Curator Conversations is part of a collaborative set of activities on photography curation and scholarship initiated by Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University), Christopher Stewart (London College of Communication, University of the Arts London) and Esther Teichmann (Royal College of Art) that has included the symposium, Encounters: Photography and Curation, in 2018 and a ten week course, Photography and Curation, hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery, London in 2018-19.
Interview with Holly Roussell by Tim Clark, 2020
What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?
The exhibition form is a challenge. I am attracted to the process and the comprehensive nature of the exhibition. It often begins for me with an idea and an ideal: what is the purpose or direction of this project? What would this project look like if everything goes perfectly? Which artists or artworks should be part of it? Where could it be exhibited? As projects evolve, constraints begin to appear, and the ideal morphs into something new. It is about problem-solving, and that challenges not only your patience but also your idea – that original concept – along the way. This aspect is an unseen part of the exhibition for visitors, but they are the unknowing beneficiaries, because the challenges help you better formulate and understand your own concept. A curator creates rhythm in a space, to tell a story to the visitor.
Working primarily in contemporary photography, something else that attracts me to the exhibition form is that my role is often a technical and a creative one. It happens, perhaps more often than one would expect, that work on an exhibition will extend beyond the selection and disposition of artworks in space, but involve also the production methods of those artworks. An example of this sort of collaboration is my work with the Shanghai-based artist Coca Dai (戴建勇). He is an extraordinarily active photographer and a wonderful, eccentric book-maker. Most of his projects existed only as multiple versions of self-published photobooks or digital scans from his hundreds of thousands of negatives. I discovered these when we met in 2016. A few years later when I was invited to nominate artists for the Discovery Award at the Jimei x Arles festival, I seized the occasion to work with Coca. For that show, we worked together to translate a project conceived as a book using the exhibition form. We did so by designing an exhibition that combined both prints and “books” on the walls. Groupings of 10 to 30 images, printed on thick rice paper literally hung from the walls, becoming “mini-books” interspersed in a constellation of single prints distributed throughout the space. These “books” on the walls recalled his original project not only as a formal reference point, they also require a similar intimate engagement from the visitor. Once the visitor begins flipping the pages, they are drawn into the personal memories. The viewer must spend time interacting with the narrative one photograph at a time, which is as Coca intended – analogous to how these moments were lived.
What does it mean to be a curator in an age of image and information excess?
It means remaining focused. Nowadays there are limitless possibilities: exhibition ideas, artists to collaborate with, magazines, journals, conferences, etc. This greater access to information creates a sort of “weight” when you begin to build a project. There is pressure to know about everything going on everywhere in the world, to have an opinion about it, to go see every show, to read articles, to always be up to date. Sometimes I relate it to a treadmill that’s been turned up a bit too fast. You feel like you could fall off at any time.
Access is no longer the problem for a curator. What to do with that material, however, is challenging. It is our job to edit that information, to filter it, to be inclusive, to be discriminating (in a positive sense), to find artists that need support to share their vision and artworks that are meaningful.
I deal with this by creating frameworks for my projects. I think being a curator in an age of information excess means accepting you will not always have perfect balance in your exhibitions. You may not always reach the “ideal”. It means there will be more people with similar ideas to yours perhaps than ever before, because we all have greater access to information. It means reinventing yourself, homing in on your own specific focus as a curator to adapt to the needs of the current world.
What constitutes curatorial responsibility in the context within which you work?
I believe curatorial responsibility is about vision and respect.
First, it is necessary to understand the importance of your role within the art ecosystem. It isn’t enough to make exhibitions, meet artists and put up shows of their work. As a curator you have access to people, resources, and visibility – what will you do with it? That is our biggest responsibility. We should fight for artists whose work has substance and understand our responsibility to skillfully navigate a world rooted in churning trends and nepotism. We should aim to make statements with our projects, to help people to step back and reflect on the things we take for granted, and not simply produce shows that will increase our own individual visibility or fame.
Secondly, and, perhaps, less evident, I believe we also have a responsibility to respect other curators, researchers, and individuals with areas of expertise. We should be generous and collaborate rather than be competitive and exclusive.
Finally, as a foreign curator working in China with many Chinese artists, I feel there is a crucial responsibility to listen and not to allow my presuppositions to cloud my ability to understand a work. There are certain challenges working outside one’s own culture, and it can be tempting to want to classify an artist’s work as X or Y because those are ideas we recognise from our own cultural history and can comprehend, but, it is our responsibility to not allow cultural bias or reference systems to take over.
What advice would you give to aspiring curators?
If you are working in photography, look all the time at everything you can. Look at books, look at exhibitions, look online at artists’ websites, look at magazines, look at advertisements, look at newspapers. Try to understand what the images are telling you. Which images move you? Have a vision. Why are you curating exhibitions? Why this artist? Why is it important? I think if you cannot answer these questions about an exhibition you are putting on, you should revisit your motives.♦
Read the full interview here: 1000 Words I Holly Roussell
Further interviews in the Curator Conversations series can be read here.