REFLECTIONS ON ‘GALLERY1’ AND VIEWS ON NOVEMBER 2015
By Adam Carr, Visual Arts Programme Curator, MOSTYN I Wales
Gallery 1 was an innovative exhibition curated by the participants of Cylch, working in collaboration with artist Bedwyr Williams, Cylch Project Coordinator Tomos Jones, Cylch Project Assistant Georgia Colman and myself, with additional support from artist Jan Miller and MOSTYN staff. I say that the Gallery 1 project is innovative, because it has directly involved young people in its making.
I will be honest, prior to joining MOSTYN and up until meeting with Cylch members and my colleague Tomos Jones, I would not have considered working with a group of people for whom exhibition making was a relatively unknown task. Perhaps at this point I have loosened up, become open to other possibilities and, some might say, open to risk. Considering it more closely, however, the whole project was very much in line with my early ambitions and current practice, in that I aim to curate exhibitions in new and different ways — in different contexts and/or establishing unorthodox frameworks for art’s presentation. For MOSTYN, it perfectly met the vision of the exhibition programme, which sets out to promote innovation, change and a desire to be pioneering. 10 years ago I would have met the criteria for joining the Cylch group in terms of age, and I would have jumped at the chance of working on something like this. Yet, the Cylch project was not initially guided towards an exhibition. It was not supposed to be this way, but over time it developed into becoming part of MOSTYN’s exhibition programme and allowed a unique collaborative space to integrate young people’s ideas, energy and creativity into the organisation. Schemes in art institutions and museums involving young people are often part of additional engagement and are rarely concerned with the making and presentation of exhibitions, especially as part of a main exhibition programme. When I first heard of the Cylch programme at MOSTYN, I must admit I thought it would play out that way. According to tradition and convention, initiatives engaging young people, even if peer led, are not supposed to be involved in the real decision making of an organisation; young people do not typically participate in the process of curating and they are most certainly not placed in a position of great responsibility. Despite all of this, there was a real desire from Cylch members, supported by Tomos Jones, to be more involved in the process of making exhibitions at MOSTYN. Initially, curating an exhibition with young people might seem full of risk, even a threat. However, risk can also be interpreted as possibility. And without the possibility of encouraging the unfamiliar and exploring the uncharted, surely we would avoid the chance of learning and progressing? Within the visual arts, artists often allow change and something unexpected to occur. Each exhibition is of course different and, while some curatorial tasks remain similar, there are always different approaches for each artist and for each show. Although change is rarely embraced by curators, I have always enjoyed pushing the boundaries in terms of exhibition making, so I was enthusiastic about collaborating on this project and giving the hand over to the group. It was exciting. What would come of this process? Putting tradition to one side, the exhibition placed Cylch members firmly in the driving seat. The starting point came about during a number of initial sessions in which we spoke about curating and exhibition presentation. I spoke about the role of the curator, including how and why it might have changed over the course of this history through a presentation, starting from the cabinet of curiosities in the 16th century through to the present.
In a second session I provided another fleeting summary, which tackled the idea and task of presentation and exhibition design. I was keen to provide a large variety of examples of exhibitions, including those parts of MOSTYN’s programme and artist curated exhibitions where the idea of presentation was pushed to the limit. It was at this point that the discussion with the group seemed to find an extra gear. The Cylch group’s approach to their exhibition was going to be somewhat alternative, so the members felt that the presentation should mirror that as well. What was needed now was a framework – something which brought everything together, harnessed the vision and allowed all of the group members an equal say. During further conversations, the topic of how the media perceived the younger generation kept cropping up. The obvious choice would have been to use this as a theme and to make an exhibition of artworks based around it, however most of the group members were not well acquainted with contemporary art. Issues around availability of artworks and loan requests could have made this process lengthy and problematic. It was then decided that each member of the group would choose an object which said something about them as a person, reflecting their current or past interests, or, in some cases, both. Arguably, this allowed for a more personal exhibition – a more accurate portrayal of young people than one that those of another generation could consider and come to present. Each Cylch member chose an object that they felt best captured and documented their interests. Objects were obtained from across the globe, from well-known companies, celebrities and online outlets, including Tony Hawk, Fender and Kodak. Some members decided that one object would not serve the purpose of presenting their interests. In these cases, they elected to make projects instead, collaborating closely with other people. Further information on each of participants’ contributions can be found within the GALLERY1 exhibition booklet uploaded by Tomos Jones.
