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Curating the experience: Staging photography in the exhibition „ANGRY: Young and Radical“

Position by Iris Sikking

Iris Sikking (1968) is an independent curator working in the overlapping fields of photography and video art. Her research and curation focus on collaboration and developing new strategies for storytelling, utilising digital media and multiplatform practices. She has a particular interest in cinematic approaches, with an eye for narrative structures. She served as producer and curator for „Poppy: Trails of Afghan Heroin“ (2012), a four-channel audiovisual installation by Robert Knoth and Antoinette de Jong, which travelled worldwide and was published as a photo book. For the Fotomuseum in Antwerp she curated Yann Mingard’s „Deposit“ (2015). In 2018, she was invited as guest curator for a group show for Kraków Photomonth. „A New Display: Visual Storytelling at a Crossroads“ focused on new forms of creating a visual narrative and opening up the practice of documentary photography.

Copyright all images: Paradox, the Netherlands

„ANGRY: Young and Radical“ was a multi-platform project which took place at the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam in 2011. In collaboration with Paradox, I curated and co-produced this exhibition, along with the accompanying website and educational trajectory. This exhibition was initiated by Paradox, the foundation I was affiliated with during that time, and also included a public campaign, a website and an educational trajectory for secondary schools. The project was a team effort; although I am credited as curator and co-producer, in the remainder of the article I will use the plural when speaking about decisions during the production and curation. Although the research started in 2010, the actual production took around a year and involved a team of approximately 20 people. For further information visit: http://www.a-n-g-r-y.nl and http://www.paradox.nl/project/angry/#exhibition [both accessed May 13, 2019] With regard to the development of my practice as a curator, „ANGRY“ has served me as an example of how to address a thematically driven exhibition project. The experience taught me how to create an exhibition architecture that strengthens the individual artistic works while at the same time providing editorial layers that deepen the chosen theme. The display of works and elements in the space, through which we aimed to contextualize the exhibition’s topic of being young and radical, were part of the spatial architecture as a whole. Altogether, these created an experiential field – in other words, a spatial environment that allowed the visitor to observe and experience the underlying concept of the exhibition via the artistic positions.

 

In this article, I want to discuss the physical organization of the works on display in „ANGRY“ and elaborate on the motivation to construct a rather stark architectural design with additional graphical informational layers to challenge the visitor. In a contribution to the volume „Why Exhibit? Positions on Exhibiting Photographies“ (2018), I reflected on my curatorial approach to the program of another exhibition – or rather composite of exhibitions –, the Krakow Photomonth Festival, for which I compiled the 2018 edition.Time is a Luxury: Space of Flows in the Space of Places“ in: Why Exhibit? Positions on Exhibiting Photographies, eds. Anna-Kaisa Rastenberger and Iris Sikking (Amsterdam: Fw:Books, 2018) and for more information on this edition of the Krakow Photomonth, see http://2018.photomonth.com/en/main-program/space-of-flows/ [accessed May 17, 2019] As with „ANGRY“ a few years earlier, I aimed to create a powerful narration for the Krakow Photomonth as well, communicated via the spatial lay-out of the exhibition, that supported the festival’s theme. In my essay for „Why Exhibit?,“ I used the following five terms – ‚program,‘ ‚walk-through,‘ ‚argument,‘ ’sequence‘ and ‚interval‘ – to explain the many considerations that led up to the spatial lay-out of the Krakow festival program, which was  spread over 10 locations in the city centre.For a precise definition of these terms I refer to the PhD thesis by Natalie Hope O’Donnell “Space as Curatorial Practice: The Exhibition as a Spatial Construct,” Oslo Centre for Critical Architectural Studies (OCCAS), 2016, available at: https://www.academia.edu/28429224/PhD_thesis_Space_as_Curatorial_Practice_the_exhibition_as_a_spatial_construct_2016_ [accessed May 13, 2019]To further explore ANGRY, I want to use the same method to provide insight into the rather intuitive process of curating an exhibition. Using the five key terms mentioned above, I will accompany the reader in walking through the exhibition, analyzing its architecture and reflecting on the notion of the ‘experiential’ in relation to this show.

Explanation of the project and the exhibition’s architecture

 

The multi-platform project „ANGRY: Young and Radical“ aimed to show that radicalism and terrorism (the latter a term, unfortunately, often used in relation to radical behavior) has existed throughout the ages, and within a range of cultures. Looking back at history, one notices that angry, protesting youth are often considered foolish utopians. However, their ideals sometimes become the norm later on. This is why „ANGRY“ was as much an ode to being able to devote oneself uncompromisingly to a good cause as it was a mirror for those who had lost their youthful idealism. Because isn’t indifference more radical than engagement? The urge to start this particular project came out of our curiosity about how ‘radicalization’ has become such a hot topic since 9/11. Has there indeed been an increase in radical behavior among young people in our time, or is it a matter of a distorted media representation?

