Matt Packer in conversation with Jim Ricks.
JR: Ok, just to kick things off… Derry seems to have a combination of street cred and access to the UK and for a city its size it does appear to have remarkable resources, but is there a scene and is it something that can organically grow? And finally, what effect will Brexit have on Derry as an art place?
MP: You’re asking a bungle of different questions there.
Derry has a remarkable history, which in turn gives the place a self-confidence in seeing itself in relation to other international narratives of colonialism, nationalism, civil rights etc.
There are good artists and curators working in Derry, and it’s also been a magnet for people seeking to make work about / in relation to the city. There are also important organisations like CCA, VOID (and the Orchard Gallery before them), of course. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland provides a breadline existence for these organisations, but is constantly communicating a message of frightening precarity and potential collapse, which in turn reflects the fragility of the devolved government.
Art scenes are phantoms aren’t they? In my experience they don’t exist in the way that people suggest they do.
JR: Can you talk about the Glucksman?
MP: Yes, I worked at the Glucksman immediately after graduating from the MA Curatorial programme at Goldsmiths College, London. I worked there from the end of 2006 to 2013. I learnt a lot about the opportunities and limits of working thematically within the context of a University campus.
JR: I remember coming across a show you co-curated at The Black Mariah in Cork a few years back. Would you still work on that smaller scale? Or do you see a linear expansion to your work? (Director of CCA Derry –> Lofoten International Art Festival –> Triegnac –> Selector for the British Pavilion in Venice –> Tulca Curator –> Director of Eva…)
MP: I don’t really think on those terms. I feel a bit uncomfortable being presented with that lineage.
In principle, I’d happily work on a smaller scale if that meant working with a certain autonomy or within stimulating parameters.
JR: Is a career strategy something you think about? For yourself or for others? Thinking of a comment of yours about ‘uneven careers’.
MP: If you’re interested in both changing and contributing to the culture you find yourself in, then it often means working at the edge of your own knowledge, experience, and competency level. A career in contemporary art is an anxiety inducing topology in that sense.
I’m impressed and horrified in equal measure by students that emerge from colleges and assume a smooth and seamless entry into what people recognize as the art world. Lots of good and necessary things have come through professionalisation in terms of tidying up institutions from petty corruptions and malpractice, etc, but when professionalism creeps in to prefigure the horizon of possibility, I’m less convinced that it’s a good idea. I’m old fashioned enough to think that the field of activity should be an unstable space, there to be defined and accountable to its users and occupiers (artists, curators, publics).
JR: I see you as maybe having a slightly different viewpoint, that is, as an ‘outsider’ that has now lived and worked in Cork, Derry, and Limerick. Of course we all have criticisms and strive to do better in whatever role we take on, but do you think there is a general or institutional lack of ‘striving for excellence’ in Ireland? Sorry, I hope this isn’t seen as a provocation.
MP: No, I wouldn’t say there’s a lack of excellence. What Ireland has traditionally lacked are the institutions with the kinds of historical and infrastructural resources of other European cities. This sense of non-equivalence imposes itself as a set of assumed ‘standards’ for what excellence should look and feel like, with the lazy conclusion that it’s absent in Ireland.
I think Ireland’s best opportunities are not in seeking parity with other European arts infrastructures, but rather to try and make best of the fact that its infrastructure is all quite new and wildly contingent on the relative prosperity of the past couple of decades.
I do think there’s a lack of developmental capacity for artists in Ireland, which is something that is worth addressing. There is no dedicated art press based in Ireland that has comprehensive global distribution, and nor can I think of any international art press that has committed and sustained relations to Ireland or dedicated reviews editors (exhibitions in Ireland typically fall within the scope of UK reviews editors, for example). There is also limited institutional infrastructure for the production of new work of significant scale or technical complexity.
These examples are less about striving for excellence and more about resources, however.
JR: How do you approach the – complicated – notion of style? Are you developing a curatorial style consciously or do you even think about it?
MP: I don’t think about this at all, but at the same time I recognize that there are a few common threads between projects that are not just thematic.
When I was on the curatorial programme at Goldsmiths in 2004 – 2006, there was a palpable sense that curating needed stylistic metaphors and models in order to describe itself as a practice.
JR: So, how do you connect with artists… Are you drawn to artists as they relate to your curatorial interests?
