Speculative in nature, a model presents possibilities and examples to follow – or perhaps not. Three Models for Change is the title of a group exhibition at Stryx that offers up prototypes for change. Staging ambiguities, not certainties, the works by Chris Alton, Ian Giles and Greta Hauer ask separate questions about the formation of community and its relationship to society.
Determined not to conduct an online conversation, on 10 May Laura Onions sat down with curators Ryan Kearney, Alice O’Rourke and Ariadne Tzika to reflect upon their approach to curating this exhibition and discuss models for practice which involve real and constructed narratives.
Laura Onions: It’s a clear and purposeful decision to say no to the technology and not always let it be the mediator – working together and meeting face to face is important.
Alice O’Rourke: Curating is more than just putting on an exhibition, especially when working in a group, the conversations that happen are really important towards decision making and in realising that we really wanted to work with these artists.
LO: What kind of conversation would you like to illicit through this exhibition?
Ryan Kearney: We want people to really critique these models and have a conversation amongst themselves about how successful one of these models might be, how we change them or make them more inclusive. These are not utopian models that you could use to create a perfect world – but actually three options.
AO: Or examples maybe? We didn’t want this to come across as ways of making a society or for a community to work better – but these are just interpretations about how things can be different.
Ariadne Tzika: And maybe three different perspectives for society.
AO: I remember us being really drawn to the idea of fake news, fact and fiction. That was something we discussed a lot in the early stages, however there is more to this now and the idea of reality and fictive scenarios.
LO: Yes, constructed narratives are dealt with in different ways through the exhibition – I’d like to chat about that. I saw After BUTT by Ian Giles whilst it was at Chelsea Space earlier this year and I’m glad it is going to be shown here in Brum. The piece is a scripted performance recollecting upon the magazine BUTT to consider gay histories. It is a constructed scenario but the narrative the men perform comes from personal situations.
AO: Yeah, the words they are speaking could be their own and we are really interested in that blurring. There is not a set standard for what is real and what is not. There is an overlap that is apparent in all of the artist’s work in this show.
RK: Ian’s work really looks in to an awareness of social histories, queer histories and how this might have an influence looking towards queerer futures, so how this can influence positive change and being aware of these histories and also the imbalances within BUTT magazine itself.
AO: Chris Alton collaborates with communities. For the work in this show he is looking at Quakers who were punks. Still Anarchy is the creation of a fictional punk band, looking at how these separate groups aren’t actually that separate.
RK: In a sense it is a hybrid community, the two groups come from similar instances of political unsettling, so the Quakers come from a post English civil war situation and the punks are a very fractured group from a situation of negative political mess.
AT: Initially you believe that the two cannot come together, but they become untied in this band. In the exhibition are a series of zines and punk jackets which Chris made through workshops with community groups. All of the customisations on the jackets have either been given to him by Quakers or Punks so there something really personal and familiar to those.
LO: Do you think there is something within this exhibition about speaking to experience and how you articulate another person’s experience?
AO: In terms of the passing on of knowledge?
LO: Yeah, and whose knowledge is it? And how do we account for someone else’s story?
RK: A bridging between public and private lives you could say is at the heart of any activist movement. There is inherently something you identify with on a personal level, to some extent it will be private. Sexual lives and sexuality are private for example. So, I guess it is bringing out the private aspects that contributes to a larger discussion. There is a label built up of so many different experiences.
LO: Notions of inclusivity and exclusivity are raised in each of these works, which look beyond stereotypes to layers of intersectionality.
AO: So, the way that you handle those stories is important. Chris for example is a Quaker and that is why he knows so much. He is within that community. We are responsible for these personal accounts and making sure we tell them exactly in the way the artist wants to tell them as well. This is something we have had to consider in the handling of these works and it’s been really good for our experience.
AT: The three artists are telling a story and we are three different curators. This creates different perspectives which can be perceived in a different way by audiences, they might talk to them in different ways.
