Uniforms for Non-Uniform Work
Excerpts from a Curatorial Sartorial #1

9 January 2011
Paul Butler

These days I am designing uniforms for non-uniform work. I’m not really sure if I think that work is what makes us human, as Bataille has said, but I do think it has defined me at times.

I’m developing uniforms for individual curators to symbolically reflect on what they do and why, to chronicle a recent history of the practice and to define styles of curating. Through conversations with curators I am attempting to recognize motivations, processes, interests and translate them into a customized garment, including accessories.

Tartan patterning will form the basis for articulating clans of curators. Tartan is emblematic of both punk and pedigree. As soon as its established as one, it is subsumed by the other, a perpetual cycle that lends itself well to describing a vocation that is constantly re-appropriated. Curators and tartan clanship share an uncertain history of which these uniforms are an utterance.

Excerpts from my research will appear on AGYU’s Studio Blog over the course of the next year.

– Camilla Singh for Studio Blog


Over the past two months I’ve had conversations with five curators, each of which lasted around an hour or so. I’ve kept the entry points into talking about curating very broad and basic and tried to let the conversation steer itself. Here is one such conversation, with Paul Butler.

CONVERSATION WITH PAUL BUTLER

11 November 2010

I started by asking Paul Butler to list categories of curators.

Paul Butler Social curators, curators who may be a little more organic and serendipitous in the way that they find and work with people. Intuitive. Then there is the more institutional curator who is researching things and starting backwards with a theme and then trying to find the artists that fit under that umbrella.

Camilla Singh Its funny that you say starting backwards with a theme because that means you work the other way around, which I do too.

PB So, what other kinds were you thinking?

CS Collections based curators, curators of corporate collections, academic curators, artist-curators…

PB Would you agree that “curator” is maybe a young term and misused and needs to be more defining of positions perhaps? I don’t feel like a “curator”. I feel like an organizer or connector. A curator, in my mind, has more of a historical background and focuses on contextualizing things. I think a lot of people call themselves curators at this point…it was really cool about a decade ago to be a curator,

CS From what you said about the focus of a curator being rooted in something more historical and the idea of contextualizing as a focus, how does that differ from what you do?

PB I would leave what I do for a curator to make sense of. I would be that social curator who is a little more organic and intuitive and I think that I approach it like an artist … or even like a chef. There are different schools of art practice too, but I would be more intuitive where I would put things together, satisfying a sense that I have inside of me, and then once its sort of packaged and exhibited, then I would join the audience and try and make sense of it. Instead of having a solid…its like Vancouver school of thinking vs. whatever school of thinking or non-thinking that I come from.

CS What’s the Vancouver school of thinking?

PB Oh, it’s just some inside joke with me…somebody, kind of a prominent figure in Vancouver, said that they came from the school of Ian Wallace where everything was figured out before, and then go ahead and put this artwork together based on that. So with this heavy, heavy research beforehand, they know exactly what is going to happen and they just execute it. I don’t what’s going to happen with half of my projects. I’m a little more experimental, and trusting maybe.

CS I enter into curating in a similar way. The question of whether there should be more defined terms out there, more headings for the roles people play because curator has come to encompass so many things that there’s never been any clear idea of what you need to do to become a curator – I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The term social curator broadens what I’ve put under the heading of an artist-curator: a social curator, an accidental curator, people who are following another path of things that starts to bring what other people are doing together and contextualize it in some way but its not with the intention of being a curator exactly.

PB Yes, its contextualized by company almost or association or something, but it leaves it to the audience to figure things out.

CS What other types of curators come to mind?

PB The first curator was a curator from the museum – that would be somebody with very little artistic input. I’m saying this without any previous thought, or of having looked into it at all, but they would do the research and organize things and not necessarily put their personal voice into it. They would sort of serve to facilitate the show, to translate it for a larger audience. And then around 10 years ago or so it seemed like contemporary art curators became really big figures, kind of cool, holding enviable positions. They started to get names for themselves and had styles that you could identify their shows by. Then it can go further where artists get annoyed with curators who are trying to force a collaboration with them instead of serving their artwork, serving as a bridge between their artwork and the audience. There are just so many degrees of it. I can’t think of any other kinds off the top of my head only because I haven’t ever really considered these topics at all.

