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CAIRO CLARKE INTERVIEWED BY CENTURY ART CURATOR LEO BABSKY
I'm an independent curator from London; I've been working in and out of alternative spaces since 2015, completing my Masters in Curating last year at Chelsea College of Art. I've continued to work independently, a combination of wanting to develop my own curatorial concerns and approaches, and also the reality of how competitive it is working in the art world. The approach I've taken has allowed me to meet and work with so many amazing people and gather momentum with my own projects.
Curatorially I'm really interested in ways curators, artists, galleries, art spaces can challenge the way art is primarily shown and engaged with. That includes the types of work, the concerns, working structures and relationships between curator and artist(s).
An exhibition is only one way to show work and I'm interested in how space can be used in progressive ways that increase accessibility and diversity. Sometimes this space can become an echo chamber and I'm excited by artists and spaces that dare to do things differently.
In this series of interviews you are our first curator to be interviewed (apart from myself but that was more about the role of art curation within a Members Club) and I think there are a lot of misconceptions about what exactly a curator does i.e. we are not gallerists or agents.
Could you expand a bit on what you deem a curator's role to be?
I think I'm constantly learning what my role as a curator is, and it changes constantly, my approach is different depending on the artist, project, space I'm working with and I think that's important. I don't think you can have one approach and I think it's that ambiguity of defining exactly what the curator does that people find curious about being a "curator".
For me though as a curator I currently work project by project, whether that's writing my own proposals related to research concerns I am interested in, responding to open calls or invitations, I take a collaborative approach to working with artists and spaces.
Most recently I was invited by Guest Projects to propose a project for Art Night 17's Associate Programme, which was accepted onto the festival programme, and this consisted of me working with a contemporary dance duo on a performance exploring identity and belonging. So I had ideas and research I had been generating since my residency and the performance I developed there with Hannah Perry and worked with SISTA SISTA to develop the piece from being ideas to the actual performance.
I also really enjoy working with artists to develop and support their work so try to do lots of studio visits and maintain relationships with those I've worked with to do so again in the future.
I interviewed painter Anna Ilsley recently and one thing that struck me about both your practices is a certain joyful lightness to them.
I mean it's obvious that you are really informed and there is a depth to what you do but it is executed with a kind of 'spring in its step'.
This isn't really a question but more an observation about how shifting political climates can reframe positions - so the ease and lightness of what you are doing now can be seen as an act of resistance itself what with certain attacks on the gay, trans, POC communities and women going on around the world and particularly America.
Would you like to comment on that - do you see joyfulness as an act of resistance?
It's an interesting observation, I guess there is a lightness to my work in the sense that I like to create instances that allow you to go off and carry meaning beyond the gallery or art space. It's not about containing things but allowing conversation to be had and continued: it's discursive.
I think joyfulness is something we probably all need to remind ourselves about too. The world is seriously heavy, and curatorially thinking about context and the conditions we live, work, create, interact in are really important to my approach. And I think the way critical concerns can be embedded within my curatorial work and artists work can be done so with lightness, and transparency in a joyful way that is progressive rather than pessimistic because I really believe art & artists can be part of change so to do so in a way that encourages this in others is exciting to me.
Another question that I also asked Anna but I think it's pertinent to your practice: So much of your work is about re- framing the female experience or how we process that experience; what is your take on these very strange times we live in where we are making progress on notions of 'body positivity' or 'slut shaming' yet we also have these very disturbing attacks on women's rights that we see in the USA for example? And how or does that directly relate to your Curatorial output?
Agency is really important to me, that not only the work created has agency but the artists too, agency of intent, of space.
I think for so long a lot of things have been based on trend or tick boxing, and I'm not into that- having women in a show should be the norm (and more than one) having artists or colour in a show should be the norm, but it isn't and I guess I'm interested in changing these old rigid structures in my own way, I hope the little things add to the larger picture!
I think the female experience is often fetishized or totalised as one thing, and that's not true, so creating spaces for new voices is important to me.
I think we see this a lot now, there are so many amazing collectives that are taking up space in new territories and social media is a really interesting space to think about these things. But I think it's also important to be critical about intent, it's amazing to see shows on queer art and black artists, women artists, but how do we make sure that it's more than one show and becomes part of the museum collections (on show!), part of the public programming, part of the infrastructure.
What projects are you currently working on or are in development?
