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Interview: TABISH KHAN

I got to know art critic & editor Tabish Khan when I was working at Somerset House. I really appreciated his support, as he visited most of our exhibitions, and our conversations were warm and engaging.

I am always impressed by his incredible commitment to seeing as many shows across London as possible. He has a genuine enthusiasm for seeing art, getting to know the artists, and sharing his joy and passion with as many people as possible.

He deliberately writes in an accessible way for a broad and diverse public, in the hope he tempts non-arts audiences to visit the wealth of culture on offer in the city. He is unafraid of holding unfashionable or controversial opinions but is very open to having his perception shifted.

Tabish Khan is an art critic specialising in London's art scene. He visits and writes about hundreds of exhibitions a year covering everything from the major blockbusters to the emerging art scene.

Tabish has been visual arts editor for Londonist since 2013, a website about London and everything that happens in it. He is also a regular contributor for FAD with weekly top exhibitions to see in London and a column called 'What's wrong with art'.

Tabish is a trustee of ArtCan, a non-profit arts organisation that supports artists through profile raising activities and exhibitions.

Jose Sanchez Peinado, 2020, Watercolour of Tabish Khan and friends on a Skype call

What are you doing, reading, watching, or listening to now, that is helping you to stay positive?

The vital activity for me is staying in touch with people. During full lock down this was via video calls, more recently by outdoor meetups. Staying in touch with friends and family has been the single most important activity for my mental wellbeing.

It’s also made me recognise the friendships I had neglected with those who had moved away. Distance is no barrier when we live in such a connected world. It’s been great to reconnect with old friends and I’m hoping to keep those friendships active once the world returns to a new normal.

The reduction in work has also been an opportunity to catch up on all those items I had ignored as I was too busy before. My list of books I’ve bought and haven’t read is over 200 books long and I’m now slowly chipping away at it. I love reading and it’s a shame I didn’t carve out more time for it before.

I’ve also enjoyed watching the wider arts such as theatre, opera, ballet and dance now that they have all been streaming online. Also, there’s nothing wrong with a good Netflix binge and I loved watching all of Breaking Bad and the prequel Better Call Saul. It’s a thrilling watch, even if I am very late to the party.

Recycle Group: Nature of non-existence, 2018, Gazelli Art House, Image courtesy of Gazelli Art House

How have recent world events affected your ideas, processes, habits, ambition, or methodologies?

Recent events place a lot of things in perspective. It’s forced me to slow down and think deeply about what I want to do in the future. When life is busy it’s easy to get caught up in the rush and to not stop to think about what I should or could be doing.

I fell into both my corporate job and being an art critic, without intending to. While I love writing about art, I've never given much thought to other forms of writing and presenting.

It’s also forced me to slow down my thought process, which is usually all over the place, with the experience of dozens of exhibitions bouncing around in my head. With this chance to slow down it’s been nice to chew ideas over for a few weeks with no deadline to work to.

Chiharu Shiota: Inner Universe, 2020, Galerie Templon, Paris, Included in Tabish Khan Top Picks for FAD

What will you do more of?

My daily walk when I was only allowed one piece of exercise was a highlight of the day. I’ve got lovely parks on my doorstep and I don’t make enough of them. I’m hoping to keep that up as well as doing a better job of staying in touch with close friends.

As I’m driven by deadlines, I never actually stop to ask myself what I want to write about. Instead I write about what needs to be written about, i.e. reviewing the latest exhibition. Over the last few months, I’ve discovered the joy of writing blog posts on topics of my own choosing, something I haven’t done for over five years. I’m hoping to keep publishing these once the exhibition openings pick up again.

Ragnar Kjartansson exhibition installation view, 2016, Barbican Art Gallery, London, England
Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine New York and i8 gallery Reykjavik. Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Barbican Art Gallery


What will you do less of?

As I came to art very late in life, in my late 20s, I feel like I must work harder to keep up with everyone else. This is a pressure I’ve placed upon myself and I realise I need to give myself more of a break. In 2019, I visited over 1,100 exhibitions and while that’s quite a feat, it made me realise I can’t really give all those shows the attention they deserve.

So, I plan to visit fewer exhibitions once lock-down is lifted and focus on those that are more likely to resonate with me. I need to focus on quality over quantity.

What do you care about?

Everything I do in the arts is centred around the idea of making art accessible. I stumbled across art with very little knowledge of art, and I want to help others do the same.

Art is inspiring and it should be for everyone. Yet despite many galleries and exhibitions being free to visit there is still a racial and socio-economic class divide in the demographics of those who visit exhibitions.

Now that’s not something I can solve alone but I want to ensure that everything I write doesn’t pre-suppose existing knowledge of art and that it can be read and understood by anyone. Too much of art is surrounded by artspeak and is impenetrable, thus making it feel like it’s for a privileged elite when it isn't.

Filming at the Titian press view at The National Gallery, May 2020

What recurring questions do you return to in your work?

It’s always important to ground yourself by remembering why you do what you do. For me, it’s writing in a way that makes art accessible to everyone and to introduce people to art and artists they wouldn’t have come across otherwise.

I started off with no knowledge of art and took a chance of visiting exhibitions prompted by advertisements I used to see on the London Underground. Now my star ratings are regularly on those very same posters. My path may seem extraordinary, but I want to make it ordinary.

There must be hundreds of potential Tabish Khans in-waiting and I want to reach out to them by encouraging them to take a chance and go to an exhibition they wouldn’t ordinarily visit.

Winter Commission by Monster Chetwynd, Tate Britain, Image copyright Tabish Khan, Londonist

What risks have you taken in your work that paid off?

The biggest risk was asking Londonist to take a chance on someone who had so little writing experience. Even now I look back and wonder how I had the courage to do that. If I had been knocked back, I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to pitch to anyone else and my fledgling art critic career would have ended there.

I always wonder what my life would look like if I had been rebuffed. My life would be so different - my successes, friendships and experiences would be completely changed. I don’t think it’s too much to say I would be a different person. To use a cheesy pop culture reference, it was my Sliding Doors moment.

What risks have you taken that perhaps did not go so well but you learnt the most from?

I’m naturally risk averse, so I tend not to take many risks at all. One chance I took was to write the longer form wordy reviews you often find in art magazines. It just felt so unnatural and I didn’t enjoy the process.

Short and punchy is my style and it’s what resonates with the audience I’m trying to reach. It’s why you’re unlikely to find me writing for any of the art magazines that are tailored to an art specific audience. In truth I don’t think they’d have me anyhow, I’m far too irreverent for their tastes.

Anni Albers in her weaving studio at Black Mountain College, 1937, Image included in Tabish Khan’s Review: Anni Albers, Tate Modern, for Culture Whisper, 2018

How would you like your work to lift others up?

I want people to read my writing and visit exhibitions they hadn’t intended to. To then be inspired by what they see. One of the nicest parts of my job is when people tell me how much they enjoyed an exhibition they heard of from me.

It’s also brilliant when artists get sales, press attention and commissions based in some part on what I’ve published or posted on social media. Often, I’ve been told an article of mine was the first piece of press an artist received, which is a great feeling. Years down the line it’s great to see these same artists doing so well in their careers.

