Testing Ground: Curating

Testing Ground: Curating
Testing Ground: Curating, 2009 at Zabludowicz Collection, London
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A month of education-related events at 176, January 2009

Contested Ground

Organised by students from Goldsmiths MFA Curating and Royal College of Art Curating Masters
17 - 18 January 2009

Deconstruct/Reconstruct: Haverstock School at 176
23 - 25 January 2009

Private View 22 January 2009 4 - 8pm
176 is delighted to announce details of its January programme, which includes events organised by students from the curating masters at Goldsmiths and the Royal College of Art as well as Deconstruct/Reconstruct, an exhibition-based project by the 176 curatorial team and Haverstock School.

The Royal College of Art and Goldsmiths MA Curating classes have been offered the building at 176 as a testing ground for events and talks to explore ideas and practices in contemporary art. The programme will be announced online at the end of December.

Deconstruct/Reconstruct showcases new works by of over forty graphic design, textile and photography students year 12 students, aged 16-17, from Haverstock School. In the run-up to the exhibition the students are visiting 176's current exhibition Material Presence. They are being encouraged to analyse the exhibition and to consider the context and spaces within which their final works will be exhibited, as well as developing new approaches to the materials they use.

The project also introduces students to the practice of curating through a series of workshops, talks and visits led by 176 staff. Students will gain an insight into the curator's role, exhibition design and installation. They will work collaboratively to manage the space for the duration of the show. Each pupil will be given feedback and portfolio advice, as well as advice on how to present their work in a public exhibition.

As recognised in its recent Ofsted report, Haverstock School, which is a Business and Enterprise College, has made dramatic progress over the past five years and has gained positive recognition for developing links with the local community. The school previously worked with 176 artist-in-residence Gerry Fox on Camden Walks, for which pupils and young people from the Camden Detached Youth Project produced a series of short Super 16mm films which were shown at 176 as part of Fox's Living London exhibition (January – April 2008).

Testing Ground: Curating is part of 176's ongoing commitment to participation and education, which involves inviting local residents, students and community groups to engage with contemporary art and works from the Zabludowicz Collection. Each exhibition at 176 is accompanied by a programme of talks, hands-on workshops, live performances and events. The resource room at 176 is available to members of the public for research about artists in the Zabludowicz Collection, and to view film and video works in the Collection.

Contested Ground participants included

Richard Battersby / Chris Grieves / Victoria Adam / Virginia Phongsathorn / Dan Shaw-Town / Rory MacBeth / Victric Thng / Stefan Demming / Vanessa Billy / Robert Holyhead / Sam Porritt / Zak Kyes / FormContent / boyleANDshaw / Ursula Mayer / Haroon Mirza / Richard Sides / Dimitrios Bakas / Xinyi Liu / Justin Gainan / Rastko Novakovic / Davina Drummond / Daniel Lehan / Sam Curtis / Ryan Gander / Collecting Live Art / Jenny Moore Koslowsky / Simona Brinkmann / George Charman / Ben Washington / Benjamin Jenner / James Porter / Andrew Hewish / David Raymond Conroy / Kate Owens / Artist Disco 'Put Out The Bin' / DJ-ing by Tom & Gareth

Alexandra Terry / Antonia Lotz / Carmen Billows / Cathrine Bora / Dan Wang / Dominic Richie / Elea Himmelsbach / Emma Astner / Eve Smith / Gareth Bell-Jones / Gemma Lloyd / Hannah Gruy / Jenine McGaughran / John Vincent Decemvirale / Karina Joseph / Kelly Wojtko / Louise O'hare / Martyn Coppell / Nina Trevetti / Robert Dingle / Romain Chenais / Saim Demircan / Sinead McCarthy / Sophie Risner / Thom O'nions / Thomas Cuckle / Tom Trevatt / Valentina Ravaglia / Yesomi Umolu

Reflections on Contested Ground

Contested Ground took place at 176 over two days in January 2009 as part of Testing Ground: Curating. This month-long experiment sought to engage with the practice of curating in three specific artistic registers: the performing arts, curatorial training programmes and the secondary school teaching of photography, textiles and graphics. These projects resulted in the intensive production and presentation of three public events at 176 over the course of three weeks. The Magic, an evening of music, dance and live film curated by singer-songwriter Lail Arad, tested the boundaries between the performing arts and performance art. Deconstruct/Reconstruct was the culmination of a process that involved the curators at 176 mentoring a group of year 12 secondary school students through the production and exhibition of new works, and introduced a generation of young art students to the practice of curating.

In the narrative arc of Contested Ground, what began as a modest proposal to students on the two most established curatorial training programmes in London – the MA in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art and the MFA in Curating at Goldsmiths College – rapidly took on a life of its own as the forces of ambition and competition came into play. The resulting two days of exhibitions, performances and events were attended by more than 800 people. The initial brief to the students of the two courses was to programme a public event – for example an artist's talk or screening – during the weekend of January 17/18. We extended that initial invitation in late October 2008, and in the 12 weeks between that time and the public presentation of Contested Ground, the project grew, well beyond our initial expectations, to involve 30 curating students and more than 35 artists and collectives in some 17 discrete events and over 10 different curated displays. In terms of resources, the students were offered the building at 176, a former Methodist chapel with 1,000 square metres of exhibition space; curatorial support from the team at the gallery; and a promotional campaign for the event, conducted through the press and marketing channels used by 176. One caveat in the brief was that the event would in no way be funded by 176, hence the modesty of our initial proposal. The curators of Testing Ground were invited to figure out the event's economics and budget for themselves.

Contested Ground was not simply an exercise in fulfilling lavish ambitions with frugal means; its underlying pedagogical motivation was to introduce the students to the practice of curating in an active and independent institution; one which operates within its own unique set of circumstances and provides an unusual institutional framework. As a privately funded public space, linked to the Zabludowicz Collection of contemporary art, 176 enjoys a relative freedom in terms of its programming. In other words, its independence from public sources of funding allows it to take on projects at short notice, sidestepping time-consuming bureaucratic procedures, and to take risks in producing large-scale artworks and exhibitions. This freedom lends the process of exhibition-making at 176 an intuitive air and allows for an open-ended approach to projects. However, it also demands a sustained critical and analytical stance from the curatorial team at 176 with regard to its own programming and status in relation to other types of public and private art institutions.

During the debrief for Contested Ground, the most common comment from the students involved in the project was a retroactive wish to have received a more stringent brief for the project. But delivering an overall vision for the event from the outset would have risked hindering the open-ended and experimental nature of the project, which in many ways enabled its ambitious scope to emerge and contributed to its eventual success. Paradoxically, the fact that Contested Ground teetered on the edge of being overprogrammed, or of repelling audiences with an excess of options, is one of the things that made it so successful. Post hoc publications such as this zine, which has come out of the printed material generated during and after the weekend, allow an engagement with the tangled legacy of such an intensive moment of production. They allow us to eke out the strands that made it such a success, and to reel in those that threatened to lead it astray.

-Ellen Mara De Wachter