CS The idea of a curator becoming a prominent personality at a certain point and having an identity may lead younger curators a certain way and then there are curatorial schools. Those are relatively new. Sometimes institutions can try to align with a curatorial personality as a way to bring a guaranteed attention and response.

PB Now it’s a branding. They bring an audience with them.

CS Its interesting to me that you are an artist, an art dealer, an educator, and in the way that I asked the question about categories of curators I’m putting hybrid roles together as a starting point. But there are different relationships that started to emerge between art dealers and collectors that overshadowed the role of a curator to have a voice that would effect the market value of a piece.

PB In any other industry these would be illegal activities…like if it were trading stocks. There is one example that I used to think of as the most corrupt position that somebody could have in the artworld because this guy had his hand in every single pot. He was a curator. He was largely a consultant so he would consult artists and then in exchange for the consultation take pieces of their work. He would also consult galleries and tell them which artists to pick up and get discounts on the art that he purchased or he’d get art in exchange. He did absolutely everything but he ultimately was a collector. He was working every single angle to bring up the value of his stocks. I used to wonder, how can he get away with this? But its just not policed. Anytime I catch myself saying that’s wrong, that shouldn’t happen, well, it’s the artworld and it should happen just because its this free space to test things.

CS Its weird but I think that within those overlapping roles that people engage in there are sometimes genuine explorations, some people are manipulating a system, some are just doing things because they are smart, and other things that people do that may be very similar by description but they are actually genuine explorations of something…a genuine impulse to collaborate or to find a new context for something.

PB Or you see an opportunity or a need I guess. And you fill it because you are just that kind of a person that acts that way. I do it too because I’m an artist, I curate, and I sell work. So there’s that overlapping possibility for conflict there too. Personally, on one hand I’m curious and I want to know how it all works. I’m really interested in the structure and the infrastructure and the system of the art world and I think artists should be more vocal and play more of a part in defining it and designing it, these models. So if you’re a restaurant manager you should work in the dish pit and be a waiter and do all these things so you understand from every single angle. But it’s also a thing where you see that need or opportunity and you just do it without thinking, it just kind of happens. So that’s why it’s really tough for me to define myself in some sort of singular sense. I just think I do things.

AN INSTRUMENT OR TOOL FROM A PAST AGE WHICH IS FULLY FUNCTIONAL AND USEFUL TODAY

CLARITY

A MAGNIFYING GLASS

A MECHANIC

A WRENCH

GO STRAIGHT TO THE ESSENCE OF A THING

EVEN A MOUSTACHE OR A BOWTIE FOR PARTICULAR OCCASIONS

AN XRAY MACHINE

ANTHROPOLOGICAL PROCESSES, UNLIMITED INTIMACY (the book), A WAY OF STUDYING AND CLASSIFYING AND WHAT IT MEANS TO DO THAT….

CS I don’t anticipate that anyone will be in a category. It’s kind of a ridiculous question for curators because I don’t know anyone who does their work in a singular fashion, but again it’s a starting point.

PB If anything, it’s helping me because its something I’ve never considered. I think it’s interesting to separate it, for sure.

CS Something I’d never thought of before as a way of approaching curating was writing leading curating and in a very creative way. I don’t engage in writing much, but I definitely understand how writing can lead itself. I’ll write thousands of words that I just spit out and eventually something comes together that I didn’t anticipate. So I understand that writing can lead somewhere. But to have that be a grounding point for working with an artist in some institutional context, it’s…

PB It’s like you say, there’s so many different degrees of it. Like there’s a curator that is very insular, you see them travel to shows by themselves, they leave by themselves, they’re like that food critic that doesn’t want to engage with anybody. And they put up walls because they don’t want anybody cold calling them and pestering them. They work in solitude and they don’t necessarily want a relationship to get in the way of what they intend to output. And then another curator wants to collaborate with that artist and get in their head and really sort of walk in their shoes.