The intention of the program for „ANGRY“ was to provide possible answers to the central question: is there a heightened tendency towards extreme forms of activism today? And furthermore, how do photographers and video artists respond to – and question – the representation of the radical? Which perspectives can they offer us to rethink and reconsider the place of the radical within our society? The latter could be defined as the argument of the exhibition. Early on in the production process we decided to collaborate with an architect rather than an exhibition designer because we wanted to integrate, or even mirror, the public space into the interior spaces of the museum. The public space is the area where the radical often acts and reaches out to gain maximal attention. Public space is also the arena for the perennial public debate about who is radical and what is seen as radical.

The Nederlands Fotomuseum offered their spacious 800 m2 first floor, which facilitated playing with the architectural design. In collaboration with TomDavid Architects we proposed a transformation of the museum space into a built environment, suggesting a cut-out of a city – a slice of a constructed environment, as it were.

The visitor was invited to enter a grid of streets, each of them ‘ending’ or ‘starting’ on different sides of the interior of the museum, and people could walk at their own pace. In total, works from 31 international photographers and video artists that touched upon the representation of the radical could be explored in this cityscape.

The works ranged from portrait series and documentary reportage to immersive audio-visual installations. Many of the building blocks contained video works; the outside walls were used for the photographic works. The walk-through the city was not signposted. However, we had an overall idea behind the order of the installed works, which I will address later on.

The title „ANGRY“ was the first thing visitors encountered after they entered the exhibition space. To build the blocks, we used cheap wood paneling and while referencing the selected work of Jules Spinatsch, we decided to leave the wall structure open on the ‘outside’ of the exhibition grid. Spinatsch’s series „Revolution Marketing, Evian/Geneva“ (2003) shows the coverage of inner-city storefronts with wooden boards, which had been installed to minimize eventual damage done to these properties by the protesters taking part in the G8 demonstrations at that time.

The work of Englert & Morgen caught visitors’ eyes when they turned the first ‘street corner.’ These large-format prints depict staged scenes of young people expressing the typical body language and gestures of the protester, as they are manifested in our visual media culture.

A central part of the exhibition was formed by ten video portraits of (former) Dutch radicals, ranging in age from 19 to 67, directed by Eefje Blankevoort. For more information, see https://www.prospektor.nl/angry-nl [Dutch only; accessed on May 13, 2019] All video portraits of (former) Dutch radicals are on http://www.a-n-g-r-y.nl/radicalen/They were questioned about their motivations to call for action upon a certain cause and whether they would define themselves as radical. The people presented here addressed their convictions regarding issues such as human rights, animal testing, religion, and the Moluccan community in the Netherlands.

Apart from the selection of Dutch and international artists, we collaborated closely with an organization based in Rotterdam Zuid which is well rooted in a former working-class area on the southern side of the city’s river, where the museum is also located. With the help of local scouts, youngsters from different communities and students addressed the topic of „ANGRY“ from the point of view of their own generation and perspective. This resulted in three projects that we installed as an integral part of the exhibition itself.

Furthermore, we found it important to contextualize the topic within a wider historical frame, to underline the fact that radicalism is far from unique in our times. Before the point at which the visitor entered one of the streets, a graphical timeline was installed depicting historical events (1950s–2000s) such as revolts, attacks, and radical movements that had had an impact on society and were part of our (Dutch) collective memory. On this timeline we added a thumbnail image of each of the artists’ works in order to situate their narratives in relation to these events, and we did the same with small pictures of the people portrayed in the videos.

Last but not least, we conceived an open space in the heart of the ‘city’ as a place for coming together and listening to music tracks via headphones. In a projected animation on four ‘billboards’ quotes and statements extracted from a variety of media outlets and publications offered an impression of the different voices, such as government officials, politicians, journalists, academics and the youth themselves, taking part in the debate on radicalism. Inside the exhibition architecture these quotes were brought in juxtaposition with the artists’ works and the video portraits so as to open up and broaden our thinking about how radicalism is perceived today.

How to create an experiential field while exhibiting photographic works?

 

The architecture of the exhibition was set up as an invitation to wander around within a cityscape in order to ‘meet’ the radical and reconsider one’s opinion about what is assumed radical. Thus the exhibition space itself became a metaphor for the cityscape, the habitat of the radical.

The design of the mise-en-scène, the exact placement and arrangement of the works, was primarily based on the individual qualities of the work, the specific presentation formats needed, and the possible interaction with the nearby works. These aspects can be analyzed via the terms ‚sequence‘ and ‚interval.‘ ‚Sequence‘ informs us about the order of the placement of the works, and ‚interval‘ about the amount of space in between each of them. In this respect, each wall was a new blank page – or an empty façade – on which a project was arranged in such a way that it could optimally communicate the maker’s underlying intentions. The cubicles and street patterns created a natural ordering in the sequencing of works and the intervals in between the projects.

Ranging from a huge print of a staged scene representing a hostage by Yvon Chabrowksi (see image, on the right) to wall paper prints in different sizes in Julien Röder’s work, I think that the playfulness on the walls easily sustained the attention of the visitor. Moreover, the selected video works were able to reach our senses and emotions in a more direct way; it was in fact the audio layers that were responsible for this.

