2.13 | Valerie Cassel Oliver

[April 20, 2022 | Season 2, Ep. 13 | Barbara London Calling]

Barbara London: When COVID raised its head and we went into lockdown, I needed a way to talk with the kinds of passionate people whose work and personalities have interested me for decades. “Barbara London Calling” was the answer.

Today’s episode marks the 13th and final chapter of “Barbara London Calling” 2.0. This season I interviewed 12 artists at the forefront of art and technology. For the Season 2 finale, I wanted to do something different: Instead of interviewing an artist, I decided to interview another curator who could help me process the wealth of new information we’ve uncovered all season long. So today, I’m happy to introduce special guest Valerie Cassel Oliver, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

I recall first meeting Valerie in Texas a good 15 years ago, when she was the impressive and collegial senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Valerie, thank you very much for joining me for Season 2 finale of “Barbara London Calling.”

Valerie Cassel Oliver: It is such a joy to be here, Barbara. You know, I think we met each other in 2003, when we went to Poland. We were part of a curatorial group that went to Poland through the CEC Artslink. So, our time together goes way back. Of course, I’ve known and followed and celebrated your work for so many years, having been in Chicago at the School of the Art Institute, and the Video Data Bank, so connections there, as well. We go to the way back. It’s so wonderful to have these relationships that continue to grow.

[Continue reading for full transcript.]

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BL: I think one’s curatorial path is sustained by having good networks and colleagues, including important colleagues like you. 

VCO: Thank you.

BL: To get started, I want to ask you something I’ve asked each artist across Season 2 of “Barbara London Calling.” Given the ups and downs of the last two years, and the struggles we’ve all faced in trying to adapt, how has technology affected you and your curatorial practice? Artists are as innovative as ever, pushing boundaries and old hierarchies, as they examine the human condition. What I see is more flexibility and more mutability as ideas morph from one format to another, and one technology to another. 

We’ve learned a lot about how artists have adapted. But how have curators adapted? 

VCO: I think, as the artists have articulated, technology really becomes a means to stay connected, to stay engaged, to continue to do the work. As artists dug deep, I did the same thing as a curator. I was in the midst of organizing my own exhibition, “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse.” It really enabled me to really dig deep, and to really focus more singularly on that project. Of course, I’m a mom, and technology also enabled a certain level of connectivity to the world for my son.

But in terms of what I saw in the field, I saw people connecting in ways that otherwise could not have happened. Well, maybe happen in a more intensified way, and a more innovative way. Finding ways to reach each other, finding ways to continue to collaborate with other artists who they were already engaged in some sort of connection with. Or, maybe organically opportunities to connect. We saw the sort of explosion of Zooms, and explosion of opportunities for people to see, and to experience other people’s thoughts, and their sort of inner thinking.

Certainly, we were privy to these things; whereas often times, these things get workshopped in a studio. But people were making themselves very vulnerable, and very raw to allow works to just sort of exist in the world, and reach more people than ever before. I think we saw this explosion of openness, an explosion of generosity, an explosion of experimentation. Even though my head was really down most of the time, and continues to be that way, I’ve noticed that it’s really opened some doors that I think we’re not quite there at a point where we can analyze what the full totality of this has wrought for us.

BL: In some ways, I think today is very different. I think a lot about the early days of video, when there was this new consumer technology, when at last video wasn’t all locked up within big TV networks, when video became a personal tool. I think that recently we’ve seen a lot of, as you say, inspired personal expression.

VCO: Yes, like public access TV, and how the early 1980s just allowed for performances, and videos, and a certain different level of engagement, and a whole generational shift, too. The way today’s younger generation will use this time and perceive what’s come out of it toward a different end. Again, that’s something that we’ll have to see in the future.

BL: When we did Season 1 last year, I asked each artist whether they considered themselves a media artist. It’s interesting that each one said “no.” I believe, like you, that each artist uses whatever medium that’s right there at hand and suits their idea. Last season, the artists more or less bristled at the idea of being limited by definitions. But still, as curators and writers, we have to describe these artists and their work. I wonder if there is anything you could say about the latest language and terminology that you’ve found appearing more and more in your practice.

