curatorial lens vol. 11/ joseph constable

Joseph Constable speaking on the exhibition Minoru Nomata: Windscape at the De La Warr Pavilion, 2022. Image courtesy of DLWP.

Joseph Constable is a London and East Sussex-based curator, writer, and producer. With an educational background in English Literature, Art History, and Curatorial Studies from the University of Edinburgh, University of Toronto, and Royal College of Art, he won the prestigious NEON Curatorial Award (2015), in collaboration with The Whitechapel Gallery.

Constable previously curated for Serpentine Galleries in London, where he co-organised exhibitions of Hervé Télémaque, Cao Fei, Albert Oehlen, Luchita Hurtado, Grace Wales Bonner, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Ian Cheng, Arthur Jafa, John Latham, Lucy Raven, and others. He also co-curated Park Nights 2021, Serpentine’s interdisciplinary live programme, and worked on three Serpentine Pavilion commissions. With a particular interest in artist moving image, Constable is also an active producer, working with artist filmmakers on the realisation of new works and organising film screenings at venues such as Hackney Picturehouse, Peckhamplex Cinema, Mindscape Universe, Berlin, and Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea. Since 2021, he is Head of Exhibitions at De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea.

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: How would you define the role of curator?

JOSEPH CONSTABLE: For me, I would say that it’s an ever-changing role. I think I’ve always thought of myself as being very much a facilitator, but perhaps this sounds rather clinical in tone. Essentially, I see myself as someone who helps artists in realising their ambitions and visions, but also considering the stories that they might have to tell, opening up these stories to the different audiences that experience them.

A question that I’m always asking is – what can I learn from artists, and how can this help me imagine new ways of making exhibitions? In a wider sense, it’s also about imagining new ways of thinking through relationships with others, different ways to live, different ways to love, and different ways to care. What kinds of stories can artists tell us about our world, and how, in turn, can they help us to reshape the stories that we tell others? And how can these stories help us to picture a more just and equitable world?

I guess, in a way, it’s quite a capacious idea because it’s thinking about the curator as something ever-changing, just as artistic practice is ever-changing. But for me, something that’s always really important is the act of listening to artists while also making space within curatorial projects to develop and think capaciously, to continuously create antidotes, tensions, and resistances to the paradigm of white-heterosexual-patriarchal-capitalist dominance.

LŠ: As you talked of an ever-changing curatorial practice, how has your own developed over time?

JC: My curatorial practice started when I was studying Art History and English Literature at Edinburgh University. I started to take an interest in working with artists by collaborating with my peers from the Edinburgh College of Art and also other artists that were working locally at the time. After Edinburgh, I went to the Royal College of Art to study Curating Contemporary Art, a Masters course that really grounded me in the relationship between theory and practice that’s embedded within the role of a curator. It was also during this time that I developed a particular interest in moving image, specifically around a project with an amazing tutor called Karen Alexander, who is a film curator, in which we spent time exploring the archives of LUX towards a series of film screenings at Hackney Picturehouse.

While I was studying at the Royal College of Art, I also started working part-time at Serpentine. I was able to run across the park between RCA and Serpentine, as they were very close! This was an incredible opportunity to gain first-hand experience of working on major exhibitions within an intense institutional context. Soon after graduating from RCA, I worked as a Projects Assistant for a producer, Jacqui Davies, a space within which I was able to further my interest in moving image. In hindsight, this time was incredibly formative and was the starting point for how I have continued to develop a research-based practice that bridges curating and publishing, scholarly writing across visual art, film and literature, and independent projects – exhibitions, screenings and film production. I also think that the Serpentine’s focus on commissioning and working site-specifically within the framework of exhibition-making has been very influential to me. When I first started there, I was lucky enough to work on the exhibition of Adrián Villar Rojas, Today We Reboot the Planet, which enacted a total transformation of the Serpentine North Gallery: the floor was covered with bricks made in Adrián’s studio, also a traditional brickwork in Rosario, Argentina.