The first cubicle, with the title of the exhibition on the outside, contained the immersive video installation „Non-Specific Threat“ (2004) by Irish artist Willie Doherty. Even though his work does not refer directly to “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, Doherty often draws on this conflict and its representation in the media. In the wall projection, a camera revolves around a bald-headed man in a blue-jean jacket while a voice reads a text that may, or may not, belong to this man. His motives, origins and intentions remain unanswered and the viewer is confronted with the fact that the words may be an expression of his or her own fears and prejudices.

When visitors turn a corner after viewing Doherty’s video, they encounter works that address the representation of the radical via different media, such as the posters representing young suicide “martyrs” on the West Bank and Gaza photographed by Ad van Denderen. The posters were presented as film posters, almost overlapping each other, directly glued onto the exhibition wall. The visual language of the self-made posters is reminiscent of action movies like Rambo. Or, visitors would take time to watch the seminal filmic essay „Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y“ (1997). In this work, Johan Grimonprez remixed news fragments, advertising clips and amateur images to trace the history of plane hijacking, showing how news media can be easily manipulated.

In this part of the exhibition there was also room for questioning what we are actually looking at. The video installation „Glutinosity“ (2001) by Aernout Mik depicts how police officers try to tear apart a group of protestors in the street. After a while it is no longer clear, however, who is fighting whom and thus the question arises: who is actually in control? The video turns out to be a carefully staged and choreographed scene about power.

The further viewers walked into the ‘inner city,’ the more it was up to them to rethink their positions and prejudices towards the proposed personal stories, as they were confronted with particular artistic positions.

Take, for example, the two-channel video installation by Daya Cahen. In „Nashi“ (2008), Cahen uses an observational strategy to closely approach the bodies and faces of teenagers who joined one of the huge summer camps organized by a nationalist youth movement in Russia. With a clever montage of two different images that expose the same subject from different camera angles, she invites the viewer to just look.

This presentation format formed a stark contrast with the monumental portraits of Shany (2002–2003) by Rineke Dijkstra, which were placed inside a cubicle. The interval with the other works was stretched here to create an isolated space for the five images of Dijkstra’s series. We aimed to give the viewer headspace to relate to the world of this adolescent girl who was obliged to serve the military in her home country Israel.

As a proposition to question how and why young people turn radical and whether their radicalism is in fact something we need to stay away from or embrace, in the final part of the show we situated some tough works that, in particular with the knowledge of today, give a harsh look at how radical behavior could affect our societies.

Eva Leitolf’s landscape series „German Images – Looking for Evidence (2006–2008) is a carefully conducted photographic documentation of specific locations where racially and nationalistically inspired violence took place throughout Germany. Leitolf often looks for a balance between text and images in her museum presentations. The framed images were evenly positioned from each other on the wall, and sequenced on the basis of their aesthetical features. The prolonged captions that unraveled the story behind these land- and city-scapes could be read in a take-away leaflet, making the imprint of the image resonate while the viewer engaged with the highly detailed information about the events depicted.

While nearing the end of exhibition, the sequencing of the photographic works described above, mostly in series, was interrupted by the use of a stand-alone image of an ambiguous character. We decided to place the picture „Neon“ that showed two young boys sitting on a roof, from Tobias Zielony’s series „Cluj Napoca (2006), all on its own on a wall. It is up to the visitor to make up his mind and decide who they are, and what they might be up to or not.

The last cabin of the exhibition, which was placed diametrically at the far end in relation to the entrance of the exhibition, was reserved for German photographer Astrid Proll. In her adolescence, Proll had joined the then not-yet-significant anti-establishment group Rote Armee Fraktion. In 1969 she shot a series of pictures on a trip to Paris together with the later infamous members of the movement. In that sense, we concluded the exhibition with a rather romantic view of radicalization, depicting a transitional period in the lives of young people who tend to revolt and question the status quo. Proll’s grey-toned, small-sized images showed brotherhood and boredom: young people searching for how to give form to and express their ideals. Of course, with the knowledge of today about how the RAF destabilized Germany for over a decade, these images are less innocent.

Taken together, the curatorial decisions described here influenced the visitor’s pace throughout the cityscape, thereby affecting the rhythm in which they comprehended and took note of the artists’ works.

Conclusion

Reflecting on this exhibition, and with the recent analysis of my curation for the Krakow Photomonth Festival in mind, I suppose I strived to turn the museum space into an experiential field already back then. In my earlier career as a film editor, I found that the key to sequencing the order of images and sounds is to draw the visitor into a particular world represented throughout the film’s imagery and soundtrack. The use of a range of editing techniques allowed me to make an emotional impact on the viewer. In relation to this, the writings about interactive and participatory art forms by the Dutch philosopher Arjan Mulder can be helpful: “The experiential concept refers to a general human capacity to experience something as not one’s own and thereby to create a distance from oneself in which one becomes conscious of one’s standpoint, what one does and is.” Arjan Mulder, From Image to Interaction (Rotterdam: Nai010 Publishers, 2010), p.2As an exhibition maker, I hope to generate an environment that affects the visitors’ senses and intellect, and thus stimulates them to perceive the essence of the exhibition’s topic. What might help achieve this is the sum of all the elements that make up an exhibition’s architecture, as I have hopefully demonstrated by this analysis of the exhibition „ANGRY.“

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