Category Archives: Contemporary Curation

Fieldwork: Curation at the Swiss Institute #3

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Christina Forrer, Gebunden, 2017.

My internship has been chugging away the past few weeks. My duties have remained the same, and slowly I am getting faster and more efficient at all of them. My research dossier’s have become clearly and more in depth, and I am completing them more quickly. I have learned a great deal about a wide variety of subjects ranging from contemporary art to art history to architecture to design. I’m learning the ins and outs of planning gallery tours, how to discover up and coming artists and venues, and basically what’s worth paying attention to and what’s better off to be left ignored. With just three weeks of my internship left to go, I’ve come a long way but still have so much to learn.

One of my favorite aspects of the internship is my time watching the gallery during the day, when patrons will come in and stroll through whatever exhibition that we have on display. The last show that the Institute put on included two works by video artist Frank Heath. The show, titled Blue Room, explored ideas of espionage, government surveillance, hierarchical corporate and governmental structures, and paranoia. In both videos, an anonymous male agent places phone calls to different customer service lines, making ridiculous requests that spiral into intense conversation with the customer service operators. Interestingly enough, both of the service operators were real people, receiving real phone calls that were not staged.The two videos played back to back, over and over, all day long in the gallery on two separate screens. While at first it was a nauseating, headache-inducing chore to listen to the same, droll audio repeat itself on a loop all day long, I began to enjoy the repetition. The works were complex, intricate video pieces and each time I listened, I caught on to a new detail that I didn’t appreciate previously. By the end of the show, I was an expert on the works and had a deep and profound appreciation for the artist and what he was trying to accomplish in the show. The more time spent with a work of art, the more it begins to resonate with you. This constant contact taught me so much, and showed me the value of patience and careful appreciation of a work.

Frank Heath, The Hollow Coin, Still, 2017.

Frank Heath, The Hollow Coin, Still, 2017.

This slow accumulation of knowledge about the works in the show, accrued through a near-constant barrage of the works’ content, made me an expert about talking about the works. The show began to receive a lot of really positive press, and so more and more people began to come to the gallery to check it out. While my experience in most art galleries in the past was that both the workers and the patrons are elitists who want to have little to do with each other, I found that in my own practice patrons really enjoyed having a discussion about the works. At first I was timid to offer information about the exhibition, but as I got more and more positive responses from gallery attendees, my confidence increased and I was able to have engaged and interesting discussions with those attendees about the show and the ideas that Heath was presenting. Many times, people thanked me for explaining aspects of the show that can really only be gleaned through close examination and multiple viewings. Often times, with video works, patrons only have time to watch the videos through one time; or, they only catch snippets. I felt like I had a strong role in helping people to understand these video works that obviously had a profound impact on me. Who knew: people in the art world can be friendly!

The next, and most recent show put on by Swiss Institute had a similar impact on me. The show, entitled Grappling Hold, was a showcase of the work of Swiss artist Christina Forrer, who weaves dramatic tapestries that evoke feelings of familial conflict, told through cartoonish tableau tapestries. The dramatic, colorful pieces pay homage to German Expressionism; specifically, the work of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and the tapestries that he created in collaboration with Swiss artist Lise Gujer.  For this show, the artist actually walked us through the entire exhibition with the curatorial team, and explained her the ideas that drove her inspiration for the works and her praxis while creating her stunning tapestries. It was amazing to be able to experience the artist actually talking about her own work — it’s rare to get this kind of personal tour of someone’s creations.

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The Unicorn In Captivity, 1495-1505. The Met Cloisters.

This show was a bit of an eye opener for me because never before, besides reading about them in books and seeing them at the Cloisters, had I had very many interactions with tapestries. Most of the textile works that I have experienced have been quilts, tribal fabrics, and fashion objects so this show was for sure a departure into new and unexplored territory for me. These works look almost like family trees, in the style of Sirius Black’s family tapestry from the Harry Potter books. It was a new experience for me to come into contact with tapestries, that truly do look like powerful expressionist paintings in their composition, hanging in a “white cube” context. The vibrant hues and dramatic facial expressions of the figures depicted in the works are angry, violent, and shocked, and the effect is rather unsettling. This right here was a new one for me: the idea that a textile work could be upsetting and could tell a modern story. My conception of this medium previously had been limited to thinking about textiles as having pretty designs and utilitarian functions, rather than their ability to portray the same things that photographs, paintings, and drawings could. In many ways, the medium played a role in making these works all the more impactful and disquieting.

With just a few weeks and one more opening and exhibition left, working for the Swiss Institute has been an incredible experience.This next installation is going to require a lot more planning and man power, and Im going to get the opportunity to closely watch the curation and installation process in a way that I didn’t get to for the last two exhibitions. Because the Institute is a non-profit, I was able to interact with the works in ways that I don’t think I would have at a traditional for profit gallery, and glean curatorial experience that I wouldn’t have elsewhere. While I’m sad that my time has come to a close, I look forward to the next chapter in my professional journey. Where I’ll end up working after graduation: who knows? What I do know is that an art institution internship was an invaluable experience that opened my eyes to the inner workings of an industry, and inspired me to pursue a career in the arts.

