Outside of my work here in the Arts Team, I also volunteer at an artist run initiative in Melbourne’s inner north. Like any arts organisation, much of running the space has little to do with the art that’s featured in it – lots of book balancing, meetings, and telling people not to lean on the walls (and, by extension, hating the colour white). Even when work is going up, and lots of time is spent mounting work, balancing spirit levels, and arranging downlights, it’s hard to step back and appreciate it until the opening is well under way.
Despite being involved with the space for as long as I have, my role in directly curating shows has been low. I’m one of the only people on the committee without an academic background in fine art, so I’m naturally quite cautious when I find myself in that position, as I’m aware my naivity in the field could all too easily slip out. Case in point: earlier this year when I was discussing artwork plans with one of the artists in an upcoming show I was curating, I let slip that I didn’t know what Documenta was. Shortly after, the artist (rightly) grabbed me by both shoulders, shook me vigoursly, and yelled, “You don’t know what Documenta is?!?” A quick search of our collection, and a flip through The next documenta should be curated by an artist, and I felt (again, rightly) humbled.
Considering said naivity, over the last year or so that I’ve had a hand in curating and/or co-curating shows at the space, I’ve been a bit stumped when queried by friends about what’s involved with curating a show. Does that mean that you’re in it? How do you find the artists? And if you’re NOT in the show… what do you do… really? My short-hand answer was “Lots of emailing”.
The first show I solo-curated (with an abundance of help by my fellow committee members) was quite a steep learning curve, due not only to my participation in the show as an artist (a collaborative work, which was something of a blessing and a curse), but also due to the amount of tech in the show. After flipping through New media in the white cube and beyond, I realised I had it pretty easy. We had a projector playing a DVD loop, another DVD player playing an audio loop, a couple of looping mini DVD players, and a minidisc player. No computers programmed to respond to people’s shadows. No electronically interactive works at all, in fact. It sounds like a timid statement to make, even after the fact, but… really: Phew.
I’m still not entirely sure how to answer people when they ask for more clarity as to what it is I do in that capacity. There is intervention and direction from an artist perspective, but also a lot of stepping back and letting the artists work in the space, stepping in only when negotiating potential interaction between artists. Then there’s advertising, sitting the space, preparing the space for the opening, etc. I’ve found A brief history of curating to be a great book to refer to when looking at how other curators look at what they do (which is a touch peculiar, as I still don’t directly identify as being a contemporary art practitioner, despite my present involvements in the local scene – so, there’s still distance in the reading). There is so much experience and wisdom in those pages, despite what the title indicates. And it’s casual, which I can relate to. I think it’s hard to put a show together, see everything go up, come down (and sometimes go back up again) without being really down to earth about it all.