curatorial lens vol.2/ james clegg

Curator James Clegg, profile picture courtesy of the University of Edinburgh.

James Clegg (born 1982) is an Edinburgh-based curator, working at Talbot Rice Gallery. James holds a degree in Design and Applied Arts and a postgraduate degree in Contemporary Art and Art Theory, both from Edinburgh College of Art. His exhibitions include:  Pine’s Eye (2020), John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea (2017/ 2018), Stephen Sutcliffe’s Sex Symbols in Sandwich Signs (2017) and Rob Kennedy’s acts of dis play [sic], 2016. With Tessa Giblin he co-curated The Normal (2021), an innovative response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and The Extended Mind (2019).  He has also written for Art Review and Art Monthly and formerly worked as a lecturer on various art and design courses.

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: Let’s start the conversation with your educational and pre- Talbot Rice Gallery background and how they contributed to your current curatorial practice?

JAMES CLEGG: I always felt it was important to combine practice and theory: my undergraduate studies were in design & applied arts and my postgraduate in contemporary art theory. On one hand, I learnt how material processes inform intellectual discovery. On the other, these studies emphasised research and writing as tools for substantiating, structuring and expanding ideas. For me, these remain two of the central principles of curating: a deep respect for art’s magical capacity to produce critical and non-linguistic forms of understanding; knowing how to make a compelling case for its relevance to the world we live in.

I use the word ‘magic’ carefully. When artists create with physical materials it is, of course, actual magic. Magic from magike, the ‘art of influencing or predicting events and producing marvels using hidden natural forces.’

Education doesn’t start and end at school or university and I continued to learn as a lecturer (primarily teaching courses on modernism and postmodernism) and as an art critic, writing reviews for Art Monthly and Art Review. And perhaps even more as a parent, a son and a husband, where you get into the knots of life and human relationships.

A lot of what I now do as a curator was not formerly covered in any of my pre-Talbot Rice Gallery experience: the emotional intelligence you need to steer a project in a positive direction; the thick skin and calm you need when things get hot; the ability to turn challenges or failings around. Then, collaborating all the time and knowing that you get the best results not from singular, isolated ideas but from allowing lots of different minds and processes to shape what you do. I think the best exhibitions are those that exceed any containment or singular perspective. Curating as I see it, is a process that is more about nurture than it is about design.

LŠ: As a curator what subjects are you interested in exploring through exhibitions?

JC: Pine’s Eye was a group exhibition I curated just before the Covid-19 pandemic. It encapsulates many of the subjects that I’m interested in. The ecological crisis has driven some radical (‘rooted’, ‘tangled’) forms of thinking and I love the intentional strangeness of Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene and Timothy Morton’s Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (to give a couple of examples). To think ecologically rather than logically – where logic has brought us to this environmental precipice – requires weird loops, contradictions and leaps of faith that don’t sit within conventional (‘western’, ‘modern’, ‘industrialised’, ‘colonial’, ‘educated’) systems of knowledge. I think it is interesting, liberating even, when you realise that the boundaries that usually govern how you think about things are false, contestable or not even there in the first place. To add another loop, this interest leads to other ways of being in the world that have existed for thousands of years, namely, Indigenous practice.

The artists in Pine’s Eye were Firelei Báez, Beau Dick, Laurent Grasso, Alan Hunt, Torsten Lauschmann, Ana Mendieta, Kevin Mooney, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Taryn Simon, Johanna Unzueta, Lois Weinberger, Haegue Yang. Alan Hunt is a Hereditary Chief of the Kwakwaka’wakw – a First Nations people in British Columbia – and Beau Dick (1955-2017), Hereditary Chief, master carver and activist, was Alan’s mentor. Against the odds we found a way to collaborate with this community, commissioning a new series of ceremonial masks for the exhibition and bringing members of the community to Edinburgh to perform the Atlakim (‘Dance of the Forest Spirits’) for the first time in history outside Canada. It was one of the best moments in my career. I learnt so much from working with the community – particularly from Alan and Patricia Nolie – about the culture and how vital Potlaches (roughly: gift-giving and story-telling ceremonies) are for keeping oral cultures and alternative knowledge systems alive. Essential for a people who have faced what is acknowledged to be cultural gendercide and with their culture actively criminalised from 1885 to 1951. For the community – as Alan described it – working in a contemporary art context is a way of coming out after being silenced for so long.

