It’s shortly after 9 AM on the last Friday in March and we’re back to Barry to meet up with independent curator and producer Louise Hobson. As the seaside town slowly wakes up to a bright grey light spanning across the entire horizon, we make our way to Bay 5 Coffee House and find Louise sitting down at a table by the window overlooking the wide and sandy Whitmore Bay beach. Sipping coffee and enjoying the beautiful sea view, we chatted about her journey from studying photography to becoming an independent curator and the milestones of her goal-orientated curatorial practice.
Deeply rooted in community, collaboration and activism, her curatorial practice goes beyond the confines of conventional exhibition spaces and explores the complex relationship between artist and spectator by analysing social contexts and connections, constructing conceptual narratives and facilitating dialogues in alternative meeting points.
Walking along the coast to the Knap Lido and back, Louise told us about her current projects, the 6 weeks research programme she is currently undertaking in Argentina and Uruguay and her view on the contemporary art scene in Wales, ending our get-together having fun playing 2p machines in the arcades.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey into the curatorial world?
I grew up in the South East of England, on the coast between Dover and Margate, and moved first to Newport, and then to Cardiff, to study photography. Whilst studying, I started volunteering with Ffotogallery, which showed me this amazing world of working with artists and with the public too. Volunteering became interning, assisting, invigilating, co-ordinating and then producing and curating projects.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
The memory that comes to mind is a holiday my Mum took my brother and I on. I was about 11 years old, and we spent a week or maybe it was 2 weeks (in my memory we were there forever) in Paxos, a small island in Greece. We hired this tiny boat and drove to as many islands as we could find, learning how to drive the boat, moor it etc. as we went along. In my memory, it’s this collection of endless sunny adventures.
What about your first memory of art?
I had a brilliant art teacher and my first experience of contemporary practice was through her collection of books. I owe a lot to my art teacher, as without her support and encouragement, I wouldn’t have gone on to study photography.
Elements such as entertainment, distraction, and mass consumption seem to be deeply rooted in the contemporary human psyche. How do you, as a curator, operate within the framework of the mainstream culture industry and negotiate the pressures of these external conditions? In other words, how would you define the role of the curator in today’s cultural and socio-political context?
This question is actually one I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. To try and answer this question in one way ‒ I recently took part in Grand Union’s Curatorial Curriculum (an alternative learning programme for emerging curators) and for the session titled ‘Curating as Activism’ Morgan Quaintance focussed on whether activist strategies can be applied to curatorial practice. He asked us to consider how activism is, broadly speaking, engaging in initiatives that are designed to bring about social, cultural or political change, then curating as activism could be defined as an explicitly goal oriented practice ‒ i.e. I curated this in order to do x,y, or z.
This workshop, and this suggestion of curating as a goal-orientated practice, has considerably altered my thinking around how I might approach future projects/my curatorial practice more generally.
How would you describe your approach to curating?
My approach to curating shifts considerably depending on the collaborators, artist(s), audience, the space, the location, the project, and the organisation. Recently, I’ve curated a programme of artist commissions for Oriel Davies’ project space and I’ve also undertaken a collaborative project exploring artistic strategies within food politics, societal culture and commuting along the route of the 7 Train in NYC with Case Studios. In a previous Work Annual by Rosalie Schweiker she says: ‘I am for an art that isn’t bite-sized sausages. I am for an art that is a confusing mince of everything you do.’ For me, I’m interested in working on projects in gallery spaces, public spaces, through research, print, events, exhibitions and across a table eating breakfast. Like Rosalie, I’m also for mince.
Did you ever feel pressured as an independent curator to compromise or adjust your vision?
In working independently, I’m often working collaboratively with organisations / artists / projects. In doing so, I’m always adjusting and learning about the specifics of each individual framework, whether that’s in relation to the audience, the artists, the locality, the organisation or the budget etc.
What about the artists? To what extent are curators pressuring artists to produce art and explain themselves in theoretical discourses that can be foreign to their artistic practice?
I can only speak from my personal experience, and for me, I see my role as supporting artists to explore emerging strands of research and develop new works for public exhibition. This often takes the form of a series of conversations and as part of these conversations, it’s often my job to write around an artist’s work and facilitate the meeting point between artist ‒ artwork ‒ public. For me, I’m interested in writing which creates various points of access to a work and by way of offering an example of this, I recently wrote a text in response to Freya Dooley’s Litmus Commission Speakable Things.
