conversation with...grace slater
a documentation of written exchanges with between Abigail and fellow artist and creative Grace Slater. Below is a record of an ongoing conversation, where each artist will post a reply to the other on alternate Sundays about various art related subjects.
If i were to choose to view exhibitions online or in person for the rest of my life, i would definitely choose in person. It is more intimate, more in my control. It is less of a staged experience, it is less curated and controlled. But maybe that is reflective of the kind of artwork i like to see in galleries. I've always been interested in art that i can interact with, art that is temporal and requires engagement from the viewer to be 'completed', like an installation or social experiment. You know i love Yayoi Kusama, Olafur Eliasson, Pippilotti Rist and the Team Lab shows because they require engagement from the viewer. I am a sucker for a spectacle. Yes i can engage with a painting, but not in the same way. That painting will still exist if i am not there to see it. I like considering the idea that an artwork isn't reaching its potential unless it is seen, unless it is walked through or listened to, and i guess digital space lacks that physical intimacy. The internet is a timeless place.
Although i realise there is a whole world of digital galleries and exhibitions that are very much interactive, but the level of interaction is different. To navigate an online space, i am required to scroll with my thumb or click my laptop mouse, im not actually physically moving. If i see an exhibition online, those images have been taken by a photographer, edited and uploaded. My experience has been strictly curated and therefore my interpretation is limited to these few images. For example, the online show might list the scale of a painting as 3 metres wide, but that is just a number on a screen and the image on my screen is only about 8cm. If i were to see it in person, i could see the texture more clearly, i could 'feel' the work. It would be more of an experience. The virtual online space lacks as much texture i guess and i am relying more on my imagination. But it is also quite accessible. If i am writing an essay and i just need to find a piece of work to reference and i dont have time to go and see it myself, then it is useful for that. If i live a hundred miles away and dont want to spend a tonne on a train ticket, then a high res image on a website will have to do for now.
Of course in the current climate, galleries aren't open so online alternatives are very much welcomed and appreciated. It's refreshing to see the amount of galleries who are now transferring their material online, but it makes me wonder why they weren't doing this in the first place? Making art accessible to all is important even without a nationwide lockdown, even if the virtual experience isn't necessarily matched or as participatory as the physical experience. I dont want to dwell too much on the negatives of digital space, especially when i am in the midst of directing my own online curated project!! However, as non-innovative as my project might be, it is an interesting challenge to adapt to the limitations of the online exhibition. My inspiration comes from my resounding interest in alternative exhibition spaces, subverting the domestic home and reinviting a function and a narrative into it. I feel like all i talk about is Obrist's kitchen show, (i'm sure you remember when i took over our kitchen at uni and turned it into a gallery for a project!!) I am a huge fan of the idea that a space can be defined by the things that are in it and not its functional architecture.
Maybe as a photographer you could delve into some more detail about this idea, the digital image vs the actual experience of an image/artwork. The immaterial vs the tangible. I am certain you have a more refined understanding about the image as a dedicated medium than myself, and i know you have displayed your photography in both physical and digital formats. This idea of the image’s ability to exaggerate or reduce, depending on the aesthetic qualities of it's location or display method. Does the internet have an aesthetic?
Before I start knocking online exhibitions I should first state that I am actually a fan of them for many reasons. The obvious pros to them are the accessibility and cost, meaning that most people can experience them or have their work shared/displayed without the financial, geographical and physical restrictions of an IRL show. Same as you, I’ve used many online exhibition resources to write essays and dissertations through out the years and with out them I’m sure some of my more last minute writings would have lacked a more varied research point, so thank heavens for the internet! However I must say that the sudden surge of online exhibitions is frankly overwhelming and like everything else in the arts, the quantity makes it hard to find the great amongst the average. Within days of the UK lockdown every creative person took to social media to offer online workshops, artist talks, open calls and lectures. Which is of course an amazing response to such a terrible situation, but honestly I don’t know which way to turn. Am I a bad artist/writer/curator/educator if I don’t attend that Zoom artist talk? What about that workshop on Instagram? I’ve had three exhibitions cancelled this year so should I apply to all these open calls? There is almost more pressure now to be a part of the “clique” than ever before. But if I’m truly honest with myself, my work doesn’t always translate online so why would I try and make a square fit into a circle, or whatever the expression is?...