Whist I would never think of the exhibition being able to convey this complex culture, I think that the energy of the performance and character of the works really did touch audiences with a sense of their defiant spirit. And the Atlakim masks were a perfect centre-piece for an exhibition that included contemporary artists using art to imagine de-colonial possibilities, reconnecting with folk traditions and nature, or – on the other side of the same coin – highlighting the dangerous disconnection from nature that capitalism has fomented.

Alan created a design for a tattoo for me. And I’m booked in to get it at the end of this month (May 2022)!

Tattoo design for James by Hereditary Chief Alan Hunt. With the artist’s permission.
Atlakim ‘Dance of the Forest Spirits’ ceremony, St Cecilia's Hall, 2020. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb Photography

I’m also happy to be nomadic and to keep moving to new areas. It is great when you find a subject that is going to take you somewhere and transform you in the process. I should add that, we try to make exhibitions at Talbot Rice Gallery that are going to resonate with things that are effecting people today. For me, an area that is interesting in relation to both these motivations – personal discovery and the objective of thinking into the moment – is the subject of debt. Governments across the world have borrowed money to bail out businesses during the pandemic and the debt of developing countries has skyrocketed. According to Jubilee Debt Campaign, during the last few years the number of countries that see people denied human rights, as a result of international debt, has increased to 54!

The critical reasons for looking at ‘debt’ is clear. However, to return to curating and discovery, I think that a good starting point for an exhibition also requires something else. Political pertinence is not a guarantee that an idea has the scope to foster a wide-ranging group exhibition. You have to find a kind of lateral movement…

The much-missed David Graeber had so much to give to the subject, with Debt: The First 5,000 Years, published 2011, being a formidable work. Through his wily, intelligent, sometimes anarchist treatment of debt, it shifts from being something you think is knowable – let’s say ‘accountable’ – to being a point of power and contestation. Again, that’s when things get interesting, right? His angle gave me a way into the subject that allowed for more movement and creative thinking.

To roughly paraphrase part of his trajectory, we’re expected to think that what you owe people (i.e. your debt) can be calculated through the mathematic certainties of money, or at least, our societies tend to carry on as if that is the case. But what if this hides more than it reveals? What if the first people who needed to use money as we know it today were soldiers who had to get the communities they’d just conquered to provide them with food and supplies? Then, surely, it is clear that monetary debt is to a large degree founded on violence, colonialization and theft. These same things underlie concepts of land ownership (Indigenous people would say the land owns itself), class, labour relationships and the debt of developing countries. And Silvia Federici writes brilliantly about how contemporary debt is used to force (or attempt to force) Indigenous African communities into a different relationship with their land (see Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons). So, looping around this subject, we’re also back to the relationship people have to nature and that disconnection capitalism tries to establish to facilitate profit.

If you think debt it just mathematically calculated then you’re probably going to think that poor people just need to get better at managing their finance. But this is an horrific misrepresentation of the situation. Thomas Picketty’s erudite study, Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century, shows that return on capital (the profit people make from capital investment) is increasing faster than growth (output into the economy, like wages), meaning that the future might look more like the middle ages, where the only people with wealth are those who are born into it. If you play the numbers game, poor people will never, ever win! But scrub out that idea that money is purely about mathematics and replace it with the understanding that its value is tied up with power, and suddenly you’re looking at a social struggle instead. Monetary debt is the product of coercion. What Graeber did brilliantly was to use his research and argument to make it seem perfectly reasonable to ask – why don’t we just refuse to play this game at all?

