Interview: Tess Maunder

Tess Maunder providing information about her work at the International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP) 2017 Spring Open Studios in New York earlier this year.

Tess Maunder is an independent curator, art critic, editor and researcher with an interest in art produced in the Asia Pacific region. Originally from Brisbane, she now works between Australia, Asia and the US. Most recently, she was a curatorial collegiate for the 11th Shanghai Biennale, Why Not Ask Again, led by chief curators Raqs Media Collective with 92 artists from 40 countries. She recently completed two residencies, one in Manila with the Office of Culture in Design, and another in New York for the ISCP. Maunder is currently hard at work on an anthology of interviews with artists from Asia and the Pacific, and will soon be undertaking her Mittelheuser Scholar-in-residence fellowship for curatorial research at State Library of Queensland (SLQ).

From June, 12 - June, 18 Maunder provided some much needed insight into working as an independent curator in the art world.

Interviewed by Meg Slater.

MS: What are some of the positive and negative aspects associated with freelance work in the arts?

TM: Great question! Freelancing to be honest is quite precarious, but it also has both positive and negative aspects. I’ve just been discussing this with my Asialink residency host and friend Clara Balaguer from the Office of Culture and Design in Manila. Clara is a fellow arts and publishing freelancer. She said that her experience tells that: “We freelancers today are more about survivability than sustainability” and I think this is a very fitting statement to talk about freelancing in the arts today. One needs to survive before they can make the leap to sustain that survival. Freelancers can’t plan ahead, they only have small time windows like a few months for planning. But I think to navigate this, there are two things freelancers can do; a) VALUE – always, always value your work, expertize and time, ensure that you are being paid well for your time, and if not focus your attention somewhere else that is more valuable. b) DIVERSIFY – I found it helpful to diversify my curatorial practice, this means working on editorial projects, writing and making exhibitions periodically – this sometimes gets extended to public art commissioning and/or consulting to find a different kind of balance across sectors that are interested in art and culture. This diversity is essential to keep you going.

To expand on what freelancing specifically meant for me: as a curator in the first ten years of my practice, it is necessary for me to develop networks and meaningful relationships outside of an institutional context. I hope to either join an institution when I am more experienced, or to start my own, but for now I do not want to fully commit to one institution until I am perceived to have a valued position and contribution. Because, the reality for an emerging professional is that, very rarely do they have real opportunities within an institutional context, and usually they are not credited enough for their labour. This freedom and due crediting for the work we put in, usually only comes with time. What freelance work allows for, is the freedom of both intellectual and professional development. The beautiful thing it did for me, is to connect me with international peers who are on the same boat, and together we are supporting each other in ways we can. These are invaluable conversations that keep the spirit moving.

MS: For your recent curatorial project, Folds of Belonging, why did you choose to integrate art into public spaces, outside of the traditional gallery or museum setting?

TM: This project was produced in association with Brisbane City Council’s BrisAsia Festival (2017), a public space oriented multicultural festival, funded in whole by the Brisbane City Council. The motive and approach was to engage with the audiences attending the festival, whilst also building new audiences. Due to this, it was really essential to the project to have a public platform – for me the most direct way was to have work installed unexpectedly in public spaces within ‘folds’ of the city. I think it is critical for engagement with the arts to occur outside of institutions; and I think this is something that Brisbane can work more on. The project was also to bring together artists from different parts of Asia addressing the presence of diasporic communities and cultures in Brisbane. It featured works by Fahd Burki (Pakistan), Motoyuki Daifu (Japan), Rirkrit Tiravanija (Thailand/USA), Shilpa Gupta (India), and Slavs and Tatars (Eurasia).

MS: I know it’s a pretty big question to ask, but could you summarise some of the main stages involved in developing and eventually presenting the 11th Shanghai Biennale?

TN: Sure, when it comes down to describing the project in stages, it is similar to other large-scale art projects.

(a) Research and selection of the participants

After their appointment as chief curators of the 11th Shanghai Biennale, Raqs Media Collective chose a team of four Curatorial Collegiates. Two of them were based in Delhi closely working with Raqs, and others were in China undertaking research on the ground in Shanghai. I was one of the Collegiates and was based in Delhi during this time. All of us with the leadership of Raqs contributed to a research index on the different kinds of artists, art collectives and organisations we could invite for the Biennale. After a lot of debate, consultation and shortlisting, we ended up working with 92 artists. Apart from the main exhibition, Raqs also wanted to bring in new curatorial energies through infra-curatorial projects where seven young curators were invited to present small projects responding to the premise of the Biennale.