CS So where do you fall in that?

PB For my practice, I would collaborate with an artist knowing the limits and respecting that it’s their thing. I don’t want to kind of franchise their ideas and jump on the bandwagon or anything, but out of sincere interest I think I try and shadow them in a way and learn and experience their process. Collage Party is like that and even Other Gallery. It seemed to me at one point, just to go back a bit… After I graduated I got a studio by myself and I though this is what I worked towards? Working in solitude? It didn’t make any sense to me at all so working through the Other Gallery and Collage Party and all these other things it just keeps me engaged and I have access to different thinking and I want to just continue to grow that way. I think that’s my main sort of goal is that exchange.

CS When we first talked about this idea, right away you said something like, my uniform would be a bathrobe and slippers. Is there anything that you see that way?

PB I want to be approachable. But that might not be the right outfit. I’ve thought about it more since then. I think ultimately – I don’t know if I’m schizophrenic or what but – I present myself completely different or I’m understood, I think, differently than how I understand myself; the public eye vs. a mirror reflection. I hide out a lot and stay at home but then on the other hand I run the Collage Party and The Other Gallery and I have to be social and go to… you should in theory based on the job description, the curator and the dealer has to be at every event. And I don’t necessarily like that side of things so I’m really conflicted myself. I only recently saw myself in that light: I’m social! But at the Collage Party I’ll kind of go off in the corner. I set it up, I like that busyness and everything around me but I kind of hide within that crowd. So my first response to the costume thing was, my natural uniform would be at the computer in my pyjamas drinking coffee all day.

MAKE SOMETHING REALLY COMFORTABLE FOR PAUL TO LOUNGE IN, TO BE AT HOME WORKING IN, SOMETHING HE WILL ACTUALLY WANT TO WEAR. LEGITIMATE THE PYJAMAS.

CS It seems to me that part of your uniform would entail a coat rack with the other things on it.

PB Oh yeah, I could switch. Well, let me tell you some of the essentials that I thought of for the uniform, and its something that I had for the Collage Party Uniform in my mind. And I don’t know why I’ve never found this yet, but the Joseph Beuys fisherman’s vest with all the pockets. Its Joseph Beuys of course, it’s the fisherman, but its also this German tourist. If you travel a lot: passport pocket, different tools, camera and all these things. You also have to have really outwardly loud glasses – big, thick, maybe coloured glasses, because it’s all about your eyes. You want to promote the fact that you have precious eyes that see things that nobody else can see. And then I was trying to think of props and stuff and social activity is kind of a big component so would you have a bottle opener or some sort of booze kit, like a Hunter S. Thompson suitcase full of things or, I don’t know. Have you gotten any response about the uniforms in terms of tools?

PAUL HAS A UNIFORM, PLUS MAKE UNIFORMS FOR HIS COLLABORATORS – COLLAGE PARTY PARTICIPANTS AND OTHER GALLERY ARTISTS.

PORTABLE DRUGS AND ALCOHOL RECEPTACLE DESIGNED BY DEAN BALDWIN?

CS The only think that came up very specifically was the universal adaptor.

PB Oh that’s good! I’ve got pockets for that in my vest!

CS I started looking around at things that have had cultural significance in different contexts, and what they would mean if you bring them into a time right now. Tartan is the most ripe for being usurped by another, right to Vivienne Westwood where its emblematic of both the Sex Pistols and the Queen. Identifying groups, symbolically representing a place or an area that’s not geographically located now but …

PB Well, its sort of matter-of-fact too: you just are what you are, you’re from that family, from that region, period.

CS Burberry is really fashionable again. It had become an old man’s label and they needed to either update and become current or not survive a fashion transition. They hired someone who really transformed everything. If you look at a Burberry store its based on a tartan pattern. What really shifted the market was an ad campaign featuring Kate Moss in a burberry tartan bikini. Tartan moved an old man’s closet to Kate Moss’ bikini and its ready all the while to become something else.

