The avatars are coming!
The 2014 degree show for students earning a ‘Master of Visual Art’ degree at Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO) is organized a bit differently this year. The show’s curator, Marianne Zamecznik, presents part of the background for why it is necessary to re-think how to mediate craft art to the public.
«I want to contribute to new thinking on how para-production can take on new forms and be presented in an exhibition»Marianne Zamecznik
To work with students and ‘curate’ a degree show are exciting activities. I use inverted commas because I don’t curate in the proper sense of the term when not selecting the exhibition’s participants. Furthermore, the tradition of having a main theme is replaced with a concrete goal: to teach graduating students how to help the public experience and engage with their art, to wit, mediation.
It’s a privilege and a great responsibility to meet 23 soon-to-graduate artists. The privilege comes from our possibility to get to know each other well. The responsibility is great because much is at stake; the students are soon colleagues, and final decisions must be made on how their art projects, which developed over a two-year period, will be presented.
The degree show isn’t the same as an exam; it’s a course in art mediation:
'The contents of the teaching should help students gain advanced and specialized knowledge that strengthens their art production and practice. The teaching should contribute to developing their ability to contextualize and analyse their own artistic practice, and give necessary theoretical and methodological tools for being able to formulate their own artistic development projects at a high professional level.'[i]
To realize these goals – and at the same time add to innovative thinking about the degree show’s format – I chose some unconventional strategies that have challenge the students as well as the school.
For part one of the project, I asked the students to create their own graduate exhibitions. They should define the optimal mode of presenting their degree projects. The goal here was two-fold: first, it gave students training in thinking about the ideal presentation of their work, even in the early ideational stage. This thought process could inform all subsequent stages in a project’s development – irrespective of external factors (e.g., status, visitor numbers, budget, location) that necessarily limit the possibilities for a finished work.
The second goal was to stimulate a situation resembling the one they will find themselves in after graduation: they will often need to organize everything themselves, possibly without a budget. Here, however, they have had access to advisors and an institutional framework that provided safety.
The second part of the large project consists of the exhibition that we have created together at KHiO’s Seilduken Gallery. It opened on 6 June 2014. Here, rather than presenting their degree projects, the students present representations of the individual exhibitions they created earlier this spring. These representations, which we eventually started calling avatars, are meant to mediate their exhibitions instead of presenting their works directly.
Very Different Forms of Mediation
In most cases the individual degree shows took the form of solo presentation, although several students did choose to collaborate. The students needed to make decisions about all aspects of the exhibition, regardless of practical limitations. Whether or not a particular exhibition actually materialized and opened to the public was irrelevant. Yet although the students had the possibility of producing their exhibitions simply as models, most chose to present their actual projects in one form or another. I challenged the students to think openly about what an exhibition could be; the focus should be on accessibility and the way in which the public could engage with and experience their works. Rather than thinking in conventional ways, it was more important to think in new, individually-adapted ways. I’m struck by the many ways in which they finally presented their projects:
Therese Mathiesen showed her work in the context of a mass, as a corollary to a sermon. Signe Arnborg Løvaas chose the foyer of Det Norske Teateret (a national theatre) and Tegnerforbundet (the flagship gallery of Norway’s national organization for illustrators and drawers) as exhibition venues. Espen Tangen Samuelsen formulated his graduate show as a lecture that was included in the exhibition program of Svartjord (meaning ‘black, fruitful soil’). This is the name of a group established by the students Luca Andreotti, Siren Elise Dversnæs Dahle, Mari Østby Kjøll and Yola Marie Tsolis. They created the exhibition Prindsekjøkkenet, which is named after a specific location at Storgata 36 that the group rented from Oslo Municipality. Svartjord will also use this location as its hub in the future.
Helen Tolaas Coward and Therese Mathiesen, who had an ongoing dialogue throughout the two-year Master’s program, collaborated on the exhibition called developing (daily routines). It had a performative aspect, inasmuch as the artists continued installing objects throughout the exhibition period. Iulian Bulai’s project concerns, among other things, the intellectual rights to Gustav Vigeland’s Sinnatagen, a locally-famous sculpture of a screaming infant. Bulai made 70 copies of the sculpture and presented them in diverse contexts, including at Oslo Kunsthavn. His project was featured on radio, television and in newspapers.
Rebelica Angecca installed her handmade books at the bookstore Cappelens Forslag and at KHiO’s library, where she asked the chief librarian to write a text as a contribution to mediating her project. André Jarnvig Jensen, meanwhile, chose to present his degree show as a ‘battle rap’ at Blå (one of Oslo’s café venues for performing arts) during the month of February. The format of battle rap, which the artist has worked with for several years, has a strong focus on language.
Victoria Günzler curated two exhibitions – one focusing on the home as a context for everyday objects and activities, the other focusing more on the ceramic material. She also presented ceramic works made by designers. Merete Joelsen Aune mounted her solo show at Galleri BOA, in connection with the arts festival Oslo Open in April. Anette Krogstad arranged a series of meals featuring dishes and food as still pictures; the pictures became animated when the guests started to eat. Monica Flakk is one of the few students who chose to formulate her exhibition as a model. She created project sketches for Galleri Riis and Galleri 1857.
In sum, the students have shown that the ideal way of presenting their degree projects is often dependent on contexts specially adapted to their individual needs, rather than in traditional group shows where each participant is given a pre-measured space in a generic white cube.
