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A dialogue about site-specificity and agency

Artist and independent curator Joseph M. de Leon recently presented a site-specifc exhibition project in London titled Girdlers Cottages as an experiment in repositioning the agency of authority inherent to the gallery space. As a part of the project, he interviewed artist residency founder, Aaron Levi Garvey, inquiring into space and more specifically the notion of site-specific exhibitions. What follows is their conversation.

From Girdlers Cottages exhibition; works on view by Carol Tam "Untitled" (vertical photo collage), Jake Shore "Sunrise Beach" (video) and Evan Robarts "Untitled 4C "(Mop Painting) Photo credit: Oren Ziv

Joseph M. de Leon with Aaron Levi Garvey

JMD: The first question I want to ask you is concerned with the space of the space. Artworks are sometimes site-specific in the way that they are made but what happens if the space that the art is exhibited in becomes site-specific as well? What happens to the social relations that are constructed in the practice of curating? Or in other words, if you are dealing with a site-specific space then you are not only curating the artwork, you are curating the space of the space where the work is exhibited. So, if at the end of the day curating is the practice of (re)structuring relations, then how do we contend with this very specific limitation in the possibility of (re)structuring relations? Or simply put, it is far more difficult to move a space, then works in a space?

ALG: It is interesting that you bring up the notions of curating the space and having it go beyond the base level of objects or installations within them, this is something that I give a lot of thought to in my practice. In my mind, it is almost all too perfect to have a temporary space for mounting an exhibition or site-specific works within it. This allows not only for full curatorial autonomy, but also a fully original experience that cannot be duplicated. That is of course unless all of the exact specs of the exhibition are meant to travel or go beyond the singular installation.

The ephemerality of exhibitions and site-specific works is particularly fascinating to me; I love the notions of experiencing an exhibition specific to a time and place. That is one of the reasons why I am so interested in alternative spaces and turning them into the norm. All of the memories or interactions created in that would be in essence frozen in time within the space and the bearers of the individual experiences. When attending or mounting exhibitions like this myself, I will often find some type of object that can be taken away as a reminder of the experience. Often these objects aren’t anything substantial, a piece of paper with my written notes or layout, dirt or a rock from the site, etc.; a small relic that can also retain the memory and transcend its own objectivity and act as a memento.

Exhibition material Girdlers Cottage. Photo credit: Oren Ziv

JMD: What if you replace the term meaning with epistemology? People often discuss the meaning of an artwork but what if we regard that which the artwork can convey not as “meaning” but rather as (subjective) epistemology? What if we see the artwork as having the capability of generating epistemologies rather than meaning? What does that do when it is placed within a context of other entities that are already widely accepted as doing precisely that? This question kind of speculatively proposes to think in an inversed manner about the ability of everything becoming art when placed in the exhibition space. You could perhaps therefore perceive it as a kind of inversed Duchampian take on art.

What if we treated art as having the same epistemology generating capabilities as other objects? Which is quite different from claiming that all non-art could become art due to a curatorial decision but it is rather the speculative claim that all art can become non-art in order to forge stronger and closer relationships with other epistemology-generating entities. What would such a curating conceptual strategy consist of? What happens to the relationship between what we regard as an artwork and what we see as other epistemology-generating entities within the exhibition space (supporting documents etc.)?

ALG: This is something that I think is becoming more and more needed in our current contemporary culture in general, even beyond the art realm. It goes back to the need for objects and artifacts to hold a sacred and intrinsic value, rather than a commercially or financial value. In regard to the curatorial strategy for doing so, that is something I would have to say ranges from working with objects where the artist’s hand is most present, to working with objects and exhibitions that are completely specific to a time and place. I think that this would then create additional validity for the content generated from exhibitions, as well as demonstrate a movement towards actualities and away from theoretical or metaphorical objects.

From Girdlers Cottages exhibition; works on view by Carol Tam "Untitled" (vertical photo collage), Jake Shore "Sunrise beach" (video) and Evan Robarts "Untitled 4C "(Mop Painting) Photo credit: Oren Ziv

JMD: We have essentially been discussing position until now. The first question, the position of the space in the Girdlers Cottages, it is not a traditional gallery space but rather a space laden with an extended period of socio-political epistemologies. The second question, which was focused on the conceptual positioning of the artwork within the space, was more concerned with the curatorial strategy that might arise from such a project. Finally, we arrive at the practical ramifications of those questions asked before: It seems to me as though a curator’s task is always concerned with positioning whether we take this as a verb, noun, or adjective, positioning is that which we are confronted with continually.

How do you think we could deal with this limitation of positioning when a space is practically incapable of being repositioned? Is it reconcilable? If so, what could an aesthetic of such reconciliation look like in the positioning of the artwork?

Depicted; Aaron Levi Garvey and Chiharu Shiota "Infinity Lines" SCAD Museum of Art. Photo credit: John McKinnon

ALG: Dealing with positioning or repositioning of space and objects, I think is turning into the most important part of the curators job, particularly as we move forward beyond the walls of traditional galleries and museums. The more biennials, art fairs and alternative spaces that are created and continue to expand, there is in my opinion more of an ability to consider position of space. We as curators and arts professionals can seek out specific spaces that fit so precisely to a concept, selection of objects and installations; inevitably we are able to do the utmost justice to the artist’s intent and their work. In my mind our exhibition concepts would then be presented in their absolute purest form.

As for the aesthetic of this curatorial practice, like the spaces chosen, this would be singular to the concept of each exhibition. I think if executed well and curatorially sound, visitors will be able to see the intent is evident. However to counter that, there is definitely a fine line between having the exhibition look DIY or haphazard in an alternative non-traditional space; therefore I think its completely up to the curator and imperative to the success of the exhibition for them to curate an exhibition with cohesive, intentional selection of works and thorough understanding of the possibilities and confines of their chosen space.

Joseph M. de Leon is an artist, researcher, writer, independent curator and arts consultant whose work is concerned with the spatial instantiations of systemic violence. Joseph M. de Leon is currently completing an M.A. Contemporary Art Theory at the department of Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths University of London.

Aaron Levi Garvey is an independent curator, museum professional, writer, lecturer and arts consultant, who has worked on a multitude of platforms within the public, private and corporate arts community both nationally and internationally. In late 2014 he was an Evaluator for Creative Capital’s 2015 Visual Arts grant award review panel and most has recently been a visiting curator at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans, a guest lecturer at the University of Florida, collaborating curator at Independent Curators International and is the forthcoming visiting curator at the University of Iowa in Fall 2017.

Currently Garvey is the guest curator at the Contemporary Art Center of New Orleans, the CEO and Curator of the Art For Thought foundation and the Curator/Co-Founder of Long Road Projects. Recent exhibitions include: Chiharu Shiota’s site-specific installation “Infinity Lines” at the SCAD Museum of Art, Josh Short’s “Wild One 66 – USA” with Long Road Projects and “Ephemera Obscura” at the Contemporary Art Center of New Orleans. Additionally Garvey’s curated "We Are What You Eat" the inaugural art exhibition at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, which opened in early May 2016 and co-curated the Atlanta Biennial (ATLBNL): Recent Correspondence at the Atlanta Contemporary in August 2016.

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