Social, political, and cultural issues are at the heart of curatorial projects by Dean Daderko, Curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and the Austin-based INGZ Collective–Uchenna Itam, Julia Neal, Rebecca Giordano, and Natalie Zelt. The following exchange—in which Daderko and INGZ each pose five questions to the other—reveals how these issues are manifested in their work.
Dean Daderko to INGZ: The four of you met during a shared course of study, and your interests led you to initiate a project together outside that classroom as INGZ. What drew you to each other? How do your individual backgrounds in Art History and American Studies manifest themselves in your collaboration?
INGZ Collective: Meeting in a classroom setting meant that we got to know each other through the process of discovery and growth. Sharing ideas and building knowledge together, disagreeing and editing each other’s work has been part of how we have interacted from the start. The space of a seminar afforded us the perspective of seeing how we each think and what we bring to the table intellectually. And sometimes it has been about sharing excitement and interests. For instance, working with LaToya Ruby Frazier came about because Natalie Zelt–the “Z” of INGZ–was writing her master’s report on Frazier. One of the many exciting things about LaToya’s work is that it gracefully ties together so many themes and concerns. We each found a point of entry that resonated with larger concerns while still being excited by the importance others found in Frazier’s artistic practice.
As a collective, we formed INGZ in response to an open call for exhibition proposals by the Visual Arts Center here on UT’s campus. As we had built a fairly close and dynamic bond, it felt natural that we might work together to present a rigorous and complex exhibition, what would become LaToya Ruby Frazier: Riveted. We get to share the burden of the work and the pleasures of curating, while also being able to marshal the different knowledge bases and bounce ideas off each other.
DD: INGZ follows a consensus-based decision-making process. Do you have set goals? How does your process accommodate the tensions that arise when different paths to a shared objective are recognized?
INGZ: We use “curating” and “collective” with an awareness that they are employed in various ways today. For us, being a collective functions based on respect and trust and is inherently political. Consensus-based models move slowly but they also grant the opportunity to think through why decisions are being made. Our goals include working in a way that resists oppressive power structures, including in our own working. We aim to be transparent about our commitments in both the content of programs and our group functioning and curatorial practices.
Consensus doesn’t mean that we never make individual decisions when spearheading tasks or projects. We do break down our workload into tasks and areas where one person is in charge. One of us want to learn web design; others have lots of professional experience managing exhibition loans. Our expectation is that we wouldn’t make a decision that we think would be contentious, or one of us would disagree with, without discussing it first. Luckily, there are only four of us, and we know each other pretty well. We can usually tell what is going to chafe and what is going to get a shrug from anyone of us.
That being said, we compromise all the time! Part of being in any healthy partnership is knowing when to say “Oh, that’s just way more important to you than it is to me. We’ll do it your way.” And trusting the project overall will be stronger and better for it. It also means making space to hear disagreement. But, truth be told, there isn’t much disagreement just difference; and we like multiplicity.
DD: INGZ organized the multi-part project Riveted with the artist LaToya Ruby Frazier. Can you address the relevance and impact of this project on your collective and your community?
INGZ: We are so thrilled to have gotten to know and work with LaToya. Part of what was so compelling to us doing Riveted was engaging her and her work long-term. We thought long and hard about the meaning and choices we could make in bringing LaToya’s work to Austin and to UT’s campus where all of the events and exhibitions were held. We put together two very different exhibitions that showcased her lithographs, video and brand new large color digital works as well as the black and white silver gelatin prints for which she is known. Frazier came to UT’s campus for two residencies–one in the Fall and one in the Spring–which featured a narrative performance, lecture, monograph workshop, student portfolio reviews and a discussion between the artist and Dr. Cherise Smith. A year-long engagement with an artist with such a complex practice –a recent recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship– enables real, in-depth discussion and this kind of repeated and ongoing exposure is an appropriate and useful model for curating on a university campus.