continue reading on grace's blog
I totally agree with you in that there feels like there is a lot of pressure at the moment to be productive and ensure you're letting everyone and their mum know that you aren't just sitting in your pyjamas all day. It can become quite overwhelming, who knew you could get FOMO during a lockdown?? There are so many workshops and zoom meetings and artists talks happening online, which is amazing of course, but i must remind myself that i'm not a bad person or a bad artist for still not wanting to be a part of them, even when it's all there is to do at the moment!
Weirdly enough my project wasnt a product of this pandemic. My open call started back in November and my first show was in January. The intention was never a compromise from a more 'traditional' exhibition, it was always an alternative curatorial project reliant on domestic intervention. I didn't start the project because something else got cancelled, is what i mean. It was always supposed to exist in online space. So it is a bit weird how relevant it has suddenly become, given the influx of online exhibitions that are happening now. I suppose my project could be seen as a bit of a cop-out; i am just using the space that's available to me because its there. But i consider it (perhaps selfishly so) a personal challenge for me to examine what an exhibition or gallery truly is, and how far these words can be stretched. What rules i can bend and what lines i can cross before it just becomes an highly staged instagram post, and would it matter if that's all it became? Just because my house is available to me and instagram is convenient or 'easy' to use, doesn't mean i shouldn't use it. I mean why not? Erik Winkowski uses instagram as a visual sketchbook and posts almost daily videos of his ideas, it seems a very successful way for him to develop his practise and i don't think it reduces his work at all. It's so interesting to see his process.
Using instagram as a platform (or i suppose a gallery at this point) for my project doesn't mean i will never curate shows in real life again, as i love how complicated and stressful that process it. My intention was to see if it could work, and see if people would actually respond, and go from there. I would hate for it to be considered the 'lazy' option, and maybe its premise has become a bit overshadowed by every gallery jumping onto the internet now, but i think the concept of the project has a character to it and a resonance (to me anyway!) that will hopefully stand out. I'm not going to stop just because everyone is doing it! Social media definitely has it's positives. In terms of this exhibition being taken as seriously as physical ones, i guess it depends what you mean by seriously. It has the capability to gain popularity due to it existing on the internet and by how much i market and promote it myself. Does being taken 'seriously' mean getting thousands of likes or getting a lot of traffic to my site/blog? Is a physical exhibition regarded as being taken seriously if there are hundreds of visitors and a number of raving reviews from all the best newspapers/online articles or art critics? It is very easy to buy into things that are popular as well, if someone has thousands of followers on instagram immediately i think 'oh they must be important', 'their work must be great'. If seriousness is translating into success, then yes i think online projects have a good chance at being as successful as a physical exhibition, but perhaps in just a different way. Success is a wide spectrum and can mean a lot of things for different people. In relation to my project, the success is simply in the realisation of it. The fact that i have been lucky enough to get enough responses that i am able to put on more than one show. Yes it would be great if it got a lot of attention online and this was the precursor to some more exciting and developmental opportunites for me as a curator and an artist, but this project in its essence is an opportunity for me to, whilst i am without access to sizeable funds to support my own exhibitions in physical spaces, still gain some curating experience and expand my practise and rooted interest in the alternative gallery, which has always been an interest of mine since being a fine art student.
I find it interesting that you mention relevance in terms of comparing online exhibitions to physical ones and justifying them. Because i suppose yes, directing a traditional exhibition in a physical space requires more effort in terms of contacting owners, arranging dates, transport of work, couriers, invigilation, documentation, marketing, travel expenses, install and take down, risk assessments, insurance and everything else inbetween. The online space has a sense of ease in comparison. I am still installing art, but it's definitely not as intense or physical. It is more of a staged process, and i dont have to worry about a lot of the stuff you would need to when organising a physical exhibition. But i don't think that means it has any less relevance or is 'less than' a 'real' exhibition. It still requires a level of effort, and i think it shows an ability to adapt to situations and still be creative in making a show. I believe my shows can demonstrate a sense of initiative, that i don't consider curating to be a singular thing.
