Summary Notes from Susan Bright – Online Lecture 28th May and Conversation Arpita Shah and Dan Robinson 2 June 2020
Susan Bright “Collaboration and Creative Practice” – Online Lecture
Summary notes from a longer version I have on file. Susan Bright’s website also provides a lot of information about her. https://susanbright.net
Bright was a curator at the National Portrait Gallery before deciding to work independently in 2002. Four years concentrated work on one project, during her PhD, meant it was hard to find her place back in the world. She became an ‘acclaimed curator” without her seemingly doing anything, following her curation of the 2013 Exhibition at the Photographers Gallery – Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity ) I wrote about this here
Her aim with the Home Truths Exhibition was to generate empathy rather than rallying protest at a time when there was increased visibility of celebrity mothers, with private thoughts becoming public.
Major political reassessments in the Art World are important to consider throughout professional lives, e.g. 2019 backlash against the amount of male shows being an open letter to the then Director of Recontres d’Arles asking where the women are; So much going online during the Coronavirus pandemic; Changes in the “Me Too” movement.
She thinks the notion of ‘collaboration’ needs unpacking and remarked on Daniel Palmer’s book Photography and Collaboration: From Conceptual Art to Crowdsourcing (2017) where he claims that photography as a solo activity is a very paradoxical idea as there are many phases to photography, all of which involve other people. Bright thinks this is very interesting especially when looking at documentary which involves community – involving the community doesn’t mean it’s an uncontroversial and simple action.
When it comes to vision she can’t work on her own and there’s a whole eco system around curatorial practice. Bright illustrated this by going into detail about some of her projects, particularly ones involving Elina Brotherus who she first came to know in 2000 whilst an assistant curator at the National Portrait Gallery. When she was starting to work on the book and Exhibition on motherhood, Elina Brotherus sent her a picture from her work on Annunciation which was a private project. Bright was so taken with this and Elina’s story that she persuaded her to show the work but on the basis that Elina would never talk about the Annunciation project. This put Bright into the more traditional role of a curator – looking after and keeping control of the work. However, Elina Brotherus now does talk about that project because she is in a different place in her life.
Photo Espana looks to have been a very interesting project. Clare Strand, in collaboration with her husband, in the Discrete Channel with Noise involving a kind of remote painting by numbers and about photography’s inability to communicate. Sharon Core and Laura Letinsky in Double Take created eleven images between them that demonstrate a sophisticated questioning about photographic reproduction and Still Life as a genre. Delio Jasse, using archives of Portugese families who had gone to live in Angola where you couldn’t tell they were living in Africa with Jasse layering up the idea of identity, like a palimpsest. Patrick Pound holding his Exhibition in a museum having gone through the collection there and pulling out anything to do with air.
Bright referred to the way in which a curator becomes a member of a team where each take on different roles and hierarchy is stripped away. Also referred to the re-consideration of traditional models and how collaborative approaches demand reconsidering.
Dan Robinson asked for advance questions for Susan in their ‘Conversation’ – I asked, how Susan became a curator in the first place and what made her decide eventually to become independent. I’m also interested in curator roles – she talked about looking after work; also about being a member of a team, each with different roles and in collaboration, but not about the power of the curator in terms of who gets seen and who doesn’t. Could she also say more about the challenges of being an independent curator, including where she gets her own support from.
Susan Bright in conversation with tutors Arpita Shah and Dan Robinson 2nd June 2020
Condensed Notes from the Zoom Meeting:-
The traditional role has been research, manage collections and acquisitions – being a ‘keeper’. Usually via an Art History degree and then an MA. (Nowadays it’s through an MA then, possibly a PhD). Susan started in her late 20s via a BA and MA. taught for financial security.
Q.How does Susan work differently given that there are many types of curators and artists are curating too now?
A.Slowly; she is ideas-led rather than artist-led and thinks that needs an academic background. Hers was Art History & Design BA. Final lecture was on feminism – no one had contextualised for her the aspect of women in art. An MA at Goldsmiths followed – all theory – and her dissertation was on accessibility which was ‘thrown’ to the Curating Dept as no one knew how to mark it. At the PhD point she wanted to do this on motherhood.
Q.The artist and curator relationship.
A.Even though not providing feedback, has a good memory for it and will pass on to others. Elina Brotherus was the first contact she had outside NPG.
Q.Collaborations and blurring of boundaries.
A.There comes a time when you need to separate, give each other space. Curator/artist relationship is different from critic/artist relationship. A curator is more of a sounding board, an editor – working together and she gives her opinion and teases things out. Most of curation is admin so it’s good to work with artists.
Q.Artist contact with curator – tips?
A.Contact in person; be coherent, don’t be defensive, have a thick skin and be polite. Do the research about Susan and her interests. Contact people you think will be interested in your work. Don’t be drunk or stoned and ‘have a shower’. If you email give a link to your website. She always responds even though not necessarily providing feedback.