This approach to commissioning in a very site-specific way, of exploring the transformative potential of a space, has stayed with me and is evident in the many different projects that I was lucky to work on at Serpentine, both as Assistant and Associate Curator (2016-2021). I’d say that my curatorial practice does lean towards working one-on-one with artists, as I really enjoy moving from the inception of an idea to its realisation. It’s about the entire process with all its messiness, constant evolutions, and change – I find these elements to be the most exciting. 

Hervé Télémaque: A Hopscotch of the Mind (Installation view, 7 October 2021 – 30 January 2022), Confidence (Secret). Photo: Hugo Glendinning. Image courtesy of Serpentine Galleries.

LŠ: Could we discuss your current role as Head of the Exhibitions at the De La Warr Pavilion and the upcoming exhibition programme that you conceived?

JC: I think that a lot of the questions around storytelling and new ways of learning that I highlighted earlier are essential to the sensibility and approach that I am interested in developing. What can we learn from artists when imagining new ways of being? What does it mean to love and feel the love? These questions underpin how I see the future of the De La Warr exhibition programme developing, but I think that it’s important to emphasise that this future is one fundamentally led by the vision, the stories, and the imaginations of artists.

In the coming years, I hope to build upon the internationally recognised programme of ambitious, diverse exhibitions, new commissions, and interdisciplinary projects by creative practitioners for which the Pavilion is well known. We will continue to think in concert with our audiences, listening and learning together in order to understand the needs of those in our immediate community and further afield. We will reimagine the Pavilion as a site for storytelling, building meaningful relationships across communities, disciplines, and creative practices. In turn, we hope that the stories that we tell and are told will help us to reflect and comprehend our circumstances and our differences with compassion, imagination, humour, solidarity, and dignity. This approach also involves working within the building, thinking about potential touching points across exhibitions, learning and participation, and live programming. 

For the autumn/winter season, artist Zineb Sedira will present her first solo exhibition in a UK public institution in over 12 years. Conceived in collaboration with Dundee Contemporary Arts, this exhibition was originally programmed by Rosie Cooper, previous Head of Exhibitions at DLWP, specifically focusing on Sedira’s ongoing investigation into the conditions of translational trade, identity, and migrant consciousness in a post-colonial context, within which the sea is a recurring motif. Our coastal location is therefore key to how visitors will experience the exhibition and the fact that one can see our building as a vessel sitting as a witness to the movement of people across the water, and, of course, the terrible loss of life that has occurred over the years. It is a notable moment for Zineb, as this exhibition follows her exhibition, Dreams Have No Titles for the French Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Through our conversations, we have thought about how to trace certain connections between bodies of work created over the last ten years. Beginning from Zineb’s fascination with the sea as an enigmatic yet geopolitically charged space, the project spans a period from 2008 to the present day in order to build an oceanic archive centered on the power of images to reconstruct our understanding of history. It’s really about linking the concerns of these older bodies of work with Zineb’s current interests around archives, and her unique ability to recreate spaces within spaces and images within images.

For our spring 2023 season, we will present a multimedia project called Up in Arms with artists Anna-Maria Nabirye and Annie Saunders, centred on ideas around feminism and interracial friendship through social practice, installation, and performance. The structure of the project began in the time just before and after the election of Donald Trump, in the autumn/winter of 2016. It’s a project about finding intimacy, community, and new ways to communicate and collaborate in the face of racism and fragmentation within our everyday lives. As part of the process, we will work with local residents of Hastings and Rother through social practice sessions facilitated by the artists as safe spaces for open discussion. The resulting documentation and recordings will be integrated into an expansive installation in the De La Warr Pavilion’s First-floor gallery, comprising film, photography, and archival material.

Our second exhibition will be the first major solo exhibition in a public institution by artist and filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax. I first came across Madsen’s work at Berwick Film Festival and was completely mesmerised by his ability to tell stories with such texture and honesty. We will be presenting a new multi-screen moving image installation around ritual, gesture, and desire, together with a series of previous films and photographic works. In a way, there is a connection to the Up in Arms project through certain semantics and pathways towards intimacy, but within Madsen’s work, we are confronted with differing modes of biological and chosen kinship, specifically through a trans and queer lens.

I’m really excited about this first season of 2023. There are currently more things in development, but nothing that I can announce at this stage!