We believe that thinking about the audiences and communities we serve and speaking to and with them is very important. We were very explicit in our writings and curatorial choices that we wanted to think about the similarities between the Rust Belt abandonment in Braddock, where LaToya is from and the site and subject of all of her work, and the current tech boom of Austin. We talked about it in terms of bookends of single-industry economic booms. There was a moment when steel was king and Braddock exploded like Austin. Now, it is a place with a shriveling economy, few services, and environmental pollution that disproportionately affects poor residents. We wanted to highlight how intersections of race, class, and gender play out under these conditions–which LaToya’s work does so powerfully–in light of the current wave of gentrification of Austin. We were also influenced by the work UT professor, Dr. Eric Tang, on the massive and rapid dislocation of Austin’s black community in the last ten years. The timing of so many anniversaries of major Civil Rights events, the Blanton Museum of Art’s exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, student organizing and direction to remove statues of Confederate generals from prominent places on campus, and the concurrent Black Lives Matter movement, created an important confluence of conversations we were eager to join. We believe exhibitions to be a practice, to produce knowledge and manifest discourse. Given this power, we wanted to be specific in our intent.
Materially, there are some resonances: two of the photographs we exhibited, Self-Portrait Lying in a Pile of Rubble and Fifth Street Tavern and UPMC Braddock Hospital on Braddock Avenue are now in the collection of the Harry Ransom Center in a partnership with the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies so, quite literally part of Riveted continues here on campus. We also donated several hundred poster-pamphlets we made discussing LaToya’s work along with one of her famous images, “Huxtables, Mom and Me,” to BreakthroughAustin, a nonprofit that supports low income students who will go on to be first-generation college attendees. It was a real pleasure to see those posters hung on walls of middle school classrooms and hear young students discuss these photographs and the meaning of self-representation.
DD: What questions, ideas, problems, and interests are currently motivating your work, both individually and as a collective? Has your collective work influenced the way you approach personal projects? How?
INGZ: We are all in process of getting our doctorates. So, lots of our ideas and interests are being funneled into academic work.
Itam: I am fortunate to collaborate with, and be supported by, such creative, industrious and intelligent colleagues as these three women. Working with the curatorial collective enriches my research, writing and professional skills, requiring me to think more deeply, critically and imaginatively about general issues in visual culture as well as my own project. I am researching phenomenological approaches to visualizing identity constructs such as race, gender and nationality in embodiment-based mixed media contemporary art. My upcoming doctoral qualifying exams are my current motivation!
Neal: I can depend on INGZ to continually challenge my beliefs and investments about art and politics. For the better, this relationship demands that I do not grow comfortable in assumptions or perspectives. This is particularly useful for me to develop a flexible approach for the future, pedagogically and professionally. How one strikes a balance between foregrounding art and the cultural work it produces with how sociopolitical and economic dynamics influence perspectives is an art, in and of itself. This inevitable tension frames my research into 20th-century art, the work of Black artists and the contours of US politics.
Giordano: Working in this collective in particular has changed the range of things that I think are possible. Really, it made me step up my game. Working this closely, I developed such admiration for the way my colleagues work. It made me realize what my particular strengths are in curating and where I can really benefit from the expertise of others. I have lots of ideas, but sometimes forget the mechanics.
Zelt: These women challenge any staid notions of what curatorial practice and the study of photography can make possible. Together we push each other and the ways we conceive of the field and the scholarly and radical potential it harbors. There are these moments in our meetings when suddenly I look around the room and much to my surprise, realize that I am the traditionalist here, and with a little nudge from my colleagues, the boundaries of what a curatorial project can do broaden. Currently, I am grappling with the ways that questions about identity raised in photography or by photographers press on other media, our everyday lives, and how we all work to define ourselves. Being a member of this group, this community, has offered a new angle from which to see these questions work outside of the frame.
DD: What projects are next for INGZ? If you had to choose a dream project…?
