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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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Coming Next...

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

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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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