In March of 2017 I submitted a proposal to Space Studios to curate a set of three exhibitions running back to back over three months. I had had three planned; a painter I knew to get the show on the wall straight away, an Outsider Art Exhibition, and an Open Exhibition.
The proposal was rejected on the grounds that ‘it wasn’t a priority at this time.’ The studio had just opened in January, the down stairs public spaces were all a blank page, and no one in the studios really new each other apart from an occasional hello on the stairs or in the communal kitchens.
At the end of May the CEO of Space happened to be visiting, I mentioned to her that I had suggested the exhibitions, (the walls were still blank) and she seemed surprised saying she knew nothing about it. She got back to me the next working day through the site manager Jack to say that I could do an exhibition in time for the Open Studios.
We were now five weeks before the Open Studios and I was investigating the affect of art on communities for my degree, and its fair to say a community was yet to form in the building. The question I wanted answered was could an art exhibition create a community? So I considered the Open* to be the most important exhibition in the proposal, and that was what I set out to do.
There was only one small problem, it was five weeks away, and I was away for a week of that month in Tilbury on a Residency (see ‘Silk River’ book.) I had curated a combined show the previous year, and had attended a curation course at Whitechapel Gallery during the interim, so I used my experience to plan the exhibition in the time available, focussing on only the essentials, and sharing the load where I could, this is how it happened…
*An open exhibition is open to submission by all.
Planning the Show
Week 1 – Preparation
First stop; meet with Jack to discuss the terms of the acceptance;
- There is no budget.
- There is no insurance.
- Space will sponsor us for the printing of posters on the in-house copier.
- If we are selling alcohol we need a ‘Temporary Event Notice’ (TEN licence.)
- Space will not provide a bar/licence.
- Anything with Space branding has to go through Space marketing.
- Jack would like a showcase on the main projector in the foyer.
- The marketing has to include the ‘Open Studios’ info.
I compile and send out a submission form with a disclaimer that the work will not be insured (although there is staff on site and security cameras throughout the space so this is mitigated.) I e-mail everyone on the group Facebook page a notification for applications, and print some copies to slide under the door of those who don’t subscribe to social media, I want everyone included if they want to be. I then prepare a submission form to gather the data I need.
Week 2 – Visit all artists
I start to meet all the artists, three or four a day, I talk to them about the work they have at the studio, take a snap of it for reference, and start to create a chart compiling; room number, name (I am only meeting many of them for the first time) work to be included, form completed and delivered, work delivered.
As I am short on time I create a form for them to fill in with; name, contact details, if they want those details public, artist bio, list of work supplied for show (title, date, media, price etc.)
I haven’t at this point thought about what if anything I will include in the show, when I go up to meet with Emma, a scientist in room 209. She is sitting behind her desk covered in plants and we hadn’t met before. I start by asking her about what she does and if she would like to get involved. She says yes, but as a scientist she’s not sure she has anything suitable. Having attended academic conferences I ask if she has any scientific posters which she does, and we start to talk about the project she is working on…
I try to encourage everyone to get involved, even those with pieces that may not be considered ‘art’ in the traditional sense. Veronica an excellent seamstress has a tailors dummy she has decorated with lace and jewels and I encourage her to include it, Brandon recycles Lego for a living and has a large point-of-sale piece in his room, again I would like to include it as a sculptural piece.
I speak to Kaavous the curator at the Minories and he kindly lends me two plinths to stand these sculptural pieces on, to help lift them to ‘gallery piece’ status.
Emilie is a fabric designer and we discuss in detail what she will include and how she can show the work, I have an old picture frame and ask if we could do something with it.
Jack tells me to speak to Rosie and Joe on the top floor about their work, and luckily they pop by to see me one day, they are film artists, and I had been struggling to fill the screen area (an area sectioned of by black curtains perfect for screening films, but no one has yet jumped at the chance) so I am thrilled when they agree to do a screening of three pieces of their work in there for the event.
For the show I am planning to set up a Private/Public View on the Friday (with bar and entertainment to be arranged at this point) and then open for the Open Studios and Big Sunday on the Sunday.
The show will then be open for studio members only and their guests, or by appointment.
Week 3 – (Camp Tilbury)
I have already booked a week to go to a residency in South Essex, to work with Kinetika on a community based project in Tilbury (see ‘Silk River’ Book) I take all the project files with me, thinking I will work on it in the evenings, but when I arrive at the camp site the Wifi doesn’t reach as far as the camping area.