There is so much still to explore in relation to this broader subject (I think that’s what I like about it). Did you know that feudalism only ended in Scotland in 2000? And that supposed national hero Robert the Bruce helped role out feudalism – a foreign colonial form of control – in the first place? What! Or that twentieth-century economists recognised that money was distinct from coinage by looking at giant, mythical Fei stones on the island of Yap, Micronesia. Money is, they realised, a virtual projection of value.  Meaning, if you agree with economists like Stephanie Kelton, that deficit in fiat economies (where a country controls its own currency) isn’t a problem because money can ultimately just be printed. Also, that doesn’t necessarily lead to inflation, making austerity a problematic, false, coercive and hierarchical ideology (especially when proposed by chancellors who are married into multi-million pound families). And did you know that if you represent the value of the US dollar on a graph, it exactly mirrors US military investment – but of course that’s because, as we’ve recognised, money only really has value when backed by aggressive force.

LŠ: Could you tell us of artists whose practices you admire and why?

JC: It is part of my job to be constantly looking to discover artistic practices – making this a big question. I’m certainly not tied to particular media or ways of working. So, to answer, I am going to offer a few brief examples related to the subjects I’ve just described.

Firelei Báez’ work stands out to me because of the way it links aesthetics and political agency. When Firelei paints on top of found materials – sometimes official plans for colonial structures like sugar refineries – it creates a very clear dialogue between a language of power and control, and a language of resistance and liberation. The work we showed in Pine’s Eye was I write love poems, too (The right to non-imperative clarities), 2018. I think the phrase in parenthesis is really interesting. The root meaning of imperative is ‘pertaining to a command’, so to be allowed a clarity (of purpose? of position? of self?) without submitting to authority captures the challenge posed to genuine resistance. That is, it has to somehow assemble outside the place where knowledge – and clarity – is constructed and prescribed (The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney is a great critical study of this complex position). Then, I really like that Firelei’s vocabulary of resistance includes Indigenous stories, diasporic folklore and contemporary protest, making it a deep, interconnected, trans-historical, rooted idea of solidarity. It founds something that capitalism has tried to smash. It is speculative world-building and community-building of an interesting kind. I admire Firelei’s practice because it does that most incredible thing, which is to use art to imagine possibilities that are otherwise erased, or hidden, or made to seem impossible.

I’m going to mention Lois Weinberger from Pine’s Eye too, because it is contrasting in many ways and because I was touched by his passing in April 2020 following the opening of the exhibition. Lois’ work doesn’t use colour, pattern and form to create engagement in the same way. In fact, it seems determinedly anti-aesthetic. What I admire about his practice is that it comes from a life-time commitment to an idea of nature being that which does not conform (including: to our ideas about beauty, authenticity or purity). The plastic bags and wastelands and weeds that are so much part of the language of his work are an affront to romantic and, frankly, damaging ideas that shape some conservation practices (at the time of writing an article came out about the Indigenous Endorois peoples’ historic displacement in Kenya to make way for the Lake Bogoria National Reserve). Lois’ work turns nature back into an enigma that cannot be defined by its opposition to culture, industry, sciences etc. It is about nature, but it never betrays it and gives it over to understanding.

On the subject of debt… well you’ll have to keep your eye on the Talbot Rice Gallery programme in early 2023.

Haegue Yang’s The Intermediates (2015-2017) with floor element and sound element: Text-To-Speech (2020). Part of Pine’s Eye, 2020. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb Photography

LŠ: During the lockdown Talbot Rice Gallery started work on The Normal. How did you tackle the challenges posed by the pandemic? How did you work across physical and digital spaces?

JC: Tessa and I, supported by the whole TRG team, created The Normal in response to the pandemic. That doesn’t just mean that we were thinking about what the pandemic meant culturally, socially and economically, then finding artists who could make work to resonate with it – but also about how as a team of people we could learn to live and work under lockdown. I found the decision to focus on a new project that could speak to what we were experiencing really constructive. Moral boosting. It gave us focus and purpose against the oscillating anxiety and listlessness of lockdown. This – coupled with daft, digital, after-hours get-togethers – kept our energy flowing.

At first, with pollution dropping, birdsong ringing out and industries ceasing, it felt like a potential moment of change. An interruption to capitalism perhaps; a-breaking the fatalistic sense of national and international politics that came before (Trump and Brexit etc.). This was balanced with a sense of the grief being experienced by people as a result of Covid-19 and then the way it started to exaggerate existing inequalities. In both ways, it was a moment.