PB It’s interesting, its like camouflage, where it has fashion highs and a battle between function and fashion. I see tartans and camos as similar and then I think of Warhol camouflage and then I thought of camouflage for those curators who don’t want to be seen, who don’t want people to know what they look like, like a food critic or something. It’s a different kind of interpretation of camouflage, like have a white on white camouflage and stand by a wall.

CS I was thinking also of doing something where all of the different tartan patterns that I use get put together into a camouflage shape.

PB Those are two curators for sure: one that wants the attention and wants to walk into a room and have everybody say oh that’s that curator and the other one who doesn’t want anybody to know they curate so it won’t conflict with their craft or art of curating.

CS There is a very strong context and statement made by putting things in a white cube, it’s not neutral. So if that’s your natural habitat and you want to blend ….

PB Just with the thinnest strip of red for the red dot!

CS A single red dot for the market interaction.

PB I hope we get fitted for these suits at some point – I want one!

CS What does curating entail for you? What do you like about curating?

PB Its funny because you are really getting….well, I’ve never considered any of these things before, I’ve never thought about it that way. And I’m always the last one to get things it seems, things about myself. I think I just discovered or understood what social art practice was like two or three years ago meanwhile I’ve been doing it for 10 years or something. So its like this aha moment but its really late.

What do I like about curating? I really like making connections. I guess I want everything to work I guess, maybe it’s a control thing. You know, you want to put them in the right place so I’m traveling around with the Other Gallery and the Collage Party and I’m getting access to artists and ideas all over the place and it just becomes this thing where like Oh, that reminds me of this and then it stimulates that writing perhaps where you put things together and it starts to make sense when you were never looking to make sense of that before. It’s about connections I guess for me, connecting things. What do I really enjoy about it? That satisfaction of connecting things I guess.

What does curating entail? Well, I just don’t go out and curate or I never say o I have to go and do this for my curating or anything, it’s a total satellite thing. While I’m being an artist I kind of come across these things that would be interesting to connect or need to be connected and just sort of do them on the side. So it’s never been a focus of mine or anything like that. I’m more interested in connecting with people, connecting people and these are different means of how to do it I guess. So I don’t define myself as a dealer or a curator or a social art practice guy. Its just about connecting people and these are different media or different vehicles to do so. So that’s why I’ve never defined myself up until this moment right now – I just realized its just about making the connections.

ELEMENTAL, BUNSEN BURNERS AND TUBES, DISTILLING AND CLARIFYING, BREAKING THINGS DOWN INTO COMPONENT PARTS, VERY NATURAL IN ANY SETTING

COPPER WIRE CONDUCTOR, CONNECTOR

CONNECTIVITY

CS Can you describe how you work as an artist? And also I never would have looked at what you do as wanting to control elements, and maybe that’s just a matter of wording but I am curious what you mean by that.

PB Yeah maybe it is just a matter of wording, I’m not satisfied with it, but it is the connecting and needing to see those things through or something. So its not a control thing but I guess where somebody else might pass by or I don’t know maybe its an art way of thinking or something but if I see an artist and based on conversations with an audience of some form they would be interested in that, I just want to connect those two things. So I’m not interested in financial gain, I’m not really interested in anything, it really just feels like a side thing, like a game or something. If I could shut my thinking down and think visually its just like connecting the dots or the card game where you find the two eights and you put them together or something. It’s to satisfy, its not that I am trying to achieve a goal. It’s really sort of simple and there’s not really a bigger picture I guess. So I think its important to….well, just recently I was defined as a post-disciplinary artist which, you know, again, I’m always the last to discover these things. Its probably a new term that will be completely overused a year from now but I thought it was really fitting in that I have something I want to do and then I figure out what the best vehicle or medium is to get that across. So, curating and running the gallery, I see those as different vehicles to do my work, however you want to define the work that I do. That’s been really relieving for me in a way because earlier it was a choice: you have to be an artist or a curator, you have to pick between the two, you can’t be both. I was running the gallery and people say you can’t be an artist and a gallerist because there is a conflict. Can’t can’t can’t all the time, you’ve got to pick one or the other. Now with this umbrella definition, it opens up the possibilities for me: what else could I do? I know you’re ok with me saying this, but I really don’t see myself as a curator at all and I’m more at peace with that than ever now! I want curators to contextualize and make sense of things and I personally don’t want to do that work. I want to present things for other people to figure out with my own art and with the Other Gallery and with organizing shows. And that’s why I don’t call it curating, because I want to create questions and not necessarily answers.