I needn’t have bothered though as I start at 10.00 and finish at 7.00 so by the time I have eaten in a tent its time to sleep and get up and do the same again the next day, no time for thinking about other projects!
Week 4 – Planning and Collating
Refreshed I arrive back from my Residency and work begins in earnest. I do an assessment of the space to see what is available and create a list of what areas we have, because of the nature of the space, a newly renovated office-cum-studio, we have some interesting and challenging hanging conundrums to address. The spaces are as follows;
Glass space 8
Magnetic wall 5
Large space 1
Small space 15
Odd shape/pillar 5
Outside area 1
I start to think about the areas available in relation to the work I have to hang, some of these are obvious based on their requirements e.g: video, and it being a new space and the first curated show I don’t feel I have to re-invent the wheel in terms of challenging installations. I don’t have any fee standing hardware apart from what I have borrowed so I try to make intelligent hanging choices to show the work to its best abilities.
Reading ‘Curationism – How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else’1 (David Balzer, 2015) as part of my research, I was inspired by the concept of the ‘uber curators’ in particular focusing on the cult of Hans Ulrich Oberist, along with trendsetters and social darlings such as Massimiliano Gioni, Beatrix Ruf and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev to name a few.
‘I see a curator as a catalyst, generator and motivator – a sparring partner, accompanying the artist while they build a show, and a bridge builder, creating a bridge to the public.’2
I look to Oberist for inspiration, thinking about the art fairs and curating in a way which is for the public eye, he is famed for his social networking and this gives me the opportunity to meet everyone in the building and discuss their work, a great way to get to know them all.
The feedback I get from everyone is resoundingly positive that they all wanted to integrate more with people in the building and as we start to work in the space and discuss the hang people start to arrive with artwork to discuss this starts to happen.
As I plan the layout of the show I map the artist’s locations on a copy of the floor plan, and once they are all positioned I start to talk through the spaces with some of the more complex installations to give them time to set up.
Hanging on the magnetic walls is inspired by the use of small round magnets I saw an exhibition I saw at Le Centre d’art contemporain La Panacée2 in Montpellier, where they had used screws in the wall and small round magnets to attach the work to the screw, I knew this would create a simple but effective display of paper work, such as Johns set of working proofs for his photography book about a band.
A note on the title of the show.
I had originally intended to call the show ‘Space Open.’ Everyone is proud to be part of Space Studios, however Space have tight control of their brand and prefer the studio to be branded as ‘37 Queen Street’ to differentiate it from their other studios.
This left me with a problem, what was I going to call it. This was the only time when running the show on my own felt like a lonely job. I brainstormed. As Space also wanted the branding to attach marketing for the Open Studios that weekend, ‘Space Open’ had seemed ideal, now I had to come up with something else, and fast. Eventually I settled on ‘RESIDENT’ it was something that tied us as a group of people from a variety of vocations exhibiting together. I decided to play in its slightly dark undertones and keep the marketing simple and mono.
On the subject of which, I have taken the big step for me, and delegated the graphic design to some designers in the building, they weren’t sure what they were going to include and I thought given the short time frame it would makes sense. I photograph a shot of the lights in the foyer, its non-artist specific and represents the space we are showing in, and I give them a selection of shots and a couple of design ideas to work from; I have looked at the Venice Biennale and some of the MOMA marketing for inspiration.
I find when I have sent out all instructions it may have been quicker to do it myself; I sit with them to talk through adapting what they have done to what I wanted. Rebekah my neighbour joins me, she has just graduated from her BA and offers to assist, her input is quite relevant having just finished a show, we go around visiting artists and I ask her to follow some of them up when I am not about.
The material goes to human resources for approval but it turns out she is away on holiday, with only one week to go I have to get it out anyway. We get a set of posters, and flyers printed out in the building, which I have to trim by hand as the printer doesn’t have bleed, time is of the essence and saving money equates to making more work in this instance! I deliver to all the local arts venues, and give a friend of mine some small flyers to deliver on his rounds as a local promoter. I put up posters all around the building and in the window, just to keep everyone onsite focused on the task in hand.
One of the girls in the building, Janine, runs a pop-up bar, so I book it for the evening, I can then include her in the catalogue and we have a collection pot to make donations and this will be donated to the round of first cocktails, and she also sorts the drinks licence out.
