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The new (ab)normal

Curators’ Statement

The new (ab)normal is the first online exhibition in RMIT Gallery’s 43-year history. The exhibition features creative responses about life in the time of a pandemic, from more than 40 School of Art staff, Higher Degree by Research students, alumni and industry partners. These artists are diverse and truly reflect the teaching in the RMIT School of Art, highlighting work across myriad of media – sound, film, painting, sculpture and installation.

Contemporary curating is about problem solving and being flexible enough to respond to the times. Developing an exhibition starts with a conversation over shared concerns and deciding on a methodology of how we should reach out to a particular community and what the possible outcome should be. This is how The new (ab) normal evolved.

This year many artists were looking forward to be taking part in solo or group exhibitions, launching international projects or contributing to festivals. The disappointment of not being able to meet these obligations that are so fiercely sought are palpable in their responses. Some have chosen to deeply reflect on these missed opportunities while others have been creating new work even amongst the anxiety and uncertainty in lockdown, and for some this is heightened by the chaos of educating children at home.

It does still feel strange not having some physical outcome via a gallery exhibition or in a public space – there is a slight feeling of a project that is unresolved. However in an online context it is still possible to deep dive into each artist’s work and share in the process of making, reflecting and pausing, and the RMIT Gallery website is the perfect platform.

The stories in the exhibition are powerful and illustrate to our community how much we need our artists – our personal connections are now more important than ever.

Helen Rayment, RMIT Galleries Curator, and Dr Tammy Wong Hulbert, Lecturer of Arts Management (specialising in curating).

Helen Rayment in her home office working with (on screen, L to R) the team behind getting The new (ab)normal online: Engagement Manager Dr Evelyn Tsitas, exhibition support Vivian Cooper and co-curator Dr Tammy Wong Hulbert.

Helen Rayment talks about curating an online exhibition in lockdown.

What’s it like curating an exhibition in a rapidly evolving climate where restrictions are changing pretty consistently?

As we moved in lockdown the thing that jumped out at me was how is the RMIT community coping with our lives as they change around us? Not everyone can work at home – how are artists coping, how are our students managing. Imagine if you can’t go to your studio, or your studio is on campus and you can’t get there?   What is happening to the process of the making of art which is generally a contemplative and solitary activity? How are we all managing this?

It felt important to take advantage of the opportunity to reflect on what is happening right now. The School of Art seemed to be the perfect partner as they were in the thick of all these changes – staff and higher degree research students who are accomplished artists managing all these obstacles. It also made sense to invite Dr Tammy Wong Hulbert who teaches curatorial studies to work with us and bring her expertise working in the academic realm.

It’s certainly different to curating a show on site …there’s much to consider…are we closing down are we opening up? Will this show be relevant in 3 months or irrelevant two weeks? Having a time frame on the exhibition – it’s live on the website from 15 June -28 August will give it a life like an actual exhibition. There will be a catalogue that will act like an historical document. I hope the catalogue will be a useful document of these times.

Curating an exhibition isn’t as glamorous as people think. Doing it properly is high level project management, logistics, budgets, spreadsheets – there’s a team. I lead the organisational aspect and work with communications, events, technical support, operations.  There are many stakeholders. This show was pretty much the same – but produced much faster.

There’s a bit more flexibility with what the show will look like on line – it’s not standing in a room moving art works around. It’s also an open call exhibition to catch a glimpse of where we are. Call it ‘project management with retrospective cohesion’! The curators will look at the works and reflect on what is being presented and build a story based on the works.

Has working in lockdown been hard for you to adapt to personally? Or do you think you’ve done well to find new ways to navigate around it?

I have had my Year 8 son schooling at home in the next room, and a new house being constructed next door which has been challenging. It’s been nice having lunch with my son and sharing in a bit of what he does every day – hearing the piano and saxophone lessons in the background. I have so much respect for his teachers. They have been wonderful. He is desperate to return to school!

I also really miss being on site RMIT Gallery – walking around the beautiful spaces, walking through the wonderful big 19th century doors every morning and hearing them close behind me. It’s a special thud! For me staring at screens is not ideal. I also miss the RMIT Gallery team and it’s also a privilege to be able to interact with students and staff as they visit the gallery.

How do you think artists have found being placed in lockdown – Has it been challenging, or has it been helpful in the sense that it has provided them time to focus on their work?

I don’t think anyone has found it easy. Many have lost income, students have been very dislocated. I hope this project has been able to give the artists a slight distraction and show our community how much we need our artists.

Will we now be seeing a lot more exhibitions like The new (ab)normal being curated and placed online? Is this the future?

