“People who organize parties in fringe spaces, or on the edges of the mainstream, or by and for marginalized communities, are curators of contemporary culture. Period.”ROYA AMIRSOLEYAMNI
When Roya Amirsoleymani presented her work and curatorial practice to our class last semester, I took the following very enthusiastic notes:
Among the phrases that I drew hearts around are: “curatorial practice as redistribution of wealth + resources,” “curating collectively,” “parties as material,” “sound + noise as visual art.” These thoughts informed my work deeply in the fall. I was, and still am, interested in how a temporal space, like a party or karaoke, can be a form of curated intimacy and the potential power of transformation there.
Roya posed the question, “What kind of temporary utopia or community space do you want to create?” I began to think about karaoke as a material, a temporary dreamscape, a liminal space. My own curiosities about sound art and field recordings were also echoed in her lecture as she mentioned her interest in “sound and noise as visual art, as a form of contemporary art,” a concept that was new to me though not conceived by Roya herself.
In November 2021, I collaborated with a friend to perform and record the entirety of Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR album in a karaoke studio. The experience itself was cathartic and ritualistic, and I struggled with the question of whether to use the field recording to create something else or to let it be enough on its own. The idea to consider field recordings and sound a material on their own has felt really expansive to me. I am leaning into the potential for a field recording of a performance or experience to be enough, to not have to be a stepping stone on the way to a larger project.
The following interview took place over email.
Luz Blumenfeld: I loved what you said about parties as material and I would love to hear more about that; what has it looked like in your own work and practice? What excites you about this concept and its possibilities? It made me think of Nan Goldin’s early photo slideshows at NYC nightclubs.(1)
Roya Amirsoleymani: Most of my curatorial experience has been at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), and our signature program since 2003 has been the annual Time-Based Art Festival (TBA), which includes experimental performance of all kinds (dance, theatre, music, etc.), visual art, film/video, new media, publications, and public programs such as artist talks, lectures, conversations, panels, and commissioned contextual writing. Additionally, the festival has always had a track of “late-night” programs, which tend to be centered on music, film, and/or dance parties/nightlife. There are social spaces built into these events, like bars, a beer garden, and local food (in the last several years, the food program has focused on partnering with BIPOC+-owned pop-ups). The late-night program has served as a meeting and convening space for both local and visiting artists, audiences, and participants. People talk about the artistic work in the festival, connect socially and informally, have more candid conversation, even hook up! For a long time, this track was considered more of a “fringe” program, peripheral to the “primary” festival, but we developed a more nuanced understanding of its value alongside a broader shift in discourse in contemporary art about how parties and social experiences are actual artistic material, part of what can be thoughtfully and intentionally curated.
To expand a bit, TBA’s late-night programs have historically had cheaper tickets, drawn a younger audience (always intergenerational, but skewed young), and are typically more demographically diverse (especially in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status). We have not been able to realize the late-night, in-person experiences at TBA since Covid, but it is something we hope to return to in some form— of course, with an understanding of all the ways in which art institutions need to do everything differently (and better) for the future. The reason I detail this track of TBA is not because it’s the only example of such a thing, but because it’s personal— it is how I came to understand nightlife and social space as part of the “art,” as just as important to critical conversations about contemporary culture as anything presented on more formal “stages” or in designated gallery spaces.
We have also learned ways in which party spaces are not always accessible, or can be less democratic than their image or spirit might suggest. For example, they might not feel safe or welcoming for folks who don’t drink alcohol, or for whom a big dance party might be too much stimulation, or whose traumas are triggered by dimly lit, crowded, party spaces and atmospheres. So, it can be exclusionary and inaccessible in certain ways. But it has also felt like a more comfortable space to a lot of people who don’t feel as welcome in a traditional theater or gallery setting, or who are seeking to be among more BIPOC+, Disabled, queer, trans, poor, and other folks who have been historically excluded from “high art” spaces.
Nightlife has always been a substantive part of contemporary, experimental, and underground art worlds, and the ways in which it is incorporated— both formally and informally— into institutional and non-institutional programs and spaces is something we should continue exploring, analyzing, and celebrating. People who organize parties in fringe spaces, or on the edges of the mainstream, or by and for marginalized communities, are curators of contemporary culture. Period.
Luz: I would love to hear more of your thoughts on “curating collectively” as a way to redistribute institutional resources. Could this be another way to frame collaboration?
Roya: ‘Collaboratively’ might actually be the better word here. I almost always invite co-curation, as it is a way of decentralizing authority, building/honoring collective knowledge, and directing institutional resources to individuals and communities who are historically excluded from wealth, or who don’t otherwise have a lot of access to such (gatekept) resources. I have co-curated two exhibitions with my PICA colleague, Kristan Kennedy: Gordon Hall’s THROUGH AND THROUGH AND THROUGH (2019) and Carlos Motta’s We Got Each Other’s Back (2020-21), the latter itself being a highly collaborative project based on how Carlos centers and works with local artists and creative communities to produce his projects, in this case with a focus on queer undocumented folks. I collaborated with Kat Salas and Matilda Bickers (at the time, of Stroll PDX) to curate No Human Involved: The 5th Annual Sex Workers’ Art Show, an exhibition, symposium, and publication in partnership with PICA in Fall 2019. I worked with a group of local sound artists to curate SUBHARMONIC: A Sonic Arts Symposium at PICA in Spring 2018. And in a similar vein, I have invited Felisha Ledesma (now based in Berlin), co-founder of the former artist-run sound and visual art space S1, to co-curate an upcoming program of sound art— in the form of performances, commissions, symposia, video/film exhibition, listening spaces, and a publication on the founding years of S1, to take place in Winter 2023. There was never a question in my mind of wanting to produce that project alone. I had Felisha as a collaborator in mind all along, and would have loved to have worked with any number of folks in similar ways. I will probably always choose to invite co-curation, whether I am working from within or outside of an institution and I believe I am a better curator and human because of the collaborative experiences I have in realizing artistic projects.
