Sign of the Times interview with Bianca Callegaro

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1. I understand that because of Covid you had to cancel last year’s art exhibition, and this year’s exhibition marks a move online. Everyone in the arts has had to adjust so much recently. What has it been like being an exhibition curator and member of GUAAS during this time?

It has definitely been a tough year for culture. We had organised and planned our annual exhibition for 2020, Visual Sound, to the very detail when it got cancelled a few days before the opening due to the Covid outbreak. After all the work we had put into the making of the exhibition, it was a great disappointment to “waste” an opportunity to showcase some brilliant artworks. For this reason, we have decided, in collaboration with Glasgow University Contemporary Musicians Society, to re-launch the project, with Visual Sound 2.0, an upcoming online music and art show. Anyway, going back to the “new normal for culture”, as a committee member of GUAAS (Glasgow University Art Appreciation Society) I have taken on the challenge of adapting to the new online environment. During the past three semesters, the GUAAS team has striven to organise engaging, insightful online events to foster art appreciation and dialogue. With museums and cultural venues closed, we have turned to creating art ourselves, organising creative events and workshops, such as an Arts and Crafts themed embroidery workshop, a Bob Ross-inspired painting night, zine workshops and a relaxed painting session in support of RAG’s Art Auction. Having a creative outlet in such challenging times has for sure been very therapeutic. However, we wanted to do more than that, in line with our mission of supporting emerging creatives. That is why we decided to organise a 2021 exhibition, despite the difficult circumstances. We explored various in-person, hybrid and online possibilities to turn this idea into reality until we came across Relevo’s website, a digital platform born out of COVID-19 times and founded by an art professionals collective with the aim of empowering and supporting emerging curators through independent projects. Working with the Relevo team for several months to organise Sign of the Times has been a fantastic personal and professional experience, which has given me great practical insight into curatorship and digital exhibitions. Like anyone else in the sector, our curatorial collective was very new to this online format. However, we very given total freedom to design and plan the entire look and structure of the exhibition: after the initial daunting, steep learning curve, we really benefitted from the experience and gained several applicable skills.

2. I also understand that you are one of the founders of Art Gate. Can you tell me a bit more about what readers of the blog can expect, and if it ties into your new exhibition in any way?

I co-founded Art Gate Blog together with Luna Silvestri and Belen De Bacco (also co-curators of Sign of the Times) in April 2020. With the sudden isolation due to the pandemic’s outbreak, we were left with a lot of time on our hands and figured we could do something good with it. We wanted to create a positive online environment to engage people with art and make it accessible to everyone, rather than reinforcing the established elitist view of this subject. The project started out in the form of concise, easy-to-understand articles posted on social media, but it rapidly expanded and evolved into a website where we publish articles, reviews, interviews about the visual arts, literature, cinema and more. We curate a newsletter to promote cultural events and initiatives and host each month a Creative Spotlight to showcase emerging creatives. In occasion of the Sign of the Times exhibition, we thought it would be an excellent occasion to produce new content for Art Gate Blog. We therefore decided to use the blog as a platform to showcase the collaborative ethos behind the exhibition, by providing further content in addition to the exhibition website in the form of artist interviews, conducted by the four exhibition curators.

3. This exhibition is called ‘Sign of the Times’. Can you tell me a bit about the concept behind this exhibition?

The year 2020 had a big impact on all of us, like a “sign of the times”. We wanted to freeze this moment in time and capture the feelings it has evoked in us. The individual and collective experience of ordinary things, previously taken for granted, such as nature, time and personal space, was completely transformed by the pandemic. All of a sudden, everyone found themselves in isolation, secluded in a spatially limited, as well as a psychologically oppressive, place: the home. Before, time seemed to never be enough, but with the pandemic the opposite became true: too much time was available, and there was nothing to fill it with, other than interacting with digital devices. During this period, we certainly also acquired a new perception of nature: suddenly being only visible from afar, it revealed the healing, therapeutic power it has on human beings. All these perspectives of life during a pandemic are at the core of the exhibition’s concept. We wanted to present a selection of artworks that reflected the artists’ experiences of this unprecedented situation.

Moreover, this exhibition was born as a collaborative effort. When we conceived it, we agreed that our views and perspectives as curators should not overshadow those of the artists. That’s why dialogue and collaboration are at the heart of our project. Art for us means exchange, conversation, engagement. As a collective of emerging curators, we therefore looked to engage with and discuss “covid and the environment through art” together with a group of young creatives, most of them students themselves. It’s very important that young voices are showcased and given the prominence and visibility that they deserve in the cultural sphere, and I hope our initiative can serve as an example that can encourage other young creatives to express themselves through curatorial projects.

4. I’m interested to know how you curated this exhibition. Are the different artists’ work in conversation with each other? Is there a particular order you intend visitors to observe the artwork in?

