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Christopher A Lewis on: the Centre of Attention

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2008 essay

A study of Centre of Attention as the model for Artist Curator
Christopher A. Lewis



Center of Attention are an example of an experimental organization who see them selves in a primarily curatorial role, however they are often defined by many to fit the current model of artist/ curator. This interesting hybrid has arisen over the past 40 years and this discussion will outline first how this hybrid has arisen, why and also how Centre Of Attention's practice exists in relation to other practitioners who occupy similar ground and why Centre Of Attention can not be classified as artists, curators or artist/curators, although the latter seems to be the most similar genre to group them in. It will also seek to compare and contrast with other artists and curators in order to better contextualize Centre of Attention's work. However, it is impossible to discuss their practice fully without first outlining how the role of artist/ curator was reached and the changes in art production, which facilitated a growing interest in this, a separate line of inquiry. In order to do this, it is essential also to mention the breakdown of convention, which led to the status of Curation, which it enjoys today.

Laying the ground work for Center of Attention's (COA) modus operandi is essential for a more complete understanding of both their current position and also the wider, more common, model for artist/curator. This can not be discussed without a brief history into curation as a museum discipline and its origins. The great influx of artifacts and work from the new worlds, which the Victorian empire collected, was vast. By consequence a collection of this size required first a platform for consumption but also a custodian who could preserve and maintain them as artifacts.

The early archeological model for curation was not too dissimilar from the cabinet of curiosity that we know from the early 17th century and seems rather far removed from the work of COA.

However, the slow evolution into the curatorial role of the 1960's is, although relevant, unnecessary to discuss in depth. Rather it is better to focus on the rapid acceleration and change in status of the curator from 1960-present. The traditional method of Curating had been to 'tell a story. Their displays have sought to portray developments in art, but also to tell stories and cultures of which works of art are produced' (Hammonds et al., 2008). A role which traditionally demands that a collection be displayed with a narrative theme or contextualized in the time/place in which the work was produced.

Modernity and new exhibitions such as the 'Armory' shown in New York, among others, gave president to the explosion of Modern Art, and with it modernity itself. Consequently came the use of new medias, works and concepts. This shift in the relationship between the Curator and the Artist is first cited by Nicholas Serota in 'Experience of Interpretation'. 'It is, Perhaps, in The Red Studio 1911 by Matice that we can trace the beginning of a change in the way in which artist regard their own work and its place in the museum' (Serota, 1996). However, to contextualize this shift in a broader perspective, Serota begins by citing three significant developments; 'A change in the relationship between the work of art and the space in which it is shown', 'The transfer by some Artists of their place of work from the seclusion of the private studio to the public area' and 'A greater awareness by Artists of the conventions of the museum itself'. These new works demanded their own autonomy and it was no longer acceptable or possible for Curators to huddle the work together or inflict narratives as rigorously. With this came the need for a new type of Curator, one who was less responsible for the care and preservation but rather one who could negotiate the demands of the artist and facilitate their need within the new gallery spaces, which were evolving.

This trend continued until the late 1960's where the growing power of the institution, coupled with a further breakdown in artistic convention with the end of abstract expressionism, lead to institutional critique.

At this time the Curator could have great power and even a sense of authorship over an Artist's work. This could often lead to the curator or the gallery expressing their own motivations rather than the Artist themselves. Consequently, this caused Artists to become frustrated with the institution and the huge amounts of power they now possessed. This could also constrict work and prevent it from having the autonomy, which it may have needed or even desired. However, at this time artistic output was mainly limited to painting, sculpture and various other mediums. Performance Art and the work of Allan Kaprow is a good example of how the Artist began to subvert the institution altogether. Kaprow's 'Happnings and events' (1959-1960), removed the gallery by taking Art outside. It removed the importance of curatorial judgments and rendered them somewhat less important or, even at times, fused them into the work itself. This is cited by Serota as his third significant development of curation, as mentioned above. Kaprow's 'Happenings', along with others, heralded the questioning of the galley and the museum structure as a place for art consumption altogether. Although artists had been making work outside the gallery environment for many years, land art being an example of such, this conscious removal from the gallery opened up a whole new line of enquiry and strategies for artists dealing with both 'Institutional Critique' and also artists working with methodology of display.