The latter part of the big project – the avatar – is what triggered wonderment and reactions, not merely amongst the students but also amongst KHiO’s teachers. This is not surprising since, at least as far as I know, no such exhibition has ever been done before. There are, however, many situations where artists mediate their works indirectly – through catalogues, texts, photos, portfolios, webpages, lectures, self-presentations, applications, reports, artist’s statements, models, sketches and so forth. These are categories we are all familiar with, and from time to time they enter the limelight and are discussed and analysed. Even so, they are often only used for practical purposes. Therefore, rather than undergoing much development, these forms of production have remained quite conservative categories.
With the avatar, I want to contribute to new thinking on how para-production can take on new forms and be presented in an exhibition. Para-production can make an artist’s methods accessible to audiences, hence the goal of the project is that the students learn both to formulate and to mediate their methods as part of their artistic practice.
What has remained entirely open is how an avatar should look and which formal and content-related qualities it should have. The avatar is a new medium, invented for the goal of mediation, and I have challenged the students to think in new ways. Kjersti Lande’s avatar is made in the form of a sculpture containing all her production during the two-year period. For her, the studio or workshop was the ideal venue for presenting her degree project, and her exhibition was open to the public during Oslo Open in April. Given how the structure of her avatar is quite similar to the one she used when presenting her Batchelor degree project, it demonstrates that the form of mediation has been distilled and refined through her education, eventually becoming a more integrated part of her practice. André Jarnvig Jensen presents videos of battle rap together with a wall text showing the relation between this rap genre and Old Norse flyting – a type of verbal duelling. The artist group Svartjord has made a film about their exhibition at Prindsekjøkkenet, so theirs is a collaborative avatar. Iulian Bulais’ avatar is a version of the Sinnataggen-copy still in the moulding process. Sofi Karyofilis’ avatar is a sound work where one hears the sound of a hammer striking metal; it refers to the process of forging the metal objects that, during the same period, can be seen in a separate exhibition in one of KHiO’s galleries.
How Is It Possible to Mediate Craft Art?
The avatar exhibition has triggered both positive and critical voices, not least because the students are not presenting their degree projects in a traditional group exhibition at KHiO. Anders Ljungberg, professor at the metal and jewellery department, comments as follows:
'Material-based art, which I choose to call craft-based art, has long been subsumed under a hierarchical order that is based on ideas about there being a distinction between a spiritual or intellectual sphere and a physical sphere. Both as a teacher and a practicing artist, I have many times encountered prejudice and ignorance about the narratives that builds on the material and the narratives of making (handcraft, process). Many people have wanted to take control of the material narratives and subsume them under external theoretical descriptions. This has often been good, especially when the theoretical reflections have been necessary in order to understand the craft-based art in a contemporary context. Other times, however, the work has lost the means to act as its own mediator of knowledge about the materiality concept, the creation process and so forth. If we now choose to design a Master’s Degree exhibition without these materials, I feel we lose the qualities inherent in the work itself.'
For Therese Mathiesen, who has studied at the metal and jewellery department, the avatar represents an open space where she can create a fiction about the ideal mediation of her project.
'The first exhibition situation, developing (daily routines), was held in a gallery space. The second, VILJE (meaning ‘WILL’), was in a church. The experiences from these exhibition situations have shown me that my process in the workshop continues, albeit in a different way, in the exhibition situation. Just as in the production process in the workshop, so also in the exhibition situation: new materials are produced that I can use to develop the work. Then I discovered the most wonderful thing: I didn’t need to re-tell the event exactly as it unfolded. I could do what we humans tend to do: re-tell events the way we want to remember them. I’m an artist, I can lie and I know how to use Photoshop. I have my avatar.'
Diverging from the expectations also has positive aspects. The avatar is meant to contribute to the discussion about mediational strategies for craft-based art. KHiO, through this exhibition, shows that these strategies are being actively discussed through innovative degree shows.
The Taxonomy of Craft Art
The title for the avatar exhibition is a sentence borrowed from Michel Foucault’s book The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, where he refers to a text by Jorge Luis Borges that made him laugh. It makes for a long title:
[A] ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’.[ii]
As this title suggests, the mediational strategy for this year’s degree show is intended to help emphasize the differences between the students’ projects instead of focusing on their similarities.
The choice of emphasis has to do with the fact that the field of craft-art education, craft art and material-based artistic practice, at least in my opinion, operates with different taxonomies than do other fields of art that follow more homogeneous principles for modernistic ‘purity’. This is not to say that the field of craft art doesn’t strive for purity – this is certainly does – but it is constituted by several different professional fields that are defined by, among other things, materials, techniques and object categories that have each their own principles for ‘purity’, and which conduct their own discourses.
«What is craft art today?»Marianne Zamecznik
The focus on material qualities makes the field of craft art very complex, even though we may choose only two words – ‘visual art’, ‘craft art’ or ‘material based’ – as standard descriptors.
The way craft art is mediated (not just at KHiO, but also through the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts and other organizations) has to do with subsuming this complex field under one truth-regime. A complex field is defined under one unifying identity. A question is always being asked: ‘What is craft art today?’
Borges’ Chinese encyclopaedia, a place where diametrically-opposed, conflicting taxonomies exist side-by-side, is one model for defining the field of craft art as consisting of many different regimes for truth and purity. It offers a means for explaining how artists work; their methods must lay the conditions for how their works are read. These differences are best made visible through the mediation.
The aim for the degree show is to focus on elucidating the differences between the 23 students, differences that lay the conditions for how their works should be read – their methods and how they activate discourses in different ways – instead of trying to subsume them all under one reading. The avatars entail that viewers must exert themselves in order to read the works in the ‘right’ way, instead of using hackneyed concepts that misguidedly try to situate them under one unifying superstructure.
[i] www.khio.no (‘Curriculum for Master’s Degree course in Visual Art’, our translation.)
[ii] Foucault, M. (1970). The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, London: Routledge, p. xv.