Curator Watch: Agnès Biro & Sarah Rodrigues
"My goal is to change people’s lives! But I don’t want this to be a burdensome ambition. I don’t want to have to examine my life or make people examine theirs, unsettle people on the state of the world, or force them to change – how boring and how dreadfully serious..." says curator Sarah Rodrigues in our interview with her and classmate-cum-colleague Agnès Biro from the MA program in Curating Art at Stockholm University. "Working collaboratively with Sarah here in Stockholm has allowed me to feel comforted in a curatorial vision that does not fit the widely accepted standards of the art world and also has given me the necessary drive to just go for it.", confides Biro.
Sarah Rodrigues & Agnès Biro, photo: Adrià Cruz
C-P: What can you tell us about your respective backgrounds and experiences as aspiring and working curators to date?
S.R: I have a very mixed international and interdisciplinary background. I feel like too many interests and too many wants have led me on a long journey of studying and trying different things in different countries around the world. I have ended up in Sweden in the MA program in Curating Art at Stockholm University with the hope that pursuing a career in curating will allow me to incorporate all those interests and wants in a flexible and creative way. I was incredibly lucky to be placed in a class with 7 remarkable and highly intelligent women who are making my experience very enriching. I was particularly lucky to end up living in the same building with one of them, and who turns out, shares my impatience and appetite for over-the-top excitement…my dear friend Agnès.
Only two weeks after meeting each other, we curated our first exhibition in my student bedroom, called Overflow. It was an incredible experience which helped us begin to uncover our way of working and the approaches we are interested in exploring. After curating Interruption together three months later, it became apparent that both of us share the aspiration to create experiences that enables visitors to step out of their everyday reality and into a curious process of discovery.
Empty Pleasure Vessel by Tim Høibjerg (2020), Interruption, photo: Adrià Cruz
AB: I always knew I wanted to work with art.
I started creating art myself by studying fine art at Central Saint Martins in London. There, we were encouraged to think beyond any limits, and this significantly broadened my understanding of what art could be, while also giving me a certain understanding of the day-to-day life of being an artist. Half way through my studies, I realized that my works were almost systematically attempting to influence the audience’s behavior and challenge its relationship to time, language and space. Deciphering texts, entering incommodious architectural structures, peeking through a hole…All of these interests led me slowly to (what I believe to be) curation.
Working collaboratively with Sarah here in Stockholm has allowed me to feel comforted in a curatorial vision that does not fit the widely accepted standards of the art world and also has given me the necessary drive to just go for it. In France, where I come from, diplomas and exams are mandatory to access most cultural roles that are usually primarily occupied by politicians. My experience of curation in France is that it is a shifting role that is still taught in a highly academic way when there is a need for a more creative and inclusive spatial thinking.
Having worked in many different institutions (The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, The Other Art Fair in London, The Art Center Ygrec-ENSAPC in Aubervilliers, to name a few) I think that the common thread that links all the work experiences I have so far is this intimacy I always craved to create with the audience and my unstoppable desire to make art more accessible; be it through designing a playful workshop related to the State Hermitage’s collection, trying to involve the local schools and businesses in the program of newly implanted Art Center in Aubervilliers, or being part of an art fair that showcases art for all tastes and budgets. This is definitely still the case with the two recent shows Sarah and I have co-curated. For our first show, Overflow (Sept 24-27, 2020), we created multiple 20 minute time slots during which groups of four people would explore a corridor room plunged in the dark, using just a flashlight to illuminate the work. The process of letting people in without giving them any clue and afterwards receiving their feedback was very important in order to evaluate the success of the event.
Our second show, Interruption (Feb 20, 2021), was conceived as a walk into the frozen forest. Guided by candles, the sound of other visitors stepping in the snow or a very unexpected sound piece by Portuguese artist André Baptista, visitors would explore the area and experience the association of artworks in a bodily way first. Then, if they could find us in the night, Sarah and I would happily start a conversation with them.
