Catriona Whiteford is a curator, artist, writer and educator who currently holds the position of Artist Programme Curator at Freelands Foundation in North London. Following a BA and MA in Fine Art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design (part of the University of Dundee, Scotland) her career has included being part of the Learning and Research department at Tate Britain and Tate Modern, as well as being an active member of a number of artist collectives. Whiteford continues to produce her own work and exhibit internationally, with her practice expanding across sculpture, photography and text. She completed an artist residency at Zaratan Arte Contemporânea, Lisbon, in 2019.
Having recently curated There, where we promenade at Freelands Foundation – an exhibition featuring work by Etel Adnan, Susan Aldworth, Rachel Kneebone and Leonor Serrano Rivas – The Net Gallery spoke to Whiteford about the ideas behind the show, her relationship with the artists, and the balance required to perform multiple roles.
“It is here, standing in the gallery space and free from the confines of our minds’ architecture, that we dance across the threshold into a space where language no longer has a region, sleep no longer stays in the static, dreams mirror reality and bodies pursue the promise of the promenade.” (Extract from ‘This Porous Space’ by Catriona Whiteford, the opening essay in the exhibition catalogue for There, where we promenade, published by Freelands Foundation, 2020.)
Richard Unwin: When did you first start to develop the concept and initial ideas behind There, where we promenade, and how far back does your connection with the four artists go?
Catriona Whiteford: As an insomniac I’ve always been drawn to works that play with the intersections of memory, consciousness and the physical embodiment of Fluxus states. Absorbed by the juncture between physical and philosophical enquiry, I have specialised in the hybridity of these theories for a number of years. The concept for the exhibition was grounded in this ongoing curatorial research and acted as a primary marker for the exhibition development. This was a dream project for me – excuse the pun – because it allowed me to explore themes that have captivated me for years.
The exhibition began to form organically from my fascination with each artist’s work, all of whom I have followed for varying lengths of time from afar. My bookshelves are littered with copies of Etel Adnan poetry that have slowly built themselves into a collection of her words over the years. It was a long time before I finally married my love of Adnan’s words to my love and knowledge of her paintings, drawings, film and tapestry. Having missed the retrospective of Adnan’s work at the Serpentine Galleries (Etel Adnan: The Weight of the World, 2016) I felt incredibly privileged when I finally had the opportunity to view her Leporellos in person.
In September 2019 I held my first studio visit with Susan Aldworth at her space in Hackney. Having researched her amazing body of work and exhibition history, our first encounter was refreshingly intuitive, effortless and unintimidating. It was as though I was meeting with an old friend and we had automatically fallen back in step with one another. I could have happily poured through Aldworth’s collection of works for days but as soon as I saw her series ‘Passing Thoughts’, I knew they needed to be included in the show.
Similarly, having seen Rachel Kneebone’s undulating porcelain forms in several exhibitions and, notably, her monumental porcelain sculpture ‘399 Days’ displayed amongst the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance collection, I felt an urgency in situating her works alongside those of the other three artists. Kneebone’s ability to capture highly emotive states of transformation and renewal express a fluidity that gently bled through the gallery space with calm connectivity.
A common denominator of my curatorial practice is in forming strong connections to the artists I collaborate with, hopefully allowing me to serve both artist and audience in the most genuine way possible. When I first met Leonor Serrano Rivas at ARCADE gallery in London everything seemed to click. We had a coffee and looked at her solo show Above The Eye Level, curated by Caterina Avataneo, and spoke about the works in the exhibition before arranging to meet at Freelands Foundation when Leonor next returned from Malaga. In the interim we corresponded via email, sharing links and thoughts, so that by the time we met in the Freelands Foundation gallery space a natural collaboration between artist and curator was already taking place. The decision to house Serrano Rivas’ film ‘Estrella’ within a newly produced installation drawn from her work ‘Mockup for an Endless Theatre’, felt like a perfect fit. Having previously attained an architecture degree, Serrano Rivas has a wonderful understanding of audience mobility and flow within a space. It became obvious that Estrella should be shown against the backdrop of Adnan’s Night in both a literal and philosophical sense.
The title of the exhibition There, where we promenade, is an extract from Etel Adnan’s book Night, where memory, consciousness and sleep place night at their centre to unearth memories sheltered in the body. Once these words solidified into a title, they pooled the artists and audience into a communal consciousness.
RU: How do the exhibition and the themes it addresses, as well as the artists involved, relate to Freelands’ wider programme and aims, and would you say the exhibition is characteristic of the foundation’s approach and interests?
