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Curation as Interruption

Sara Matthews, Assistant Professor in Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, responds to a conversation between Gabrielle Moser and Liz Park at the Toronto launch of Invisible Violence.

About 25 of us gathered in the TPW R&D space on February 20th for an intimate conversation with curator and writer Liz Park. Facilitated by Curator in Residence, Gabby Moser, who sparked the collective discussion that followed, Park presented her recent publication and discursive project Invisible Violence. What little I knew of the project I had gleaned in advance from the website description, which anticipated “thoughtful conversations about the representation of violence and its politicization today.” Reading this introduction I gathered something about the curator’s intent, namely to problematize the “we” who look at contemporary images of “other people’s pain.”1 As a participant in the event I also learned something about Park’s method for getting us there, what I will call curation as interruption.

Interruption might be described as an action or set of actions that disrupt or intervene into the normative order of things ‒ a mode of intrusion that suspends or delays one’s sense of continuity, process, or time. As a curatorial stance, interruption unsettles taken-for-granted ideas about public encounters with art, provoking new ways of looking and thinking. We might wonder, for example, about the status of the gallery as a mediating environment: how does it shape our engagement with art? What of our trust in textual description as an orientation to aesthetic objects? With regard to how we approach images of violence, further questions are raised: who are the “we” who look at “other people’s pain”? Who is the “other” to be gazed upon? And, how do histories of violence inform contemporary politics of representation?2 With Invisible Violence, Park employs a rhetoric of interruption to explore these questions and more.

The dynamics of interruption also characterize the aesthetic practices of the artists ‒ Rebecca Belmore, Ken Gonzales-Day, Francisco-Fernando Granados and Louise Noguchi ‒ whose works variously perform the interventions that Park seeks to investigate. While each of these artists interrupt or attempt to reframe the viewer’s encounter with narratives of violence and their visual representation, so to does the curatorial impulse that mediates our encounter with their work. In the spirit of staying faithful to Park’s instinct with her project, I’m mindful how my reflective discussion of the event might foreclose the attitude of suspension that she so carefully cultivates. And so I begin with the following question: can interruption be a starting point for entry into an encounter with Invisible Violence? Indeed, we might understand this query as performing an intervention into what it is that can be said about the event.

In what follows, I briefly explore the notion of interruption in each register of Park’s multi-part project ‒ the publication containing the curatorial statement and artists’ work, the discursive event in which it was presented, and my own reflection on those conversations. To do this I juxtapose my commentary with several questions generated from my reading of the event. I turn to questions because they enact interruption as a grammatical form. With each aspect, I chronicle interruption as a method of curation and consider how the participant is drawn to encounter representations of violence and their political ramifications. Looking with others is a relational act: engaging the visual image calls on ones’ own archive of conflicted experience even as we meet conflict as it is represented in the world outside. It is in understanding and teasing apart this circuit of social and political relations, I suggest, that Park situates her work.

Images “of” or “about” violence?

Park launched the discursive event by distributing her publication to participants. Each of us received a slim, grey 5” x 7” sleeve containing 16 images (four for each artist) as well as her curatorial statement. I understood “discursive” in this context to mean the experience of looking with others and the talk that was subsequently generated. Another sense of discursive could be the social and political relations that produced the event in the gallery space, and indeed, participants as willing and/or able to talk. There was a sense of anticipation and curiosity as we each took some time to unwrap and encounter the work. This first interruption therefore brought a tactile and personal quality to our looking.

Each of the images was reproduced on cardstock, the reverse side blank, offering little context outside of the viewer’s own interpretation. The effect Park sought with this approach was the same performed by the artists’ work, that of disturbing “that rhetoric of quick consumption…delaying the moment of recognition of the structural and systemic violence underlying each image.”3 By removing any textual description of the images, Park invites the viewer into a different looking relation, one that creates a gap between knowledge and understanding. It is in this gap, she hopes, that the “we” who look are actively produced as gazing subjects. While this has the effect of interrupting the knowability of the image, we might wonder if ones’ personal implication in that knowability is similarly challenged. This tension between the “we” and the “me” became clear in the conversations that followed.

What does a postcard want?

If the distribution of the publication is a framing strategy, this is also reflected in Park’s chosen vernacular – the postcard. As a quotidian object of culture the postcard relies on a shared parlance of giving and receiving: images are produced, reproduced, and then circulated. Why this image and not that? What form of communicative relation is sought? The postcard, then, delivers its own address. Typically, the relation between sender and receiver has special meaning – the postcard conveys (both figuratively and literally) something personal, and yet enigmatic, about that relation. What is personal is also social in the sense that relationality is generated in the gap between the act of sending and receiving, and between image and text.

It is this delay on which Park capitalizes in her adaptation of the vernacular: by removing any captions from her series and choosing to leave the reverse side of the images blank, the circuit of knowability is interrupted, leading the viewer to “finish” the image, and indeed, the meaning of the postcard’s gesture. In this way the authority of the caption is interrupted, leaving the responsibility for thought elsewhere. While this deferral succeeds in bringing subjectivity to the fore, in other words the “me” who looks, how much deferral is too much? Should we be concerned, with images of violence, not only with what we see but also with how and when we look? One participant raised the question, for instance, of the effect of finding an image from Invisible Violence on the streetcar or bus. Or perhaps, stuck to the refrigerator as part of a postcard collection. Does it matter what happens to the image after it reaches our hands? Of course it does matter, very much so, and just how it matters is what Park compels us to explore.

Framing violence?

I am left with the question of how the rhetoric of interruption unsettles the social and political relations that inform the way we look. This concern stems from a query made by another participant who recalled Butler’s argument regarding the “frames of recognition” that we bring to our encounters with visual representations of violence.4 The phrase “to be framed” carries with it a number of interpretive possibilities: a picture is framed but so too can a person be framed.5 In the first sense, there is a notion of the frame as both containing and embellishing what is enclosed within it. In the second, there is a suggestion that one is determined by the action of the frame. In each, however, there remains the possibility that the subject of the frame will exceed the restrictions imposed by it. Butler’s insistence is that frames “can and do break with themselves,”6 allowing for emergent iterations. What then, do we want from interruption, or is it something already at work? What stays with me is Park’s curatorial insistence on being a spark with other things that could happen and in creating a frame, however provisional, for that difficult and risky work.

1. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2004).
2. Liz Park, Invisible Violence (Vancouver: Artspeak, 2013), 1.
3. Park, 7.
4. Judith Butler, Frames of War (New York: Verso, 2009).
5. Butler, 8.
6. Butler, 12.

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Liz Park

Liz Park is a curator and writer committed to creating discursive spaces and generating forums to engage an audience with discussions of contemporary political and social realities. She received a Masters of Arts in Art History / Curatorial Studies at the University of British Columbia. In 2011/2012, she was Helena Rubinstein Fellow in the Curatorial Program at the Whitney Independent Study Program.