The Pedagogies of Looking: An Interview with Kim Simon and Gabrielle Moser
by Amish Morrell
From September 2012 to October 2013, Gabrielle Moser was curator-in-residence at TPW R&D, a project developed by Gallery TPW Curator Kim Simon, when the gallery inhabited a temporary space on Dundas Street West in Toronto. During its life as TPW R&D, the artist-run centre shifted its mandate away from conventional exhibition display, and instead held screenings, public discussions and curatorial residencies where guest curators experimented with alternate ways of presenting images. Throughout her residency, Moser organized No Looking After the Internet, a series of “looking groups” where participants met to look at and “read” specific images out loud. This project proposed a shift away from thinking of images as merely documentary or testamentary, encountered by solitary subjects, to imagining images as having meanings that are enacted by their viewers and which are encountered and negotiated collectively. In this conversation, Simon and Moser reflect and expand upon some of the ideas and questions that arose during the residency.
Amish Morrell (AM): Let’s begin with the more practical aspects of the residency. Can you describe the duration, the thematic and the objects that you were working with?
Gabrielle Moser (GM): Gallery TPW was moving into a temporary space for 18 months and the idea was to spend that time not doing traditional exhibitions but other kinds of experimental programming under the title of TPW R&D, or research and development. The idea was to get off of the treadmill of exhibition-making and to explore what it meant to do “research in public,” as Kim, described it. She asked if I would produce a project under this rubric, and I proposed a year-long residency called Coming to Encounter that explored pedagogy theory in relation to spectatorship. The goal was to try out different curatorial frameworks that might allow viewers to encounter diffiıcult images.
I was trying to think about how viewers can encounter images outside of a conventional exhibition format in ways that would change their ability to engage with images they might otherwise find difficult. That manifested in a bunch of different kinds of events, including a monthly “looking group,” called No Looking After the Internet, a panel discussion on unshowable photographs, open curatorial offiıce hours, and, by the end of the residency, an exhibition of Jason Lazarus’ Too Hard to Keep (2010–) project.
AM: Can each of you say more about what it means to do “research in public?”
Kim Simon (KS): Between 2008 and 2012, Gallery TPW had been doing projects looking at some combination of so-called difficult images and documentary practice. At the time, there was a lot of video and relational work being produced that raised ethical questions about responsibility and the representation of real lives lived, which in turn raised ethical questions about how presenting institutions engaged spectators with content which might be perceived as dubious in its intentions, conceptually and ethically. Classic examples would be some of the work by Artur Żmijewski or Renzo Martens. At TPW, I had started experimenting with different ways of ask- ing spectators to look at these kinds of images together. This is when a lot of the educational experiments started happening at TPW, thinking about different methodologies for hosting screenings, discussions and reading groups, and how best to lead those experiences. These presentations would be the first time that I, as a curator, insisted on bringing something to a public saying I’m not sure how I feel about this set of images or this narrative; I want to talk it through with you (the public). This meant not to take the position of the “curator as expert,” who says this is a really great work and everybody should see it, but rather saying, there is something really important happening here, but I have serious questions about it that I would like to share, and to really understand the work, we need to look at it together. Taking work public puts specific pressures on it. This was probably the foreshadowing of a more overt articulation of research in public.
Simultaneously, I had started to have an interest in bringing performance into the gallery to experiment with the relation between liveness and images, and to think about the difference between the face-to-face relation and a relationship with an image. The earliest of these programming gestures were presented as a series titled “You had to be there.” These interests fed into the way I was thinking about education as a space of liveness in front of images.
The R&D idea was at first an ironic stab at a kind of corporate language being adopted by large culture and education institutions, primarily universities: TPW R&D would be our “research and development” office while we worked to secure a new, sustainable home for the gallery. It occurred to me that asking out loud some of the questions I had about showing people images, and making R&D transparent by doing “research in public,” could be very productive. It was a really beautiful, decadent moment where I was able to take the programming budget and put it entirely towards events, discursive programs and a few exhibitions that made sense for that space, which was a small storefront and not really equipped to exhibit large-scale contemporary art.
So some of the R&D programs had a legacy from years prior, such as the screening of the Żmijewski films, where we repeated the same screening four times. We were thinking about what kinds of presentation formats make it possible for people to speak honestly in a public forum. We had a different person moderate each post-screening discussion, and each had a different perspective, whether it was a background in conceptual video, Polish avant-garde history, education, or testimony and public memory. I kept myself out of the moderator role because I knew audiences would have hard questions for me about how and why I was showing them this work, so I could respond as someone participating in the conversations if need be.
