Christopher Phillips:The New Innocents Abroad–Adventures of an Independent Curator



I started thinking about this talk some months ago, after reading a book by the independent film producer Christine Vachon called Shooting to Kill. The title is a play on the name of her film production, Killer Films, which has produced movies by people like Todd Haynes, Todd Solenz, Larry Clark and Cindy Sherman. Her book is fascinating because of the way it takes you behind the scenes of the indie film business, showing the intricate process involved in taking an idea and making it reality. She recounts the endless meetings, the bargaining sessions, she teaches you how to read between the lines of a film production budget. For anyone who's interested in how to organize complex creative projects, it's a remarkably useful book.

I thought it might be interesting to lead you, in a similar fashion, through the making of a small exhibition that I initiated called "Voices," which opened almost exactly a year ago at Rotterdam at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art. The show then traveled to the Miro Foundation in Barcelona, and closed in last March at a new arts center in the north of France called Le Fresnoy. I undertook this project for several reasons. As an editor at Art in America I'd often written about exhibitions, sometimes much too harshly and critically, and I had heard repeated complaints from curators that from the outside you can't imagine what goes on behind the scenes in trying to realize even a small exhibition. In this regard I found working on the "Voices" exhibition enormously eye-opening. I was also interested in the project because I felt I had a good exhibition idea. In the early 90s, I did a good bit of research on early Dada sound poetry and its relation to Dada collage. That got me interested in the work of Dada artists like Kurt Schwitters and Raoul Hausmann, who both did much experimentation with the human voice. They tried to break down spoken language into its constituent parts, just as collage broke down visual images into different parts and reassembled them. Looking more closely at the historical tradition of artists using vocal material, I became aware that, from the early 20th century up to the present, artists have regularly worked with the human voice as a material that can be reconfigured and rearranged in different ways. I also became very aware that there were many contemporary artists working with the relation between voice and image.

The origin of this project goes back to about 1995. It was at that point that I started having informal conversations with a few curators that I knew. I started with the idea of organizing a large historical show in a medium-to-large museum. I had been talking to the Spanish curator (Bartomeu Mari), who was then at IVAM, the modern art museum in Valencia, Spain. I had worked with him on previous exhibitions and we had a good working relationship. He shared an interest in the ideas I was pursuing. I was also in content with Pascale Pronnier, the chief curator at Le Fresnoy, a new art center in near Lille, which was still under construction at the time that we started talking. She was looking for shows to fill their schedule when the building opened.

I initially had in mind a historical show that would survey artists' uses of vocal material from Dada to the present. It would present pieces by Schwitters, Hausmann, and other Dada artists. There would also be listening enclaves where you could hear what composers like Schoenburg, for example, were doing with vocal composition in the early part of the century. The show would continue through the works of Antonin Artaud and some of the French experimental poets, and come up to Conceptual artists' audio tapes, presenting projects by Lawrence Weiner, Jenny Holzer and others. Then we would have perhaps two or three new commissioned works by younger artists, made specifically for the show.

We talked about these ideas for about a year, and I drew up a proposal, a preliminary budget, a preliminary list of artists, and so on. At the same time, I convinced my friend Judith Barry, a video artist living here in New York, to become my co-curator. I knew I needed someone who had practical technical experience working with video projection and audio systems, about which I knew very little. (Later, Judith gave up the idea of co-curating in order to participate as one of the show's invited artists.)

Phase One ended when suddenly Bartomeu announced that he was leaving IVAM, which had been one of the major potential sponsors of the exhibition, to become director of Witte de With, a contemporary art space in Rotterdam. But, he said, he was still enthusiastic about the exhibition project that we had been discussing. In May 1996, the four of us got together for a meeting in New York, and at that point Bartomeu and Pascale committed their institutions to a six-month feasibility study. Essentially, they offered Judith and me a modest stipend to prepare a detailed exhibition plan and a detailed budget, as well as a preliminary list of artists. We agreed, and started to work.