Fieldwork: Curation at the Swiss Institute #2

Swiss Curation Hans-Ulrich Obrist

Swiss Curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist

Since beginning my internship at the Swiss Institute, I’ve gotten to do a lot of different jobs. These have included page, receptionist, librarian, gallery assistant, copy editor, and photo editor, among other things. But, the biggest and most recurrent job that I have is of the researcher.

Hans Ulrich Obrist writes in Ways of Curating that curation is only a fraction of the job of the curator. Coordination and documentation are two other fractions, but research is one of the most important parts. The curator, as they go about organizing exhibitions and acting as the connective tissue between major artistic organs, must act as historian, documenting the artists that they come into contact with, but also as researcher on past and current artists to stay up to date on current happenings in the art world as well as historical happenings that inform their praxis going forward.

Most of my work consists of research in support of the curatorial team. There is a deluge of information out there about art, obviously. Thousands upon thousands of people around the world make art, of all different kinds. There are yet thousands more different art news publications, cultural authorities, publishers, galleries, museums, and institutions of all sorts that support the arts. How, then, is any one single person supposed to keep up with everything thats going on? Apparently, I’ve learned, that’s where I come in.

One of my biggest responsibilities is to create dossiers of artists for review for the curatorial team. Unlike my first project, in which I had the opportunity to come up with my own list of artists to pitch, most of the time the curators assign me a specific task, such as a list of names to compile dossier’s for, or a specific topic to compile as much information on as possible. What seems like a simple cut and dry research task ends up being a much bigger undertaking than at first meets the eye. For example, an artist dossier consists of a bio, a CV (which includes current exhibitions, past solo exhibitions, past solo exhibitions, and honors and awards), and then a picture portfolio of there most prominent and indicative works. Sometimes this is easy, and galleries or the artists themselves upload all of this information online. Most of the time, its  patchwork of going through different online publications to piece together a timeline of the artist’s career. Sometimes, it will take an entire day to complete a file for a single artist. 

While the task at times can seem laborious, its an amazing one because it is a massive learning opportunity for not just the curatorial team who will eventually look at these research documents and utilize them to figure out which artists to work with, but also for me who is new to this “professional art world” and doesn’t have the most complete grasp on contemporary happenings. It’s also an especially exciting task because the Swiss Institute prides itself on representing emerging and otherwise underrepresented artists. They constantly seek to explore new narratives and new ideas, which keeps the curation cycle always interesting. It’s also very interesting because the more I work for the institution, the more I am able to see how exactly it fits into the larger cultural landscape of New York, For example, a few of the names on the 2017 Whitney Biennial list presented their first ever New York solo exhibitions at the Swiss Institute.

Working at the Swiss Institute has educated me on things that I have never ever thought about before. Right now, I’m working on a bear of a research project that has taken me a few days to work through. While on the one hand it can seem a bit pointless, I am performing an important and necessary task that supports the whole team. How can we put on a show if no one really understands the concepts behind it? That would make us a poor gallery at best. And, while the specific subject matter that I am working on doesn’t really fall into the category of my personal interest or study, learning about these topics has been absolutely fascinating, and has exposed me to concepts, art works, and designs that I previously had never encountered. Now, I know more about things that I never knew existed than I ever thought possible. Each project expands my understanding of art history and contemporary artistic practices.

Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno's "No Ghost Just a Shell", which was recently on view as part of The Whitney's "Dreamlands" exhibition. via stretcher

Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno’s “No Ghost Just a Shell”, which was recently on view as part of The Whitney’s “Dreamlands” exhibition. via stretcher

On my own independent research, I have dived wholeheartedly into Christiane Paul’s Digital Art – a modern textbook on the evolution of the digital medium over the past 60 years. André Breton and Paul Éluard defined the concept of the readymade as “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artists,” constituting a radical recontextualization of a found object. The field of digital media is one that I never conflated the idea of the readymade with. French artists Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno changed that with their seminal work “No Ghost Just a Shell,” (2000) in which they purchased the rights to a readymade manga character called Annlee. This figure has no story, no character, and no animation: she is simply code waiting to be animated and given a story. Like the artists and architects who took pre-existing objects and buildings and manipulated their contexts to augment them into works of art, Huyghe and Parreno took a readymade 3D model of a manga character and gave her dimension in “Anywhere Out of the World” (2000) and “Two Minutes Out of Time” (2000). This connection was a powerful moment for me, taking two very disparate ideas and finding a link between them in one of the most unusual of ways. I think this is what Obrist was talking about.

Jordan Wolfson, Female Figure 2014. courtesy Sadie Coles HQ/David Zwirner

Jordan Wolfson, Female Figure 2014. courtesy Sadie Coles HQ/David Zwirner. He received his first NY solo show at the Swiss Institute, and now this year his virtual reality piece “Real Violence” has gone on to be included in the Whitney Biennial.