Now the branding is done I can set up the social marketing, and get some of the images I snapped while visiting up as teasers for the event.
At the weekend I head over to Jude’s house (one of the artists) to help her collect bundles of wire to make an installation in the outside area, I am thrilled to have artists making site specific work, and she’s not the only one, CoCoCare are working with a group of adults with learning difficulties to create a string installation which offers sensory experiences, plus my own installation is in the planning stages.
Week 5 – Private View
The 26 artists
The end of last week and the start of this week are mainly spent chasing up everyone for work. Jack has lent me the dark room, an empty room originally proposed as a kitchen which never got developed when the building was being regenerated, it has bare walls and a painted floor. He also lends me a large wooden cabinet which I set up as the art drop zone, for people to drop of work when I am not about.
As the first exhibition in the building, it requires a leap of faith by people to leave there work in a public area, some have issues with this, I try to talk them through the process. Not helped by the fact that some of the contributors have probably never worked on a curated show so have no idea how to interact with a curator, their purpose or the fact that the show is the vision of the curator.
In the evenings I am working on the show guide. There are now 26 artists in the show. Jack is still recommending people I have not yet seen, I am ignoring him! If people have not taken the time to get in touch by now, I reason, they don’t warrant a place in the show. Forms are still coming in until literally the morning of the show, at which point I send it to Jack to print out, and submissions are closed. I have done it though; 26 artists, names, contact, bio and description of work in the show, by some miracle it’s all here. On the cover I use a floor plan and add the room number of the resident as a reference, these numbers are then kindly applied in vinyl next to each persons work in the show by the vinyl graphics guy in the building who I also give a mention to in the catalogue.
New tenants are signing this week and one of them wants to be included, and old friend Jane Ostler, she sends some work over which unfortunately doesn’t fit in the area allocated to her, I decide at this late stage to ask for some thing else, as it doesn’t fit, she assumes I mean on an aesthetic level, once we iron out this misunderstanding she drops me off (at my house, I am still in bed) a set of 6 framed prints that perfectly fit the area and look great, on the morning of the show!
The Install & The Installation
The Sustainable Treatment of Waste Using Recycled Chitosan
While in the middle of planning an exhibition I now have to make an installation to use for a performance art piece I am planning as part of the Private View event. My concept is as follows;
- I will turn the glass meeting room into a science lab by wrapping it in plastic.
- I will apply hazard tape to the now ‘bio-lab’ and create a safe area around it.
- Inside will be science equipment, and some Chitosan (crab shells) science posters (all supplied by Emma.)
- Myself/Emma the scientist will enter the event from the far side cells, dressed head to toe coveralls wearing masks and goggles.
- We will go into the room and perform some experiments she will provide.
- On the sound of a bio-hazard alarm which will be played on the giant TV monitor with flashing red bio-hazard sign.
- There will be a (faux) security guard on the door thought the event.
- The performance will end when we exit and leave the area via the lift.
I am unsure if my co-scientist will be here as she may be called away to China, and in the event she is. I am on my own. I have none of the posters, science equipment or crab shells.
I try to rustle up a volunteer to be a security guard, no joy.
Feeling worried about this.
I decide to plough on and have faith that even though she is in China she will come good. I order plastic wrap which arrives the next day, run about buying as many of the other materials as I can. I pick up some seashells I collected in the South of France from my house, I am intending to go to Mersea and collect oyster shells but the weather is awful and I have no time.
I buy the outfits, goggles and masks, keeping the receipts so I can return them if I get some in time from Emma. I then contact a collegue Trudi Read who I worked with on the Spill Festival and ask if she would be up for perfoming, (I have told her about the plan a few days before,) she says yes and she will get another colleague to join us as the security officer. This colleague drops out on the day and amazingly she gets her partner, who has never performed before, to volunteer – I am deeply grateful!
The Thursday before the private view is spent hanging all the work, we start on the installation but don’t get very far, so on the final day I have to ask every one to muck-in so Harry (My assistant) and I can get the lab finished. We plough into it and by lunch time everything is wrapped in plastic and the tables can be laid out.
One of the residents then tells me he has some science equipment and old bottles at home, so on the morning of the PV I swing by his house and load the car up, this is a godsend, I now have a lab, with test-tubes, stands and clamps, bunsen burner plates, glass filter systems, plus a selection of old labelled apothecary’s medicine bottles. Added to this I grab a pestle and mortar, glass jug, another cafetiere beaker from home and by some miracle I have a lab!