Problems started to arise very quickly, mostly owing to miscommunication. a fax arrived from Bartomeu, saying he and Pascale had decided that since they worked for contemporary art spaces, a historical exhibition wasn't quite what they needed for their institutions. They wondered if we couldn't perhaps rework the exhibition idea, cutting out all of the historical material and focusing entirely on contemporary artists. This was a surprise, to say the least. Judith and I had to make a decision at this point: whether to cancel the whole project or to begin revising the whole concept on the spot. We decided to do the latter, mistakenly calculating that later we'd be able to smuggle the historical sections back in. By July 1996, we had submitted a fifteen page, single-spaced proposal. It explained the rationale of the exhibition, identified possible artists who might be invited to take part, sketched an idea for the catalog and offered a timetable for completing the different components of the show. The proposal was well received, and suddenly everything seemed to be moving forward.

Judith and I proceeded, over the next six months, to flesh out the fifteen-page proposal and to consider possible funding sources. The good news came that a third institution, the Miro Foundation in Barcelona, had joined the project as the third institutional participant. Funding now seemed likely to fall into place. Because this had emerged as primarily a European show, there was funding available from the European Union's Kaleidoscope Program, which is designed to sponsor international exhibition. Witte de With seemed to have good prospects of grant support from the Mondrian Foundation; and Le Fresnoy, because it was funded by the French national government, appeared to have all the needed resources.

Despite these prospects, the overall budget that I presented ran into heavy resistance. Everyone thought the show seemed too expensive and wanted to whittle about 40% from our initial figures. I quickly learned that in Europe, cultural institutions such as these have not yet begun to think in terms of approaching private, corporate sponsors for supplemental funding. There were no substantial approaches made to any potential corporate funders, which meant that we had to deal exclusively with governmental agencies and private cultural foundations, and the limited expectations that are built into those funding sources.

At this point, nonetheless, we had a contract to produce the exhibition, and we began discussing the specific artists and works that would be part of the show. The thoughts that we entertained in making these selections ran along three lines. First, we were looking for works that ranged in time from around 1970 up to the present, to show changes in the way that artists in the last couple decades have imagined uses of the voice, within different kinds of artworks. Second, we wanted a formal range of works, from spare, minimal presentations to at least one or two more spectacular pieces. Finally, we wanted to incorporate a range of esthetic positions vis-à-vis the relation of voice and visual image. We wanted at least one or two works that had only sound components, with no strong visual image. We wanted a few where vocal material was juxtaposed with still photographic images, and we wanted some in which moving images were played off of vocal material.

With that framework in mind, we ultimately chose the following works. The first, earliest work was by a German artist living in France, Jochen Gerz. It was an audio piece from 1970 called "Speaking of Her," in which you put a phone receiver to your ear and you hear two voices speaking. One is a male voice speaking French and the other is a female voice speaking English. Both are reciting approximately the same text, talking about how difficult it is to conjure up in words the presence of a loved one who is absent. The second piece we were determined to get was an early Vito Acconci installation called "The American Gift," from 1976. It's a big, black, minimalist cube set inside four high temporary walls. You sit down and you hear Acconci's voice emanating from inside the sculpture, and what he's doing in effect is teaching the French how to speak their own language. Acconci, of course, didn't know French; he recited his words phonetically, teaching his French listeners to say how they loved Coca-Cola, and so on. It's an ironic commentary on the kind of cultural "globalization" that is so much a concern today.

We also decided to include five short Gary Hill videos from the late 70s, made when Hill was still in a very experimental phase and was doing short, focused works that consciously played off spoken material and tightly edited visual material. From the early 80s, we decided to use a piece by the Montreal artist Genevieve Cadieux called "Voices of Reason, Voices of Madness." In this piece, two enormous projected female faces go slowly in and out of focus over a 45-second period. At the point that they go totally out of focus, a thundering boom emanates from four large speakers set around the room. It's as if the speaking voice that can't find expression is displaced into this enormous, aggressive sound. At that point, the projectors slowly, over a 45-second period, start to go back into focus.

Turning to younger artists, we invited the New York artist Kristen Oppenheim to take part. And we discovered a terrific young French artist, Pierre Huyghe, who had done a very good piece called "dubbing" about translated voice-overs in cinema. We also invited Janet Cardiff, a young Canadian artist, to be in the exhibition. Over the last few years, she had been doing some fascinating audio-headset that created an interesting mix of fictional space and real physical space. And Judith Barry came up with an excellent idea for a double-screen projection work called "Voice-Off." On one screen, you would see the story of a woman, an opera singer who loses her voice and goes off in search of it in a foggy studio landscape. On the opposite screen, you would see the story of a man, a writer who is haunted by voices and begins to dismantle his house, trying to find the source of the voices in his head. In the last fifteen seconds of the piece, the two stories visually intersect.