As much as this idea came naturally from our conversations and explorations of the local area, making it happen was consciously also a way to take a stand. The text of the exhibition narrates the abilities of a wood frog to survive the winter cold (or not). A metaphor for our current health situation and for the current state of the cultural sector.
Even if we do have to put certain things on hold, there are ways to keep going and if the creative sector is not the one providing these new ways then who will be? People need places to dream, feel and get away from reality. This IS essential. Also artists constantly seek for more visibility and not having a physical space should not stop us helping them to do so. Visitors were so thankful to go to an event. We had people from so many different backgrounds, sharing different stories. At the end of the day, we are all craving for some more human interactions.
Installation by Tove Möller (2021), Interruption, photo: Adrià Cruz
C-P: Sarah, what can be said about Interruption from your end?
S.R: Agnès introduced me to the forest frog that freezes during winter as a survival strategy. We took the frog as inspiration and ventured into the snow-covered forest next to our place in Lappis (Lappkärsberget). We felt that this beautiful frozen landscape was the perfect setting for an artistic exploration of our impression of the current state of the world – interrupted, waiting, suspended. Interruption, for me, was about the containment of energy and either the potential for frustration that that brings or the capacity for endurance and resilience. But it was not really about the “outcome”, or how it will go afterwards. It was actually about the now, this moment of being suspended, for an unknown amount of time, and what that might feel like. In the dark, we invited visitors to explore this inner/outer environment with their senses.
I felt very fortunate to be able to work with the artists; André Baptista, Tim Hoibjerg, Maja Bakker and Tove Moller. It was a joy to collaborate with them, even after several hours working in the freezing cold and darkness! During the day of the event, I was very nervous because the weather suddenly changed after weeks of low temperatures and stable snowfall. It started raining and the snow began to melt. I thought it was the most poetic lesson I could get – that we have no control, and that interruption comes when you least expect it. In the end, I felt it was a generous addition to the unsettling atmosphere of the show.
Mirrors by Maja Bakken (2020-2021), Interruption, photo: Adrià Cruz
C-P: Just before the pandemic broke out the art world was getting into talks about its responsibility in creating more sustainable frameworks in which to work considering effects on the environments, what with travelling for instance. Then COVID-19 happened, and modus operandi became just to be able to operate at all. In light of challenges that have surfaced in recent years; what are some personal epiphanies you’ve had about the profession and your role in the great scheme of things?
A.B: I guess this really made me think about the use of space. Is it really necessary to have a physical space in order to have a practice? I am personally very nomadic and I consider that travelling is my main source of nourishment and learning. It is also a means to work with different audiences and artists, and therefore trying to be more inclusive and aware of different perspectives.
I am, however, very conscious of the negative impact this has on the environment. The pandemic has forced us all to slow down and reduce our travel, and there has been a very exciting development in virtual exhibition of work. For example, there has been more participatory work being shown, incorporating the viewer at home into the work by asking them to participate. I was working at the art center Ygrec-ENSAPC in Aubervilliers last year when the pandemic broke and at the time ENSAPC had a partnership with IRCAM-Centre Pompidou that allowed a few students to work with sound technicians from the institution and get the result exhibited physically at Ygrec and at Centre Pompidou. The exhibition was compromised but neither my manager nor I wanted this project to go to waste, and so I designed a virtual exhibition through our Instagram channels in order to create a dialogue between the two spaces despite the pandemic. The students adapted their original proposals and even managed to get a few more tutoring sessions before getting their work featured on the virtual communication channels of IRCAM. A very positive outcome that also led me to pursue a collaboration with artist Dylan Altamiranda.
Collaborative learning and interdisciplinarity is definitely a more sustainable way to work with art. Together with other first year master’s curatorial students we are currently working on a residence program called In Memoriam - In Futurum where artists are paired-up with researchers from different departments at Stockholm University. We can already testify of the benefits that these crossovers offer, for example how researchers open up to a more creative thinking and artists manage to define their practice more or take a completely different direction. It is important to get out of your comfort zone in order to test your ideas.