VCO: I don’t think there is a shorthand for artists to describe themselves. I think for me personally, I put it all in there. I say they are a sculptor, they’re a painter, they’re a photographer. I mean, I try to present people in the multifaceted nature of how they work. I think that’s probably an apt description, to say that artists have increasingly, again, because there’s always this cyclical nature to things, artists have always been multifaceted. There was a time in which the world demanded that they pick or choose, and decide they’re a painter, or decide they’re a photographer.

But I think artists are always at liberty to explore and endeavor in so many different genres and disciplines. This certainly is a moment in which we see that unabashed embrace of all of the ways in which they present themselves. And so, I try to honor that. I just simply call what they do what it is, and allow whatever is dominant in that moment to really precede the other listings of things that they do.

BL: What you’ve just said is very much a keeping with how we both keep our finger on the pulse by really engaging with artists. Whether that’s an emerging one or an established one. I believe in keeping that dialogue open with the artist, but also with colleagues like yourself. Now that there’s a slight reopening in the world, it means that in limited ways we can travel and are able to go see exhibitions. I don’t think the door is wide open to us yet in Europe, and certainly we’re limited in Asia. How do you think the exhibition space has changed and survived in the last two years?

VCO: Well, I think it’s become broader. It’s become different, in the sense that for people who are still reticent to go inside of places, people have brought what was inside outside. Very much like in the 1970s and 1980s, they brought the art outdoors. They’ve existed in interesting ways. They brought the art onto the Internet, so that people can experience work in different ways.

Now, of course being a curator, I feel things are incredibly experiential, and often times you have to be there, and that the Internet is a poor substitute for actually physically experiencing a work of art. All of that said, the Internet has enabled access for people to see and engage with art exhibitions, and see things when people do these sorts of digital tours, and allow people to experience art that way.

But I think the most successful thing is individuals bringing the art to the outdoors, and into the communities, too. Where there’s space, where there’s room, where there’s the consistency of hunger and curiosity for things. I have just been thrilled to see that, to see people creating art in public spaces.

BL: It’s exciting. Here we are in different cities, engaged in conversation. As we’ve said, we’ve all been communicating using Zoom, putting work in public spaces, and expanding upon that in different ways. We have artists working with social media and immersive environments, with everything from CGI avatars, or commodifiable non-fungible tokens. I believe it’s true, ideas come first, and art forms are not fixed. I’d love to know, what do you see as your passions?

VCO: Oh my gosh, there are so many. It always comes back to what hides in plain sight. The things that are yet to be, that we’ve yet to train our eyes upon. One of my favorite things to do is, when I take my son to school in the morning, I walk the parameters of his school. I do it for exercise, but I do it as kind of my own meditation every morning, to be in nature and to be outside. And to train my eyes to see the things that I ordinarily wouldn’t see if I was driving a car.

And I think my work as a curator is very much about that. It’s, what is hiding in plain sight? Our focus does not let us see the peripheral sometimes. And what’s in the peripheral vision? What’s just right out of the sort of focal viewpoints? And to bring that and allow people to see things that they otherwise would not see. I think my passions still remain very much that. Beyond that I would say, I don’t think I discovered any new passions. The old passions are slowly awakening, as well.

You realize what you love, when you no longer have access to it sometimes. Experiencing the world when you’re on lockdown, I realize how much I do love to travel, how much I do like seeing people in their own spaces. So, it’s been very interesting. I have seen people in their own spaces on Zoom, where you have this sort of bird’s eye view into people’s homes. And that’s been lovely too. You see how people live in a different way. That’s a very circular way of answering the question.

BL: In a way, we’ve seen a redefinition of what a studio visit is. It can be either in the physical space or the virtual space. And like we’ve already been discussing, it’s about the sharing. The sharing of what’s abstractly there in someone’s head and what’s physically in the studio. 

VCO: Yes, absolutely. 

