By JEFFREY GRUNTHANER, JAN. 2015
Cura designates a collaborative exhibition project initiated by New York-based artist Sessa Englund. The shows she brings together under this name highlight the hybrid practice of artists who also curate—emphasizing conversation and blending the conceptualist legacy of social practice art with the more object-oriented trajectory of fine art.
On the occasion of Cura's second iteration, "Epistemic Two Step," a four-day show exhibiting at Roomservice Gallery in Bushwick, I asked the participating artists—Julian Jimarez-Howard, Georgia Wall, Millie Rapp—along with Sessa Englund about the collaborative impetus animating Cura, the contemporary role of the artist-curator, and the imbricated relationship of language and art.
Jeffrey Grunthaner: Let’s begin with where we left off the other day. I was asking how the collaborative process the four of you are embarking on has influenced the kind of works you're exhibiting. Can you tell me more about Cura, and the collaborative process underlying this particular show?
Sessa Englund: Cura is a semi-annual exhibition that examines the position of artists who curate. For each exhibition three artist-curators work together to create a collaborative show born out of conversation. There is no traditional curator. The artists are free to create what they want and each show is accompanied by an essay. The next participants are then asked to read this text before starting the next iteration of the show.
I have an interest in exploring forms of curation that foster relationships and artistic development. The works in the show are developed in collaborative fashion, through open-ended conversations which I moderated. For each meeting I would go through the notes from the last meeting and sort of set the conversation off again; but the artists drove where the conversation went.
Julian Jimarez-Howard: In our initial meeting we started by talking about the things we were interested in already. From there we found some commonalities and ran with it. I think the whole thing was really associative. And so quite naturally we got to epistemology and ways of knowing truth.
Georgia Wall: The final show is influenced and perhaps even formed out of conversation between the artists.
Millie Kapp: These conversations were part check-in, part critique, part feedback. I work predominantly in performance, so this is the first time I’ve shown an object in a gallery in many years. It was nice for me to get everyone’s feedback as I developed what I was making.
JG: I'm curious how epistemology ties in with the exhibition. I tend to understand epistemology in a Cartesian sense—the inwardness of subjectivity grasping toward a transcendent object. "Epistemic Two Step" suggests a less removed, more embodied relation to knowledge. Am I overanalyzing the title, or are you somehow using art to explore the limits of cognition?
MK: You're spot on! I think of knowledge production and learning as being embodied processes. In dance, the body is literally the thing that learns; and so much of my practice is about uncovering the potential of the thinking body, or possibilities of knowledge by way of embodied experience.
GW: I am really considering how knowledge is a process of rediscovering rather than acquisition. It calls into play this idea that knowledge is actually housed within one's body, already present, instead of considering body or mind as an empty vessel which is filled through external sources.
JJ-H: My work in particular deals with poorly justified beliefs that cannot be counted as knowledge. I would say Millie's is more about the how of knowledge. Coming from the perspective of a performer, she complicates Kant's demarcation of "analytic" knowledge by using orthographies that are inherently ambiguous. Georgia's, as poetic as it is, really uses ideas of knowledge acquisition and memory's unreliability to play upon the concepts of belief and truth.
SE: In our discussions we ended up coming back again and again to the idea of the limits of cognition: both as creator of an object or performance, and as an audience of that performance or object. When starting this series of shows I wanted to see if there was a way in which the curatorial form could be used to explore these limitations; and in this version of the show the art ended up exploring a lot of those same ideas. I think it was Millie who came up with the title. We talked about how working with curation and one’s own artistic practice side by side is like the epistemic two-step, having to constantly shift one’s weight from one to the other, navigating where one border begins and the other ends.
JG: The press release for the show states: "this exhibition becomes an inquiry into the structures of reading, and of miss-readin." What structures are these, exactly? Do you think works of fine art should generally be deciphered like a text?
SE: We spoke a lot about how reading and deciphering art as texts is both a useful and limited way of talking about personal experience. We touched on the subject of what happens to the experience of viewing before it has reached words, and how artists who might be primarily visual in their communication share their experiences when language and reading is inaccurate or a limitation rather than a useful tool.
