Fillip 7 — Winter 2008

Smooth Space Provisions: Multiple Voices in Curating
Charo Neville

Boundaries, by definition, “indicate the farthest limit, an area, border”: they delineate, define, and mark the margins of the physical (divisions of land) and the metaphysical (race and class relations).1 Boundaries are intrinsically defined by systems of inclusion and exclusion—access and restriction to money, knowledge, power. This centre/periphery model can be explained in terms of a series of closed circles with, for instance, Eurocentric history on the inside (and non-European history on the outside), wherein dialectical exchange between the centre and periphery is limited.2 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have described the centre and the margins (or “the state” and the “war machine”) in terms of “striated” homogeneous space, which is quantitative and fixed, and “smooth” heterogeneous space, which is characterized by its fluidity, continuous variation, and plurality of directions.3 Following this metaphor of geometrical configuration, Deleuze and Guattari’s terms have been explained as the relationship between points and lines, where striated space is something between two points, and smooth space, by contrast, “gives priority to the line and treats points simply as relays between successive lines,” so-called “lines of flight” or “deterritorialization.”4 The continuous winding red line that extended along the walls throughout the Kamloops Art Gallery’s April–May 2007 exhibition Overstepped Boundaries: Powerful Statements by Aboriginal Artists in the Permanent Collection, visually syntheses Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of spatial determination—a line delineating smooth space, mirroring the project’s attempt to break through closed circles and transgress boundaries.

Overstepped Boundaries began in January 2006 with a public call for young participants within Kamloops’ Thompson-Nicola Regional District school system: “The Kamloops Art Gallery has over 200 works of art by Aboriginal artists in its collection. A public institution, the Gallery holds this work in trust for everyone in the community, and particularly for the young people, who hold the keys to the community’s future. The Kamloops Art Gallery wants to work with young people to build relationships and build our future together.”5 The project began with nine participants and a core group of three fifteen and sixteen-year-old First Nations women—Ayla Joe, Erika Lakes, and Julienne Ignace—stayed committed until the end. Described in a Kamloops Art Gallery handout as “an experiment in access and pedagogy,” the exhibition developed out of a series of workshops held over a fourteen-month period.6 These workshops were facilitated by Kamloops’ curator Jen Budney, Secwepemc artist and teacher David Tremlay, and artist, educator, and social worker Kathie McKinnon. The three participants who curated the exhibition realized early in the process that the work that held the most significance for them was not the traditional carving in the collection but the contemporary Aboriginal art. In the curatorial statement included as wall text in the exhibition and in the exhibition publication, the curators’ learning process was made evident. The young women admitted that “when we started this project, we knew practically nothing....Now we understand that art can make strong statements and change people’s ways of thinking.”7 Identifying art they saw as making “strong statements” about issues such as racism, colonialism, identity, and appropriation, the curators decided to frame the exhibition around the theme of boundaries which they saw the artists overstepping in their work in personal, cultural, spiritual, natural, or ecological ways, involving common themes of land, family, and perception. They chose work from the collection by ten Aboriginal artists of various backgrounds, reflecting a variety of forms and styles including installation, photography, sculpture, and painting. The work of Carl Beam, Rebecca Belmore, Joanne Cardinal-Schubert, Fred Johnson, Jim Logan, Mary Longman, Teresa Marshall, David Neel, Jane Ash Poitras, and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun was displayed with extended labels written collaboratively by the curators. Often thematic exhibitions can feel contrived, but here the notion of “overstepping boundaries” was apparent in the visual metaphors of each work: whether directly, in the most traditionally based work in the exhibition, David Neel’s two faced carving The Mask of Greed and Good (1993), or intuitively, in Rebecca Belmore’s minimalist photographs of women bound by white and red fabric, Bloodless and White Thread (2003). Echoing the overall outreach approach of the project, the exhibition also attempted to extend its engagement outside the confines of the institution by addressing visitors before they entered the gallery. In giant red letters, an excerpt of text taken from the curatorial statement covered an expansive gallery wall facing the exterior windows, announcing “an exhibition of art that makes strong statements.”

