Jason E Bowman: how curators work

Curating isn’t what I anticipated would become a central tenet of my practice. I didn’t become a curator via institutional in-house training or graduate from a post-graduate curating course.

Lisa le Feuvre has suggested that I am an artist with a curatorial practice and that makes sense to me, even if I curate much more than I make art these days. It’s the agency of her definition that I believe in – the expanded notion of ‘the artist’ and what they can fiddle with, and contribute to. Curating is not something I can say I ‘fell into’. Decisions were made to engage with its possibilities.

Trained as an artist, I set a parameter early in my practice that I would work solely by commission. Ten years later, I had a valuable set of transferrable skills and experiences in commissioning processes. I was interested in other practices, contexts and communities that I thought were valuable to the progress of art, but distant to my own modus operandi as an artist. I wanted to contribute by becoming proximate to them. Immersion was something I felt was being delineated in institutionalised curatorship but what I desired. Being consistently in an institutional framework of regular exhibition cycles would be limiting for me. The freelance option seemed most appropriate. This has included: commissioning art in the public realm for a housing estate in Glasgow over several years, six years of developing an infrastructure for artist-led culture in the West Midlands, the official presentation of contemporary art from Scotland at the Venice Biennale in 2005 and a career survey of Yvonne Rainer’s works in film and live dance in 2010.

The artworks in commissioning proceed from the speculative, and involve identifying, fostering, then emphasising the conditions, resources and environs essential for bringing artworks into being. The curatorial dynamic emanates from a fantasy for an artwork that doesn’t yet exist and so can be perceived as addressing and catalysing the imaginary as a political framework. In a sense what is being commissioned is possible futures as much as artworks.

Conversely, uncertainties and doubt (which I think are central to the politics of art) are often perceived as oppositional to ‘accountability’ – a term now often exploited to mollify risk and thereby anaesthetise art. The process of bringing something critical – as opposed to decorative, illustrative or instrumentalised – into being, especially within the public sector and its increasingly obtuse funding criteria, becomes a complex system of critical management. It often engages diverse participants: funders and other gatekeepers, artisan technicians and fabricators, land owners, communities of spectators, marketing and PR agencies, institutions and their differing departments and sometimes complex divisions such as between exhibition programming and learning teams. With such differing perspectives and disciplines arrive diverse political, cultural, economic, psychological, linguistic, aesthetic, contractual and tacit agreements, and beliefs.

I steer a series of circumstances that catalyse ways for such diversified fantasies to become collectivised, mutual understandings to amalgamate and differences to be acknowledged and respected. It’s so easy to collapse into minutia that can distract the essential macro level discussions of what the arena of art actually is, or could become. I always seek to keep that question at the foreground and indicative to how we discuss other factors such as what we mean by particular terms that are all to easily assumed as having shared understanding, such as: What does each partner actually perceive ‘participation’ to mean? What decision-making powers does the term ‘engagement’ incorporate? By whom may they be exercised, and when? What representation of ‘the artist’ is being constructed, and by whom is this to be spectated?

In this matrix sits the artist or artists. It’s the curator’s role to also think through with an artist what is to be prioritised within the politics of art and exhibition making. This is why I am against the representation of the artist as a distant figure who must be protected from the politics surrounding how their work is to come into being and who shouldn’t be bothered by the pragmatics involved and shielded from the limitations of how others think about art – so that they can ‘just get on with it’. Each practice can and should also be perceived as a ‘site’. The commission, exhibition, event, publication is inevitably occurring within the auspices of the practice, its histories and futures and ideological position. That’s a very tricky thing to have understood, particularly if the perception is that it’s the spectator’s experience that is the rationale for the funding; and so spectatorship becomes delineated to an act of consumption and everyone else involved is perceived as service providers.

My aim is for the spectator to become more intimate with the notion of practice. Therefore, the overarching interrogation for me has been, ‘How does one curate artistic practice?’ By this I mean, ‘How does curatorship become concerned in the representation of artistic practice in ways that allow the spectator to also become implicated?’ Therefore, my curatorial work has a pronounced emphasis and commitment to mobilising conditions that increase awareness of, access to, and intimacy with the diverse conditions by which artists ‘practice’ as much as the ‘art’ that is made. The notion of exhibition making becomes a node within this..

