So I wanted to curate an exhibition where the act of creating something becomes public. There would be no installations, artworks or performances and there would be no artwork titles or artist statements. It would be an exhibition of creative demonstrations, where tools are shown, the artist is present and the new and experimental skills and knowledge are shared. Of course, this idea already exists in artist talks and programming for exhibitions and education, but rarely does it take centre stage. So I thought about how we could scale it up and give it a sense of excitement and destination (maybe like a ComicCon event or a celebrity cooking demonstration). It needed to be an event that is dramatic and decisive, it would be a show– I would call it “Showtime”. The night market part would come later…
As well as a convention, cooking show, and a world fair, I also started to talk about Showtime as something akin to a high school science fair; the artist would have to be on the other side of the table with the equivalence of an erupting volcano between them and the audience. But what was this science fair about?
A tendency is to approach this question as a problem, asking “why does this need to exist?” Which I tried to answer by proposing artists might have unexpected solutions to climate change, war and disease hidden in their work. It was a bit of a stretch and positioning artists as scientists (even though they sometimes can be) weren’t doing us any favours in forming ideas for an entertaining show. So I asked artists to tell me what is interesting about their work, instead of why it is important. Reframing questions like this take the onus off the artist to not try to justify their creativity or their artist fee. Instead, they started telling me what they are genuinely excited about.
What emerged out of this application process was a wealth of cool ideas. We offered each artist a trestle table, approximately 2 x 2 meters of space and the seemingly simple provocation of “just have fun”. There would be no schedules and no expectations of the outcome. They could chat with people, look around, eat dinner, have a drink and be curious. Everything would run all night and all at once, clashing and overlapping and intersecting. Molly Braddon, the producer on the project, and I became increasingly excited as we could feel that a special type of energy was gathering.
Even though we were excited, the next challenge was how to build interest from the event from the public. Calling it an ”exhibition” didn’t do it justice and an “exposition” or “fair” wasn’t quite right. We had already run a season of events called “Art Party” and we needed something to differentiate it. How could we tell people that this event was not just about watching a rotating schedule of performances, decorated with art installations, but about getting your hands dirty, trying things out and learning new things?
The magic was in the moments that occurred that I couldn’t curate. It was those in-between moments that occurred because people and creativity were preferenced over what art is supposed to look like.
We called on Gemma Gordon, from our advisory committee, who has a background in marketing. She wisely speculated that really interesting curatorial projects rarely get the attendance numbers they deserve because the general public doesn’t really understand what they are. A football match or a night market, on the other hand, are always well attended because its an accessible language everyone understands. I was instantly inspired by her idea of a night market.
We had seen something similar before with City of Melbourne’s Public Art Melbourne Biennial Lab, where artists made interventions into the historic Queen Victoria Markets. But what I think is interesting about what we were doing was wrapping the market around the artists. They were not making site-specific work about a market. Instead, the market provided a kind of scenography.
Molly quickly set about finding a market that we could collaborate with. We approached the Rose Street Markets first and they responded enthusiastically to the idea of a night market full of experimental demonstrations. They become wonderful collaborators who found arts and craft practitioners to compliment the curatorial premise. The somewhat unusual partnership also helped build new audiences and it was successful in bringing people down to the site, who might not otherwise attend a contemporary art event. People came for a night market and stayed for the demonstrations.
The magic was in the moments that occurred that I couldn’t curate. It was those in-between moments that occurred because people and creativity were preferenced over what art is supposed to look like. I saw artists get involved in each others demonstration, audiences share their own insights about new and experimental skills and market stall holders get crafty. One artist, Nicole Breedon, taught people how to make locks to pick locks. Everyone was persistent but found it difficult, except a neighbour stall holder, who picked six locks with ease, astonishing everyone. Psychologist, Chris Cheers, was enthusiastically embraced by the whole market and everyone got dressed up in the sequin togas he offered. Squeals of disgust and delight were shared by groups of men squeezing T.R. Carter’s latex pimples and everyone was eavesdropping on Adam Seymours pleasure activist demonstration, hoping to learn about better masturbation.
Underpinning a lot of the curation at Testing Grounds is the notion of civic agency. How can we put on events where you, the audience, feel like you have the agency to be creative? Showtime night market may be the closest we’ve come to answering this question.
As well as the demonstrations and market stalls there was music by Melbourne-based DJs, delicious food and drinks. Media art organisation Experimenta and independent gaming organisation Freeplay were program partners, helping us to find some of the artists.