Friday 11 July 2014

post.scripting | An Interview with Vera Mey of the CCA

About post.scripting
post.scripting is a blog series that transposes the question from Curating Lab’s Public Symposium “Where Does an Exhibition Begin and End?” to an online platform. It asks, “Where Does a Conversation Begin and End?”. It seeks to expand upon questions around curation and art brought up during the Public Symposium, examining the ideas behind words and the philosophies beyond thoughts.

About "When Does An Exhibition Begin and End?"
Part of the Curatorial-Intensive, the public symposium "When Does An Exhibition Begin and End?" presented Curating Lab 2014 participants with an opportunity to reflect on the role of a symposium and its public within curatorial practice. Building on lectures and workshops with facilitators Max Andrews and Mariana Cánepa Luna from Barcelona-based curatorial office Latitudes as well as artist, curator and writer Heman Chong, participants engaged with the symposium by live-tweeting proceedings, mapping concepts of the discussions, and devising approaches such as blogging to document and report the day for those not physically present.

In response, participants Luca Lum, Chua Ying Qing and Raksha Mahtani conceived the blog series,  post.scripting, featuring in-depth interviews with the artists and curators involved in the symposium.

Source: Vera Mey
Vera Mey is the Curator (Artists in Residence) at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) and a mentor for Curating Lab 2014. During the Public Symposium, she, together with Anca Rujoiu, talked about the two-day curatorial intervention The Disappearance. The discussion was accompanied by a re-staging of Shubigi Rao's lecture-performance Visual Snow.

In this interview, Vera talks more about The Disappearance, her curatorial praxes, where she sees the CCA in local, regional, and global art contexts, as well as the CCA’s recent collaboration with Post-Museum at Gillman Barracks. She also highlights the importance for institutions to constantly respond to their environments, explore new territories, and expand their boundaries.


Curating Lab: How would you describe the CCA as an institution? Where would you see its position in local and regional and global art ecologies?  
Vera: That’s a really interesting question. The CCA was inaugurated in October last year, and I think when you start a new institution, it takes a while to really define its position. Its ambitions are as an international institution as part of Southeast Asia and as an important part of Singapore but I think positionality is only something that can be considered from a distance, with time or location.

As an institution, you don't want to do the same things that other people do. You don't necessarily want to compete - you want to complement each other to make a really healthy arts ecology. You do try to find your gaps of where you can breathe and move that is different from what other institutions are doing. Obviously there are some really strong institutions in this country, so it would be foolish of us to just have the same direction. So as we try to figure out what their position is, we try to figure out what we do that is different. I think we have ambitions of what we are trying to be or trying to do, which is obviously connected to the region but with also international contemporary art from international perspectives, but at the same time I think if you're trying to define a position, it's sometimes not only the institution that determines that - it's the audiences, its communities, its colleagues. I think time will tell what it is.

CL: Are there any particular institutions or communities you are more connected to?
Vera: Yeah, I think a contemporary arts centre is a type of institution similar to a kunsthalle in a sense that we don't collect; our focus is on multiple platforms - we have exhibitions, residencies and research. I think often contemporary art centres are very research-focused and although they have a physical presence that is the exhibition, a lot of what they do is very invisible, very intangible. I definitely see the CCA in alignment with those other centres.

CL: So when you said research focused - what do you mean by that? How would you define those parameters?
Vera: The programme is curated, all the exhibitions within the programme are researched. Everything we put within the programme is a very conscious decision. The artists that are here in residence come with a research-centred practice, generally, or have a research proposal, which they engage with being here in Singapore or Southeast Asia. Also we have a research centre in which we hit different thinkers, artists, curators, writers, researchers, educators, doing their own research but also complementing what our different research areas are, definitely Southeast Asia, Southeast Asian contemporary art, as well as other areas that relate to the exhibitions we make. For instance, in the next exhibition, Theatrical Fields, there's a heavy focus on theatricality. This exhibition No Country, and the exhibition before that Paradise Lost, also looked at notions of diaspora and changing localities within globalisation: migration and travel. So in terms of being a research-focused institution, it's something that looks at a discipline or an area in multiple formats - not just artistic production, but other forms of cultural production too.

