LT: It's interesting to see you talk about the dexterity and innovation that went into funding and supporting the Biennial: redistributing funds, establishing a charity, connecting with existing organisations within the community—all work done before, during, and after your involvement with the project. Funding precarity, and the ways in which we adapt to it, is a common crisis in public-facing arts sectors across the world—one that’s biting particularly hard in Aotearoa at the moment. Higher levels of financial, institutional, and bureaucratic literacy are being asked of artists and arts workers in order to take increasingly complicated bites at a shrinking pie. To what extent do you draw a connection between your skills and experience in organising work with your capacity to stage an event like the Brent Biennial?
EJ: Yes, indeed what you describe is very familiar to what is happening in the UK. It’s actually quite concerning, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon. As the North American model of philanthropy as practice becomes more and more crucial to the ways that arts organisations are getting their money, the solution becomes less about asking for a real commitment from governments to fund the arts and culture as a civic and public right, and more about vesting it into the hands of private individuals. Don’t take me wrong, I’m all for people with money distributing their wealth, and when done so ethically and without too many personal self-interests, it can have a huge impact. I’m not sure how it is in New Zealand, but my concern in the UK is more about what it means to have a shift in social and political discourse where funding, and the ensuing competitive wars of who is included and excluded from it, is determined by a set of parameters that reduce the production of art and culture to either a good or a service.
On the one hand, there is the argument that the arts and cultural industries make a considerable financial contribution to the country, and that they should be seen as part of the wider capitalist/neoliberal economy, able to generate their own income and profit. On the other, and perhaps more insidiously dangerous, there is a very reductionist push towards the arts as a social good, demanding artists and organisations to fit within a set of working practices and principles in order to secure funding. What worries me about the latter is not, of course, the desire to explore the role of arts in society, to develop community-orientated practices or to instil more equitable and sustainable ways of working. Instead, it’s this idea that doing so hinges on fulfilling a provision of social and material care that the welfare state is denying in other ways.
I’ve recently seen marketing from libraries trying to tantalise people to visit, not because you can find great books or media, or use computer and AV equipment, or simply just to hang out and study, but because they have free heating! It’s this question of precarity that I was speaking of earlier. When the gaps that need to be filled are so vast there is simply not enough that the arts can ever do to fix the problems that have been designed through more than a decade of austerity. And, more importantly, we shouldn’t give into being used as the temporary plug. I’m in no way saying that we should shy away from doing good by individuals and communities in whatever ways we can, as there are many people struggling and a lot that the arts and arts organisations can do to help. However, we simultaneously should be pushing for a refusal of the instrumentalisation of art and people’s livelihoods and wellbeing for the benefit of the few people––and corporations––in power. This refusal is certainly one of the ways that curatorial and organising work can and should meet.
In the context of the Brent Biennial, a lot of the work that I sought to do was heavily influenced by my engagement as an organiser with Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, a solidarity group with whom, through direct action and fundraising, we stand in support with all migrants. Because of this, it was important to me that we very explicitly took a stand against hostility not just as a conceptual or thematic concern, but as a reflection of ten years since the conception of the Hostile Environment policy, and taking the opportunity of the biennial as a platform for advocacy.
In a very pragmatic sense, producing a biennial in a place where there is little to no existent infrastructure is incredibly challenging, and at least half of my time was spent just trying to get people on board with what we were doing. I’m literally talking about knocking on doors, talking to town centre managers, attending community meetings and generally being out there—particularly when we were in the process of looking for venues. I cannot tell you how many places of worship we visited and how many leaders we met until we found Father Andrew at St Matthew’s Church in Willesden, for example, who was the only one that generously opened the doors for Polish London-based artist Katarzyna Perlak’s beautiful commission featuring sculptures that invited conversations to form between queer and Catholic aesthetics, and folk practices. This process was one led by conversation and relationship-building, which was essentially sparked not just by a desire to produce contemporary art that is engaged with its surroundings, but also for its presentation and dissemination to be an opportunity to create solidarity and instil an impetus for change.
Since closing the Biennial I’ve been thinking about this as something that is at the core of my practice, and why I feel that operating across curating and organising is an interesting intersection for me. In the past I’ve described this way of working as exploring the act of hosting as a queer and curatorial framework, and now it is clear to me that the purpose of this across most of the projects that I’ve done to date has been to fulfil a desire to build community. This is also why I’m now—dare I say it—tentatively excited by the prospect of working in art institutions again with this cemented knowledge and experience on my back. Maybe I’m being naïve considering everything that I’ve just said, but the reality is that there are many artists, curators and art workers desiring to do things differently. Organising for me is so much about harnessing the power of desire to will something into existence, so it’s now really up to us to mobilise and demand art institutions to provide the conditions that are needed for change to happen in meaningful ways. Otherwise, they take the real risk of being left behind.