An Interview with Lisa Baldissera and Worldings: A Virtual Conference

William Kentridge, Studio Life: Blackboard, 2021, Photogravure on Hahnemühle Natural White 300gsm, Paper size: 44 x 54 cm, Plate size: 28 x 42.3 cm, Courtesy of the artist.
 

William Kentridge: The Colander
Griffin Art Projects
May 29 through September 4, 2021
 

Worldings: A Virtual Conference
Presented by Griffin Art Projects and Urban Shaman
July 9 through 11, 2021 
 

By CORI HUTCHINSON, July 2021

Presented in dialogue with William Kentridge: The Colander, Griffin Art Projects and Urban Shaman, along with global collaborators, have organized Worldings, a virtual conference featuring artists, writers, curators, and activists of Canadian and South African perspectives. As the press release notes, “this virtual gathering reflects on the concept of ‘the colander’ and how the global events of 2020 expose … unique histories of precarity, globalization, and colonization, to focus on resilience and resistance.” Video documentation of the weekend proceedings can be found at the Griffin website here: https://www.griffinartprojects.ca/digital-archive-pages/worldings-a-virtual-conference.  

Below, Lisa Baldissera, Director of Griffin Art Projects and Curator of William Kentridge: The Colander, and I discuss the liminal and literary imaginations of curatorial work, as well as the various space-holding programs accompanying the current exhibition. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Portrait of Lisa Baldissera, Director of Griffin Art Projects. Photograph by Mike Wakefield.

CORI HUTCHINSON: Tell me about your curatorial work more broadly and then your work, specifically, on the William Kentridge exhibition.  

LISA BALDISSERA: I’m currently working for Griffin Art Projects, which is a non-profit gallery and residency space located in North Vancouver on the traditional territory of the səl̓ilwətaɁɬtəməxʷ, Skwxwú7mesh-ulh Temíx̱w and S’ólh Téméxw Nations. The exhibition William Kentridge: The Colander, opened in May and as part of that project, is the Worldings conference, which arises out of interest in Kentridge and his work on pre- and post-apartheid South Africa. The global pandemic has revealed different layers and textures to the discourse on the events of colonization, which has heightened the work of the conference and once again emphasized the significance of the work of William Kentridge, in light of the ongoing work of de- and anti-colonization in both countries--particularly now as Canada comes to terms with the residential schools legacy and the recent recovery efforts by individual First Nations, locating Indigenous children who went missing from those schools and never returned home, alongside the worst violence to erupt in South Africa since apartheid, after the imprisonment of Jacob Zuma.  Both events highlight the necessity for creating rigorous critiques of the ways that knowledge and the Enlightenment project evolved into the process of colonization and violence.

CH: How has your training at Goldsmiths guided you?

LB: The training has gone from a small college, The Victoria College of Art, where I was trained by some very dedicated instructors, (James Gordaneer most especially) which gave me a solid grounding and visual arts training and at the University of Victoria, with influential instructors such as Sandra Meigs, Robert Youds, Elspeth Pratt and Robert Linsley. Later, I moved to Central Canada to do my Masters work, studying with Janet Werner, Dr. Joan Borsa and Susan Shantz, in the context of the Canadian Prairies, which gave me a better sense of how each different region participates in a national dialogue of art production. I have had fantastic mentors. My PhD work at Goldsmiths was about embracing the intersection of curatorial and fictioning forms of writing, working with Dr. Kristen Kreider and Dr. Naomi Wood. Four practice-based projects were part of my final thesis: a project titled Convoluted Beauty, on Emily Carr, looking at her time in the UK when she was hospitalized for hysteria and unable to work, relying instead on a small notebook in which to write and draw. Further projects were a symposium on art writing, co-produced with independent curator and artist Dr. Joanne Bristol, called Never the Same: what (else) can art writing do? presented in Calgary in 2017, and a final exhibition titled Person/ne produced for Griffin Art Projects. A fourth component is Dead Peasant, a collection of short stories, which experiments with ficto-criticism, satire,  magic realism, and relies on sources from art world employment advertisements, policy manuals and grant writing as much as literary sources, to do the work of interrogating issues of precarity and vulnerability within the art world.  My thesis examined vulnerability in public life, in writing and curatorial work, and how curatorial work and writing can create conditions for care and empathy.

CH: You hold a number of degrees, including a Creative Writing MFA. Can you expand on how your curatorial practice is informed by an interdisciplinary literary or poetic organization of visual art? 

LB: It’s always been there, but I was able to articulate it more directly when I studied Creative Writing at UBC and then, later, pursued writing in the PhD work. Short stories allowed me to unpack and create a critical literary form to address globalized art market and art world conditions,  and to address the emotion, affect and empathy available, in solidarity with the reader, in the literary form. This enabled me to work curatorially in a parallel practice, to look at the intersection of the spaces between art and writing, and how they relate to one another and, really, provide a refusal for the industry’s capacity for instrumentalization of the very works whose liminal capacities provide great freedoms and invitations to collective care. Preservation of this liminal space and meaning, its capacity to evolve and respond to moments we could not have predicted, politically and materially expands methods for and ways of thinking and knowing--and the very idea of knowledge itself. This intersection offers the potential for a rejoinder to the concepts of empirical knowledge that have organized Western thought since the Enlightenment.

William Kentridge: The Colander, Griffin Art Projects, installation shot. Photo by Rachel Topham Photography.

