by Ana Finel Honigman
For “Duett,” her curatorial debut, critic Becky Hunter demonstrated how an excellent curator combines the skills of a scholar and yenta. The match Hunter made between Berlin-based British artist, Alanna Lawley, and Philadelphian photographer, Matt Giel, yielded an intelligent, creative, conversation about photography, distance, abstract communication and curatorship. In the spirit of today’s Internet age, the artists never met in 3D. Instead, they inspired each other remotely (via Sykpe, GChat and email) and collaborated together on a series of interconnected multi-media art-works at Philadelphia’s Grizzly Grizzly Gallery. Here, the three collaborators reflect on the process and its ramifications…
Ana Finel Honigman: Who paired these artists together? What was their relationship prior to the project?
Becky Hunter: The project has had an interesting reception. People have mistaken "Duett" for a solo exhibition, or have seen wonderfully complex connections and relationships in the two artists work. But they didn't know each other, or each other's work, prior to June/July 2011 when I introduced them via email. Matt Giel is an American photographer who has lived in West Philadelphia for the past seven years. I moved to Philly from the UK in May of last year, and found Matt's work to be the standout at his MFA show in the city. It was one of the first shows I saw when I arrived - it felt like a gift to stumble across such visually intelligent, physically present work so soon after arriving here. Alanna Lawley is a British artist who now lives in Berlin. I went to art school in London with Alanna in the early 2000s; I always admired her work - and her work ethic - but we probably only spoke a couple of times. Through a mutual friend, and from stalking her website, I followed her artistic progress from then to now. She also makes photographs that have much to do with physical presence, though often she works with the idea of denying access to digitally photographed, constructed spaces rather than forcefully inhabiting and breaking up the gallery space as she has done in "Duett".
Matt Giel: As Becky stated, she was the instigator in pairing Alanna and myself for this exhibition. Becky contacted me after seeing my work in my MFA show with an idea for a trans-Atlantic 2 person show, obviously I would not turn down this potential opportunity. I did not know Alanna prior to this (or Becky forthat matter); after viewing Alanna’s artist site I saw some tangential approaches to photography and I saw potential for our works to complement one another.
Alanna Lawley: Though Becky and I had spoken only a couple of times throughout our course at Chelsea, I had a respect for her clarity and insight. Becky contacted me in early 2011 with a proposal for an intimate show in Philadelphia; though at that stage we were unsure of who we would also be working with. I was first introduced to Matt’s work shortly after Becky had visited the MFA show and was inspired by the purity of his process and the admiration Matt demonstrates towards the physicality of the photograph.
Honigman: There is an old-fashioned feel to this project. Is it a response to the lack of ephemera-intimacy in the internet age?
Hunter: I'm glad you use the word "intimacy". I'm sure the artists will have quite different responses but, for me, the project began as a way to figure out how to make a home in a new country. I wrote to Alanna in April 2011 to ask if she'd like to work with me on an exhibition, and mentioned thinking about "ideas of moving and settlement" in the run up to my move to the USA to work in a gallery and be with my American boyfriend. Alanna's work has consistently engaged with what "home" is through constructing, collaging, and photographing uncanny, pared-down, and idealized domestic spaces. Close to "home" comes the idea of friendship: how to make friends in a new country; wondering what it really means to develop artistic relationships. So, Matt and Alanna were sort of guinea pigs in artistic exchange, in what seems now a way for me to make new ties on both sides of the Atlantic. It's out of convenience that we decided on Skype and GChat as the way forward in this exchange, rather than a more materially-grounded relationship that would have produced traditional forms of “ephemera”, say, an exchange of letters or even of art works in the mail. As an art historian, I love old-fashioned archival research, and I wanted to use the exhibition’s tumblr to create an archive of correspondence and press that might grow over time and become a resource for other artists.