Q.How did the “Home Truths” Exhibition evolve and how did it reflect the work.
A.Stemmed from auto/biography. Susan had moved to New York during PhD (?) and scrabbling for reading. Had just discovered she was pregnant and with a mix of emotions. She read Moira Davey’s Mother Reader (2001) which helped so much. Janine Antoni’s work seems to have been pivotal for her – portraying the ambivalence of motherhood; endurance’ having to hold everything together. She didn’t want the ‘Madonna’ mother. In the work of Elina Brotherus – the quest for pregnancy. Re hanging the Exhibition – looking at abundance and loss – wanting to carry this through into the hanging of the Exhibition, with the need to be simple, subtle with a sense of passing through and noticing.
Q.Self-curating tips for solo and group shows.
A.Don’t be sloppy, detail is important. It’s not just about the aesthetic but the detail behind it. Make a scale maquette using graph paper. Susan does use software (but not Sketchup). Think of yourself as an audience member. Perhaps a portrait at the beginning as a welcome. Think about the flow. Text is tricky – you will need it at the beginning for a hook but don’t necessarily need captions on the photographs. Susan keeps a note of piles and piles of installations that she likes.
Q.Power distribution, the lack of female perspectives and changes that need to be made.
A.Susan had noted the ‘black square’ galleries posting (#Black Matters) that haven’t shown black artists. The artist talks during the Covid 19 lockdown have mainly been by men. Susan doesn’t like all female shows (NB said Motherhood although I recall only two male photographers). Most photography students are women but most competitions are mostly men. There’s a need for small project spaces for women – e.g. Whitechapel Gallery perhaps.
Student Questions – through Zoom ‘Chat’
Q.Does She ‘censor’?
A’“No’ but organisations do, e.g. no nudity in China. ‘Explicit work in Home Truths seems really explicit on screen but small on a gallery wall. You need to be secure in your choices.
Q.How different is curating of books?
A.Susan sometimes wants to write but in other cases decides an Exhibition is best. Has now written seven books and this entails a different ‘brain space’.
A.Two on hold at present and re-assessing for a while. She enjoys radio broadcasting and always has a ‘bright’ BA student in mind.
Q.Age cut-offs in Exhibitions?
Q.Thoughts on exhibiting on-line?
A.She has never seen a good on-line Exhibition. It needs a good IT support system. Thinks Google Arts & Culture is interesting to look at for ideas.
I think Susan Bright was in the right place at the right time and chose her topic for Home Truths well. Definitely a different way of looking at Motherhood, although I think some of the photographers were in the path of some of the 1970s photographers and artist as seen in the Photographers Gallery Exhibition Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s – not about motherhood but in being more explicit about women’s bodies. I certainly don’t think she became an ‘acclaimed’ curator without her seemingly doing anything; An enormous amount of effort must have gone into the organisation of it all and the networking involved. I’m guessing that the early collaboration with Elina Brotherus might have enabled her to engage with a wider network too and the success of ‘Home Truths” would mean her name became known amongst photographers who would be keen to work with her. I like the idea of being ideas-led rather than artist-led and her description of the way she works does sound very collaborative whilst putting her in a mentoring role too. Also, the very careful attention given to how the work is presented in relation to its concept, although having a bright BA student in mind as the visitor to an Exhibition might not work as well to attract those who are neither artists themselves nor experienced at visiting Exhibitions.
The advance questions I sent to Dan did get answered in general except for the one about the power of the curator in terms of who gets seen and who doesn’t so I’ll keep my eyes open for some reading on that and I’ve ordered the Daniel Palmer book.
I was very interested in Bright’s reference to auto/biography. I do remember reading somewhere about her being pregnant at the time of the Home Truths Exhibition. Once again, we have the evidence about the importance of personal experience in art and how it permeates through one way or another. Good advice about artist contacts with curators and concerning portfolio reviews too I guess (a pity that Bright doesn’t do them), on reading up about the reviewers and their interests.
Her mention of small project spaces for women photographers was interesting; within a larger gallery of course but could also be a good idea for places outside London. I also found a 2019 video on YouTube (reasonable length) with Aly Grimes who is a young independent curator and between 2012 and 2015 was co-found director and curator at Stryx – a female led artist-run project space and studios in Birmingham . She talks near the beginning of the video of training with the School for Curatorial Studies in Venice. (See here )
Lastly re on-line Exhibitions – I think it would be good if Arpita and Dan could have shown Susan how Graduate work is being presented at the moment by OCA students. I’ve seen three excellent ones so far, presented in different ways that fit their themes.
Davey, M (2001) Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood: Essential Literature on Motherhood. Seven Stories Press.
Palmer, D. (2017) Photography and Collaboration: From Conceptual Art to Crowdsourcing. UK. Routledge.