Pigeons on the Grass Alas: Contemporary Curators Talk About the Field lived on the The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage website as an ongoing series between 2011–13. The culmination of the series is now a publication, which is available through the Center. Below is the text of one our original interviews, conducted with Astria Suparak, director and curator of Carnegie Mellon University’s Miller Gallery. Suparak is the co-curator of the touring Riot Grrl exhibition Alien She, opening this Friday, March 7, 2014 at Vox Populi with support from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.
What impact has your upbringing (family life, education, socialization, etc.) had on the way you curate today?
A few years ago I re-discovered a journal entry that I wrote when I was six: “When I grow up I want to be a artist and sintist.” In retrospect, curating seems like a logical outcome of concurrent interests in art-making and science, which continue to coalesce in the projects that I produce and organize. Also, I grew up making art in a non-art family. And as a teen in Los Angeles, I became interested in punk rock and riot grrrl, and in finding, creating, and supporting alternatives to the mainstream. This has remained a core part of my curatorial agenda: Giving voice and space to marginalized points of view.
What common thread unites the exhibitions you’ve organized? Do you have an overarching agenda in your curatorial practice?
My practice has had really distinct phases, based on the contexts, audiences, and my interests at the time. I fell into curating as an art student at Pratt in Brooklyn, where I ran a weekly media series in my spare time that became part of a new moment in experimental film and video art in the late 1990s. Early on, curating offered a platform to learn about disciplines and subjects outside of my classes, and provided a means to bring together diverse communities in one room. After graduating I became an itinerant, independent curator for microcinemas, festivals, art institutions, bands, and unconventional spaces from sports bars to skating rinks to ferry boats. Those film and video programs (often with music and live performance elements) were a direct outgrowth of my artmaking, assembled mainly by intuition; a more abstract and poetic style of curating that was reflective of the cultural moment and included a lot of artists from my generation that were on the margins or outside of the artworld at the time. Those shows were less about illustrating pre-conceived ideas than creating an emotional resonance and a narrative arc.
Then, in my mid-20s, I was hired to be the inaugural director of a new university gallery in upstate New York, which was the first time I worked with a consistent exhibition space. Despite having a conventional white cube at my disposal, I resisted traditional exhibition making approaches, transposing the strategies that I developed as a film and video curator to the space of the gallery: namely, the idea of making intuitive and ethereal connections between works, rather than selecting pieces that would demonstrate a specific thesis; emphasizing group exhibitions, rather than solo shows; incorporating non-art and highly local elements; and involving visitors in dynamic and unpredictable ways.
Now at the contemporary art gallery of Carnegie Mellon, and with increased interest in appealing across campus and city, my programming covers a broad range of subjects, recently including: urban planning, science and technology, hacking, social justice, geography, economics and labor, alternative histories, and sports fan culture. Since Pittsburgh houses many established art institutions, I wanted to create a clear and distinct identity for the gallery. We’ve done that in a short period of time with programming that is more explicitly social and political. Throughout all of this, what has remained consistent is my belief that curating provides an opportunity to explore ideas in surprising ways; to create memorable experiences; to support artists and politics I feel passionate about; to showcase unique and under-represented perspectives; and to bring different people, from various walks of life, together.
Does the local still exist? How is your local at your organization different from anybody else’s and how does that impact your curatorial decision-making?
The local still exists, yes, but there’s a different relationship to the global now. The local is what creates the life of a city, but it’s the relationship to the global that makes it resonate. For example, with Whatever It Takes: Steelers Fan Collections, Rituals, and Obsessions (co-curated with artist Jon Rubin), we were working with an intense and thoroughly proliferate aspect of local culture in Pittsburgh: the fan culture around the football team, the Steelers. In Pittsburgh, Steelers fandom is a unifying force that crosses demographic boundaries of class, race, gender, and sexuality, and exists in every pocket of the city from anarchists to doctors to artists; newborn babies at hospitals are wrapped not in pink and blue blankets, but in team-colored “Terrible Towels,” “casual Fridays” at workplaces are awash in black and gold, local politicians win with lawn signs the color of the team, and city streets are nearly empty at game time. Although our premise was that Steelers culture is Pittsburgh’s popular culture, and the fans are its primary producers (rather than passive consumers of a branded product), it has significance beyond the regional. Besides Steelers fandom being an international phenomenon (largely due to the mass exodus of laid-off workers and their families during the fall of the steel industry in the ’70s, which coincided with the rise of the team; there are over 2,000 self-proclaimed Steelers bars and fan clubs worldwide, existing in every American state and at least 27 countries), the obsessiveness, and the way the fans construct their personal and social identities in relation to the team, is like any other fan culture (Star Trek, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc).
Another example is our current exhibition, the Pittsburgh Biennial. Historically it focused on artists living in the region, but this is the first year it’s expanded to include anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in Pittsburgh (it’s also the first year it’s moved beyond the founders, the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts/Pittsburgh Filmmakers, to include other co-organizers: Carnegie Museum of Art, Miller Gallery at CMU, and the Andy Warhol Museum). Pittsburgh, like many other cities, has a large population of transitory residents, largely due to the universities that attract interesting students and faculty and the fact that it’s a cheap place to live. There is constant movement in and out of the city, and many people live here part time. For my section of the Biennial, I selected Pittsburgh-connected artists who work collaboratively, highlighting projects that demonstrate the strength of collective voices in deciding the future of neighborhoods, cities, and nations, and the importance of intimate conversations and compassionate listening. This collaborative approach echoes the long labor and union histories of the area, as well as the Biennial’s new partnership among local art organizations. Although most of these projects have sections that are closely tied to the city, these parameters could apply to many other regions.
What have you learned most from working with artists?
I don’t like to distinguish between artists and non-artists. I’m constantly learning from the people that I work with, and I approach every exhibition as a collaborative enterprise. I guess the main thing would be the impetus to question established ways of working, belief systems, traditional forms, and so on. We live in a very conservative world. Artists look for new ways to express ideas and to subvert the status quo, and I find inspiration in that.
Why should government fund the arts?
Art encourages creative thinking, alternative points of view and risk-taking—values that aren’t always profitable or popular in a capitalist society. Artists are almost always underpaid, yet the contribution that they make to our neighborhoods, cities, and country, is invaluable. The arts enrich every aspect of our daily life.