When lockdown is over, what is the first art based activity you think you will do? Do you think galleries will just re-open and go straight back to business as usual, or do you think this global situation will linger and the online show will still become as exclusive and abundant? I think a lot of practising artists are making work that responds to this global situation, i wonder how this subject will present itself when we are allowed within six feet of each other again..
I think we should quickly discuss the difference between an “online exhibition” and an exhibition being documented and disseminated online. There is a difference but I think that they are easily confused for each other. I believe that an online exhibition is one that solely exists online and never occupies a physical space. The whole experience is had through interacting with a webpage etc. The latter is simply the text, images or videos that accompany the physical or IRL exhibition and are shared online to document, market or explain. With your “In My House” project you present the work in a physical space (your home) first and then document the work in the space to post it online in the form of images and a blog. Although you never open your home for the public to see the work in the space, the exhibition does have an IRL audience of you and your family which is arguably a more important audience for the intentions of the work. So therefore, I would argue that your “In My House” series is not a series of online exhibitions at all but is actually a series of IRL exhibitions with the documentation disseminated online. What do you think it is?..
Audience is an interesting one, and I feel my thoughts about audience are quite contradictory depending on the subject. I often struggle with the idea that if I am not going to post about what I’m up to somewhere, then why am I doing it? It’s a pressure we place upon ourselves to be productive, or to be seen to be doing things. This can extend to every aspect of our lives...the social media culture to be seen having fun or going to the gym or eating spinach. We are performing to an audience that may or may not be there, wrestling with the internal monologue that ‘if people know that I’m doing this, then and only then it will become valuable and important.’ And although I don’t think considering audience's response is inherently negative, looking for external validation can become a very slippery slope if taken too seriously. Art is a personal endeavour, so if it doesn’t get the response or attention you intended, it often feels like a personal failure or a reflection of you as a person. A show i did in my first year of uni was a little like that: very much 'dependent on being seen.' It was a group show at Harts Lane. On opening night we had a lot of visitors because it was near Goldsmiths and people knew about the space and by default people came to see what was going on. But on the days after, we were invigilating an empty space. The excitement from the private view disappeared and we were sat on the floor of a cold concrete gallery looking at our own artworks. Despite the promoting and marketing and emailing nearby institutions we did, no one showed up. Despite the amazing turn out at the private view, it all felt a bit pointless.
BUT regardless of the lack of public engagement, it was a good experience. It was the first exhibition I’d had in a London space and I learned a lot about what was required to realise a show. I still consider it a successful in terms of what it did for me as a creative. And with Safehouse 2, i do remember that dejected feeling at the beginning of the night with the only visitors initially being the students from Safehouse 1 who were checking out the competition on our side. It felt very exposing and a little embarrassing. But i know we put on a good show: our concept was solid and our execution was strong as well even if a handful of people got to experience it. Though to some this still might be considered a ‘failure’ and i realise in hindsight that an exhibition's successes or failings have very little to do with me. Success is as much subjective as failure. Failure is regarded as such a negative thing, and whilst it is unpleasant, I consider there to be so much more to learn and develop from what I personally see as failings. What i may consider to be the end of the world may simple be a minor inconvenience to someone else, and in terms of art, what i consider to be good someone else may think is the worst thing they've ever seen. But ultimately, failure is an opportunity to learn more, and what is so bad about that?
I find it strange to throw the word exhibition or gallery around when i talk about In My House, i almost think my house isn’t worthy of using those words, but then i wonder if that's just my imposter syndrome talking. It is interesting to see how the status or identity i give this space translates for others, especially in the online domain. Maybe they can be considered digitized interventions rather than exhibitions? Existing somewhere in between the physical/digital. I quite enjoy the lack of control of your audience that online space has, as I wouldn’t want to control or tailor my art to a specific audience anyway. I find that reductive of the art’s impact. As much as some artists would like, once you publish or present your work, it is free to be assimilated by an audience in whichever way they so choose. Your intention cannot be forced down their throats, and that is scary but also very freeing.