Finally, because at least one Dutch artist had to be in the show in order to ensure funding from the Mondrian Foundation, we spent a good long while reviewing the work of a range of Dutch artists. We eventually settled on Moneik Toebosch, a performer and installation artist who had done several very imaginative audio projects in public spaces. o has a high-profile career in the Netherlands but is almost totally unknown outside of there.

We started discussions with all of these artists; and we began working on obtaining the loan of the older works that were in museum collections. We soon began revising the budget yet another time.

As we moved into late 1996, problems started to arise, mostly of a quite normal, predictable kind. There were a number of normal problems that arose quite quickly. We ran into trouble when we requested the loans of the pieces from Vito Acconci and Genevieve Cadieux, which were both owned by the Centre Pompidou. As it turned out, these installation works existed not as physical objects but as sets of highly detailed specifications for re-fabricating the installations. No deviation from these specs was supposed to be permitted. This led us into long negotiations with the Pompidou, trying to win permission to slightly modify the re-fabricated installations for the spaces in which they would be presented.

Another normal kind of problem arose when Janet Cardiff proposed to do a piece that was completely different from anything she had done before. She wanted very much to do a collaborative work with her husband, who is also an artist. The piece that they proposed seemed initially not very interesting to me, so we began to have long conversations about it, and eventually we all agreed to go ahead with it.

Now in addition to these perfectly normal bumps in the process of shaping an exhibition, there were some totally abnormal problems that arose. These kept me awake many nights. The first had to do with budgetary wrangling between the three organizing institutions. From the outset there were major delays of scheduled payments for the artists and various technical consultants. No one was receiving promised payments, and as the responsible curator I was the one who had to field the complaints that started to come in via phone calls and faxes. What do you do when you're eight months away from the opening of a show, and one of the artists who's supposed to be making a new work phones and says, "I'm still waiting for my production money. I've spent as much of my own money as I can afford, and I won't spend any more. Until I receive payment, everything is on hold. If I don't see payment within two weeks, I'll withdraw from exhibition." What I discovered--and I was interested to find this confirmed in Christine Vachon's book--is that all you can do is to try to create an atmosphere of reassurance and responsibility. You don't exactly lie, but you put the most positive spin possible on the situation. You say, "Don't panic. The money is there; it's in the budget, there's an administrative glitch but it's being resolved. Keep working, you'll get all your expenses reimbursed; and we'll all have an exhibition that we're proud of." Much to my surprise and relief, it worked out that way. But I spent an enormous amount of time listening to the complaints of the artists who were making new pieces, and then relaying their anguished concerns to the administrative people at the three European institutions.

We set the opening date for summer 1998 at Witte de With. While the artists were making their works and the loan negotiations were going on for the existing pieces, I started working with the publications director at Witte de With to design the catalogue. She proved to be an extremely talented and very organized young woman who was a perfect pleasure to work with. And at about this same point, in April 1997, I started having regular phone and fax communication with the installation designers at Witte de With. They would fax the room and floor configurations, and we started trying to imagine how to fit the works into the space in such a way that the resulting sound environment wouldn't be too chaotic. As it turned out, the Dutch installation designer was a real genius, and the installation of the show eventually proceeded almost without a hitch.

I'd like to show you now the videotape of the exhibition as it appeared at Le Fresnoy. (Videotape is shown.)

What are the lessons that can be learned about exhibition organization from this complicated story? First, you should be clear from the start about whether you want to make a group exhibition involving specific artists, or whether you want to make a group exhibition of specific works. If you try to mix the two approaches, you will run into immediate difficulties. Each kind of exhibition carries its own expectations, organizational procedures and criteria of success. The existing works that I chose for the "Voices" show were different in many ways, but they all shared one central quality: the relation between the artist's aesthetic idea and the material employed to realize it turns out to be both inevitable and surprising. Regrettably, the same could not be said of all the new works commissioned for the exhibition, which in some cases proved disappointing

A second practical lesson is that at the beginning of any exhibition project, you have to be certain that the chief administrative and financial officials at all of the institutions involved are fully informed and engaged in the project. This means that they have to understand, in detail, the exhibition concept, timetable and budget. Most important of all, the chief financial officer must understand and approve the schedule of payments. Paying more attention to this point would have spared me most of the worries that arose.

