JOANNE LAWS INTERVIEWS SARAH BROWNE, CURATOR OF TULCA FESTIVAL OF VISUAL ARTS 2020.
Joanne Laws: Can you discuss the curatorial brief for TULCA Festival of Visual Arts 2020?
Sarah Browne: The title is borrowed from Colin Dayan’s 2011 book, The Law is a White Dog: how legal rituals make and unmake persons. Taking the law as a protagonist, the book draws together an unlikely community of subjects who have been denied personhood through its operations, as a means to sustain and uphold the social order – detained prisoners, racialised slaves, wanton women, refugees, abused animals. Conceived in the legal imagination in this way, these different classes of person are allocated unequal capacities for reason and for pain, and are distributed different rights to property – whether rights to own one’s own body, or to acquire land. What kind of psychic power must the law possess when it makes judgements about capacity or disability, and the need to confine such persons? Where Dayan’s book explores the interaction of personhood and dispossession within the USA, its themes find particular resonance in Connacht, the alternative to ‘hell’, as offered by Cromwell during the time of the Penal Laws and the mass evictions of the Plantation era in Ireland. Today, it offers new ways to recognise persistent legal spectres and zones of exception in the west of Ireland landscape, such as the asylum-seekers detained in Direct Provision Centres who are awaiting a ruling, and those who survived (or tragically died) inside state-approved religious institutions, such as the Mother and Baby Home at Tuam, or the industrial school at Letterfrack.
The curatorial brief departs from my own artistic research, and to a lesser extent my experiences as an artist. Last year, I was included in a group exhibition, ‘Irish Women Artists since 1984’. In 1983 the Eighth Amendment was added to the Irish Constitution and invented two different categories of person in law (the ‘mother’ and the ‘unborn’), whose rights were poised in temporary, hypothetical opposition. This experience made me realise that I am still haunted by this deeply-felt experience of conditional autonomy – personally and now in a professional context. None of this information was explicit in the exhibition title, but 1984 was a nod towards this horrible legal artefact. My practice had not been framed as that of an ‘Irish woman artist’ before, and while I understand that it is technically a fact, I felt somewhat disorientated by the designation. What does it do to an artist to describe their artwork through their assigned identity? What does this reveal, or hide from legibility? These were some of the concerns that I brought to the curation of this year’s edition of TULCA.
JL: Were there any unexpected themes emerging among proposals selected through the open call?
SB: Artists applying through the open call were invited to consider their work as forms of address that could relate to processes such as bearing witness, giving testimony, granting pardon, lodging complaint, forming contracts, presenting evidence – or steadfastly refusing to speak in those terms. This invitation was like pouring molten lead into water and watching to see what shapes might emerge. It was scheduled to close on 20 March, a deadline which we extended by a week, as it coincided almost exactly with the initiation of COVID-19 workplace closures and movement restrictions in Ireland. There were 180 eligible applications, and I spent a number of weeks reading through the proposals and parsing through the possibilities, following up with artists, taking the temperature. In this way, the curation and overall form of the festival has evolved very much in and through the temporality of the lockdown, and the shifting public health guidelines and public sentiment due to the pandemic. The concerns of the brief, which touch on institutionalisation and confinement, have seemed unnervingly close.
The process of seeing and imagining connections between different practices was very rewarding, to feel the project begin to come alive through the responses. It was a privilege to discover practices very intimately that I hadn’t encountered at all before. The process of witnessing my own response to what was set in motion by the open call was as surprising as anything else: a deeper sense of the west of Ireland, folklore and landscape has seeped into the project than I could have expected. While the curatorial brief addresses traumatic histories, the artists involved in the project have many tactics of investigation, proposal and response, and this includes colour and music and joy in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated.
JL: In what way does your experience as an artist influence your values as a curator?
SB: I’ve tried to model as a curator some of the more enriching experiences I have had while working as an artist. A curator can contribute very significantly to an artistic practice: this might be through developing discourse and writing about work in a context, restaging it in a certain way, or putting certain relationships in place (with other artist practices or in an exhibition space). Sometimes a curator can find ways of securing resources for a practice, whether material or immaterial. I have invested my energy into this kind of curatorial work that is collaborative and mutually developmental, rather than working simply as an adjudicator. This involves working to build transparency and trust in relationships. With an awareness of the pandemic, it has also been particularly important to get the balance of invitation right: to know when that feels like an opportunity and when it feels like an unwelcome demand. What is ‘too much’ in a time of great fatigue, stress and anxiety? What feels like meaningful and rewarding work at this time?