Debates about how museums collect and display First Nations art were made particularly public through the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s _Indigena: Contemporary Native Perspectives _(1992), an exhibition that was intended as a anti-celebration of the quin-centennial anniversary of Columbus’ arrival and as a counter-project to the celebratory Glenbow Museum exhibition of Native “artefacts,” _The Spirit Sings _(1988). Within the framework of self-representation, First Nations visual artists and writers were asked to respond to current debates on colonization through contributions to Indigena and the accompanying catalogue. A public colloquium was also organized to discuss key issues around this topic. As art historian Charlotte Townsend-Gault has put it, for First Nations cultures, “the struggle for ways to regain control over their culture is an ongoing, often angry argument.”8 In the battle over the material culture of First Nations communities, she argues that there must be an “understanding of the encounter between the visual and the social,” and an attempt “to show that the bad ethics of the situation are not improved by fixing on a frozen concept of aboriginal rights nor by a vacuous celebration of Native art.”9 In formulating this project, Budney attempts to address the Kamloops’ collection of Aboriginal art and, at the same time, the First Nations communities living on reserves surrounding the predominantly white, conservative community of Kamloops not by acting as the “expert curator” but as a link between the institution and the community. Similar to the Indigena exhibition, Budney connected the visual and the social by extending the dialogue directly into First Nations communities. Stating the project’s intentions, the Gallery handout asserts: “visitors will notice that the ‘voice’ these curators use is not the anonymous voice of institutional authority that customarily meets us in public art galleries and museums.”10 The voices of the young curators were present throughout the exhibition design: in the running red line, the wall text, the artificial boundaries created by heavy red curtains viewers had to pass through to enter the gallery, and a red Plexiglas divider subtly separating this space from the Jimmie Durham exhibition in an adjacent gallery. While this divider necessarily separated the two exhibitions, the touring Durham exhibition co-organized by the Reg Vardy Gallery and the Walter Phillips Gallery appropriately complimented the locally generated permanent collection project. Their voices were also literally present in “video-labels,” a feature [that could have been used more] where two of the young curators, acting as animateurs, talked about the work via LCD screens mounted on the wall. In Julienne Ignace’s candid exploration of Jim Logan’s The Four Davids (1993), for instance, she interpreted Logan’s iconography, speaking animatedly about the monumental stereotypical Native figures—the militant, the alcoholic, the sellout, the mascot—which Logan depicted against gold-leaf backgrounds.

It is interesting to think about this exhibition in relation to another exhibition of work by many of the same artists in the Vancouver Art Gallery’s First Nations: Myths and Realities (2006), which I worked on in various capacities as a curatorial assistant (particularly in producing the didactic texts). By abandoning the expert voice of the curator and offering young First Nations people access to information about museum practices and contemporary art practices, the Kamloops Art Gallery offered visitors a different kind of access. Although I was familiar with the work in the Kamloops show already, the community-based curatorial process offered me a new framework in which to understand it. Unlike artist-run centres, which generally speak to a small arts-based community, public art galleries and art museums have a mandate to serve the public in a much broader way, yet exhibitions of Aboriginal art worldwide, for the most part, continue to be framed from within the institution, by professional curators. In large institutions, community engagement does not typically happen at a curatorial level; outreach is relegated to the Public Programs departments so that the public dissemination of “knowledge” about the Aboriginal experience remains fixed in a kind of “striated space.” This disconnect results in the perpetuation of a history of institutions speaking on behalf of First Nations people.

