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Curating in Context: CCA Graduate Projects 2019

Working in collaboration with leading UK arts organisations – Nottingham Contemporary, The Photographers’ Gallery, Gasworks and Pump House Gallery – this year’s graduating Curating Contemporary Art (CCA) MA students produced four distinct projects, captured here in their annual short film. As Professor Victoria Walsh, Head of CCA, commented, ‘This is the third year of the partnership-based projects and marked an important expansion of the programme’s commitment to working with and developing new regional and online audiences.’

Each project provided a unique opportunity for students to learn and work collaboratively over an eight-month period to explore a specific form of curatorial practice in a context defined by the project partner’s ethos, programme and audience. The final public projects acted as important testing grounds for new curatorial forms of working with artists and publics within a ‘live’ setting, and also enabled new ways of working for each of the partner institutions. 

Re: Over everything which exists under the sky, Gasworks 

Xinhao Cheng, Cyanotype Workshop
Xinhao Cheng, Cyanotype Workshop
Photographer: Keying Chen

From October 2018 until May 2019, Re: Over everything which exists under the sky was a temporary research studio at Gasworks in south London that explored what a curatorial residency might be within an organisation defined by artist residencies. The studio explored what it means to be a resident, both in the nomadic global art world and the wider geopolitical context of restricted movement and borders. 

Mati Jhurry. Photography by Keying Chen.
Mati Jhurry
Photographer: Keying Chen

The curators Linnéa Bake, Yalda Bidshahri, Carlie Yixuan Chang, Claudia Contu, Victoria Gyuleva, Jing Jin and Lika Tarkhan-Mouravi – alongside invited artists, botanists, astrologers and writers – considered mobility from the perspective of non-human, earthly and extra-terrestrial circulations such as plants, birds, planets and stars. At the end of the residency this research was presented publicly in an Open Studio event.

‘This project has given us a chance to experiment with ambitious ideas and challenge conventional modes of curating by disrupting the linear relationship between process and outcome’ explained the students. ‘We echoed the international artist residency programme at Gasworks, and declared our project a curatorial residency. By doing this we emphasised the durational character of the project  – we considered these eight months as much a part of the project as the last four days of the public “exhibition”.’

Reading group with Belinda Zhawi. Photography by Keying Chen.
Reading group with Belinda Zhawi
Photographer: Keying Chen
Sabel Gavaldon, Gasworks Curator, worked closely with the students this year. He commented: ‘Gasworks aims to offer students an opportunity to explore the workings of a grassroots, internationally focused organisation devoted to emerging artists. It is crucial for curators at an early stage in their careers to understand that curating is a context-specific practice that engages and responds to a concrete set of conditions – ranging from the history of an organisation to its core audiences, not to mention budget constrictions and a thousand other factors that shape the work of a curator.’

‘Intendedly open-ended, their project has subtle links with the programme at Gasworks, responding to some of the urgent questions addressed in recent shows by artists Libita Clayton, Pedro Neves Marques and Patricia Domínguez. Importantly, working with the RCA Curating students provides Gasworks with an exciting opportunity to critically reflect on itself as a result of the experience, which is why we are looking forward to continuing our relationship with RCA Curating Contemporary Art programme.’

Fragmented Follies, The Pump House Gallery 

Fragmented Follies
Fragmented Follies by Sam Jacob Studio - RCA
© Thierry Bal
In collaboration with The Pump House Gallery MA curators Nour Aslam, Caroline Boseley, Keying Chen, Camilla de Fabritiis, Matthew Moehr Griffin, Lin Zhao and Yuejia Zhou commissioned a temporary outdoor work by Sam Jacob Studio. The sculptural installation drew upon the layered architectural and cultural histories of Battersea Park and its neighbourhood, combining site-specific elements which referenced the park’s past, such as its Victorian ironwork and the structures left behind from the 1951 Festival of Britain. 

Students making models
Students making models
Photographer: Keying Chen
‘As commissioning curators, Fragmented Follies offered us the occasion to bridge thresholds between our partner institution, Pump House Gallery, and the urban environment of Battersea Park,’ the students commented. ‘Visitors were invited to experience contemporary art in the form of interactive sculptures, delivering alternate possibilities for social engagement.’

The work was created to act as urban furniture, inviting viewers to consider the way they occupy the constructed space of the park, against the backdrop of Battersea’s shifting physical, social and economic environment. 

The development of the work was informed through workshops with local schools. Neil Harman, a teacher from Burntwood School, explained the impact being involved with the project had: ‘Working with the students from the RCA was a fantastic opportunity for our art students. They were made to feel part of a wider collaborative process and they felt that their opinions and ideas were valued by the team. The project introduced the students to a whole new way of working and has inspired many of them to pursue a future career in the creative industries.’

