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Interview - Talia Smith


basis FEATURE #17: Interview: AIR_Frankfurt - Talia Smith

Interview with Talia Smith, May 4, 2020

Hi Talia! Due to the Corona crisis, which intensified towards the end of your three-month curatorial residency with us, we unfortunately had to cancel your public talk at basis in Frankfurt. We are all the more pleased that you are now willing to tell us more about your practice this way.
Meanwhile you are back in Sydney, where you live and work, and are in quarantine due to your stay in Europe right now. How are you dealing with this? And what is the general situation in Australia at the moment, also for cultural workers? Is there any rescue aid for artists and writers?

Upon my arrival back to Australia I had to go into two weeks of mandatory isolation/quarantine, so I was unable to leave the house and had to stick to one room in the house (I live with a friend). Although, when I was leaving Germany, things were shutting down pretty fast, it was still quite a shock to return and not be able to see anyone, and then during my two week quarantine the majority of businesses (inlcuding my work) shut down and so the isolation has turned from two weeks to six, and we are not sure for how much longer as we are heading into winter now which will see a spike. I think, as we have seen, it has been such a weird time. When I also first arrived back, the restrictions were not as heavy as they are now, so some things were still open which I found shocking to see as when I left Europe cultural institutions etc were all closed.
That has now changed, and galleries and most other businesses have been closed for about four to five weeks. Those of us who are lucky to still have a job (myself included) are adjusting to work from home life and the art of a million different video chats. The arts sector has been severely impacted unfortunately, and our government has repeatedly left arts out of conversations around assistance. Although some state governments are putting money into the industries, the loss of work and income for artists, arts workers and venues has been astounding. One of Sydney’s largest venues, Carriageworks, has just been reported to have had gone into volunteer administration, I hope that the venue can get out of this, and they find a way to be supported because it will be an astonishing loss to the cultural sector for Sydney and Australia but also for all of the workers and artists involved in the place (I even once worked there!).

There is not necessarily a specific artist stimulus package like in other countries. Some of the funding bodies such as Australia Council for the Arts have created specific grants for people and orgs to apply for that will help keep them afloat, but you are competing against a lot of others so the chances get very slim. I also am a New Zealand citizen and so I am unable to apply for those particular grants, however, from friends I understand that the process is also incredibly arduous, a lot of hoops to jump through for not much support or even the guarantee that you will be awarded that support.

For those of us in this sector, the virus and crisis has once again highlighted the precarious position that arts workers and institutions are in.

You are working as an artist and as a curator. What is the relationship between those two activities? Do you understand them as separated areas? Or maybe more as two different modes of dealing with the same issues?

I think that both of my practices inform each other and, as you have mentioned, they mostly are two different modes of dealing with the same issues. They are both visual languages that I like to use to explore concepts, ideas, feelings, memories, moments, issues... Sometimes one can do more for me than the other.
When I work professionally in either of them, then I keep them very much separate in that when I curate I generally do not include my own work. That is what I prefer to do as a way of deliniating the two and creating some kind of distance. People often ask me when will I choose to follow the path of one over the other, and I never really understand it. To me, they are the same but they are also different. I very much will take off my curating hat when working as an artist and vice versa. I also love both of them and I always tell those that ask that I will keep following both until I can’t any longer. Perhaps that will never happen, perhaps it will?

In both, your own artistic practice and also your curatorial practice, you are especially interested in photography and moving image production. Can you explain your affinity to these mediums? 

I remember when I got my first camera, it was a red plastic point and shoot 35mm camera that I took with me on a school trip to Wellington in New Zealand (the capital of the country). I think I was maybe 10 or 11. I remember being so excited about taking pictures and looking forward to the surprise when I would get them developed. Over the course of the weekend trip, I think I opened the back of that camera accidentally about 10 times and exposed the hell out of any film I had in there. When I eventually did get them developed, there were images that were just overexposed light, and then other out of focus images of zoo animals and the backs of my friends‘ heads. However, despite these apparent failures, there was something just so damn magical about the medium, the anticipation, the excitement.
A million years later, I still feel that. The fascination and wonder at how light is so magical, how exposing a piece of light sensitive paper or a negative can create an image. An image that you composed. It literally reflects the world, or at least the world you want it to. I think that there is something so powerful about that. Whether it is a still or moving image, the way we can craft stories and represent the world around us through this medium is what always draws me in. The pleasure or pain that I can feel from one image can be so arresting, and to me, I don’t feel that as acutely with any other medium.
I also am interested in how photography was something that was used by colonials or oppressors to those from different backgrounds, and now we are using these tools to be authors and turn the gaze back on the coloniser. That, I think, is damn fantastic.

You are of Samoan, Cook Island and New Zealand European heritage, which is something you directly address, for example in written statements about yourself. Also, Pacific Island heritage art plays an important role in your practice as a curator. I am thinking for example of More than all the ocean between us, which is an ongoing research and curatorial project that you initiated and that investigates early career Pacific Island heritage artists who work with time based practices. Can you tell us more about that project and also, about how your own heritage and your specific experiences inform your curatorial and artistic approach? 