Fieldwork: Curation at the Swiss Institute of Contemporary Art

logo A month and a half ago, I began my internship at the Swiss Institute of Contemporary Art in TriBeCa. Started in the 70’s by a group of Swiss expatriates, the Swiss Institute aims to maintain an artistic cultural exchange between Europe and the United States, and to foster forward-thinking and experimental art making through innovative exhibitions and programs. The biggest aim of the institution is to explore how the Swiss national perspective, applied to the international artistic dialogue, can influence new forms of all kinds of art creation and expression. The institute is extremely interdisciplinary, with works and exhibitions ranging from the plastic arts, to film making, to performance, to writing, to architecture and design. They seek to expose under-represented perspectives and showcase emerging artists, while occasionally catalyzing new contexts for celebrated and historical work. I signed on to the job as a curatorial intern, not quite sure what to expect. I had never done an internship in the arts before, though my studies had always taken me around the periphery of the field. After trying journalism, PR, marketing, and advertising, I realized that art was the thing that made me the happiest, and was the course that I wanted to chart my life by. I had tons of experience, but no experience that was specifically relevant to a curatorial internship. Even my knowledge of art history was limited at best to a hodgepodge of different classes and my own personal interests. I was attracted to the Swiss Institute as an employer because unlike other posh galleries in New York City, the Swiss Institute is a non profit. That gives them a bit of a more feet-on-the-ground perspective to the art business and priorities than align closer to those of the artists than the economic forces that drive the art market. Also, the office was very small (only seven people), so I knew that I would get to work closely with different people and get to work on a variety of different projects. My duties at the Swiss Institute are pretty straight forward. Right off the bat, I have the classic intern responsibilities: answer the phones, respond to e-mails received to the main Swiss Institute account, handle RSVP lists for public programming events, sit in the gallery and answer any guest questions about current exhibitions, and just generally be helpful. The best part about the job is that everyone works in one big room together. This means that whenever I have an issue or a question, someone is right there to answer it. Also, our big office is also our meeting room, so when the curator has meetings with artists, or the development director has meetings with potential sponsors or partners, I get to overhear all of it. This is awesome, because I get a glimpse at everything that the Swiss Institute is working on, not just what I’m working on, which has given me a “big picture” view of how a non-profit arts institution works. This is really helpful, because it gives me a better gauge for the projects that I’m currently working on to know what the Swiss Institute will be exhibiting a year from now (think, big name contemporary artist curating a show on a big name pop artist from the 60’s! My NDA won’t allow me to say anything more than that…). While part of my day is a bit boring, scanning documents and doing just general office upkeep, I and the other interns are entrusted with helping out on larger curatorial projects aimed at getting us accustomed to the curatorial cycle and the vision of the Swiss Institute. Currently, the Swiss Institute is working from a temporary location in TriBeCa before moving to a new, permanent location at the corner of 2nd Avenue and St. Mark’s Place. The first project that I worked on was to present the curatorial team with a dossier of artists to be considered to commission works from for the rooftop space at the new building. This was a big deal to me, because it showed that they respected my taste enough to consider my suggestions for potentially permanent installations. This was an experiment, but also a test: having never done any curatorial work before, this was really my chance to make a good first impression while also showcasing my curator’s eye and ability to think strategically and the future.
Lori Hersberger: Sunset 164 , 2006

Lori Hersberger: Sunset 164 , 2006

Lori Hersberger: Spin My Wheel, 2003

Lori Hersberger: Spin My Wheel, 2003

 
Dimitri Hertz @ Socrates Sculpture Park

Dimitri Hertz @ Socrates Sculpture Park

I tried to add a variety of artists to the list, and to meld my own taste with the praxis of the institution. The artist’s I presented to the team had to have alternative or under represented viewpoints, could not be too big within the framework of Western Art Institutions, and had to fit well in the context of a rooftop space on St. Mark’s Place. I suggested a few well-known artists, such as Lori Hershberger whose immersive neon installations seem to represent a ubiquitous facet of urban life, and a few emerging artists, such as Dimitri Hertz whose Swiss Cheese inspired sculptures earned him a place as a Socrates Sculpture Park Fellow. After two weeks of slaving over this list—compiling CV’s, rounding up images of my favorite installations, and coming up with page long arguments as to why I think the Swiss Institute should consider each artist—I finally had a list of 15 artists that I sent to the associate curator. Due to my inexperience, I was definitely a bit insecure about my choices. I’m not sure if any of the artists I suggested will be selected, but the curators seemed to really like the work I did.
imperialfromafar

site specific installation by David Scanavino, another artist I included in my dossier

Living Roof @ California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, inspiration for rooftop installations

Living Roof @ California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, inspiration for rooftop installations

What I’ve learned, more than anything else, is that there are a lot more factors that go into working with artists besides just liking their work. The artists also, obviously, have to be willing to work with you. The timing has to be right, as many well-known and recently discovered artists are incredibly busy, and the money has to be right too. Further, what represents an artist’s past work doesn’t necessarily have any relationship to what their future work will look like. From reading Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Ways of Curating, I’ve learned the important lesson that it is not the curator’s job to force work out of an artist, but to facilitate the artist’s vision. Curators are not artists, and it is important to remember that fact. Curator’s are servants to others, their aim should be to bring the dreams of others to fruition and to foster dynamic relationships and conversations between disparate elements. If they accomplish their own visions in the process, that’s just a bonus.