I have never been to an exhibition as busy as Kusama at Victoria Miro. Queueing outside for hours you would think we were at a music concert. Though I do find it interesting to consider the things people would and wouldn’t queue for…You are right though, that whole debacle did deflate the experience a bit, especially considering we waited that long to spend less than a minute inside her infinity rooms. I think art like that is very much about the spectacle, and whilst i am feel like i'm a bit of a magpie with shows like that, i do often come away feeling like I’ve just been to a tourist attraction more than an art exhibition. But then what would this work be without its audience? I guess it poses a discussion into where is the line drawn between art installation and public spectacle?
Its interesting how we link audience and failure so easily together. Big audience = success, small audience = failure. Again this definitely links back to social media and likes equalling popularity/success but also I think a lot of it has to do with art world pressures and cliques too. You always see these packed opening nights shown on Instagram, with the same artists as always attending. Instantly you feel like an outsider if your private view doesn’t feature those faces and reach those crowds and lets face it, we’ve never been part of those crowds. When we saw Kusama a few years ago, we were furious to see the bouncer letting in the beautiful women he’d obviously come to know working these events whilst the rest of us were outside in the rain for three hours. It happens in every industry so why would we think that the arts would be any different. I don’t think that helped my mindset before I entered the building either. Knowing that we had waited for so long whilst others were let in because the bouncer fancied them and then we only had thirty seconds inside the installations once we made it just put a bad taste in my mouth. But yeah I do agree that the queuing was part of the spectacle of her works so in this instinct it worked...
A quick google search of the definition of an exhibition churns out things like " a public display of works of art or items of interest" and "a display or demonstration of a skill" which were very interesting to me. The words interest and skill in particular. An exhibition being a public demonstration that has to be interesting and skilful i suppose is true on a basic level. An exhibition to me is an opportunity to share something with an audience, to present something in a way that a response is generated and a discussion is started. What i love about the word is that it can be used to describe pretty much anything, which i think invites a conversation into the components of good and bad exhibitions, good and bad art.
Going back to audience, just because a lot of people have been to see a show doesn't mean it's any good. Just listening to quantitative data of numbers and ticket sales or instagram hashtags isn't fully representative of the entire exhibition. If you are visiting London or are a tourist, going to the Tate is as notable as visiting The Natural History Museum. Its a bustling part of London, its the 'thing to do' and these larger galleries will always pride themselves on quantity. For example, visiting the 2018 Turner Prize at Tate Britain with you. It is a prestigious show. It's a guaranteed 'success' simply because people will go and see it regardless of what is showing, the turnout is always large. Yet the most entertaining part for me was the wall of postcards outside the exhibition where people had written some unsavoury and not so nice things. It was essentially a hate wall. Abrupt scrawlings such as 'too much film', 'this isn't art', 'the WORST turner prize ever' etc etc. For a lot of people, this show was considered very bad, but a lot of people bought tickets to see it so what does one focus on when discussing the shows 'successes'?
Though i suppose you can't have anything without criticism or distaste. Audiences come with sense of expectation, and if that hasn't been fulfilled the exhibition is disappointing. But an audience's expectation isn't necessarily the artist's responsibility. You're trying to tick an un-tickable box because there will always be someone who doesn't enjoy it. Art can't be enjoyed by everyone and you can't predict your audience either, because they look for different things. Some people appreciate rich context, or high skill, or large scale, or cinematic impact, or art that makes them smile. I'm slowly getting through Grayson Perry's 'Playing to the Gallery' and he mentions something interesting about artist insecurity; "As an artist, the ability to resist peer pressure, to trust one's own judgement, is vital, but it can be a lonely and anxiety-inducing procedure...this is when the baloney generator kicks in. The part of our mind that cant stand not knowing, not understanding fully so when confronted with a soft problem like "What is good art?" our mind starts generating baloney to cover its discomfort"
I am very guilty of trying to combat my ignorance about a subject by consuming information and forming my opinions about art based on the opinions of others, simply so i don't appear unknowledgeable. I am sometimes afraid to share my opinion in case its wrong! Is the art good i don't know!! I like it but do i like it for the wrong reasons?! I hate it but is that because i don't 'get' it?!! Is that question even answerable? Or will i simply agree with the person who sounds the smartest at the time?
