Curating As Activism
Geoff Hogg & Tammy Wong
from “The Curator in the Academy”, edited by David Forrest, Australian Scholarly Publishing Pty Ltd, 2010
Tammy Wong discussed with Geoff Hogg his understanding and experiences around curating art in public space over the course of his career. The discussion took place in February, 2010 when Geoff and Tammy were working on Meridians: Shanghai 2010, an art in public space project developed in partnership with East China Normal University, Shanghai. This is a collaborative project developed by a team of Australian and Chinese researchers, as part of the Victorian contribution to the Shanghai World Expo, May 2010.
TW: The idea of having this discussion has come from your experience and involvement in many aspects of public art. As an artist and organiser of public art, let’s begin this discussion with what is your understanding of the term ‘curating’ in this context?
GH: We can see curating art in a number of ways. The traditional meaning of curating is essentially the looking after of objects. Its origins can be traced back to the maintenance and protection of religious objects, through to its use in the museum environment and even sporting life, such as curating a sports field. Over recent years the idea of curating has expanded and takes into account things that are beyond the protection and maintenance of objects and places. It has come to mean how certain ideas are communicated through the arrangement of objects and spaces. So for me, the relevant notion is the second, the arrangement of objects, spaces and processes to produce experiences and develop conceptions, ideas and understanding.
TW: Curating contemporary art exhibitions has become generally the choice of an individual, which can be seen as sitting at odds with public art conventions, often considered a much more democratic process. How do you see the idea of curation working in a public art context? How do you understand choices that are made through collaborative processes that go beyond individual taste?
GH: Firstly, the idea of curation has become more important in recent years as the practices of art in public space have diversified. When art in public space was essentially robust sculpture, stained glass windows and murals there was a history of engagement and placement of public art validated by time and convention. There were all sorts of traditions around how a mural or a sculpture would be placed, where a stained glass window would go and what constituted the right context. With traditional public art, there was a long period establishing how they would operate within social and physical environments. Also of course there was a role for curation in a limited way, however much had been established by precedent. Historically the spaces may have been the church, street corner or public square. Now it could be for example the lane, the doorway, by a train line or the forgotten space by a road. So the curator has to be involved with the artist in a more proactive way to help establish new possibilities. If the curator is able to be involved in this way, more artists are able to be included in the processes of art in public space. A curator who specialises in thinking about public space can involve an artist who may not necessarily have that experience but has potential to work within this context. So it means the number of artists that can be involved in public art projects is expanded. Particular issues associated with public space can be introduced and worked through by the curator who has special experience. So the curator becomes an important collaborator for the artist. The artist can also work with the curator on the processes of project management, site management, budgeting and so forth. The curator can promote the project and undertake some of the activities associated with a gallery practice, but reinterpreted in a public art context. They can also reflect critically on the work, so they can help establish not only the physical conditions but also the theoretical and historical framework for the project.
TW: As curating is traditionally a singular practice. Can you discuss further the dynamics of art in public space curatorial practices that may be undertaken by a team?
GH: Public art by its nature is collaborative. Different parts of a project often need to be carried out by people with particular skills and specialist knowledge. A work may have an electrical component and needs to be carried out by an electrical specialist or it may be related to something architectural. It has insurance issues and usually involves site management, where you need specialist knowledge. All these different aspects are often associated with public art commissioning and development. Within the gallery so much has been determined, just like in traditional public art. Over a century of gallery experience has taught us a lot about how a gallery is going to operate, how the space and walls are to be presented and the works shown. By contrast contemporary art in public spaces requires constant improvisation and team work as location and sites are so varied.
TW: You spoke about traditional public art and how there was a code of convention around public practice and how specific things had to be carried out in a particular way. When do you think this began to evolve into a different practice? And for what reasons do you think this has changed?
GH: I think the evolution in a European context has been going on through the modern period. If you look at the sorts of activities that happened in Italy during the Renaissance, the artist among many practices may also have been responsible for public festivals and events, the whole processional life of the city/state. They were involved not just the creation of statues and paintings, but also performances and ceremony as a large part of the popular experience activating, the streets and squares. There has always been a contention over what’s valued as art. The artist, architect and writer Vasary, elevated the visual arts out of the crafts. Previously the non-physical arts of music and poetry were considered more important than the physical arts of painting and sculpture and always included new things in the Pantheon.
TW: Residues of that still exist today in relation to the crafts in the broader society. When you think about the separation of skills in labour, manual labour is still considered of lesser value. As an artist and academic involved in art in public space activities, would you define yourself as a curator?
GH: I’ve always thought of myself as an activist, because I’ve had a lot of different interests as well as making my own work. Setting up projects, cultural policy and what’s now defined as relational aesthetics. I can see that what I do could be understood in terms of curation within its more expansive notion. I like the idea of including myself in this category, as it gives me a peer group to have a dialogue with.
