I am not terribly excited by exhibitions. I needed to get that off my chest.
I like them, and sometimes they are perfectly appropriate, but of all the ways to communicate , it’s not my favourite. As an independent curator, it seems like a strange idea to have (or so I thought, but more on that later). After all, isn’t that what curators do? Make exhibitions? My answer is: sometimes, if that is what’s best. That is, if the exhibition is the medium best suited to conveying/shaping/organising the matter(s) at hand. It’s a matter of both what is at hand and who is handling (the artists, audience, participants, etc). Even in those cases where the exhibition is the best form, the “curatorial work” is not located in making the exhibition for me. My focus is on that first step, determining what form best connects the matters at hand with the people handling them.
I am an art curator, but the art object is not a special point of fascination for me, not more than any other text (a piece of literature, architecture, a flyer). I feel about art objects much as I feel about exhibitions, I like them, I even love some, but they are not the real object of my personal “art appreciation”. They are the sloughed skin, a kind of evidence or by-product of the process of creation, interrogation and reflection that I am interested in. This process- which can engage a range of media from paint to space, from legislation to DNA- is what I’m referring to when I say (or think) “art”.
I am interested in what art writer Stephen Wright has called “art within the broadest possible frame”. He writes:
These preoccupations are not merely a matter of academic interest; they are a necessary perspective for working from the Caribbean. Until fairly recently, the region was invisible within the frames of art history  and global contemporary art. Art historian Erica James has looked at Maurizio Cattelan’s “Sixth International Caribbean Biennial” on the island of St Kitts in the late nineties as an indication of this invisibility “within the frame”. James argues that Cattelan’s art-free, Biennial-as-vacation  indexes how “colonialism and the neo-colonial practice of mass tourism” have shaped “ways of seeing the Caribbean” as “paradise and plantation… a place without Art”. 
Naturally, that has implications for artists’ practices as well. In the catalogue of Wrestling with the Image, Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier writes: “The Caribbean artist is always in competition with a long history of expedient labeling of their world and their very selves — externally and also internally.”  In other words, how can there be artists in a place of no art? Thinking about “Caribbean art” then, requires a broadening of the “art” frame, historiographically and structurally.
While elsewhere it’s possible to look to galleries (for exhibitions) and collections (for art objects) to get a sense of the art scene, not so in the Caribbean. There are a few notable galleries and impressive collections, but they are few and far between. There have been a few survey shows of Caribbean art , but they rarely actually come to the Caribbean. There aren’t many musuems (and those that exist are generally under-resourced). It varies from place to place, but generally there aren’t many galleries either, and those that exist are geared almost exclusively toward tourists. No Caribbean country can claim a thriving art market, or pools of public and private arts funding worth noting. So where is the art? How is it even made with no studio space, and where is it exhibited? If it’s not exhibited, then how do we know it exists?
In response to these conditions, how I facilitate, as a Caribbean curator, exists within an equally broad frame. It can entail everything from maintaining a library, negotiating contracts, and writing about art and artists, to studio visits, debating with customs officers, and brokering relationships. The labor of facilitation forges connections between artists and other artists, texts, ideas, spaces, institutions, audiences. These considerations are not unique to the Caribbean or my own curatorial practice, but they acquire additional urgency here because our art scenes are desperately unhealthy. That is if we are to subscribe to curator Renny Pritkin’s very narrow frame of a “healthy art scene” anyway. 
For my Tilting Axis proposal then, I asked: “what kind of curatorial work happens in places of art-less Biennials ? Places without an art market, MFA programme, or arts funding?” How does art happen in a decidedly “unhealthy scene”? And what could a curator do there? With precious few temperature-controlled, white cube galleries in which to mount shows, even fewer funding sources for such grand endeavours, and little to no patrons or discernible audience.
I decided to look to the artist-run spaces that have mushroomed across the region in the last decade for a clue, hence my planned visits to Groundation in Grenada, Fresh Milk in Barbados, Tembe Art Studio in Suriname and Beta Local in Puerto Rico. These were spaces that I had briefly passed through or read about that seemed to be working in innovative ways to build a Caribbean art scene (emphasis on Caribbean). I have observed NLS Kingston in Jamaica and to some degree the National Gallery of Jamaica grapple with what “healthy” might mean for the Jamaican art scene, but I wanted to know more about the strategies others in the region have developed/are developing.
I understood that as part of the fellowship I was to go to Scotland, but I wasn’t completely sure what I would do there. I knew of Glasgow’s reputation for having a thriving, largely artist-directed scene. I’d heard about “the Glasgow Miracle” and understood that many in the Caribbean would like a similar “miracle” for our region. I was skeptical nonetheless. Glasgow may not be London, but it’s still the UK. I wasn’t sure there would be enough resonance between my context and the one I expected to find there.