More than all the ocean between us stemmed from my interest in photography’s colonial history, and also that I felt that there was a lack of writing around Pacific Island heritage time based practices. I basically wanted to celebrate and highlight that there are a lot of great stories being told that use these mediums and that we are truly the authors of our own stories and histories now. In New Zealand (and this is common with much of the rest of the world) the highest incarceration rates are indigenous New Zealanders and Pacific Island heritage people... There are more stats I could list, but my point here is that these are the things that we only get known for. If there is an event that goes wrong, and it happens in a predominantly brown neighbourhood, then there will be a ridiculous amount of news coverage around it. But the so called „good stories“ are few and far between. The narrative is always skewed against us, and I want to celebrate that there are other stories and histories going on, too, that are worth our attention.

The project bought together 5 writers of Pacific Island heritage from Australia and New Zealand and 6 artists who were all early career. This is just the first iteration, and I really want to develop it into a proper archive. There was a physical exhibition and publication designed. I felt it was really important to get published writing on their works, so that this publication could be given to universitites etc. I also really wanted it to encourage others to write on photographic and moving image practices, so that there is more discourse.

In everything I do, my cultural heritage influences what I do. My grandparents emigrated from the Pacific Islands and met in New Zealand, where they had seven children. They did not share the language or traditions with my mum and her siblings, and so I have also grown up removed fom this. That has meant that I have had to find my own way with my culture which has not been an easy task, but I began to realise that this diaspora experience was not one that only I was going through and that I shouldn’t feel ashamed about that. Being an obviously brown woman (I have brown skin and curly brown hair), I have often felt like I do not belong in certain art world circles. But the more that I have been practicing or curating, I have realised that I don’t care about those circles. I will make my own. So I think that this has definitely come into play with this project, too. If the roles are not there, then I will make my own. I am not one to let obstacles get in my way and so I will try my hardest to make things happen for those that I think need a voice or platform.

What I found particularly interesting, when I read your application for our residency program, is your interest in the aspect of time, which is of course not only especially important for the mediums of photography and video in general. Also non-western concepts of temporality and history play an important role for your ideas. Here you do a lot of research into Moana heritage time based practices. Could you explain what that means and what your goal is here?

Moana (or te moana-nui-a-kiwa) in academic circles is a term that is being used to incorporate the great ocean as a way of using indigenous languages to name something rather than the colonial word, which in this case is „Pacific“.
I have never really thought about it, but perhaps another thing that really interests me about still and moving image practices is as you have said, their relation to time, and as most cultures from a non-western background believe time is not something linear. There is a flattening wherein past, present and future are with us every day. Everything that we do is influenced by those three notions of time, and we are all connected through it. It is a really beautiful concept.

I guess my goal is that I want to share practices and cultures that explore all of these different facets of being, because I think it is important for art to reflect and represent the world we live in. There is no one way to live or exist.

In Sydney, you are a Studio & Exhibition Program Officer for Peacock Gallery. Would you tell us more about your day-to-day work there? What are the specialties of this institution and your activities there?‘

At the moment my day-to-day activities are very different than they used to be, because of the shutdown, haha, but generally, my duties are to manage the exhibition, studio and public programs of the gallery (keeping in mind it is a public gallery and not a commercial one). So this really is about communicating with the artists that are going to show in the space, working with my colleagues to deliver the exhibition programme, devising public programs to go alongside the exhibition program as well as other activities like school holiday workshops etc. It is a local council run gallery in Western Sydney, and this space has long run as a community gallery to service the needs of the arts in Western and greater Sydney. There is a mix of emerging and mid career artists showing as well as more community based artists or hobbyist (though I hate that term). There is a focus on contemporary visual arts practices.
We are actually building a new gallery that will be fully run by a curatorial team. At the moment, the current space runs on a call out process where artists and curators are to submit a proposal which is then put to a panel to determine its place in the exhibition program.

Besides your institutional work, you also, for example, founded the independent project space Cold Cuts or realize other freelance projects. Can you tell us more about that? And also more generally about the structures in which you prefer to work in as a curator?

I have not held a curatorial position in an institution, although what I do at the moment is very much in the realm of that, I mean a position that holds that title. I have, since I began curating, worked freelance or in other progamming roles. And then I have worked with many artist run spaces and, as you have mentioned, founded one myself with a group of friends. I was also the Chair of Runway Journal, which is an artist run online writing and art project. My foundation has been in freelance and artist run initiatives, and then, as I have gathered more experience, I have worked with and for a lot of larger institutions now.
Working freelance has given me such a great grounding and experiences with different institutions and how they run. Although a precarious life in terms of being able to sustain living 100% freelance, there are other benefits such as that you don’t really get sucked into the politics of a place, because you are there for a short time. I have developed and learned so many skills over this period, however, what I have enjoyed about being a part of an institution is planning out three years of a program, what that may look like, the partnerships and artists that could be involved, devising the strategic plan for the space etc.
Both have given me really great experiences and of course, they both have upsides and downsides, too. I do think at this point in my career, I am ready for a challenge and am interested in perhaps a leading curatorial role where I can shape an institution for a few years and then leave for someone else to do so. It is a goal of mine to either get a role or as I mentioned before, create a role, so that others who look like me can see themselves in these institutions. They may be able to think that art galleries and the sector is actually somewhere for them rather than feeling alienated by it.

