Conceived by DaDaFest and delivered in partnership with the Bluecoat, Liverpool, 'Art of the Lived Experiment' runs from 8 November 2014 to 11 January 2015 as part of DaDaFest International 2014. Colin Hambrook interviewed curator Aaron Williamson about the exhibition which contains the work of 28 artists from the UK and abroad, and includes sculpture, film, installation, painting, prints and performance works.
Serious yet playful, Art of the Lived Experiment addresses the idea that both art and life are in a state of continual change and uncertainty. Its starting point is the practice of alchemy, taking its magical, transformative and experimental associations as a template with which to consider practices employed by contemporary artists.
New works include ‘Gold Lamé’by Tony Heaton – a souped-up Invacar (invalid car) transformed into a shiny gold bauble; a durational performance by Brian Catling throughout the opening week of the exhibition; and Simon Raven’s ‘Headspinners’ mannequin installation facing out onto a busy shopping street through the gallery’s huge windows. Mike Parr, a renowned Australian performance artist is exhibiting his printworks for the first time in the UK.
Reworks include a film about the vacuum cleaner’s self-made mental health institution, ‘Ship of Fools’, Katherine Araniello’s video of her negotiating the cobbled streets of Liverpool’s Albert Dock in her wheelchair and Juliet Robson’s exploration of radically different perspectives using tape markings on windows.
At the Private View on the 7th November there will be performances by Simon Raven and Kate Mahony. There is also a large scale sculpture by Joseph Grigely and a new video work by Sinead and Hugh O'Donnell amongst some 25 exhibition works.
Colin Hambrook: I love the title ‘Art of the Lived Experiment’. I’ve often thought of my life as a disabled person as an experiment. I think many disabled people have a sense of living on borrowed time or at least of living in a vacuum in which the question “what am I doing here?” arises on a daily basis. In those circumstances nothing is guaranteed and life becomes an experiment.
AW: Yes that is the key concept of the exhibition: life lived experimentally. Disabled people generally have to adjust (as I did whilst becoming deaf) to stigmatisation, debilitating perceptions, social exclusion; an imposed sense of inferiority. Eventually, you realise that those people upholding normative (or 'non-experimental') lifestyles are in error: the essence of all valuable experience is invention, creativity, imagination, novelty and experiment.
Many disabled people have no choice but to live this way, and I wanted to curate an exhibition that reflects experimentalism in both life and in art. On the converse, you might consider that living entirely without an experimental attitude is impossible in any case!
CH: I guess more than ever we live this idea of things being permanent, when in fact physically, atomically, and conceptually everything is always in a state of flux. Is Art that doesn’t think of itself as experimental in some way, Art? If it’s not an experiment it’s simply a regurgitation of something that’s already been expressed in some way, shape or form.
AW: Yes, I'd agree with that. My own work prioritises process over product, and I'm often minded to see where the work goes once its left open to process, such as responding to circumstance and situation. As you say, this requires a great deal of flexibility (or flux) and a sense of adventure and openness.
The artists in the exhibition, each in their different ways, approach art in this way. There's a general resistance to 'plop art' (ie art that's just plopped down anywhere.)
CH: The problem for the continuation of movements like the Disability Arts Movement is how to break free of rigid constraints and yet continue to present something cohesive that allows artists to develop work within a set of ideas about the world.
AW: As the curator of ‘Art of the Lived Experiment’ (ALE) I've taken a view on ‘disability’ that is expansive and not ring-fenced or predicated upon medical definitions of impairment. The Bluecoat is a mainstream gallery and I’ve always sought to escape from the ghettoisation of disability art. In the introductory essay for the ALE publication, I express a position that ‘disability’ can more generally be approached as a category of difference, rather than institutional bracketing.
CH: How did your ideas for curating this exhibition come together? How did you choose the artists you’ve commissioned or whose work you’ve included. What brief did you set yourself when thinking of the kind of work you wanted to pull together?
AW: I was originally briefed with the concept of 'transmutation' by DaDaFest and expanded that into the vast legacy of alchemy and transformation. Specifically, the idea that the presence of the experimenter/ alchemist is inseparable from the experiment was the point of departure for commissioning and curating works. The same emphasis finds an echo in art: the work I've curated reveals (in various ways) the presence and person of the artist as an integral aspect of the work (but without any actual biography).
CH: How does alchemy figure in the exhibition?
AW: The alchemist's experiment was open to radical adjustment at any moment and intrinsically included the presence of the experimenter him/herself. This is in contrast to modern 'objective' science, and indeed to certain theories of art that portray it as a tradition of purely dispassionate or formal achievement. In art-speak: 'Art of the Lived Experiment' emphasises subjective perception over universalism.
The works in the exhibition in varying ways, incorporate or depict processes of transformation, some of which represent 'unpredictable outcomes' in the way that alchemical experiment facilitated and encouraged.
CH: The publicity alludes to a series of historical artefacts that contextualise the exhibition and illuminate its themes.
AW: We have an 'Ignition Room' that is a sort of bricolage or 'cabinet of curiosities' selected for their (somewhat abstruse) echoes upon the tropes of alchemy. For example: Johnnie Ray sang whilst wearing a gold plated body hearing aid and eventually achieved a gold album for record sales. Gold is an integral image in alchemy so the idea of 'achieving gold' in this way seemed both irresistible and curious!
CH: Is there a link between Isaac Newton, Franz Kafka, Johnnie Ray and Sarah Bernhardt?
AW: Well without spelling it out in neon, they would all, these, days, be categorised as disabled people. In each case, I wanted to find an artefact or document that reflected both this fact and also echoed the 'lived experiment' theme.
CH: Thanks very much Aaron. I can't wait to get to the Bluecoat.