt this lesson in Close Encounters – that through careful selection of individuals communion is achieved, group identity can be formed and a familial bond established that provides the basis for vibrant discussion, empathetic listening and learning.

After lengthy goodbyes, the artists were then turned loose for six months and asked to propose a project that would be produced in collaboration with Te Tuhi. From a curatorial perspective, the development of these projects was governed by just a few guiding principles:

1) That the artists were not required to use the fieldtrip as a starting point for their work.

2) All ideas would be considered, ideal outcomes would be strived towards with a sincere philosophy of saying yes more than no, and taking the artist’s lead in all possible instances.

3) Ideally the projects would land within the three-month exhibition period but more importantly each project would be allowed the opportunity to develop in its own timeframe.

This approach was designed with the aim of creating a process that attempted to ignite artistic research through the gift of experience and also to relinquish curatorial agency so that the artists would gain more autonomy. It was hoped that through engaging in this process the artists might be inspired to create new bodies of work. Or to propose ambitious projects in which Te Tuhi could use its expertise to help the artists achieve something beyond their individual capacity. The evidence of this is greatly varied throughout all of the five projects that eventuated.

Mathew Cowan and Sally J. Morgan developed works that were a direct result of the fieldtrip and which have expanded their practice through ambition and scope. Cowan’s work The terminalia of funny-land was inspired by a segment of historic film footage of Lunar Park, a now non-existent 1920s fairground attraction, that the group viewed during our scheduled visit to Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision, Auckland.[6] In this project Te Tuhi staff became a small film unit, producing a 16mm film involving eight performers at seven locations along the Auckland city waterfront.

Similarly, Morgan’s interactive performance project How long have I been here? proved to benefit from the curatorial process by referencing the opportunity we took to pause and fish while on Rangitoto Island. This led Morgan to consider the environmental issues of commercial fishing on finite fish stocks and how this consumer experience separates eating from the responsibility of killing. As with Cowan’s project, Te Tuhi worked closely with Morgan by providing production expertise to realise this technically challenging work.

In the other three projects, the influence of the fieldtrip is not as clearly evident. While being closely related to the concept of the exhibition, the artworks created by Phil Dadson, Layne Waerea and Shannon Te Ao benefited more from the opportunity the artists had to develop their established bodies of practice. Dadson’s multi-media installation Compass of Frailty was a poetic meditation on the susceptibility of the environment to be affected by human activity. He explored this by evoking aspects of time, place and the ephemeral through an assemblage of elements incorporating sonically rich video footage shot on and around Rangitoto Island. The interest in Rangitoto has a correlation with the fieldtrip, however, the work remains characteristically situated within his vast oeuvre. Therefore, it is difficult to ascertain if the curatorial process contributed anything more than just an opportunity to create a new work using a subject already familiar to the artist.

Layne Waerea’s durational Fair Weather project involved a blog and a series of free services that were provided at various times and locations across Auckland, running throughout and beyond the exhibition period. Fair Weather develops on from a series of short-term projects that Waerea had experimented with previously. The only perceivable influence that the curatorial process had in this instance was the opportunity for Waerea to take advantage of the flexible timeframe. That said, there was like-minded correlation with Unstuck in Time’s driving concepts and some synergies to Ihumātao’s struggle against a history of water pollution and land confiscation.  

Shannon Te Ao also benefited from the flexible timeframe as a number of other life commitments delayed the development of his work. Te Ao chose to use this adaptable opportunity to extend an existing collaboration with cinematographer Iain Frengley in response to a disused industrial building in Auckland. It is expected that his final work will be screened live for the Unstuck in Time book launch.

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Pakuranga, Wednesday, 14 August 2013. Auckland Transport announced that the initial work on the Reeve’s Road Flyover would be deferred until mid-2015. As a result, I was committed to facilitate five new commissions and also activate Te Tuhi’s gallery spaces for Unstuck in Time. This retreat back to the gallery is one example of how a process-based project can be easily compromised by external factors.

In saying so, change is an everyday factor for small organisations such as Te Tuhi and within such contexts it is necessary to figure out how limitations can become strengths. The challenge at hand was not necessarily a compromise but rather an opportunity of recontextualisation. In response, I shifted tack to place emphasis away from only one format to concentrate on three. This included the process-led commissions, a group show and also a publication project.

The group show comprised entirely of existing works and was used to refine my curatorial statement which I had previously used only to share my conceptual interests and intentions with the participating artists. It was far from my original plan to revert to a more traditional mode of exhibition making, where the curator ‘uses’ artworks to illustrate his or her own thesis. However, I did find that this conventional aspect could be used as a mechanism to satisfy institutional requirements while allowing the more unpredictable new works the opportunity to be created without any additional constraints. I believe this permitted experimentation to occur within flexible timeframes and also, as Filipovic has highlighted, to allow the possibility for the artists to ‘transcend or even defy their thematic or structural exhibition frames’.[7]

The publication project was important as a communicative tool to engage with audiences over a much longer duration. As is stated at the beginning of all three volumes, the publication project is an attempt to resist the taxonomic and presumptive function of the conventional exhibition catalogue. While in many ways the publication functions just like any other exhibition collateral, there has been a concerted effort to develop a self-aware document that performs the exhibition in an expanded form.