For the Time Being, The Photographers’ Gallery

For The Time Being
Introducing ‘For The Time Being’ exhibition to visitors at The Photographers’ Gallery
© For The Time Being

For the Time Being was a programme of photo performances curated with The Photographers' Gallery using the social media platform Snapchat as a way to expand the gallery experience. Through a combination of dispersed online posts, photo streaming, performance and participatory workshops, For the Time Being interrogated the shifting position of the photographic medium in relation to the phenomenon of online image sharing culture. 

For The Time Being
bbBbddDdyYyy_ssssss_a_cCccCAAaGGgee, Max Grau, Snapchat, 10th May 2019
© For The Time Being
The MA curators Rachel Chiodo, Sitara Chowfla, Hang Li, Esther Moerdler, Carlos Pinto and Caroline Roselló explained how working with Snapchat pushed their limits as curators: ‘We had to re-think everything we have learned about working with institutions, artists and audiences. The nature of the platform meant that the actual artworks were improvised, which was unknown to us until the very last moment. We were interested in the online programme as a space that allowed for an open model of presentation and communication between the curator, artist and audience.’

The project was the first digital partnership that has taken place as part of the RCA CCA graduate shows. Developed in response to rapidly developing curatorial opportunities within networked and online contexts it offered an excellent opportunity for the students to expand their practice in a fast-moving  area of curatorial practice. 

The students added: ‘We will definitely be returning to the idea of the 'dispersed' art programme that  we experimented with on Snapchat, and perhaps explore this curatorial method through other platforms.’

The Unexpected Beautiful Phrase, Nottingham Contemporary

Installation shot, 'The Unexpected Beautiful Phrase' at Nottingham Contemporary, 2019. Photograph by Samuel Kirby
Installation shot, 'The Unexpected Beautiful Phrase' at Nottingham Contemporary, 2019
Photographer: Samuel Kirby
The Unexpected Beautiful Phrase was a one-day programming event at Nottingham Contemporary that considered how the fugitive learner navigates institutional space and refuses legibility. It was part of Nottingham Contemporary’s independent studies programme that explores how a gallery can offer alternative art school education. 

'Built 4 Love', performance by Department for International Dance Development
'Built 4 Love', performance by Department for International Dance Development, 'The Unexpected Beautiful Phrase' at Nottingham Contemporary, 2019
Photographer: Samuel Kirby
Reflecting on the event Carolina Rito, Head of Public Programmes and Research, commented: ‘Nottingham Contemporary (NC) invited CCA MA curators to join the institution in asking what is the role of cultural organisations in informal education. NC is launching CAMPUS Independent Study Programme in October this year, and in the preparation of its opening, we organised a series of events to reflect upon critical pedagogies, explore questions around alternative modes of education and how we learn and produce knowledge collectively.’

‘The CCA MA curators chose to explore ideas and practices around illegibility and fugitivity, drawing from Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s book The Undercommons. As a result, they curated a one-day event of screenings, talks and performances at NC, exploring modes of embodied learning, illegible practices and how to escape the control of the institution from within.’

'Serpent Rain', a film by Denise Ferreira da Silva and Arjuna Neuman
'Serpent Rain', a film by Denise Ferreira da Silva and Arjuna Neuman, 'The Unexpected Beautiful Phrase' at Nottingham Contemporary, 2019
Photographer: Samuel Kirby
‘Working with the group of curators felt like an organic process, where our conversations became an incubation for new ideas to our inquiry on critical pedagogies. Opening up the process to the RCA students proved to be extremely productive. The group helped expand our inquiry, contributing with new ideas and artists, formats and experiments, taking the project to unexpected places. The curators at NC had the opportunity to share skills, support in the development of the project and identify the opportunities and challenges throughout the process.’

‘The collaboration with RCA students opened the institution to new and fruitfully provocative practices, rendering the institution’s infrastructure available to unforeseen encounters – for both our audiences and us, the curators at NC.’

The event was curated by Pablo Luis Álvarez, Giulia Antonioli, Teal Baskerville, Chloe Carroll, Emily Hale and Laura Luempert. The partnership with Nottingham Contemporary, which will continue next year, offered students the chance to respond to contexts and publics outside of London, and experience wider economies and ecologies for curatorial practice.  

As Kelly Large, Convenor of the Graduate Project course observed 'this year’s graduate projects not only engaged with the full diversity of contemporary artist concerns and curatorial practice, but they also succeeded in engaging significant and invested audiences locally, nationally and internationally through their location and online platforms.’ 

Find out more about Curating Contemporary Art at the RCA, and how to apply.