Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Once Upon a Time

A while ago, I curated an exhibition called deTerritorialization. It's a show I think about a lot. I think about recreating it again. I am looking to apply to a curatorial fellowship and returned to the idea. The exhibit included work by Kim Beck and Jenny Kendler. Then I found something I wrote about the exhibit and never used it and figured, why not publish it here.

The real curatorial essay for deTerritorialization, the honest one.

While I am no longer a gallery director, I still get to see the last season of exhibitions I curated via photographs on Facebook. When I curated shows for the upcoming season, I wrote a general curatorial statement about the overall theme of the exhibitions, namely that I wanted to talk about the transformative power of objects in a given space. I wanted to investigate how we demarcate and claim spaces through objects and how these choices, objects, and audiences reflect and inform social relations inside and outside the gallery space. But really, I curated this exhibition season because of a very specific moment in my career as a curator.

Last year, I attended a national conference and sat in on all the panels on exhibition development, with their savvy (braggy) presenters. Most of the presenters mentioned site specificity and community engagement when they spoke of creating exhibitions at an academic institution. I admire this approach, but I found it difficult to do in my then current position. One presenter at one panel said an art gallery was taken away on campus, so they “took over” the library and made exhibitions about the building’s mission, the people it served, and thus found a way to continue making art a part of campus life. Great idea. This is innovative, this is genius, I thought and wrote. Shortly thereafter, I also wrote: But I can’t do that where I work now. Why did I think that? What were the constraints and the parameters that made me think this ideal was futile? The last exhibition season I curated was an investigation of these questions.

works by Kim Beck. Her pieces can be seen here

I lived and worked in a very small town in Indiana as a nonprofit art administrator, so I can say with certainty that my feeling of hitting specific walls, curatorially speaking, had little to do with not being in a big city with cosmopolitan ideas. In Indiana, a good amount of the town was a canvas on which to make site-specific works and public art projects. The benefactors and community members welcomed that mentality and ensured that art was a core part of the town’s make up. They didn’t care how or even where (at least that’s how it seemed). Just get the art out there already! Make it happen! That was how a community can shape its arts and culture. The galleries I directed South Dakota came with a much different mindset, especially in the academic community. Most noticeable for me, right away, was that folks in the arts fought over and about the galleries-nearly constantly. Little did I know, I had been dropped into an academic combat zone. Goodie.

Granted, they were petty squabbles but ones that manifested in very real ways, like a completely neglected sculpture garden so pathetic that one conservator advised: “don’t even try to fix this in the next five years. In fact, this is a 10 year project.” There was also a collection of art dispersed across campus, most of which was in some state of disrepair or completely lost. The fighting, the squabbles, and lack of consensus about the appropriate place for the arts on this campus literally manifested in the degraded state of the art objects themselves. This lack of community consensus over the proper space and place for the arts produced an ironic, residual homelessness for most of the art objects entrusted to the people there. There was literally not enough storage space to house everything. Many objects were literally lost “boys” if you will, caste out into the world with no security.

I say ironic because just as the art objects already under the institution’s stewardship fell into disrepair, a sparkly new sculpture walk came to campus. (And no, the neglected sculpture garden was not a part of this sculpture walk. Because that would have been too obvious?) The sculpture walk was a reigning endorsement that the arts were alive and well on a campus. See, look at that nondescript sculpture (aka apolitical abstract bronze monstrosity) that has nothing to do with the community in front of the business school! It says, “We care about the arts.” All while the majority of the institution’s visual art objects lay in shambles, dispersed amongst buildings collecting spider webs and dust, out of the public’s eye, attention, and of little concern. One of my former colleagues, an art professor, called this dispersal of art in the hallways, “the graveyard.”

As a curator, I literally felt like the walls were closing in on me when it came to putting art shows together because I had never heard so much brouhaha about what art should go where and who should be most instrumental in the creation of art exhibitions. Without a clear vision in place before my arrival, it seemed like anything and any idea was up for grabs. I quickly learned that this is VERY common at MOST places and diplomats learn to deal with it. In fact, there are supportive message boards that essentially say, “stay strong” and “you’ll get through this” for university arts administrators saddled with advisory boards comprised of hapless art professors. These professors who very often help hire the curators, like to spend considerable time, without solicitation, telling curators which kinds of exhibitions should take place on campus. Because let me tell you, “If there was one thing I really didn’t know how to do it’s putting art shows together. Forget helping me fundraise, or reaching out to other faculty to build interdisciplinary academic programs around our collection. Forget even bothering to bring your class to the exhibitions. What I really need is for you to tell me what kinds of shows to curate. Uh duh.” She resumes with her finger in her nose.

I was pretty na├»ve about the politics in academe but I later learned that what I witnessed and experienced was a “theory of the impoverished” where people fight over breadcrumbs instead of demanding a larger slice of bread that would adequately feed everyone.

