Uniforms for Non-Uniform Work
Excerpts from a Curatorial Sartorial #2
24 Mar 2011
UWHAH (Until We Have A Helicopter)
Until We Have A Helicopter is the collaborative entity of Vancouver-based artists Wes Cameron and Matthew Robertson. Working together since 2005 they have developed a practice that includes sculptural production, curatorial projects, gallery direction and functional-object making. They have recently exhibited at The Lab in San Francisco, and the Or Gallery and Gallery Fukai in Vancouver. http://uwhah.com
Conversation with UWHAH:
Wes Cameron Arvo Leo made uniforms for us before, but it was not related specifically to curating. It was more about UWHAH. We curated UWHAH: Prequel where we asked artists to help define what UWHAH was, the history and mythology behind UWHAH.
Matt Robertson They were sort of like linen material and they were modeled after a helicopter flight suit. We had to wear them for the opening of the exhibition. He also created an alphabet made up of signs and then he wrote a manifesto in code using this alphabet. Leo wrote the manifesto on two huge pieces of linen in the code and then the code was also printed on the linen suits.
Arvo Leo in collaboration w/ hidden spectrum, Uniforms, screen printed linen, buttons, 2008
Camilla Singh So did you wear them?
MR Just for the opening of the exhibition. It felt pretty amazing to be wearing a uniform.
WC They were super well made. He had hidden spectrum make them for us, all the details…they were gorgeous.
MR Ron Tran, in that same exhibition, created a UWHAH flag and then produced patches from the flag that were mounted on the shoulders of the uniforms.
Ron Tran, The Fifty to UWHAH, Patches, thread on cotton, 2008
WC But we didn’t get to space.
MR And we didn’t get the uniforms. He kept them.
WC Oh yeah, he kept those. That’s interesting. Are you thinking of your uniforms as an assignment or a gift, or…
CS I’ll have to see how it goes. It would be ideal to give the uniforms to the person and then have two others that I could do different things with. One that’s never worn, and depending on the interest of the person in having one, wearing one in their work environment. For some people it may be odd to be fitted for an artwork, others will be ok with it.
WC You have to draw that fine line between the personal and the professional….where you’re not making it for them as a person, you’re making it for them as determined by their practice.
CS Yes, and at the same time it can become personal depending on a person’s relationship to their body. Detailed measurements are required. There’s definitely going to be physical contact between two people to make these uniforms happen. You have to be measured. Some types of clothes can be less precise, but fitted garments of course have to be individually tailored.
MR It seems very open. When I think of a uniform I think of something very structured and utilitarian, something very functional. I’m not thinking of a dashiki or a mumu, or anything like that, but it might be more comfortable. For me, curating doesn’t seem like a business suit type of thing. It seems more suited to something casual.
MUMU TUX (What would that look like? Who would wear it and why?)
CS A suit really makes sense for some people. A straight jacket makes sense for some people, or a bath robe. I want to go to those degrees but also, well maybe not a straight jacket. Symbolically, something very confining versus something very personal – drawing both from fashion and cultural signifiers, military, …
Depends on the person – what they do, how they do it, why they do it.
A question for you…What types of curators are there out there?
WC I recently saw an article about young up and coming New York curators – Julian Schnabel’s son, Vito or something. These guys were uber connected super stylish looking young dudes or girls, where its all about your connections. That was a little upsetting to me, but I’m not really familiar with the New York scene I guess. That’s one kinda guy. I like the over-knowledgeable curator who is well educated and can read into anything and is very interested in all kinds of art. I find those kinds guys really interesting.
CS It makes me think of the more classical curator who has a very specialized knowledge. Is that what you mean, or maybe more like Richard Flood – the curator of the New Museum – he’s more of a generalist, he can curate on any subject. Its about an awareness of all kinds of things and making connections…is that what you mean?
WC Yeah, definitely. And I’ve seen other people work in a similar fashion and I could never do that but I find it pretty interesting. And that’s definitely a kind of curator.
CS How do you see yourselves as curators? What does curating entail for you?
WC I’d say for us its always been dependent on the opportunity. We’ve really only curated out of necessity, where we’ve seen work that we’ve liked and had the opportunity to provide a venue for it. So we figured out how to curate. Or we’ve had a space to show things and we’ve decided to show work site-specifically, about that space. We just curate as an extension of our practice I guess. I don’t like doing studio visits or grilling people on what they’re doing. For us its usually project-based and we provide a framework, parameters or something that we would like to make work for but for that show we’re not actually making the work. We invite people to participate.
