When I was in graduate school developing my practice I was very interested in the possibilities of social engagement, but had few examples to model my work on. Back then, before the popularization of the internet, it was much harder to locate really current information, especially if it was about subjects outside of the mainstream. So I collected precedents from what I could find in books, magazines, newspapers, and word of mouth. There were various significant people and projects that I ran across including the work of Wendy Ewald, John Malpede, and Larry Sultan. One extremely influential project that I found out about in a very minimal way (I think I saw one small photo and read a brief description) was Group Material’s The People’s Choice exhibition from 1981. A combination of elements in the project were of interest to me, it was done by a collaboration, the process involved working with a local community around a self-initiated gallery, and it was largely structured within a curatorial framework.
All of those different parts seemed to fly in the face of what I’d been told were the ways that artists were supposed to operate–artists worked by themselves in isolated studios, making art on their own and showing it in official galleries with no emphasis on local contexts or people, and they certainly didn’t curate other people’s work. The People’s Choice project broke with all of those conventions. Possibly the most exciting aspect and one that I really hadn’t considered much before was the curatorial approach. I remember at the time thinking that maybe I should be a curator rather than an artist, but somehow (before the proliferation of academic curatorial programs) that seemed even more farfetched than finding a way to sustain myself as an artist. Instead, I decided that I would incorporate “curation” into the set of tools I would use as I exploded all of my previous concepts of how an artist could function. This applied to working with other artists, but more importantly as Group Material had modeled, it could function as a way to include non-art participants as well.
Now after twenty years of various projects in which I have acted both as a lead artist and as a curator, editor, organizer, facilitator, educator, event planner, etc., I realize the advantage to having kept my artist status instead of becoming an official “curator.” Curators, like artists and most job titles, have sets of conventions that often determine what appears to be possible and not possible within in their profession. Traditionally, curators have stayed clear of a line that when crossed could be viewed as placing them on the wrong side of the creative process. There are more examples of this type of almost activist curator these days, who through assignments and commissions and sometimes official collaborations, actively determine what artists make. But that kind of engagement still seems to be discouraged in many ways and most curators feel like they must only select and organize works or artists instead engaging in more direct ways on the production of art works.
On the other hand I have no compunction about using my agency to blur all of the lines in regards to the way that work is made, shown, authored, etc. I guess as an artist I feel like there have been enough precedents of challenging the status quo and working within disputed territory to easily validate my position. Using curatorial methods allows for the opportunity to bring attention and appreciation to interesting people and materials that would otherwise not find a way into an art context. And since there are no established protocols for artists working with curatorial methods it is possible to determine the degree of engagement and collaboration on an individual basis. For example within my own practice there have been situations like with Michael Patterson Carver where I largely just facilitated the exhibition and publication of his drawings, and other cases, for instance with Corentine Senechal, where through my suggestion and facilitation he was able to conceive of and propose a public sculpture and was eventually able to, with my assistance, produce a piece that he otherwise would not have made on his own. Of course I never would have made work like Michael or Corentine either, which in both cases was partly amazing to me because it went beyond what I would or could do myself. So together with a variety of people I have worked with, in our various interdependent roles, have been able to pull off projects that would not have happened without an expanded curatorial and collaborative approach.