Friday, June 10, 2011

Notes from the Curator

I was honored and delighted to participate in last week's panel discussion at 516 ARTS, as both a young person and the curator of Worlds Outside This One. I'm still digesting the conversation and catching up with the people I met. For me, it was a rich and thought-provoking experience that I'll reflect on for some time.

Many people were provoked by the panel; some angered, some inspired, some merely wanting to tell their story. The panel was intended to cover the role of women and the place of architecture in creating the counterculture, grounded by the experience of 3 women who helped build communes in the late 1960s. The discussion took a turn, as could have been expected, towards a comparison between then and now. I was heartened by the level of engagement the audience took in the topic and wish the conversation could have continued for hours more.

It seems we only began to scratch the surface in charting the history of the communes and the countercultural possibilities of today; in fact, we barely had time to identify the issues involved. These are big things to consider: What is the intention behind countercultural activities? Can they be lumped into a category such as "counterculture" or are the activities and structures that attempt to create an "other" space so disparate they deserve different labels; perhaps no label at all? If we desire to live another way, what do we build, how do we build it and with whom? With what resources? To what ends? While the discussion did not offer any answers or even lay down a set of terms, it succeeded in being provocative.

Someone approached me during the opening that evening and observed that the exhibition of commune photos seemed to say, "Look what I did," whereas Worlds Outside This One seemed to propose, "Look what we can do." Another person brought up the issue of class, that all the panelists represented a white-washed, overly educated, middle-to-upper class status; she speculated that change might happen through intercultural alliances. Yet another exclaimed, "This gives me such validation for the hard work I'm doing." Whether critical of the panel or grateful for it, attendees seemed to be moved by the opportunity to contextualize their own ideas and experiences within the larger dialog.

Indeed, it's not often enough that these sorts of conversations are entertained. It's so important to share, compare, contrast and speculate about counterculture (or whatever you might call living outside the status quo). Within the otherness of doing things differently, there is great variety, success, failure, and above all: courage. It seems clear that whether you built a commune in the 1960s or currently work towards immigrant rights or are starting a non-traditional arts organization or aim to build your own house, these aims are served by critical dialog or more importantly, critical mass.

This is what I appreciated most about the panel discussion: that here was a space to talk passionately about a collective rejection of mainstream culture. What a bold and important endeavor, taken on by a non-profit contemporary art space! It struck me at one point, that despite the fancy microphones and video cameras and chairs arranged in neat rows, we were talking about radical possibility! There was no question as to whether the system should be bucked or "the man" should be questioned; the conversation (and the exhibitions themselves) took as their premise the need for building alternatives. To be in a room that was packed full of people who care about making radical change was very exciting. I wish these sorts of gatherings occurred more frequently.

It would be optimistic to think that real change (or even deep understanding of change's characteristics) would result from a panel discussion or from the exhibitions. A gallery is an institution, a panel is a formality; by nature these structures celebrate and analyze but also limit new cultural production. As a curator, I feel confused about the power of the white cube and its methods. I am concerned that the real meaning of the work displayed is made vacuous by the white cube; it is somehow made too sacred, too still, too simplified. If we could camp out in the gallery or talk until we actually sort something out, then the exhibition and the panel discussion might be sites for radical possibility. Until then, I'm merely grateful for the people I met, the stories I heard, and the relationships that may continue on long after the microphones are put away and the exhibitions are dismantled. I'm grateful for the opportunity to actively confront the friction between desiring radical change and working within the confines of the institution. As the panel vibrantly illustrated, this friction produces a bright hot spark.

It is a privilege to develop and maintain a critical stance towards the status quo. It's an even greater privilege to enact some form of alternative living. But for many of us in the room last week, building alternatives is also a necessity. Much has changed since the 1960s, but so too have the strategies, the personalities, and the issues. I don't believe that we can look to the communes as templates for how to live differently in 2011; but what they offered and what the panel so beautifully demonstrated, is proof that another way is always possible. With hard work, some good friends, tremendous courage, and a sense of humor, we just might build a few worlds outside this one.

-- Erin Elder, guest curator, Worlds Outside This One

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