A third lesson is that in different cultures, there are different ways of resolving the conflicts that inevitably arise in a project like this. In French culture, it's important to realize that the bureaucratic and administrative structure is relatively rigid and hierarchical, so you really have to search for that one person who has the real authority to make a decision. Whereas in Spanish or, to a certain extent, Dutch culture, it's much easier to deal directly with different people in an organization, apply pressure to different points and get the action that you need.

In the end, I felt that the "Voices" exhibition achieved about 85% of what I wanted. My biggest satisfaction, I suppose, was seeing that this kind of exhibition model could work: a small, focused, intelligent show aimed not at a fairly sophisticated viewer. I was pleased that visitors to the show were able to understand both the individual works and the connections between the works. I was very happy to see people spending two to three hours with the exhibition, exploring different works in detail. Overall, at the three venues, somewhere between ten and twelve thousand people saw the show, which far exceeded my expectations. In the end, too, the catalogue turned out to be a really beautiful production that reflects the spirit of the exhibition.

I'll be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Audience: I have a question about the funding and where you get it. Do you apply for specific grants or do you just go to people individually? It also seems that collaboration between different institutions is becoming a big part of curating, and I was wondering if you could talk about that.

Phillips: With the increasing popularity of high-tech, multimedia installations, the cost of producing works and installing exhibitions has skyrocketed. Museums and art centers are constantly faced with the problem of covering these costs. All over the world right now, art institutions are beginning to turn to a new range of funding sources. In Europe, for example, national governments and the European Union are trying to help as many art institutions as possible by supporting selected projects. But ultimately, I think, and especially in the US, it's corporate sources that will increasingly be called upon to underwrite expensive exhibition costs. And I think that this development will have an enormous and unforeseen impact on the content of exhibitions.

Because of these rising costs, it's almost impossible for any single museum or art institution to finance a show like "Voices" solely out of its own budget. More and more, co-sponsorships are becoming the norm: three, four or five institutions, often in different countries, joining forces and pooling their resources. That approach is becoming more and more common.

Audience: Did all the artists get paid?

Phillips: In the end, they all got paid.

Audience: My question relates to the title of your show. In colloquial use of language, "voices" often relate to the writing materials, not just the phonetics. You chose, in this show, to focus on the audio and the phonetic, in speech, primarily. Why did you make that choice?

Phillips: In my mind at the beginning was the idea that the voice is a strange sort of intermediary thing, something that occupies a space between the physical body and the social space of language. That was the key idea that I hoped to explore through the juxtapositions of the works in the exhibition. There are, of course, many different ways you could go about doing that. At an early stage we talked about devising a section of the show that would explore the different uses of vocal material in contemporary pop music from around the world. We even had long discussions with one artist who wanted to present an audio environment with rap music, Moroccan pop music, Pakistani pop music, all demonstrating specialized vocal techniques that sound exotic to Western ears but have a different connotations to native listeners. In the end, we had to shelve this idea for lack of space and funding.

Audience: (inaudible) . . . in terms of capturing interest?

Phillips: At the moment, I don't think so. If there's a three or four year economic recession, you'll see a resurgence of interest in low-tech applications. That's what happened in the early 70s. Throughout the 60s, artists like Rauschenburg and others were involved with high-tech production facilities, making works that had enormous technological ambitions. In the early 70s there was a strong reaction against that direction. You saw people like Bill Wegman turning to half-inch, black and white videotape and making works that had no real production values, but still showed enormous verve, humor and innovation. For the next decade, that kind of work stole the thunder from the artists who had spent time chasing partnerships with Bell Labs. I can easily imagine that kind of scenario happening again.

Audience: You said that the cultural institutions of Europe had never thought about seeking sponsorship from corporations. Do you know why?

Phillips: It's an outgrowth of the European cultural tradition, where cultural sponsorship has been the responsibility prerogative of the national government. It's considered a matter of national prestige, unlike in the US. European political leaders are more likely to think it's a great boon to the international image of their country if their artists are seen as the leading artists in the world. That long tradition of government cultural sponsorship makes it very difficult for European curators to imagine going to the private sector for money; it seems unnatural. Things are changing, of course, but the overall attitude, even among younger European curators, is that you automatically go to your national cultural ministry, or your city's cultural affairs office, for support. Only if you strike out there do you think about approaching private sponsors.



