Federica Chiocchetti / On Curating ‘Feminine Masculine’ for Photo 50, London Art Fair 2016
Photo50 is a guest-curated exhibition of contemporary photography featuring fifty works. It is located within London Art Fair and provides a critical showcase of some of the most interesting and distinctive elements of current photographic practice.
The 2016 edition of Photo 50 was curated by Federica Chiocchetti, Founding Director of the Photocaptionist, with an exhibition entitled Feminine Masculine: On the Struggle and Fascination of Dealing with the Other Sex.
Below, Photomonitor contributor Francesca Marcaccio recently spoke with Federica to learn more about her ideas behind the theme and selection of artists in this compelling exhibition.
Francesca Marcaccio: Could you tell us a little about your background and your work as the director of Photocaptionist? How have you developed your curatorial practice?
Federica Chiocchetti: My background is a bit nomadic. I studied economics, book publishing and literature. I lived between Milan, Santiago de Chile and New York the majority of my university years.
After a couple of years working for the Milan publishing house Bruno Mondadori, focusing on art and photography theory books, I moved to London in 2010 to do an MA in comparative literature at UCL, particularly Latin American and Italian authors. I developed my interest in photography through literature, thanks to my dissertation on fin-de-siècle spirit photography and ghost literature. I got fascinated by the way in which the two sister arts could interact and I started a PhD on photography and fictions, particularly image-text intersections at the University of Westminster with Professor David Bate. I was also spending most of my days at the British Library immersed in theory, and I felt I needed a more playful and experimental way to engage with my research.
The Photocaptionist appeared in a dream. A grumpy bloke whose job title was precisely Photocaptionist, had the curious task of finding or producing creative texts to accompany the photographs he received by various institutions, artists and random individuals. I forgot about him for a while. One day I came across an empty 1940s photo album in the streets of Derby, UK – where I was working as assistant curator of the international photography festival FORMAT. Its peculiar typestyle on the cover conquered me. Out of curiosity I commissioned typographer and artist Rob Draper to replicate the typestyle and form the word ‘Photocaptionist’. And there he was again, the imaginary bloke, grumpier than ever, working as a matchmaker between photography and literature, texts and images.
I worked incessantly for months with a great creative digital agency, Good Caesar, to put together an a-periodic platform that allowed me to explore the relationship between photographic images and words in all their glory: online – through editorial compositions, features, columns and an exhibition (Amateur Unconcern: A Photo-literary Fantasia) – and offline – through talks, physical exhibitions (Tommaso Tanini at Kunsthalle Budapest) and itinerant columns, where the Photocaptionist inhabited the pages of a number of international print magazines, such as Unseen Magazine, The British Journal of Photography, Objektiv, Photoworks. Supporting photographers who work with text through mentoring and photobooks’ editing is also one of our core activities. In a way the ‘curatorial path’ was always there since the beginning if you think that we launched the platform in June 2014 and our first exhibition at the Kunsthalle Budapest happened in November of the same year. Also, given I always had to work to sustain the platform – as we don’t do advertising – I tried to create synergies between my various jobs and the Photocaptionist. When I spent a year at the Archive of Modern Conflict with Roger Hargreaves, I mainly worked on an Italian press photography project, which then became an exhibition and a book, Amore e Piombo [Love and Lead] that we produced for the Brighton Photo Biennial. In press photography captions are quite important and with Hargreaves we developed the idea of a feature that starts from the caption, followed by a critical piece to only reveal the front of the image at the end. In 2015 I got an Art Fund curatorial fellowship in photographs to work the V&A and Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery. The artist whose exhibition I had to curate was Peter Henry Emerson, photographer and prolific writer. There couldn’t have been a better fit for the Photocaptionist.
FM: You are currently in the phase of curating the forthcoming edition of Photo50 at the London Art Fair 2016 entitled /with the title ‘Feminine Masculine: On the struggle and Fascination of Dealing with the Other Sex’. Could you tell us a little more about this exhibition and what is it about that topic that interests you?
FC: When the wonderful director of the London Art Fair, Sarah Monk, invited me to be the guest curator of their Photo50 exhibition for January 2016, I felt the need and desire to continue the ‘women in photography’ wave that has been a popular theme in 2015. However, I didn’t want to ‘exclude’ men from the ‘party’. The theme of women’s relationship with men is deeply complicated and I love working on topics that make me feel very confused and curious to research. Also it seemed to me a bit overlooked within the realm of photography exhibitions. At times ineffable and immaterial, the dynamics between the opposite sexes are a mysterious topic that appears to exist ‘beyond the camera’s reach’.
The exhibition navigates the relations between women and men from rigidity to flux, via obsession and boredom to question their obstinacy to photography. It sets out on an allusive visual journey into the struggle and fascination of dealing with the other sex, mixing satire, sadness, romanticism and exploring emotional clichés.
FM: Were you reading any literature or have you been inspired by any visual art or films when making this exhibition for Photo50?
