Community: in-conversation series for “SpectRoom: Fluid Narratives”. Interview w/ Camilla Cole, London-based independent curator and founder of Cole Project about curating during a pandemic

The photo shows Camilla a white individual with long red hair by a window wearing a black dress and black sunglasses. The room where she is is dimly lit
Portrait of Camilla Cole (2017). Photo taken by Toby Amies. Courtesy Camilla Cole.

Community is an in-conversation series with curators, writers, and activists on themes surrounding the exhibition SpectRoom: Fluid Narratives. Topics such as intersectionality, white privilege, representation and creating knowledge during these pandemic times will be explored.

Francesco Ferranti: Hey Camilla, can you please introduce yourself to the audience?

Camilla Cole: Hello Fluid Narratives Audience!
I am the director of ​@cole_projects​, a London based curatorial platform that discovers and exhibits international emerging and mid-career artists. I draw upon over fifteen years of art market experience in managing private art collections and contemporary art galleries and combine that with academic curatorial practice. I bring artists together in thematic immersive exhibitions held in off-site spaces – often working collaboratively with galleries around the world and abandoned spaces.

Francesco Ferranti: What does Spectrum means to you?

Camilla Cole: For me, the concept of Spectrum runs parallel to the whole idea behind Cole Projects, and behind every exhibition concept that I had curated to date. Effectively it is a firm belief that decentralisation is the way forward, and to do this we need to reconsider the systems that have always been in place – the status quo as it were. 

Cole Projects was born from the experience I had had in the art market. I understood how galleries work, how artist careers are made, maintained and destroyed, and the sheer amount of wealth (in time, or financially) to create art, exhibitions or managing galleries. The market is totally unregulated but there is a strict order of doing things: to name a few – galleries represent artists, of which they get 50%. Galleries have the relationships with the collectors and journalists for the artists and keep the two as separated as possible. Sometimes this is necessary, but often, especially with the smaller emerging artists and spaces, the only party this benefits is the gallerist. They are the central point of which everything else feeds into but in effect they are just middle men. Totally valuable, when it is done well, but often all the collectors crave is an intimate studio visit, and all the artists want is a relationship with the journalist or collector that has bought their work. 

This is what I mean by decentralising the modus operandi- creating a spectrum as it were of contacts and relationships that flourishes in every direction – not that all goes to the centre of the structure. This is why I take collectors to the studio, or not have a system of representation and include artists at totally different stages of their careers under one thematic. The goal is to create a unifying umbrella that encourages new relationships to flourish, ones that are excluded from the way things currently are, providing a free and safe space for new and innovative ideas.

We Sing The Body Electric, 2019. Installation shot. Courtesy Cole Projects.

The idea of Spectrum and/or the decentralisation in my curatorial concepts can be seen in all of my exhibitions to date, but the easiest to show it in would be We Sing the Body Electric, which you kindly wrote about in your blog Gender Is a Construct. It was an all female exhibition with 14 artists, which at the time was a fairly typical motif. However, I wanted to show that it was less about the sex of the artist than it was about the work they made. Taking the title from a Walt Whitman poem that talks about his lover in a series of body parts (as Whitman was gay but could not openly say that he was) he removed the gender from the conversation and in that sense the flesh belongs to anyone.

In effect, he has decentralised what we would call the whole – in this case body parts making up a woman, to just understanding the whole by body parts which could be any gender. Whitman did this to hide his true feelings at a time when they would not be accepted by society, but I think society does this today because the body is fluid, as is gender and sexuality, so it should be impossible to revert to systemic constructs that only allow binary choices for describing people.

My only regret (but also I think something that highlights how fast our ideas on these subjects are changing) is that I only included cisgender women in the exhibition when it should have included more female-identifying inviduals. I believe this would have given the curatorial concept much more gravitas, and really would have evolved Whitman’s original premise.

Francesco Ferranti: Prior to curating, it’s necessary to address their own biases and white privilege. What are the elements you think are core to providing an inclusive representation?​ 

Camilla Cole: I think it’s really important to really question your motives and your position and be surrounded by people that you are able to take criticism from. I am lucky to be surrounded by talented artists, curators and art world workers that tell me the truth even though it can sometimes be hard to hear. I have had to realise that even if I say things in a certain way, and they are read in a fashion that I do not intend, then I have to change it. The wording and actions have to be clear because it could be dangerously misread and the last thing I want to do is imprint my position and therefore my privilege on to certain situations. I think another important agenda is to ask questions instead of having a fixed position on any particular issue. Fluidity is crucial in more ways than one.

Francesco Ferranti: Curating an exhibition during Lockdown. How did your practice adapt to this new situation, when galleries and museums are closed?

The logo says "A Partnership between Cole Projects X The Lexi Cinema". Visual Tonic is spelled in red on a white and turquoise  background. On the bottom left corner,  a white surgical mask in a yellow circle, on the bottom right a turquoise eye. On he bottom left  the writing says Providng Relief with Video Art. On the bottom right behind the eye the outline of a hand and the logo of Lexi Cinema.
Visual Tonic, online programming a partnership between Cole Projects and Lexi Cinema , 2020. Logo designed by Tom Nikeas. Courtesy Cole Projects.