Learning from past programs, I kept our work during the R&D period as agile as possible. We could do an event and assess how the conversation went, and try to respond to that with the next event. There were questions that came out of people’s responses to a certain work, or the particular way a conversation went – and we were able to follow up through another program because we weren’t programmed two years in advance. It was totally exhausting, but we learned a lot from that process and we did a lot of things I don’t think we could ever get away with in our more exhibition-based institutional moments. Working with Gabby, having the open but expanded timeframe of her residency, was a really great example of this critical agility.
GM: Within the context of R&D, there was a lot of freedom, but there was also a lot of anxiety; I found it really difficult to put things up that felt not quite finished or not quite settled yet. And among the people who have long institutional ties with TPW, when they moved into a storefront space, which had a lot of foot traffic and visibility, there was some concern that having an empty gallery on Dundas Street West looked like nothing was happening if an event wasn’t taking place.
In saying that, however, one of the most exciting things about participating in R&D was the idea that public programming was not supplementary to the “main event” of a gallery exhibition: it was the main event itself. No Looking was often staged in response to an exhibition that was happening somewhere else in the city, for instance. One of the earliest looking groups examined small, postcard-sized images that the Ryerson Image Centre (RIC) produced for the HUMAN RIGHTS HUMAN WRONGS exhibition, which Mark Sealy curated from their collection: miniature versions of some of the photographs in the exhibition – many of which depict human rights infractions and social traumas that are difficult to look at – that visitors could collect and take away. We looked at them in the TPW R&D space to talk about what their function was for viewers when they circulated outside the context of the RIC exhibition, and how people looked at or related to them. That wasn’t supplementary programming for the RIC, it was programming for R&D, in dialogue with what they were doing.
AM: Could you say more about how you were defining “difficult images” in this context?
GM: The idea of “difficult images” came from “difficult knowledge,” which is Deborah Britzman and Roger Simon’s idea that social traumas are incredibly hard to “learn from” because they challenge your worldview.1
KS: Not just your worldview: they present the learner with something that’s difficult to incorporate because it challenges your ego, your very sense of self.
GM: I was interested in psychoanalytic theory, so I had been thinking about why some images seem impenetrable, even if they’re given to you with didactic material and public programming. I was wondering if there was something about the context in which those images were presented that created a block that prevented the viewer from engaging with their experience of looking at them. What if you changed that context? What if you looked at these images with other people and had to talk about what you were looking at? What if you encountered the image in a way that involved other people right from the beginning?
KS: The No Looking series came about because Gabby and I had been having a conversation about No Reading After the Internet, a reading group organized by cheyanne turions, Amy Kazymerchyk and Alexander Muir where people don’t read the text in advance, but read it out loud together in a group. Because you never get to read the whole text through in a meeting, it becomes more about the group that’s present and their reactions and responses to a given phrase or paragraph. You’re allowed to go off on tangents and it becomes very productive, but in a way that sometimes has nothing to do with the text. It’s a great project with a really democratic ideology. At the same time, their method always made me think about questions of responsibility to the text. What should the balance be between really understanding a source text and reacting to it? What does understanding mean? I’d had related questions about curatorial responsibility around showing difficult documentary images and so it seemed like an important opportunity when Gabby articulated her interest in finding ways to allow for people’s immediate affective responses to challenging images.
What if we developed a related “no reading…” method for difficult images? We had a lot of “meta” questions about how to run the program, not the least of which was how to make affective response a serious part of curatorial thought without instrumentalizing (and potentially traumatizing) audiences.
GM: We realized very quickly that providing contextual information often changes or even shuts down one’s initial response to an image. We wanted to set up a situation where no one is the master of a given image. If you eliminate all of those things that allow you to compartmentalize an image and ask only certain kinds of questions from it, what might happen? Would we ask different questions? Would we look differently?
AM: Isn’t there a question about whether the curator, as the person who chose the images, still has a certain expertise over the group? I imagine participants in No Looking could perceive the curator, or co-facilitator, as having authoritative knowledge of the image and its context. What was the role of the collaborators or co-facilitators here? Were they able to diffuse this authority?
GM: We often invited co-facilitators to help choose the images, partly to try to disperse this curatorial authority, but also because I realized early on that I couldn’t just invite people to come and look at an image without some third component that looking was in dialogue with. It didn’t feel generative to collectively look at an image just for the sake of performing our interpretations in front of one another.