Patrick Tuttofuoco, The Source, 2017, Leadenhall Market, EC3V 1LT, Featured as part of Sculpture in the City

Could you tell us about at a time when you felt stuck and what you did to help yourself out of it?

I have a full time ‘day job’ in energy policy. After I started out as an art critic I was pushing hard in both careers - working seven days a week, long hours and not getting enough sleep.

Something had to give, and it was my immune system. Over the course of six months I had both shingles and impetigo, two illnesses that a healthy young immune system should not be suffering. After this I decided I had to change something to protect my health.

I made the hard decision to slow down in my energy role, no longer looking for a promotion, and focus on growing the art career. It was difficult as I’m ambitious and having to cool off is something that doesn’t come naturally. Yet it was the right call and thankfully there’s been no drastic health concerns since then.

Tabish Khan reflected in a Hans Kotter work at JD Malat Gallery in Mayfair

Which creatives do you feel your work is in conversation with?

All of them, I hope. I know a lot of creatives have specialist areas that they focus on and that’s great, but it’s not for me. I’m a generalist and proud of it. I want everyone in any field to be able to connect with anything I write.

Sure, art is my specialism, but I feel just as comfortable writing about theatre, food, and my experiences in London. It’s great that both artists and those new to art can get something out of one of my reviews - whether that be of an exhibition or a restaurant.

How do you make money?

Not from art that’s for sure. I have a full-time job in energy policy and that pays my mortgage and all my bills. My writing earns about a tenth of that salary, and that’s in a good year - i.e. not this one.

It’s why I can often be seen visiting galleries on a weekend, or at evening private views, as that’s when I can break free of my desk.

It’s a compromise but it does place me in a financially sound place, and I don’t have to worry about chasing after the writing that pays - I can focus on what I want to write.

When I speak to my fellow writers who struggle to pay the bills, are constantly chasing unpaid invoices and always on the hunt for the next paid gig I don’t envy them. Writing about art is a difficult profession and I’m grateful for my primary income.

Jitish Kallat, Circadian Rhyme 1, 2011, Photograph: Anil Rane/Thelma Garcia/Galerie Daniel Templon, featured in the exhibition Age of Terror: Art since 9/11, 2017/18, Imperial War Museum
Reviewed by Tabish Khan for Londonist

What compromises have you made to sustain your practice?

The ‘day job’ is a big one as it means I can’t see as many exhibitions as I want and missing press views means I often have to visit on opening weekends of exhibitions, which can be very busy and therefore difficult to get in the right headspace to review an exhibition.

It also means I work most weekends and that affects my personal life and the time I can spend with friends and family. In the early days I was terrible at this, but now I aim to put them first, as an article can wait if it means spending time with those that are most important to me.

What advice would you give your past self?

I remember reading an article that stated the number one regret from those on their deathbed was ‘I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me’.

That’s the advice I’d give my younger self, as I’ve lived most of my life living up to the expectations of others and never really thought about what I want out of life. I’m simply lucky I stumbled across my dream job, as an art critic, more by chance than any particular drive on my part.

However, it’s important to note that if my younger self had followed his dreams, I would be a completely different person and that’s not something I wish were true. All the mistakes I’ve made, and there have been many, have gone towards making me who I am today. So, I feel it’s important to own your mistakes, and learn from them.

What career hacks or useful nuggets would you give to aspiring creatives?

Try your hand at things you don’t think you’re capable of doing. I knew nothing about art and I’m now an art critic - that wouldn’t have happened without me taking a massive leap into the unknown.

I’d also say be nice to people and help out those when and where you can. It’s important to support others as we’re all struggling and we remember those who helped lift us up, particularly those who helped us in our early career. Plus, you never know if in the future they’ll be in a position to help you out and repay the favour.

Can you recommend a book film or podcast that you have been inspired by that transformed your thinking?

In line with my above point Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is a classic for a reason. If we all went about work in the way he suggested the world would be a much nicer place. We don’t need to step on each other to succeed, we should all think win-win.

Deep Work by Cal Newport is another important one when it comes to getting work done in an age where digital distractions are everywhere.

I grew up in a conservative Muslim household and Elif Shafik’s 40 Rules of Love showed me a spiritual side to religion that I didn’t know existed and changed my perspective when it comes to my faith.

Follow Tabish Khan on Twitter and Instagram @LondonArtCritic and visit his website www.tabish-khan.com

https://londonist.com/contributors/tabish-khan

Weekly Top exhibition picks and What's Wrong with Art column on FAD: http://fadmagazine.com/author/tabish/

Trustee of ArtCan: http://artcan.org.uk/

 

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And do subscribe to our newsletter for a monthly round-up of some useful creative hacks, insights, opportunities, and introductions. On Friday 31 July 11am we will host a free special 30 minute online subscriber event on Zoom, providing up to 100 subscribers with the opportunity to meet and ask Ceri Hand questions in advance about creative careers or in relation to mentoring.

Feel free to email or contact us via socials @cerihand

 

lou-mensah

Interview: LOU MENSAH

I have listened to Shade Podcast religiously since writer and photographer Lou Mensah launched it in the summer of 2019.

I find Lou’s transparent, no nonsense attitude and genuine curiosity in learning and engaging with her guests refreshing. The range of pro-active, inspiring guests combined with a familial generosity, clarity of ambition and desire to pass the baton and tool-up the next generation makes it a compelling listen.

I love that Lou’s own creative career and experience feeds into her way of seeing, hearing, and feeling her way through conversations. She is authentic and passionate about creating intimate conversations on challenging and crucial issues.

She launched the show at the same time I was knee deep in the delivery of the exhibition Get Up Stand Up Now: Generations of Black Creative Pioneers (12 Jun – 15 Sep 2019) that I programmed and worked on with Zak Ové at Somerset House. Lou interviewed participating artist Richard Rawlins in Shade Podcast episode S3 E7 (18 June 2020), who participated in Get Up Stand Up Now with the powerful work The True Crown from the series I AM SUGAR, 2018.

I am excited to see Lou and Shade go from strength to strength and look forward to seeing the continued impact of these conversations informing all our work and positive change.

Lou Mensah founded Shade Podcast to create a safe space for anti-racism conversations through the lens of creativity & activism.

Lou started out studying PR at The University of The Arts in London. She began her career at Lynne Franks PR, before going onto work under the leadership of Anita Roddick in The Body Shop International Press Office. Having worked in fashion and beauty PR for 10 years, Lou became interested in visual communications. She went on to work on various jobs as a photographer - stills for Directors Antony Minghella, Sundance winner Marc Silver and Mike Figgis, gaining awards for her work from Nick Knight, Alexander McQueen.

What are you doing, reading, watching, or listening to now, that is helping you to stay positive?

The simple things, being grateful for home, for being healthy and safe; retreating inwards, whilst working on plans. Listening to podcasts have become more thrilling, the intimacy of listening to other people’s experiences right now. I share my favourite cultural insights regularly on Shade’s Instagram.


How have recent world events affected your ideas, processes, habits, ambition, or methodologies?

