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Curatorial Studio Blog: Between Worlds Three sessions into the programme, participant John McDougall discusses recurring themes

by John McDougall
Image: John McDougall

While listening to former curator of Glasgow’s Tramway Nicola White and Glasgow School of Art lecturer Dr Laura Guy discuss Tramway’s 1992 exhibition ‘Read My Lips: The New York Aids Polemic’ during the second session of Curatorial Studio 2017, I began to wonder about the possibility that through intelligent and timely curation an exhibition could become a space between cultures, a place for dialogue and learning between worlds.

White had effectively created a space which invited the public to question their own attitudes towards HIV and AIDS. The kind of attitudes which had been accepted as common sense, strengthened through an apparent indifference in UK and American governments towards the plight of homosexual communities. Attitudes which led author and activist Vito Russo, whose 1988 speech at an ACT UP rally in San Francisco was reproduced in the accompanying catalogue, to repeatedly proclaim “They Don’t Give a Shit”. Attitudes which led to thousands of preventable deaths in New York alone.

The art world, even in its demarcation as a “world”, often seems to separate itself from everyday life. From the austere hush of the museum and decontextualized white-wall gallery spaces, to the highly specific languages which are developed in academic circles, contemporary art can become irrelevant to people outside of its structures. Yet we still discuss art and its “social turn”. We still look at engagement and accessibility as key factors in cultural output and we still see artists of all kinds striving to make work which is relevant and important to people beyond the so-called art world.

At our Curatorial Studio Workshop in Edinburgh we looked at festivals and biennials, spaces in their own right, which are created within living cities, sprawling through areas which are often untouched by what we define as contemporary art. Discussions about the Athens and Venice Biennales alongside Documenta 14’s controversial imposition on the Greek capital raised questions about the integrity of ideas and authorship. Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk’s intentions for Documenta in Athens were clearly well meaning, but when faced with resistance and criticism is it enough to try and protect that vision from disruption instead of allowing opposing voices to be heard and help shape that space for the better?

'Palm House' 2017, Bobby Niven, Edinburgh Art Festival. Image: John McDougall
'Palm House' 2017, Bobby Niven, Edinburgh Art Festival. Image: John McDougall

A visit to Johnstone terrace Wildlife Garden where Daisy LaFarge was carrying out a residency within a glass structured bothy raised further questions about the provision of space. Daisy’s processes as an artist, and as an individual became something of a public spectacle due to the location and materials used in Bobby Niven’s Palm House. Rhubaba’s ‘You Hardboiled, I Softboiled’ project also placed the private functions of artists into the public realm, this time through the publication of email conversations between Jessica Yu and Sam Riviere edited into a series of booklets by Curatorial Studio 2016 participant Claire Walsh. Although different in execution, both projects seek to develop space between public and private, artist and audience. Both place the curatorial agent as one which creates a new space within already existing structures.

If the traditional definition of a curator is someone who protects and maintains artworks or collections, then perhaps a contemporary definition might be of someone who understands the space which projects need to operate successfully. Someone who can allow it to move and reshape as it meets differing audiences and ideas, thus protecting the integrity of the work.

With Ellen Blumenstein, curator of Hamburg’s ambitious city district project HafenCity featuring in the fourth session this month, I feel these themes will continue to be of importance.