CH: You write in an essay on “Art / Writing” that “writing is place-making; language is about occupying and originating culture, using forms which themselves produce meanings.” What is the role of place-making in your curatorial work? 

LB: I think place-making is not only an actual site, but also a site in imagination and so, in some ways, one of the wonderful stewardships of curatorial work is holding space, both actual, physical space in a gallery or otherwise, being attendant and present in a layered, collaged space that keeps opening up in a durational way over the course of an exhibition; it’s our responsibility as curators to facilitate and provide space for openings, or worldings. Each visitor is a site in themselves. They come with their attendant histories, understandings, and concerns. It’s a meeting point. One of the best things to do is try and get out of the way of that and to allow yourself to be surprised about where the process actually takes you, whether it’s the curatorial process, the looking process or the writing process.

We have a residency space at Griffin Art Projects. Being able to meet with these amazing artists who are working onsite, and to be reminded of their process and the honor of being invited inside of that process is really thrilling. We are very fortunate that Griffin has this other capacity as well as the exhibition space. 

CH: And this exhibition began as a meeting between yourself and the artist’s Master Printer? 

LB: That’s right. In 2012, When I started as Chief Curator at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, prior to its transition to the Remai Modern. I found a note from William Kentridge’s Master Printer, the delightful and incredibly knowledgeable Jillian Ross, waiting at my desk. At that time, and not yet known to the public, the Remai was in the process of acquiring a $20 million set of Picasso linocut prints from the artist’s Master Printer. I wanted to see if there was a way to engage with William Kentridge’s print process and Picasso’s linocut print process in relation to that collection; at the same time Canada was in the midst of its TRC process. I was interested in what parallels might exist between South Africa and Canada in this sense.  We have ended up doing the current project at Griffin Art Projects in 2021. In order to continue to have that discursive space around Kentridge’s work open up and look at those processes of decolonization more clearly, Griffin worked with Urban Shaman, as well as the Bag Factory, the Centre for the Less Good Idea and our conference moderators, to co-create this conference, Worldings. In this sense, we have created a further site/space, in parallel with the exhibition space.

William Kentridge, Sybil, 2020, Video still, 9 minutes 59 seconds, Courtesy of the Artist.

CH: The Kentridge press release notes that “fragmentation and assemblage itself is a conceptual and methodological tool for how the works are made, ordered, shaped, and re-ordered.” How are these various entanglements or processes represented in the exhibition?

LB: What’s interesting about the challenge of the smaller exhibition space is that since I was not able to present one of the artists’ large installation works, for which he is so well-known, I organized the project very differently.  Instead I have been able to layer elements derived from a number of different major projects, such as The Nose, the Universal Archive and Drawings for Projections. The magic was, in working with Jillian Ross, showing the relationship between the print and film practices.  For example, the major woodcut print diptych Walking on Air & God’s Opinion is Unknown, comprised of 77 individual blocks, from the series Triumphs and Laments, which Ross oversaw over its entire three year making process, is one part of a major project that included an installation and performance along the Tiber River in Rome.  The work arises out of the idea that one person or civilization’s triumph becomes another’s lament, in an endless cycle of rise and fall. Another example is that from the opera Waiting for the Sibyl. I’ve been able to present a short film that came out the design for that work, called Sibyl. Some studies for this work are also included in the films, The Long Minute, which show Kentridge’s process and working studies from the period of Covid-19 lockdown, in his studio over the past 18 months. Ross has also generously loaned many master prints from her own collection, and facilitated the project by working with us and the Kentridge studio, to enable this to happen. 

One of earliest works in the exhibition, a drawing titled Wadeville, is from the early 1990s, which includes the motif that the exhibition is named for. It pictures unfinished highways and overgrown bridges, alongside an outsized domestic instrument, the colander.  The colander, and the drawing itself, gesture towards political and ideological structures that are not meant to hold water, that are built to fail: critical, institutional structures that from the outset of their design are meant to fail. This reflects Kentridge’s ongoing and often satirical critique of modern regimes, such as Soviet Russia, apartheid South Africa and European colonizers such as Italy’s Algerian occupation. Failure is something that Kentridge looks at as a generative space, along with the open ended process of discovery that is the studio. This is a refutational methodology, which mitigates against closed systems of knowledge production, instead waiting, perhaps forever if that is what it takes, in the unknown and the unknowable. This takes form in Kentridge’s establishment of the Centre for the Less Good Idea, which is the name of the interdisciplinary think tank that he funds for artists to do their work in Johannesburg. The Centre provides space for the second idea that ends up coming to the fore, after the first one fails; that ‘less good idea,’ attending to the lesser known, the unknown, and, again, the liminal space to evade the focus on the ‘best’ outcome--the instrumentalizing gaze that arises out of Western capitalism and which has found its most absurd form in contemporary neoliberal thought--and instead allows you to pay attention and attend to the unknown. There is vulnerability in that stance. I think it is one of the things that Kentridge is so brilliant at.  Staying inside the process delivers Kentridge’s beautiful, powerful, conceptual, political work that is as much materially profound as the anti-empirical knowledge production that comes out of it. It is work in an oppositional stance to the project of the Enlightenment. By situating his discoveries in the studio process, Kentridge demonstrates vulnerability, and empathy, as a powerful form of resistance. WM 

Cori Hutchinson

Cori Hutchinson is a poet, watercolorist, and library assistant living in Brooklyn. 

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