I’ve felt more comfortable retreating. As an introvert, isolation has been a treat away from the unnecessary noise that I find draining and distracting. Leaning into a smaller group of people. I’ve acknowledged what matters in terms of connections, and the stories I am telling. Saying no to opportunities which I may have previously jumped at, has been vital for focus. The biggest takeaway has been taking time for myself, so that I can continue the work for our community, now and for the coming generation. I’m engaging with how my work encompasses the stories and experiences of my ancestors

What will you do more of?

Collaborate.

What will you do less of?

Be distracted by what I ‘should’ do and do more of what I know is right for the work.

What do you care about?

Artists and activists getting their voices heard.

Richard Rawlins, The True Crown, from the series I AM SUGAR 2018, Copyright-of-the-artist

What recurring questions do you return to in your work?

How will these stories I’m helping to tell affect others positively, how I can enrich the conversations around the intersection of anti-racism work and creativity. What do I bring to the table? How will I share stories in the most respectful way? How will I enrich the conversations, rather than add to the noise, the clickbait culture that can often drive digital interviews.

What risks have you taken in your work that paid off?

Reaching out to complete strangers who are more experienced, for advice. Saying no to opportunities that others have said would benefit the development of my work - but to me they didn’t feel right. Better opportunities always come along. Ignoring my total lack of technical experience, learning on the job, keeping all the mistakes in my work, and keeping on going. Seeing the wealth of talent out there, the huge network backed shows, the shows hosted by digital heavyweights, but carrying on anyway when I had zero experience in broadcasting.

What risks have you taken that perhaps did not go so well but you learnt the most from?

Nothing major but loads of technical risks with my recording and editing. I’ve never spent the time getting to know how to get the best sound, because my other responsibilities mean that I do not have the time. I’ve literally pulled out wires during a recording as I couldn’t hear my guests. I’m working with a producer moving forward and will spin less plates myself.

How would you like your work to lift others up?

By telling the story of other creatives and activists, we learn that we’re not alone. I want my work to comfort when spirits are low, inspire when you’re ready to focus.

Lou Mensah, Untitled I, from The Blonde series, 2005, Copyright of the artist 

Could you tell us about at a time when you felt stuck and what you did to help yourself out of it?

Throughout my 20’s and early 30’s I was managing a chronic physical illness, which rendered me unable to function on a basic level. I had to leave my full-time job, which of course affected practical things like my housing and basic needs. I was on benefits and had years of medical appointments, which left little or no energy for anything else. My social life vanished overnight. But this is when I was first given a camera, to inspire me to get out when I had the energy to do so. I used a 35mm SLR and had no idea how to work it. I brought those old photographic manuals from the charity shop and taught myself. And asked for help. I asked for discounts at the photo processing labs and spent my energy on pouring over others work in bookshops. Claire de Rouen and the Soho Bookshop was my social life. Just me and the books. There were very basic internet platforms, so nothing useful in terms of resources. After a short time, I approached agencies and asked to shoot model headshots, which then led to doing the fine artwork that defined that time for me. I was picked as a winner by Nick Knight and Lee McQueen in a photo competition. After that, being ill, poor and with nothing to lose, I spent my time shooting friends, some book covers, some commercial work. But no one knew that in-between meetings and shoots, that I was bed bound. And although I was in physical pain, it didn’t matter because my creativity felt freeing. I was stuck in the physical sense, I couldn’t take the opportunities offered to me, the agents asking to work with me, the big jobs as I was too ill. Being stuck taught me so much about my strengths, and resilience, and those lessons have served me well to this day.

Which creatives do you feel your work is in conversation with?

Creative change-makers whose focus is on building community through art activism. Those committed to learning about how they can contribute to moving conversations and work practices forward.

How do you make money?

Still working on it. Anyone that wants to sponsor the podcast please holla!

What compromises have you made to sustain your practice?

Free time. Accepting that the quality of my work isn’t where I’d like it to be because of financial and time restrictions.

What advice would you give your past self?

Value the moments of recognition, whether that be self-recognition or from others. Forget what’s acceptable to others, do what is right for yourself. Other’s don’t know shit in terms of what’s right for you unless they understand who you are. So, tell them.

What career hacks or useful nuggets would you give to aspiring creatives?

Reach higher than you think you’re capable of. You’ll be surprised at how so many people are willing to support your journey. Listen to your gut, if someone or something doesn’t feel right, move away sooner rather than later. But check if that is your ego or heart talking. Value doing nothing, as much as doing something. Nothing always amounts to something, you just don’t know it yet.

Can you recommend a book film or podcast that you have been inspired by that transformed your thinking?

Each Shade Podcast guest has inspired me immensely. The trust and openness in which they share their beliefs, experiences and research has been personally enriching. Photography is my biggest source of inspo, so head over to Shade where I highlight the work of those I admire. In terms of film or literature, there are too many to mention. But Ava DuVernay’s 13th should be watched by everyone, Zadie Smith - but really only Changing My Mind resonated, Shaka dub, for that spiritual high - always, Kwame Nkrumah, Maya Angelou’s Letter to My Daughter; How I Became a Woman by Marzieh Meshkini, the list goes on…

Follow Lou Mensah and Shade across multiple platforms https://linktr.ee/shadepodcast

Please share this interview

 

 

And do subscribe to our newsletter for a monthly round-up of some useful creative hacks, insights, opportunities, and introductions. On Friday 31 July 11am we will host a free special 30 minute online subscriber event on Zoom, providing up to 100 subscribers with the opportunity to meet and ask Ceri Hand questions in advance about creative careers or in relation to mentoring.

Feel free to email or contact us via socials @cerihand

 

Interview: CHRISTIAN VIVEROS-FAUNÉ

I first met Christian Viveros-Fauné in 2004, when I was Director of Exhibitions at FACT in Liverpool and we were launching Bjørn Melhus’ first UK solo show. Christian represented Bjørn at the time through his gallery, Roebling Hall, (based in Brooklyn, New York).

At dinner together, with Bjørn’s German Gallerist, Anita Beckers, I was struck by Christian’s mischievous playfulness, his passion for art and social justice, his distrust of the mainstream and delight in discussing political issues intertwined with pop-nonsense over a glass of wine or two.

We share an allergy to artworld baloney, enabling as many people as possible to experience culture and for having fun along the way. Christian has donned many arty hats and remains consistently curious, committed to artists and is a fervent believer in the power of the arts.

I kept in touch with Christian, visiting his gallery in NYC, participating in international art fairs together, (including one he was running, VOLTA). In 2010 I invited him to curate an exhibition at my gallery in Liverpool, which he playfully titled Spasticus Artisticus. Christian and Jota Castro produced an accompanying catalogue (thanks to Jota’s generosity) and an after-show performance by French all-girl punk band, Furious Golden Shower, at my friend Natalie Haywood’s café-bar LEAF. The brilliantly shambolic gig included several annihilated, nearly naked male curators. They strutted in heels, feather boas and manky pants, provoking and titillating the crowd, reeling, and writhing as go-go dancers gone wrong. The peculiar punk cocktail was exhilarating yet revealed a distant, prudish art crowd, who seemed to find it rubber-neckingly torturous. I think the wicked joy Christian and I derive from flouting the rules that bind us may cement our friendship.

