Conceptual Appropriateness

‘Conceptual appropriateness’ is a personal judgement that takes a leaf out of the book of conceptual art. The conceptual artist seeks the best vehicle for the idea or concept at hand. Likewise, the curator of research seeks the best vehicle for the research at hand based on its aims and objectives. On both counts there is a clear refusal to default to traditional methods of production, a desire to find a shoe that fits.

Even though my natural compulsion is to think beyond text – it may be that a book is the most conceptually appropriate output for the project. This would be true in the case of George E. Mitchell Carvings (2018). The aim of this project was to unify, contain and maintain the legacy of a collection of undocumented carvings by my grandfather, with my family concerned the objects would gradually dissipate over time. I wanted to take some pressure away from the collection’s new custodians and the objects themselves and in turn come to know a man I never knew through the things he left behind. One of the things he did leave behind were several cloth-bound books containing plans and ideas. My output therefore is an edition of six books. Each takes on the role of the heirloom, the document, the special object, the encyclopaedia, the ‘complete set’. One copy given to each descendent and one added to the accession file for a carving that has been in the permanent collection at Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum for 70 years.

Living Legacies (2013) involved an initial consultation with the subjects and participants of the project, organised by the commissioning charity LinkAge. This unearthed personal and collective concerns surrounding a lack of legacy for groups of elders they support. Settling in the UK, now with the backdrop of old age, caused them to feel like they’d inadvertently opted out of having a legacy, and into a sort of cultural isolation. Living Legacies therefore became a touring exhibition of large format portraits. For Black History Month they replaced the gilded oil paintings between the councillor’s chambers and meeting rooms in Bristol City Hall. So in moving between rooms, in making decisions about the city, the councillors would see the faces of those who would be directly affected, not an 18th century politician.

Traditional representation of legacy in European art leads us down the road of grand portrait paintings and statues in public places, victories, remembrance, stature and even perhaps decadence. Predominantly modelling the portraits on Sir Thomas Lawrence paintings was a poignant juxtaposition in a few ways; He was born in Bristol at a time when the social landscape was very different, painting people who were in some sense ‘legacy hunters’ in exchange for money. So these new portraits were gifts of a legacy earned by people who have settled in Bristol. Further shows were hung at M Shed Museum and the Malcolm X Centre and a small image given to all subjects, who at each opening would organise singing flash-mobs, thus contributing to the charity’s work on alleviating the social isolation old age can bring.

 

 

Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection by Krzysztof Wodiczko (2012) dealt in the legacies of an unheard group of people by delving into the consequences of war by interviewing veterans regarding their personal experiences. The interviews were made into a projection which appeared to animate the Abraham Lincoln statue in Union Square Park in New York (a site well- known for protests in support of social justice). The participants appeared to speak through Lincoln, making their experiences known to those in the park. An educational programme was also developed for 7th and 8th grade students in Manhattan, which fed into existing modules covering American history.

 

 

The National September 11 Memorial (Local Projects, 2014) navigated tragic events in the design process by making an algorithm that arranged the 3,000 names of those lost by ‘meaningful adjacency’. The relationships between people on the memorial dictated where they were placed, as opposed to something generic like alphabetical order.

 

 

The targeted intervention at the Miss Peru Beauty Pageant (Al Jazeera, 2017) is a good example of conceptual appropriateness playing out in a non-art, non-academic setting. The contestants subverted tradition by delivering statistics on violence against women at the moment they would normally announce their body measurements. What seemed like a simple modification of proceedings targeted a very specific audience (the watchers of beauty pageants) in a very direct way. In addition, the framing and documentation of events meant it was pre-packaged in a media friendly way and could be seen and shared far and wide with minimal effort. If we plot this against the potential viewership of an exhibition on the same topic inside an institution we start to see different curatorial questions unfold. What is to say the same curator could not be behind both the intervention and the exhibition? Would the news coverage become a video installation?

Everyone could (or should) have something to say about how much they consider something to be conceptually appropriate. Even two different curators could have wildly differing opinions. This is one reason why the selection of outputs is a collaboration, a conversation between experts in research and experts in communication.