New Narratives in Crafts

Editorial for Norwegian Crafts Magazine 3/ 2015: The Craft of Storytelling

On 19 November 2015, Norwegian Crafts, the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts and the National Museum in Oslo will hold a seminar on curating. Entitled ‘New Narratives in Crafts’, the seminar seeks to discuss different modes of curating in order to stimulate critical thinking about curating and disseminating contemporary crafts.

The seminar raises questions such as: Is the exhibition as a medium a ‘natural habitat’ for contemporary crafts? What kinds of narratives are explored in a crafts exhibition? To what degree are crafts curators authors of new narratives? How do the objects themselves inform the process of exhibition making?

We have invited Chuz Martines, Ben Lignel, Emily King, Jorunn Veiteberg, Ingun Myrstad and Marianne Zamecznik to address these subjects at the seminar, yet the list of invited speakers is not yet finalized.

«While discussing with other curators, Gjertrud Steinsvåg reflects on her own approach to curating this exhibition»

The seminar follows a thread in Norwegian Crafts’ activities and interests over the last few years. My colleagues and I have been increasingly conscious of how and why works of craft are combined in exhibitions. In the Sino-Norwegian exhibition Beyond G(l)aze, Gjertrud Steinsvåg at Norwegian Crafts functioned as the producer and facilitator for collaboration between four curators – Heidi Bjørgan and Bjørn Inge Follevaag from Norway, and Feng Boyi and Wang Dong from China – to create a ceramics exhibition. Using curators with extensive experience was crucial for being able to reach the utmost level of artistic quality and for setting up an interesting juxtaposition of art from the two countries.

Steinsvåg, who has a degree in curatorial studies, is also skilled in the craft of curating. Her knowledge of exhibition making and of various curatorial methods has come to expression in several exhibitions, one being In the Margins of our Minds (2014) – a selection of site-responsive installations around Dublin Castle, co-curated with Susan Holland. Here the two curators invited ceramic artists Corina Thornton, Katrine Køster Holst and Lillian Tørlen to ‘address the nuances of three very different spaces within Dublin Castle’. The curators ‘worked with a four-step concept consisting of a site visit, studio work, installation mounting and the end result of in-situ installation’ (quote from the catalog). While this is not an unusual way of working with art in public spaces, the method opens up for a creative process where the artists shape their works in dialogue with a specific site and situation, and where the curators serve as conversation partners throughout the process. Each step of the process was defining for the end result and became an intangible part of the exhibition. What was especially successful with this way of working was that the context for the works was integrated into the works (so to speak), giving them a ‘striking presence – almost as [if] the art works have human volition or personality’ (quote from the catalog).   

In 2016, Steinsvåg will curate the 42nd edition of Tendenser (Trends) – an exhibition that in a Norwegian context has become important for contemporary crafts. Shown in an idyllic manor house in Moss just outside Oslo, the exhibition has a reputation for being ambitious and for having an edge and attitude. Tendenser has previously been curated by Glenn Adamson,[1] Love Jönsson, Jorunn Veiteberg and Louise Mazanti, to mention a few. In a text commissioned for the Nordic issue of the magazine Kunsthåndverk (issue 03 / 2015) and also published in this issue of Norwegian Crafts Magazine, Steinsvåg reflects on the history of this exhibition and discusses its qualities with a number of people who have a relation to it, such as ceramicist Anders Ruhwald and ceramicist and curator Heidi Bjørgan. In the text, Steinsvåg raises questions about curating crafts in general, using Tendenser as a ‘lens’ to aid her investigation. While discussing with other curators, she reflects on her own approach to curating this exhibition.

«Zamecznik holds the qualities of a curator-critic who both ‘performs the curatorial’ and writes critically about it»

A game of whispers

Working with process-oriented curatorial models is something Marianne Zamecznik has been preoccupied with lately. I’ve previously written about her curatorial work with the Master degree exhibition for Oslo National Academy of the Arts – where the concept of the ‘avatar’ was central – and I have published Zamecznik’s own reflections on that exhibition in Norwegian Crafts Magazine (issue 2/ 2014). I believe Zamecznik’s way of thinking about and making exhibitions will prove to be inspirational to others who are interested in challenging the format of craft exhibitions. Her latest exhibition concept has been used for the Nordic Pavilion at Revelations Fine Craft and Creation Fair (Grand Palais, Paris, 10-13 Sept. 2015). It is based on a collaborative model with four other curators from the Nordic countries - Kathrine Borup (DK), Katarina Siltavuori (FI), Agnieszka Knap (SE) and Anna Leoniak (IS) – and uses the principle of the children’s game ‘Chinese whispers’ as a method. Zamecznik wrote an introductory statement and selected the first work. She shared pictures and texts about the chosen work and its maker with one curator. This curator then chose a work that related to the first work and then shared that work with the next curator – and so on. The process started in May and continued for 25 weeks: one curator after another selected a work to be included in the exhibition. You can read about the exhibition magic language /// game of whispers in this issue of Norwegian Crafts Magazine.

Zamecznik holds the qualities of a curator-critic who both ‘performs the curatorial’[2] and writes critically about it. The combination of critical writing and exhibition making is why I invited her to contribute to the recently published book Crafting Exhibitions (Norwegian Crafts & Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2015). The other contributors are Glenn Adamson, Maria Lind and Anne Britt Ylvisåker, all curators who have made interesting exhibitions and who write analytically about the ‘craft’ of exhibition making. The book offers examples from the exhibitions the curators have been involved with, and it will hopefully stimulate new discussions on exhibition making.

While we who work at the Norwegian Crafts office initiate, produce and curate exhibitions, we also think it is important to stimulate critical thinking as a tool for development. This goes hand-in-hand with reflection, which in turn may lead to learning and progress. Crafting Exhibitions aims to contribute to discussions about exhibition making, and the seminar ‘New Narratives in Crafts’ is a continuation of that process.

«I believe Bourriaud is one of the most significant and influential art theorists of the last twenty years»

Portrait of the curator-critic as a synthetic figure

In this issue of Norwegian Crafts Magazine, I republish an interview I did with French curator-critic Nicolas Bourriaud in the fall of 2012. I believe Bourriaud is one of the most significant and influential art theorists of the last twenty years. He is constantly developing new concepts about contemporary art and using new perspectives to analyze art’s relation to society. He is also an important curator – and he is concerned with the synthesis of curating and critical thinking. He was inventive when he established and ran the art institution Palais de Tokyo with Jerome Sens from 1999-2006, and at the time of the interview, had recently been appointed principal of Ecole Nationale Superieur des Beaux Arts in Paris. He already had many ideas for how to renew pedagogy. As readers of Norwegian Crafts Magazine may have noticed, Bourriaud has been influential for my own thinking on aesthetics and contemporary society. I re-publish this interview because it gives insight into the life of a curator-critic who began his career at a time when the concept of the curator was little discussed. Today he is among the best known curators of our time. To me, Bourriaud represents a generation of freelance curators who became ‘stars’ in the art system, at a time when exhibition making became a craft in its own right. He has had a crucial role in defining what curating is and can be. Steinsvåg and Zamecznik, by contrast, belong to a new generation of curators who seek to redefine exhibition making and to challenge the authority of the ‘star curator’.

I hope these texts can inspire others who work with exhibition making and be of interest to those of you who will attend the seminar in November. Hopefully we will all gain new perspectives on the ‘narratives’ of crafts exhibitions after reading this issue of Norwegian Crafts Magazine.

[1] I interviewed Glenn Adamson when he curated Tendenser in 2013.

[2] A phrasing borrowed from the book Performing the Curatorial edited by Maria Lind (2012).