Uniforms for Non-Uniform Work
2 April – 15 June 2014
How do we develop a practice around putting that practice into form? What does work look like, that is, its process not outcome? And how might we translate one work process to another by embodying different forms of production, from curating to art making, for instance? In 2009, when artist Camilla Singh left her curatorial position at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA), she began experimenting with materials, rhythm, and movement in order to explore the nature of work, in particular to reflect on the sedentary experience of labouring in an office for a decade. She wanted to visualize work-culture through another lens. Arguably, the first iteration of this exploration was in an exhibition she curated at MOCCA in 2008 entitled Dyed Roots: the new emergence of culture. As a curatorial intervention into her own exhibition, she relocated her office inside the entrance to the gallery space and transformed it into a birdcage (complete with live birds). Throughout the duration of the exhibition, Camilla inhabited her “cage” and went about her daily administrative tasks, thus becoming another cultural object on display alongside the exhibition’s other art works.
In various projects from 2009 onward, Camilla has isolated different aspects of the world-of-work and our relation to it—from the kinds of behavior expected in places of employment to the time spent commuting to and from the workplace—often turning mundane work processes and/or services into newly imagined choreographies of human agency. She has enthusiastically celebrated workers in their place of employment (firefighters, mechanics, butchers, etc.) by delivering a series of one-and-a-half minute ritualized cheerleading performances to thank each of them for the work that they do for their community (Enthusiasm, 2011). She has sectioned a 1969 Chevelle muscle car into pieces and replaced its parts (engine, seats, etc.) with an over-exaggerated drum kit and then commissioned twelve drummers to take turns “driving” it, their actions becoming the rhythmic and pulmonary life-force animating the body of the car for an all-night performance in the Financial District of downtown Toronto (Cardiac Combustion Chamber, 2011). In other instances, Camilla has created interventions in public space in order to symbolically re-associate various work situations toward new ends, as in …on the cusp of aggression, enthusiasm, defense and support (2011), where she staged a new kind of “car wash,” located in a Toronto street alley. Replacing the mechanical washing/drying devices with thirty-six dancers (using pompoms as props) whose choreographed movements went from aggression to contemplation to jubilant celebration, Camilla orchestrated the one-and-a-half minute scenario as if to clean the drivers emotional state rather than the outside of the car. She thus turned the idea of service work into an intense moment of human interconnectivity, one car at a time.
In 2010, Camilla began conducting a series of one-on-one conversations with Canadian curators about their individual curatorial practices as a form of socially engaged research. (Some of these were published on AGYU’s Studio Blog in 2011.) What types of curators are there? What was your entry point into curating? What does curating entail for you? What are your aims as a curator? How is knowledge produced? What do you think about the ability of an artwork to communicate directly? These are some of the initial questions Camilla sought to engage, and thereby capture an archive of the varied attitudes of a number of Canadian curators. The goal of this research was not to arrive at a concrete idea of what curating is, however, but rather to lead the ways in which Camilla would work through “the curatorial.” She sought to gain insight into processes related to this type of labour and then use these conversations as a conceptual framework for the creation of a new series of art works.
It is not through the analysis of curatorial practice but an immersion into the processes that encircle it (the notions of choice, responsibility, space, positionality, collaboration, support work, etc.) that has since propelled Camilla’s artistic experimentation. Acknowledging that the outcome of one’s work is only ever dependent on the choices made regarding one’s own strategies and approaches to it, Camilla began to develop a methodology through which she might explore what is at stake in contemporary curatorial practice. Then she put these “unseen” practices into tangible form. Uniforms, to be exact. That is, uniforms for the non-uniform work of curators: a curatorial sartorial, in fact.
In 2013, the AGYU and the Faculty of Fine Arts at York University teamed up to bring Camilla to York University as Visiting Artist In Sculpture under the guidance of AGYU’s Assistant Director/Curator Emelie Chhangur and Faculty of Fine Arts Professor Brandon Vickerd. As a curatorial strategy underpinning the exhibition’s thematic, the residency provided a work-context for Camilla to shape her research and work-process into three-dimensions and bring all of our varied forms of labour—from art making, to curating, to teaching—together in reciprocal exchange. During the 14-month residency, Camilla gave talks, attended advanced technical demonstrations, and had the opportunity to experiment with new materials and specific ways of working that were instrumental to the conception and development of this particular body of work. Camilla has engaged with students in discussions about putting a practice into form: exploring the curatorial considerations of art making and the artistic processes undertaken by curators, especially as they pertain to the application of sculpture to exhibition design, which is intrinsically linked to the show’s thematic.
Throughout, Camilla has sought to learn (or “train”) in oblique ways: learning how to execute the idea of curating as a performative gesture, then to translate this gesture into a symbolic sartorial form that “represents” different approaches to curating. By elaborating upon different ways to embody aspects of “the curatorial” through the development of analogous approaches to production within her own art practice, Camilla has created art works that take the shape of curating. Under the auspices of her fashion line, Filthy By Nature, she has (somewhat curatorially) produced a fashion line of clothing for curators, each element reflecting the conceptual and practice-based methodologies of the curators for whom these uniforms are intended. While still a work-in-process, her AGYU exhibition is a portrait of some of Canada’s curatorial workers at this specific moment in time. For viewers, it literally provides an image of contemporary art curating while proposing an alternative means by which to “study” it.
The exhibition is comprised of six “uniforms” for six specific Canadian curators. Each is situated within a series of mini installations embedded within the overall design of the exhibition in order to spatially manifest ideas related to each curator’s unique practice. Through the use of sculptural objects and “props” that are set in relation to these “uniforms,” or the creation of custom-designed support systems which literally hold them up, Camilla furthermore stages the behind-the-scenes “management” (from interns to institutions, etc.) on which all curatorial work depends. Taken as a whole, Uniforms for Non-Uniform Work implicitly acknowledges the embedded role of curating in exhibition-making and of art making in curatorial practice. Oh, and, of course, the importance of fashion to both….
Uniforms for Non-Uniform Work is curated by AGYU Assistant Director/Curator Emelie Chhangur. Camilla Singh would like to thank Roch Smith, Joel Wengle, and Mark-David Hosale for lending their expertise; Marvin and Dara Singer for their financial support; and Honest Eds for the lending of the mannequins. The artist gratefully acknowledges the support of the Chalmers Arts Fellowship program administered by the Ontario Arts Council.