Installation view of Minoru Nomata’s Windscape at the De La Warr Pavilion, 2022. Photo by Rob Harris with image courtesy of the De La Warr Pavilion.

LŠ: Of course! You also initiated a Curatorial Fellowship programme at the De La Warr Pavilion.

JC: This is another aspect that I wanted to embed within the exhibitions programme by making space for artistic and curatorial development. In terms of the Curatorial Fellowship, this was very much conceived in response to the fact that many opportunities for emerging practitioners can be quite elitist. They exclude a lot of people who either can’t afford to work for free as a volunteer or don’t have access. One thing that I was quite keen to initiate after starting at DLWP was a fellowship programme for curators, which is something that I’ve developed with Ben Urban, director of Flatland Projects, an exhibition space close to DLWP in Bexhill that produces artist-led exhibitions and artist development and community opportunities. For the first edition of the fellowship, we have created a flexible structure that is formed in line with the professional development ambitions of the curator, providing them with a fee and budget to realise an exhibition at Flatland Projects and also to work closely with Ben and I on the development of our respective programmes. I hope that this fellowship opportunity will become a mainstay of our programme. 

In general, it feels like an exciting moment in Bexhill, because historically much of the artistic scene has been located in Hastings and St Leonards. With Flatland Projects recently moving from Hastings to Bexhill and the opening of the Beeching Road Artist Studios that it forms part of, a new ecology is developing.

LŠ: I also wanted to touch upon your experience of creating an online exhibition of artists’ moving image with K11 Art Foundation.

JC: Out of Blueprints was the only online project that I organised during the pandemic and it was directly related to the exhibition of Cao Fei called Blueprints, which I curated with Hans Ulrich Obrist at Serpentine. This exhibition opened in March 2020 and closed just two weeks after opening due to the pandemic. Hans Ulrich and I were therefore thinking through this moment and kept returning to this statement: out of blueprints, new realities emerge – new realities that were affecting everyone around the world in different ways.

This online programme, a group exhibition of works by artists living in East Asia, was, therefore, a way to resist ongoing travel restrictions and the closing of international borders, thinking about how we could find connections with and “travel” to other spaces, albeit virtually. We worked with K11 Art Foundation and NOWNESS to host the platform for the exhibition and worked with a series of curatorial advisors: Cao Fei, Venus Lau, Yang Beichen, and Yuko Hasegawa. In essence, there was the desire to give a small but hopefully meaningful platform for artists and audiences with works that were freely accessible around the world. It was also a way to show support and solidarity with Asian people during a moment when racism and xenophobia towards them was, and continues to be, particularly heightened.

Cao Fei, Blueprints (Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, 2020). Photo credit: Gautier Deblonde. Image courtesy of Serpentine Galleries.
Cao Fei, Blueprints (Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, 2020). Photo credit: Gautier Deblonde. Image courtesy of Serpentine Galleries.

LŠ: How do you see the future of exhibition- making in light of the ever-changing world?

JC: Given the extended sense of anxiety that is pervading the world right now as a result of the social, political, and economic turmoil playing out in front of us, I think that curating within this climate must continue to follow artists and pay attention to the intimate, psychological manifestations of this turmoil. I often question how helpful exhibitions that proclaim certain grand statements about our world are, especially when those statements are the voices of curators rather than artists, but for me, I think there remains a desire to keep finding, exploring, and championing new narratives and possibilities through exhibition making, always searching for ways to bring joy, empathy, and love together within this magical potential. Artists have long been offering alternatives to the constructed and regulated nature of our everyday lives, but now more than ever we can trace a series of crises: those of our bodies, our ecologies, and the systems that continuously attempt to control and govern them.

I think a lot about José Esteban Muñoz, a queer theorist and writer who spoke about the ways that so much of what we might think of in terms of futurity is already embedded within the present. These are not distant entities and realities, but rather glimmers on the horizon, and our ability to maintain a certain level of hope in being able to reach that horizon is what’s key. It’s a case of sitting in the present but simultaneously looking at how we can tear it apart and reconfigure it with the traces of something better, traces that are always already here. And I’d say that artists have a very good intuition for this.