An Exhibition of Process: Tele Vision at the SAIC
by Morgan Walsh
Editor's Note: It is our absolute pleasure and honour to feature this wonderful essay by Morgan Walsh, a curator whose voice is altering the conversation about design, architecture and display-- and what it means to "object." Walsh is the one to watch.
Tele Vision, as the curatorial statement reveals, is not just about television as an object, though it surely prompted many playful ideas, but as a way of viewing the work within the exhibition. After many hours viewing and discussing each architect and designer’s concepts, media and installation plans, overarching themes in the way each thought about and presented their ideas began to emerge. Rather than honing in on often overused and sometimes vague issues like sustainability, re-use, and innovative design – though these themes surfaced too – it became obvious that these projects were only glimpses into what each designer and architect had to offer, the seedlings of the future work in each student’s post-graduate career. Though whole within their own right, the projects are experiments and trials, exercises in putting work out there and collecting the feedback. Just as television networks create pilots of shows to measure interest and gather responses to new ideas or narratives (narrative being another theme that came up again and again in discussions and informed the curatorial view), each installation within Tele vision is an inquiry into what works and doesn’t work in an exhibition space. In preparing for prime time, so to speak, the process of installation, like the creation of a pilot, became just as important as the finished product.
Different from many exhibitions, the work comprising a graduate student show is rarely complete prior to installation. Sometimes still evolving and surely still being finalized, the process of making bleeds from studio to gallery, and in Tele vision the process of creation became a central theme in the final installation. The need to showcase process first began to manifest itself in conversations with architects; unable to exhibit finished products in the same manner as their object and fashion designer counterparts, they were intent on presenting the journey of their thoughts, through research, models, drawings and renders. Perhaps concerned their work would appear incomplete or inarticulate many balked at the suggestion of banning boards – a tool used in classes and critiques to display work. Instead they were encouraged to think of their entire exhibition space as a board, positioning each individual piece of work in conversation with the next, creating a narrative. It was from this exclusion of boards that the importance of the installation process and the need to represent the development of each project became inseparably intertwined. As a way to hang individual architectural representation, magnets were introduced, giving both curators and students a useful way to test out the placing and spacing of different aspects of their work. In the same way a curator pads a checklist, bringing out a few extra paintings from storage to play with, providing a buffer in the final hanging, the use of magnets meant that students were able to hang and re-hang – sometimes leaving out images or text that seemed integral at the beginning. Easily installed, removed and placed again, magnets also meant flexibility until the last moments of installation. For one student, whose work changed dramatically and frequently throughout the installation process, this proved an invaluable asset.
Process too played an important role for the designers – though in a different capacity than for the architects. Arriving in the gallery with carts and boxes, their work appeared to need little more than simple assembly in previously designated spaces. However, a deeper knowledge of each project was gained through its construction in the physical space. Though revelations during assembly may be commonplace occurrences in the construction of many exhibitions, the putting together, taking apart, arranging and rearranging of the work by it’s makers, rather than gallery staff, meant that each designer was able to acquire a better understanding of their work, a more-thorough understanding of it’s pros and cons, challenges and strengths. They were able to see the project as other people would see it, test out views, angles and display. The A-HA moments also came in efforts to disguise cords, project images in less-than-dark spaces, hear sound and offer interactive aspects. Though it may have been too late in the game to alter pieces or reconstruct elements, the process of the assembly and arrangement of the work offered designers feedback that could not have been garnered any other way. In the same way I’ve presented and defended my research at conferences, those exhibiting in Tele vision were asked to physically articulate their concepts and ideas – each presentation and project hopefully better than the last, built on insight gained from previous occasions.
For the curatorial team the exhibition process began long before the physical installation. Using the maquettes students created of their to-be-installed work we tested out placement and configuration in a scale-model of the gallery. The process was quick considering the timeline, but constant: would projects benefit from placement near a window or in a bay? How would a drawing create dialogue and discussion with object, a sound piece with sculpture? Or not? As with any exhibition it was vital to keep the show visually exciting; how would work appear as one turned a corner and came upon it, what could be seen beyond the immediate sightline, could there be a view past, or through, the work at hand? It was also important to find a balance between topics and themes and the media of the work. I was initially wary of the choice to flood hallways and egresses rather than bays with large sculptural work and architectural models, placing drawings in smaller rooms, concerned that large work in passageways would appear crowded and uneven and that rooms without volume would seem empty. I’ve since come around to the calmness of the bays, the images and small wall-mounted models presented within give retreat and respite from the natural busyness of an exhibition featuring the work of 45 people. They provide a space to duck into, out of the fray. Similarly, the curatorial decision to use labels that included not only name and title, but also biography and project description next to each exhibitor’s work also went against my gut. I wanted the work to speak for itself, be revealed with time and thought rather than through explanatory text. However, as we printed, sized, edited, hung and re-edited the labels I realized that unlike the lengthy text that can dilute the potency of a work of art, these labels were a boon to the projects they described. At 100 words a pop the wall panels read quickly, provide a bit of background on the makers and their practice; some further explain process and how students arrived at the final iteration, others explain technical elements of the work or give guidance of how thing or spaces could be used; some labels say very little.
As a curatorial fellow, and a similarly graduating student, Tele vision was as much of a learning experience for me as for those in the exhibition. Together we worked out ideas, wrote and rewrote biographies and project statements, placed and replaced drawings, diagrams and objects on walls, books and models on pedestals, even sat under a desk while a video camera captured the action above. This process was wholly different from other graduate exhibitions with which I’ve been involved; those shows consisted of MFA work and the exhibition and display of design and architecture is an entirely different entity. With Tele vision as the final curatorial project of my graduate career I write this brief essay hopefully for the service of those reading it and visiting the exhibition, but also for myself. With always-necessary critical distance I’m able to see my own process, evaluate it’s strengths and weaknesses and adjust accordingly for the next project. Like those exhibiting in Tele vision, I too rely on process to show me where I’ve been – and where I hope to go.
Morgan Walsh is a recent dual-MA graduate from The School of the Art Institute. She served as a curatorial fellow for Tele Vision, on view until July 21, 2012.
See Tele Vision at SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries, 33 S. State St, 7th Floor, Mon-Sat 11am-6pm through July 21 and at http://www.saicdesignshow.com.