Photo Oxford 2017 / An interview with curators Tim Clark and Greg Hobson
Leading up to Photo Oxford 2017, we thought it would be interesting to find out more from the guest curators Tim Clark and Greg Hobson, about the collaborative process of selecting, curating and revisioning the bodies of work that were showcased. Below, Caroline Molloy interviewed Tim and Greg about their experience of working collaboratively.
CM: It would be great to know a little more about you as curators, could you share some of your biographical experience?
TC&GH: Working as Curator of Photographs at the National Media Museum in Bradford and Media Space in London, Greg has over 30 years experience in photography exhibition curation and collection development. Recent exhibitions include Only in England – Tony Ray Jones and Martin Parr, Stranger Than Fiction: Joan Fontcuberta, Revelations: Experiments in Photography, and William Henry Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph.
Tim was Associate Curator at Media Space. His exhibitions include Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy and Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth. He has also curated many exhibitions independently, most recently Peter Watkins: The Unforgetting at Webber Gallery and Rebecoming: The Other European Travellers at Flowers Gallery, featuring Tereza Zelenkova, Virgilio Ferreira, Lucy Levene and Henrik Malmström. Tim is also known for his work as Editor in Chief of 1000 Words.
In the context of Media Space, where we worked together, we both realised that there were many opportunities to develop an exciting and dynamic programme that for various reasons beyond our control, we were unable to take. It was clear that we had a lot of overlapping ideas. Photo Oxford 2017 has given us the opportunity to harness that energy and work together productively.
CM: The title of the exhibition is intriguing, could you discuss how the overarching theme of Photo Oxford, Conceal/Reveal, was conceived?
TC&GH: Our ideas have evolved a great deal from the original proposal. Our original title was The Poetics of Secrecy, and within that theme we considered the following questions: What is photography’s role in revealing secrets? Who owns a secret and what rights do they have over its dissemination? In what ways can photography alter the truth or fiction of a secret? What secrets are not photographed? How do those keeping secrets intersect and interact with the world around them? Is it possible for secrets to leave no trace? Do secrets protect, empower or endanger us?
It is obviously with a heavy heart that, due to funding issues, we had to lose some of the exhibitions, all of which we believe would have contributed something meaningful and intelligent to our understanding of the theme and to photography itself. Sharing this information is not a critique, rather we believe it is useful to mention, as an insight into both our process and the space within which we’ve been able to act as curators.
We decided to engage in a series of explorations into the complex and often contradictory relationship between photography’s capacity to both conceal and reveal. Since the photograph is both exalted and decried for playing with appearance, and given its unique link to notions of both perception and reality, and truth and knowledge, we found the medium to be the perfect vehicle for an enquiry of this duality. Recognising that the photographer frequently uses the camera to lay bare what would otherwise remain unnoticed, we’ve placed an emphasis on works that bring to light stories, signs and memories that may otherwise remain hidden or obscured. In searching for some of history’s footnotes, we’ve tried to do justice to things, places and people that seem repressed, lost or dissident.
We are delighted that we have been able to proceed with a smaller, secondary reinterpretation of theme, and feel Photo Oxford 2017 offers a nonetheless powerful series of exhibitions and events.
CM: It is becoming increasingly more common to see artists work collaboratively, this is less the case with curators/co-curators. Under the banner of Conceal/Reveal, could you speak about the collaborative process of curation?
TC&GH: Curating is always a process of working collaboratively, whether with artists, collections, writers, scholars, venues and funding bodies and we both have a strong track record of operating in this way.
Regarding Conceal/Reveal, the process was synergetic. We had initially cast a wide net around the broader subjective of secrecy, into which we had both brought projects we had seen and felt strongly that they made a meaningful contribution to, and interpretation of the theme. Many of these crossed over, some were new to each of us. We then jointly interrogated the works, debating the extent to which they would strengthen a festival offer by selecting works that are both visually compelling and critically engaged. It is important for us to reiterate that what is on display in Oxford is only a fraction of what we would have liked to include.
CM: Does the process of curation change when it is approached collaboratively?
TC&GH: ‘Curating’ has become slippery terminology that has evolved to include the putting together of dinner menus or music festival line-ups. In this context we wonder if it might actually be redundant? At the very least, our collaboration has strengthened our programme choices, in particular by broadening our horizons and through a rigorous cross-examination of our ideas and proposals.
