Continuous Material is an exhibition curated by Eleanor Wright and Sam Watson with artworks by Eric Bainbridge, Paul Becker, Ralf Brög, Aleksandra Konopek, Sini Pelkki, Josh Wilson, as well as by the two curators. Commissioned by University College and the Centre for Visual Arts and Cultures, Durham University, the show, divided in two parts, explores the sites of Durham Castle, Durham UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the contemporary art gallery Drop City in Newcastle.
We asked some questions to Sam Watson and Eleanor Wright.
Matteo Mottin: How did you get the idea for this project? Why in the Durham Castle?
Sam Watson/Eleanor Wright: We were invited to develop a project for Durham Castle by Durham University and the Centre for Visual Arts and Cultures – an interdisciplinary research centre with a focus on the study of vision and perception, the social significance of images and ways of seeing. These areas are important to our individual and collaborative practices, so this invitation seemed like a perfect, if not challenging, opportunity to develop the ideas that we have been working on around these issues, especially in areas of collaboration within the production and curation of art and the practice of exhibition making.
The idea of ‘Continuous Material’ really stemmed from the context of Durham Castle – a heritage tourist destination which is also an active and lived in college of Durham University – the third oldest university in England, with the Castle actually being the first college of the university, since 1837, after its use as a defensive fortress and royal palace. We were interested in the idea of the Castle as a continuous site of knowledge and teaching, regardless of its particular use or residents; whether it was spreading the word of the King as the Royal’s northern outpost against the Scot’s, a site of theological teaching or a University college, there has always been a steady sense of creating or sharing knowledge of some sort. Due to its long history (the Castle was originally built in 1078 AD), it is possible to visually comprehend this cultural and political change when walking around the castle. In this context we were interested in how much historical truth often comes down to a matter of taste or fashions of the time, or deliberate deception and false perception. We were interested in relating this to the idea of exhibition and object making and audiences perceptions of exhibitions (through press releases, installation views etc.) and also how this would be affected by the fact that in this instance, our main audience would not be coming to see contemporary art, but to see and learn about a World Heritage Site through hearing mythologised stories and passed down anecdotes of objects and architecture.
MM: How did you choose the artists involved? Could you introduce us to their practices and the artworks?
SW/EW: Our work is built up from an intense engagement with contemporary art, architecture and design practices and philosophies. The concepts and works which emerge from our relationships with different sites through residencies and research are slowly woven into and build up an exhibition project. The individuals we engage with through this process directly and indirectly contribute to our ideas and the ways in which they are shaped. As such, each contribution has helped shape the form and concept of the exhibition project Continuous Material, from ideas of displacement and representation explored through having the works split across two sites and timescales, to individual artworks creating a dialogue with different aspects of this very particular context. For example Sini Pelkki’s film Embarkation, best described as a durational photograph or a temporal image explores fragmented representation within imagery, and through tracing or building up a single image through staggered tracking shots, provides an interplay with the various historical contexts that constitute Durham Castle. Ralf Brog’s Isolation (Loggia), a collaborative reinterpretation of an existing work, draws on shared interests in the perception of objects and the relationship between site, artist and artwork. Paul Becker’s The Opposite of a Pulpit, leads a walk through the real and the imaginary, personal and fictional spaces and events which draw from his time living in the city of Durham (partly in secret), the artist Ian Breakwell and the Durham Cathedral Residency (1983/2011). Combining historical fact with personal fiction, Becker’s very honest and moving work grapples with the idea of ‘the artist’s’ place in history. Shown at Drop City, Alexsandra Konopek’s OC2 (folded paper lamp) seamlessly bridges art, design and architecture and quietly indicates a way of orientating oneself in relation to the other artworks within the space.
MM: How did you conceive the two displays?
SW/EW: As well as simply dealing with the ‘site’ of Durham Castle, we also became interested in this idea of how such exhibitions become represented, through mediation of images and press releases or critical texts. So this resulted in a couple of things, firstly, the decision to develop the project for two sites, Durham Castle and also Drop City – a contemporary art gallery in neighboring city Newcastle – and secondly, through the commissioning of a piece of writing by artist Josh Wilson which is intended to act as both an additional piece of work and also the exhibition press release or handout.
Drop City is a gallery that we are both actually co-founders of, and through developing a unique model capitalising on the varied experiences of its founders; an independent curator, Sam Watson, and artists, Paul Becker, Nadia Hebson and Eleanor Wright, we intend to create a platform where the commercial is the structure of an entire ecology to support the ethical presentation, promotion and production of contemporary art. With a focus on the exhibition format and its progressive variation, Drop City delivers exhibitions concerned with context, off-site, curatorial, academic enquiry, and re-invention. It made sense for us to shift the project to this gallery context in parallel to the exhibition at Durham Castle. For us this is an experiment in how audiences build up a perception of an exhibition or series of works, and is also an enquiry, if not comment, on the tendency for site specific work that is commissioned outside of contemporary art contexts, to end up in the gallery context anyway, only at a later date and often communicated in a way that suggests an ambivalence towards the original context or audience.
At Durham Castle, the exhibition has been conceived to fit in with how people encounter the building and its collection, which is through guided tours. The exhibition is subtle and unobtrusive, interwoven with the existing artefacts and narrative of the rooms and architecture of the building and its uses – kneelers in the Castle’s chapel; fabric works that highlight certain architectural changes in the space; guided tour scripts that emphasise elements of the narrative of the Castle’s long history that particularly interest us, etc.
