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2021.11.20 10:00

‘I am a bridge between art and audiences’: Interview with curator of Kaunas Biennial

LRT RADIJAS2021.11.20 10:00

As a Canadian contemporary art curator, Josée Drouin-Brisebois works with various projects involving a diverse group of exhibition spaces and artists. In exhibitions, she becomes a mediator, seeking to engage the artists and the audience in a dialogue, create meaningful stories, and enable the audience’s interpretive power.

Josée is well known to the Lithuanian art community as well – she is the leading curator of the 13th Kaunas Biennial.

In an interview shared by the Kaunas Biennial organisers, Drouin-Brisebois talks about her work and how experiences in critical situations have led her to explore the human survival stories.

Drouin-Brisebois, you are currently the Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Canada, organising national and international exhibitions and participation of the Canadian artists in prestigious contemporary art biennials. Tell us more about yourself, how has your career path begun, and how do you see your role in the field of modern art in Canada?

I grew up in a francophone community near Ottawa. I was fascinated by different forms of expression from an early age, including dance, music, and visual arts. My father, who loved history and geography, had a significant influence on me. I only realized much later in my career how his interests in political science and infectious curiosity formed my practice as a curator. Art has always been a passion for me, and I have both a Fine Arts Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s in Art History.

My training as an artist, which is unusual for curators today, gives me insight into the making of art and an understanding of how to create engaging experiences for visitors. As a curator, I am responsible for the national contemporary art collection and take this responsibility to heart.

I feel my role is to connect with as many artists as possible, both in Canada and abroad, to gain a sense of where we are and where we are going as a society. I aim to build a collection that inspires human connection across time and place. Through purchase and donation, I seek to acquire works that share stories from various perspectives and expand ways of engaging and inspiring audiences.

Could you tell us what your first job as a curator was, and the kind of challenges you needed to overcome?

My first job as a curator was at the National Gallery of Canada. After working as an intern and an assistant for many years, I successfully obtained the position of Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art. The main challenges were to continue my studies while working full time and organising exhibitions independently to gain experience. As a young curator, I was given opportunities to experiment, and as I proved myself over time, I was able to develop my own projects.

My first major exhibition was a survey exhibition of the senior Canadian artist Christopher Pratt. It was an incredible experience to get to know him and build trust through our collaboration spanning many years. Pratt is a much-appreciated artist from Newfoundland and Labrador who is widely celebrated in Canada for his paintings and prints. He was kind and generous in sharing his passion for Newfoundland with me and we traveled to some of his favorite places in his home province.

As a senior artist, he already had a number of traveling exhibitions and publications. Therefore, I needed to focus on aspects of his practice that had not been investigated before. I looked at the relationship between his work and Newfoundland’s social and political history, which has undergone many transformations.

The exhibition was surprising to many as this was the first exploration of the socio-political content of Pratt’s work. I was honored to receive mention in a national review as the “best new curatorial talent” in 2005. This exhibition opened the door for me to curate more ambitious projects at the National Gallery of Canada, including a thematic group exhibition “Caught in the Act. The Viewer as Performer” in 2008, which was one of the largest contemporary exhibitions ever mounted at the museum.

You are responsible for Canadian and international Contemporary Art collections. How would you describe Canada’s modern art scene? What is it you like the most?

Canada is a very large country with many distinct art scenes. In many ways, it could be considered a series of smaller territories. For example, there is a legacy of photo-conceptualism in Vancouver linked to Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, and others, which is absent in Quebec and on the Eastern Coast.

There is also an exciting art scene in the Arctic where Inuit artists tend to work in collaboration and honor their traditions and teachings. Due to the vast country, many artists are unaware of other artists working in distant or remote locations. I enjoy meeting with artists where they work, in their own context, and having the opportunity to create connections between artists working in various parts of Canada and beyond.

An art curator is very much responsible for the audience’s perception of art. So, the curator is considered a mediator between the audience and the artist. Where do you get the inspiration for the exhibitions you curate, and how do you create the bridges to connect the spectator with the artist’s vision?

I consider myself a mediator or a bridge between art and audiences. Firstly, I would say there are many audiences. I feel it is crucial to know who you are trying to reach and what their expectations are. Much of my inspiration for thematic exhibitions come from listening to artists and identifying common threads between diverse practices. I enjoy putting artworks together that may not seem to relate and exploring how they enter into dialogue with one another and how we can make meaning.