CW: With works at the intersection of the liminal and lucid, the exhibition forms a space at the far edge of consciousness and becomes a meeting place for audience and artwork, coalesced into one sensorial experience. The four artists produce work that reflects on time and place, caught, somewhere between states, both through the use of material and personal exploration of interior and exterior geographies. Exhibiting their works makes me the mediator of their practice, which requires comprehensive knowledge and insight as well as an understanding of the institution that they are framed within.
Freelands Foundation exists to broaden audiences for the visual arts, to support artists and cultural institutions and to tackle the critical issues that are limiting society’s access to the benefits of art and culture; from the inequality of access to art education in schools, to the lack of sufficient support for female and emerging artists.
Since its formation the organisation has invested in research to form the basis of its grant giving and programming strategies and to serve the broader art ecosystems within the UK with significant research documentation. (A report is commissioned by Freelands Foundation annually on the Representation of Female Artists in Britain.)
While the works within There, where we promenade are all produced by female artists at different stages of their careers, these works stand very much in their own right as powerful examples of contemporary art that are relevant to audiences across cultures and classes and are grouped through their conceptual and visual intellect, not through gender. I recently read Monique Witting’s essay, ’One Is Not Born a Woman’ as recommended by one of the emerging artists on the Freelands Artist Programme which made interesting arguments about ‘woman’ as a class versus ‘woman’ as myth:
“….in materialist terms, to say that women are a class, which is to say that the category “woman,” as well as “man,” is a political and economic category, not an eternal one. Our fight aims to sup- press men as a class, not through a genocidal, but a political struggle, Once the class “men” disappears, women as a class will disappear as well, for there are no slaves without masters. Our first task, it seems, is to always thoroughly disassociate “women” (the class within which we fight) and “woman,” the myth.”
For me the exhibition is characteristic of Freelands Foundation’s programme aims and interests. Within all of our programming we consider audience, community, education and ways in which to support the representation of publics who are not sufficiently represented across existing networks. Curating an exhibition with four celebrated and respected female artists whose work I have long admired has felt incredibly special. The works within the show gave room for pause and reflection, joining individuals together to dream and rest, which feels more pertinent now than ever. This audience invitation was further extended through the accompanying public programme and an online dream diary project written by the public.
RU: Your introductory text to the exhibition catalogue references the breadth of ideas behind the show, spanning psychology, neuroscience, literature and philosophy. The exhibition is also visually diverse, incorporating a number of different mediums, and individual pieces that reward the time taken to look at them. As a curator, how do you balance the conceptual or theoretical side of a show with the visual presentation of the work: do you see one as being more important than the other?
CW: I think that when the concept is strong and consideration is given to the gallery space on offer, then there is limited room for concern over the balance between theoretical and visual presentation. Both are mutually important and both co-exist within the works (if successful). When working with artists, especially when curating a group show, there is always consideration of how the individual works will speak to each other and co-inhabit a space. The curator is the “trigger, the catalyst the facilitator” (as Hans Ulrich Obrist puts it) and if done properly, will create natural connections between artworks, people, spaces and contexts.
Although the exhibition gives reference to a number of concepts spanning literature, philosophy, film, neuroscience and psychology, the four artists handle these themes with such subtlety that they give room to one another without friction.
RU: You’re an artist yourself as well as being the foundation’s Artist Programme Curator. How do you manage the combination of performing the two roles, and do you expect to continue to focus on both over the longer-term?
CW: After graduating from my BA and MFA in Fine Art I have always worked within institutions while continuing to work as an artist outside of the roles I have held, so the combination of my curatorial role at Freelands Foundation and my work as an artist doesn’t feel like a new challenge. I think the key for me is to keep structure where possible. My curatorial role is part-time and this allows me the space I need for other projects.
Having always worked across curating, education, artistic production and research I can’t really envisage a future where I don’t balance and combine these areas. To me they bleed into one another in interesting and surprising ways. My experience of working for arts organisations and running artist collectives has given me a strong foundation to build my understanding of institutional structures and current critical dialogue. I think this deepens how I approach my work as an artist.
Interview by Richard Unwin
View The Net Gallery’s 3D walkthrough of There, where we promenade here.
To learn more about Whiteford’s artistic practice, visit: www.catrionawhiteford.com
To read more about Freelands Foundation, visit: www.freelandsfoundation.co.uk
All images courtesy of Freelands Foundation, photographed by Ollie Hammick.