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On being curated: Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie
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On being curated: Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie

> transcript  

Speakers:>  Karen Guthrie & Nina Pope

[The artists first discuss the experiences of being curated for their projects 'A Hypertext Journal' and in The Festival of Lying]

Being Commissioned

[...] you can probably guess the challenges faced by those who commission us: perhaps the initial horror for a curator is that our work is expensive - in terms of time - our work always evolves from extensive periods of research ( this make is sound as if we spend it all in libraries but actually this can include sailing up and down the Norfolk waterways, as we did in East last year, to playing online games as we did from 'An Artists Impression').

It’s also expensive because there are 2 of us to pay from a project, and lastly, because the media we use can be very costly to access and costly to 'present' - by that we mean that a piece may not be suitable for 6 weeks in a gallery and be destined to be shown once, in public. This can require heavy ie. expensive marketing to target audiences. Of all of these costs, you can imagine which one ‘gives’ first when funds are tight - and they usually are, and its only recently we've tried to be absolutely firm about paying ourselves for the time we put into a project - we still frequently compromise this though, as at the end of the day, you want your projects to succeed whatever. Technical issues and expense also loom on the horizon for arts organisations, especially smaller ones, who may find providing a web cast , for example, daunting. Though our experience with large organisations (eg Tate) doesn’t always differ.

On the plus side for our commissioners however, our projects usually tick a plethora of regional, educational, access and participation funding priority boxes. [...] other pluses on the commissioning side of practices like ours might include the engagement of the artist outside the gallery and a corresponding willingness to debate and extend this, and some practical things like our ability to manage ourselves effectively from a press release to a budget meeting. Technical challenges also seem to be less problematic these days, partially due to the natural advancement of the technologies available, but also due to networks of organisations and people developing -e.g for web casting. [...]

'An Artists Impression' in fact could be a good example of a real mixed bag of funding and opportunities [...] Our only real complaint about the ICA experience was the PR identity of the show being so heavily ‘digital art’, meaning a lot of people walking into our show, seeing a big polystyrene island and wanting to get their hands on our computers, which wasn’t an option , and this was deliberate in our part - due to the nature of the on-line community - in a nutshell, it wasn’t something you could be part of in two seconds at a gallery PC.

A postscript to this section, is that the Cap Gemini award, included a clause about touring the piece after the ICA show. Pretty soon - and for reasons never revealed -it was clear this wasn’t going to happen, but having a big object on our hands, we were keen to do this and put together an Arts Council of England National Touring Programme application. We were unsuccessful, and the feedback we got was revealing of a lot of attitudes to ‘digital arts’ practice - specifically that the installation did not make the relationship between the MUSH space and the island explicit enough. Now this leap of the imagination between the two spaces is an integral part of the work which we very carefully retained based on our ideas around the two communities or audiences experiencing the work on-line and in a gallery - the installation was not an ‘interpretative’ tool, but an autonomous work.

To try and apply this critique to another discipline, it seems unlikely that a painter like Gary Hume would be asked to ‘show’ how he selected his portrait subjects alongside the works themselves. This would be considered an interpretative or educational element and yet this ‘explanation’ seemed to be expected in the case of a cross-media or digital project. ...

Working with the Tate

To move on to a very different commissioning process, we’re now going to talk about '/broadcast/', which was the Tate Annual Event 99 [...] It’s not that we were under any illusions about one of the aims of the preopening programme to gain favour with the local community, but we didn’t realise how differently the Tate were to view our project from what went on inside the gallery. ... There were some great things about getting the commission - there was enough money for a start, it was already there, and we weren’t answerable to anyone but them about the project finances; it was a massive boost to ones ego to work with the one gallery your mum has heard of; there were some really good people involved; and it was a very open brief. [...]

Most critical of all, and from experience we endlessly highlighted this to the Tate - was the marketing of this kind of one off event and oddly this was the one thing we were sure the biggest name in British art would excel at. The Tate were more concerned with recruiting celebrity pilgrims (something that happily did not come off) than ensuring the distribution of the applications forms at street level. … Such seemingly small missed opportunities snowball in significance for such one-off events, more so when the budgets being spent are so significant. [...]