CS Why do you find yourselves in the position of not making the work? Is it the choice of wanting to curate or are there other demands that put you in that role?
WC You can’t be too selfish! For the exhibition that we’ve asked you to help us with we were asked to curate and just didn’t really feel like curating so we thought we would involve curators in an attempt to…
MR …leave ourselves with the space to make work.
WC …subtle subversions.
CS What about initially, how did you start curating?
MR We initially got involved with a multi….
WC …a hotel
MR Well, I was going to go all the way back to the Butchershop.
WC But we didn’t curate there together.
MR No, okay. So yeah, we started Lobby Gallery in a hotel where we were going to initially curate out of a hotel room but it developed into us building a gallery construct within the lobby of the hotel. We started by just facilitating exhibitions, site-specific exhibitions. We built a site-specific venue and then tried to get artists to work site-specifically at that venue.
WC We were asking them to take into consideration the fact that they were exhibiting in a semi-public space in the lobby of a hotel in the downtown east side of Vancouver. And a lot of the artists got it, and a lot of the artists chose not to work with that context. We have always been interested in working site-specifically so whenever we’re invited we consider the parameters of the invitation and work from that.
CS Were you asked to work as curators in the hotel or did you just decide to take the context into account?
WC I’d been curating before that and I guess when you start working together with another artist, how do you determine your subject matter? And instead of attempting to do that we took an objective approach and …
MR …I guess initially that project started for us as collaborators and we saw it as an art project – the conception of the gallery. And then as that developed we figured programming would be the logical next step. We created the space. We sort of walked our way into it [curating].
WC Why curate though? I think we were just trying to provide opportunities for our friends.
MR Yeah, there was a sense of that too. We felt like we were kind of within a large group of artists that weren’t getting the exposure we thought they deserved. And then we created a venue to expose them.
CS Did you have work in the show too?
MR No, the gallery construct was our work. When the project ended we “knelt” the wall, as a submissive action, into a bench.
UWHAH, Lobby Finale: Kneeling Reprise, gallery wall, steel, elastomeric paint, 2008
CS New things have come up around naming categories of curators during the conversations I’ve had with other people, words I wouldn’t have thought of. One name given was social curating, and it makes me think of what you are talking about. For him \ that meant doing things with people because a situation arose and he could put things together driven by a natural inclination towards social interaction with the work he was making. Socially driven activity.
MR For us it’s more about site.
WC We’ve never curated specific works. We’ve always just given people an opportunity to work with a space or to work with an idea. We’re not going out looking for anything and we’re not really ever seeing works that we want to show. We’re just liking people, liking artists. Maybe that does apply to the social curating thing.
CS Right, and there’s a definite distinction there – what you do is more about site, context and a concept than a social interaction. Whereas what Paul Butler was describing was rooted in the social interaction. Even though all the collaborators may go off and do their own thing.
MR I think it’s hard to get away from the social in almost anything, but I would say we’re more about concept, site, context. Did you happen to see our last curatorial project here in Vancouver? It was disseminated via video.
Installing Kika Thorne’s, Untitled, elastic, hardware, 2009
CS I saw things going up through a window. I saw what each person made for the space and how each object got up into the gallery.
WC That was our thing – we didn’t have any real knowledge of the work before installation day and the parameters were: it has to get itself through the third floor window. The reason for the parameters was because that was the strange thing about the gallery is that it was on the third floor. Yeah, that was fun. The exhibition itself wasn’t – well, we didn’t feel like we curated the exhibition, we were more excited about the installation process than the resulting exhibition. The process was more our piece I guess. That’s the way we felt about that one.
CS Do you make a distinction between what you do that ends up being labeled as curating vs. what you do that is understood as your art practice?
WC We make a distinction on our CV.
DIRECT, CLEAR, UNAPOLOGETIC
WC We know when we’re making work or when we’re showing other people’s work.
CS I’m asking the question because it sounds like the process of the last show, for example, is a piece that you’ve made. It may be that the work that you’re making as artists that comes under the category of curating doesn’t result in an object you’ve made but you’ve definitely brought things together in a way that’s not material form but is still your work….right?
WC We definitely consider all of our curating to be a project. Its all part of our output, our practice, but it kinda comes down to documentation. It’s difficult to show that as a thing. So that’s why we separate it into curating, I’d say.
CS When you said that the creation of the gallery in the hotel is the work that you made, it seemed like that structure is an extension of your art practice.