Curating a digital exhibition was a unique experience for me. I have curated a few (physical) exhibitions in the past, yet the curatorial process for Sign of the Times was entirely different. It felt strange to work with non-material artworks, without touching and weighing the pieces as well as physically experiencing the exhibition space. This condition of immateriality naturally also applied to the selection process: choosing the artworks to feature, placing them in the 3D space layout and, especially, finding a fil rouge to connect them with one another proved to be quite challenging as an abstract process. Ultimately, the works we selected represent a single chain of thoughts, of interconnected feelings that contrast and speak to one another, providing a multi-layered, almost kaleidoscopic representation of life during a pandemic. As a result, the exhibition’s white cube invites visitors inside a shared personal space, where human thoughts and emotions lead towards different directions. As curators, we propose a specific order to view the exhibition, following three main thematic groupings clockwise. The visit begins with the re-exploration and reaction to external spaces, as seen through the lenses of Marta Roncalli and Troy Holt. The exploration of space moves then inward to the psychological sphere, with the artworks of Sophie Stewart and The MO narrating the oppression within enclosed spaces and its impact on daily life and routine. Lastly, the final section of the exhibition centres around an exploratory attempt to reconstruct a shared memory, in the case of Alberto Emiliano Durante’s work, and to sketch out definitions of time and nostalgia, as seen in the photographic series of Hyesung Im. In addition to this, the entrance wall to the main exhibition features two works: Escape, by Chrisilia Philiastides, and Prey of Spaces [Ambush], by The MO. They evoke two opposing, yet complementary, reactions which I think well defined the year 2020: madness and frustration, giving up control to release the increasing mental pressure. While as curators we suggest an ordered narrative to view the exhibition, visitors are also free to “wander around”, as they would do in a gallery, following a more personal, intuitive order. This curatorial project is foremost aimed at eliminating the hierarchical system and elitist distance that seems to drift people away from art, and as such, we are proposing a curatorial idea which is shaped by the curators, the artists and the public alike.

5. Something that I found really striking when viewing the exhibition was the ability to hear the artist’s voice guide me through their work. This is something you rarely have in a physical gallery. Are there elements of this online exhibition which you hope to integrate into future in-person exhibitions?

I think the audio guides were indeed what made Sign of the Times stand out from the crowd of digital exhibitions. We wanted to give the exhibition an added element of interactivity, a sort of equivalent to exhibition labels at the same time resembling guided tours. It was also a way to put artists first, to allow them to express themselves and directly communicate with the public; something which is rarely done by museums. I believe that the experience of this online exhibition has been invaluable, as it has helped me understand the key components that should be present in an exhibition, be it a physical or a digital one. Engagement is indeed at the core of this vision. So, for sure, in the future I would like to continue fostering a closer relationship between public, artmakers and art professionals. Even for in-person exhibition, I hope to be able to integrate as much “extra” content as we did for Sign of the Times: from the audio guides to the artist interviews, from the social media takeovers by the artists to the live debates. I certainly think that, as a result of this digital transformation, many cultural venues and institutions will increasingly rely on the digital, expanding the availability of in-depth resources that allow visitors to engage more actively, more consciously with art.

6. What do you hope visitors take away from viewing this exhibition?

I do hope that visitors will feel how special this exhibition is for us personally, that it is not “just another online exhibition”. Given the themes encountered in the showcased artworks, I think it’s really difficult not to feel emotionally involved with these pieces, as their message and origin is universally shared. Never before has the whole world been united by the very same situation: we have all felt similar emotions during the past year. I do hope that visitors will recognise their experience, as reflected by the individual perceptions of the eight featured artists. All in all, our exhibition wants to convey a message of hope and positivity. A challenging, difficult moment can always be seen from a different perspective, and its negativity will then reveal also some positives. Sign of the Times is ultimately an ode to resilience, to our inextinguishable power as humans to recover, adjust and improve.

7. What are your plans for future exhibitions with GUAAS? Will there remain an element of online exhibition even after the pandemic?

As mentioned before, we are currently developing ideas and planning the Visual Sound 2.0 exhibition. GUAAS is looking to host an annual exhibition for the academic year 2021/22, which hopefully will be possible to hold in-person. However, I do think that in the next years digital elements will remain relevant even for physical exhibitions, and there will be increased opportunities to create online content. After all, despite the Zoom fatigue, the digitalisation of culture has indeed been in many aspects beneficial. It has eliminated the physical barriers and obstacles that made art inaccessible to people living in rural areas, for example. The Sign of the Times exhibition can be viewed anywhere, at any time, with the only requirement being a good Internet connection. This digital shift has really opened up incredible possibilities for culture that can be used at our advantage to benefit society and foster greater, more meaningful engagement with art.


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