(b) Production and the conceptualisation of public programs

After the first and final list of participants were announced, we started working towards the production and the conceptualisation of the public programs for the Biennale. Exhibitions architects, Prasad Shetty and Rupali Gupte from Mumbai, were key in the material realisation of the curatorial plan leading up to the installation. Chen Yun, one of the curatorial collegiates based in Shanghai, was instrumental in putting together the 51 Personae project, a public engagement catalyst as part of SHB 11 that hosted 51 events across different venues in Shanghai. Theory Opera, another public program of the SHB 11, was led by Li Tuan, another curatorial collegiate who invited artists and groups to add a performative layer to the Biennale site.

(c) Opening weekend and key public events

The chief curators, exhibition architects and curatorial team assembled in Shanghai weeks before the opening on a rigorous install schedule. The install was extremely challenging due to the sheer scale of the projects selected and the complexity involved in their realisation. The opening weekend attracted around 20,000 visitors, and the key public events were programmed for the inflow of people not just from Shanghai but from different parts of the world. The event also hosted dinners and gatherings of participating artists. Upon the completion of the opening weekend, the curatorial team stayed in Shanghai to supervise the exhibition maintenance and left to their respective location towards the end of the November, 2016. The remaining work was carried out through everyone’s respective locations until March, 2017. The main publication of the Biennale has been recently launched to the public.

MS: You are currently working on a book of interviews, which is due to be released in 2018. Can you tell us anything about how you will structure the publication, and the voices you plan to include?

TM: I have only recently begun work on the publication but once it is finalised, I will be happy to share more details! At this stage, I can share that it will centre around the idea of weather and temperature in relation to artistic production and will include some critical artists from the Asia Pacific region. It will be edited by me and published by the Office of Culture and Design/Hardworking Goodlooking, Manila/New York. I have secured funding to support the project from the Australia Council of the Arts, for which I am very grateful. I look forward to sharing more details soon when I can!

MS: Recently I was lucky enough to catch up with you during your residency for the ISCP in New York.

(a) What inspired you to apply for the residency?

TM: After the intensity of work schedules at the 11th Shanghai Biennale, I wanted some slow time to think and develop new and independent work. It had been five years since I was last in New York, and I was keen to re-establish pre-existing associations with friends there. ISCP is a leading residency program, it was a great platform to make new connections as an independent curator.

(b) What did you gain from completing the program and living in New York?

TM: Nurturing old networks and building new relationships, which I am sure will lead to much future collaboration. It was also great to see and re-familiarise myself with cultural institutions there, and to meet some really amazing artists some of whom are already included in my upcoming projects.

MS: Prior to its end in 2015, you were a member of Accidentally Annie Street Space, one of Brisbane’s renowned Artist Run Initiatives (ARIs), with a legacy that lives on.

(a) What was your role in the ARI?

TM: I was co-director for about 12 – 18 months with the founding co-directors Louise Bennett, Elizabeth Willing, Erika Scott and Stephen Russell.

(b) How did your involvement in the ARI impact on your practice as a curator?

TM: I was only with Annie St for a short period, unlike the other co-directors who were there for a much longer period than me. However, during that time it was interesting for me to work alongside artists to develop the curatorial process collaboratively. I think there is something very special about artists who are also curators. This lineage has continued in my curatorial work today, most recently by working with major artist-curators Raqs Media Collective. My favourite memory of working with Annie St was working on Archie Moore’s exhibition Dwelling in 2010, in which he re-created his childhood home in the domestic space of Annie St’s Auchenflower house-cum-exhibition space.

In addition to my work with Annie St, I also founded The Maximilian in 2010 with Laura Brown. The Maximillian was an online writing platform and we released three editions. The platform isn’t active any more but it was a great learning experience for the couple of years it was active.

(c) Why do you think ARIs play such an important role in the early stages of an artist’s career, particularly in Brisbane?

TM: I think for everyone – artists, writers, editors and curators – working in an ARI gives you the platform to test out ideas in an open space and debate. I also think working within an ARI format teaches young professionals how to be productive with limited resources, which is a huge lesson for many future endeavours in the industry.

MS: Congratulations on being appointed the Mittelheuser Scholar-in-Residence (MSiR) for the SLQ! How will your research into the intersection of contemporary curatorial practice in relation to digital futures and library practices be realised?

TM: Thank you! I haven’t yet fully finalised the program with SLQ – but in my proposal to them I outlined that I’d like to explore the expanded role of contemporary curating in relation to library practices, with a particular focus on digital futures. I’m interested in what curators can learn from the past and current history of library practices, and vice versa. As part of the MSiR over the next 12 months, I will be organising public programs, generating new texts and writing blog posts. I will share with you further details as soon as we make them public.