But this is kind of personal to me - in terms of the artists’ actual practices, settlement and relationship are not necessarily the central themes. I’ll let
Giel: Oh my, the thought of corresponding through the postal service, while very romantic, sounds expensive and cumbersome. The lack of ephemera is just a reality; in the 21st century we don’t have as many things to take up space, this has its benefits and its detriments. My initial reaction to the term “old-fashioned” made me think it’s a response to my darkroom practice, I’m cautious to not let my medium become a gimmick. After properly digesting the question I realize it’s referring to the physical presence apparent in both of our works. We intended the viewer to have an experience in the gallery while also being transparent in how the show came together. In the process of getting it together I was not conscious of its “old-fashioned” sensibility, though I could see the reasoning behind that word choice.
Alanna Lawley: I’m personally relieved that we were using contemporary methods of communication, rather than having to trust that both Matt and Becky could decipher my handwriting in a letter that could also go astray in the post.
There’s no doubt that the show demonstrates a respect for the tradition of photography, yet we have used the medium in order to comment perhaps more on the way a photograph can be encountered beyond its more conservative format. For me, photography is a way of mediating an experience of the domestic environments that I construct. Stuck: Zwischen den Wänden (Piece: Between the walls), 2011 is a construction based on the culmination and ordering of ephemera from contemporary interior design magazines. And, whilst there is a stillness and intimacy to the show, the piece itself forces the viewer to re-establish their relationship with a space that ultimately rejects them. For me, perhaps this is more a comment on the bombardment of imagery that shapes the perception of an ideal home in contemporary society and how this is ultimately a construct.
Honigman: What determined your choice of location for the physical aspect of the show?
Hunter: My newness to the city was a big factor in which spaces I approached. I asked Matt for recommendations, and made the most of my attachment to Vox Populi Gallery (http://voxpopuligallery.org) (who helped me get my visa and have been massively welcoming and nurturing) and my position as a writer walking round galleries every weekend and talking to everyone I could, to meet other Philadelphia collectives who could potentially host the project. We thought about having an apartment show, fitting with the project's relational premise. But we decided that getting "Duett" into the "Vox Building" - as this particularly well-known collective gallery, studio, warehouse space in North Chinatown is known - would achieve maximum exposure for the artists. Grizzly Grizzly collective (http://grizzlygrizzly.com) was an ideal space to approach within that building. They were keen to get involved in the curatorial process, broadening those relationship-links. Grizzly also takes a strong interest in bringing artists to Philadelphia from outside the area, so the international exchange element was attractive to them. We're planning on travelling "Duett" to Berlin and London to continue that exchange in physical locations that are significant to Alanna and I.
Giel: I was thrilled when we secured Grizzly Grizzly for the exhibition, they are definitely a key player to the great reputation of the Vox building. Their small space, under 200 square feet, posed an interesting challenge to show Alanna’s large piece along with my works and I feel a sense of accomplishment that we pulled it off. Also I was happy about the pillar that allowed me to create a piece intended specifically for the gallery.
Lawley: Beyond the floor plans, measurements and photographs that Becky, Matt and the collective made available to me before the show, I was aware that I was going to arrive in Philadelphia and the gallery for the first time with many unknowns. This was at times unsettling due to the subject of my work and was careful to prepare as many models and maps of the space as possible in order to understand as best I could how we would be curating the works. It was great upon arrival to see the intimacy of the space with the high ceilings, which lent itself well to the 3 metre banners that had been printed.
Honigman: What are your thoughts on the image's relationship to physical form in Western culture? How does your awareness of the problematic relationship between image and space affect your appreciation of photography?
Lawley: Duett was a departure from the way I have used photography in the past to present the photographs of the environments that I construct. Matt’s work prompted me to start question the way I have always assumed the traditional method of photographing a subject and displaying it as one would expect on the wall. The use of photography has, for me, always been a way of controlling the experience and ultimately, access. Stuck: Zwischen den Wänden (Piece: Between the walls), 2011 was an opportunity to experiment with the physicality of the photograph whilst still maintaining that control. At every stage of my process, connections can be made to the spatial and physical relationships of image, space and photography and I find it interesting that in the digital age when we’re surrounded by so many images viewed on a screen that both Matt and myself have created a show that demands our photographs are encountered.