The presentation is based on what I feel is the best treatment of each artwork and there is no hierarchy between exhibition and event-based programming. There is no ‘main programme’ and ‘support programme’. Funding was secured from Galway County Council for Forerunner (Tanad Williams and Andreas Kindler van Knobloch) to produce a new, site-specific intervention in the An Post Festival Gallery, and to deliver a professional development workshop to Galway-based artists. Soft Fiction Projects (Emily McFarland and Alessia Cargnelli) will carry out a workshop with members of shOUT! and CAPE youth groups. Caroline Campbell (Loitering Theatre) will also expand her intergenerational feminist project, Protest Archive, through a workshop format. Academics from the Law School and Centre of Human Rights at NUIG, such as Dr Maeve O’Rourke, have been generous contributors to the research and will also feature in some of the discursive elements of the public programme and the book. This kind of sharing across disciplinary knowledge boundaries is also very important to me.
It’s an exciting opportunity for an artist, and a challenge, to take this kind of temporary role in an organisation too. The Law is a White Dog aims to develop understandings of personhood that are rich and complex, particularly in relation to capacity, and my curatorial proposal also involved a provision for training with Arts and Disability Ireland for myself and members of the TULCA team, including the Board. This was also offered to partner organisations and artists in the project, for whom accessibility is an emergent concern or an ongoing research focus. I’m interested in how the concern of an artwork or curatorial project is not simply ‘content’ but can impact how an organisation functions and communicates.
JL: What can viewers expect to encounter when festival venues open on 6 November?
SB: The festival includes a book, a podcast series, a series of workshops, a billboard and screening programme at PÁLÁS cinema, as well as an exhibition of artworks and other artefacts. Even audiences who cannot visit Galway will be able to experience some facet of The Law is a White Dog. There will be two significant group presentations in the An Post Festival Gallery and Galway Arts Centre. 126 Artist-Run Gallery will host a solo presentation by Rory Pilgrim of their film project The Undercurrent. Engage Studios, formerly a medical centre and before that an industrial school, will be the location for a new solo presentation by Saoirse Wall – a ‘fable-film’ titled Invalids of Love. Not all of the artefacts on view in the exhibition are artworks, or are made by professional artists: there is also a video made by A.M. Baggs, a non-speaking autistic activist (who died this year), and a selection of artefacts known as bata scóir borrowed from the National Museum on view in Galway City Museum. All exhibition venues are wheelchair accessible, except for the first floor of Galway Arts Centre. Pre-booking will be necessary for some venues. Of the 20 artist presentations in the exhibition and public programme (including three collaborative entities), 12 were invited and eight were selected through the open call. There are a further two contributions which are presented only in the book. 18 presentations are new works or have never been exhibited in Ireland before.
JL: How have preparations for this year’s festival been impacted by COVID-19 public health measures?
SB: What if a technician or producer or artist gets sick? What if I get sick? How can contracts be adapted to protect artists, and the organisation? No headphones, no communal seating, no touching anything. How much longer will installation take? What about volunteers, how can they be kept safe? When will delayed funding decisions be announced so the budget can be clarified? Online or ‘not–online’, do artists want to do that? There’s no money for that. When would we decide to cancel? When do we decide to announce?
TULCA is a partnership organisation without a full-time staff or a venue, so the ‘feasibility’ criteria, integral to the open call, was very hard to get a fix on. It became clear that international travel would be impossible to plan for, and live performances that we could schedule would be fewer. Certain hoped-for collaborations sadly couldn’t happen. Mainly, confident communication has been extremely difficult, both internally with artists and the team, and externally with the wider public. Even as I write this, we are in our first week of installation and can’t be sure that we will get to open. The very question of what an audience might expect, desire or risk through visiting a contemporary art exhibition has been thrown into a different light by the pandemic. Curating the festival has been a way of being in close touch at a distance and has given a rich sense of moving through this historical moment with others.
Sarah Browne is an artist based in Dublin.
TULCA Festival of Visual Arts 2020, titled ‘The Law is a White Dog’, is scheduled to run from 6 to 22 November 2020, pending government restrictions and public health advice. For the full programme and list of participating artists, visit the TULCA website.