TW: That’s interesting, because from my understanding there is an awkward relationship between curating and public art. The complexities do come out of the egalitarian nature of public art practices and the conflict with the history of curating coming out of a history of institutional elitism, so historically, it sits uncomfortably. It is interesting to hear you speak about how your approaches could fit in with an expanded notion of contemporary curating. The expanded meaning also incorporates the idea that curating can be a collaborative process developed by a team of artists and curators, that the role is somewhat shared amongst people with different expertise in the processes involved.
GH: Curation in the public art context draws on influences from areas outside of the gallery curator model. For instance community consultation often needs to take place. This is not something the galleries have tended to be associated with, historically they have been more didactic. The classical gallery model invites audiences to come in and learn through the gallery environment with its carefully ordered displays. Public art is less regulated and more of a dialogue. There is of course nothing intrinsic about this as modern public galleries and museums are a phenomena of the eighteenth century. The French Revolution gave museums to us. People took over the palaces and invited the public in. So in a way they are part of the same historical process of cultural inclusion that gives us modern public art.
TW: In this context, the idea of an exhibition has its foundation in sharing experiences and opening up spaces of the elite to the general public. Museums originated as palaces dedicated to objects of fine art. You can see that in the genealogy of how museum buildings are designed by architects today. The contemporary museum is still a palace to culture in its scale and grandness of design.
GH: That’s right, you come in and you are educated through the museum. It’s more a monologue. Whereas when you see art in public space, it’s more a dialogue, as the context is more fluid and ownership of content is less defined.
TW: With national collections in museums, the objects have tended to be isolated from their context. The curatorial narrative was very much the unquestioned voice of historical facts and taken as the voice of authority. This has recently been questioned and museums are relooking at the way ideas are presented in order to relate better to their audiences. We are seeing more educational programs, looking to assist audiences in developing dialogues with the community.
GH: So we see some convergence of the two practices. More curation in public art and more community engagement in the museum.
TW: Commissioned works often still use the conventions of curation. Works are labelled as artwork, the artist is credited, the context is often treated like a gallery space and the public is aware that it is a sanctioned work of art. You also get another side of practice where artists just create works and place them into the public context, particularly common in Melbourne with the street art community. Artists working outside of the traditional context of the gallery exhibition conventions don’t apply. Often their work is anonymous and may even be placed there without prior permission. My question is how does curation fit with this model of exhibition in the public sphere?
GH: I think the practitioner curates street art. They plan it, select a location, choose materials and content and promote it via their social networks. All the questions around the curation of public space exist for the street artist. So to some degree curating in this context is about analysing what the street artist methods are. It’s a good example of how the boundaries of curation and art making are breaking down.
TW: Street artists make a conscious choice around the placement of the work, but often other traditions of curating have been disregarded and this may be done purposely, as they may have no intention of being identified as the artists if permission for the site was not sought. This may be a model of curating that focuses on the site meaning and the process, rather than the conventional curatorial information that is supplied to their audiences. It’s a conscious effort to create a new way of working, away from the conventions of curated art in public space conventions.
GH: Yes, they’ve decided to curate in a different way, an alternative model of curating, an “iconoclastic” way. There are sorts of historical precedents for that. There has long been of activist political work. During the Pinochet period in Chile, artists developed anti-Pinochet illegal murals in the streets at night. These works were done by artists who choose to act. What you get from these historical moments is like-minded people getting together. I’ve seen it in my lifetime, particularly in the early 1970s. There was a strong community around anti-war social issues and activity occurred across art forms and practices as a result, the Vietnam War being the catalyst for that.
TW: Certainly in that period in Australia, taking ownership of public urban spaces through visual expression became prominent, as there were very interesting politics at that time.
GH: Yes, the women’s art movement was a developing phenomenon, with shared cultural and political objective. That helped to focus people from different areas. As it provides a common commitment or set of ideas.
TW: So you need some sort of value system to drive the group for the collaboration to be successful. The traditional art school model has alwaystaught the artist as an individual. Other artistic practices such as music, theatre and film are more collaborative, they educate people differently. But you were at art school during a very individualistic period how did you learn how to organise projects and what curating experiences have been your most influential?
GH: There have been a few that have been significant. Probably the first large wall painting I did in Australia put together a context for me. I had to promote, fund and then carry out the painting with a team of collaborators. That was in Lygon Street Carlton, 1975.
TW: In relation to organising a large group of artists, were there few people like yourself interested in leading groups at that time? Did you create a role for yourself managing these sorts of projects?
GH: As working with groups of artists hadn’t been done much before in Australia, a new way of doing things needed to be established. It was a way of organising art projects through political activism. I bought together my artistic experience of how to work as a political organiser. I put those skills together and we created teams that were able to work. In the USA, there were similar people working in this way. I also worked with one my good friends Desmond Rochford in London in the early 1970s on these sorts of projects. So when I came back Australia in 1975 I had confidence in what was possible.
TW: Were these works based around public murals? What sort of themes did the works have? Were they political or social themes?
GH: Yes, they were. The Notting Hill Mural, 1974 in the UK, was about community housing, a big issue in the 1970s. The work here in Carlton was around notions of urban life and infrastructure. At that stage, there were freeways being pushed through inner suburbs. We tended to see this as in the interest of oil companies, which were US controlled. It was a stance on environmental preservation in the context of local control of key industries. That was part of the political struggle of the time.