CL: What's a typical day at the CCA for you like as curator of residencies - or is there no typical day? It's also a small team, so is it a situation of "all hands on deck"?
Vera: [laughs] Yeah, absolutely. Every contemporary art institution I've worked in has a very different way of working. My job at the moment is about to change quite a lot because we are having our first artist-in-residence starting in the next few weeks, so at the moment, a lot of my job is very logistical - how do we get them here, how do we get them to stay here for four months. So for example we have an artist coming from Vietnam but she's American, so like, you know, what are her visa parameters? Very practical questions like, if she breaks her leg, who covers it - the institution or the artist? It's always all these really practical things. My plan for when the artists are around is to support their research, figure out their interests, help them understand being here better - also how they can link in with other research material, things they might want to produce or make while they're here. There's no typical day - but right now my life is contracts and insurance! So not necessarily the fun aspects of curating right now but that will change.

CL: So it's like 50% curating, 50% admin.
Vera: I think administration is a part of curating, actually. I think especially when you work in an institution, curating works like the form of an essay - it's constantly undoing and re-writing itself as it's trying to write itself. So you're in this position that is counter-institutional whilst being institutional, trying to figure out ways to re-write history to negotiate freedom and artistic production whilst also being a very structured situation. Negotiating admin is part of that.

CL: How did you come into the arts and curating? How did you start?
Vera: I've always wanted to be a curator. I spent a lot of time in libraries. My local public library had an amazing subscription to Art in America, Art News, Art Asia Pacific - all those major art publications. I had this moment where I was at a Keith Haring exhibition when I was twelve. For that particular exhibition, we had to take home permission forms because some of the exhibit had nudity in it, and I thought, 'why do we need permission to look at things when you can see that kind of stuff anywhere?'. You look at his work and you wonder what's so offensive or dangerous about it. And then you realize the power of the image and then how visual representation dominates how we communicate with other so much. I guess it was that exhibition that did it for me. Which is kind of embarrassing right, like you know, that art you used to like as a teenager, like oh, I used to love [lowers her voice] Keith Haring. It's kind of like saying you used to love Mariah Carey or something.
CL: Oh, I love Mariah Carey!
Vera: I still love Mariah Carey - I listened to her this morning.

CL: Can you describe your background in terms of your life in general, education, work, and how have those experiences in your life - for instance, coming from a migrant family - impacts your curatorial practice.
Vera: I think the way I approach curating is sometimes similar to the way my favourite artists approach art making. The artists I gravitate towards to all have a very heavily biographical approach. My personal curatorial practice is quite linked to that. I grew up in a settler colony in New Zealand, literally at the bottom of the world. My father's from Cambodia and my mother's from Indonesia, and at that time in the nineties, I felt that there were a lot of anti-immigration, anti-Asian sentiments and a lot of latent racism that was depicted through various media formats, and I think when you grow up with that sort of visual representation, you're always trying to figure out ways to re-write that, or why that's wrong, or why that's so affective.

I remember studying for Art History and English Literature for my undergraduate degree and I had focused on post-colonial or indigenous perspectives throughout my studies, and I did this paper for a class called "Rock Art to Revolution" - a broad Art History paper like basically going from BC to 1900 in 12 weeks. I was interested in looking at Borobudur, Angkor Wat, art that I had grown up with; and I remember my Art History tutor saying to me, "You need to study that in Anthropology," and automatically I thought, okay, so why are some things Anthropology, why are some things Art History? What do we mean by art, and what do we mean by artefact? Those sorts of distinctions for me of material and visual culture are really important, because it reveals power, basically. I think visual representation is a really complex and direct way of understanding our positionality and place in the world. From then on I thought, I'll just study Art History so I can re-write it. [laughs] And then I went on to do my Masters in Museums and Heritage Studies and focused on museology and that kind of thing.

CL: Can you talk a bit about your previous jobs, which institutions you worked at?
Vera: I've always worked in public institutions - that has been a conscious decision. When I did my Masters in Museum and Heritage Studies I worked for various institutions: I did a project for the National Museum, I did a project for the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. And when I left university, I taught critical theory at art school and interned at a space called Art Space - a very experimental space in Auckland. It was basically an artist-run space which institutionalized.. It's interesting seeing what happens when something artist-initiated goes from being quite grassroots to this formal structure. I think [my time there] was really formative because it was very experimental, very responsive. It had a very loyal community and truly had quite a lot of freedom.

After that, I moved on to a gallery called St Paul's Street Gallery, which is part of AUT University (Auckland University of Technology) and we were also really research-focused. I worked on a lot of projects with a research focus and one where I worked with a collective called Local Time. Four artists occupied the gallery space and they treated it like a camping ground, or an office space, and did various research into local histories, and worked with heaps of different groups - activists, artists, pretty much everyone. So I'm very much used to this non physical presence of the artwork - where the artwork can happen later on. Probably my most recent project is FIELDS, which was an itinerant inquiry across the kingdom of Cambodia. It was a 20-day residency with 17 different artists, writers, curators, researchers from all around the world, and my concern was with artistic production and understanding what cultural exchange is.