RK: So, Greta’s work, Vigorous Activities is probably the most typical model for change we might think of. A volcanic island that erupted around 2013 about one thousand kilometres off the coast of Japan. It’s very fresh, untouched, very new – no one has stepped foot on the island unless they are dressed head to toe in protective gear. There is potential for it to become a utopian community and environment untouched by political scandal.
AO: Yes, there is more discussion around territory within this work – maybe in terms of who owns what – it always goes down to greed and the politics of ownership. So, although on one hand there is this real utopian island, there are also the other problems which come with that; who claims it, who puts their name on it and its power.
LO: How do you create leadership that is not going to fall into the same trap or attached to singularities? But more of a community lead activity without hierarchies.
RK: That goes back to the idea of speculation – she is speculating upon who wants to purchase the island, or people who just want to claim ownership and sell it to the highest bidder. Greta alludes to Thomas Mores’ Utopia which is referenced in the drawing at the centre of the exhibition flyer – this perfect island, no place, untouched where the three different models co-exist.
AO: We have planned a Guerrilla Gardening event as part of our extended programme, which will be hosted offsite at the Digbeth Community Garden.
RK: Which in a way bridges the practices of Greta and Chris. It references the group Diggers who emerged at a similar time as the Quakers. They were a politically motivated group growing food in urban wasteland, against a growing anti-working-class narrative. And through Greta’s practice, the plant represents a kind of ownership. Japan inaugurates the volcanic island through indigenous plants.
LO: Guerrilla gardening is another approach towards change, creating space and community through feeding and nourishing the land, working together in a labour-intensive way.
AO: Through really informal chats about the development of Guerrilla gardening and particularly within Digbeth, this is an opportunity to be out of the gallery and potentially connect with a different audience but still in touch with the exhibition.
AT: We also have another event with Ian Giles. He is hosting auditions on 28 May to select performers for his new work Rainbow Flag Trojan Horse. This is a similar film-making process to After BUTT – he has scripted conversations with the friends of the Joiners Arms, a queer pub in London that was demolished to make way for luxury flats.
LO: I have written down displacement of communities, which is a different angle to the idea of models for change.
RK: The group campaigned to keep the pub, but failing this they pushed to have an LGBTQ+ community centre placed on the site, which has been successful. Rainbow Flag Trojan Horse will be a conversation with those campaigners – re-enacted by performers.
AO: Bringing the auditions and performance to Birmingham will be something specific to our city and its voices. As you say the idea of displacement – in this case – is also the moving around of voices, not just one location. It will be interesting to see how this resonates with people here and we are excited to see the final performance at Stryx 9 June.
LO: Have you had chance to reflect upon your curatorial approach? How do you think that has worked in relation to Three Models for Change?
RK: All of our practices are developing – one of my key interests at the moment is the archive – how that might be used to queerer futures, how you might use archives and histories to engage with culture and how this might have a positive influence.
AO: After working on this project I have been looking at more socially engaged practices. It’s important to me to bring other communities in who wouldn’t have necessary been to a contemporary art exhibition before.
AT: For me it was very important from the beginning that people can understand what we are talking about and feel that they can engage with the questions about society we are posing. So, I want there to be some transparency and for people to understand why we decided to exhibit these works.
LO: You are currently crowdfunding to produce a publication following the exhibition, what are the motivations behind this?
AT: This is an opportunity for us to extend the exhibition beyond its 10 days, as an ‘afterthought’ or an archive.
AO: This would be a physical trace of the show, including a commissioned text by a Birmingham arts writer that keys into the fictive elements of the work.
RK: This ‘afterthought’ will document the critiques and conversation that we hope will happen around the works; I am imagining the publication as a manual for positive change, one which is ever changing and can be built upon.
Three Models for Change is a collaboration with Grand Union and the University of Birmingham at Stryx. The exhibition runs until Saturday 16 June.