Questions on curating: Grant Watson

Regina Gleeson has been in e-mail conversation with Grant Watson, Curator of Visual Arts in Dublin's Project Arts Centre. This interview is an accompaniment to an article in issue 109 of CIRCA Art Magazine. The interview took place between June and July of this year.

Shahin Afrassiabi: installation shot; image held here . City Park: exhibition shot; image held here.

As curator of Project, you seem to have a very open and flexible, 'hands-off' approach to curation and a sensitivity towards or affinity for low-fi art. I love Gabriel Orozco's expression, which seems to describe a lot of the art at Project and it's that of things being "catalogued with the accuracy of the trash can in the street." In your work as curator are you trying to make some kind of sense or contextualisation of the apparent chaos of our time?

I wouldn't make that claim. I would say that the artists I work with frequently deal with material that has been discarded in one way or another. For example, Tonico Auade uses the rubbings from a carpet to make work, while Seamus Harahan uses footage from the streets. In a different but related manner, Martha Rosler uses the format of a garage sale to produce a social sculpture.

Can you comment on the notion of contemporary art as a belief system in a kind of cultural Theory of Everything; a theory that draws connections between seemingly unrelated global and local entities in a concerted effort to distil order from chaos?

Something almost automatic happens in the gallery when one thing is placed beside another. A connection takes place in the mind of the viewer. Perhaps it is interesting to experiment with the points that don't connect but conflict.

Could it be that, in our earnest efforts to nurture cultural polyphony, we are losing our cultural positioning and directions?

I don't know.

Olof Bjomsdottir: installation shot; image held here. Enrico David: exhibition shot; image held here.

In light of the polarity between the digitally empowered and the digitally impoverished, do you see a split between the audience for high-tech art and art without a plug on it?

Personally I don't see a polarity that works in quite that way. For me, interesting artists take up technology as they need it and use it in unusual ways. Guy Bar Amotz is an example of this, as is Brendan Early. Also I'm not sure if audiences distinguish so sharply between the two levels of high tech and low tech.

Can you comment on curatorial trends here in Ireland in relation to European or global trends - are we fluent in or even open to the language and practices of curation?

I suppose the important thing is to address what is interesting about artist practice here and to be the centre of your own gravity without feeling the need to have work justified by trends from elsewhere. However, of course it's good to be aware of the wider picture and I think that a lot of artists and curators in Ireland travel more frequently to visit biennials than was the case a few years ago, which is a positive development.

Do you think that it is the responsibility of the curator to assume the job of cultural anthropologist in preserving the expression of distinct individual cultures that some may consider under threat from globalisation while others might consider in need of the regenerative influence of globalisation?

Of course there must be examples of curators who do the work that you describe, but

I don't think that you can generalise because the term curator covers so much. For example, somebody called a curator could work with a collection and their job would be to advocate for the purchase of a particular work. Or a curator might have the role of developing an institution by working with architects to improve a building for artists and audiences. Or a curator might edit pages in a magazine, assess funding proposals, run a commercial gallery...

Tonico Auad: exhibition shot; image held here . William McKeown: exhibition shot; image held here.

Tune into a 'New & Improved' globalised life with coffee that makes your life brighter, cars that make you more important and potions that transform your appearance in ten days or your money back. When we are so cosseted in the globalised reproduction of how our lives supposedly ought to be, is there a responsibility on curators to offer us alternative views, to subvert the market forces of the prototypical life of the globalised man and woman by challenging the parameters of contemporary art practices, what it means to be an artist and consequentially - what it means to be a curator?

It is precisely when expectation about curating run high (perhaps fuelled by the claims of curators themselves) that people become cynical and negative in their attitudes towards the profession. It is possible to say that culture in general can offer some of the things that you outline above, in terms of shifting the paradigm. Obviously curators participate in this culture with varying results.

Activist art is angry and anarchic and courageous and is all fired up for a coup. How do you go about curating a cultural revolution?

Yes, but activist art can be formulaic and institutionalised as well. It is good to be attentive to the effects that any practice has - including curating.

The exhibition Permaculture , which you organised and curated at Project last year, was created by artists in a specific location (Dublin) for the wider audience in that community. Considering how local references enrich the art experience for the surrounding community or equally, its lack of understandable references sometimes distances the audience - can location-specific art travel and still hold it relevance and meaning? And would its ability to travel be possible without our participation in the globalised cultural stir-fry we have come to accept as 'world culture'?

This question is complicated and in many parts so perhaps I will answer it in a fragmentary fashion. In some ways Permaculture as an exhibition looked backwards to already established networks and described a very partial history of an art scene connected to Dublin. I am not sure how interesting this would be for an audience outside of the city. The notion of cultural tolerance that the term 'world culture' implies is a truism that often masks less appealing activities; today governments and multinationals use this language cynically as a matter of course. However, I think the situation in Ireland is slightly different than elsewhere because the coming of a cosmopolitan society (in terms of a complicated ethnic mix) is more recent. One of the things that the Indian curator Suman Gopinath has pointed out is how many more Indian faces she sees on the street here than was the case even a year ago. The separate but related question of how to respond to these changes is an important one that needs to be discussed all of the time. The recent referendum is an example of how this situation can be distorted and how a proper debate can fail to take place - with depressing results.

Seamus Harahan: exhibition shot; image held here . Guy Bar Amotz: exhibition shot; image held here.

There are increasing occasions where there are more curators than there are artists in a show. Then there are times when there are collaborations between tangled networks of practioneers that happen without a director or a curator. However, the general international trend is moving towards greater engagement with and prominence of curators. Do you think, is the practice of curation growing in a manner that equals or surpasses the status of the artist?

Perhaps you can think of an example of an exhibition of this kind. Maybe the retrospective of a major artist where a number of curators come together to put on the show is one but this has a long history. Otherwise this sounds like an urban myth. I don't want to downplay the power that curators have, but at the same time it's important to keep it in perspective. The division of power is complicated and cuts many ways.

Grant Watson is Curator of Visual Arts in Dublin's Project Arts Centre.

Regina Gleeson is a writer on art and technology. She has written a series of articles, collectively titled Dislocate, renegotiate and flow , for CIRCA issues 107, 108 and 109. You can read the texts of the 107 and 108 articles here and here respectively.

See also Regina Gleeson's
interview with Cliodhna Shaffrey
interview with Valerie Connor

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