»Another thing that changed is my trust in artworks to do their thing when put in relation to one another – something you can’t really control even if as curators we’re told we can.«
The group show »PUT A SOCK IN IT!« proposes to laugh at men, the authorities and eventually oneself. It tests the limits of who is allowed to speak up, and why one is told to put a sock in it, exploring the relationships between comedy, power, ethics, sexuality and desire. The exhibition, which features artworks by Zuzanna Czebatul, Jesse Darling, Reba Maybury, Ebecho Muslimova, Liesl Raff and Melanie Jame Wolf, underlines that in her curatorial practice, Lisa Long questions the conditions and power dynamics of the spaces we are engaged with and how these reflect society at large. SOPHIE TAPPEINER invited Lisa Long, who currently works as a curator at the Julia Stoschek Collection in Berlin, to organize the exhibition as part of this year’s Curated By festival on comedy in Vienna. A good starting point to talk about her projects and their backgrounds from the near past.
Drawing from your conclusion in the text for your exhibition »PUT A SOCK IN IT!«, I wonder what possibilities you see in the disidentification through comedy and what movement this disidentification describes?
I think it’s more of a necessity to disidentify. According to José Esteban Muñoz, who so brilliantly wrote about disidentification over twenty years ago, it’s a process that scrambles, reconstructs and exposes dominant cultural codes and recircuits them to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications. In the exhibition »PUT A SOCK IN IT!«, I was interested in what happens if you bring an ethics of comedy into the conversationand and how it opens up a space for disidentification. Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai write in their essay »Comedy Has Issues« that comedy exists within structural hierarchies, defining who and what is considered or allowed to be funny or what is seen as humourless. The comedic subject creates meaning tied to codes that are, for the most part, defined by a dominant culture. The artists in the show play with and misuse these codes in their works – and it’s been interesting to see the different reactions to them by the audience. People either get it immediately and laugh or they have big question marks in their eyes and sort of shake their heads, especially men. As long as heteronormativity, white supremacy, and misogyny exist in society, disidentification will be necessary. And it happens not only through comedy but all sorts of artistic and everyday actions and fashioning.
What are key issues and concerns that you are trying to explicitly name in your curatorial practice?
I became a curator because I have a lot of interests and through curating, I get to peek into so many different worlds. On an institutional level, I would say key issues revolve around questions of power, representation and repair but also experimentation and joy. I’m sceptical of dogma and believe insecurity and doubt are major parts of the process of working intellectually and artistically. I want to create experiences for people – mostly spatial ones – that communicate an understanding or feeling that might not be possible elsewhere in our daily routine. A good exhibition goes beyond the communication of information, forming a »radial system«, a term John Berger uses to describe the function of a photograph, between you and your surroundings, the present and the past, making it personal, political, dramatic, everyday, and historic all at the same time.
You are co-founder of the feminist initiative »And She Was Like: BÄM!« and the collaborative project »Companion Studies«. What are they about?
And She Was Like: BÄM! is a queer-feminist activist initiative based in the Rhineland that I started with five other women (designers and curators) in 2015 as a monthly meeting group for self-identified women in art and design. We were totally fed up with hearing things like »I don’t know any female installation artists, otherwise I would show their work« or »I don’t know any good female graphic designers, otherwise they would get the job” that we felt we had to do something. I was about to move to the U.S. so we decided to host a dinner, inviting thirty gallerists, artists, designers, and curators for risotto and chocolate mousse. A friend of ours let us use his gallery space which luckily had a kitchen. That evening we asked everyone: how do you feel about this idea, is it necessary? The answer was a loud: YES! So we tumbled into a world of organizing. It’s been a labour of love and almost at the verge of collapse many times. Since 2017, BÄM! is a non-profit organisation with over 140 members, even though you don’t need to be a member to participate. We host talks, workshops, meetings, organize studio and exhibition tours, participate in panels, send out a monthly newsletter and are currently working on an online platform. Working in a collective takes a lot of communication and listening, and it can be tough, but it’s also incredible and I’m sad I can no longer be part of the day-to-day.
Companion Studies is a collaborative project I’m doing with Marta Cacciavillani that looks into expanded curatorial practices focused on interdependence, coalition-building, and care. It’s been a roller coaster of a project and we are finally about to launch our first iteration as a website with contributions by Laura Raicovich, Dana Kopel, Patrick Jaojoco and Executive Care, among others.
What was your approach to the development of solo-exhibitions under the framework of your year-long program »horizontal vertigo« at Julia Stoschek Collection in 2019 and 2020?
I’m a big fan of the solo exhibition as a format. The relationship you are able to build with an artist through dialogue, the intimacy and trust that develop over time is the most rewarding part of being a curator – at least for me. It almost makes me a romantic.
»horizontal vertigo« had a very particular curatorial structure in which I was working through concerns I had with big thematic group exhibitions that strive to illustrate a point – that of the curator – and with the fact that institutions feel entitled to speak for artists. I wanted the individual exhibitions, screenings and performances in »horizontal vertigo« to develop their own narratives over time instead of me proposing an overarching theme at the beginning –and they did. It also still feels unresolved.
The framework was inspired by artist and writer Trinh T. Minh-ha’s concept of »non-totalness.« Theoretically, non-totalness implies process, trial and error, reflexivity, transition, multiplicity, and difference. In the essay »Cotton and Iron« from the book »When the Moon Waxes Red« (1989) Trinh T. states that a political film doesn’t necessarily mean it’s made politically. The distinction is simple but key. It’s the same with exhibitions. I was interested in what it would mean to propose a structure in which the individual and the ensemble coexist without prescribing a way of reading it. The glue of the program was an underlying politics and commitment to non-totalness when it came to issues of history, identity and self.
This year you opened a presentation of works from the Julia Stoschek Collection under the title »A Fire in my Belly« in Berlin. How has working with a collection influenced your curatorial practice?
Working with a private collection sets a parameter that is focused on the works in the collection. As someone who comes from a background of commissioning new work and inviting artists into institutions temporarily, the reality of not being able to do so without thinking about the possibilities or expectations of acquisition was a shift for me. I feel certain forms of experimentation become a little more difficult when acquisition is in the back of everyone’s mind. But it also means, and perhaps this is more important, offering support to artists in ways non-collecting institutions can’t both on a monetary and cultural-historical level.
Another thing that changed is my trust in artworks to do their thing when put in relation to one another – something you can’t really control even if as curators we’re told we can. How do you bring artworks that have been collected at different times and for different reasons together without diminishing their individual meaning? How much storytelling is OK? Over the past year, I’ve realized that so many pieces in the collection I work with are able to be shown in various contexts without losing meaning. An artwork that keeps unfolding is a good one…
Where do you position the activity of a collection historically? Or what do you feel should remain from our times?
There is an ethics to collecting that is tied to the people making decisions, both in private and public museums, so it’s messy and intertwined with power. I ask myself often if we should be collecting art at all and have come to the conclusion that we should, because it provides a historical record about what drives people to express themselves. Every type of collection creates a version of history whether that is intended or not. To me, one of the most important things is to be aware of it and to always accept that the history written is a partial one. But I make a difference between our common understanding of history put forward by the so-called Enlightenment and the act of thinking historically – not that they can be fully dislocated. Thinking historically enables us to put things in context and to see that the world is constantly changing; that the ideas, norms, and values of a society aren’t set in stone but more porous and transient. Even if they seem stuck, they will change and it depends on our will to do so – I mean, what a relief, isn’t it?!