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In Conversation With: Abigail Miller

A conversation between two friends discussing current topics in the arts. Response every Sunday on alternate blog. 

5/4/20- Response to Abigail's blog post on 29/3/20

Before I start knocking online exhibitions I should first state that I am actually a fan of them for many reasons. The obvious pros to them are the accessibility and cost, meaning that most people can experience them or have their work shared/displayed without the financial, geographical and physical restrictions of an IRL show. Same as you, I’ve used many online exhibition resources to write essays and dissertations through out the years and with out them I’m sure some of my more last minute writings would have lacked a more varied research point, so thank heavens for the internet! However I must say that the sudden surge of online exhibitions is frankly overwhelming and like everything else in the arts, the quantity makes it hard to find the great amongst the average. Within days of the UK lockdown every creative person took to social media to offer online workshops, artist talks, open calls and lectures. Which is of course an amazing response to such a terrible situation, but honestly I don’t know which way to turn. Am I a bad artist/writer/curator/educator if I don’t attend that Zoom artist talk? What about that workshop on Instagram? I’ve had three exhibitions cancelled this year so should I apply to all these open calls? There is almost more pressure now to be a part of the “clique” than ever before. But if I’m truly honest with myself, my work doesn’t always translate online so why would I try and make a square fit into a circle, or whatever the expression is?


As a photographic artist who actively avoids making work for print and framed, white wall exhibitions the internet and specifically online exhibitions have the white wall aesthetic to me. That single frame with a click or scroll to the next frame serves a purpose sure, but it doesn’t offer the same level of escapism as stepping into places like the Tate or the MoMA. The total emersion of art and culture away from your sofa and the interruption of a Facebook Messenger ping or email notification. More so than this though, putting my work online removes all control over how the work should be viewed. If I never made the work to be seen at any less than the scale of a cinema screen then why would I want anyone to view it on their phone. I already struggle with putting my work on my own personal website for this very reason. It’s not so much the tangibility of an IRL exhibition or the objects/work shown for me as I frequently work with intangible display methods such as projection, but more about the ability to transform a space for the purpose of the art being experienced. Actually speaking of tangibility, there is a debate in the photography worlds as to whether a digital photograph is even a photograph at all or is it just data. I mean that’s far too pretentious a debate for me to get involved with but it’s interesting in terms of this conversation on online exhibitions. 


The thing is, online exhibitions aren’t new and we technically view them everyday through social media. Your Instagram feed is an online exhibition, even if its not the most exciting one. Cindy Sherman, one of my favourite photographers and inspirations has been using Instagram for the last few years to showcase selfies that have been warped and modified by the use of filters, a very modern twist on her more famous works of her dressed as different characters. I guess her Instagram profile is a constant exhibition if you’re willing to view it that way, which I am. Your current curatorial project “In My House” is completely online, from the open call, to the review afterwards. Do you worry that the online exhibitions still aren’t taken as seriously as those that are physical? When you go to apply for curatorial studies or employment how will you justify the relevance of the series of online shows you have curated over the IRL ones? Will you carry on looking at more online based ways to curate or do you plan to return to the more traditional ways once all this craziness is over? 

12/04/20 - Abigail's response

I totally agree with you in that there feels like there is a lot of pressure at the moment to be productive and ensure you're letting everyone and their mum know that you aren't just sitting in your pyjamas all day. It can become quite overwhelming, who knew you could get FOMO during a lockdown?? There are so many workshops and zoom meetings and artists talks happening online, which is amazing of course, but i must remind myself that i'm not a bad person or a bad artist for still not wanting to be a part of them, even when it's all there is to do at the moment! ....

21/04/20 - Grace

I think we should quickly discuss the difference between an “online exhibition” and an exhibition being documented and disseminated online. There is a difference but I think that they are easily confused for each other. I believe that an online exhibition is one that solely exists online and never occupies a physical space. The whole experience is had through interacting with a webpage etc. The latter is simply the text, images or videos that accompany the physical or IRL exhibition and are shared online to document, market or explain. With your “In My House” project you present the work in a physical space (your home) first and then document the work in the space to post it online in the form of images and a blog. Although you never open your home for the public to see the work in the space, the exhibition does have an IRL audience of you and your family which is arguably a more important audience for the intentions of the work. So therefore, I would argue that your “In My House” series is not a series of online exhibitions at all but is actually a series of IRL exhibitions with the documentation disseminated online. What do you think it is?