Giel: It is fascinating to me how photographs have become form-less, they can exist in a multitude of ways either on a screen or as printed material. II don’t feel many people really acknowledge scale, medium, or context when they look at a picture. I think these factors have some influence on how we receive images. My piece that hung on the pillar, was something of a reaction to this philosophy. The piece was made specifically to be pinned on bevelled corners of the Grizzly Grizzly pillar, the print was exposed on a replicated pillar in my darkroom. After the show the piece is effectively retired, its subtle bends depend on that pillar in the gallery.
Hunter: I’ve been thinking about Jennifer Bolande’s work recently - her retrospectiveexhibition opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (ICA), around the time that we installed “Duett”. She proposes quite complex correspondences between everyday, physical objects, the apparatus of analogue photography, and the physicality or, alternatively, the ephemerality of the photograph. Her body of work compiles many different forms of image transmission, from grainy fax and wire transfer to yellowed newsprint and pictures sent from space. What I find interesting about her photography is the way in which she engages physical sets, backdrops, or anthropomorphic props to support her images, for example a refrigerator door or a stack of wooden shims, underlining the fragile or oblique relationship between image and physical thing in contemporary culture.
Honigman: As the curator, do you consider yourself a collaborator in this project or more of a facilitator?
Hunter: I would start with the term "initiator" - I sensed connections between Matt and Alanna's work and asked them if they would like to make an exhibition together. Then, in the planning stages, I was definitely more of a facilitator, in the dictionary definition of "making things easier", rather than a collaborator. I nudged things along, wrote proposals, set deadlines, organized programming, found speakers, and communicated with the gallery on things like contracts, images, press, statements and use of the space. As an example of my role: Matt’s site sensitive photograph, exposed around a model he'd constructed of a pillar that stands in Grizzly's space. Not knowing about this, Grizzly collective decided to build a supply cupboard around the pillar, so I had to quickly step in and ask them to hold off until after "Duett". Finally, during install week - the only time we were all together in the space, as Alanna flew in from Berlin - I think we worked as a team when making decisions.
Honigman: What makes Philadelphia's art scene unique?
Giel: Philly is strange; it’s the fifth largest city in the nation but often feels much smaller as it is often overshadowed by New York. There’s a decent amount of artist collectives and alternative spaces that have a DIY approach, showing less commercial and more challenging work. I like what’s going on here, and being near New York is a huge bonus.
Lawley: As an outsider, Philadelphia was a small and intimate city, but one that catalyses a gathering of artists willing and hungry for dialogue and exchange. I look forward to any future opportunities that arise where I can be there again.
Hunter: Artists, writers, and curators in Philadelphia are very generous with their time no matter where they stand on the career ladder. It’s inexpensive to live here, which creates a less pressured atmosphere than London or New York - there’s financial breathing space which equals more free time to work on what you value the most. The ICA here is also a wonderful part of the art environment. It doesn’t have a collection, so the exhibition and program curators have flexibility to be a little more responsive to what’s in the air culturally speaking.
Alanna Lawley: www.alannalawley.com
Forthcoming show: Architecture as Human Nature, Supermarkt, Berlin – 8th July, 2012
Becky Hunter: http://beckyhunter.co.uk
Forthcoming show (curator): Art Writing, little berlin, Philadelphia - July 2012
Ana Finel Honigman is a Berlin-based critic. She writes about contemporary art and fashion for magazines including Artforum.com, Art in America, V, TANK, Art Journal, Whitewall, Dazed & Confused, Saatchi Online, Style.com, Dazeddigital.com, British Vogue, Interview and the New York Times's Style section. A Sarah Lawrence graduate, Ana has completed a Masters degree and is currently reading for a D.Phil in the History of Art at Oxford University. She also teaches a contemporary art course for NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development students. You can read her series Ana Finel Honigman Presents
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