Christian Viveros-Fauné (Santiago, 1965) has worked as a gallerist, art fair director, art critic and curator since 1994. He was awarded Kennedy Family Visiting Fellowship in 2018, a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Grant for short-form arts writing in 2009, named Art Critic in Residence at the Bronx Museum in 2011, and has lectured at Yale University, Pratt Institute, and Amsterdam’s Gerrit Rietveld Academie. Viveros-Fauné is Chief Critic for Artland and writes regularly for ArtReview; Sotheby’s/Art Agency Partners’s in other words and The Art Newspaper. He presently serves as Curator-at-Large at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum and Visiting Critic at the NYU Steinhardt Department of Art and Education. He has curated numerous museum exhibitions around the world and is the author of several books. His most recent, Social Forms: A Short History of Political Art, was published by David Zwirner Books in 2018.

What are you doing, reading, watching or listening to now that is helping you to stay positive?

Not sure I’m doing anything with a view to staying positive, since I’m finding “positivity” a bit elusive these days, but I am doing a fair bit of reading on what I think are genuinely pressing concerns. Among the books I’m head-down into are David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, a recent bestseller about global warming; Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House, a memoir of growing up Black in New Orleans; Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a history of America’s Great Migration (the movement of six million African-Americans from the rural South to the industrialized North); José Luis Alonso Marchante’s Menéndez: King of Patagonia, a history of conquest and genocide in Chile and Argentina; and Francisco de Goya’s collected Letters to Martín Zapater. The worse things get, the more I turn to Goya, whom I consider to be an amazingly astute philosopher of the visual, as deep or deeper than anything the French and German Enlightenment produced. One historian wrote that, had Goya been born in Germany, he would have given Hegel a run for his money as a man of letters. The fact that he was born in Southern Europe kept him away from the habits but also the pitfalls of systematizing rationality. Another silver lining: Goya arrived at a critique of instrumental reason predating the Frankfurt School’s Dialectic of Enlightenment by 150 years. What is Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters if not that? I derive genuine optimism from the idea that thinking generously, like Goya did, produces salutary patterns of critical thinking that we can all fall back on at perilous times like these.

William Villalongo, We Can't Breathe, 2015. Silkscreen on velour paper mounted on coloring book pages with acrylic wash. 12 x 9 in. each / 60 x 27 in. overall (30.48 x 22.86 cm each / 152.4 x 68.58 cm overall). Courtesy of ©Villalongo Studio LLC and Susan Inglett Gallery, NYC. Photo by Argenis Apolinario, NYC. Featured in Life During Wartime: Art in the Age of Coronavirus, University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum lifeduringwartimeexhibition.org

What are your core values and drivers that you bring to your curatorial work? What do you care about?

I care about beauty, expansively understood. Rather than being the last refuge of conservative aesthetics, the beautiful promotes thoughtful attention to the particular, to difference, as well as to comparisons that, in their fullness, require both contextual and historical study. To quote Elaine Scarry quoting Iris Murdoch “beauty prepares us for justice.” Since social justice and the expansion of civic engagement through the arts is something I am passionate about, I find myself, year in and year out, pushing for formally resolved art that engages the world—“eye candy with content” or “brain-candy with content,” in the case of conceptual art. Beauty, generously considered, doesn’t just embrace every possible art form and medium—from painting to comics to performance and social practice—it also encourages a radically egalitarian ideal, much as math and astrophysics do. Though the humanities have stupidly shelved discussions of “the beautiful” and “simplicity,” these are categories that are still discussed in leading laboratories to important scientific and egalitarian effect.

Cristina Lucas, La Anarquista (The Anarchist), from the series The Old Order, 2004. Courtesy of the artist.
Featured in Life During Wartime: Art in the Age of Coronavirus, University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum lifeduringwartimeexhibition.org

How do you develop your curatorial ideas? How do you test or scope your ideas?

I have a few basic ideas I go to the well for again and again. They include, as mentioned, curatorial takes on art and politics, but also discussions of the beautiful, though for me these notions remain indissolubly linked. Both ideas cohere for me in the concept of “social forms,” which, not so accidentally, is the title of my last book (Social Forms: A Short History of Art and Politics, David Zwirner Books, 2018). The best way I find to develop specific curatorial ideas from these concerns is to write them out. My training as a writer basically forces me to do that, so no surprise there. I workshop my ideas by putting them down on paper; that’s how I make connections, contemporaneously, art historically, socially, politically, but also with an eye to the culture at large. I am nothing if not a big believer in making exhibitions that widen access to visual art.

Gran Sur: Chilean Contemporary Art from the Engel Collection, Installation view, Alcalá 31, Madrid, Spain, 2020

How do you discover artists and what makes you finally decide you want to work with an artist?

Sometimes I find artists; other times they find me. Our meetings are always a melding of the minds, even when I’m helping put together historical shows or a biennial. For the latter, I insist of having enough work—at least three or four examples from an artist’s production—to get as complete a sense as possible of the artist’s oeuvre. As much as I value my job, I reject the idea of the curator’s authorial voice. Exhibitions, perforce, are collaborations, even when someone is appointed chef d’oeuvre. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a number of artists repeatedly. Together we arrive at ways of materializing mutual concerns, so that artworks, though properly thematized, are never reducible to my ideas. What I’m saying here seems obvious enough, but in practice I find that both experts and laypeople often get it wrong.

How do you gauge which artists and artworks will be interesting to audiences?

Curators have a responsibility to read their audiences. They do this not just to give the public what they want, but hopefully to expand and even test their audiences. Pushing the limits on what an art public wants, or says they want, is akin to what artists do for curators and critics. Surprise—an experience I’ve found to be in increasingly short supply—is as fundamental to art audiences as it is for experts in the field. Art should aspire to the condition of eternal surprise. To quote one mid-20th century proto-curator, art is news that stays news.

Ellen Harvey, The Disappointed Tourist: Black Wall Street, 2020. Oil and acrylic on Gessoboard, 18 x 24 in (45.7 x 61 cm). Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Ellen Harvey
Featured in Life During Wartime: Art in the Age of Coronavirus, University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum lifeduringwartimeexhibition.org

What do you offer or provide artists in the curatorial relationship?

The best artist-curator relationships are ones that develop over time. They are friendships forged through the joint public performance of shared ideas. I say performance because the making of artworks and their attendant concepts, planning, texts, supports, logistics, installations, educational missions, etc., are just some of the things that go into making successful exhibitions. The nature of an art exhibition is highly performative. Curators, in that sense, function as the producers for the artist’s solo (or group) act, setting the stage for the best live performance ever. Often, those same producers, read curators, have also had a hand in shaping the artist’s songbook.

Can you describe what you ideally want to achieve when curating an exhibition?

The best exhibitions I’ve been involved in push the envelope on the envelope; by which I mean that they reinterpret the brief of the exhibition and the physical contours of the space it occupies. Sometimes that involves getting a genuinely novel read on a set of given artworks or a historical period; at others it involves expanding the physical possibilities of a gallery, a building or public space. At the best of times you get to—or are forced by circumstances—to do both. In my experience, those situations are in equal measure hair-raising and exhilarating.

