MANUELA PACELLA INTERVIEWS PAUL O’NEILL ABOUT HIS CURATORIAL PRACTICE AND HIS ARTISTIC DIRECTORSHIP AT PUBLICS IN HELSINKI.
Manuela Pacella: Your practice is characterised by multiple overlapping interests. I agree with you that the definition of a ‘research-oriented curator’ can be quite reductive. You unify the various strands of your research as simply ‘the curatorial’ – what does this term mean for you?
Paul O’Neill: Many arguments in relation to ‘the curatorial’ were played out in discussions in the mid-2000s: Irit Rogoff talked about the curatorial as a ‘critical thought’ that does not rush to embody itself, rather it unravels over time; Maria Lind discussed the curatorial as going beyond that which is already known; Beatrice von Bismarck framed the curatorial as a continuous spaces of negotiation; while Emily Pethick described the curatorial as allowing for things to merge in the process of being realised. I found these four propositions important, in asserting the exhibition as a collaborative research action. I think that the curatorial exists in all aspects of my work as a teacher, writer, researcher, exhibition-maker, event organiser, organisation director and so forth. But I am also using the curatorial as a kind of contested term – not yet fully disclosed or constructed – which captures forms of curatorial practice that don’t necessarily result in exhibitions, objects or material forms. Exhibitions can be really productive outcomes, but I think that exhibition-making is only one part of the curatorial constellation.
MP: Perhaps you could discuss your forthcoming book, Curating After the Global: Roadmaps for the Present (edited with Lucy Steeds, Mick Wilson and Simon Sheikh)?
PO’N: The book (out in September) is the third anthology in a publishing series between the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Luma Foundation and MIT Press. The first book was called The Curatorial Conundrum: What to Study? What to Research? What to Practice?; the second was How Institutions Think: Between Contemporary Art and Curatorial Discourse, which examined prominent institutional practices being developed globally by small and medium-scale art organisations. This third anthology emerged out of a symposium held at Luma Foundation in Arles in 2017. It looks at the dynamic relationship between politics, curating, education and research practice within institutions, and how these relations reimagine the intersection between the local and the global, the regional and the national, during a moment of political fragility for human rights across the world. The book addresses curating with respect to this new global condition, defined by issues of locality, geo-political change, the reassertion of nation states and the hardening of national borders. It profiles local initiatives that are engaging with the global in different ways, beyond the constraints of nationalism, sectarianism or protectionism.
MP: The idea of ‘co-production’ has become increasingly important within your practice. Can you discuss the rationale and relationships underpinning some of your long-running projects?
PO’N: ‘Coalasce’ was an open exhibition model in which many different artists collaborated under the thematic: “How can we build an exhibition together?” ‘Coalesce’ is a metaphor for the exhibition as ‘landscape’, which functions as a structuring device for the three different groundings: the background, which surrounds the viewer who moves through it; the middle ground as the place where the viewer can partially interact with it (thinking about lighting, exhibition furniture, wall labels, seating, display cabinets and so forth); and the foreground, being that which contains the viewer in the space of display. Artists were commissioned to engage with one of those special coordinates. It began with three artists in 2001 at London Print Studio and ended with maybe 100 artists in 2009 at SMART Project Space in Amsterdam. It was an evolving exhibition which expanded over time, as artists invited other artists, creating different layers and cross-fertilising different artistic positions into the project.
Conversely, in the first phase of ‘We are The Center for Curatorial Studies’ at Bard College, each of the invited artists (30 at that stage) were invited to exhibit, research and teach (with the exception of William McKeown, who is no longer with us). Primarily, they exhibited work which could be defined as curatorial, bringing together a constellation of differences; giving lectures, workshops or seminars with the students of the Graduate Program at CSS; and carrying out research with students and staff. We explored ways for the final exhibition form to emerge over a long period of time, with artists visiting at different stages. The exhibition itself became a teaching and learning environment for the students; every phase provided opportunities to learn about constructing an exhibition, working and collaborating with artists and so forth. There was also another exhibition called ‘We are the (Epi)Center’ which happened at P! Gallery in Manhattan. Several artists did performances, screenings or talks there, as well as working at Bard College, which is almost two hours outside the city.
MP: The closing event of the free-school project, ‘Our Day Will Come’ (2011) at University of Tasmania, was held in a nightclub, involving a symposium and a disco. How do you think the two different ‘publics’ perceived these experiences?
PO’N: ‘Our Day Will Come’ was a response to an invitation to take part in a month-long series of public art projects, curated by David Cross, called ‘Iteration Again’ in Hobart, Tasmania. I worked as an artist-curator, setting up the project’s ‘free-school’ structure with curator Fiona Lee, and inviting Sarah Pierce, Gareth Long, Mick Wilson, Jem Noble, Rhona Byrne and many others to participate along with local actors, agents and school members. Each week of the month-long project began with a question: What is a School? (Week One); What is Remoteness? (Week Two); What is Autonomy? (Week Three); What is Usefulness? (Week Four). These four inquiries structured our activities, with a school each week. Our small school building was set in an old labourer’s tearoom, inside the central courtyard of the University of Tasmania, where the art school is based. We worked with existing school activities – from classes and workshops to school dinners – and we published a school zine at the end of each week, edited, designed and printed with the expanding group of participants. We also had some formal lectures and a school radio station, developed by Garrett Phelan. The school disco was the final project, formally titled Death of a Discourse Dancer, which juxtaposed two simultaneous discursive forms: the night club and the conference. Each of the conference speakers also deejayed. I was interested in these two different audiences: one coming for the symposium, which looked at the thematic of schooling, remoteness, autonomy and usefulness; the other coming to the nightclub, where people could just dance. I was very interested in this space of publicness – the coming together of different constituencies amid moments of contestation. I had previously enacted this project at Club One in Cork in 2005, at the invitation of Annie Fletcher, Charles Esche and Art/not art. It was initially called ‘Mingle Mangled, Cork Caucus’ and worked really effectively, with everybody embracing the event. Whereas in Hobart, there was a bit more conflict or antagonism, because many of the regular visitors to the club in Hobart were not as amenable to this coming together of different audiences during their nocturnal festivities.