TW: Going back to the Lygon Street Mural, can you tell me more about your background as a political activist?
GH: I grew up in the 1960s as a teenager, a period when Australia became involved in the Vietnam War. Conscription for military service was introduced before 1967 when I was at art school. I’d become focused on the anti-war movement. I became involved in radical politics through that. I found ways to bring my political and art practice together, although it took years.
TW: Your political interests and art career were simultaneous, but originally weren’t connected at that time?
GH: Not really, I was trying to connect them, but I was having trouble finding ways for them to work together. In the late 1960s at art school, the fashion was formalist abstraction. As a student I was having a fair bit of trouble with this style and developed other works such as satirical montages and drawings and so on which were different to the majority interest. So I was a bit of an outsider in that way.
TW: Were you working large scale then? And was it through protest action that you became involved in public art?
GH: No, I couldn’t work large scale. I didn’t have the ability at the time.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that I got that experience. In the late 1960s, however I organised banner painting in Trades Hall. I worked with a group of art students to paint banners for the May Day march. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that I managed to get it together. One thing that helped me was experiences in Chicago with African-American artists who were working on these rough and raw street based murals. This period also took me to Mexico to look at what they had been doing. I had a strong interest in narrative painting and how it worked with architecture and building in the city.
TW: Chicago is where there has been a fantastic public art tradition, particularly political art, more so than other US cities. The Sydney art scene of the 1970s, had a much more bohemian reputation, rather than political. Sydney’s artistic history of the 1970s recalls artistic collectives such as the ‘Yellow House’ artists of Potts Point. Melbourne seemed more political in that respect, whereas Sydney seemed more social.
GH: Melbourne’s public art was quite ideological, that was the way Melbourne was often characterised in that time. But at the same time in the US, you could find a more formalistic approach emerging in the early 1970s. However in Chicago, there was more hard hitting political work. My inclinations took me to Chicago.
TW: So do you think art in public space involving large community groups, was a movement that occurred in the post-colonial world as well as the developed world? At that time apart from Mexico and Latin America.
GH: The United States was the key modern colonial country. Street art developed mostly strongly there in the 1970-1980s. You wouldn’t necessarily equate these works with those developed in the colonised world. Then you have this whole tradition of American wall painting, that has its core in Mexico. I think what happened in North America was very influenced by this. Then in the 1960s in China also you have, the emergence of wall painting in Shanxi province, where propaganda murals were painted, they were meant to be instructive murals. Ruskin, the English writer had this notion in the decorated school. He was an early advocator of having classrooms painted by art school graduates, who were paid to paint murals in school. Teachers would use these decorated classrooms to instruct pupils, so it was a tradition with a number of histories and it really took off in China at that time.TW: And the Chinese propaganda tradition, that came out of a larger socialist movement towards, creating works that was accessible to the masses. Since you have a radical politics background, how has this influenced your art and curatorial practices?
GH: It always seemed very natural to me that it would. Marx wanted to write a major book on art like Das Kapital, but he never lived to do it. However, there is quite a collection of Marxist writing on literature and art. I think it is important to make a separation between Marxist interpretation of the art and the activist role of art. They’re not always the same. On one level you have a more philosophical approach from Marxist writing and thinkers. Then later on you get quite a debate, around how Marxist ideas, might be reflected by artistic practices in the revolutionary period of the twentieth century and you can see pretty distinct trends there. William Morris, in the nineteenth century, through the arts and craft movement developed Marx’s ideas in quite other directions from what we are familiar with today. There’s still a massive potential to be developed in Marxian ideas through art.
TW: Moving on from political interests, can you tell me about the significant projects that you’ve worked on as the curator, significant to your career?
GH: In the 1980-1990s, I got involved in more transdisciplinary projects and one of them was at Newport Railway Station in Victoria. It was a large sculptural installation, and an intercultural project. I worked with artists from Turkish backgrounds, who had very specific arts training, around representational sculpture. Together we were able to organise a project that couldn’t have been done if those sorts of experiences and skills hadn’t been bought to it. Our studio was established at Newport railway workshops. Evda Kandal (who now lives in Turkey), and myself facilitated the work. It involved trying to bring together a number of different art forms in the production of a huge relief or friez, that hadn’t been seen a lot in Australia in recent years. We tried to work strategically with the physical space that was there, not play against it. The work used the ugliness of the engineering of Melbourne Road overpass at Newport Station, as a starting point for the projects look and feel.
TW: Where do you see the future of your curating? What are some of the curatorial angles you haven’t explored yet and what are you keen to explore in future projects?
GH: I think what’s starting to happen now is the curatorial opportunities in public art are really opening up. That’s something that the Meridians: Shanghai project has clarified for me. How people can take opportunities further, building on a very diverse eclectic knowledge base we now have in public art practices. I also think with the emergence of communication technologies, the curatorial role will become expanded producing different forms of collaboration that we are only just beginning to understand.