Pasted photograph by Fabio Bucciarelli for the New York Times and illustration by Jeremyville on Allen St, Manhattan, © Benjamin Petit. Courtesy of Dysturb
Featured in Life During Wartime: Art in the Age of Coronavirus, University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum lifeduringwartimeexhibition.org

Can you describe one of your most rewarding relationships with an artist - what factors made it enjoyable?

I don’t kiss and tell, so no names, but I love, LOVE, many of the artists I have professional relationships with. I believe in them and I am lucky enough to think that they believe in me. My working assumption is that they find me to be a good conversationalist and a decent interlocutor; someone they can bounce ideas off of who is responsible enough to trust with their projects. Amazingly, those artists and I have found that we have gotten to make shows and books together more than once, which is a truly rewarding thing. I’m pretty sure I learn much more from them than they do from me.

Jake and Dinos Chapman, The Disasters of Yoga II, 2019. Francisco de Goya Disasters of War. Selections from portfolio of eighty etchings reworked and improved with collage. Courtesy of Jake and Dinos Chapman, photographed by Ken Copsey. Featured in Life During Wartime: Art in the Age of Coronavirus, University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum lifeduringwartimeexhibition.org

What risks have you taken in curating that perhaps did not go so well but you learnt the most from?

I once tried to curate an art fair by picking artists from galleries and having the galleries foot the bill. It was the early 2000s, so the galleries let me, to mixed results. I’ve put that one on the good try shelf.

Gran Sur: Chilean Contemporary Art from the Engel Collection, Installation view, Alcalá 31, Madrid, Spain, 2020

What is one of your personal favourite exhibitions or events you have curated and why?

Unsurprisingly, the bigger projects I’ve done have been the most challenging. I curated a short lived but gargantuan biennial in Dublin (Dublin Contemporary 2011), and recently put together the largest ever exhibition of contemporary art from Chile (Gran Sur: Chilean Contemporary Art From the Engel Collection, at Alcalá 31 in Madrid through July 26). They both involved scores of artists and artworks and, generally speaking, a lot of moving parts. To that I can now add Life During Wartime: Art in the Age of Coronavirus, a 50+ artist virtual show hosted by the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, where I serve as Curator-at-Large (available at lifeduringwartimeexhibition.org through December 12). All of these shows have stretched my capacities as a thinker and an intellectual in the public sphere.

Narsiso Martinez, Good Farms, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo by Joshua Schaedel, Michael Underwood.
Featured in Life During Wartime: Art in the Age of Coronavirus, University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum lifeduringwartimeexhibition.org

What would you hope that people experience and learn from seeing one of your exhibitions or events?

I hope that they make direct connections from the art they encounter to the wider world. Whether we are talking about painting, sculpture, dance, installation, video, or any other medium, art should push people to think beyond the confines of the gallery or museum. My job, as I see it, is not unlike that of a fiction editor: to promote art as an exploration of human experience as revealed through formal values.

Do you help fundraise for the show you curate & if so how?

Rarely. But, for what it’s worth, a number of the recent shows I’ve organized and am organizing at USFCAM have received important grants funding.

What emerging artists are you excited by right now and why?

I will name names here, at the risk of forgetting folks, which I invariably will. There’s the London-based painter Francisco Rodriguez Pino, the Paris-based video artist Enrique Ramirez, the Cuban artivist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, the California painter and installation artist Narsiso Rodriguez, the Chilean multimedia artist Pilar Quinteros, the Miami-based video artist Edison Peñafiel, the Nicaraguan conceptualist Marcos Agudelo, the New York-based sculptor Kennedy Yanko, the Philadelphia-based painter and cartoonist Mark Thomas Gibson, the photographers Curran Hatleberg, Zora J. Murff and Anastasia Samoylova—who live and work, respectively, in Baltimore, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Miami. I’ve had the good fortune to work with all of them and others during the last six months, and they’ve each reminded me of two things that should be head-slappingly obvious: one, there’s always something new under the sun; and, two, Ecclesiastes is overrated.

What helpful resources would you recommend to artists?

Look. Look a lot. Visit as many gallery and museum exhibitions as you can. Not only are they free resources (let’s leave U.S. museums out of the discussion for now), they are the best places to have visual encounters that will, artistically speaking, flip your lid. These spaces serve as literal libraries of the visual and should be understood as such. One of the few silver linings of the global COVID-19 quarantine is that many of these museums and galleries have established a parallel online presence. That means that, while this miserable lockdown continues, folks can explore these same libraries all over the world from the safety of their homes.

Do you have any advice for artists working with curators?

If possible, establish a partnership, and work with folks you trust and get on with. Life’s too damn short for networking.

Follow Christian on Instagram @cviverosfaune and visit his website https://www.cviverosfaune.com/

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Interview: HELEN NISBET

I first met Helen Nisbet in 2014, when we both worked at Contemporary Art Society in London.

I loved working with Helen and was struck by her knowledge, kindness, and her ability to put artists and clients at ease with her sincere interest, enthusiasm, quick wit, and generosity.

Helen is committed to working collaboratively and transparently. We share a love of working with interdisciplinary artists who dig deep, who challenge us and themselves.

Helen Nisbet is a curator from Shetland, now based in London. She is Artistic Director for Art Night and curates projects across the UK, including projects and exhibitions with artists Helen Cammock; Mark Leckey; Heather Phillipson; Christine Sun Kim; Keith Piper; Barbara Kruger; Flo Brooks and Zadie Xa. Helen sits on the Acquisitions Committee for the Arts Council Collection and the Advisory Board for Art Quest and a-n.

What are you doing, reading, watching or listening to now that is helping you to stay positive?

I found immersing myself in fiction helpful at the beginning of all this. I finished Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy with the excellent The Mirror and The Light. I haven't been able to engage with anything so large since so I've also been looking at shorter essays and stories by some of my favourite writers - Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Lydia Davis, and Doris Lessing. My friend Catriona sent me The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 for my birthday - it’s such a good insight into Thatcher's Britain, written and set when I was a baby. I can't believe I haven't read it before.

I'm only now, almost 3 months deep, feeling like I'm in the right headspace for engaging with artwork online. I find the idea of a digital programme tricky, but Alberta Whittle's interim work for Glasgow International was full of rage and softness. I have no idea how she managed to make it, right now, in amongst all this shit, but that's why she's so great.

Helen Cammock, Shouting in Whispers, 2017, poster by Cecilia Serafini

What are your core values and drivers that you bring to your curatorial work? What do you care about?

First, is the work good? There is no better place to start.

More personally, it is always about people. Supporting artists, presenting their work well, thinking about what sort of programme am I putting together, who it is for, how people might experience it.

Christine Sun Kim, If Sign Language Was Considered Equal We'd Already Be Friends, Art Night, 2019, Image courtesy Matt-Rowe

How do you develop your curatorial ideas? How do you test or scope your ideas?

Sometimes things happen quickly - ideas that have been developing for years fall into place. Mostly it is about ensuring space and time for research (something curators rarely get enough of, and this shows). I couldn't do anything without friends and peers to test ideas with.