My proposal did however argue that working with less, as we routinely do in the Caribbean, would become more and more important as public funding cuts and changing attitudes toward cultural philanthropy  meant that, even in the wealthiest countries, arts funding was under attack. An alarming recent example is, of course, President Trump’s threats to defund the U.S.’s National Endowment for the Arts,  but the UK arts community has been enduring consistent cuts over the last decade. At the very least, I thought it might be an opportunity to demonstrate that side of my thesis and see what resonance it found.
I was genuinely surprised to find that many of the issues I was thinking about as a “Caribbean curator” were animating debates among Scottish practitioners as well. I also discovered that, as in the Caribbean, much of the curatorial work that interested me there did not take place within a conventional gallery space and was being done by people who (very deliberately) did not even claim the title curator. The irreverence toward the narrow frame, and the range of approaches that irreverence birthed in Scotland, helped me to put a language to the curatorial activities that I had previously only intuitively recognised.
My first meeting was with Bryony McIntyre and Barry Esson of Arika. Arika was founded in 2006, evolving from an experimental film and music festival called Instal that began in 2001. The small team of five (two full-time and three part time staff members) have hosted a range of events since then, utilising spaces as varied as the Whitney Biennial (2012) and the interior of a fuel storage tank.
What I found most interesting about Arika was their commitment to evolving a language that might open up the way we define an “arts organisation”. Their website gives insight into this , but speaking with Bryony and Barry revealed their deep commitment to reworking language as a way to transform its referents. They are not interested in art as art object, but rather art as “aesthetic register of sociality” . That is, their enagagement with art means thinking about how experiences of beauty (“the ways we dance, listen, speak, look, be seen, feel and be felt”) index and create space for the articulation and imagination of alternate political and social futures.
The series of events they call “Episodes” provides an excellent example. Each episode brings individuals, groups (I am tempted to use the term “community” here but Bryony and Barry were cautious about that word’s implication of harmonious inclusion made possible through less apparent but equally decisive exclusion), ideas and spaces together around a theme or shared interest. The most recent Episode, the eigth in the series, titled “Refusing Powers’ Grasp” coalesced in a weekend of events in October 2016 exploring the intersection of “queer, trans and women's anti-racist, decolonial, anti-deportation and prison abolitionist struggles”. If that seems like an arbritrary list, consider the question posed in Arika’s (characteristically) carefully worded introduction to the episode, “Is there a link between how we’re divided into populations that can be caged and exiled by the prison-industrial complex, and the ways people’s bodies are violently categorised and segregated by race, class, gender or ability?” Through a blend of performances, screenings, workshops, a night at the club, and contributions from performance artists like Boychild and Julianna Huxtable, Bolivian anarcho-feminist group Mujeres Creando, writer and law professor Dean Spade, and British sex worker-led charity Scot-Pep among others, Arika was able to bring visibility to an overlap between the interests of several apparently discrete “communities”, thereby troubling the boundaries the word implies (and generates).
This kind of linguistic acuity can sometimes prove as much an impediment to communication as a medium of it, but I find it admirable that the language is as agonisticly nuanced as the intention and work it indexes. My own practice hinges on this kind of linguistic caution as a means to access epistemic foundations. I am a curator who is suspicious of curating. Not surprisingly, when I asked Arika if they considered their practice curatorial, they said “No, we think of it as a kind of research.” Though they did concede that there was some relationship between their organising, relationship brokerage and facilitation that might bear a resemblance to the curatorial.
Alexander Hetherington, who I met in Edinburgh, took a different approach to the question of how to name his work. Though the combination of experimental writing, film screenings, editing, archiving and research into and support of women artists (examples are Ruth Barker, Allison Gibbs, Margaret Tait, Lyndsay Mann) might look like a curatorial practice, Hetherington preferred to think of himself as infrastructure: a kind of institutional framework for a set of activities and interrogations. He claimed the title “The Modern Edinburgh Film School” as a way of“staging” his “practice as an artist with curating, producing new collaborative projects, publications and critical writing. These work together on themes of learning about film and its ideas, moving image artists and their films, sculpture and poetry and new expressions, founded in discussion.”  His practice reminded me of the kinds of artist-run spaces I was looking at in the Caribbean, these emanations  of a desire to “create your own infrastructure” (whether linguistic, physical or social).
By the end of the first week it was clear that, although the kind of work I was interested in was a response to conditions in the Caribbean, people elsewhere are engaged in similar interrogations. My thesis took for granted that there are fairly discrete centres and peripheries, and further, my dividing line proceeded along similar routes to an older line between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ nations: “I am from a developing nation, and in those nations we have very particular kinds of problems…” As a “peripheral” space within the UK and Europe (relative to London or Berlin for example), Scotland troubled that settled distinction.