FC: The list is very long but I will just mention a few sources. Godard’s 1966 film Masculin Féminin has loosely guided the development of this personal and unfinished research/exhibition because I was interested in the male/female discrepancy between speech, thought and reciprocal understanding that emerges in all its restlessness in the film. What caught my attention was its emphasis on youth’s hormonal revolution, the fact that it brings to light questions without the intention to resolve them and that it is punctuated by a number of masterfully crafted jump cuts, where, in the English edition, adroitly juxtaposed subtitles further evoke the estrangement and longing between male and female’s universes. Among others, Anne Carson’s compelling book Eros the Bittersweet (1986) was also a crucial reading. It describes ‘Eros’ as ‘always a story in which lover, beloved and the difference between them interact. The interaction is a fiction arranged by the mind of the lover. It carries an emotional charge both hateful and delicious and emits a light like knowledge’. It is precisely this interaction/ fiction between women and men, its emotional paradox and its presumed ‘unphotographibility’ that are under playful scrutiny in this exhibition. In terms of visual art, some of the artists included in the 1995 exhibition, Le sexe de l’art, at the Pompidou were also unconsciously influential in the selection of the Photo50 artists.
FM: The categories of Masculine and Feminine are often considered historical with changes to what constitutes each category shifting slightly over time. What does Feminine Masculine stand for in gender field, at present and what does it mean for you?
FC: This question would require hours of reflection but I have to be impulsive. So gender to me is mischievously and healthily promiscuous. I have two quotes from different epochs that I particularly like:
“It is absurd to divide humanity into men and women. It is composed only of femininity and masculinity.” Valentine de Saint Point, ‘Manifesto of the Futurist Woman in response to F. T. Marinetti’, 1912
“In the end every definition of male and female is personal, and it’s that idiosyncrasy we value, need and hope to encourage. Who do we think we are? A work in progress ♂♀.” Vince Aletti, ‘Male Female’, 1999
FM: You mentioned that Feminine Masculine: On the struggle and Fascination of Dealing with the Other Sex is primarily presented from a feminine point of view. According to you, what is it the difference of approach/vision, If there is any, between the different genders on the same theme?
FC: In 1937 critic S.R. Nalys wrote about the exhibition Women Artists in Europe at the Jeu de Paume: “Brutal man holds a lens like a machine gun. Woman, however wields it tenderly, caressing her subject with its gaze. A chasm divides the two gestures: femininity”. What a wonderfully wrong, paternalistic and confrontational idea. So wrong it’s almost quite fun.
FM: How much do you think the works in Photo50 exhibition are about sexuality and triggering sexuality and exploring sexuality?
FC: Quite a bit, but in a subtle way. From Crawl’s mysterious – and ironically self-censored – Handbook of Physical Culture for the Marriage, published in 1938 for private circulation, to Broughton’s Empty Porn Sets – where sex is there without being there, and Abril’s young couples offering online sexual performances to virtual Peeping Toms in exchange for money. Often is the concept of sensuality what is being explored.
FM: What kind of aspects make you want to select something in the artists artworks? Or is there something in particular in (each of ) the artists that attracts you like a process or a detail?
FC: I am interested in artists that are researchers, but also in those that are not afraid of being simple. It’s a combination of visual impact, story and technique. Humour also is an important aspect for me. Photographs that make me laugh, even if it’s a bittersweet inner smile or a pseudo-movement of the upper lip muscles.
FM: I would like to know more about your thinking process. How do your curatorial projects usually evolve? What kind of strategies do you put in place in order to translate your research visually and negotiate the gap between research and practice?
FC: I could go on for hours on this question but I’ll try to condense it into 4 approaches that I think I unconsciously followed for this selection, which all nurtured and informed each-other as curating is not a linear process, at least not in my mind. You might start with reading endless material on the subject still unaware of how it might influence your decisions, then an artist comes to mind, then you move to the space, look at the floor plan and divide it into sections, then you remember another artist or image that could work quite well, then you realise there are some other media or cultural artefacts you want to include, you go back to reading and research, knowing very well that ultimately you will have to go back to the space, the walls, the centimetres. It’s a pleasant and painful schizophrenic dance between all the above.
Some artists were a natural choice as they focus their practice specifically on the theme. For other artists that don’t necessarily work directly on female-male dynamics it was more an image-driven process, I wanted to build an open visual narrative and I extrapolated photographs that I felt supported or challenged it. Other important aspects for me are to always try and show some new work and to support emerging talents that are not yet represented by a gallery, to give them exposure in the hope that a collector or a gallery will notice them. Last but not least there is a certain surprise effect that I always like to keep to the end – a number of artists that I prefer to announce on a last minute basis without revealing any specific information about what will be exhibited, so that people have to come and see.
FM: Do you create an emotional connection to all the work, is that important?
FC: I am not sure I understood you question but if for ‘emotional connection’ you mean if every work in the show has provoked an emotional reaction in me the answer is yes. However I don’t create it is a natural response. I wouldn’t be able to work with artworks that leave me indifferent.
FM: What does curating mean to you? Why do you explore that? Is it for you or for an audience?
FC: It means to to investigate a theme and tell a story with objects, to animate a space, to inspire people. It is one of the jobs that mostly satisfy my restless yearning to learn and share.
FM: Archival material plays an important role in a number of your curatorial works/research/exhibitions. Do you think you have a particular way of seeing the world that’s related to archival researches, archival photographs?
FC: What I enjoy about archives is the tension between a sort of almost ‘secret manoeuvring’ hidden behind the reason why a particular image or object has entered the archive in the past, and the absolute openness to which the archive is left for people to explore at any point in history, if conservation allows us to of course. Photographs or objects are there, inert, leading a ‘half-life’ until they are ‘re-discovered’ and ‘re-introduced’ into the world. The best is when you weren’t even looking for something in particular and you come across the most extraordinary image.