It's quite an interesting time for me, after finishing my MA last September I immediately got to work on developing Touch Sensitive (my residency at Guest Projects) and this was my major focus up until March when it took place. Pretty much straight after I began working on the Art Night's project so it's only recently that I have been able to step out of that space and take on new projects. I'm really excited about guest curating a show at Century Club in 2018 and think it will be a really exciting project for me to think about curating in non art spaces for not a direct art audience.
I recently was part of Outset Art Funds Emerging Curators trip to Kassel to see documenta 14 and Munster Skulptur Projekte and a lot of what I saw there has been thought about in the development of ideas for this show, particularly this notion of collective consciousness and readdressing relationships/ creating interpersonal bonds that seem really pertinent in work and exhibitions at the moment. I think it's really reflective of the times.
I'm also continuing my working relationship with Lotte Andersen and Hannah Perry and developing more work with them separately since collaborating on my residency. It's a great process of being in the studio with an artist; sharing things we've been looking at/reading and generating new ideas for work. With Hannah this may become a continuation of our shared interest in 'performance in real life' and with Lotte I've been working with her on Dance Therapy which opens its third iteration on 10th August.
We have discussed the confines of exhibiting in a space such as Century and also how that can be strangely liberating - i.e. enjoying the challenge of working within a rigid framework – previously.
From a Curatorial point of view what thoughts popped into your head about the challenges- and maybe pluses- of curating in this kind of space?
I think I mentioned it before but I like to approach each project individually, so it will be a great chance to think about what type of work shows best in this type of space, the primary audience and how I can show work that invites something new as well as working with existing interests.
I'm thinking a lot about how art work functions in this space and isn't decorative. I like the idea of something happening in the space, you could be sitting in Century having a meeting, catching up with friends whilst around you there are these forces at play that are kind of theatrical in a way and activate the space through the work. I think it will be a great opportunity to introduce members to artists and work they may not have seen before. Having limitations in place also create boundaries, which I think are important to producing a successful show, I'm really up for the challenge!
Talking about how you present work in different spaces and contexts, could you explain a little more about your project 'Touch Sensitive' which you mentioned earlier. Just in terms of coordination it must have been such a huge undertaking to manage - it's stressing me out just thinking about organising a weeklong series of events!
Touch Sensitive was a weeklong residency at Yinka Shonibare's Guest Projects. It was a project I had been developing for 6 months, looking at archival Women’s Art Magazine issues from the 90s I was really interested in the way women artists were talking about the internet as a space for artistic agency and agency of the female body as a new democratic space. It was interesting to read in terms of how our relationship with the Internet and the way bodies are represented online and in social media is now.
This then developed into a larger idea whereby I invited 6 female artists to respond to Touch Sensitive - using the gallery space as a fluid dynamic curatorial and artistic site where the body could be explored through their own practice and where the audience engaged in the work whether it be installation, performance, workshop.
It was an amazing and intense experience changing the space daily, but we had such a brilliant response and it was a testing ground for us all to share new ideas and develop collaborations for the future - it became a really open creative space where the body was explored emotionally, sexually, politically, in real life and digitally.
You can search @touch_sensitive on Instagram; I still use this as a digital space to continuing exploring the concepts and share imagery. It was my first completely solo managed project and I'm super proud of the whole experience and the relationships made with the artists.
Final question: this is not exactly related to your practice as such, but how do you make it work being an arts practitioner in such an expensive city as London?
Do you have a side job to support your practice?
(I’m asking this a lot of the people I Interview as I think it's important for young creatives to see how a low to non-paying field such as contemporary art can be navigated.)
I think it's great you ask this, I don't think there's one person in the arts that I know that doesn't have to think about this topic...especially in London. I've also become more comfortable with being transparent about this; I find it really helps others too to know that usually we are all juggling different hats to do what we love.
Currently I also work freelance in a design studio as studio manager to keep me afloat. I think there's no shame in having side jobs and in a way it gives you a chance to use other parts of your brain/body and allows you to step out of projects that can be quite challenging and consuming and give you a chance to focus on other things.
That said it won't be forever and I hope to be able to work exactly how I want to, but it is difficult to maintain and everyone's applying for funding or support.
It helps to have a strong network around you and help others. And if you need a side job, then take it, if it allows you to do what you love there's no shame in that.
Cairo will also be curating a show at Century in early January 2018.