Overstepped Boundaries bridges the gap between the institution and the public by actively engaging multiple voices. Yet, it should be said that while dismantling the role of “the expert” opens up lines of dialogue, the expert still has value. In his work on community development, Alan Barr has emphasized the key position the professional plays in collaborative projects such as this, noting that “part of the task of empowerment is to develop local skills and knowledge, but any complex society depends on specialist expertise....Part of any empowerment strategy must therefore be access to such resources.”11 According to community arts practitioner and writer Amir Ali Alibhai, in the growing paradigm shift towards models of “participatory action-research,” success depends on a “practice of partnership activity rather than a transfer of authority,” and a continued effort to build expertise within communities rather than introducing short-term outside intervention.[12] At the same time, it is important to consider a point made by curator Candice Hopkins in an interview with Janna Graham about a community art project/exhibition she coordinated at the Walter Phillips Gallery in 2004 titled Echoes and Transmissions from the Morley Reserve:

_It seems that the modernist idea of a single author is not consistent with the kinds of creative processes that have existed in Aboriginal communities for so lon_g...._The storyteller is not a singular voice, there are many who take on the sto_ry....The idea of collaboration, the loss of the author, is not considered to be avant-garde, but just the way that things are.[13]

In Overstepped Boundaries, fundamentally, the process was the project. But the resulting exhibition did not feel like an experiment or a high-school social studies project; the exhibition and publication were rigorously produced with attention paid to the engagement of the young curators in every step of the process, the inclusion of their voices throughout the exhibition and the methods they used to communicate this to a wide ranging audience.

Although there has been a renewed shift in focus on community across disciplines since the 1990s (in part, an outcome of escalated globalization), collaborative approaches to curating are still less established than community art practices, which have a long history. Reflecting the boundaries that are being pushed by the artists in the exhibition, this project actively breaks through the established limits of curatorial methodology, providing an alternative model of community-based collaborative curating.

  1. Collins English Dictionary and Thesaurus (Glasgow, UK: Harper Collins, 2002), 134.
  2. For a discussion of this model in relation to the inclusion of white artists and the exclusion of non-white artists in the history of modern art, see Rasheed Araeen, “A New Beginning: Beyond Postcolonial Cultural Theory and Identity Politics,” Third Text: Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Art and Culture 50 (Spring 2000), 6.
  3. See Paul Patton, Deleuze and the Political (London: Routledge, 2000).
  4. Ibid., 112.
  5. “Overstepped Boundaries,” Kamloops Art Gallery handout, 2006.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ayla Joe, Erika Lakes, and Julienne Ignace, Overstepped Boundaries: Powerful Statements by Aboriginal Artists in the Permanent Collection (Kamloops: Kamloops Art Gallery, 2007), 9.
  8. Charlotte Townsend-Gault, “Art, Argument and Anger on the Northwest Coast,” in Contesting Art: Art, Politics, and Identity in the Modern World, ed. Jeremy MacClancy (Oxford: Berg, 1997), 145.
  9. Ibid., 143.
  10. “Overstepped Boundaries,” Kamloops Art Gallery handout, 2006.
  11. Alan Barr, “Empowering Communities—Beyond Fashionable Rhetoric? Some Reflections on Scottish Experience,” Community Development Journal 30, no. 2 (1995), 124, cited in Amir Ali Alibhai, “Locating Community Art Practice,” in Connections: Celebrating Community and Contemporary Art (Surrey: Surrey Techlab, 2001), 92.
  12. Amir Ali Alibhai, “Locating Community Art Practice,” (Surrey: Surrey Techlab, 2001), 92.
  13. Janna Graham, Cheryl L’Hirondelle, and Candice Hopkins, “Sounding the Border: Echoes and Transmissions from the Morley Reserve,” Fuse Magazine 27, no. 4 (2004), 33.

Image: Notes of student curator Erika Lake. Courtesy of the Kamloops Art Gallery

About the Author

Charo Neville is a graduate of the Critical and Curatorial Studies program in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Art History, Visual Art, and Theory. Formally a curatorial assistant at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Neville is currently Assistant Curator and International Exhibition Manager at Catriona Jeffries Gallery.

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