At Drop City, we have brought together some connecting works, the film Embarkation by Finnish artist Sini Pelkki, which was also presented at Durham Castle, and commissioned works by Paul Becker (a written account of a walk which visitors to Durham are able to loosely follow like a map, with fictional and autobiographical accounts of the artist’s time spent secretly living in the city in 2008) and Josh Wilson. In the gallery these feel like the usual contemporary art handouts and the increasingly commonplace commissioned and signed gallery press release. At Durham, they feel like generous gestures; a suggested walk for visitors and an insight into a creative thought process.
We have also presented a new photographic series A Gradual Stiffening that we have made together, which in some way deals with the plasticity that we feel exists around exhibition making and the perception or reading of objects and artistic/curatorial research, using the plasticity of photography as a way of talking about the movement of the subject. Within photography (and therefore the installation shot also) the photographer’s eye is perpetually evaluating, he can modify perspectives by a slight bend of the knees or a quarter degree turn. By placing the camera further or nearer to the subject, he draws a detail and composes a picture in the speed of a reflex action. The subjects in A Gradual Stiffening are largely a series of artworks that we developed together for a previous exhibition and a collection of what we term peripheral objects. These have been incorporated into a series of interchangeable support structures, which in themselves allude to pieces of furniture or display objects. We are interested in how various artworks and objects of design can work together, in multiple ways, to provide a structure and support for the other artworks, ideas and objects around them. This is also how we attempt to treat the process of collaboration.
MM: Could you tell me about the role of “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander in your artistic and curatorial practice?
SW/EW: Written in 1977 by a group of researchers and architects led by Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language presents a holistic approach toward the creation of space. Prompted by increasing poor and inefficient design that tended to ignore the inhabitants it was supposedly designed for, the user manual identifies various problems within domestic, work and public space that constitutes the built environment. It converts these issues into patterns and creates a connective web of solutions to resolve them. The progressive philosophy of the book’s pragmatic logic is exemplified by its collaborative approach to building, where hierarchies within space are broken down into simple patterns that all work together to create a poetic spatial language – one that is generated by piecemeal growth and responsivity rather than dislocated and inflexible, top-down master plans.
A Pattern Language was recommended to us by a friend after discussing our disdain for the prevalent inconsideration towards the design of spaces, specifically in relation to how people are supposed to interact with and manoeuvre through them. Our dissatisfaction was mainly directed at the lack of integrated design within public space, but after reading the book we found that we strongly shared its expansive philosophy, which applies as much to domestic concerns such as shelves and alcoves as it does to light distribution and the spatial politics of the street or the city.
Our concerns with poor spatial design are synonymous with our concerns for inconsidered exhibition design and curation. We both often find that individual works are presented within an imposed thematic enquiry rather than providing a more active contribution towards the greater ‘whole’ of an exhibition. We see the exhibition as a form in its own right, with its own distinct and expansive language that is far too often ignored in favour of the discrete and elevated artwork. Interestingly, we found that the constructive framework of A Pattern Language lent itself very readily to our attitude and approach towards exhibition making, and so we began to use its logic within an exhibition making context, where every aspect of the exhibition, the artwork, the space, the artists, each have their own distinctive agency. Within this de-hierarchical framework, we have been able to construct our own language of exhibition making, a strategy that we feel has really opened up both our artistic and curatorial practices and collaborative relationships. Incidentally, Aleksandra Konopek and her partner (who had recommended the book) had actually utilised the poetic logic of A Pattern Language to design and build their house in Solingen, Germany, where it was that we first encountered Konopek’s OC2 lamp and decided to include it within ‘Continuous Material’ one year later.
MM: In this project you’re both artists and curators. Don’t you think these may be seen as conflictual roles in the economy of the two exhibitions? How did you manage that?
SW/EW: As we have said, we are interested in exploring the agency of exhibition making through breaking down hierarchies between the artist, artwork and a given context, and combining these factors together, including the spectator in the space, to construct meaning. As such, we consider our positions as both artist and curator to have a relatively equal footing with all these factors (and each other) and try to present this through the project. It is worth ending here with some text from one of the papers from Mousse’s serial publication ‘The Artist as Curator’, which we have been following and has helped inform some of our ideas within this project, too:
‘Art becomes socially meaningful only within the discursive contexts, explicit or implicit, in which it is experienced. These contexts change over time and every society contains conflicting arenas wherein the preferred, negotiated, or oppositional interpretations of art and culture more generally are fought out. Art exhibitions have an important role in analysing this process of conflict and revealing the assumptions, opinions, and concepts on which meaning is based. They also have the critical task of challenging the preferred meanings and uncovering the resources from which these interpretations have been constructed. But then, too, responsible curatorial practice is proactive. The best curators, and hence the most consequential exhibitions, create new perspectives for critical spectatorship. In so doing, they actively construct new meanings that help to recognise the utopian anticipation of form of subjectivity, and ways of thinking and living, that are all too often occluded in contemporary society.’ (Alexander Alberro, The Potosi Principle, Mousse serial publication ‘The Artist as Curator’, issue #4)