MS: Based on much of your research and writing, you have a strong interest in artists from the Asia Pacific region. Why have you chosen to focus on art coming out of this particular area?

TM: Yes, it is important for me to work within the Asia Pacific region that I live in, because I consider Australia a part of Asia.

Indigenous Australians have been trading with Asia and the Pacific for 6000 years, and the Australian continent was once joined to what we now know as Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

Unfortunately, I feel like many cultural institutions in Australia generally still look towards the west, importing dull, safe, homogenous and thoughtless European shows. I think this is outdated for the politics that truly represent contemporary Australia.

I place this side by side with politics in Australia – what is Australia’s biggest social issue? – racism, hate-crime, bigotry! – To a large extent this abusive behaviour is towards immigrants, to which Asian and Pacific immigrants make up a total of about 30% of our population. What does it take to stop bigotry behavior? I would say, more Asian/Pacific/Indigenous Australians in our cultural institutions will make a difference.

I think one of the most interesting artists working out of Brisbane is Archie Moore @a_r_c_h_i_e___ I recently wrote a long-form essay on the connection between architecture and politics in his work for the Australian art publication Art Monthly Australasia @artmonthly which was the outcome of a critical writing prize that I was awarded. I also did two lectures on his work, one in Melbourne at @mpavilion and another in New York at @curatorsintl If you are in Brisbane at the moment, his work is in a group show at the IMA @ima_brisbane curated by @burnsaileen and @larsjohangustaflundh Archie is represented by @thecommercial gallery in Sydney. This image is taken from an exhibition at Brisbane ARI Boxcopy @boxcopy @tessmaunder #ArchieMoore #CriticalWriting #Mpavilion #ArtMonthly #TheCommercial #Brisbaneartist #Indigenousart #Australianartists #Architecture #Politics #Dwelling

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MS: Which artists, writers, academics, curators and other creative thinkers have influenced your curatorial practice?

TM: I’m always inspired by my collaborators and the artists that I’ve worked with.

I’m influenced, inspired and supported by my peers – Srinivas Aditya Mopidevi, Renan Laru-An, Natasha Ginwala, Emily McGuire, Léuli Mazyar Luna'i Eshraghi, Clara Balaguer, Jerome Reyes Kittima Chareeparsit, Jason Waite, Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, and Rachel Marsden, to name a few.

I’m also since my university days greatly inspired by the amazing work of Australian curators Rachel Kent, Natalie King and Alexie Glass Cantor.

I’ve also been influenced a lot by the Asia Pacific Triennial series, and feel fortunate that I have spent time living in Brisbane.

My current curatorial practice has been informed by the Open Editions publication – Curating and the Education Turn edited by Paul O’Neill & Mick Wilson with contributions by 16 Beaver Group; Charles Esche; Annie Fletcher & Sarah Pierce; Liam Gillick; Hassan Khan; Emily Pethick, & Marina Vishmidt; Ute Meta Bauer; Andrea Phillips; Raqs Media Collective; Irit Rogoff; and Tirdad Zolghadr, among others.

More widely, I’m inspired by political activists from M.I.A. to Julian Burnside.

MS: Beyond your residency at the SLQ and the release of your publication, what are your plans for the future?

TM: Over the next six months, I’ll be in Australia re-connecting with things here. I’ll be mainly working on what we have outlined above, and I’ll also be teaching a guest seminar at the University of Melbourne’s MA Degree in Curatorship, and will be participating as a speaker in Artscope’s Hometown symposium in Fremantle, WA. I have a few exhibitions planned for 2018 and 2019, and I am considering going back to study soon too.

MS: You have had a great deal of success as an independent curator and writer. Is there any advice that you have for aspiring creatives, attempting to make their mark in the field?

TM: I asked this to a friend Reuben Keehan a few years ago when I was starting out and he gave me some good advice; make sure you have friends supporting you along the way, and live within your means. I think this is useful because unfortunately the art industry can be very cut-throat, superficial and toxic at times. You need to have good friends out there to support you through these times, people within the art industry and crucially people outside of the industry too. Also, re: living within your means – this is key advice for working independently – if you spend less you can focus more on your work! I think this industry is about striking a balance between working hard, yet not burning out.

Specific advice – write, write, write – if you want people to take you seriously in the art world you should be publishing your writing and getting paid for it, and do not write for free, I repeat do not write for free. Get in touch with Australian art publications with your pitches and see where it takes you, then once you have some work under your belt, go international.