The arrival at the role of artist/curator was a natural evolution and the result of the breakdown of institutional systems as outlined above. The breakdown of the guild system led to artists enjoying a greater freedom for artistic output. This was then furthered during the late 1960's, when artists were becoming more aware of the external factors as well as desiring more control over how their work was consumed. The growing creative options for art production inevitably then allowed for curatorial judgments to be considered.

Gavin Wade mentions that, for him, curatorial considerations were 'a necessary expanding of the responsibilities of the creative individual' (Curated space 2005 Artist Newsletter, p4).

Many artists have explored, through their work, modes of display and curatorial elements; this does not always ring fence artists as artist/curators. In an interview, COA discuss this growing trend: 'it is not a new concept but a sign that the artist is engaged in what happens around them' (Centre of Attention, 2005). This references many artists working today and also outlines how their practice differs from COA. Goshka Macuga's work deals directly with display and the perforative aspects of Art consumption. Her work 'Picture Room' is a simulacrum of Sir John Soane's (Architect) house, museum and library at No. 13 Lincoln's Inn. Soane constantly added to and rearranged his collections. Currently the museum is an archive and collection much similar to the traditional model for 19th century museums, but also importantly is a perfectly preserved example of one man's unique and personal vision of a 19th Century art gallery.

For Macuga the extraordinary invention employed in the arrangement and curatorship of the space itself, deals directly with the elements of her practice. It seeks to put the categories of curator and gallery into a new relationship with each other by providing sculptural environments for the exhibition of other people's work. Unlike a Curator who only curates, Macuga seeks to deploy her own work amongst the facilitation of others.

Macuga's practice challenges the relationships between artists and curators; examines the importance of and the problematic issues inherent in authorship; and explores the role of the gallery within both the curatorial and art-making process. This is unlike COA, who see their role to deploy their work amongst others using curatorial methodology, rather than exploring directly the themes of curation with an individual or selection of works. This is apparent in Macuga's conversation with Michael Wilson in 'Art Forum', where he comments on how Macuga's work exists 'often through gestures that are more typically thought of as curatorial rather than artistic' (Wilson, 2007). This line of distinction can be drawn in the context of which the work is produced, for Macuga, the sole production of her own work married with themes of display. When asked how they saw their own practice relating to Goshka Macuga's work 'Display Room', COA replied: 'She stated not to distant from us but perhaps she has had pressure to produce pieces' rather than explore that dialogue'.(personal comms.2008)

This distinction of purposeful production is one of the ways COA separate themselves from being purely Artists. In contrast to the Artist who deals with the theme of curation, there are practitioners such as 'Support Structure', who seek solely to facilitate the display of other artist's work by using their own construct as devices on which work is displayed. In contrast, COA function as a Gallery; 'We operate in much the same way as a gallery, it was more interesting for us to start as a galley' (personal comms, 2008). This admission allows COA to occupy all of the aspects associated with the gallery, the institution, the Artist, and the Curator. Simultaneously, concurrently or not at all.

This is much unlike artists who seek solely to display other's work and this interesting position is occupied by 'Support Structure'. It is important to discuss their work as it shows how COA seek not to actively promote others work, but rather use other work simply because 'We select work of artists that we like or respect, this way if our interventions fail the work will still be strong enough to stand up' (COA, 2008). Gavin Wade defines 'Support Structure' (SS) practice to 'design and create a universally adaptable support structure that approaches the specific rather than the generic. To achieve this we are putting 'Support Structure' through a learning process. Phase 1 was in support of 'I Am A Curator', providing a variable exhibition system enabling and challenging curators, artworks and visitors' (Wade, 2006). The negotiation of both environment and Art work is how COA approach their unique brand of 'Gonzo Curating', in which they define it as 'taking risks and we put ourselves very much in the firing line. We stand by our choices and hope something is revealed about us, as human beings, and our curating methods' (COA, 2005). Further to this SS seek to provide a 'valuable exhibition system' rather than exploring curation through their work; this is unlike COA as they mention above. By showing how COA differ from other models of curation and artists, it is easier to arrive at exactly what ground COA occupy.

'The role of an artist curator is to explore new modes of display presentation. This work allows for new strategies and questioning of existing systems and concepts' (COA, 2008).