Not being able to count on shipping led us to think about how we might work with artists in a different way, using local artisans and businesses to reconstitute works locally. And this worked incredibly well and of course shifted our approach to exhibition-making. It helped us find ways to work more sustainably and initiated one of those changes we’ll keep and persevere with. Another is adoption of the technologies we’ve all now become so literate with. You can achieve a lot through video calls! (In fact, I had more studio visits with artists during lockdown than before.) We quickly got used to making videos, sending extra photographs and digital models to allow creativity and decision making to take shape with artists. We also explored online workshopping tools that allow you to draw together pools of images, ideas and diagrams. Again, something I still use now.

We worked across digital and physical spaces to make a physical show. Whilst our public programme went digital, I should be clear that it wasn’t our ambition to make a digital exhibition. In my opinion, I just don’t think online exhibitions can have the same impact. Embodied and collective public experience is vital, whether you’re immersed in the massive sound and images of Gabrielle Goliath, talking to someone about what you’re looking at, or leaning in to see the details of Boyle Family’s prints.

For The Normal we also collaborated with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh to make an edition of James Webb’s off site work, There’s No Place Called Home (Edinburgh). In a sense, this is a digital work – a sound file played back through concealed speakers. Yet it is completely dependent upon experience, the potential chance encounter with a Jamaican Becard: a subtle interruption into the soundscape of the garden, a foreigner blown off course and a possible harbinger of climate change.

LŠ: This exhibition touched upon the new reality experienced collectively/ globally. What were some of the most vivid realizations you had as a result of the exhibition?

JC: One of my favourite parts of working on group exhibitions is that once you have your shortlist of artists it becomes a dialogue that can expand, shift and challenge your way of thinking. I’ll offer a few examples from The Normal here.

I think Larry Achiampong introduced me to the term ‘echo chamber’ in relation to social media. It is such a strong, shorthand way of getting to that idea of voices repeating and layering – becoming cacophonous, persuasive and coercive. When lockdown reduced our real world social interactions, the volume was turned up on this digital space. This online social space is not paced, or rational, or logical, but has this organic madness to it. A cauldron of fleeting thoughts. Larry’s work Detention poetically punctures and pauses this echo chamber to create concise, pointed statements that make you rethink the operations of white privilege. It is realised on old-style school blackboards and, in the case of The Normal, senior university staff wrote out the lines as if undergoing that form of punishment and learning.

We always pushed hard on the term ‘normal’, knowing that it was a point of contest rather than some kind of stable meeting ground. Whilst Gabrielle Goliath’s work created the emotional core of the exhibition, it also made it clear that for some people – those in this case subject to abuse and sexual violence – there is no simple way to return to ‘normality’. Normality is a fragile potentially dangerous idea, and many are made to feel they live on the outside of it. This work was made before the pandemic. It provoked a new realisation in the context of people across the globe being taken out of their usual routines. Gabrielle’s work makes you realise that we need art to access those deep places in experience that words fail to capture.

When working with Anca Benera & Arnold Estefan, we threw them into deep end by sharing with them the research we had done into the pandemic. We were thinking about how encroachment on wild spaces was unleashing more viruses, the extent of the ‘virus sphere’ and the non-human and transgressive perspective of the virus. Anca and Arnold have a fascinating practice – already looking into debris and ecologies – and they came back with this incredibly tight concept. They would look at encroachment into deep-sea territories – where new contracts were being drawn up by UN agencies to enable mining – and where new life forms bubble away. This includes extreme enzymes, one of which was used in early tests for Covid-19. Then, we worked with them to 3D-print their sculpture using the Edinburgh College of Art workshop. It merged the form of a deep-sea vent with the Tower of Babel, raising ideas about human vanity and dysfunctional constitutions. It was inspiring to see their research and the way they linked all these elements together.

Femke Herregraven’s practice is also built upon incredible research. It is full of vivid realizations! We showed Corrupted Air (IBRD CAR 111-112), 2018. It tells the story of the bubonic plague from 541 to 2017. I hadn’t realised before how much the history of disease and finance had infected each other. But, of course, institutions like insurance were set up to mitigate against the risk posed by pandemics. And the black death still goes on today! Femke’s work gives you the vivid realisation that disasters – like pandemics – are already mapped out in financial terms: the winners and losers pre-determined. It privileges Western countries and rich investors, the Ebola virus in Africa not satisfying enough of the clauses in the World Bank’s Pandemic Bond to trigger financial aid, for example.