About your time in Frankfurt: As far as I know, it was the first time you have ever been to Europe. What were your expectations and were they met?

Yes, this was my first time in Europe, so everything was very exciting! What I was most looking forward to was going to a lot of the museums and seeing art that I had only viewed in books. We are taught European art history in schools, of course, and so to be able to go and experience the art and architecture was really incredible. Australia and New Zealand are also much younger countries, and so our history (at least the settler history that is recorded) is much shorter. It was also just amazing to experience so much photography (of which we will talk about in the next question). From emerging to the masters of photography, I mean, I got to visit places that some of my photography heroes had gone to (haha I know this is corny).

What were the most interesting and maybe also most surprising things you discovered in terms of museums/shows/collections here? 

The breadth and depth of the collections was impressive, and I mean that in terms of the history of art or the masters of art. Also, I really enjoyed going to somewhere like the Städel Museum where there was their blockbuster Van Gogh show, but actually being more interested in their collection show which featured a lot of Frankfurt artists or artists that had a connection to the area. That surprised me in a way, perhaps it shouldn’t have, but it was really nice to see names that I did not know and to gain an understanding of artists that were a part of German art history, but were not ones that I necessarily learned in art school.

Of course, I enjoyed the big museums and their collections and shows, but I also really loved/found interesting was visiting the smaller commercial galleries or artist run spaces (and basis studios) and see work that was being made by the community of artists in Frankfurt in particular. That was really interesting and gave me an insight somewhat to some of the work that is being made outside of those places.

I also loved the Weltkulturenmuseum in Frankfurt, I was incredibly impressed with their current exhibition. The way that they interweaved their collection objects with stories and histories of migration was something that you do not often see in museums. There were also some amazing acknowledgements in the wall texts that talked about privilege of race and class, which is still incredibly uncommon amongst museum spaces. It was impressive to see the use of historical objects to talk to contemporary issues and especially ones as topical as migration.

Europe and Australia/New Zealand have pretty different traditions and histories when it comes to photography. What are your observations about the medium of photography and how it is being dealt with in the shows you saw in Germany, maybe also in comparison to Sydney or New Zealand?

One of my main observations was that there is a greater support for photography in Europe. We have photographic collections in Australia and NZ, but they do not compare to those in Europe. I also am meaning contemporary photography and not just historic or from the masters of photography. I know that the term „Europe“ encompasses so many countries, but there are a multitude of festivals and collections that can be accessed by the public relatively easily. Also, in terms of getting works to these locations, the geography also helps with that.
I was surprised to see there were large private collections solely dedicated to photography and moving image and that the public could access and view. I think that really speaks volumes about the difference in attitudes to photography/moving image in Europe than here. I am not saying that collectors or museums do not invest in photography in Australia and New Zealand, they definitely do, but it is at a much smaller scale.

In terms of the works that I saw, I was really intrigued by the emerging photographers (who I believe were recent graduates) in Düsseldorf. Although it was brilliant to see the masters of photography and their works, it was also nice to see names I did not know so much about, which included these recent graduates. I also wanted to see what was coming out of art schools. It made me feel proud that some artists that I know in Australia and New Zealand would fit in nicely in Europe, too. I think that the concepts we deal with are all fairly universal. I mean, there will be someone who can relate to broader themes in works, and it was cool to see the way that we could all connect through works.

What did you take from the residency for yourself and your work?

Sometimes being from so far geographically, we can feel disconnected from the other side of the world, but one of the things I really enjoyed was how there are so many things that are universal and to not get hung up on distance. Thanks to the wonderful internet, there are other ways that we connect with each other and show work or collaborate or whatever, and I think having this residency really made me remember that. It doesn’t take much to reach out and start a conversation and actually physically going there has made me want to do it more.
One of the biggest things I took from the residency and the work that I do is that there are some really great conversations and collaborations that could be happening between this side of the world and Europe, and that I want to keep the momentum that I have made during my residency going.

You have a lot going on for the next months with the Churchie Emerging Art Prize at IMA Brisbane that you are curating. Also, you have been awarded a mentorship with Gwen Lee, the director of the SIngapore Photographic Festival with a curated show for the 2021 Ballarat Photo Biennale. Can you already spoil some ideas you are following for these projects?

Everything has been pushed back due to the virus, but I am currently in the midst of curating the Churchie Emerging Art Prize at the moment, the finalist list has been announced and I am really excited to be working with the group of artists. They are all so great, and I am honestly very glad that it is not up to me to decide the actual winner... it won’t be easy!
In terms of the Ballarat Photo Biennale, I am looking to put together a show that will present artists whose works challenge, agitate and question photography’s history to offer alternatives to the Western ideologies we have been taught and presented.
I will also be curating two shows in the beginning of 2021 that will be moving image and photography focused: one will look at the concept I spoke about earlier, about the flattening of time, and for the other, I will be working with two artists to create bodies of new works that look at their communities and how they are re/presented. And that’s all, I will say!