I also believe that in order to create a sustainable art world, we must pay our artists and curators fairly. The normalization of not paying artists or curators is quite shocking. We are surrounded by over-qualified people who constantly accept to do things for free. It is especially the case right now since the COVID-19 pandemic but this really needs to stop. I am not saying that I am not guilty of these things but I think that, as a curator or an artist, you always have to remind yourself and others that your work does have a value.
S.R: Before beginning the MA in Curating Art, I did a MSc Environment and Resource Management in Amsterdam, and before that I studied Philosophy and Anthropology. The question of how one should conduct oneself in the planet we live in has been a concern of mine for some time. It is one of the reasons why I decided to become a curator in the first place… I think the way we go about our lives needs reconsidering, and although economic instruments, behavioral nudges, and technical fixes have their place, I believe they are little more than a band-aid for a much more serious condition. I believe that the fundamental structures that regulate our lives are what needs to be adjusted – what we prioritize, how we relate to each other, and to what we devote our time and effort. My hope is that, in some small measure, I can contribute to helping humans reconsider their place and their sphere of moral concern.
Interruption, 2021, curated by Agnès Biro & Sarah Rodrigues
C-P: Both originally coming from art scenes outside of the local one; what do you make of the art scene here if you had to take its pulse and elaborate on the state of things?
A.B: After four years spent in London, I have to admit that I was very surprised by the quasi non-existence of an underground art scene here in Stockholm. Where is the Dalston of Stockholm? Also, as we talk about pulse, the pace at which projects and events are built is much slower here than it is in London. Of course, we have to take into consideration COVID-19 and a totally different culture but overall I had a feeling that the art scene could take more risks, be bolder. There are so many interesting spaces, talented people awaiting to collaborate. I’m pretty sure Sarah and I would both agree that you only need to ask and share your idea in order for someone to want to work with you. Projects are welcome with lots of enthusiasm and the means are definitely there! It is just about seizing the opportunities.
S.R: I was not really “in” the art scene where I lived before and I have just started to learn about the one here, so I cannot make any fair comparisons. What I can say about my experience here is that I have met very inspiring, hardworking, and friendly people. I have felt that, despite the relative isolation due to the pandemic restrictions, it has been fairly easy for me to meet people who are eager and willing to collaborate and try new things. On the less positive side, what has troubled me is the predominance of precarious working conditions for those in the cultural and arts sector. There is an overwhelming dependence on (limited) government funding and little private initiatives. In my view, there is enormous pressure on cultural professionals, who must hold several jobs in order to survive, and is stifling creative production. I have yet to see sustainable business models in the arts here in Sweden.
C-P: What are some people that have served as inspiration figures for you as curators?
S.R: This is a hard question… so many teachers, Ted Talks, actors, artists, friends, and inspiring figures like Tim Ingold, Nikki S. Lee, and others, circle my mind, but I think the only real answer is… my parents. My parents devoted most of their lives to their professions… vocations, and throughout most of my life I have been trying to find the same kind of steadfastness and resolution they had. My wanting to be a curator has, in large part, resulted from the desire to have a career which is equally satisfying and rewarding. Let’s hope so!
A.B: I think I am going to have to speak about spaces here.
The first ever show that made me want to get into curation was held at the Zabludowicz Collection in London in 2015. It was Canadian artist Jon Rafman’s solo show and the experience was truly amazing. The two floors of the former Methodist Church were completely transformed. Blinded by UV lights, lost in a gigantic maze, stuck in a ball pit, I remember losing the control of my own body, feeling left at the mercy of the artist. I had my first bodily experience where art made me feel what it was trying to tell me and this, for me, was such an intimate new way to experience the art. Other institutions that really inspired me in their artistic direction are the audacious Palais de Tokyo and the majestic Quai de conti in Paris. The latter especially for the way contemporary artworks were in dialogue with the neoclassical architecture of the Monnaie de Paris. It is a real shame that it had to stop showing contemporary art but it made me think a lot about how the context in which art is shown could change your perception of it.