MP: Partly due to ongoing work commitments and having a child, I have less opportunity to make speculative studio visits or scan exhibitions around the place. Nowadays, I’m more inclined to zoom into particular thematics, which – in turn – shape an interest in particular channels of art history and particular artistic approaches.
JR: What do you think of Limerick being self-branded as a ‘creative city’? I can’t help but thinking the secondary ‘cities’ in Ireland are competing for too small a share. Or are satellites important?
MP: The artists, organisations, studios, and arts initiatives that exist along the West Coast of Ireland, for example, from Co. Cork through Limerick, Galway, Sligo, Derry, include some of the best in Ireland. I’d rather avoid the language of centre-periphery, primary-secondary etc.
JR: What’s the best project or show you’ve worked on?
MP: I recently curated TULCA in Galway with an exhibition project titled They Call Us The Screamers. It was a modest project in terms of scale of resources, but I really enjoyed the immersion of research and all artistic relationships that developed through that process.
For a while now I’ve been interested in the idea of organizational culture. Not just thinking of organisations in terms of their public outputs and programmes, but in terms of their internal and socially driven culture of relations, process, and practice; things that the public don’t necessarily see or that get measured by funders or press. I’ve been lucky to work on projects like TULCA and LIAF that have been exemplary in that sense.
JR: What’s the worst way an artist has approached you for exhibition?
MP: Well, first of all I don’t think there’s a ‘way’ that makes the crucial difference in any relationship with an artist, but there’s certainly been plenty of blunders and people I would hope to avoid as a result. An artist once approached me at a late night social event, presented me their business card, dropped the card on the floor in a fumble and then vomited on it. I don’t think artists should have business cards.
JR: Why shouldn’t artists have business cards? I for one think they can be artworks in themselves.
MP: Maybe I idealise artists as being the vanguard of a better world where business cards don’t exist and are entirely unnecessary.
JR: Ha! Okay, but over-drinking for social compensation is hardly new in Ireland. Would you give them a second chance?
MP: I don’t like the idea that I’d have that power which gives people chances. It’s not complicated really.
JR: I know it is early days yet, and that you are carefully researching the archive of EVA, but what legacy do you hope to leave in EVA?
MP: I have been at EVA now for just over six months. Given the bi-annual cycle of the organization, it still feels very new and I think it’s important at this stage to learn and listen as much as anything else. It’s far too early to think of legacy.
JR: You pointed out EVA has changed drastically over the years, from a more provincial exhibition that emphasised prizes, to one where the curator has taken prominence. This can be seen as a microcosm for larger currents in Ireland and internationally. What do you anticipate happening in the near and more distant future?
MP: It’s interesting that the history of EVA has coincided with the ‘curatorial turn’, which is also reflected in EVA’s shift of designation from Adjudicator to Curator in the early 90s. It’s important to understand (what-we-recognise-as) curating sits within a specific and contingent arc of historical change that is only, of course, going to change again.
I also think that with the example of Documenta in 2017 came an exasperation with the ‘reach-i-ness’ of the biennial format, both in terms of what the exhibition seeks to address and the publics it seeks to implicate.
JR: Most underrated artists?
MP: I don’t really have a good sense of how people are rated, and I’m not sure what being rated means anyway. I think in an Irish context, I’d like to see more attention paid to the mid and late twentieth century – the art that came immediately before (and encroached upon) the blanket of ‘contemporary’ so to speak. There’s a bit of amnesia about this period and a kind of incompatibility problem between the critical vocabulary of then and now. All of which is interesting IMO.
JR: Favourite font?
MP: I like a font called Daun Penh
JR: Favorite restaurant in Ireland?
MP: Anything that hurriedly replaces plans to make dinner at home.
JR: Are you avoiding Dublin?
JR: Where do you want to retire?
MP: No plans.
Matt Packer is the Director of EVA International – Ireland’s Biennial of Contemporary Art. Previous roles include: Director of Centre for Contemporary Art Derry-Londonderry (2014 – 2017), Curator of TULCA Festival of Visual Art, Galway (2017), Curator of Lofoten International Art Festival, Norway (2015), Associate Director of Treignac Projet, France (2013 – 2016), and Curator of Exhibitions and Projects, Lewis Glucksman Gallery, Cork (2008 to 2013), alongside independent projects.