That the concept of scarcity reigned supreme in a state as big, as spread out, and unpopulated (relatively speaking) in SD, was the most baffling thing for me. To highlight this contradiction, artists from New York and Boston would visit the galleries in astonishment: “It’s a HUGE space,” they said. How could it be that there was not enough space or that the spaces were not good enough in the minds of the people living and working there? Perhaps when people fought over territories for art, they were really talking about resources, such as money, faculty lines, and better opportunities to bring in bigger shows. I completely understood that. Because those of us plugging away to make the arts a thing in that part of the world was a very real challenge. What I did not ever understand was the reasoning in these debates about art galleries as territories.

These images above by Jenny Kendler. Her work can be seen here

On the positive, yet ambivalent, side of the arguments, many wanted to build more areas for displaying art without addressing the ones that already existed (Hello! We already have a shitty sculpture garden!!! Why not work on improving that?). On the other end, a few argued to restrict art to areas specified because of their own misguided, bureaucratic control. It’s difficult enough to encourage people to engage with art, but yes, let’s put more restrictions on where things should and should not go.

In front of an advanced painting class, I asked the budding artists why they were not “arting the rat” so to speak and putting art where the damn well please. We, the professor and I, cited a gallery in a locker, just to give them an example. “Because,” one student responded, “we don’t want to get into trouble.” The myth of the rebel artist had been revealed. We were all really people pleasers in the end. We all wanted to respect people’s sense of privacy and claims over territories after all.

I tried to talk about how the very philosophy surrounding the debates on the “appropriateness” of exhibition spaces and art projects reeked of censorship and truly limited our potential to make the arts a meaningful part of campus life by entering every line of sight, every point of access. People pointed fingers. Everyone had some certainty of how it came to be and who let it get so bad and how to make it better. “That computer lab is useless, let’s make it into a gallery” more than a few art professors suggested. My head would hang and I would simply sigh as I thought of the poor college students who, daily, used the computer lab because they didn’t have internet access at home much less a PC. One time, I sat in on a meeting with a ‘spacial needs assessment’ analyst (yet that’s a job) who asserted that the college of fine arts needed more space. Yes, more space! Growth! Good things! But who will pay for it and who will take care of it once it’s built? Me? Will there be another administrative line added to help out? Of course not.

The worst were the people who didn’t think there was a problem at all. But the simple and honest truth was that the war over the galleries was everyone’s fault. And I mean everyone. But then I was complicit too and I needed to find a way to be honest with myself and to talk about the issue in the only way I knew how: I would curate an exhibition about it. Institutional politics aside, I decided that the only site-specific exhibition at that place would not take place outside, or in a locker. The only site-specific exhibition I could produce needed to reflect and directly address the overall anxiety over territories that I had witnessed when it came to showing art in this very small part of the world. Thus, deTerritorlization. It embodies every argument, every philosophy about territories in the specific ring of the art world in the epitome of the high modernism’s art space: the giant white cube. It’s the cube to which I had been confined, curatorially speaking, for the years I worked there and it is the white cube many others worshipped and wanted to claim even as the cube confined them too. In short, we were all fighting it out in the white cube instead of demanding a greater slice of the pie outside of it.

Sometimes people ask, ‘How do you curate?” For this show, I literally had one thought in mind and it was a plant breaking through the crack of a foundation and growing up into the space where it supposedly did not belong. I wanted artists who could convey that image, that sense of breaking through a threshold we hold as permanent.

Jenny Kendler and Kim Beck’s work shows two ends of a similar philosophy: we claim space. Sometimes our take over is successful but oftentimes and eventually, we lose our claims-for how does one own air and earth, brick and mortar? Sometimes the natural ecology spits human advancement back out and off it. Sometimes our own man made signs, built to last, show they were in fact made to break. In short, our claims over territories are futile, flexible, and as much a social construct as anything else. But still, territory is what war is made of.

There is no such thing as a professional gallery space, much less an unprofessional gallery if we base that assumption on things inherent to the space itself: its lights, its walls, its entrance, its floor. The walls that box in an area do not define the space inside. The objects inside the walls define the spaces. The subject’s movement inside the walls defines the space. I wanted Beck’s fences and Kendler’s birds to call attention to the fact that the white cube had been compromised and that the sacredness of the white cube really doesn’t exist anyway. The white cube, its neutrality, its pristine beauty, is a figment of our art world imagination. Our monuments, our arrogance, will disappear long after we’re gone and other elements in nature will take its rightful place again. I know the artists who agreed to participate in the de Territorializaiton know that truth as well. Their work says so and it defines the space that it is in.

Then again, the bronze metal might be around for quite some time (into geologic time), but I’m hoping the art students will melt down the shitty sculptures in the sculpture walk and from that bronze make something better.

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