Of course I want to also cite Magdalena Malm’s practice as I have encountered her work through this MA program and I felt like I really connected with her vision. I am especially interested in the place that the audience holds in each of her projects. Included from the very start of the process, the audience is invited to rather than allowed to and experience always comes first.
Agnès Biro & Sarah Rodrigues, photo: Adrià Cruz
C-P: How would you formulate your personal curatorial vision and sense of practice?
A.B: In my emerging practice, I explore “interruption” as a way to influence the viewer’s experience. To me, this interruption represents a furtive moment, a disruptive factor, ways of manipulating spaces that trigger curiosity, change people’s natural rhythm and flow and help punctuate their sense of reality. Signs, architecture, lighting, sound...all of these elements are potential interruptions. Experience comes before interpretation. I believe that explanatory texts should be there to consult after the experiential and only to enable a deeper understanding if wanted. I am convinced that in order to get a more inclusive experience of the art, there is a necessity to allow the viewer to get their own perception of the artwork and allow for multiple entry points instead of imposing a certain vision onto them. This places the viewer as an active participant in the art space.
Another important point in my practice is that I want to stress the potential for another more universal language to communicate the art, the language of space. By placing art into a context, the resulting assemblage creates a certain atmosphere charged in emotions that enables the viewers to interrupt the time far away from fabricated concepts and think about how it really feels to be alive.
S.R: I see my task as a curator as that of inviting visitors into a “liminal” space, whereby their usual selves become “suspended”; their customary categorizations, reasoning and sensibilities are “released”, and with that lightness and openness, have the opportunity to experience a new kind of reality, and to confront those aspects of themselves that need confronting. The goal is, ideally, to enable a process of personal transformation.
Very immodestly put: my goal is to change people’s lives! But I don’t want this to be a burdensome ambition. I don’t want to have to examine my life or make people examine theirs, unsettle people on the state of the world, or force them to change – how boring and how dreadfully serious... Yes, we all have problems, but again we are all meaningless shits in the universe and we’re all going to die, so I think we should be having fun! I think that important things come from a place of excitement – otherwise, how can we tell if they really matter to us?
Mirrors by Maja Bakken (2020-2021), Interruption, photo: Adrià Cruz
C-P: Finally, what’s next for both of you from here, and what awaits further ahead?
A.B: I am very excited as I am about to start my internship within the curatorial team of the 2021 Bruges Triennial. This year’s edition is about Trauma and, as always, will be showcasing the works of artists and architects in the context of their surroundings, the historic city center of Bruges.
Later on, Sarah and I will separately be curating events at Accelerator in the fall. We are also currently working on a series of events that we will co-curate and that should also happen around that same time. To give you a little taste, they will definitely not be playing by the rules!
S.R: Right now, as Agnès is starting her internship in Bruges, I am setting up an independent art space at Lappis for experimental projects, events and exhibitions with my other classmate Lina Aastrup – It’s called Studio Pica (website will be up soon). We are also both involved in a collaborative project with students from Stockholm University and students from the Royal Institute of Art, in partnership with Accelerator. This project deals with interdisciplinary experimentation which will culminate in a published zine, so stay tuned!
Furthermore, we have plans for curating a third exhibition together… the series of events Agnès mentions and that amounts to a number of three, we call The Disobedience Series.
In the next few months, we will write our master's thesis, and I will do my internship at Bonniers Konsthall here in Stockholm and possibly a second internship in São Paulo in Brazil. We graduate from the MA program next year. Afterwards… I have thought of starting a business here in Stockholm, or maybe moving to Singapore or Australia. Who knows what the future brings!