In fact, Kirsteen Macdonald’s PhD research (at the Glasgow School of Art) into the “history of the curatorial in Scotland” looks at the kinds of practice that evolve from a generally artist-directed tradition like Scotland’s, as opposed to the German Kunsthalle model via Harald Szeeman etc. As a curator, Macdonald was also dissatisfied with the museum model and the exhibition form, particularly the substantial resource cost and the relative inaccessibility of the form. In speaking about “The Changing Room”, an art space she ran in central Scotland between 2001 and 2009, she remarked:
Though the Scottish landscape is very different from the Caribbean one, here too people were trying to broaden the frame.
That said, it’s important to avoid overstating the similarities. Creative Scotland’s Open Project Funding has a budget of 11 million GBP available for 2016-2017 alone, and that is only one of several funds, offered by one of several public organisations supporting the arts in Scotland. And while Cattelan was hosting his art-less Biennial in St Kitts, curator and director of London’s Serpentine Galleries Hans Ulrich Obrist was proclaiming “the Glasgow Miracle”. Interestingly, a “miracle” and several Turner prizes later, the lack of an art market is still something Scotland and Jamaica share. 
It should also be noted that Macdonald’s research does not merely celebrate Scotland’s artist-directed tradition either. She points out that it doesn’t always lead to innovation in curatorial practice or organisational structure, especially given that most initiatives adopt models developed twenty or thirty years ago. She also cautions against buying the Glasgow miracle narative:
Macdonald is instead looking at other ways to organise curatorial activity. She and four other curators have come together in a co-operative model they’re calling Chapter Thirteen. The five - the other four are Benjamin Fallon, James N Hutchinson, Kirsten Lloyd, Lesley Young - have equal say, equal responsibility for administrative tasks (grant application and so on) and equal pay. The premise is simple, why have five curators competing for the same increasingly scarce resources, when you can have a single entity presenting a more compelling case? Together, the group has come up with a “curatorial stance” that honours the integrity of their individual practices, and highlights areas of overlap; inter-disciplinary work and eschewal of the solo show form. For now the group will remain small, just the five who began it and are prepared to commit to the experiment, but they haven’t written off the possibility of opening membership to others in the future. They are currently planning a series of exhibitions, and a broader events programme exploring cultural welfare, social issues, and institutions and institution building.
Transmission (founded in 1983) and Collective (founded in 1985) are good examples of the kind of “Scottish model” that MacDonald spoke about. Both began as membership organisations, and were directed by the artists that comprise their membership. Transmission in Glasgow has remained so with a programme directed by a six person voluntary committee, each committee member serving for a maximum of two years. Edinburgh’s Collective on the other hand is no longer a membership organisation and has instead adopted a board and director.
The Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow (CCA), founded by Scottish writer and playwright Tom McGrath as the Third Eye Centre in 1974, also transitioned from an artist directed model to a board with (current) Director Francis McKee. Today’s CCA is most notable for its “open source” curatorial approach. There is an exhibition space that hosts shows by in-house curators, but the great majority of the CCA’s substantial building is occupied by “cultural tenants”, over a dozen organisations (including a comic book publisher, theater group, hacker community and film festival) that develop their own programming alongside programmes curated by the CCA curatorial team.
The decision to pursue this innovative approach was a response to a lottery grant-financed expansion of the CCA building in the late nineties. A grand new building opened in 2001, but without a budget to maintain or programme the impressive expanse. Cultural tenants were a way to finance the CCA’s substantial infrastructure, and make its resources accessible to as many people as possible. Having anchored myself at CCA for much of my trip I can attest to the benefits of the arrangement. The CCA is unlike any art centre that I’ve been to. The café in a central plaza on the ground floor infuses the whole three story space with a buzz of activity. And although there are several exhibition spaces, this is not your quietly reverent gallery, but rather a hub that people use to meet, experience art, have drinks, buy books, work, etc.
Collective is also thinking about what role a visual arts organisations might play within an art community and city. In my meeting with Director Kate Gray, she talked about “what kind of resource a visual arts organisation can be for a city”, and positioning Collective as a “tool” for Edinburgh. These conversations are especially precient now, since the organisation is in the process of redeveloping and relocating to the City Observatory Complex on Edinburgh’s historic Calton Hill; a property that is “held in the common good” by the Scottish government. Paintings and photographs of Edinburgh are often from Calton Hill, and St. Andrew’s House, the headquarters of the Scottish government is also on the hill. There are also several national monuments.