It is also relevant to discus the practice of an artist who assumes a curatorial role. Shez Dawood's 'Artist Studio' was a year-long exhibition exploring both the geographical location of Art consumption/ production, and also is in direct response to the curatorial judgments, which affect a space such as an artist's studio. Just like SS, the facilitation of other people's work allowed Dawood to assume curatorial responsibilities; commission (via means of publicly announcing a proposal), choice (by selecting the works to be shown) and also the direct curatorial process of presentation. This is in direct relation to Pierre Coinde's comments in 'Future Forecast', in which he describes the different aspects of COA practice as being 'very much involved in the choice commissioning, presentation of the work' (Coinde, 2005).

By this we can see how COA's work can be curatorial as well as actively producing art works them selves, as evident in 'Things that go bump in the night'. Although COA have not curated 'Things That go Bump in the Night', they would still consider their work to be curatorial; 'we were asked as artist but responded curatorialy' (COA, 2008).

'Things that go bump in the night' (2008), is an example of where their practice differs to the role of a conventional artist. COA were asked to produce a work for the show; the result was 'Nameless', an intervention using the moment of the exhibition, the 'Centre of Attention aspires to choreograph sound, movement and image using the visitors and the mise en scene of the exhibition pavilion, and to produce a piece that is both documentation and a work in itself' (COA, 2008). This work, 'Nameless', 'comes out of a concern with God, groupthink, the herd, the need to believe, in something (anything!) to explain the horror, the horror of it all...' (COA, 2008).

However, where it differs is in that Macuga simply performs for the audiences consumption. In contrast, COA actively seek to use the audience in their work and state that 'We see audiences as props for us to use, we regard people getting people to do something in the gallery as curation we give something but we take something back as're here and then we use you,' the aim is they are there and we can make something from them.' (COA, Personal Comms., 2008)

Equally important to the discussion is the position of the salaried Curator when drawing a comparison to COA's current curatorial model. Unlike many selective curators, COA do not receive a regular salary from an institution or benefactor, such as Shez Dawood, and since they no longer occupy the space in Cottons Gardens they have no fixed abode. For example Shez Dawood's Artist studio is an example of an artist working curatorially with a fixed space, which allowed the same space to facilitate individual art works. Counter to this, COA explore their work in different countries, such as their last exhibition in Stockholm, but also through a use of conventional and un-conventional spaces. They are not determined by space, but utilizing the space as a prop, just a participant in COA work, as outlined above.

'On demand' was a project undertaken by COA in 2005, which attempted to answer and ask new questions about the environment for consumption of Art. Much like a take-away the viewer was able to telephone COA and select a work to be brought to their house for a viewing. The work would be discussed, if desired, and then returned. By exploring this method of personal consumption, COA were able to subvert all the trappings of the gallery altogether. By eliminating 'paraphernalia, décor, the daunt and the rituals creates a purer, more direct experience: not manipulated by the 'white cube' luxury shopping experience or the 'warehouse' risqué discovery alternative, the work can be experienced for what it is' (COA 2005).

This direct explanation of the motivations of 'On Demand' shows how they are not primarily motivated by the fulfillment of their of personal practice. This is unlike Artists Such as Goshka Macuga who seek to use other people's work to fulfill their own aims. COA are seeking to best facilitate these works in an environment which best appeals to the art work as mentioned 'the work can be experienced for what it is' (COA, 2008).

Part of the COA's concept is to restrict the audience to a partial view, a limited perspective where you are only allowed to order one work and not the whole show.It could be argued that COA differ from other models of artist curator because they use all aspects of practices from both Artist, Curator, Dealer, Champion and Critic. This allows for an inaccurate definition of their practice and consequently leads to an uncomfortable position for the consumer. In short, some artists curate, some curator's create work, artist/curators explore curation through their work; whether that be exploring the galley as an environment for consuming work or subverting it completely. COA explore both themes simultaneously, this flux is undefinable by a term as broad as artist/curator. To put them in a curatorial role is to deny their obvious visibility and performative aspects in their work. To classify them as artist is to deny their obvious curatorial intentions. For example, when discussing 'On Demand', COA stated that 'No one could judge the curation, it was about restricted the access. As open as it looks it was curatorial closed' an obvious admission of consideration of curatorial decisions. To classify COA as artist/curators is to narrow their scope of practice, which denies their obvious intentions: 'we see ourselves much like a gallery'. By consequence, this renders their position undefinable.