Vivienne Gaskin, Director of Performing Arts and Digital Media at the ICA, London will discuss her involvement in the areas of 'social curating' in her creation of the club-night programme at the ICA, and on curating visual artists in a live context, with specific focus on her development of cultural re-enactment and the challenges surrounding the introduction of the digital into the live arena.
Selected quote: "I feel that the role of the curator can often be an obstacle, as quite often there are organic ways in which culture grows and orchestrates itself outside of the institution, which is not mediated (or rather it’s mediated on its own terms which people can accept and absorb, but which doesn’t require this kind of independent person in between)."
Just to give you a little bit of background, I’ve been at the ICA since 1996. I’ve principally been working within live culture, although my practice has extended into, or overlapped with, a number of areas such as social curating and how to blend activity within a social context into an institution and vice versa. I’ve overlapped between visual arts and currently I’m Director of Performing Arts and Digital Media, which covers the whole range of both areas, but also the overlap between the genres. Also, in between doing that, I escaped for two years and went to the CCA in Glasgow where I was Head of Artistic Programme and Education – which was as broad as it sounds.
One of the main areas that I’ve been interested in, is not only the overlap, but the ways in which we mediate culture – for me, this calling into question what the curator is and what the curator does. I feel that the role of the curator can often be an obstacle, as quite often there are organic ways in which culture grows and orchestrates itself outside of the institution, which is not mediated (or rather it’s mediated on its own terms which people can accept and absorb, but which doesn’t require this kind of independent person in between). I’ve often described my role much more as a mediator than as a curator, which I feel enables an audience, rather than becoming an obstacle. Now that’s something that is particular to the kind of practice I’ve been involved in, and I am aware that it’s fairly contentious, but I would also state from the outset that I’m no kind of missionary for ‘art for everyone’ – I just feel that contemporary culture had led the way in terms of disseminating and filtering into the everyday life. Artistic practice, especially institutional practice, will then follow on. I feel that it’s outside in rather than inside out. Within these kind of cultural practices, these ‘curious practices’ that developed over the past decade, my ‘mediation’ has come together organically, rather than being forced together in a curatorial framework.
I’ll illustrate this process of mediation through two specific experiences. The first is social curation and the Club Night Programme, which is something that I did at the ICA between 1996 and 2000. Then I’ll look secondly at the role of visual artists in the live context and with specific reference to my research area in re-enactment – the re-enactment of historical events in a live context.
So the Club Nights, 1996 – a time when the ICA was a place where culture was very much divided into the environments that dictated it. So the galleries only had visual arts, the theatre had performing arts, the cinemas had film, and the departments did not speak to each other, neither did the independent curators who governed those spaces. It was a place that I felt was incredibly insular, it was really only talking to itself, and not looking at cultures that were operating outside. There was quite a clear distinction between the art spaces and the non-art spaces in the institution, so there was the bar space, the foyer space and there were these in-between spaces which were purely social, not the formal art spaces in which we were to be informed, educated, stimulated etc. Again, those distinctions were very black and white. In addition, there was to some extent the ‘fewer the merrier’ policy, which is something that I think a lot of institutions have been crippled by. I remember a very long meeting where an event was described in terms of its amazing theoretical position, and I asked how many people attended, and it was six. There was also the context of live art, which I’ll hold my hand up and say that I felt most of which was very dated, and coming to an ‘natural end’, and which excluded much new live practice.
This was the kind of thing that made me want to work outside of the institution, and the place that I looked outside to (I was 24 years old then) was club culture. I wanted to recognise the sophistication of existing visuals, but give a chance for it to be in professional facilities with those of resources. I hadn’t actually been employed to do this, but I did it anyway. They were initially a severe failure, because they fell between the art world and the club world, and there was this great deal suspicion from the club world, so I ignored the art world and treated these as external events. It was effectively media art I suppose, with DJs, cinema, spoken word, performance and foyer exhibitions. The execution was that people would mediate and absorb the culture very much on their own terms. It was a social event ultimately, so you were there to have fun, it was meant to be entertaining, but the work and culture was there to be accessed if you so desired. So after about six Club Nights it became a success, and it brought a whole new audience into the building. It brought an audience who were curious, but who actually had no idea what the ICA was, and this was a wonderful thing. Due to a Time Out magazine article it meant that people were coming and thinking that this was a new club venue, so they came in. They returned and for example, we had a club called Little Stabs at Happiness, which I did with Mark Webber – who you may know from his involvement with Pulp, and he was also a film obsessive. He did the Shoot, Shoot Season, which you may or may not have heard of. So his film Obsession was the basis of this, so three-quarters of the night was experimental film and quite often quite short and 60s and followed by a feature – a cult feature – then a bit of DJ-ing at the end. People would come en masse. There would be four hundred and fifty people in the audience for the kinds of films that we would get about ten for in the cinemas. So again the mediation became key to expanding the audience for this kind of work.