MR Yeah definitely. And then I would say that the video of the installation of those works is an extension of our work. But the exhibition was something else.
CS I have no idea how all of these things can result in a garment…
WC I’m not wearing a dress.
MR I’ll wear anything.
CS Something will come to mind.
WC That’s a difficult task you’ve set out for yourself. Translating into clothes? What’s your link with fashion? How did you end up with uniforms? Was it just from thinking about curating as work?
Its been rolling along in my mind for a long time. When I left MOCCA I wanted to reflect on what I’d been doing for 7 years, after such a long time of working without any time to think. I also try not to question the need to make these uniforms, and I just proceed with it.
MR Yeah, don’t.
WC You have to do that. Otherwise you end up making nothing.
CS I have to involve so many people in order to do this and I really don’t know where any of it will go. But it is really great to work with the AGYU [studio blog as a platform for research] so that it sets me up with a series of deadlines around the research and the process instead of having a deadline set for the final production of a show or a final work. Its helpful to have those external deadlines to keep things moving at a pace only partially set by me. It creates opportunities for me that are governed by how much I get done, working at my own pace. The direct result being the content of a publication we produce in a year or so. It’s all still pretty nebulous.
WC Your skype picture froze but its ok because you’re not making a funny face or anything. Ok, you’re back.
CS What do you like about curating?
MR I guess because we’ve only done this one focused way of doing it – like Wes was saying, we haven’t gone around doing studio visits, picked a theme, tried to match work to that theme, put it all in a show together – I think we really like the way in which we’re curating.
WC But our approach hasn’t always given us our desired results.
CS How so?
WC It’s really difficult to fully convey what you expect out of an artist. We try and narrow down our concept so that we think we’re going to get out of it what we expect, and without confining the artist too much…
MR …but then we end up with sort of unrealistic expectations because we end up creating these situations for artists that we get to participate but it’s impossible not, as artists, to not come up with ideas about how we would tackle the project. Sometimes we end up pleasantly surprised like the artist with the uniform and manifesto and alphabet project. Personally I found that amount of effort outstanding considering what we gave them to work with.
HORN, ANIMAL HORN, MEANS OF AMPLIFICATION
COMFORT AS A RESULT OF INGENUITY
MR And then there were highs and lows with the third floor installationproject. There were things that we thought were really smart ways to tackle that and then other ones that we maybe didn’t deem as successful. We came up with things that, if we were asked to do that, then this is how we would have done it. I guess it can be frustrating but you move from one idea to the next and you can’t really get caught up in critiquing that too much.
CS There is always humour in what you do. Does it just show up? Or do you structure things in that are funny?
WC I think it makes it fun for us and it makes it more fun for the participants. I think humour is essential in art since 1912 when art got funny.
CS Is there a marking point in 1912 that I’m forgetting?
WC Well just that Dadaism came around and art was able to laugh at itself instead of just striving for beauty in more conventional ways.
MR That’s nice Wes.
What are you working on for us?
WC Is that happening?
CS uhhhhh, well the first thing that came to mind was uniforms of course because I’m constantly thinking about uniforms. And that’s what I would love to do. I would love to have two uniforms, your uniforms, be the first attempts at this project. I like that your project asks for an idea or an object that is fully within your purvey to do what you want with once it leaves my hands. That’s a matter of how fast I can make it happen. I had some other ideas though.
WC Sounds great.
CS The other ideas I have could come anonymously so I think I just won’t tell you.
WC Ok. But, like I said to you before, the anonymity isn’t that important to us. The other submissions we’ve had so far have ignored that. And that’s fine with us because I don’t think that who sends things to us is really going to affect that too much. We are just trying to make it easier for you where you don’t have to be too attached to what you do. If it was just something off the cuff that maybe you read in a newspaper article that day or you had a funny thing in your garbage can, you could send that to us. It wouldn’t have to be too in-depth. I like that you are into it in that way. However you feel like proceeding is totally fine.
CS What five people would you recommend I talk to you for this project?
MR If we start telling you that five we’ll probably end up divulging who else we’ve asked to participate in this project.
CS Ok, well tell me later.
WC Once we get your thing we’ll let you know.
MR How big of a list are you thinking of compiling?
CS I plan to talk to a lot of people. I have certain things in mind with these uniforms, but I don’t know where it’s going to lead me. I wonder how much I can leave my own mind anyway to understand what someone else is saying about their process. Its one of the challenges I’m up against here in trying to understand the way people work.
WC You can’t leave your own mind. Is that the note we end on?
MR I’d need a space suit for that one