Part way thought the day Emmas boyfriend arrives carrying one bag containing; a cafetiere beaker, some baby oil, food dye and Alka-Seltzer.
I have no idea how to mix these to make an experiment.
Thank goodness I bought all the other stuff.
It was my intention to get everything done by 4.00pm and nip off get changed into a frock and return at 5.00pm to meet the performers, this all went like clockwork (I left a snagging list for everyone who had volunteered to help and they all came together such that on my return they had all been crossed though!) and the performers arrived bang on time with props and ideas for their outfits for the show.
After spraying the word ‘SECURITY‘ on the back of a black t-shirt, we did a walk though of the performance blow-by-blow.
Debs looks amazing as the security guard, and she has the unenviable task of being out on the floor before the performance begins for the rest of us. Small children say ‘mummy I am scared of her’ which is fantastic testimony to how seriously she plays it. I am out amongst the guest dressed normally, mingling.
Fifteen minutes before Jack is to set of the bio-alarm Trudi and I head into the cells to change into our science outfits, at this point I am quite nervous, and relieved to not be doing this on my own. I should also add that at this point we still have no idea how to make the experiment we have the ingredients for, I happen to press ‘send and receive’ on my e-mails as the computer is on, and low and behold five minutes before we walk out Emma has come good and sent us instructions to do the experiment, we print it then head out…
The performance itself goes by in a moment, I asked Debs to time us for ten minutes, and she gives us a but longer as we seem to be doing well. Before we know it we are heading into the lift and I ask security to face the window as it slowly rises and we leave the area. As we rise I am told an audience member asks ‘should we clap?’
We walk back though in costume, and go to change, then come out and enjoy the rest of the evening with the guests. It has been a resounding success and I am relieved it is over!
Revenge of the Bag Snatchers
Having pencilled in a restful day the next day after the Private View of the show, I popped by the studio to pick up all my cameras and hard-drive before the Open Studio so as not to leave any valuables in there when it was open to the public.
I popped by a store opposite and put the bag down to try on some shoes. In my post show tiredness I left the store (and the bag.) After popping to get some milk I realised I only has one bag and rushed back to the store.
The bag was gone, I felt sick. I asked the store assistant, he asked me if it was a white bag with pink writing, he had seen them take it. He described the two assailants, (quite badly it turned out,) and I rushed off around town (in flip-flops) to try and find them, ringing my brother as I went to get him to come and help. No joy, I went back to the shop and the guy wanted to shu -up and go home, because he ‘had a kid’ and suggested I ‘come back tomorrow’ I said ‘no way there is around £500 of electrical equipment in that bag, I am ringing the police’ (which he had failed to do, even though I had asked earlier) not to mention the completely irreplaceable footage of my installation and performance and all the photos of the event!
We were going through the usual details on the phone to the police man when the shop guy suddenly exclaims ‘there’s the guy’ he only walks right past the store bold as brass, my brother shoots across the room to the door (the door is locked as its 5.30) the shop girl opens the door and we both set off in hot pursuit of the guy, he knows we are behind him, but doesn’t run. We catch up with him and accost him I accuse him of having my stuff; he opens his bag to show just another empty bag, my bag!
I tell him if he didn’t steal it he wont mind waiting for the police who I am still on the phone to during the chase and now, he tries to deny it for a minute or two, and then backs down saying ‘if you hang up the phone I will give you the stuff back!’ I tell him, ‘if you give me the stuff back I will hang up the phone!’
He walks us around the back of the shops, offering me (his) iphone 6 if I will hang up, I take it and say I am still not hanging up the phone and explain how valuable the images on the cameras are and exclaim with disgust ‘even my bloody pants were in there!’ We go to a car and he pulls a box out of the boot with all my possessions in it, all my electricals and the change of underwear I had put in the bag that I had bought in to change into after my performance, but then didn’t have time in the event.
The police later rung me and asked if I wanted to press charges, I have asked them for the 999 recording and am currently awaiting their response…
Open Studios & Big Sunday
The next day 37 Queen Street is open to the public for Open Studios and Big Sunday (a music festival in the St Botolphs area of town) visitors are taken on guided tours though the studio building and the exhibition is open downstairs to the public, along with the bar. a live band are set up in the outside courtyard.