Actually, audience is an interesting topic when discussing online exhibitions because you have so little control over it. When curating an exhibition there is always a target audience, usually depending on the work and where the exhibition is being held. But when the exhibition is online it is accessible to anyone with internet access. How do you prepare for that loss of control over your audience and the impact the variety of people viewing the work has on how the work is perceived? Can you prepare? Does it matter? What impact does the audience have on an exhibition as a whole do you reckon? I’ve always had that mindset that if no one goes to see an exhibition then it has failed. What’s the point of art if it isn’t seen? I remember that exhibition that we curated and showed work in a few years ago at Safehouse 2 in Peckham, we worked so hard on that show together with the others and felt so deflated about the small number of visitors at the beginning of the evening. Then when it started to pick up so did our moods. But for a while I was honestly embarrassed about the turn out. I felt that we had failed because there wasn’t a lot of people there. Now when I look back I realise how successful that show was. I know that I wouldn’t feel that if no one had ever turned up though. Why do you think that is?


If the sheer quantity of the people visiting an exhibition makes it successful then we MUST discuss the first Yayoi Kusama exhibit at Victoria Miro. The one we queued for three hours to see and was only allowed to spend thirty seconds inside of the artworks. That exhibition was crowned a winner due to the amount of people that lined up round the block to see it, but honestly, I left dissatisfied. You know I love Kusama but there was not time to enjoy or truly experience her work and the spectacle of it all in thirty seconds. In this case, the quantity of visitors ruined it for me which could be an argument against audience equalling success? Opinions on this?

12/04/20 - Abigail's Response

I totally agree with you in that there feels like there is a lot of pressure at the moment to be productive and ensure you're letting everyone and their mum know that you aren't just sitting in your pyjamas all day. It can become quite overwhelming, who knew you could get FOMO during a lockdown?? There are so many workshops and zoom meetings and artists talks happening online, which is amazing of course, but i must remind myself that i'm not a bad person or a bad artist for still not wanting to be a part of them, even when it's all there is to do at the moment! 

07/05/20 - Grace

Its interesting how we link audience and failure so easily together. Big audience = success, small audience = failure. Again this definitely links back to social media and likes equalling popularity/success but also I think a lot of it has to do with art world pressures and cliques too. You always see these packed opening nights shown on Instagram, with the same artists as always attending. Instantly you feel like an outsider if your private view doesn’t feature those faces and reach those crowds and lets face it, we’ve never been part of those crowds. When we saw Kasuma a few years ago, we were furious to see the bouncer letting in the beautiful women he’d obviously come to know working these events whilst the rest of us were outside in the rain for three hours. It happens in every industry so why would we think that the arts would be any different. I don’t think that helped my mindset before I entered the building either. Knowing that we had waited for so long whilst others were let in because the bouncer fancied them and then we only had thirty seconds inside the installations once we made it just put a bad taste in my mouth. But yeah I do agree that the queuing was part of the spectacle of her works so in this instinct it worked. However, last year I went to see the Don McCullin retrospective at the Tate Britain and after ten minutes trying to get anywhere near a print I walked out and requested a refund. This is not the kind of work that you can enjoy in a hurry surrounded my hundreds of others. This is work about war, death and poverty, not a room full of mirrors a polka dots. Lots of the imagery is graphic and hard to process, something that is hard to do when you’re being shuffled along to the next print after about ten seconds of viewing time, almost like a horrific conveyer belt. This is actually a result of greed on Tate’s behalf, rather than limiting the amount of people to enter the exhibition through hourly slots, they allowed everyone to flock at once. This was undoubtably a massive downfall of the exhibition and I decided just to buy the catalogue instead. 


Actually, it is probably a good point to discuss the term “exhibition”. Exhibition is a very loose term and it gets chucked around a lot. What even is an exhibition? We know now that it is far more than just art being hung in a space, but what makes an exhibition, an exhibition for you?


12/05/20 - Abigail

A quick google search of the definition of an exhibition churns out things like " a public display of works of art or items of interest" and "a display or demonstration of a skill" which were very interesting to me. The words interest and skill in particular. An exhibition being a public demonstration that has to be interesting and skilful i suppose is true on a basic level. An exhibition to me is an opportunity to share something with an audience, to present something in a way that a response in generated and a discussion is started. What i love about the word is that is can be used to describe pretty much anything, which i think invites a conversation into the components of good and bad exhibitions, good and bad art.

19/05/2020 - Grace

Definitions were always a crutch for me when writing academic essays because one; they’re great word count boosters and two; they gave me something to disagree with. I love a good argument with the dictionary about art related words! Even the word Art has, in my opinion, an outdated definition that doesn’t make room for any of the newer medias including photography which as you know is my main medium. So it would be out of character of me to not argue the definition of exhibition is outdated and wrong too, wouldn’t it? The definition actually states that an exhibition is “held in an art gallery, museum or trade fair” which is my first disagreement obviously and the second is the part about “items of interest” which is so aptly vague it almost hurts. Firstly, we know now that an exhibition doesn’t have to be held in a known arts institution to be an exhibition, though I must say some of the worst exhibitions I’ve ever seen were at art fairs, so that’s probably another discussion to have! What on earth is an “item of interest”? Is that referring to the value of the item or it’s history? Just so vague! I’m interested in decent storage and my newly bought Sodastream, but I can promise you now that I don’t want to see an exhibition on either of those. So again, who decides what is of interest?