Analysis by Luke Walden



Christopher Phillips' lecture was interesting because it provided a view behind the scenes of the production of a sizable but not enormous traveling art exhibition. His description of the enormous time and effort required to mount "Voices" at three locations in Europe led me to wonder how or why a show of this sort would ever reach completion. Indeed Phillips seemed at times to question his own motivation for staying with the project despite a seemingly endless series of logistical snarls and disappointing conceptual compromises. His evident sense of humor about the trials of such an endeavor seemed to be what got him through it all.

The details of the process and of the eventual form of the exhibition were themselves fascinating, but I found myself continually wondering why. Phillips didn't spend much time describing his own motivations for embarking on the project aside from suggesting that he thought it would do him good to experience the subject of his regular work as art critic and magazine editor from "the other side of the gallery wall", as it were. He said that he originally wanted to create a large historical show of work which used vocal material to be exhibited in a medium large museum. I can't help but wonder whether he was driven to attempt this in part to demonstrate (as a critic) that it really wasn't that hard to design a great show, and in this way to legitimate his critical credibility.

It seems that he was humbled in the attempt, however. And it is probably for the best. His grand exhibition doesn't sound like it could have been nearly as successful as the small exhibition he eventually put together. In any case it seemed that the defining feature of the process was money. The show seemed to suffer from a collective lack of willingness to commit to a certain amount of expense, but also from a gravitational pull which drew people trying to get a piece of the shows finances directed toward their own project, whether it was an overly elaborate installation or an unnecessarily "designed" catalogue.

The exhibition’s money troubles were exacerbated by the expensive technological requirements of many of the artworks. Phillips pointed out that increasingly art institutions are having to turn to a new range of funders because of the skyrocketing costs of technologically sophisticated exhibitions. This pointed to one possibly significant implication of art in and of a technological era: that, at least in America, corporate sponsorship and ever more elaborate technology would begin to generate art spectaculars which are experienced in the same way that we experience theme parks and Hollywood movies, as overwhelming, all-encompassing visual environments.

As art and entertainment converge in the terrain of new technology, we may see an increase in the public respect for art as it begins to look more and more like "mainstream" visual entertainment. Yet another contrary possibility is that as spectacular technologies begin to become absolutely ubiquitous, art and artists may react against them and take up old technologies which may come to have an aura of antique authenticity. As the digital imaging recording, manipulation, and reproduction of photographic images becomes more and more prevalent will the gelatin silver photographic print come to have the aura of originality that it has always lacked in comparison to paintings and drawings? Will the quaint and nostalgic anachronism of chemical photographic processes endow their images with the respectable qualities of craft which photography -- as an Art -- has always been criticized for lacking? Phillips astutely pointed out that the fashion cycle of high and low technologies in the arts is connected in part to economic cycles of boom and recession. In the current climate of exaggerated exuberance about the "New Technology" economy it is hard to imagine that any institution would resist the temptation to borrow the production strategies of TV, film/video, and digital multimedia.

It seems important in the context of these questions that the major lessons Phillips learned all seem like tips for successful business practices. It is important to remember that the business of art is just that, even and especially at the level of the not-for-profit museum show. The primary concern of any institution must be to perpetuate its own existence and that means that its dominant business strategy must be to carefully monitor and control its expenditure of money. A good example of this is the problem that faced Phillips and his co-curators repeatedly, that the multiple institutions he worked with all tried to delay payment for as long as possible in hopes that another institution would pick up the tab for any given facet of the production.

Given the pretense that the art world often puts on that art is somehow separate from money and economics, and that it flows from the genius and hard work of individuals who would sacrifice anything to create their life’s work, it would be easy to wonder, as Phillips did, whether the expensive new media are really worth the bother. Should high production values be left to the corporate concerns of Hollywood and network broadcasting? Should multimedia be left to the emerging corporate powers of the dot-coms? As artists many of us feel a responsibility to disrupt the continuity of the high tech cultural status quo. But I wonder if taking up the same tools and trying to simulate a comparably fantastic experience is really the way to do it. Imitation is the sincerest form of wishing you had what you don't have. Do we really want what Time/Warner/Sony/Microsoft/Nintendo have?