A lot of exhibition making today is about cultural exchange in some respect - you either find a new artist or you go to a new place, you respond to a context, but I found that really problematic because a lot of it is really superficial engagement. So I was like "Okay, let's take production out of it". What happens when you take production out of art-making is that you focus on thinking. I didn't want to be a cultural producer anymore, I wanted to go back to being a curator. I wanted someone to go back to being an artist, being a writer - focus not on producing but talking, thinking, experiencing. What that really means, what do we really do as artists, as curators. It's not just making exhibitions, it's not just cultural production, it's more like [reflecting on] what it even means.

FIELDS was a nomadic, non-productive residency. We didn't stay in one place but travelled all around the country. For me, it was important to include different conceptual elements of it so you were always disrupted or discomforted the whole time, so we travelled by boat, car, tuk-tuk, buffalo, all around the country, and really try[ing] to understand what contemporary art is in a place which is still negotiating globalisation with post-traumatic history, with archaeology. It's obvious to put contemporary art in a gallery - that's so straightforward, but what do you do when you take the infrastructure of contemporary art away from that - of course it's still contemporary, of course it's still art, but what is it - it means something different. I think experimentation in that respect, what we really mean by art and culture is something I'm interested in.

CL: What do you mean by the problem of contemporaneity in Cambodia? Like different levels of time - in terms of modernity and progress?
Vera: I wouldn't say different levels of time but different approaches to time. Different urgencies, different concerns, across space and time and subjectivities and people. Because I don't think anywhere is modern, anywhere is progress; those terms collapse so much when you're somewhere like that - or anywhere. What do you mean by modernity? Modernity I associate with a historical period, I don't associate it with an aesthetic or a state of being. Or progress....progressing towards what? What's the ideal? Is the ideal a modern city? So questioning what there is. So, approaches to time. We had a really beautiful moment in the mountains and my friend gave me this really cool watch. It was an embroidered watch, so it shows time for eternity, bought in the highlands of Laos, and she wears it on her wrist alongside a compass, and she likes looking at it on planes. They're sold as these touristic objects, and quite beautiful with all these different fabrics and weaving. I just like imagining all these women on the mountains, making these watches, but they have no regard for time, because their concerns for time are different - their time is different from what time means to me. So contemporaneity in that respect - different approaches to time and states of being. There's a really good article by Agamben, an article on the contemporary, where he talks about stargazing, like it's always out there and you're always looking forward for it, but you never really reach it and by the time you finally arrive at the star, the stars are actually already dead.

CL: How do you think your position in the world will influence your curatorial practice in Singapore, in a place like CCA? And how perhaps have your previous experiences prepared you - or not prepared you - for your work here?
Vera: I've always been really concerned and interested with art from Southeast Asia and I don't really see a distinction between the art of the Angkorian period of the 14th century and art that is made or presented now. I find it exciting that Singapore, similar to the context that I came from is also quite a new country, but is not actually new -  the history of occupation or inhabitation of the land that we're in has been here forever, but new constructed histories take precedence. I think my experiences have always been in terms of cultural safety - or like approaching quite a cautionary approach to negotiating and understanding different cultures. And I think something contemporary art does very effectively but sometimes also very insensitively is appropriation - and abuse of images from different time scales and periods without really understanding the context. And so you lose a lot of meaning, and a lot of respect to the object and the image without that understanding. And I think Singapore as a part of SEA is a construction of sorts, even though it means something. So what do we mean when we commit to that, what is our responsibility to being part of a region -do we have any overlapping histories or a shared language? When I say language I don't just mean text, I mean the language of images basically, and what does it mean to negotiate that. I hope that's something I can bring to the CCA. I'm also excited about my role as curator of Artists-in-Residence, because I think it is actually about human relationships and people, and so it's about working with people and trying to find that shared language, whether that be through a very intuitive way of working, or a very kind of institutional structure as well.

CL: You're talking about the image as pre-personal experience, and when you put it in the exhibition space you share meaning...
Vera: When an image enters an exhibition space it enters public space, but I think we create our own meaning, but so much of meaning is already existing. I don't make this [picks up cell phone] a phone, I don't decide that it's a phone; there's a series of histories and decisions that have made this a phone, this object what it is. But the value of which changes from each situation.

CL: They're these overlapping circles that shift.
Vera: Yeah. And I think that shifting is the exciting part. This means something to me but this means nothing to you as well - it's like, okay, how do I make this mean something to you, and how do you make it mean nothing to me. I think that's what an exhibition does, in a way.