I am always surprised to see how children interact with art. They are confident when they create meaning. Many lose this ability at some moment in our development as we start to doubt our instincts and insights. Therefore, I aim to reignite the wonder and confidence in the power of interpretation in viewers.

Do you visit many exhibitions to inspire yourself and become familiar with new curatorial practices? If yes, what are you looking for precisely?

I visit exhibitions, especially international biennials, to become familiar with artistic and curatorial practices in different parts of the world. I am mainly looking for how these exhibitions respond to their surroundings as much as to international trends and new concepts.

I appreciate creative thinking and exhibitions that leave space for viewers’ interpretation as opposed to overly theoretical or didactic shows. As I am also building the national collection for the National Gallery of Canada, I am also looking for innovative and engaging works of art by artists whose works may be less familiar to me.

Talking about the Lithuanian art footprint abroad, are the works of Lithuanian contemporary artists recognized in Canada, and could we find Lithuanian works among the world-class representatives of modern art in the Canadian galleries?

Some Lithuanian artists are recognized in Canada, many of which are associated with the Fluxus movement. Lithuanian artists already have a few works in the National Gallery’s collection, including Žilvinas Kempinas’ installation Double O and four short films and one multiple by Jurgis Mačiūnas. Curating the Kaunas Biennial has given me the wonderful opportunity to work with many Lithuanian artists and duos to get to know them and their practice.

The younger generation of artists in Lithuania is very dynamic and exciting. There is an experimental and revolutionary spirit in the works of younger Lithuanian artists, which can be associated with the legacy of Fluxus artists, which brought together interdisciplinary practices such as poetry, performance, film, and music. I envision that there will be more Lithuanian artists’ works here in the near future.

You could be called an expert of the Venice Biennale, having curated several publicly praised exhibitions of Canadian artists: Isuma (2019), Geoffrey Farmer (2017), Shary Boyle (2013), and Steven Shearer (2011). They raise questions of identity, loneliness, resilience, infinity, existence, and other fundamental issues. How have the topics presented by artists and the messages sent to the audience changed over the years?

That is a difficult question to answer as artists are all individuals with their own practices and ideas they are exploring. With each exhibition in Venice, a new experience, specific to the artist, was created. For example, Geoffrey Farmer’s exhibition A Way Out of the Mirro”, for which I was the Project Director responsible for coordinating the logistical and technical aspects, represented a unique moment in the pavilion’s life. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dismantle and utilize the pavilion as its own monument and ruin before its restoration. For the artist, the pavilion was an integral part of his artwork. In a written statement, he evoked how it stands as “a reminder of the process of destruction and renewal.” I contributed a scholarly publication on the history of the Canada pavilion, which focused on how curators and artists have conceived exhibitions from 1958 to 2017.

During my tenure with the biennale, I have witnessed how different artists have transformed the Canada pavilion in compelling ways to create engaging encounters for viewers. The pavilion, which was inaugurated in 1958, was designed by Enrico Peressutti within the context of paintings and sculptures being produced in the late 1950s and 1960s. As artistic practices evolved, the scale of works became more monumental. As new tools and technologies appeared, the pavilion became integrated into artistic, curatorial, and architectural projects in innovative ways. It is a testament to artists how they can re-imagine their works to inhabit unusual architecture.

You are the leading curator of the 13th Kaunas Biennial, which will take place from November 12. People who come to the art biennials typically expect a response or commentary on the state of the world, on our geopolitical or psychosocial moments. How would you describe the state of the world today and how it will make Kaunas Biennial exceptional this year?

The exhibition reflects the current global situation, including the pandemic and the problematic situation in Belarus and other parts of the world, with a curatorial project exploring human resilience and adaptation stories. The exhibition Once Upon Another Time…gyveno jie jau kitaip investigates myths and fictions associated with transformation, as well as lived personal and communal tales of survival. Every work contains knowledge and has its own story to tell. My objective is to weave a larger tale from the threads of the artists’ works and put them in dialogue to learn from emerging similarities, contrasts, and differences. Also, I aim to show these works in historically significant places in Kaunas.