After the stress of the events the day before, I arrive late and tidy up my studio, then visit some of the events around the area. Arriving back and after imbibing some rather lovely raspberry gin I decide (along with an old friend) that the time is right to dress up in the scientist outfits and come out and dance to the last band of the day.
Benny the promoter had asked me to enact my performance and I said at the time that a performance only exists in the moment it is performed, but I would consider walking about as a scientist, this was the prefect foil to the headline act Fishclaw, who asked if we could come along to all their performances. A happy ending to what could have been a somewhat disastrous weekend!
As an aside, the exhibition is closed to the public, but Space decides to come down on one of their ‘team building days’ to visit and take in the show which is nice.
The exhibition is up for one month, which absolutely flies by for me as I am busy with projects for my Masters’ Degree. Near to the end I realise I haven’t even seen Rosie & Joes films, and sent an e-mail out to everyone asking if they would be interested in attending a curator’s tour of the show ending with a showing of the films.
The artists are all up for it so we have a private party, people in the building and by invitation only. We walk and talk about the work, hanging and preparing the exhibition and other anecdotes of the show. I give out some fun certificates to those who had a special part to play, and we end on the showing of the films, which I have to say are really excellent and I felt privileged to have them.
The show was massively influenced by my training at Whitechapel in terms of the process and how they handle an exhibition and indeed the work in the exhibition. That and the work of Hans Ulrich Oberist, I like to think his social approach to curation is really akin to what drives me.
The question I posed at the start was could art bring a community together? And it was a resounding success, one of the most pleasing moments of the whole exhibition was on the two installation days, was that people from the building were coming down to the space to help, introducing each other and getting to know each other. We all stayed late, chatting about the work, eating take away food drinking beers, chatting, this is the community I sought to create, happening in real time, in some ways this was more gratifying than the show itself.
I learned that one can achieve a lot in a small time if you are dedicated, focussed and prepared to focus on the important things and let the less important things slide (I was still working my two day jobs whilst setting up the exhibition.) What did it give to others, well for a lot of people it was their first introduction to other people in the building so I think it meant a lot, I received a barrage of praise for organising the show as it was what people had hoped the studio would give them when they signed up and in fact what was sadly lacking in the first few months.
I didn’t publicise the performance piece I intended to do, I had no idea if I was going to bottle out at the last minute, but in the end I did it and felt it was worth it, it is important to me for an exhibition to have a talking point to quote Richard Wilson curator of the RA Summer Show (2016) it needs a ‘wow in every room!’4
Some commented that I like to make hard work for myself, doing a performance and curating the show, they were right, it was a challenge, but for me it paid off, it was liberating doing a performance in front of people I knew, when in fact it is easier to do it in front a room full of strangers.
The creation of a community, forged working on a show like this was my intention, it has inspired others to take ownership of the space, now open for monthly use as suggested by residents, a feeling that someone needed to go first and break-in the space, to come in and make others feel they can use it, and to give 26 people the chance to be involved in the space is the lasting legacy of the exhibition.
I found that curating exhibitions you come up against similar issues each time, particularly when working with artists whom someone once described working with to me as ‘like herding cats.’ But that these hiccups are surmountable with a bucket load of patience, and then the determination to just get on with it whatever happens.
As a curator one naturally has a bias towards the work one likes, but that said, it is an exercise in seeing the good in everyone’s work having a totally open show, and in drawing out great work from people that they may not at first disclose to you.
I am a firm believer in the power of art to forge community and this exhibition was a case in point. Art should be inclusive, interesting, challenging and most of all a social bridge between the artist and their community wherever they find it.
1 ‘Curationism – How Curating Took Over the Art World,’ David Blazer (2015) Pluto Press
2 Kent, Sarah, (2006) Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interview, Timeout
3 Le Centre d’art contemporain La Panacée – Housed in the old Collège royal de médecine and renovated by the City of Montpellier, La Panacée is a place to encounter others, to talk, to exchange, in a cross-disciplinary mindset. It is a creative platform for creation and experimentation. It offers everyone the possibility to discover and experiment a new relation to art.
4 ‘Royal Academy Summer Exhibition,’ Sat 11 Jun 2016, 21:10, BBC2
In the words of co-ordinator Richard Wilson RA, this year’s edition of the Summer Exhibition is “unpredictable, stimulating and startling.”