BL: I’ll move on now to a couple of the artists who I’m very fortunate to have had wonderful conversations with over the last couple of months. A few artists’ work sticks out in my mind. In Australia, Tracey Moffatt is developing an outdoor installation in an abandoned house, by the side of a road a six-hour drive from Sydney. It’s a light and sound installation, a kind of memorial flame that acknowledges the indigenous people who were there for millennia. She will try to keep the installation active until COVID disappears off the face of the earth. To hear Tracey describe it, the installation is in the middle of nowhere. Is there anything you could add to how travel and distance is affecting how we experience art?

VCO: Well, I certainly will say for myself, there were moments where one can become stir crazy. Especially before the vaccine became available. There were just times when you knew you could not be out in general spaces with other people. It gave me more of an inclination to get in my car and get out into the world, and to explore places and go places I normally wouldn’t have gone. Just to kind of get out of the house and experience something. To activate the senses, activate the mind, and activate the heart in doing that.

And so, I think people are getting in their cars, and they are going to remote places. They’re going to places they ordinarily would not have gone to, at least early on. I think the world feels very much like it is starting, sort of driving itself to try to get back to some sense of normalcy that existed before. I don’t think the rest of the world is quite ready to do that. But there are facets of our society that just feels like full speed ahead. I still think that there are people who are still reticent to engage in that, but are still getting in their cars and willing to drive distances to experience something. I think Tracey is in tune with that.

And there’s always been that, there’s always been the Spiral Jetties of the world; there’s always been the land art pieces. There’s always been the works by Beverly Buchanan (1940-2015) that are set out into the earth, out into landscape, that were remote and people had to drive to experience. There is that history of doing that. I think people are in a space where they are willing to make those pilgrimages.

BL: Let’s move on now to Auriea Harvey. She’s a fascinating artist who started out as one of the very first Internet artists, before she turned to video games, extended reality, and most recently to NFTs. Her world building evolved out of myth and history, and her continued practice as a sculptor. I’m wondering if you draw any lines between entertainment technology, like video games, and VR, and art and technology?

VCO: Well, it’s all holistic; it’s all modes of expression. I don’t draw the lines, so I’m not a classicist in that sense. When I lived and worked in Chicago, that’s one of the beautiful things to see students really having these practices that existed concurrently. They’re painters, but they’re also graphic novelists, or they were creating avatars so that they could exist and have a kind of complex practice. It wasn’t fixed, and you saw that very early on. Although they did it in these very sorts of anonymous ways. They had avatars and personas. And so, I think it’s an extension. I think it’s all creative expression, and it’s all an extension of practices. To develop mythology, and then to create imagery that goes with that methodology, I mean, that’s blending literature and the visual arts together; so, it’s all part of the expressive whole.

BL: That fits into the practice of another artist I spoke with. Lorraine O’Grady works in a range of disciplines, which goes from performance and dance, to photography, writing, and the moving image. All the while, she’s investigating the politics of Diaspora and identity. I was so impressed by how she’s the archivist of her work. She’s the one who designed her website and put it together, and I think that’s just extraordinary. During COVID, she hunkered down. She was very prolific, very productive. She wrote a lot, and she focused on a new performance that grew out of her installation, Looking for a Headdress, from 2015. You’ve already touched on it, but in your curatorial experience, are you drawn to investigate and untangle the threads that emerge when an artist revisits work?

VCO: Oh, I love it! I love that artists can begin to quote themselves. When you live in the world and create, and produce things that you put out in the world, you always somehow find a way to quote yourself, or revisit, or come back to things. Howardena Pindell is very much like this, and also a number of other artists. I can say, there is a circularity to their work. There’s a way in, which they come back to with fresh eyes.

In Lorraine’s case, I mean, the brilliance of this woman. She’s an archivist. I mean, she digs. So much of her work is so deeply rooted in research. She becomes an anthropologist, if she needs to be an anthropologist. All of these things that happen behind the scene enables her to do the work. But to go back to a work, to breathe new life into it. To visit something and see its impact then, and see where the threads are, where it connects to the present now is such a profound mode of meditation. And so, I love it when it happens. I can only imagine that Lorraine, who is now finally getting some real visibility and recognition and celebration for her work, that this would be a way in which she is honoring her practice from the days before.