In a previous interview you talked at length about the international show you curated for Mission Gallery in 2016, and how it made you question the relevance of this seemingly unfamiliar and uprooted show happening in Swansea. Reflecting upon it in retrospect, what are some of the most effective strategies whereby the Welsh audiences can become more outward looking and more willing to engage with international practices?
Reflecting on that exhibition today, I think I perhaps became too wrapped up in my conversations around the production of the exhibition and my dialogue with the artists, leaving little time to think about how I might support the public to engage with the work. The whole process of developing that show was a huge learning curve for me. And so, today I’d flip the question and suggest that it’s not about how audiences become more willing to engage with international practice, but how we better support meeting points with unfamiliar/international practice.
Throughout the years you have collaborated and developed close ties with the artistic community in South Wales and beyond. Can you tell us about the biggest challenges faced by the local art scene? What is it like to be an artist in Wales from a curator’s perspective?
For me, I think Wales is a brilliant place to live and work as an artist. There’s a great network of supportive people here and the art scenes are growing too. When I think about the challenges for early career artists, I think about how we need more opportunities for critical dialogue, exchange and supported frameworks for research and production. Programmes like UNITE(e) at g39 and Litmus at Oriel Davies are addressing these challenges in part, however we need alternatives too, and for these to be sustained long term.
Out of all the art projects and exhibitions that you've created, what have been the most successful or rewarding for you and why?
The project that comes to mind is Roman Štětina’s Shave and a haircut – two bits, commissioned by Cardiff Contemporary in 2016. You can see a virtual tour of the show here. The experience of this work started when you stepped off the street, into this winding alleyway, and then arrived, a little disoriented, at this back room which felt like it had been left behind by the city. Roman made the work of and for the space, exploring our human need to connect with one another. I loved the collaborative conversations with Roman, being a part of Cardiff Contemporary, talking with visitors and generally spending time in/with this work.
Is there anything you wish someone had told you before embarking on this journey?
Make time to work on your practice, as well as in it – for me right now, this means making the time to read, learn, unlearn and go along to exhibitions/talks/events.
What is of importance to you at the moment? Are there any subject matters in art or in the world in general?
As an ally, it’s important for me to listen to, and where appropriate contribute to, conversations such as those put forward by the Gentle/RadicalImagination Forums – a new platform for discussion, events and activities which explore the cultural sector in Wales from a decolonising perspective. It’s important for me to ensure that I positively contribute to creating representative and inclusive cultural spaces/structures and I really value the generous, open platform Gentle/Radical is creating for these conversations.
What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
To feel calm, I walk to the sea (I recently moved to Barry, which is on the coast) and to get inspired, I look for a talk, event or exhibition to go along to. That, or I meet with friends in the pub. Or listen to podcasts.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment, I’m coming to the end of working on the Litmus Programme, which has seen 5 early career artists commissioned to research and/or develop new work at Oriel Davies; I’ve just recently started working as a Creative Producer for public art commissioners Studio Response and I’m also assisting artist Sean Edwards on his residency at St Fagan's National Museum of History.
Between mid April and the end of May I’m *super* excited to be spending time in South America for a residency with Espacio de Arte Contemporáneo (Montevideo, Uruguay) and La Ira de Dios (Buenos Aires, Argentina), undertaking research for a project with Grand Union(gallery and artist studios in Birmingham, UK).
When you think about the future of art in Wales, what are you most excited about and why?
There’s room to contribute in Wales and there’s also a great network of artists and curators working on brilliant projects, like the Rejoinders – an investigative, experimental curatorial project with a research group in/between Wales and India.
Can you recommend us:
A book: I’ve just finished reading Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, a book I came across whilst looking for books by Latin American authors to read around my residency. I read it this afternoon (it’s a short book) and the eeriness of the story is still hanging around me.
A song: Can I recommend a podcast? If so: Criminal, specifically the episode Carry A. Nation and 99% Invisible: Thermal Delight, on the history of air conditioning.
An art exhibition: I visited Skulptur Projekte Münster last year and it was incredible. They’ve got a great online map of the commissions.
Thank you, Louise for the wonderful insight into your curatorial process and personal realm.