Russell Storer, alumni of COFA, UNSW, is a Curator of Contemporary Asian Art at Queensland Art Gallery (QAG). He has been working collaboratively to curate exhibitions such as the QAG’s Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) and the ongoing Singapore Biennale 2011. He was also a visiting curator at Documenta 2, Kasel and Curatorial Comrade for the 2006 Biennale of Sydney. In his previous role with the Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney, Russell curated a number of exhibitions among which was the Situation: Collaborations, collectives and artist networks from Sydney.
Interview by Shivangi Ambani
What was the experience of working across a geographically dispersed curatorial team for the Singapore Biennale 2011?
Working long-distance is a common situation for biennales today, with curators working from a home base as well as in the host city often in tandem with others. It offers the possibility for new connections and to draw in different networks of knowledge, experience and information. It does of course also present major challenges in terms of time and communication. Fortunately Matthew (Ngui), Trevor (Smith) and I all knew each other and had worked with each other before, so we had an established understanding of each other’s approaches, and we shared points of reference. We communicated regularly via Skype and email and every few months would come together in Singapore or Australia for intensive meetings. We also had a wonderful exhibition manager, Michelle Tan, who could co-ordinate with us and centralise information in Singapore, and we also had an online ‘cloud’ where we could share materials and documents.
For the APT you work with your curatorial team at the QAG as well as external curators. What were the challenges and benefits of working in this kind of collaborative environment?
The benefit of working collaboratively is that you expand your knowledge base and shift the dynamic into a more discursive mode rather than as a singular statement. There are benefits in that approach, but I love the dialogue that takes place and appreciate the multiple perspectives that collaborative curating offers. In some instances, as in APT, external curators are essential if you are working in areas that are unfamiliar or inaccessible to gallery staff, where you cannot proceed without specialised knowledge and on-the-ground contacts. As with any relationship there are negotiations and compromises to be made, which depending on the spirit in which this is done can be very productive or very difficult, but fortunately I’ve only really had positive experiences so far!
What do you look for in a collaborative curator when embarking on such a project?
I think as with any collaboration, you look for the experience and knowledge that people offer, but what is also important is that they are people you can relate to and there is some kind of shared goal in mind. There may be different views on how to get there, and the goal posts may shift, but there needs to be a desire to develop something together that you can both contribute to and learn from.
The upcoming Sydney Biennale for the first time will have a curatorial team rather than an individual. Do you see collaboration between artists, curators and institutions becoming increasingly important?
That is true, although the 2000 Biennale did use a ‘curatorium’ of advisors/curators from around the world to develop the project. Artists and curators have been collaborating for decades, from early 20th-century avant-garde groups to the activist collectives of the 1970s and 1980s to the participatory projects of the 1990s and 2000s. There has been increased attention and historicising of collaborative activity over the past decade, as well as expanding possibilities enabled by technology and new forms of organisation and production. With the enormous emphasis on the individual in society, and with the increased instrumentalisation of culture, the critical possibilities that collaborative work offers in setting up alternative structures and approaches will definitely continue to be significant into the future.
Any lessons learnt from your past collaborations—would you do anything differently the next time?
I see curatorial work as a constant process of learning, with each project teaching you so many new things. There are always aspects you might like to have done differently in hindsight, but that applies to everything in life I think! It’s important with collaborative projects to always be open and flexible while having a clear sense of what you are trying to do. You can bring your experience to each new project, but there are always situations you have never encountered before which makes it exciting and requires you to think in new ways. Collaboration – with other curators, with artists, with audiences – is a significant way of developing these new ways of thinking.