In short, I have always preferred to collaborate with others, to be in a place of conversation, discussion, idea exchange, resource-sharing, trust building, and to bring together expanded and perhaps siloed networks/social circles/spheres of community belonging. I think of these modes of curating (collaborative, shared, community-based, etc.) as aligned with my politics, values, and the ways in which I want to see art worlds change for the better. I am frustrated by curatorial practices that simply display politics as content, signaling social justice values without living them, embedding them, operationalizing them, or building them into the ways in which a curatorial project or institution functions.
Luz: In the lecture you gave for our class last semester, you spoke about “ethical exclusion,” and asked, “should a project always be for everyone?” I’ve been thinking a lot about who the work is for lately and the radical potential of making work specifically for certain people/groups of people. I think it can actually be really expansive to make work with and for only some people and not the “general public” (which to be honest, I’m not sure exists ha)
Roya: Great thinking! Here are some expanded thoughts on this:
Not everything is, can, or should be for everyone. I’m noticing artists, curators, and institutions approach this in several ways.
Increasingly, artists are making work that comes from a place of either critique or care (though these are not mutually exclusive). In either case, who or what is being critiqued, or who/what is being cared for, is specific. There is a growing and nuanced form of “refusal” in artists’ work across disciplines. For example, a rejection of the White gaze or audience, whether in the form of open critique of predominantly White audiences/art worlds, or in the form of exclusion/inclusion (e.g., excluding White audiences, exclusive to/caring for BIPOC+ audiences). The latter is just an example— this can look many ways. Sometimes a certain tension is at play. A knowing, active rejection or refusal of most of the people who are “in the room” to witness the work (those people typically being of dominant culture, e.g., White, able-bodied, neurotypical, cis). That is, artists might intentionally play with presenting in front of or “to” an audience, but the work is not legible to most of them, not “for” them, based on language, cultural references, aesthetic choices, use of space, location, or any number of other ways to create or deny access/legibility based on who the artist wishes to center, engage, or prioritize (or not).
Curators are sometimes the very people for whom the artistic work is not intended. Curators don’t always acknowledge or recognize this, but one way I think they can honor artistic work, regardless of intended audience, is to see themselves as being in service to it, to the artist, and to those it is “for.” To get out of the way, so to speak (curators giving up their jobs/power is another kind of “getting out of the way” that also needs attention/conversation!). To suspend or drop ego. To direct institutional resources (of all kinds) to support the project and the artist’s vision, unencumbered as much as possible. To be a voice of “authority” as a curator is an outdated and arguably unethical form of curatorial practice and interpretation of its purpose. Curators are, ultimately, facilitators of the work, and they must shift how they do their job from one artist/project to the next, each one customized, unique in what it needs, asks for, or invites. It is also a curator’s and institution’s job to “do right” by the work as much as possible— to meet artists’ needs, to strive to reach its intended audience, to be truthful, transparent, and forthcoming about working culture, processes, labor, fees and budgets, capacity, audience, limitations, etc. To be a partner in the work in the ways the artist wishes.
The notion of broad public engagement— the more people reached, the more diverse/mixed the audience, the better— has long been considered the goal in both visual and performing arts. Yet it overlooks the specificities of projects as defined and self-determined by the artist(s) themselves, and by the audiences who do meet it, or for whom it is intended. I have always believed that a depth of engagement is more impactful than breadth, yet at the same time, artists deserve visibility. So “outreach” or “engagement” with the multiple publics that might connect with a given project must be highly intentional, effortful, and committed. The reach of a project should be a considered aspect of its design.
Finally, institutions and artists must consider who feels welcome in their space, neighborhood, etc. Even if a project is intended for a certain audience or community, per se, it doesn’t mean those folks will feel comfortable being in the institution’s space, or able to access it. And in some cases, it is nearly impossible to undo an institution’s deeply seated reputation or reality of being an unwelcoming or exclusionary space, and it will take major shifts in internal culture, staffing, even mission if it is to achieve that. A complete reimagining.
(1) “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” by Nan Goldin, was originally formatted as a slideshow with music and shown at NYC nightclubs and bars. It was later turned into a book. There’s an excellent article about this by photographer Elle Pérez here.
Luz Blumenfeld (they/them) is a mixed, 3rd generation, gay artist from Oakland, CA. Luz is in their first year of the Art + Social Practice MFA Program. They are currently thinking about liminal spaces, psychogeography, and how a physical space can hold memory. You can see some of their work here, and you can follow them on Instagram at @dogsighs__.
Roya Amirsoleymani (she/her) is Artistic Director & Curator of Public Engagement at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), where she co-curates performance, visual art, public programs, and the annual Time-Based Art Festival. She also co-directs PICA’s Creative Exchange Lab artist residency program and their Precipice Fund, part of the Warhol Foundation’s Regional Regranting Program. Roya has been instrumental in expanding the organization’s commitments to access, equity, inclusion, and community engagement, with attention to contemporary art’s social, political, and cultural contexts. She lectures and presents at conferences; writes for publications; serves on grant and award panels; consults with art and cultural agencies; sits on Portland’s Public Art Committee; and teaches in Portland State University’s MFA Program. She holds a B.A. in Contemporary Visual Culture & Gender Studies and a Master’s in Arts Management Roya is committed to reimagining institutions in collaboration with their communities, in order to realize a more just art world and whole world.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
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