Whatever the desire for coming, whether it was the film, whether it was the environment, whether it was to see Jarvis Cocker – it almost became irrelevant – it was the fact that people were coming, they were engaging and they were going out and discussing it. I kind of stopped doing these with any kind of degree of enthusiasm around 2000 because the model became copied – which is a fabulous thing – but sometimes quite badly by art institutions who saw it more as a kind of commercial outlet, rather than actually a programmed, curated event. They were also emulated within the commercial club world within London and that, to me, was much more of a success. They tended to absorb these kind of differing art forms as being a social context and that was time to let go. It was time for it to move on in its own world. So that’s the first thing I wanted to talk about.
The second area that I wanted to talk about is ‘re-enactment’. Re-enactment, in brief, has been a practice which I started working with in 1996, and again this was a kind of looking outwards, it was from that point of looking outwards to where live culture was happening, rather than a dying ‘live art’.
This was a practice that came out of visual arts principally. I’ll run through the kind of areas and events that I’ve been involved with. There was an event called The Queen is Dead, which is a composite re-enactment of the last Smith’s gig, with the artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. Then there was an event called The Kids Are Alright, which was a re-enactment of a Who concert, which was 1998. Then came one of the biggest projects, which was a Rock ‘n Roll Suicide, which we did in 1998 with the same artist. This was a (25 year to the day) re-enactment of the last concert by Ziggy Stardust. It’s always nice to talk about these projects because it always brings a smile to peoples’ faces, they’re thinking ‘What the hell are you doing…’. But this was an exact re-enactment from the lighting down to the costumes – we got David Bowie’s original costume designer to make the eight costume changes, if I remember rightly, down to the backdrops, down to the running order.
In the year 2000 I did the Jones Town re-enactment with Rod Dickinson, whose practice you may already be familiar with in terms of his work with crop circles in the 90s. I’ve done three projects with him. One is coming up. This was a re-enactment of Jim Jones’ town cult suicide. Jim Jones, a preacher from America, took his peoples’ temple congregation to Guyana and it’s very much a fight against capitalism and resistance to capitalism, culminating in their mass suicide of just over 3000 people. The next project was the Milgram Re-enactment. You may remember this – the Obedience and Authority Research by Stanley Milgram where people were told to administer an electric shock to a person behind a screen. This was fictitious and it was actually to see how far people would go – between 60-80% might kill the other person, depending on when this was actually done. So we rebuilt the lab and did a seven-hour performance – it was quite an extraordinary day. The filming of this and the model of the lab – it was all culminated into an exhibition which ran for eight weeks at the CCA.
I wanted to discuss what re-enactment is in more detail, and how it works within a kind of cultural context, but I only have 2 minutes left. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about what re-enactment is and why it works for cultural events. To some it’s a kind of nostalgia and for others its about creating a kind of way of describing the past – about a way of reliving the past and a way of displaying it. To me it’s much more detailed than that and in some ways it’s creating a virtual environment. The only way that this works and for me, this is a route into finding the ultimate way of displaying life or experiencing life within a performative context. It’s by creating what I can only describe as a ‘virtual’ environment – an environment where everything is a signifier that will take you back to that original event, and nothing can be a distraction. This requires, on the side of the artists, an obsessiveness, and everyone that I’ve worked with has gladly been an obsessive. The passion within this means that when you’re in that environment, you have every reason to forget that you’re in the current state. That’s an active suspension of disbelief, this isn’t a way of tricking people or a way of conning them, but the events only work once the audience believe that they are – or they deliberately believe – that they are part of an active event. So whether that’s a point of nostalgia or whether that’s a willingness to engage in a current event, or whether it’s just to go with the vibrancy of the event – they become part of that total event. They become part of that live-ness and their enthusiasm often becomes an obsession, which then transfers into the practising audience and becomes part of the total outcome of the event.
What does this mean in terms of it being a kind of live practice? Well, for me it means that it negates the author. There is actually no author to these events, and that’s the only way I’ve been able to work with them. The artists have had the idea to re-enact. The original artist had the idea to create. The audience, the people on stage who are performing – it’s not the artist who is on stage, this is a band that we put together, this is an act that we’ve found. These are people that we’ve auditioned. They all have to become part of the obsession – they have to become part of the psyche and ultimately there is no actual author to these events, it’s part of the mechanism of everyone working together and that, to me, brings this ultimate kind of ‘liveness’. Again, whether this is a current event or a contemporary event, I think that’s something to do with that these are agnostic events – they are not there to come up with a conclusion. Stanley Millgram had his desires; Davie Bowie had his desires within the original Ziggy events. These events aren’t there to kind of come to any conclusion – they’re there to stimulate debate. You come out of these events thinking ‘what did I actually feel about that? Would I actually kill this person?’ The debates sustains them and I think in some ways they fall into this category of the ‘readymade’, which is something that I’ve discussed with a number of people involved with these events. I think they are a kind of temporary legacy, but within a live framework as well as readymade