CM: There is a fascinating diversity of practices included in the festival, could you discuss your selection process?
We were interested in a range of applications and encounters with photography, but focused on what curator Dieter Roelstraete has referred to as the ‘historiographic’ mode; this includes the historical account, the archive, the document, the act of excavating and unearthing. Ultimately, each body of work presented in Photo Oxford 2017 is to one extent or another revelatory. Although at the same time, through their partial and newly negotiated narratives, complicit in the creation of new secrets and histories.
CM: Having selected bodies of work to showcase in the festival, could you speak about the process of conceptualising the work in the exhibition spaces?
TC&GH: The nature of the exhibition spaces available to us partly determined the final selection of shows. Martin Parr’s Oxford finds its natural home in the Weston Library at The Bodleian. The Barn Galleries are laid out across distinct rooms, which perfectly suited the fragmented narrative of Edgar Martins’ work. The Old Fire Station is a thriving arts centre that shares its space with the national charity, Crisis. There is regular visitor flow through the gallery for other activities, so the more immediately accessible Russian Criminal Tattoos seemed perfect to locate in this space. The amazing ‘OVADA’ is a gallery and visual arts development agency/space that offered both the self-contained foyer necessary for showing Mariken Wessels’ challenging body of work, in installation form, and the more expansive wall space for showcasing the open call.
CM: Given the same set of circumstances is there anything you could do differently?
TC&GH: Not in the same set of circumstances, no. Of course, we are constantly seeing new, super interesting work, discussing ideas that we would like to explore and hope that our collaboration will be iterative. We also see enormous potential for Photo Oxford to evolve and grow into the future.
CM: What advice would you give to aspiring exhibition curators?
TC&GH: Context is king.
Photo Oxford 2017 runs between September 8 to September 24 2017. Further details about the curators, the individual exhibitions and accompanying symposium can be found here http://www.photooxford.org/
For the final weekend of Photo Oxford, join Edgar Martins for his artist talk on the 24th September – details can be found here http://www.photooxford.org/events.html
Full captions for images selected at right, courtesy of Photo Oxford:
Edgar Martins, The albufeira (bayou) of Borba (Alentejo, Portugal), where several suicides by drowning have taken place over the years. Figures published in 2005 showed that the Alentejo district of Odemira had the highest suicide rate in the world, with a rate of 61 suicides for every 1000 inhabitants, 2001.
Edgar Martins, Personal belongings of a deceased individual, victim of a crime, circa 1920.
Edgar Martins, When a honeybee stings a person, it leaves a scent mark on its victim that smells like bananas. When one beekeeper had bananas for breakfast and then tried to stock his beehive, the insects poured out and stung him to death, 2016.
Martin Parr, The Ruskin School of Art Tutorial, 2016. From the series, Oxford. ©Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive, Sergei Vasiliev. Credit: © Sergei Vasiliev / FUEL. Print No.9, 1990. General Regime Corrective Labour Colony No.5. Chelyabinsk Region. The tattoos across the eyelids read ‘Do not / Wake me’. The genie on the forearm is a common symbol of drug addiction. If an addict is imprisoned for drug offences, he or she will have to go through withdrawal in the ‘zone’ (prison). Epaulette tattoos (on the shoulders) display the criminal’s rank in a system that mirrors that of the army (major, colonel, general etc).
Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive. Arkady Bronnikov. Credit: © Arkady Bronnikov / FUEL. Police Files 5. Lenin is held by many criminals to be the chief pakhan (boss) of the Communist Party. The letters BOP, which are sometimes tattooed under his image, carry a double meaning. The acronym stands for ‘Leader of the October Revolution’ but also spells the Russian word VOR (thief). Often tattoos with portraits of Lenin and Stalin are intended to show patriotic feelings. However, some prisoners had portraits of Lenin and Stalin tattooed on their chest for ‘protection’, as it was commonly believed that the guards were forbidden to shoot at an image of their great leaders.
Mariken Wessels, Taking Off. Henry, My Neighbor, 2015.
Mariken Wessels, Taking Off. Henry, My Neighbor, 2015.
Matthew Finn, from the series ‘Mother’, 1987-present.
Jocelyn Allen, 21st April (Today’s Look).