Feminist Collaborations: A Conversation

Elina Suoyrjo and Lucy Stein discuss bitch-witches and why feminism still needs to be embraced by the art world.

Following our recent symposium Feminisms and Curatorial Collaborations, Elina Suoyrjo and Lucy Stein discuss bitch-witches, how to enable artistic collaborations without replicating neoliberal structures and why feminism still needs to be embraced by the art world.

Elina Suoyrjö: I’m so happy with how the event Feminisms and Curatorial Collaborations turned out. One thing that I really loved was the theme of working through solidarity, friendship, and dare I say it – sisterhood. When I visited Neo-Pagan Bitch-Witch! [NPBW!], the exhibition you co-curated with France-Lise McGurn at Evelyn Yard early this spring, I definitely felt vibes related to these topics.

Lucy Stein: NPBW! was an epic endeavour for everyone. France-Lise and I were calibrating our positions throughout, which is why it could only have happened together as a cognitive duo. We were each other’s sounding boards. France-Lise and I are close friends and have worked together in the past quite often. We have different strengths, and together we managed to complement each other. We had to corral and galvanize a lot of other energies towards an unknown outcome. I, personally, was thinking all the time in terms of magic and activating the "power-within" thanks in particular to the writings of Starhawk, so it was good to be able to formalise those thoughts. But that is only a small part of the story.

"Feminism is still not a topic that is embraced by the art scene."

The ICA event was interesting and generative for my thinking as I could give my subjective view on something that went out into the world and way beyond me, France-Lise, our friendship, or the relations with our collaborators. The aim was to activate some magic, a bit like getting a temporary coven going. I'm happy to say that I think the final exhibition felt like a single organism, a going-beyond the sum of its parts, due to all the strong wills coalescing. It was important while talking about this to be clear that as curators we don't take credit for that.

It was interesting to hear Lina and Irene, and also Carla, talk about similar issues. Particularly shocking and moving to me was the idea that only ten years ago a show as seminal as Her Noise was met with real hardship…

ES: It was definitely eye-opening to learn about the process with Her Noise. So much has has happened since, yet feminism is still not exactly a topic that is embraced by the art scene...

"Can nepotism ever be positive where there is power to be gained?"

In their presentations, Lina and Irene brought up questions of feminist curatorial strategies, looking at them critically but simultaneously highlighting the positives. One thing that I recognised was the idea of wellbeing emerging from the process of working with art and artists, rather than creating spectacular events. It’s the process that counts at least as much as the outcome. I definitely sensed the idea of NPBW! as a single organism that you mentioned. It felt like one big constellation.

LS: Yes, working with France-Lise at this time felt necessary for our psychic wellbeing. The urge to be both critically engaged and joyful was also necessary. The process was nourishing, hopefully also to all the artists involved since everyone gave so much of themselves.

I responded to the idea of a nurturing, sustenance-giving network that develops like a spider's web in Carla's talk. The flipside of this is something that I'm glad came up during the event as it had been bothering me throughout organising NPBW!. This is the sense that by using friends and family you are simply mimicking the old boy political networks, and a sense of exclusivity is generated. Is it safe to mimic the modus operandi of a system that is currently dismantling piecemeal everything care-giving and joyful in our society, and imposing phalluses of cranes, skyscrapers, killer construction lorries (hence our use of HGV tires in the show) which boast of, and implement, their supposedly trickle-down neo-liberal ideologies on the doorstep of the gallery? Can nepotism ever be positive where there is power to be gained?

"The methods used in the feminist curators' practices are based on how these (often) female curators live their lives and their values."

I suppose that my only answer to this is to deny any fixity and meet each opportunity for doing something on its own terms: this approach worked for NPBW! at Evelyn Yard but it is not a strategy that should be mindlessly applied to every opportunity that arises. We, the speakers and the audience, were all pretty sniffy about the words like "care-giving" and "nurturing" being buzzwords at present - it is easy to see how this is all being subsumed into caring, sharing neo-liberal rhetoric. It's brutal.

ES: Yes, the topic of engaging female/friend/family networks and reclaiming ways of working through these is really complex. I do think it’s a question of taking those structures critically and using them in order to establish something else, like you say. What matters also is that these relations are transparent. We all know the art world functions through cliques. I think there is a subversive aspect of working with one’s networks in an empathetic and open manner.

In her text Acting on power: critical collectives, curatorial visions and art as life (2013), Angela Dimitrakaki points out that there seems to be a common denominator in feminist curators’ practices: the methods used are based on how these (often) female curators live their lives and values, not on “how they do their job”.

"One aspect of being an artist curator is that you are fragile, unprofessional emotionally."

LS: I agree that the fact that these networks are recognised as nurturing and identified as being in opposition to dominant power structures is the crucial difference. The idea of playing out your life values in the professional arena has always been important to me. But, I think it is more important not to be complacent or self-satisfied. We shouldn't forget that the foregrounding of a mutated idea of "transparency" has been a crucial neoliberal strategy in getting humans to go head-to-head against each other, and the art and music worlds can be as vicious as anywhere.

France-Lise and I chose a group of women who we knew were strong willed and ambitious but also compassionate. We also decided against people who might be more complicated, who might throw a spanner in the works by disagreeing with the ethos of building a sort of coven. One aspect of being an artist curator is that you are fragile, unprofessional emotionally. We did have a refusal to participate. In the end the group was strong and fortified by friendship and it was magical, but it was also predominantly white and middle class and that troubles me. ■

Feminisms and Curatorial Collaborations was on 16 April. Organised by Basia Sliwinska and Elina Suoyrjo, CREATE/Feminisms research cluster, Middlesex University, it featured presentations by speakers including Giulia Lamoni, Margarida Brito Alves, Lina Džuverović, Irene Revell and Carla Cruz.

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