How did you come up with this complex concept for the Biennial?

The concept for the exhibition was developed before the pandemic and in some ways feels prophetic as many of us were in “survival mode” over the last 18 months. The world is in crisis from COVID- 19 and enduring social injustice. The global pandemic showed us how we were all connected, for better or for worse. Unfortunately, it has also led to mistrust, fear, and violence.

Through the compelling and resonant narratives, it is my hope that the artists’ works can help us empathize and (re)connect with each other. The resilience of human beings can be a source of inspiration as we continue to face adversity, injustice, oppression, and climate change. At the onset of this journey, the questions I asked myself were how we can adapt, move forward, and live differently. Through their works, artists offer fascinating and critical answers to these questions. They help us reframe our values and beliefs, our relationship to the natural world and the unknown, as well as our memories and forged identities.

You tried to get acquainted with Lithuania and its art specificity by visiting the country before the pandemic. However, the pandemic affected your stay in Lithuania and the whole organizational work with the Biennial. What is your perception of these changes, and how did you connect with Kaunas, local and foreign artists in such unusual conditions?

The pandemic had a significant impact on how I approached the Biennial and worked with artists I had never met in person. I met with over 30 Lithuanian artists virtually in the research phase and finally selected 11 artists to participate in the Biennial. I had to change my way of working and create relationships through regular meetings on online platforms with all the artists.

The investment that would have gone into traveling went into spending more time with the artists. I also relied heavily on the Biennial team and the Director Neringa Kulik, my extraordinary collaborator. She is the point person in Kaunas who facilitates meetings with the local venues and partners and is involved with all aspects of the exhibition. The relationships that have been built over this time are particularly strong as there is a sense that we are all in this together. We have all survived something which makes the concept of the exhibition that much more prescient.

In one of the interviews, you have said that your main goal in Kaunas Biennial is to “create a meaningful audience experience by presenting works of art that speak of humanity in this particular time.” What particular transformative messages do you expect the audience to take from this Biennial?

I wouldn’t necessarily expect the audience to take home the same messages as I think they will be different for each individual. I hope that their encounters with artworks displayed in the museums dedicated to folklore, natural history, and sports (Devils’ Museum, Tadas Ivanauskas Zoology Museum, The House of Basketball) will encourage them to question the complex stories embedded within or narrated by these institutions. My aim is that visitors can learn from the different artists’ approaches and forms of expression and feel a sense of connection to their stories.

In various art publications and periodicals, you often share reviews on contemporary art. From the perspective of the ongoing pandemic, political, and social crisis worldwide, what trends do you see in post-pandemic art and how do you hope art can help us navigate these challenging times?

In my experience, art can help bridge generations, borders, and differences. If we spend time trying to see something from someone else’s point of view, it can help us be more open and hopefully understand each other in new ways. I can imagine that creating art in ever more collaborative ways will become more important in the future.

Due to the rapid acceleration of digitization and the development of new technologies to interact with the public, how do you personally see the future of international biennials of contemporary art?

Throughout the pandemic, we have seen art audiences’ change. People who are unable to travel to see international exhibitions want to interact in different ways. I believe that hybrid events, both physical and virtual, will be the new normal for many years. I also feel that audiences are eager for many different types of experiences ranging from spectacular to contemplative. I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the question of audience, about who will see the exhibition? I strongly believe in engaging with the local communities and that exhibitions should be relevant to the place where they are hosted and its inhabitants.

What are your projects for the future?

2021 has been a very intense year of production with many newly commissioned works for the museum’s public spaces as well as the Sobey Art Award exhibition and the Kaunas Biennial. On the horizon, I am co-curating an exhibition looking at the expression of dance in contemporary art. I will be working on new commissions and developing future touring exhibitions for the National Gallery of Canada. I also look forward to future opportunities to collaborate on projects in Lithuania.

The exhibition, Once Upon Another Time...gyveno jie jau kitaip, is organised by Kaunas Biennial. The project is supported by the Lithuanian Council for Culture, Kaunas City Municipality and with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. The event is presented in collaboration with the Office of the Embassy of Canada to Lithuania and is a part of the project Kaunas European Capital of Culture 2022.

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