CL: How did your collaboration with Post-Museum come about, and how was it working with them?
Vera: For me it's important that you have good chemistry with the people you're working with, so it doesn't become this cold negotiation. I had heard of [Post-Museum] before moving to Singapore and had been quite interested in the way that they work and the notion of the "post-museum". We call it an institutional collaboration between CCA and Post-Museum, even though it's really just two people - Anca and myself - working with two other people (Jennifer and Tien). For both Anca and I - I think it's fair for me to speak on her behalf - it's both important to be closely linked to artistic production and the artist's concerns and thoughts on a human level, not just an institutional level. 

So we were initially presented with the opportunity to use one of the existing gallery spaces to present a pop-up project, and that fell through but we wanted to continue working with them so they're occupying one of our studio spaces. I think it's good for institutions like us to have a space which is very responsive. If someone wants to do something next week for instance, we can accomodate that - it doesn't have to be so formal and so serious but there is room for testing things, for things that might not fit in here [the CCA formal exhibition space] but might fit in within this structure. It's a very organic collaboration. For me  - it's important to realize that art is based on subjectivities and intuitions and not just things like a set of rules and restrictions. It's a very human collaboration.

   Photograph: Anca Rujoiu
CL: I think there was a great sigh of relief in the community when the announcement was made that CCA was working with Post-Museum. Their demise - the closing of their space in Little India- was really unfortunate. Their programmes were so multifaceted -  Monday evening dinners for foreign workers in the area, walks in Bukit Brown, residencies ...
Vera: That is the reality of contemporary art now - it's so multifaceted and so different and so related to the concerns of contemporary life so it's nice to have a space to accommodate that.

CL: How long [is Post-Museum] going to be in that space?
Vera: Until October. You guys should pitch something! Like I said, it doesn't have to be so serious.

CL: We don't know what it looks like though.
Vera: It's kind of like a shoe-shape. Like a...boot. It's just a very informal space but you can do quite a lot in there. So one idea we had initially - we do a lot of talks here, but it's nice to do something different - we were thinking it would be great to invite a curator, but instead of having him give a talk, have them like run a cooking class or something. And some things were really interesting. The first [Post-Museum] talk was on wildlife and activism, but they're thinking of having a singles party as well.

CL: They had singles parties before, and served vegetables...
Vera: Yeah, exactly. I want them to resuscitate that.

CL: You see your collaboration with Post-Museum as a way to push boundaries. How do you see this place where art and activism meet? Do you see any conflicts, any disruptions, any affinities?
Vera: I think both art and activism are defined by their contexts that they are placed in. We have a hand in determining that, but it's also determined by the historical period and the place you are in. For example Erin Gleeson who is based in Cambodia talks about how being an artist there is sort of being like an activist, because you're already outside of societal expectations, norms, etc. But then I think there are a lot of artists who wouldn't consider themselves activists, but there is a lot of alignment sometimes; you also occupy a space on the outside just by being an artist, so sometimes it's natural the two overlap. But sometimes I find that you don't necessarily define that, but some other structure else defines it for you.

CL: To the layperson, exhibitions begin and end in physical space - in the confines of a museum, a gallery, a room - but The Disappearance re-opened the space of exhibition and its physical and thematic frameworks to conversation through a programme of artworks that dialogued with and re-energized the space of exhibition, forming a kind of afterword that gestures towards new beginnings and unfinished ends. It was a counterpoint to the notion of the exhibition as a finished, discrete event - the taking away the full stop that is the closing of an exhibition and saying that the sentence continues, signalling that the conversation continues outside of the space of exhibition. What spawned The Disappearance?
Vera: Like what Anca said during the Public Symposium - sometimes very practical constraints become conceptual parameters. We were presented with an opportunity to have an intervention in the space in between the last exhibition Paradise Lost and the current exhibition No Country. I really liked this idea of critiquing an exhibition through the medium of the exhibition itself. We write reviews or make works in response - why don't we take the medium as a type of language and use that language to be reflexive about it? Some of the content dealt with disappearance in terms of physical disappearance, but some of it dealt with our response to Paradise Lost, what conceptually could further explore iedas from that exhibition or would we put as a prelude to No Country. So a lot of art works were included from wider SEA. We worked with quite a lot of curators as well: David Teh, Planting Rice and Erin Gleeson for instance to present multiple voices. They contributed to the film programme as well. It's just a way of continuing the conversation through exhibitions, and it's also a way for us to engage with what it means to be here, now, which is in Singapore and Southeast Asia, and as new curators to this new institution, how we contribute to this conversation, how we have a voice within that. Some of the artwork selections were very subjective and based on our own networks and contacts, works that we were personally interested in as well. For an institution like this, which is quite a big institution to accommodate an intervention, is quite a modest gesture but also poignant in being a show that is only two days long, which is a series of performances that disappear and evaporate, kind of like a rumour - did it really happen? It's really nice to be in an institution that accommodates that kind of experimentation.