MP: The term ‘Publics’ has become increasingly important for you, not least since your appointment as Artistic Director of Checkpoint Helsinki. Perhaps you could discuss how the organisation’s legacy and core activities have informed this new phase?
PO’N: About 18 months ago, I was appointed Artistic Director of Checkpoint Helsinki, an initiative set up in 2013. The invitation was to reimagine how Checkpoint Helsinki could evolve and develop in the future. Checkpoint Helsinki was established as an association by a group of artists and activists to resist the Guggenheim coming to Helsinki. They developed public art projects, conferences and publications and brought international curators and practitioners to engage with Finnish art and to show alongside local artists. As an activist organisation, another priority was to monitor how decisions are made in the city, in terms of the distribution of funds towards culture and the arts. Some of these elements and commitments – like critical and social thinking, working together and being engaged in emerging debates – are still very important to PUBLICS. I proposed to the board that we could change the name to something more proactive and positive. The term ‘publics’ suggests a constellation of different practices, projects and productions. There are many diverse groups of people that constitute the public, whether imagined or abstract, real or actualised. The public means different things in different parts of the world and has diverging implications for various disciplines, from sociology and anthropology, to contemporary art and philosophy. Always plural, the term ‘publics’ is also maybe moving away from this binary of private and public, suggesting that all spaces are public in some way, while linking with contested spatio-temporal locations and discourse across the world.
We now have a physical space and it’s the primary site for the PUBLICS Library (designed by Julia studio who also designed PUBLICS’ identity). We have a specially commissioned lightbox sign – called Eat the Rich (2018) by Liam Gillick – which sits outside PUBLICS. It can be seen when approaching the space and is sited above one of PUBLICS large, open, highly visible, street-level windows, allowing the passer-by to have a sense of what happens inside. PUBLICS is situated in a mainly residential area, traditionally a working-class area, in a moment of early gentrification. Helsinki’s Academy of Fine Arts is just a ten-minute walk, so we collaborate a lot with them, through teaching and library access. The library – which currently has about 6,000 publications – is unique within the city and possibly Europe, with such a specific focus on the curatorial, publicness, activism and the spaces where philosophy and political-thinking intersect with contemporary art. Talks, events and performances happen regularly at PUBLICS, often in collaboration with other organisations in the city, regionally and internationally. The backbone of our programme is the commissioning and co-production of public artworks outside the normative spaces of galleries and museums. Sometimes PUBLICS is an exhibition space, a cinema, a school, sometimes we remain a library or a gathering space. We have previously exhibited work with artists such as Chris Kraus (when we installed all of her films), Harold Offeh, the Karrabing Film Collective, Kathrin Böhm and held screenings with Tony Cokes, and many others – however, PUBLICS is not primarily a gallery.
MP: How do you feel PUBLICS is resonating, both within the local context of the Finnish art scene and internationally?
PO’N: It is definitely resonating significantly within the local scene. When we set it up, we did a lot of public talks and events and we were always packed out. We want to bridge certain discussions that are happening in the city already, with the conversations we want to have around inequality in the arts and with discrimination in all forms. Our focus is to try to diversify audiences for the arts, so that means taking on issues relating to gender politics, queer politics and so forth. We held ‘listening sessions’ where we brought together people (who may or may not have known each other) to listen to one another. Our ‘Parahosting’ events have been another way to highlight issues that weren’t so well represented before PUBLICS. ‘Parahosting’ can be everything from a book launch, residency or durational performance, to a reading group, week-long conference or pop-up installation. Parahosting is about PUBLICS giving up its programme to the work of others, and to those initiatives who are in need of space to practice and to support the realisation of their projects publicly. PUBLICS becomes the host to other people, other bodies and their ideas; it is taken over and on many levels is preoccupied by them. We try to fully engage with the local scene, operating as a kind of fulcrum for diverse and relevant critically located discussions, but we are also thinking more widely about the Nordic region and the Baltic region. In trying to ‘de-centre’ Helsinki, we are currently working on collaborative projects with Index in Stockholm, the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art in Riga and Oslo Biennial in Norway.
Our current focus is financial sustainability and bridging the gap between small-scale organisations and the larger institutions, such as museums, across the city. There is very much a project-based culture here, where organisations and initiatives are funded for maybe three to four years, and then you have these big infrastructures, like Kiasma or HAM, that are secured beyond that. In the middle, there is very little activity. We are trying to grow our organisation into a medium-scale organisation, as a way of supporting the ongoing, sustainable and long-term economic system of support for culture and contemporary art in the city and region. For ‘Today is Our Tomorrow’ – an annual cooperative festival project initiated by PUBLICS taking place in September – we are trying to establish a collaborative methodology whereby different organisations can collaborate on representing diversity and difference. This might end up being a substantial annual project, as a new model for working locally and internationally, in order to sustain small-scale organisations.
Manuela Pacella is a freelance curator and writer based in Rome.
Dr Paul O’Neill is an Irish curator, artist, writer and educator. He is the Artistic Director of PUBLICS.
Liam Gillick, Eat the Rich, 2018, outdoor lightbox commissioned by PUBLICS; photograph by Noora Lehtovuori; courtesy of PUBLICS.