PB Do you get named curator of your projects?

PB Yeah, by default I think. And that’s why I say that we need new sub-terms under curation. I feel irresponsible if somebody calls me a curator because I don’t feel like I’m doing a curator’s job, making sense of it. I also see it as a really young position, or definition or term and I would never….I’m not too adamant about people not calling me a curator. I can see how they understand me as one. Even with the collage party as a curation in a sense. I’m creating a space with artists and they’re making an exhibition. I try and throw little things in to see if they’ll pick up on them or if it might change the course of things or try to loosely direct it in a really invisible sort of way. If I wanted to or had to or stopped and took the time to, I could understand what I do as curating, easily. But maybe I’m gonna start curating. (laughing)

CS Can you elaborate on your comment about the need for more terms beyond the word artist?

PB I’ll just give you an example. When I’m trying to understand art I go to parallel worlds like I looked at musicians and biographies of musical artists and they are more retrospectives or biographies after they’ve done everything, after the span of their whole career. So Bob Dylan was really good for me because he changed about every five years and it wasn’t about his audience, it was about him, keeping himself engaged. So that was really helpful for me as an artist, but then last year I was thinking about sports a lot. And you know, I jog, but I don’t apply for funding to buy jogging shoes, I’m not going to be in the Olympics. I think there’s a bigger issue here. There’s not enough awareness about the benefits of creative exercise or activity. Just as we all know that having a healthy lifestyle and being active is good for your body and mind, so is creativity. So I think that we need to weed out artists. With sports there’s like a cut-off date where you’re like ok I realize I’m not going to be in the Olympics, I’m not going to be in the NHL but I like to play hockey and I’m going to get together on the weekends but I’m not pursuing this as a profession. There is no sort-of cut off for visual artists where they say ok I don’t necessarily have what it takes but I’m going to keep painting just for me. “Artist” is too broad a term to define all these people and just kind of fucks up the system a bit. You know? Hahaha!

So I did this project at the Presentation House during the Olympics and it was Theo Sims’ Candahar Bar. They asked artists to provide programming for inside this bar and I hired actors to play failed athletes who at that moment during the Olympics in Vancouver realized that their dreams were not going to come true. They were failed athletes and I asked them to come dressed up as failed athletes. So one girl was a larger boned figure skater, one guy was a goalie with a really thick French-Canadian accent, and the third guy was a snowboarder who was all ready to go and was asking people for rides to the hill so he could compete in the Olympics the next day. He actually hadn’t come to terms with his potential yet. So they just got progressively drunker and drunker all night and when people were consoling them they’d say o yeah, well you’ve still got four more years, you can still do it. I think that people thought they were mentally a little unstable, a little more than genuinely what I had hoped for – it being a joke. I was looking at the sports world to try and make sense of the art world a little bit.

CS I often do that too. I think sports lends itself really well to thinking about and understanding the art world, how people engage with it, as the athlete or as the audience. The amount of knowledge that you need to understand and appreciate baseball is interesting. Baseball is boring as hell if you don’t know much about it.

PB Yeah, how come people don’t feel so uncomfortable in the sports world like people won’t go into galleries?

CS I also look to sports analogies when I have a lot of projects on the go. Keep your eye on the ball!

PB Then your parents come to the show and yell “Camilla, go, go you’re offside!!”

CS But what you just described is very new to me. I’ve never gone that route in my mind, but I agree that there is a need for more definition around using the term “artist”. I’ve given that some thought when it comes to the designation “curator”, particularly because of this project. And also when I was starting out as a curator. I’d had no aspirations to become a curator, but I was really curious in some ways about making my own decisions about the world I was entering into based on first hand experience rather than accepting the word of more senior artists and people I was around. I’m like that – I like to wash the dishes and be the waiter and cook the meals to get a sense of what the restaurant is.