The first meeting of No Looking responded to historical images that the artist Deanna Bowen had consulted in the research for her solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU), Invisible Empires, in 2013. Bowen’s exhibition was about the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Canada, and her research brought her to a petition that was signed in Edmonton in 1911 where Canadian residents demanded that the federal government stop the immigration of black Americans into Canada. That mass migration was happening in part because of public lynchings that were happening across the South, as well as changes to voting and land ownership laws in Oklahoma, so she suggested that we look at lynching postcards from Oklahoma.
The lynching images did not appear in the AGYU exhibition, but Deanna had been thinking about them when making her work. Deanna and I picked three images from James Allen’s Without Sanctuary collection of lynching postcards, where there is already a limited amount of contextual information available because of the ephemeral nature of the source material. In this case, we knew the names of the subjects in these images, and what they had been accused of, and a limited amount of knowledge about what had happened to them. But some of the con- text of the production of the images was not clear.
AM: How did the audience approach those images?
KS: We heard from people who were angry that they hadn’t been told in advance what they were going to be shown and they admitted that, had they known what they were going to be looking at, they might not have come. They felt like we as curators put them in a difficult, uncomfortable position by demanding that they look at them. I had a few comments like this years earlier in the Żmijewski screenings.
GM: When I run No Looking, I ask people to not just talk about what they’re seeing and what they’re thinking about while they’re looking, but also to try and be self-reflexive about what happens in the group: what do people talk about and not talk about? What kinds of dynamics are taking place in the group? But all kinds of things happened in the group that I was surprised by. I was surprised by how unfamiliar people were with the lynching postcards – just their very existence, and their public popularity at the time (between 1880 and 1950, roughly).
KS: For that session with Deanna, there were three images of the same lynching event: images from slightly different moments. One was a long view of a woman and her son hanging from a bridge, taken from further down the river, showing the spectators gathered on the bridge, watching. And the second and third images were closeups of the two bodies, devoid of the landscape and spectator context. We noticed that a lot of the discussion focused on the long view, the image with the spectators, and somebody said, “it’s interesting that nobody wants to talk about the closeups of the lynched bodies.”
The discussion became very emotionally difficult when somebody in the audience, one of the white people present, said, “because it’s just too difficult… I don’t want to look at it.” Deanna then provocatively invoked the notion of white guilt and challenged the group to consciously consider what such perspectives embody and produce: noting that the choice to look or to not look at this image was one that white privilege made possible. And things really broke down in that moment when neither Gabby nor I knew how to recuperate the momentum of the discussion because of the emotional repercussions of these racialized dimensions of looking.
In retrospect, that was probably the moment that we were inevitably trying to get to: where there’s a level of honesty about one’s own looking. But, for me, what was really important about that moment was that it wasn’t just one’s own relationship to an image that we were talking about and experiencing: we were talking about how one person’s experience of another person’s gaze upon an image was affecting them. Deanna was responding to the way somebody else was looking – or not looking – at this image.
AM: How did the other No Looking groups function? The one held in response to the HUMAN RIGHTS HUMAN WRONGS exhibition at the RIC, for instance?
GM: I went to see that exhibition at the RIC many, many times, with many different people. The show attempted to give a global overview of human rights, both human rights infractions and also protests and claims for rights, all from the Black Star agency collection. The show itself was interesting to me, but what was much more interest- ing was these cards that were miniature versions of some of the images in the show, placed throughout the gallery so visitors could collect them. There were around 30 in total, each with a black-and-white image on the front, and on the verso was a timeline of world events that happened in the year that image was taken, as well as very limited caption information, providing the photographer’s name, title and date. But often that caption did not get you very far because it said things like “Photographer unknown, Morocco, 1952.”
Every time I was at the exhibition, I saw visitors taking them, and eventually the RIC staff put a donation box on the front counter of the lobby because visitors would leave the show and realize they actually didn’t want to take these images home with them, and they also didn’t feel they could throw them away because of what they depicted, so the RIC provided a destination for them. I collected all of them, and we thought that we could look at them as objects and as images and talk about what their function is, from a curatorial perspective, and how spectators related to them.
KS: On more than one occasion, I had people come to me at the R&D space and hand me their cards from the RIC exhibition, saying they really didn’t want to keep them but it felt wrong to throw them away. We decided that because these images were circulating far beyond the RIC’s walls, we didn’t need to officially collaborate with them, but we did let the curatorial staff know that we were holding this discussion. They generously brought us more copies of the cards to share with people at the No Looking session, and most of the RIC curatorial team showed up to participate in the discussion.