Currently, Collective operates out of a small container space adjacent to the Observatory. When I visited there was a small exhibition up called W.W.W. (Whole World Working) that was “devised” by Anastasia Philimonos as part of her participation in the 2016 Satellite programme. Satellite is Collective’s programme to support the work of emerging Scottish “artists-practicioners-producers” . Facilitator, James Hutchinson leads participants on a series of retreats, workshops and critiques, the themes of which are determined by the group.
The majority of Collective’s programming however has been a series of ongoing, off-site research commissions called Constellations. The Constellations are a way to keep Collective’s programming going during the relocation, and bring people together to develop new ideas and partnerships. Some commissions, such as James Hutchinson’s Rumours of a New Planet, explore themes directly related to the Calton Hill site. Others, like An Exhange of Method go further afield, facilitating exhange between artists and arts organisations in Rio de Janeiro and Edinburgh. The other major programming is the Observator’s Walks, a series of audio tours that re-map Calton Hill from new perspectives. An attempt to un-learn the settled narratives around Calton Hill and, as curator and writer Simon Sheikh recommended to Gray, “decolonise the city observatory”. The observator’s walks are available to stream or as a free download on Collective’s website.
I cannot possibly talk about every space I visited or every arts producer I met, but there is one more space that I found particularly resonanant with my curatorial interests and my aims for this fellowship in particular. Hospitalfield, in the small fishing town of Arboath just north of Dundee, is perched between an artist-run space, a museum and a public park. The nineteenth century mansion was the family home of artist Patrick Allan and his wife Elizabeth Fraser, who inherited the property. The house began as a hospital set up by the Tironensian Benedictine order of monks in 1260, hence the name, but Allan and Fraser refurbished the building inspired by arts and crafts, and the local. The ceiling of the Picture Gallery, “one of Scotland’s most important Victorian rooms”, features carved reliefs of local flora and fauna, and several remarkable commissions by the Allan-Frasers including a tabletop made from stones from the nearby coast. After Patrick Allan-Fraser’s death in 1890, the couple’s estates and collections were left in trust to “support artists and education in the arts”. In 1902 the trust opened Hospitalfield as a residential art school (one of Scotland’s first), and over the decades a number of notable Scottish artists, such as James Cowie, Robert Colquhoun, Robert MacBryde, Joan Eardley, studied there.
The same trust agreement is in place today, but Hospitalfield is no longer a college. In the intervening years the lands surrounding the house have been an ongoing recreation site for people living in the surrounding areas, and tours of the house were available by appointment. Since 2012, the property has been transformed again under the leadership of Lucy Byatt, who has put in place a rigorous residency programme, and sought to build on the Allan-Fraser’s legacy with contemporary art commissions. As Programme and Facilities Manager Laura Simpson pointed out to me on a tour of the house, the team is trying to maintain a delicate balance whereby they maintain and protect an important historical site (in the style of a museum), but also keep it productive and engaged with contemporary practice (in the style of an artist-run initiative). Walking through Hospitalfield is an odd push-and-pull. You feel you shouldn’t be touching anything since it’s all so precious and old, but you must touch since it is an active residence and work space. The Hospitalfield offices are on the ground floor and current artists in residence live throughout the mansion, just as the Allan-Fraser’s once did.
The location also makes Hospitalfield unique. One expects to find innovative contemporary art initiatives in big cities, but not in fishing towns. Byatt and her team are still negotiating between targetting audiences from Dundee, Glasgow and so on, and developing programming for the local community. Does there even really need to be a distinction? What should Hospitalfield mean for Arbroath? Especially given the Allan-Fraser’s very local focus in their development of the estate and collection. Commissions were often to local artisans, using local materials. So how could that element of the legacy be continued? These kinds of questions are also relevant in the Caribbean where the issue of audience- who contemporary art is made for, who it is accessible to- is one of the focal points of debates within the artistic community.
Now, revising this essay from Grenada, I am already seeing opportunities to use the insights I gained in Scotland within the region. Arika in particular is an interesting parallel to Groundation, the organisation I’m working with here. Groundation has also been involved in advocacy and activisim around human rights, and LGBTQ rights in particular. Founded by an artist-yoga teacher and human rights lawyer, the organisation is looking for ways to integrate the three poles of their work- healing, art and social justice. We’ve been talking through the Arika model and looking at what elements of that practice might resonate with the Grenadian context. There are plans to host an aesthetic-register-of-sociality style gathering for Grenadian artists, for example, as a way to address the “lack of an artistic community” that people lament here. It’s also been helpful to place the things I’m seeing here within a broader conversation and try on new languages for and perspectives on old challenges.
As for being a curator that is not wed to exhibitions, Scotland helped me settle that as well. Kirsteen Macdonald offered this definition of the curatorial that I have found myself returning to:
That resonates . We’ll see how it holds up as my travels continue.