INGZ: Rebecca just curated In Heartbeats: The Comic Art of Jackie Ormes on behalf of INGZ, which is the first solo exhibition for the African American woman cartoonist. In a career spanning more than twenty years and four comic series, Ormes got her start in 1937 in the Pittsburgh Courier. The show is up through December 7, 2015 at the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies at UT.
Funny you should ask about dream projects! We are actually in the process of putting one together. We are still hammering out the details, so we can’t share too much; but we can say that we are very much looking forward to producing a performance series this coming spring.
INGZ to Dean Daderko: We consider individuals from MFA programs our colleagues, though none of us have formal art school training. Working as a collective, we get to see how our different backgrounds affect each of our approaches in sort of a microcosm. How has your training as a sculptor influenced your approach to curatorial work and exhibition strategies?
DD: Though I’m not a practicing artist anymore, I used to be one. In my curatorial work, my studio practice informs my respect for process, materiality, and the way objects occupy space. My studies at Tyler School of Art were led by three incredible women—Amy Hauft, Winifred Lutz, and Jude Tallichet—who all influenced the development of my feminist curatorial practice.
My trajectory from artist to curator has been a smooth and natural one. I don’t miss having a studio practice. In fact, I find I use the similar faculties and creative energies in my work as a curator, even if they are directed toward different ends.
My appreciation for practice and process has led me to close collaborations and the creation of commissions with artists like Jérôme Bel, Claire Fontaine, Joan Jonas, Klara Lidén, MPA, Wu Tsang and Hague Yang. Working closely with such visionary artists has been an honor and a privilege, and I hope I’ve produced memorable results both for them and for CAMH’s audiences.
In a more nuanced way, I’ve come to understand that the spatial constellation of works can help or hinder the way viewers read them. Temporal aspects of exhibitions are as important to me as spatial experiences: in thinking about the pace of an exhibition–how a viewer moves through a show and what type of attention particular works in it may require–I imagine narratives of how constellations of works and experiences will influence viewers’ overall perceptions. Strategic placement can draw out new, unexpected sensations and experiences with art and the ideas it generates.
INGZ: When you first arrived in Houston there was a bit of buzz around your commitment to “up and coming” artists. How does that impact or help mold the way that you approach your work as a curator? Where does that commitment come from, and how does it affect larger discourses?
DD: I’m drawn to work that is unfamiliar, because I recognize its offering of new ways of apprehending the world around us. And if many of the artists I’ve worked with could be characterized as “up and coming,” I think it’s because there’s visionary substance in the form and content of their work. Trends gloss the connections underlying various works, and I’m committed to engaging with art in deeper, more focused, present, and substantive ways. A good idea or work will remain so, whether we’re encountering it today, or months or years on.
I value the privilege of being in a position to share work that excites me with CAMH’s audiences, who I find to be truly sophisticated. Houston is a city with deep commitments to artistic philanthropy–organizations like the Menil have led this charge. And Houston has a wealth of cultural institutions which, for the most part, welcome visitors free of charge. This creates a culture of engagement with the arts that’s inclusive of audiences from varied economic and cultural backgrounds and experiences—the value of ideas is powerful and incalculable. Creating exhibitions that speak to—especially with these audiences is totally energizing.
INGZ: Can you talk a little bit about your experience as an independent curator? How does institutional affiliation contrast and compare with your independent work? Does being part of an institution require new personal and professional boundaries and expectations? How does the labor of curating vary?
DD: The support and input offered by my colleagues at CAMH definitely strengthens my curatorial efforts. While my prior independent curatorial work required me to multitask and wear many hats, at CAMH the diverse experiences and expertise of our staff allows me to step back and see the bigger picture; and on a micro-level, their valued input helps me to perceive new ways to approach exhibition-making more successfully. It’s exciting! Because I don’t always approach exhibition-making in traditional ways, my colleagues’ suggestions on the calculated risks we’re taking together with artists are invaluable; they often identify blind spots I wouldn’t have anticipated, and we work out solutions together. It can be challenging, but the risks we take have regularly produced dynamic, exciting results. I’m thankful to work with such a great team! Overall, my position at CAMH has allowed me to think bigger, publish extensively, support artists in deeper ways, and be more ambitious in the work I’m doing. Given this larger stage, the positive responses from our audiences to the programs we’re working together to create is truly rewarding.