Definitions were always a crutch for me when writing academic essays because one; they’re great word count boosters and two; they gave me something to disagree with. I love a good argument with the dictionary about art related words! Even the word Art has, in my opinion, an outdated definition that doesn’t make room for any of the newer medias including photography which as you know is my main medium. So it would be out of character of me to not argue the definition of exhibition is outdated and wrong too, wouldn’t it? The definition actually states that an exhibition is “held in an art gallery, museum or trade fair” which is my first disagreement obviously and the second is the part about “items of interest” which is so aptly vague it almost hurts. Firstly, we know now that an exhibition doesn’t have to be held in a known arts institution to be an exhibition, though I must say some of the worst exhibitions I’ve ever seen were at art fairs, so that’s probably another discussion to have! What on earth is an “item of interest”?
In terms of the 'validators' in the art industry (the people who decide if something is interesting or worth showing) this can span from curators, art collectors and dealers, art directors, art critics, artists, social media and the public audience. There is definitely a hierarchy within these labels as well. The seasoned art critic is regarded to have more relevant opinions than the 2nd year art student for example, and the latter more so than a generic member of the public. But is this based on level of qualification? Does someone with four art degrees have a more important voice regarding what art is interesting than someone with zero? I feel this doesn't warrant a simple yes or no answer. Art education is important, and having a knowledge of art history i feel is also important to an extent because it allows us the ability to compare things; to see patterns or see how much art has changed and evolved. Simply not knowing some things puts us at a disadvantage in those situations. Art is a professional industry after all; a lot of employers would favour five years of relevant experience over six months if judging hundreds of applications. But because many elements of the art industry are based on the subjective, it's difficult to quantify when considering artists and art exhibitions specifically. Do curators select artworks they like or find interesting? Do they select paintings based on a theme, or to fill the allocated space? Do they select an artist or piece because of where they have shown previously? It raises the age old vague questions, what is art's purpose? What is the role of the gallery or museum? It is to be interesting?
It's also interesting that you reference more ' traditional' art such as painting, and how you perhaps don't apply the same level of 'loaded' language to it because your relation to painting is to appreciate the skill or aesthetic beauty. I can definitely generate some 'baloney' when i look at a Turner or a Van Gogh but that's because i enjoy them. Or maybe mediums like painting and mainstream medias (film, literature) are generally easier to digest or understand as art to most audiences and don't require further investigation than their face value, even if there are deeper things to discover. Contemporary art can allow more room for interpretation and is more ambiguous i suppose. Therefore there is perhaps more wriggle room in terms of art critique than the more 'traditional' art forms. Like you said, art can be pretty much anything nowadays.
When i reference Perry's use of the word 'baloney', i interpret it as an explanation generated towards a medium that only a select few 'care about'. I am able to analyse or critique an artist's method because i care to know and discover more about it, whereas with other mediums i am ambivalent towards, i don't care as much to articulate an educated response. And that's what i like about art and art criticism; like you and I, we draw inspiration and critical language from different mediums. This is why i will always believe that good and bad art is simply a matter of opinion. The way we look at things is influenced by what we know and what we believe, and also what we like/don't like. How we are able to speak about art depends on our relationship to it and perception of it.
Going back to arts education, the need to have a 'why' when making art is the institution's way to literally tick boxes and meet learning objectives so that art can be quantified into a graded percentage. Research, documentation and the blueprints to how artworks came to exist are needed as evidence to get the marks, and there is a level of discipline and self motivation that requires a 'why.' And having that critical language is useful when artists speak about their work to others in crits or in giving lectures or presentations. So it does make sense that as an artist, having some sort of 'why' is useful, but i do agree that that level of understanding doesn't have to extend to the audience, only if they ask or are interested maybe. Your art hasn't failed if people don't 'get' it, (despite the groundbreaking why) and you cant expect them to want to know everything either. Perhaps our views are limited. Having studied fine art and photography between us, do you think these observations can extend to all arts mediums; film, theatre, music, literature i.e the arts that are designed in a large majority to be entertaining?