Both objects and projects were displayed in our Gallery 1 space, which had been reconfigured for the show – including its own entrance – to give it its own identity and character. The presentation has been inspired, in part, by the thought of a museum both of and for the present. The process of making the show — in terms of the individuals and of the group as a whole — was displayed in the exhibition as well by way of a vinyl wallpaper that lined every wall within the exhibition space. That offered the opportunity to make visible the process and decision making leading up to the exhibition, and gave the public a partial understanding of how exhibitions in general are curated, assembled and delivered. Throughout the course of curating the exhibition, Cylch members not only explored their own interpretations of art making and curating, but also the perceptions and preconceptions about themselves, as the younger generation. Members of the group assisted on the installation of the exhibition, allowing them to gain further experience and control through direct involvement. They gained a large span of knowledge about exhibition making, but also, more importantly, they have, through their work, been able to build personal confidence. This knowledge and experience will be of use in the future, whatever roles the young people decide to undertake.
Personally, I have learnt a great deal throughout this journey, especially from Cylch leader Tomos Jones, perhaps more so than the group themselves have. Thinking about the early conversations with the group, particularly about how their generation is being wrongly characterised, perhaps I have also been guilty of this misunderstanding. I did not anticipate the range and depth of what they eventually selected to represent their interests and passions. Learning was key to the making of Gallery 1, which I hope was transferred to the viewing audience – at least signalled in the feedback we received from the public about the exhibition which was extremely positive. The exhibition was a collection of the group’s individual passions, desires, and reflections, with the aim of not only creating an intellectual and visually engaging show, but also confounding expectation and shattering preconceptions on the part of the viewer. For the visual art world, I hope that this innovative approach to making an exhibition will be recognised – a strong commitment to the involvement of young people and a value placed on their contribution.
Continuing on from GALLERY 1 and its successes, we have provided the group with another exhibition making opportunity, which will be presented in November of this year. The idea for the November show was initiated and generated from within the group during Tuesday evening’s curating sessions at MOSTYN. Their idea constructs an ideal follow-up to GALLERY 1 in which collaboration was fundamental, placing collaboration more into the forefront, and using it as its key theme. Working individually, or in pairs, the group are working on projects with one other person/group/company, external to the group and MOSTYN. Their collaborative partner is a person or group and/or a company and not be an object such as a paintbrush, pencil or camera, although those objects might well be used within the collaboration between them and somebody else. A number of sessions with the group have been orientated toward the November exhibition. These have included those on exhibition design and display, and theme making. A recent visit to the reopened Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester led to much critical debate, informed by the curating sessions and their experience of working on GALLERY1. With the exhibition dates looming, a timeline has been established with deadlines and priorities. Just like with any other exhibition, where I find myself doing entirely different tasks and speaking to a whole variety of different people each, the journey of the group and the process of achieving their projects will become equally as important as the ‘finished’ outcome. I have often thought of the process of GALLERY 1 and the forthcoming exhibition, as well as Cylch/Circuit as whole, as less about art and exhibition making per se, and more about confidence building and the acquirement of skills that can be applied by group and its members anywhere, beyond the visual arts. This underlines, perhaps, the idea that the visual arts are the last bastion of free thinking, an agent of complexity (to be many things at once) that ‘teaches’ without teaching. What a profound effect Cylch/Circuit is having on a younger generation — it certainly is at MOSTYN.