BL: Yes, Lorraine is truly extraordinary. I’ll move on to a young artist, and that’s the Danish born Jakob Kudsk Steensen, who’s engaged with virtual reality. That’s a term used to describe a form in which artists and engineers meld technology into a three-dimensionally rendered space, which then the audience is invited to enter and interact with. The visual components of the VR universe are created through algorithms and transparency maps, rather than through more conventional methods. Jakob’s work always keeps one foot in the natural world. He’s like a natural scientist. I’m wondering, do you look for technology-based work that seeks to re-create the natural world? Or technology-based work that ventures into its own new territory?

VCO: Well, I personally don’t seek it out. But I’m always interested in artists who are doing this type of work, and its ability to be translated into different forms, too. What you’re seeing now is people re-creating Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and allowing people to literally walk into spaces, to inhabit a space that exists from the artist’s mind, an artist’s representation of nature. You have this in so many different interesting forms that are coming to the fore.

VR technology is amazing. I don’t personally look for it, but I appreciate it. I have a great appreciation for it. My sort of general response is, I want to be in nature. I don’t want to be in my house in nature; I want to be out in nature. I’m always interested in artists who are making interventions in the natural world, rather than having a virtual re-creation of the natural world for people to walk through. But I still honor those forms, and I still honor those practices.

BL: At the end of my conversation with Jakob Kudsk Steensen, I was fascinated when he revealed that he’s using the software for his very complex VR installations to take his ideas in another direction, and that’s theater. Ed Atkins is moving in the same direction. He creates a world that’s more in the mind. I think we’ll see that happening a lot more. As you are mentioning, the Van Gogh “experience,” where the visitor can enter that brain of Van Gogh in an entertainment kind of way. I think we’ll see many other interesting things happening.

VCO: Now that the technology exists, we know that original work can happen and artists can do it, rather than just the re-creation of historical work. We’ll see people really expressing original thoughts and original visual landscapes that viewers will actually physically inhabit, rather than virtually.

BL: So, now moving towards closing. This has been a wonderful conversation. I have to say, it’s been a true pleasure speaking with artists, and a curator like yourself. You have helped to keep me sane, and to keep me pushing forward with my own understanding of this particular period of the art world and the world in general. I wonder, do you have any guesses or premonitions as to what the next chapter has in store for curators like us and art lovers? 

VCO: Oh my God, I don’t. I’m excited to live it. I’m excited to see things unfold. I think we’re at a precipice of things. It feels new, it feels so fresh. And I so deeply appreciate and admire you, Barbara, that you to bring this series to the public’s attention and allow artists to have a platform to speak in these types of conversations, and curators, such as myself, to have a platform to speak and share. I’m really excited about the future.

Being in contemporary art, you’re always writing history as it happens. I’d like to get to a particular vantage point and look back upon this time. But I know that there have been groundbreaking moments. There have been pivotal shifts in a kind of social and political psyche. And that cannot help but filter into the work that artists are doing, because they’re citizens of this world. They use their creative expression some time, to express or critique, or to mirror where we are in society. I’m looking forward to getting to a vantage point to see what has transpired in this period of time.

BL: So, this has been wonderful, and I can’t wait to see you in person. We’re having this conversation, and I really appreciate that you are sharing your ideas. Thank you so much for joining me in the season finale of “Barbara London Calling” 2.0. And of course, I want to thank all of the artists who joined me along the way. And I want to thank everyone who’s listening, everyone who’s sharing their thoughts and passion for the conversations we’ve had.

Despite the insanity we’ve all faced this year, it feels like, as you say, we’ve accomplished a lot. I’m certain we’re pointed in the right direction to do even more. So, thank you, Valerie.

VCO: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure spending this time with you, Barbara. I really enjoyed it.


Support for Barbara London Calling 2.0 is generously provided by the Kramlich Art Foundation.

Be sure to like and subscribe to Barbara London Calling so you can keep up with all the latest episodes. Follow us on Instagram at @Barbara_London_Calling and check out barbaralondon.net for transcripts of each episode and links to the works discussed.

The series is produced by Ryan Leahey, with production assistant Vuk Vuković. Web design by Sol Skelton and Vivian Selbo. Special thanks to Lee Ranaldo for graciously providing our music.

This conversation was recorded October 27, 2021; it has been edited for length and clarity.