I’ve really struggled to write my response to our conversation these past couple of weeks. With everything going on right now, a global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter uprising and the very overdue attempt to make our governments and societies listen and correct the systemic racism that it deeply rooted in our cultures, it felt pointless to continue our somewhat self-centred conversations about the art world. Then I realised, that actually the art world is definitely not innocent and maybe that the only way I can learn and grow and understand my privilege as a white woman in the arts is to start to unravel which institutions have supported black and POC artists and which ones have got a lot of work to do. I had no idea where to start because in some way or another, they are all corrupt or not doing enough. I looked back over our previous conversations and realised that we had mentioned The Turner Prize several times. A prize that although definitely fluctuates in quality, I had always admired and kept up to date with, hopeful like most artists to be lucky enough to be nominated someday. But after a quick scroll through the list of past winners I was shocked to see the poor number of Black and POC artists, with the first POC artist awarded the prize being Anish Kapoor in 1991. Six years after the Turner Prize started. It was another seven years until black artist Chris Ofili was awarded the prize in 1998. A black woman did not win the prize until 2017.
I totally agree. Writing about nuances in art seems quite pointless right now. There are so many more important things happening that need to be talked about. But you are right; representation of black people and in the arts industry is another facet within the BLM movement that can't go ignored.
It is surprising for me to see the amount of institutions that are being revealed at the moment as profitting or benefitting from systemic racism and who are yet to make any real contribution other than posting a black square on instagram and saying racism is wrong. Simply employing a black person isn't enough, exhibiting a black or POC artist isnt enough. This isnt a diversity quota to be filled in order to be excused from this subject. Racism goes so much deeper within institutions and needs to be challenged at the source. I read the letter Evan Ifekoya (@evan_ife) wrote to Goldsmiths to withdraw his labour from the institution. This was in response to an email detailing that five out of six members of BAME staff on their Fine Art program are on fixed term contracts, and the refusal of staff to provide signatures to protect these members' jobs. This led to Evan receiving countless emails from the staff who refused, stating 'all lives matter' and asking Evan in private messages if they were racist. Layemi Ikomi (@layemiikomi_) created a spreadsheet listing art galleries and museums and their responses to BLM. Together with Aye Ikomi and Eiblin Jones, they also constructed an email template for people to use and send to these institutions to ensure the conversation has been started. Layemi also provides a google doc link on her instagram of a list of resources for learning and for action. These are just a few examples of many methods of action towards uprooting and challenging intersectionality.
A lot of galleries have made statements over the past few weeks, stating their solidarity with BLM and admitted their complicity with systemic racism, with lots of galleries enforcing new modes of conduct and outlining their bullet pointed plans. Though based on Ikomi's spreadsheet, there are still a lot of galleries and museums that aren't actively engaging. There are evidently a lot of things wrong that have gone unchanged for so long. I realise it is privileged that i need only educate myself about racism as opposed to experiencing it. It is privileged that i am able to write about it yet will never be affected by it in my lifetime. A responsibility falls on white people and white artists to ensure that institutions are held accountable for dismantling racism; to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and asking questions. To also look inwards and assess anything that can be changed as individuals. It is important to be constructing emails to send to institutions and directly ask them what they are doing to be more inclusive of BAME people. When applying for a new job, it is important to be asking what their policies are on diversity in the workplace and how they responded to the BLM protests and what actions they took to incite change.
It is important to admit that there is privilege in the arts, and i have probably benefitted from this at some stage in my education and in my general life to be honest. The change that is happening now is about becoming more aware of privilege and using it for change. There are a lot of things i don't know, and i think awareness and learning is an initial step towards becoming more educated about these topics but to also not stop there. In reference to the Turner Prize being just one example of POC being underrepresented in the arts, i think its important to discuss cultural appropriation also, and how cultures that don't belong to white people are being exploited by white artists, and therefore perpetuate systemic racism. What are your views on cultural ownership? And can artists reference other cultures without misrepresentation?