We may have more interesting online platforms, but there is nothing better than setting foot in a gallery space and immersing yourself in works of art. However, the new (ab)normal has certainly opened our eyes to the possibilities of the online exhibition. I think events, public programs and outreach online are a great idea and something we should continue to explore online. Education outreach is a vital part of what we do.  To make events more accessible for busy teachers and to engage them in digital forums so they don’t need to come into the city after a full day of working would be wonderful.

In this on-line exhibition we have digital works as well as images of paintings and sculptures that were meant to be in other exhibitions – but this is not the future of painting or sculpture! So much is lost without being able to see the physicality of a work.

When developing and installing exhibitions shared ideas and brainstorming with colleagues is important – face to face is much better. This doesn’t happen in a Teams meeting so much.

And finally, if you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice before we went into lockdown, what would you tell yourself?

Take your keyboard and screen home! The physical challenges of working at home are quite apparent. I’ve noticed the lack of incidental exercise too!

By Kate Tranter
Bachelor of Communication (Public Relations), RMIT
WIL internship with RMIT Culture

Dr Tammy Wong Hulbert juggled home schooling and curating in lockdown

Dr Tammy Wong Hulbert talks about curating an online exhibition in lockdown.

What’s it like curating an exhibition in a rapidly evolving climate where restrictions are changing consistently?

In some ways, it hasn’t changed greatly in developing an exhibition, in that it starts with a conversation over shared concerns and deciding on a methodology of how we should reach out to a particular community and what the possible outcome should be. In many ways contemporary curating is about problem solving and being flexible enough to respond to the times.

But obviously with the current situation we’re unable to consider the physicality of an exhibition, so for this project, we focused more on reaching out to our art community through the on-line space as a way of documenting how artists are experiencing this period of time.

Although not my first online exhibition project, it does still feel strange not having some physical outcome via a gallery exhibition or in a public space – for me personally, there is a slight feeling of a project that is unresolved.

Has working in lockdown been hard for you to adapt to personally? Or do you think you’ve done well to find new ways to navigate around it?

I can’t say it has been hard for me physically to work from home, as half the week I am usually locked away in my study working and planning my research activities, which includes the development of art based curatorial projects. Generally I am able to work in a flexible and mobile state.

What I did find hard in the first instance was the emotional impact of the situation, a feeling of shock that our society had so suddenly transformed. I was grieving for what was normal and may never quite be in the same way. This was somewhat difficult to digest as a curatorial researcher who focuses on working on projects, which brings people together through collective art making to develop public outcomes.

The other challenge has been the collapsing of family and work life, which was exhausting with my son at home and managing his home schooling. Although home schooling was a lot of work, I appreciated the insight into his world and the opportunity to engage with him in a different way. Although a difficult time, I know we’ve been through a memorable time together, we’ve become closer in many respects.

How do you think artists have found being placed in lockdown? Challenging? Or has it been helpful in the sense that it has provided them time to focus on their work?

From the project, I came to understand that it has affected each artist quite differently, depending on their personal circumstance. Some have had a desire to respond to the situation through their work, others have not felt motivated to make work, as they have had other concerns, such as having to deal with crisis management issues.

Many have expressed that they had plans, which were now cancelled or postponed and felt disorientated by this situation. Others were taking the opportunity to reflect on their past work and reconsider it in today’s context.

When we come out of lockdown do you think the way you curate an exhibition is going to have changed?

Yes, certainly. As, I mentioned earlier, I have the feeling of an unresolved project without a public outcome. But perhaps in the future, I will be more accepting of these circumstances, because I’ve had the experience of realising an on-line exhibition that lives in this space and understand how it has an impact on artists and audiences in a different way.

The new (ab)normal has already inspired me to keep researching other possibilities of virtually gathering communities in online platforms and also to think about the global reach of a local project.

Will we now be seeing a lot more exhibitions like The new (ab)normal being curated and placed online? Is this the future?

I don’t think the on-line exhibition will be the dominant format for exhibitions, as restrictions become loosened. In fact, many people have told me that the number of on-line materials and projects they have encountered overwhelms them. I think many of us crave the physical experience still. But perhaps the idea of an on-line exhibition will be more familiar and acceptable to many people.

As an online exhibition is more affordable to produce, it may also inspire much creativity in this space with curators being able to experiment more freely with ideas and approaches. I think the on-line presence of an exhibition or project will be considered more carefully, especially how it relates to the physical exhibition. Also audience members have become more familiar with on-line platforms for engagements and perhaps will be more willing to engage with alternative ways of viewing art, as it is normalised through this period.

And finally, if you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice before we went into lockdown, what would you tell yourself?

My advice to myself would be to stay calm, patiently wait for this time to pass, as life will resume, even if not quite the same as we remember.

By Kate Tranter
Bachelor of Communication (Public Relations), RMIT
WIL internship with RMIT Culture