Thursday, September 13, 2007

Interview Questions for David Francis, Curator, "Inquiry as Collection" Exhibit

Interviewer Question: Mr. Francis, as Curator for the: “Inquiry as Collection: Wonder Cabinets, Collage, Assemblage” show, what was your purpose in assigning this project to your students at the Pratt Fine Arts Center?

David Francis: The show wasn’t “assigned” as a project. It wasn’t a formal part of the workshop at Pratt, except that toward the end, after about 20 hours of intensive time in the studio working with specimens and boxes and collaborating intensely with the class, it occurred to me that the work we had produced reflected a fascinating array of backgrounds and approaches and that we had the beginnings of a show right then and there and that, owing mostly to timing and coincidence, I was in a position as a board member and curator at CoCA to make that happen on fairly short notice.

On a general level, the purpose behind linking my Pratt class “Assembling the Modern Wonder-Cabinet” (currently offered Oct. 12 – 14, 2007 and March 7,8,9 2008; to a show at CoCA is to bring different arts organizations together for what I hope will be the first in a longer series of collaborations and projects. When I curated “Shard” for CoCA in early 2006, my purpose was similar in that I tried to bring artists from Cornish (students as well as colleagues) into direct association with CoCA.

Interviewer Question: What were the rules or instructions the students have to follow?

David Francis: Main activity: Starting to create objects and review strategies for display & assemblage. (What categories or taxonomies will the cabinet organize? In what sequence will they be displayed? etc.) Consider hybrid objects like Nick Bantock makes – a dried fish head attached to a toy wheel, etc. (By day’s end, students should have created at least three objects for the cabinet and have a preliminary sense of the desired size and organizational strategy.)

For Session 2, students should bring in the materials for construction of the cabinet itself, whether a simple cigar box, a converted dresser drawer, or larger fabrication. The cabinets need not be finished for session 2, but the boards and / or nails, etc. should be obtained for bringing to the workshop. ALSO: bring in pedestals and display boxes, glass jars and rubbing alcohol, “wet specimens,” collections of objects for exchange, antique books…varnish for finishing box or paint or wallpaper, old newspaper for shelf background…Review aesthetic principles of combining art objects with science specimens – wonder cabinets were being made before these disciplines had become separate. Considering adding “classic” or “typical” elements such as horns, fossils, mummified specimens, skulls, “soft tissue” specimens in jars, prehistoric artifacts, miniature works of art, etc. Cabinet hierarchy: since cabinets are representations of the known world in miniature, consider sectioning the space into such categories as animal / vegetable / mineral / God (also called a scala naturae).

Interviewer Question: Is this an assignment you give every year? Have the types of projects the students produce changed much over the years? Is this influenced by politics or culture or some other factor?

David Francis: I’ve been teaching versions of this assignment at Cornish for a few years, but haven’t noticed much change of the kind you describe. Gauging student interest in a project, especially for a required humanities class, and attributing it to a cultural phenomenon might require a larger sample population. Nevertheless it’s interesting to speculate about why Wonder Cabinets now?, i.e., why is there a resurgence of interest in this at this moment in history? Aside from Lawrence Weschler’s great book Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, which nearly won the Pulitzer for non-fiction in the mid 90s, I’d speculate that it has something to do with all the attention devoted to the disciplines, to “interdisciplinarity” as it’s occasionally termed, as well as the globalization phenomenon that echoes the sudden expansion of the world some 400 – 500 years ago (at least in the West).

Interviewer Question: Were you surprised, either pleasantly or unpleasantly, by any of the projects your students submitted?

David Francis: I became more and more inspired by their work and the collaborative nature of swapping specimens & exchanging ideas.

Interviewer Question: In the context of “Art” or “Inquiry as Collection” how exactly do you feel your assignment develops the student’s artistic talent?

David Francis: Well, an emerging artist can have all the talent in the world and still toil in obscurity. I guess I implicitly urge working with other artists, in a community or a workshop setting, developing talent in terms of an experimental approach, a not-too-serious engagement that remains grounded in questioning and exploring – that’s why the word “inquiry” is important, but not so much of a purely “scientific inquiry” as an inquiry of the imagination, a poetics…and if someone can learn to develop that kind of – I guess “attitude” might be another synonym – they’ll be sure to make art a lifelong endeavor. The often-invoked pedagogical cliché that “it’s about the process, not the product” is worthy of frequent repetition, especially when artists make what they feel are “failed” pieces.

Interviewer Question: Would this be considered a “beginners” art project, or is the role of collection more interesting than that?

David Francis: The same critique is often used to disparage collage as a second-class kind of art or beginner’s medium--where collage is an art form for people who “can’t paint.” A brief glance at contemporary art, a single visit to the Henry or the Frye or SAM will make it manifestly clear how important collecting is to art of all kinds, not just from a socio-political perspective about how and when various works of art become commodities to be collected and owned, but from an ahistorical, nuts & bolts perspective, a praxis that while learned early on in the education of an artist, never ceases to provide a resource –to use the show as an example, almost every artist can be seen to be a collector, often in a quasi-scientific way as if to comment on that dominant mode of assembling items: each box with its collection of “found objects” suggests endless narrative possibilities, little stories from which countless meanings can be spun. From Thomas Robey’s boxes with their dismantled rodent bones taken from owl pellets, to Wonderly’s classic hoard of doll heads, Lin’s tiny replica of buried strata, Reid’s “please touch” mini-museum of turning raccoon skulls, Henderson’s blend of architectural elements and nature, Livingston’s rows of fossil corals, the work from the Pratt class is embedded in combinations of “scientific objects” with “art objects,” much as Wunderkammern offered an interdisciplinary prospective on knowledge.

David Francis is Curator of the “Inquiry as Collection: Wonder Cabinets, Collage, Assemblage” show from August 26-September 27, 2007

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