Specific Audiences

... we’re going to bring together both broadcast and AAI to make our case for a specific idea of audience, which rejects the ‘Internet is a globally accessible art form’ spin and instead accepts a more modest, organic idea of interconnecting rings of audience affected by an art work. For us, since AHJ we have targeted an initial group of collaborators on a project - our email correspondents on that project, the MUSH users in AAI, our pilgrims in broadcast - and we have come to realise that this group is a kind of primary audience and we and them have to be mutually committed to the work for it to function. In effect these are our most important audience, since from them comes another ring of audience - friends or acquaintances who may seek out the work in person or ‘second-hand’ through the collaborators. Those who read about the project in say a newspaper are another ring of audience, as are those who hear us speak at a conference, and so on. On certain projects, some sections of audience have been fairly autonomous- e.g. Few MUSH users from AAI ever came to see the installation. But far from this being a marketing failure, we view this ability for our work to permeate diverse cultures through both the means available to the art world and through the popular media space, as critical.

In a way, it’s proof to us of the relevance of what we do that it can be represented in the Westmoreland Gazette, Art Monthly, Top Gear, Public Art Journal and Harpers & Queen to name a few of our recent appearances.

Increasingly in fact, we try to engage the media actively in the development of projects, a risky device which doesn’t always come off but that seems to fit in conceptually to a lot of our work.

[the artists also talk about 'Additional Footage' being curated into the group show East, and curating themselves with 'TV swansong']

[...] To round up, maybe this talk distils into one key point for those trying to commission and curate in the field of new or emergent media: Don't stop communicating with the artist at any point during the process - make sure you know where the work 'begins' and 'ends' for them, exactly which parts are whose responsibility, and make no assumptions about anything!

Audience responses:


[…] I would like to understand whether there is a system in the minds, or at least in the trade unions of curators regarding what to do with such stuff. It just made me think about what I would like to do one day with these things, perhaps with CRUMB. Is there a way perhaps to store somehow this advice or these feelings? Is there a way maybe to systematically to list all these elements of a curatorial and commissioning process when we speak of new media art? ...


Yes. But I think all the time you pinch ideas off other artists. I mean, the thing that Karen was talking about – the press release being really critical – came from something that we picked up from Anna Best, who I think we’ve learnt a lot from working with her. Something that she does at the beginning of her commissions – because she works very much with lots of people involved in her practice – is that she gets the commissioner to write a press release for the project right at the beginning, so that she knows whether they get it right from the outset. It’s like a really simple thing, but the minute she said it, I thought that’s such a fantastic way of gauging whether you’re both talking about the same thing from the outset of the project. Maybe that press release then gets thrown away, but it’s been used as a way in. That's a really small example, but I suppose you just have to pick up things like that from other artists.


I just wanted to respond to Vuk and say that I don’t think you can write a rulebook for it because I think it is a case-by-case thing and I think the experiences that we’ve heard about are possibly teething troubles to do with weighty institutions trying to do something new […] I did do training in curatorial practice, but I also trained as an artist and worked in multi-media and I think that my understanding of technology, and the fact that I spent a lot of time talking with the artists, is what told me what to do, because we were planning it together. So I think meeting and talking about cake and mobile phones isn’t helpful, but really having a clear project plan that’s worked on from the initial concept on a new commission that involves the whole team. Then in Jon and Alison’s case, if the marketing department had been included early on with your project, then Intel might not have got such a shock at such a late stage, which the institution has to manage. […]


Further to that discussion, I think one of the things that is also pointed out – I think your presentation pointed out fantastically well is actually the current inadequacies within the funding structures to be able to cope with what I think is quite a new model of working. In terms of working over a period of time, being able to take risks with people like the 'TV swansong' project. What I’m interested in is actually the fact that in some way you are trying to retain work as individual artists and possibly not become say, a production company. Is there a comment from you about whether there has been a possibility of you becoming more like a production company?


… We’ve been to whatever organisations we felt could give us advice about that and they’ve not been able to help us really. Because I think there are lots of artists in our position who want some of the hassle taken off their hands – they want the professional status that helps them do what they want to do creatively, but we haven’t done business studies and we haven’t got access to that model. Also, we want to be flexible. We want to move quickly. We don’t want to get bogged down with a building and a programme. So we want the best of both worlds I think and that increasingly is becoming a bit trickier when we deal with, say for example, funders who need to give money to somebody who’s got a registered charity number. You know, we haven’t got that. We have to launder money in the most ridiculous ways to get it.



  media art


  Karen Guthrie
  Nina Pope