MK: In the drawings I made for the show, I teach myself to write a score using the modernist dance notation: Labanotation. I’m writing eight counts of walking backwards: a choreographic trope I’ve been working with since the summer. Backwards walking means so many things. Unlearning forwardness, moving with uncertainty, wrongness. Since I was never a trained dancer, backwards walking is also a manifestation of feeling like an outsider in dance. Rehearsal has always been an exciting pedagogical space for me to think through learning and epistemology. The drawings become a reification of embodied learning.
GW: My piece relates directly to a Haiku, "A Balmy Spring Wind," by Richard Wright. So there is a direct literary element within the sculpture. The poem is also being spoken and played repeatedly within the piece; and with relentless repetition words and meaning become abstracted. As I played with how to pull apart some of the symbolism within the language and give it physical form, the words also became inspiration for some of the sculptural elements in the installation. An oscillating fan becomes the breeze, for example. So the Haiku is heard or read but it is also perhaps miss-read by my playful interpretation and engagement with it.
JJ-H: In my opinion, works of art that aren't coded in someway are quite dull...but let's not go down that slippery slope. I am certainly interested in reading as a form of interpretation; though more interesting for me is the question of "can we trust the narrator?"
JG: With reference to your individual experiences, how do you think curation relates to an artistic practice today? In light of screen grabs, Google Translate, the general misinformation pervading social media, etc., it seems like there's less of a divide between the "created" and the "discovered."
JJ-H: There is certainly compression happening. The two are really melding into one another as contemporary Western artistic practice becomes increasingly about creating a relationship between systems. We'll only see more artists take it upon themselves to open up venues and add their voices to the writing of art history, be that literally or symbolically. It's funny, really. You can already see the establishment reacting by creating specialized "curatorial studies" programs in order, one, to meet the increased demand to understand the field, but also to maintain its monopoly on the production of "criticism" and "value."
GW: I think of having a curatorial practice as similar to writing a thesis paper. It's like creating your own bibliography of all the thinkers and writers you admire, respect, and are inspired by— AND whom you want to be in conversation with. You sit down to write your dissertation and by citing others you place a bunch of people in conversation with one another.
SE: Curation can serve as a submission of one’s own practice into the hold of someone else’s. It also becomes a medium in itself, its role extending beyond the showcasing of artwork. I see the subjects of my curatorial experimentation as mirroring my own research, and my own aesthetic vernacular. At best, good curation permits acts of discovery, and it can operate almost academically, with its subjects, hypotheses and conclusions.
MK: For me curating is a fun way of spending time with people and their work. I feel like my main job as a curator is to give someone else space to do something that’s important to them, and provide a conceptual framework that adds to an audience's experience. I like working with artists because I always end up learning something from my proximity to them and their practice.
JG: Where does Cura go from here? Do think your collectivist practices might supercede your individual ones?
SE: I would like to hope that this series bring back a discussion around curation being a creative space. Curation is a chance to explore creative labor through the community: a way to bring a commonality to an idea and a way of bringing visibility to a joint communal discussion around a given subject. It brings visibility to communal discussions happening in private studios; and as a curator you absorb the language of others in order to articulate a sentence.
GW: Millie and I have a curatorial practice together called Bottom. We have been talking a lot about different models we would like to consider when curating and it has been great to learn more about how Sessa is thinking through these ideas with Cura. It has been a pleasure to become more intimately involved with Julian's practice as well.
JJ-H: This was my first time working with Georgia and Millie, so I do hope to work with them again in the future. As for Cura, I'm excited to see how Sessa approaches the next one and what the next group of artist-curators bring to the discussion. And my work, well it really doesn't exist until people take it to their homes or offices or wherever and use it, so come get it!
SE: I first said that I wanted to do five versions of this show—the fifth perhaps being a look back on themes explored. The next step for Cura is the next show, the third in the series, which should take place fall 2016. I think it's hard to function collectively in this city; but it's something that I strive for in my work and what brought me to curation in the first place. WM
Jeffrey Grunthaner is an artist-writer-musician-curator currently based in Berlin. Essays, articles, poems, and reviews have appeared via BOMB, artnet News, The Brooklyn Rail, Archinect, Hyperallergic, Heavy Feather Review, Folder, Drag City Books, and other venues. Recent curatorial projects include the reading and discussion series Conversations in Contemporary Poetics at Hauser & Wirth Publishers (NY).view all articles from this author