PB We’re doing it backwards. I think most people would be the artist, do all the work in the gallery and everything, then eventually work towards being the curator or a director. And I think ultimately, you and I will end up being artists in the end. As long as we keep on top of ourselves and resist the jobs and stuff.

CS Keep your eye on the ball! What I love about sports analogies too is that I can keep the analogies really simple in my mind. Where its hard to keep track of which ball is the ball I want to catch. There can be so many things coming at you. Its like dodgeball. You can move from sport to sport in the analogies and see which one applies at different times. The single ball sports vs. the many-ball sports.

PB Then there is the collective, the group, like a volleyball team. Golf, for old people that don’t really want to make art anymore …I don’t know.

CS A little tangent now…how golf relates to tartan. This very flamboyant guy, Edward Duke of York, who is credited with bringing tartan as a staple of golf and yachting fashion. But then look what Rodney Dangerfield has done with that.

PB Yeah, he’s such a pioneer! Well, tartan lends itself to anything really. It’s got that sort of longevity. Maybe in 5 or 10 years it will be the uniform for curators.

CS I think it makes sense when talking to you, to ask the question about your ideas about working as an artist, what your process is like, and larger ideas of who is out there as an artist, to get at what you do as a curator. It sounds like everything is centered in what you are doing in your studio, as a process, because the outcomes are all very different.

PB They definitely all inform each other but the main trunk of the tree is art practice for sure. They all work together, all the different avenues. I think I might curate more now, yeah (laughing).

CS There are these two guys working in Vancouver who work as both artists and curators and they work under the name Until We Have A Helicopter. I like what they’ve been doing and I think you would too. They asked me and five or so other curators to anonymously send them an object or an idea. They will take these things to a cabin in the woods, do what they want with total creative freedom over the things, and a show will come out of this. They are doing this because they were asked to curate a show when they wanted to make something, so they collapsed the roles. I want to send them two fitted uniforms but the time frame is too tight. I like it because they can do what they want with what anyone sends and not necessarily take the directive of a uniform. It would be funny to see what they then do with them.

PB Send them a rock.

(laughing)

Paul Butler is a post-disciplinary artist whose practice includes: hosting the Collage Party, a touring experimental studio established 1997; and directing the operations of The Other Gallery, a nomadic commercial gallery focused on overlooked artists’ practices established in 2001. In 2007, he founded the UpperTradingPost.com, a website that facilitates artist trading. He also initiated the experimental school Reverse Pedagogy that began at the Banff Centre for the Arts in 2008, and has since travelled to Venice during the 53rd Biennale. He has exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Los Angeles; Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, Hart House, University of Toronto; White Columns, New York City; Creative Growth Art Centre, Oakland; and Sparwasser HQ, Berlin. His curatorial projects have included the works by Matthew Higgs, Mitzi Pederson, Harrell Fletcher, DearRaindrop and Guy Maddin. He has contributed writings to the book Decentre: Concerning Artist-run Culture (2008) and to the magazines Canadian Art, Bad Day and Hunter and Cook.

Currently, Butler is rebuilding Greg Curnoe’s favourite bicycle with Mike Barry of Mariposa Cycles, in order to research and commemorate the artist’s work.

Camilla Singh is an artist and curator living in Toronto who shares Catherine Opie’s view that “…its transgressive just to try to live your life the way you actually want to live it.”

She is currently teaching drawing at OCADU, organizing the I do my own stunts lecture series for the Toronto School of Art, designing uniforms for curators, and recently contributed to the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Advisory Committee for the Maharaja exhibition.

Singh was the Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) from 2002 to 2009. Her curatorial projects often feature live areas hosting performances, concerts and sites of change within the gallery exhibition space. As a curator for Toronto’s Nuit Blanche in 2007, Singh presented Supernatural City, consisting of ten major outdoor contemporary art installations.

She is an active member and co-founder of the New Remote art collective, a group of artists from Canada, the Netherlands and Serbia, who travel the world by invitation to produce spontaneous collaborative site-specific installations.

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