We catch up with Seán Elder, Grand Union‘s new Associate Curator, to find out more about his background, research and future plans.What drew you to the West Midlands and what have your impressions been so far?
I grew up in the North of Scotland in the Highlands and have made my way via Aberdeen and Glasgow to Birmingham. It’s become a joke amongst a few of my friends that I’m slowly making my way further south, and while it wasn’t at all deliberate it’s funny that there has been a linearity to it.
If I’m honest my first introduction to Birmingham through studying art was, as I’m sure it is for many people, Eastside Projects and its folding of curatorial, art-making, and production methodologies. I think also reading on the establishment of art spaces in a large, post-industrial city mirrored my then-home of Glasgow. Where those similarities diverged I guess was in the difficulty Birmingham has had in creating a network of such spaces. And where Glasgow has an abundance of artist-run spaces running successfully on mostly similar models, here in Birmingham there is a smaller network of quite different structures across Eastside Projects, Grand Union, Ikon and others.
My first happening across Grand Union came with their exhibition by Prem Sahib, and the fantastic reception that followed. I was very much drawn to a small, curator-led gallery showing work by an artist who seemed at the time on the tip of reaching the next level of his career. The giant cock ring hanging in the gallery also helped to pique my interest, of course.
Researching Grand Union’s back-catalogue following that and its quiet emphasis on showing work by marginalised artists and an incredibly rich extended programme meant I was always planning a visit at some point – so it feels odd to now be working as part of the curatorial team. Odd but very exciting.
Since moving I’ve been really welcomed by the people working within the city. It’s reminiscent of home in terms of the conviviality, though there seems to be less emphasis on status here as there can be in some circles, yet there’s always the occasional male ego.
You have recently been appointed Associate Curator at Grand Union, what are your hopes for the post? What are you most looking forward to?
I feel very grateful for the opportunity and excited for the years ahead within the capacity of this role. There’s a number of things about Grand Union which I think will benefit me greatly. Firstly, the speed at which a project develops. I’m somewhat of a slow burner when it comes to developing these projects and relationships and I think with social media, Instagram and the perception of speed at which some people work it often becomes a source of doubt.
I’m not really interested in short-form exchanges between artists and curators so this is a real opportunity to invest and nourish those relationships that are so central to developing towards something fully formed. Grand Union’s track record of commissions acting at an important intersection in an artist’s career is a reassurance that this long-form of curatorial dialogue is relevant and necessary.
Alongside this I’ll be working with the rest of the gallery’s amazing curatorial team – Gallery Director Cheryl Jones and Programme Director Kim McAleese. As Cheryl focuses more on the development of Grand Union as an organisation, Kim and I have a number of shared interests that are going to hopefully form an exciting and diverse programme over the next while.
The position also acts as a mentorship programme so I’m hoping to make connections with various established curators and practitioners across the UK to help to develop my own skillset and knowledge. I hadn’t realised just how ‘mid’ the Midlands were, so now I’m here I want to make the most of being so easily connected to the rest of the country.
Grand Union and other organisations located in Minerva Works such as Centrala and Vivid Projects have recently been awarded NPO status for the first time. What should we look forward to at Grand Union in the near future?
It’s been really exciting for Grand Union and Birmingham to have such a number of successes in the NPO funding round. For Grand Union I think it’ll help us to form a more robust action plan for organisation-wide development over the next few years across both the studios and the gallery and to think more about what developments in Digbeth and beyond might mean for our position in the city.
Our next show is the first solo exhibition in the UK by Susie Green, entitled Pleasure is a Weapon. The space is going to become home to drawing, painting and installation, animated by performance and sound throughout its life-cycle. Susie’s work is incredibly visually engaging, bright and enticing, but with a real depth of understanding and sensitivity to it. The extended programme is shaping up to be a really integral part of this – I’m particularly excited for a screening of Mano Destra (1986), a meditation on Lesbian fetishism and bondage.
Next year’s programme kicks off with Melanie Jackson, whose expansive research project is going to be taking over the gallery. Deeper in the Pyramid is going to be examining milk as a substance for probing social and political histories. Milk being something understood as “natural” but at the moment of consumption having gone through a process of homogenisation and modernisation.
This will be followed by a two-person show by artists Tako Taal and Rami George, based in Glasgow and Philadelphia respectively. I’ll be curating the show in dialogue with both the artists as they research their personal and cultural histories as a means of understanding their contemporary identities – whether racial, queer or gendered. This is at the earliest stages right now but I’m very excited to bring these artists to Birmingham and help the project comes to fruition.