There's usually someone or many people who know a lot more about things than I do. It is very important for me to make sure other voices are part of my work and that those voices are acknowledged appropriately.

Joe Namy, Automobile, Art Night 2019

How do you discover artists and what makes you finally decide you want to work with an artist?

Talking to others, reading and of course social media. It is never good enough, but unless you have limitless funds, time, and support there will always be gaps in your knowledge.

Who I work with depends entirely on context, I might have a relationship with someone for years before it is the best opportunity to work together arises. It should feel organic and natural. It's also about thinking of the artist - making sure I'm bringing someone into something that is going to work for them too.

How do you gauge which artists and artworks will be interesting to audiences?

Again, it totally depends on the context. The most important thing is not to assume who an audience will be and to give a damn about not just attracting the same people. I also try to resist the pressure that something can only be deemed good or successful if it pulls in a large crowd, this is a really dangerous direction for presenting art, but one that, due to funding and other pressures, is becoming increasingly normal.

Julie Cunningham, Art Night 2019, Image courtesy Thierry Bal

What do you offer or provide artists in the curatorial relationship?

Again, that absolutely depends. If I invite an artist to be in a show or project it is my responsibility to make sure they have been communicated with clearly about what they're getting involved in - the fee, the expectation, the parameters.

The role of a curator can so often feel like project management, so it’s important to make sure I'm also talking to the artist about the work, the ideas and the development of those ideas rather than just hitting them with logistics and institutional heaviness.

Helen Cammock, Cubitt, 2017, Image courtesy Mark Blower

Can you describe what you ideally want to achieve when curating an exhibition?

It depends entirely on context. If it's a solo show I want the artist to make something they are happy with, that they want to realise. I will work with them to keep this on track with the environment of the space we are working with. If we're talking about a group project, it could be more about re-presenting an idea or history. It is important to me that my shows have an openness that allows people to have their own feelings without my hand looming heavily overhead.

Mark Leckey, Affect Bridge Age Regression, Cubitt, 2017

Can you describe one of your most rewarding relationships with an artist - what factors made it enjoyable?

I have too many to list, and a handful of artists I feel very smooshy about. Some projects become long-term things. Like anything in life - sometimes you meet people and they become very important. There are a few artists who I know I will work with repeatedly.

Mutual respect, mutual politics (possibly relating to class and the way I see people and treat others) and a bit of magic.

What risks have you taken in curating that perhaps did not go so well but you learnt the most from?

There have been times when I have gone against my instincts, perhaps the opposite situation to my previous answer. Artists who should absolutely have had shows, but maybe not with me.

Also, it is hard to get into the art world. Not only to know what you want to be doing but to be able to be able to do what you want to do. So, I've worked on things I wouldn't want to do again. But knowing what you don't want to do is even more powerful than knowing what you do want to do.

Houses are Really Bodies, Cubitt, 2017

What is one of your personal favourite exhibitions or events you have curated and why?

I look back on my whole Cubitt programme in a misty romantic haze. I absolutely loved being there. Because of that, my first exhibition Houses are Really Bodies, which looked at Leonora Carrington's writing, marked the beginning of a very important time in my life.

Do you help fundraise for the show you curate & if so how?

Usually. This involves exploring all possible and ethical options for public funding, Trusts and Foundations, sponsorship, or support from private individuals.

I'm not sure I know any curator who has not had to learn how to do this and make their own networks and connections to support this. Unless they work for well-funded organisations or the things, they do are self-financed...

Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, Art Night 2019, Image courtesy Rachel Cherry

What would you hope that people experience and learn from seeing one of your exhibitions or events?

That changes with each project and who the people are. If it is my family, that they would feel comfortable enough to stay in the room for longer than 5 minutes.

Extending this principle, I want people to feel comfortable in a space - physically comfortable, cared for, welcomed. Considering disability and access are crucial here. If I can get this right, it is easier for people to have their own experience, to feel at liberty to take from the show what they want to or can.

Emma Talbot, Art Night 2019, Image courtesy Thierry Bal

What emerging artists are you excited by right now and why?

The definition of who is emerging, who is mid, who is late...I find all this precarious. Loads of artists who could be deemed 'emerging' are talking about quitting right now or finding another way to make money. But this is a whole other conversation.

I was on the jury for the Margaret Tait award recently, and it was won by Emilia Beatriz. They probably qualify as 'emerging' and I am extremely excited both by their proposal for the award and to see what they do over the next few years.

What helpful resources would you recommend to artists?

There are lots of great curators, educators, producers, and writers doing important work right now, so I would steer artists in their direction - depending on what they're interested in.

In terms of resources, I am on the board of Artquest and a-n and both do vital work in supporting artists throughout their career.

Artists who are wary of social media, I get it, but it really can be so useful and wide reaching. Just go light on the hashtags.

Do you have any advice for artists working with curators?

The curator is not the institution, even though some might feel hard to distinguish. Often our hands are tied, we can be badly paid, we do not have the power, or we are badly treated and so are unable to support you in the way you should be supported. This is not true of all curators, but something to note and be mindful of.

The other bit of advice is to be clear on what you want and any problems that arise. A good curator will navigate this with you.

Follow Helen Nisbet on socials @helennisbet @helen_nisbet @artquestlondon @artnightldn @anartistsinfo

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An interview with

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Interview: FRANCESCA GAVIN

I have long admired Francesca Gavin and her socially and politically engaged, cross platform work in the arts, but I recently had the pleasure of working with her in my capacity as Director of Programmes at Somerset House. I commissioned her to develop a project she had realised in Paris and curate the brilliant exhibition Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi supported by Somerset House’s team.

I am in awe of her fearless enthusiasm and zest for life, her breadth of knowledge and her can-do, collaborative, and considerate approach to working with artists, designers, and institutions and organisations. Her answers to this interview are reflective of her transparent, receptive and open way of thinking about the world and broad range of interests.


Francesca Gavin is a curator and writer based in London. She is the Art Editor of Twin, editor at large at Kaleidoscope and contributing editor at Good Trouble, Beauty Papers and Semaine. She was the co-curator of the Historical Exhibition of Manifesta11 and has curated exhibitions internationally including The Dark Cube (Palais de Tokyo), E-Vapor-8 (Site Sheffield), and The New Psychedelia (Mu).

She established the Soho House group collection for seven years, amassing over 3000 artworks. Gavin has written six books including Watch This Space, The Book of Hearts, 100 New Artists and Hell Bound: New Gothic Art, and contributed to numerous publications including The Financial Times, Dazed, wallpaper*, Mousse, AnOther and Newsweek. She has a monthly radio show Rough Version on NTS Radio on art and music.

What are you doing, reading, watching or listening to now that is helping you to stay positive?

Dancing. Doing online commercial and heels dance classes twice a day peppered with Instagram Live work outs, Pilates and stretch classes. Basically, putting my attention on the physical to switch my brain off. My attention span has gone out the window and I can barely watch a 30 min episode let alone a movie. I've managed one short book - which I think deserved an award.