Before supports a narrative that supplements elements of the group show and subtly acts to link specific artworks to a broader enquiry about artistic production and its role within society. In After additional contributions were sought by writers to expand, question, share recollections and for the memory of the exhibition to fold in on itself and become a hybrid between record and autonomous article.

Very different to the other two volumes, Accompaniment unsettles the tidy thematic of the show by inviting artists to produce ‘page-works’ that tap into lateral concepts beyond the curatorial impetus. These artists were given very little constraints other than formatting guidelines and much less curatorial consultation. Some of the works exist in different formats within the digital and printed copies therefore allowing an artist’s contribution to change and grow within the context rather than being regimented within one media.

Taking advantage of this opportunity of a media-specific response was Lightreading who produced two separate works: Script for Private Hire, a video work within the digital edition, and Who's behind those Foster Grants? essentially a magazine cover inserted as a page within the printed edition. Both works respond in vastly different treatments to the moulding of human perceptual space through modes of technologically aided communication and their sensorial properties. Similarly Sorawit Songsataya’s Te Mārama explores mediated perception through his digitally rendered icebergs dissolving within a starlit acrylic sea. This imagery lends superficial chocolate box splendour to the current melancholy and apathy about climate change – are we more likely to disappear into our timeless second lives online rather than confront the severity of our ecological reality?

Simon Morris’ Coloured Line June 2014 uses the publication parameters to investigate the temporal moment of page turning by creating a linear sequence of alternating yellow and green. Morris’ applied mirrored logic provides a type of rectilinear mapping of space-time that converges and vanishes into the book’s gutter or that optically oscillates upon the computer screen. Kate Wood’s series of works Knin, Kosmaj, Sanski, Sisak and Tjentište take on a geometry of an illusory nature. In these works the idealised forms of unkempt Yugoslavian World War II monuments become spatiotemporally displaced within dated photographs of harbours, lakes and rivers throughout New Zealand.

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Taipei, 12:13 p.m. on Thursday, 12 February 2015. I receive a message on my phone from my partner back in New Zealand, sharing a public announcement made by Auckland Transport. The  press release states that the Reeves Road Flyover has been ‘deferred for a decade’ in favour of improving the bus system first.[8] Typical, I think. It seems that waiting for a motorway to occur is a bit like waiting for Godot. As in Samuel Beckett’s seminal play, talk about its arrival and the reality of its arrival seems to be trapped within a time-warp. Not that I am complaining. Some urban planning advocates point out that improved public transport as opposed to building more roads is key for Auckland’s congestion issues and perhaps it may decrease our dependence on cars. This may be a welcome change in this year 102 AF.[9]

It is frustrating having to programme around greater forces such as this. Yet I have learnt that this is just one complication that curating entails. For in reality exhibitions are uncertain entities despite how tidily curators and organisations might present them – uncertain because they are never really only the selections and groupings of artworks. Exhibitions are the performance of their making: the endless threads of emails, the countless meetings, the hours of reading, thinking, and doing. Exhibitions are also plastic things that by necessity must change and evolve. Curators are constantly negotiating key concepts and a show’s form with colleagues, artists and audiences. Curators must also absorb or deflect compromise from social, institutional and political pressures and I would now add the mechanisms of urban change which appear to be a conglomerate of the three.

The form of an exhibition is assembled by the process of its making and the philosophical mode through which curators practise. When we do not observe these spatiotemporal and socio-political components we actively deny the existence of duration, compromise, bias, failure and all other issues which might make grubby otherwise ideologically clean curated manifestations.

Kate Woods,   
  
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   Kosmaj , 2014

Kate Woods, Kosmaj, 2014

 

[1] O’Neill explains this through Roland Barthes’ analysis myth which states construction is dependant upon an established discourse. Paul O’Neill. The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2012. p. 37

[2] Elena Filipovic. ‘What is an Exhibition?’ in Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating, ed. Jens Hoffmann. Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2013. p. 66–7

[3] By this I mean an exhibition that is opposed to being merely a platform upon which an idea is supported but rather a process-based format that embodies the thematic as much as it provides a context.

[4] This was a public event held at Te Tuhi and organised by Vitamin S on Thursday 30 January 2014, 8.00 p.m.

[5] Like most cities Auckland was first founded upon its waterways but has become dominated by a now dysfunctional motorway system. The future Auckland city is expected to be united by an integrated public transit system.

[6] Formerly the New Zealand Film Archive.

[7] Filipovic. ‘What is an Exhibition?’ p. 67

[8] Auckland Transport. ‘South-eastern busway to open sooner,’ 12 February 2015. https://at.govt.nz/about-us/news-events/southeastern-busway-to-open-sooner/ (accessed 12 February, 2015)

[9] TransportBlog, ‘Reeves Rd Flyover dies.’ 13 Feburary 2015. http://transportblog.co.nz/2015/02/13/reeves-rd-flyover-dies/ (accessed 25 February, 2015)