Like most curators I have specialist areas of interest that inspire my research and provide me with parameters that inform decisions regarding the choice of artists with whom to work. The mainstays are: Feminist, queer and radical practices; fine art performance and performativity relating to objecthood; site-oriented, site-specific and site-sensitive practice; contemporary artist-led cultures and expanded notions of practice; collective and collaborative endeavour and socially engaged practices. I also am stimulated by practices that have intentionally been marginal or those that became unintentionally obscured or anomalies to the formality of what the ‘art world’ is seen to include – such as my continued research into the witnessing work of artists who document court cases and their representation of civic and legal cultures.

My preference is that I choose whom I work with, that I identify the practices I am willing to merge with; and together we decide in what we are about to engage, and how. I approach people that I am interested in working with or sometimes people are recommended to me. I do receive unsolicited proposals. Usually they simply get returned as I’ve usually got something boiling myself that I am seeking to realise – but I love being informed of what’s going on. Whilst it’s often criticised overall, I tend to repeat working with the same people. I am fortunate that I currently have an academic role in an art school that allows for my longitudinal research and general slowness within curating. It can take me years to realise a project. It requires mutual patience, trust and tenacity from me and the artist but also other partnering participants.

For fifteen years, I have continuously worked with the artist Esther Shalev-Gerz  in a series of contexts from commissioning her work to currently being co-investigators in an international research project interrogating Trust and Dialogue within contemporary art. It’s a relationship that has provided me with an incredible means to develop intimacy with a practice and its development, the thought processes of the artist and her own longitudinal investigations of democracy, collective memory and participation. I research consistently in relation to her practice through my regular dialogues with her but also through theoretical reading in paradigms relative to her work and the writings of others on her. It’s an immensely fulfilling commitment from both curator and artist. A form of pre-occupation that would have been impossible in an institutional gallery framework.

It took several years for me to realise Yvonne Rainer: Dance and Film, which took place in association with Tramway in 2010. As Shalev-Gerz was shifting towards her first career surveys or retrospectives I wanted to also investigate this mode of exhibition and the complexities of looking back, but with another practitioner. Rainer’s works was rising to the fore again, including as a reference in discussions of emergent work relating to performativity and objecthood, dance and art and an acknowledgement of the complexities of legacy within Feminist practice. In an early meeting, Rainer made it clear that few people actually had the opportunity to experience her work. She hadn’t even been invited to perform dance in the UK since 1964.

That was the point where a hunch became a rationale. I spent over three years researching her work to position a full retrospective of her short and feature films alongside selected seminal and more recent live dance. It was practically quite tricky as Rainer doesn’t sustain a consistent company and so scheduling the multiple people required was complex. The first venue to agree to the project went bust. Tramway came on board, and with their usual vigour the project came into realisation quite quickly. I am now preparing a second Rainer project that emanates from that and deepens the relationship between artist and curator but also hopefully for spectators, for whom the initial project was the first European career survey of her work.

The long-term commitment I have made to emergent work is now manifest in my post as MFA Programme Leader at Akademin Valand at the University of Gothenburg . I am concerned with increasing the strategic thought of emergent practice towards questions of artistic agency – of how artists reconfigure neoliberalism through the use of the imaginary. Generations of emergent practitioners have orchestrated change and initiated models that challenge the status quo. As a curator my advice to emergent artists is, change the system before it dismisses you – do it collectively, do it cheaply, do it with urgency and do it knowing that you precede curators, institutions and galleries – even if we are all in the same leaky boat.

Jason E. Bowman is active in the field of contemporary art as an artist with a curatorial practice, writer, visual arts consultant and educator. He has particular interests in: inter-disciplinarity, live art / performance, ‘socially engaged’ and ‘participatory’ arts practice and notions of ‘expanded practice’ within the history and conditions of artist-led cultures. His current curatorial research focuses notions of legacy, retrospectivity and presence / ephemerality, radicalism and conscious obscurity. Amidst his curatorial projects are the co-curatorship for the official presentation of Contemporary Art from Scotland at the Venice Biennale in 2005, for which he developed multiple platforms by which to consider the works of Cathy Wilkes, Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan and Alex Pollard. In 2010, at Glasgow’s Tramway Contemporary Arts Centre, he curated the first European career survey of film and live dance by American icon of the avant-garde, Yvonne Rainer. He has a long-term curatorial relationship with the practice of Esther Shalev-Gerz, whose work he has commissioned and written on for almost 15 years. He is MFA Programme Leader and Head of Subject (Fine Art) at the Valand Academy at the University of Gothenburg, where with Shalev-Gerz, he is a co-investigator on a three year-long Swedish Research Council funded project, Trust and Unfolding Dialogue in Contemporary Art.

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