What are your core values and drivers that you bring to your curatorial work? What do you care about?

Providing opportunity and attention for artists who are not necessarily part of the big financial market scene. I am a big fan of positive discrimination when putting together shows and am always conscious of the percentage of female, POC and queer artists in the shows I put together. I am driven by the desire to make art as interesting and accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Make people who would not necessarily feel comfortable with a white cube, inspired, and interested in contemporary art.

Carsten Holler, Pilzkoffer (Mushroom Suitcase), 2008, Featured in Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi, at Somerset House. Photo © Mark Blower

How do you develop your curatorial ideas? How you test or scope your ideas?

A lot of my shows have emerged out of my background, which I’m aware has influenced my taste. I come from a very left-wing family with a writer mother and actor/singer father. I lived in Los Angeles and Woodstock, upstate NY between the age of 3 and 11. My parents are both major bibliophiles and I grew up surrounded by books on esoteric, spirituality, aliens, plants, travel and was living in a town that still resonated with the aftermath of the Counter Culture. Most of my shows have touched on ideas that have emerged from ideas around psychedelic. I definitely am inspired by the innovation and politics that came out of the late 1960s and 1970s. I was also a computer game nerd and technology is another running theme of interest in my exhibitions, as well as the topic of my last book. I learnt to read music before I learnt to read, and that is another running interest. I DJed for a decade, still have a love of club culture and my radio show is a focus for that interest in art practices.

Ideas for shows come quite naturally. I buy magazines constantly and make scrapbooks out of things that excite me. When not in lockdown, I see shows every day. I travel a lot and look at things constantly. Ideas come out of the work that I'm seeing. I make connections between things in my head and it goes from there. I've always called myself a journalistic curator - as writing is 50% of what I do - and putting together a show is a very similar process as putting together a thematic article or book.

Francesca Gavin with Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom for Rough Version on NTS radio

How do you discover artists and what makes you finally decide you want to work with an artist?

Everywhere. Project spaces, Instagram, online shows, art magazines, all art fairs, gallery weekends and obviously galleries. Socially I'll meet a lot, particularly when I travel and have more freedom to hang out.

It is always the work that makes me decided to work with someone. If what they are making resonates with a project in progress or sparks ideas in my head. I should do more studio visits, but I never want to waste an artist's time unless I'm working on something specific.

How do you gauge which artists and artworks will be interesting to audiences?

I'm looking for originality, beauty, and interesting take on existence. Thinking of the audience reaction is not necessarily affecting my decision to work with someone - but placing them in a context where their work makes interesting statements and juxtapositions is.

Graham Little, Untitled (Wood), 2019, Featured in Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi, at Somerset House. Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London

What do you offer or provide artists in the curatorial relationship?

A platform to show their work. I often work with artists more than once if that process has gone well and their work suits future projects.

Can you describe what you ideally want to achieve when curating an exhibition?

An exhibition that makes people think and inspires ideas around politics, meaning, beauty and how we experience the world. I want people to have fun as much as use their brains.

The New Psychedelica, MU, April 8 - June 5, 2011

Can you describe one of your most rewarding relationships with an artist - what factors made it enjoyable?

I love working with Ben Sainsbury. He is an incredible artist who does not show enough but I know I can trust implicitly to create fascinating work that response to a particular idea or context. He was in my first ever exhibition of reworked postcards Improved, the ultraviolet show The Dark Cube I put on at Palais de Tokyo, The New Psychedelica at MU, Eindhoven and most recently in a window show I did for Ballon Rouge in Brussels last summer Have A Butcher's. We come from similar backgrounds. He grew up down the road from me in North London. We overlapped on the skate scene. He is immensely hands-on when working on a show and I always know the results will pop. I only wish I had a gallery so I could coax him to show his work more!

What risks have you taken in curating that perhaps did not go so well but you learnt the most from?

Honestly? Co-curating the Historical Exhibition of Manifesta 11 in Zurich was a huge eye opener. I expected that getting 100 out of 130 artists for one of the biggest biennials in the world, with a show in four of the most respected institutions in Switzerland would lead to more career opportunities. While the process of creating the show with Christian Jankowski was enjoyable, I was quickly written out of the biennial's narrative and nothing direct came out of the show (partly because no one knew I did it). I’m still very proud of the artists I put in the show - people like Susan Hiller, James Son Ford Thomas, Adrien Piper, Rachel Harrison, Anne Collier, Thornton Dial. I learnt to be very careful about how I was credited and to make sure that I bring a lot of credit to whatever team I work with on shows. There is no such thing as a single curator. Exhibitions are very much collaborative efforts and show have cast list in the same way as films.

Alex Morrison, Mushroom Motif (Black and Ochre), 2017, Featured in Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi, at Somerset House. Courtesy of the artist, care of L’inconnue Gallery, Montreal

What is one of your personal favourite exhibitions or events you have curated and why?

So hard to choose. I'm very proud of Manifesta 11 for its scale and ambition but I would have to say Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi which I curated at Somerset House. It opened at the end of January and I was blown away by its success. I was working with an incredible team - notably Berta Zubrickaite and Claire Catterall in house, and Pentagram as designers for the show. We had up to 1800 people visiting per day and I think many people look at fungi in a whole new light.

Cochlea Brick Tuft, by Hamish Pearch. Featured in Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi, at Somerset House. Courtesy of the artist

What would you hope that people experience and learn from seeing one of your exhibitions or events?

That contemporary art is not as alienating, pretentious or irrelevant as they may think. That looking at art can make you think of the world in new ways.

Seana Gavin, collage installation view, Featured in Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi, at Somerset House. © Mark Blower

What emerging artists are you excited by right now and why?

Emerging art is one of my favourite things and I want to revive my regular Monday instagram post bringing attention to new talent #newmoononmonday. I'm very into the work of some young Black British artists Dominique White, Rhea Dillon, Appau Jr Boakye-Yiadom and Ashley Holmes for example, whose visual language and references I find very interesting and emotive.

What helpful resources would you recommend to artists?

Auto Italia South East does some amazing work curatorially and in other ways. Currently they are helping artists with applications for funding and residencies, an almost esoteric process to those outside of institutions.

Do you have any advice for artists working with curators?

Be collaborative. Understand they are trying to balance many factors to make a show work. If you have issues with things don't let it fester - be open, honest, and polite as quickly and early as possible.

For more info on Francesca visit her website or follow her on socials @roughversion

All feedback, recommendations, links, and ideas welcome!

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An interview with the awesome Will Jarvis, Co-Founder, The Sunday Painter Gallery @TSPGALLERY

Blog-Gaika

Interview: GAIKA

GAIKA is an artist, musician and writer based at Somerset House Studios.

The first major work I encountered by him that lifted and moved me was SYSTEM, a pulsating, flickering, interactive shrine, a call and response and homage to the cultural impact of Notting Hill Carnival.

I love the intensity of his live performances and his attentive, brooding vocals and haunting soundscapes. GAIKA’s astute and unwavering commitment to addressing blackness, immigration and the brutal hypocrisy and constrictions of our political systems resulted in commissioning his work Heaters 4 the 2 Seaters for the 2019 exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now: Generations of Black Creative Pioneers.