CL: So the video works, were some of them commissioned for The Disappearance, or were they pre-existing? How quickly were those performances developed?
Vera: The works were pre-existing. The performances were new - Sonya's performance and Nigel's performance were new. [They took] like, six weeks. Very quick. We were fortunate to have some very great artists contribute to the project.

CL: How would you compare your curatorial approach in The Disappearance to more formal exhibitions like Paradise Lost and No Country? No Country for instance is curated by June Yap from the Guggenheim in New York...
Vera: -- And it's a collection show. So I think when you look at a show like this one, you think more around where the works fit within an exhibition, which is totally different from [where it fits] into an exhibition space, so The Disappearance is more ephemeral, more conceptual in a sense that we had these constraints to work within, a very short time frame, which automatically decides the kind of work you want to work with. You're not going to work with big sculpture, because you're not going to spend heaps of money and three weeks making something for two days. So you think towards portable work like video. We weren't trying to create a narrative - for example, No Country is fitting within this huge global art historical narrative. The Disappearance is fitting within two exhibitions. So this already frees you to do a bit more and be a bit more experimental and temporal

T H E P A R A D I S E = L O S T B O D Y (2014), Nigel Rolfe, Performance Part 1 & 2
Photograph: Clare Bottomley
CL: What is the importance of something like The Disappearance as a kind of intervention and disruption to curatorial practice specific to Singapore and the region?
Vera: Testing different formats for exhibition making. It was really well-received - it had the same response as our Post-Museum collaboration. We were excited and it's great that other people were excited, and I think that means something in terms of what type of formats they want to see in terms of exhibition-making here in Singapore and Southeast Asia. Some of the concerns here are not so different from the concerns I was playing with in New Zealand, or that my friends are in Australia, or that people are in Tokyo - so maybe it's not so different. I think disruption is a really good word, actually.
CL: It shakes you from your moorings -
Vera: -- it shakes you from proceeding as usual. Sometimes you need a rupture to see things differently?

CL: So it’s like what you said earlier about Cambodia - about how certain things come to the fore in a place like that, but they are really concerns that could and should be asked anywhere.
Vera: Exactly. It's just more pronounced when you're in particular places.

CL: I would sort of put the Disappearance and the Post-Museum collaboration on one side, as more informal, loose experimentations and the more formal exhibitions on the other.
Vera: Yeah, I think so too. And I think it represents the different generations and voices in the CCA.

CL: The artist Shubigi Rao mentioned in her performance-lecture, “Visual Snow” that she re-staged during the Public Symposium, that everything we see is abstract and the brain coalesces points of reference into a coherent image. Would you view exhibition-making as the positioning of these ‘points of reference’ for audiences to form their own constellations of knowledge?
Vera: Yes, I would agree with that. Exhibition-making brings together lots of different objects, knowledge systems, cultural systems and subjectivities into one place and everyone brings to that their own epistemological structure. I think that's the exciting thing about exhibition-making, and receiving or consuming exhibition: trying to make sense of all these different meanings in one place. Recently, my approach to look at the world as exhibition, or performing the world as exhibition. I think it's because I've just moved here as well, so everything is kind of the same but new...
CL: "Same-same but different." As they say in Thailand --
Vera: -- as they say everywhere!

CL: You talked earlier about how the role of the curator is to leave out signs, not necessarily chart a path but gesture towards possible ways forward. Is that how you would characterize your curatorial practice - or is it maybe just an ideal made about curatorial practice?
Vera: I'm not very directive in my own sensibility. I was a curatorial resident in Tokyo for awhile. And a lot of institutional exhibitions there were like, "Okay, you start here, you move through here, and this is the right way, no you don't go there." It's interesting relating to the subway map of Tokyo which is really directive. On one hand, that offers such a beautiful narrative in terms of exhibition-making. I saw one exhibition there that was curated in a very considered way - there are some real moments of reading a story, where there are heightened moments, comedic moments, and at the end it's very transcendent. I can definitely see benefits to that approach. I guess I'm more messy and I'm not so dictatorial. I think it's a question of sensibility. 


 Other posts on the Public Symposium:

Recap | Photos | Videos
Live-tweeting by participants 
Concept-mapping by participants

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