Gabrielle Goliath’s This song is for ... Pat Hutchinson, Unstoppable (by Sia) Performed by Nonku Phiri & Dion Monti. Part of exhibition: The Normal (2021). Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb Photography

LŠ: How do you see the future of art institutions effected by the pandemic?

JC: As I think about this, I’m looking at two postcards we produced for Amy Balkin’s A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting as part of The Normal. This is an archive that Amy – an artist who often uses environmental activism  – has built by asking people across the globe to donate objects they find in places that are disappearing as a result of climate change (since 2012). It evidences the effects of a seemingly ineluctable capitalism as well as exposing some of the ineffective policies and dangerous hierarchies involved in international approaches to tackling climate change: where climate is monetised and rich countries can place the burden of their responsibilities on developing countries. These postcards feature images of Amy’s existing archive and were intended for people who might know others living near places that are disappearing, so they could effectively invite them to contribute new objects from Scotland.

Of the postcards I have, one shows a shed butterfly’s wing. From a Common Buckeye, California, its contributor reported when they submitted it that, ‘homes and sidewalks have fallen into the sea as cliffs erode’. The object looks so light and delicate. It makes me think of the butterfly effect, that idea that some tiny event in the past – the flutter of a wing – might ultimately change everything. After eons of time, those tiny ripples could manifest as huge global events. It is an interesting thought experiment, but I also wonder: what about the other millions of butterflies also beating their wings, and the billions of other insects and birds, ad infinitum? I think this famous idea ultimately fails because it relies upon us thinking about the effect of a small force against a model of the world that is ultimately inert.

The other postcard I have shows an embroidered badge that says, ‘ANTARTICA THE LAST FRONTIER’. The ripples of industry and commerce have affected the most remote parts of the world, and this has happened very quickly. We are hardly butterflies!

Practically, as I’ve already touched upon, I think there should be serious movements to reduce shipping and travel, as it has been proven that can be done; that we can all work in different ways. I also think the pandemic showed that communities can pull together to support vulnerable people, and I’d like to think that art institutions will work to support this further and start to talk more about care.

But really, I think art operates at the level of butterfly wings. Surprising, beautiful, affirming. Yet it is part of that bigger, noisier machine of capitalism and easily appropriated and consumed. We can’t make the mistake of thinking about it like the butterfly effect, as if somehow these small things might make big changes – when they are immersed among bigger agents.

I think future art institutions will – as now – be able to use the margins afforded to artistic practice to continue to ask questions that resonate with the realities we are living through. From the pandemic, this means learning from the fault lines of inequality it exposed and a recognition of our dependency on essential labour. But it also means looking at how everything connects.

Influenced at the moment by the writing of Max Haiven, I don’t think it is productive to describe art as something separate, alternative or even genuinely antagonistic to capitalism or the ‘establishment’. If art institutions start to care more (whatever that might look like) they will pick up a social responsibility that should also be met by government initiatives. If future art institutions are to play more of a role in community building, it is among a broader culture of anti-immigration rhetoric and the polarising impact of social media. I’m not saying for a moment that art institutions shouldn’t care more or work harder at building communities. Rather, that the effect of the pandemic has been to show that everything is connected: Covid-19 swept across political, geographic, economic, social and cultural barriers as if they didn’t exist. If you push in one area, there will be a pull somewhere else.

So, rather than imagine some abstract future for art institutions where idealist aims are going to be realised, I’m going to speculate that they might have to – perhaps counter-intuitively – become more integrated into the social, political and economic fabric. I think the pandemic has brought us all ‘inside’. It has proven the Gaia hypothesis – that we all co-exist in this fragile, living bubble. I can’t really put it into words yet, but I think this will change how we think about the role of institutions and artistic production in significant ways. It will reform what we think of as inclusion, and – allowing myself a bit more imaginative space – might make us all push harder to ensure art and artists get a seat at the political table.