INGZ: From your experience, how have alternative structures for art-making, curatorial practice and display changed since you’ve began as a curator? As a mission-based collective, we are certainly part of a wave that is trying to develop approaches that reflect growing and changing needs, discourses, and audiences. What other trends and strategies do you see emerging in the post-recession art world?
DD: Thinking about my work in a cumulative way, each of the projects I’ve engaged in teach me lessons that I can move forward with. Curatorial work is ultimately responsive to the ideas that artists are generating, given our present cultural moment, and it’s exciting to work at an institution that supports artists who are on the vanguard of envisioning and communicating these new perceptions. As a curator who has always been invested in experimental and performative work, I enjoy talking with colleagues nationally and internationally who are engaging with artists to explore ways to present and contextualize advances in artistic practice.
INGZ: You have curated shows internationally in Lithuania, France, and Argentina. You are now at a prominent institution in an extremely important city for the arts. How does the location and audience of your different exhibitions shape the shows you mount? How do you conceptualize your ethical responsibility today as US-based curator to artists, audiences and institutions nationally and internationally?
DD: As you may know, Houston is the most ethnically diverse and fastest growing city in the United States, according to the last census. And according to projections, Houston is scheduled to become a majority Latino city in the next few years. As you can imagine, it’s a dynamic and cosmopolitan environment in which to work. I often think that the Houston of today is what much of the United States will soon look like. So it’s exciting to have a platform here from which to engage, respond, and reflect on these vibrant times.
Recently, students from the photography magnet program at Jack Yates High School had the opportunity to deeply engage with the artist LaToya Ruby Frazier as she and I prepared her exhibition LaToya Ruby Frazier: WITNESS. Yates is located in a historically African American neighborhood here in Houston called the Third Ward, and it’s experiencing rapid gentrification that’s displacing longtime residents. Frazier’s work directly addresses her own experiences of redlining and environmental racism, and she and the young photographers at Yates worked together with CAMH’s education department to prepare an exhibition that considered the changes and growing pains their neighborhood is going through. Their interactions with Frazier informed an exhibition of documentary photography by these youth that was on view concurrent with Frazier’s show. It’s exciting to work with an institution where important issues like this are publicly embraced.
I’m also currently working on a 25-year survey of the work of Paul Ramírez Jonas, who creates works that are often interactive and participatory. Ramírez Jonas often adapts traditional forms of public monuments–like bronze plaques, keys to the city, and monumental statuary–in novel and creative ways that demonstrate how these forms can act to catalyze publics around them. This exhibition will be the first survey of his work in The Americas, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to present it to our audiences here in Houston.
INGZ Collective is composed of Uchenna Itam, Julia Neal, Rebecca Giordano and Natalie Zelt. With an ethical and fluid approach to curatorial practice, INGZ collaborates on public interventions that foster new ways of engaging the visual and political. To learn more about past, present and future projects visit ingzcollective.org.
Dean Daderko is Curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH). Previously working as an independent curator based in New York, Daderko has mounted curatorial projects in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Montreal, Canada; and Vilnius, Lithuania, among other locations. He has been a graduate seminar instructor at Yale University School of Art where he led the course Queer Strategies, and a visiting curator at Centro de Investigaciones Artisticas in Buenos Aires; Cooper Union School of the Arts in New York; the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris; M.I.T. in Cambridge, MA; and the University of Houston. He writes and speaks extensively in conjunction with his exhibitions, and his writing has been published in catalogues by CAMH, The Studio Museum in Harlem, El Museo del Barrio, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, The Americas’ Society, and Rutgers University.