As you said, the Turner Prize Exhibition in 2018 received so much backlash about its contents. Actually, I wasn’t overly impressed either, not because there was a lack of painting, personally I struggle to connect with a lot of painting as it is, but because it was all a bit “samey” for me and the only work I really connected with was Luke Willis Thompson’s Autoportrait.  I’m a sucker for a huge projector and silent film, and the noise of the projector filled that room in a hauntingly beautiful way. So it was a winner for me. But yes the rest of the exhibition was blah, the audience weren’t impressed, the feedback was terrible and basically just not making the waves that the Turner Prize always set out to do. Yet it carried on the next year? Proving that success was never down to the audience, lets face it, is it ever down to the audience in big institutions. If it makes money it carries on. That’s the way of the arts. So this particular award is all about interest. It highlights the artists/collectives of the year making the most innovative and provocative work and offers money to one winner. But as we learnt from the 2018 showcase, the audience weren’t interested in what they had to show, so who were interested?


Actually it’s funny that you mention “baloney” when trying to justify the artwork we view. Isn’t it fascinating that we rarely do this when viewing the more classic works of art. I don’t try and come up with some arty reason for Turner’s paintings to understand them, I just appreciate the craft and move on. So I think this is Modern Art’s fault entirely. We don’t actually get it fully ever, only if we made it, so we must resort to our arts education and knowledge of art theory to try and understand it. I don’t know about you but this sometimes ruins the fun for me. Why can’t I just enjoy it for its bonkers nature, why do I always have to try and “get” it to like it? Is this a major downfall of arts education do you reckon? 

24/5/20 Abigail

In terms of the 'validators' in the art industry (the people who decide if something is interesting or worth showing) this can span from curators, art collectors and dealers, art directors, art critics, artists, social media and the public audience. There is definitely a hierarchy within these labels as well. The seasoned art critic is regarded to have more relevant opinions than the 2nd year art student for example, and the latter more so than a generic member of the public. But is this based on level of qualification? Does someone with four art degrees have a more important voice regarding what art is interesting than someone with zero? I feel this doesn't warrant a simple yes or no answer. Art education is important, and having a knowledge of art history i feel is also important to an extent because it allows us the ability to compare things; to see patterns or see how much art has changed and evolved. Simply not knowing some things puts us at a disadvantage in those situations. 

15/06/20 - Grace

I’ve really struggled to write my response to our conversation these past couple of weeks. With everything going on right now, a global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter uprising and the very overdue attempt to make our governments and societies listen and correct the systemic racism that it deeply rooted in our cultures, it felt pointless to continue our somewhat self-centred conversations about the art world. Then I realised, that actually the art world is definitely not innocent and maybe that the only way I can learn and grow and understand my privilege as a white woman in the arts is to start to unravel which institutions have supported black and POC artists and which ones have got a lot of work to do. I had no idea where to start because in some way or another, they are all corrupt or not doing enough. I looked back over our previous conversations and realised that we had mentioned The Turner Prize several times. A prize that although definitely fluctuates in quality, I had always admired and kept up to date with, hopeful like most artists to be lucky enough to be nominated someday. But after a quick scroll through the list of past winners I was shocked to see the poor number of Black and POC artists, with the first POC artist awarded the prize being Anish Kapoor in 1991. Six years after the Turner Prize started. It was another seven years until black artist Chris Ofili was awarded the prize in 1998. A black woman did not win the prize until 2017. Only three years ago did the Turner Prize award Lubaina Himidi the prize, nineteen years after the first (and last) black artist was awarded and thirty three years after the prize had started. This is unacceptable for such a significant and influential award. In fact, out of the thirty eight winners of the Turner Prize only five black and POC artists have been awarded the prize, two of which won the award last year. Helen Cammock and Oscar Murillo were part of the 2019 group of nominees that requested there not be a singular winner and instead to be considered as a group. An amazing and ground breaking action for the art world and prize itself. But this isn’t enough. Five black and POC winners in thirty six years is not good enough. Why has this not been addressed, why has the prize not been held accountable? I never even realised how poor the representation and celebration of diversity was with in this prize. I knew a lot of white men had won it, of course! But I am genuinely shocked by the numbers. So my question is, what can we the everyday, emerging artists, writers, curators and critics do to make changes. To make sure that the art world we all aspire to be a part of is diverse and offers support, opportunities and celebrates the work of black and POC artists? What can we and should we do right now to make these changes?


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