GM: Which was, and was not, helpful in terms of the aims of the looking group, because people wanted answers: they wanted to know where things were made and why they were made, who made them. And so the recourse is, if there’s someone in the room who is some kind of expert and people figure that out, they start directing their questions to that person and sometimes that person starts offering information they think will be useful.
KS: We started a really interesting discussion with the people who showed up that evening, beginning to become aware of our own expectations and desires for images to function in particular ways. But the RIC curators often wanted to insist on a particular historical description of what the images were and had a limited tolerance for hearing about how people perceived the images beyond that historical description. It tended towards an appeal for a kind of curatorial expertise and historical truth that redirected how we had been thinking about and raising questions about images in these sessions.
GM: Which seemed so at odds with the gesture of making the cards in the first place. People are going to take them, and they’re going to have some kind of affective attachment to them. There’s no detailed historical description on the back of the card to tell them what’s going on in this photograph. Why set up this gesture that seems to run counter to everything you want your institution, or exhibition, to do?
AM: How did you construct the conversations in the No Looking group?
KS: They each took a different format and used different strategies for revealing information, or context, about what the images were, how they were sourced, or why we chose them. We didn’t have the same moment in every discussion where we had one big context reveal or analytic gesture. Gabby had learned over time to insert comments here and there that made people more aware of their own looking practices in relation to somebody else’s looking practices. But we did often hit a wall in the discussions and our post-mortem conversations often found Gabby and I trying to figure out what the next series of productive prompts would be, particularly in relation to images that had a documentary intention, and specifically around race and class representations, which are always challenging conversations.
AM: It sounds like the conversation stayed at a contextual or historical level. Did it migrate to bigger political questions that the images evoked?
GM: The recourse was almost always to personal experience, at some point in the conversation. It inevitably was as much a discussion about people’s fantasies and desires about the images as it was about what the images showed. In the discussion with Deanna Bowen, we talked about what the function of these images is: what does it mean to look at these images, given the racial violence and desire to create trophies that produced them, and what are the ethical complications in looking at these images now?
KS: The less access you have to some kind of historical truth or descriptive context about an image the more freedom you have as a spectator to project wildly. Whereas if you clearly know you’re looking at something that represents a life lived, but you can’t access the story at that moment, there’s a withdrawal that happens.
GM: I follow Shawn Michelle Smith’s thinking about this, where she argues there is a distinction between photographic evidence, which is what an image shows, and photographic meaning, which is generated entirely by viewers, and it’s malleable and it’s unreliable and it’s contingent. And that distinction is what allows a lynching postcard to be circulated as a trophy by one group of people and then to be turned into an anti-racism poster by another group of people. It’s the same photographic evidence, but it generates completely opposite photographic meanings.2
AM In all of these projects, the image is shaped by both the context of its presentation and what the spectator brings to it. Each project had different ways of expressing and revealing that relationship. How does curatorial practice stage this encounter, and what does this encounter generate?
GM: I learned from hosting No Looking many times, in many different venues and contexts, that I had fantasies about being able to evacuate some of the authority of the gallery by not employing a traditional exhibition format – and then learned that people come in and have certain expectations about who is going to tell them what to make of these images, or that there is a right answer. One of my questions was, “could you look at these difficult images and not feel like you had to do something with them, but actually sit with them and think about the latent knowledge you might learn if you wrestled with them over a longer period of time?” I don’t know that it worked, but that was the goal: to make an environment where you didn’t need to instrumentalize an image right away, and where a form of slow looking could unfold.
KS: Because I spend so much time alone looking at images, particularly online (as we all do now) but also in galleries, it’s become an often solitary experience. When we take the opportunity to gather a group together in person and ask them to spend some time reading images collectively, listening to how each other looks at images, very different things happen. That collective space becomes a practice space that has latent feedback potential, hopefully creating moments of self-aware seeing beyond the space of the museum.
AM: Within the programming of an arts organization, this is a shift from the didactic to the dialogical, that locates the meaning of images within their interpretive communities. What do you think this shift means beyond the context of the residency and TPW’s R&D phase, in other places such as museum exhibitions, the news or the internet, where we might encounter di cult images?
KS: No Looking was trying to ask questions about this seeming binary relation of the didactic versus the dialogic. Our aim was to experiment with creating experiences that make the viewer aware of our own role within a whole network of meaning-making, didactic information having a place here too. Advocating for practices of slow looking, this process offered a way of thinking about visual literacy – particularly when it comes to images of others – taking the time to see images and their stories and how they are given to us to be seen. Throughout the project, we were always looking at ourselves looking.