His uniquely dystopian, poetic vision and ability to shape-shift between art forms and contexts also made him the perfect fit for Somerset House’s annual outdoor commission 100 Names of God: Hymns from the Spectacular Empire - an audio-visual light-fest for the senses, ice-skaters and wider community.

GAIKA’s work punctures a membrane between spirituality, activism, and popular culture.

Photograph by Emanuel S

GAIKA, born Gaika Tavares, is a musician known for his futuristic beats and conceptual art. Born in London to parents from Grenada and Jamaica, he has forged a solo career as one of the leading voices in British rap. He previously described his interactive sculptural work Heaters for the 2 Seaters as a "technologically-advanced superior-premium-reaganomic-multisensory mixtape for air-borne professionals who like John Woo and promises every attendee will get a glass of Cristal."

What are you doing, reading, watching or listening to now that is helping you to stay positive?

I'm just making a lot of stuff, so I don't completely lose the plot - so I'm not really consuming much music outside my own.

I did listen to Mother by Goldie on repeat for a bit and S.O.S Band Sands of Time is on heavy rotation on my system.

I'm drawing odd organic things with no conscious purpose.

I'm watching a lot of very nerdy music gear videos fantasising about my post-Covid beachside studio situation.

What are you working on and how has the lockdown affected your ideas, processes and chosen medium?

I'm working on a number of different things; a big audio-visual broadcast installation work, a Zoom party series, an essay film, various remixes and a sound sculpture work.

I struggle to work at home, but I've managed to build a control centre in my living room and crack on.

Image courtesy of the artist

What do you usually have or need in your studio to inspire and motivate you?

I need peace and quiet, so I usually work in the dead of night like some sort of traphouse vampire.

What systems, rituals and processes do you use to help you get into the creative zone?

Something I call "two-wheel dérive" - I go for a random cycle in the day just orienteering around without the use of a map, taking it all in for a bit.

What recurring questions do you return to in your work?

Are we living in an elaborate simulation? Am I really sorry for breaking your heart? When does the rioting start?

What do you care about?

Everyone I have ever met.

What risks have you taken in your work that paid off?

I think not sitting in the comfort of expectation that comes with one form of success has been a risk worth taking.

I entered the music world with a background in visual art and regardless of the success of my records, I still felt compelled to continue that journey as an artist

Ploughing forward into new territory more based in structure and mixing that with video and music work could have failed spectacularly. At first, I battled with a certain amount of imposter syndrome.

Seguridad: Cash Fractals 01, 2020, Strange Edition, New York, Photograph: Guarionex Rodriguez Jr

What risks have you taken that perhaps did not go so well but you learnt the most from?

Honestly, I think my vocal political musings have a detrimental effect on my career. I think people often turn to music for comfortable, easy answers or diversions.

This is rarely something found in my work directly, as I aim more often to ask mortally difficult questions.

I won’t play the game, I won’t separate my art from myself for any reason and I think this is a risky strategy in the era of artistic commodification across disciplines.

I think I am, above all, an authentic person. In hindsight, I think there is, and was, a naiveté in thinking that I could engage with certain entities considering the politics of today, barefaced, without strife.

Seguridad: Cash Fractals 01, 2020, Strange Edition, New York, Photograph: Guarionex Rodriguez Jr

What is your favourite exhibition, event, or performance you have participated in and why?

My favourite thing is always the last thing I did. I recently debuted a show in NYC called Cash Fractals after a three-month residency. It was a mixture of processed video, generative sound, and performance. I hope we get to do it again somewhere.

What would you hope that people experience from encountering your work?

My works are largely considerations of psychogeography, morality, technology, memory, and emotion.

I want people to get truly lost in the worlds I build, and for that journeying to trigger internal investigations beyond the moment of encounter.

Seguridad: Cash Fractals 01, 2020, Strange Edition, New York, Photograph: Guarionex Rodriguez Jr

Could you tell us a bit more about at a time when you felt stuck and what you did to help yourself out of it?

I always juggle different projects at the same time, to avoid feeling creatively stuck in one place although I do tend to hyper-focus on work to the point I can't sleep.

Recently I just felt overwhelmed and despondent by everything that’s going on. I thought I’d do some aerobics and ended up in a hole of Billy Blanks Tae Bo® Fitness videos online.

I sampled the (fire) music and then and took up skipping on my porch for a bit instead. Seemed to do the trick.

Image courtesy of the artist

What kind of studio visits, conversations or meetings with curators, producers, writers, press, gallerists, or collectors do you enjoy or get the most out of?

For me studio visits from people who have been traditionally excluded from the art world by circumstance are the most rewarding.

Gallerists or curators that facilitate these sorts of experiences are worth their weight in gold.

If you work with a commercial gallery / agent / label how does this relationship affect or inform your work and life? hat emerging artists are you excited by right now and why?

I think this is a hugely important relationship, your representative can shape your career and therefore your life with the choices they make.

I've always tried to make sure that everyone I work with in terms of sales is aligned with my creative visions, or artistic ambitions

Otherwise, the relationship is totally pointless. I'm very hands-on with the commissioning process so there are no gaps in communication.

I always try and make sure my agent also knows the materiality of any planned works and the detailed technical capabilities of my studio.

Do you have a trusted muse, mentor, network, or circle of friends you consult for critical feedback?

Muse? As cliched as it is, I am very much inspired by relationships past and present. Romance is how and where I anchor memories and contextualise more intricate political philosophies.

In terms of criticism I've got some really good people I look to, in order to tell me the raw truth, as they see it. It's not always advice I follow though, but it does definitely help.

I'm blessed in never really feeling shy in sharing unfinished work or protective about it in in anyway, as I don't think anything I do really matters like that.

I'm always sending my people demos and sketches, I suppose its cathartic in a way.  They say it's difficult to keep up and weird especially as I rarely revisit my own work once it's finished and out.

My circle is super diverse but most of them aren't people the outside world would consider artistic peers. I think it’s difficult to get or give objective criticism if there’s any element of competition.

Also, a lot of my circle take it upon themselves to archive my work as they know I won’t, I’m glad about that. For me, it’s always what’s next....

Photograph by Emanuel S

Which artists or creatives do you feel you’re work is in conversation with?

Torkwase Dyson, San Yuan and Peng Yu, Hassan Rahim, Dean Blunt, RZA.

How do you make money to support your practice?

With great difficulty currently, I only make cash directly from my practice.

What compromises have you made to sustain your practice?

I've definitely made compromises in terms of my physical and mental wellbeing by constantly working.

What advice would you give your past self?

Respectability Is Immaterial.

Can you recommend a book, film, or podcast that you have been inspired by that transformed you're thinking?

I can recommend a few books:

Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files; The Designer and the Grid by Julia Thrift and Lucienne Roberts; The Bed and Bath book by Terence Conran and Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy by Shiva Naipaul.

Follow GAIKA @gaikasees or visit www.gaika.co  @warprecords @somersethousestudios

 

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Coming Next...

Another refreshingly honest interview with Eleanor Moreton, a London-based, prolific painter, who has exhibited internationally in public and private galleries and at art fairs...

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