Camilla Cole: I curated 3 exhibitions during lockdown and semi lockdown- each responded directly to the restrictions that were in place. The advantage of being independent and nomadic is that you can be reactive in your ideas, and importantly, be able to create new contexts for contemporary work. If I was part of a larger organization, or had a space to manage, this would be far more difficult and the results would be less immediate.

The first exhibition I did was called Visual Tonic, which I launched in March 2020 when we first went into full lockdown. It was entirely online using IGTV’s recently added capabilities of showing whole films. At the start of the pandemic there was a feeling of comradery, and a sense of urgency to support each other, so I quickly collaborated with the Lexi Cinema in Kensal Green. They had to close their doors and instead created a weekly programme of free content, partnering with the BFI, Mubi, Open Culture and I programmed video art. This was a great opportunity to show brilliant works by ​Akinola Davies Jr, Lori E Allen, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Sean Capone, Rachel Maclean, Katarzyna Perlak, Kate MccGwire, Olivia Norris, Charlie Warde, Lone Taxidermist, Manu Luksch to a totally new audience. I like being at the intersection of disciplines and I believe we have a responsibility to not just curate for other curators, but to show work to new audiences.

The still image shows a Black individual with a black and white veil, covered in floral motives, which covered the head. The individual holds a baby in their lap. The baby is watching the camera with curious eyes and is covered in a red scarf.
Akinola Davies Jr,Lion Warrior‘, 2017. Video Still. Courtesy the artist.
The photo shows two white individuals with long brown hair. The one on the left wears a blue balaclava, the one on the right a water green one. They wear brightly coloured traditional folk dresses, consisting in a knitted top, pleated skirts. On the background coloured balloons and tree branches.
Katarzyna Perlak Niolam,ja se kochaneczke’, 2016. Video Still. Courtesy the artist.
The logo says “Ritual for a new Regime”. A yellow  esoteric spiral  stands is in the middle with a rune. On the rune a black inverted triangle and a purple hand sign. At the corner of the rune tree branches. On the bottom of the image a text says Sol Bailey- Barker, Rebecca Bellantoni & Rowdy SS, Emma Fisher, Candida Power-Williams.
Ritual for a new Regime, 2020. Logo by Gustavo Rodrigues. Courtesy Cole Projects.

The second show I did was ​Ritual for a New Regime. This exhibition took place when restrictions were starting to be lifted. I was in talks with ​Sol Bailey Barker ​to curate his work as part of Earth Eaters (originally scheduled for May but then delayed until September), and when I visited his studio on an ex military base in Holloway- it just blew my mind. Quite quickly I started to think of ideas like sculpture parks as a way to still experience art work in the flesh but in a safe way, and then when he approached me about curating a show with his work on the site, I was keen to go ahead.

The photo shows Emma, a white individual with long red hair, who stands naked near Candida William's sculptural piece called nothing is harder to understand (strength). The sculpture is yellow, pink and blue and reminds of a totem.
Emma Fisher with Candida Powell Williams ‘nothing is harder to understand (strength)’, 2019. Courtesy Cole Projects and the artists.

We only had 2 weeks to put it together, and I think as we had all been inundated with online exhibitions and fairs I really wanted to experience works which had a physicality. The space was open and vast, and I needed more than just Sol’s works to create a balance, so I asked ​Candida Powell-Williams ​and to be on board and she kindly agreed at very short notice. Then, to activate the space I enlisted the choreography from ​Emma Fisher​ and commissioned a performance from ​Rebecca Bellantoni​ and Rowdy SS.

It was the fastest turn around I have ever seen – transport, installation, performances, filming and dismantling all happening in one day. We allowed people to come and visit the exhibition while we were filming, only giving the “secret location” to those that got in touch. This way we could space out visitors and stay covid secure. It was a special day- no one has seen art or anyone else for such a long time – there was this sense of wonder – a totally liminal experience in between states- the real and the digital, the physical and and transient. We then spent a week editing the footage and launched the event as if it was taking place on that day – with a schedule and timings, dropping one film each hour.

Sol Bailey-Barker ‘Biosphere for a Dead Leaf Mantis – Sisyphus in Retrograde’, 2019. Steel, flies, woodlice, springtails, bromeliads, orchids, sphagnum moss, creepers, orchid bark and charcoal. Courtesy the artist and Cole Projects.

The exhibition considered how the crisis highlighted the natural balance of the Earth being disturbed through humanity’s exploitation of its resources and at the same time demonstrated the systemic injustices and unevenly distributed weaknesses in our societies. All the artists featured in this exhibition break down the boundaries of what we thought we knew and invited the viewer to consider the crossroads that the pandemic forced us into and to anticipate what our new reality could be.

Rebecca is a black individual with short hair and black sunglasses holding a sword, while standing on her feet. Next to Rebecca a black piece of fabric attached to a stone.
Rebecca Bellantoni ‘do i worry? (mama)’, 2020. Collaboration with Rowdy SS. Courtesy the artists and Cole Projects.

Rebecca Bellantoni’s performances investigated our preconceived notions of the accepted ‘real’ and the experiential ‘real’, thinking through possible ways of rupturing those borders, and for ​Ritual for a New Regime​ she collaborated with Rowdy SS, who works at the intersection of sound/music, masculine and feminine, giving life to new and old concepts, processes, traditions and techniques. Candida Powell-Williams’ freestanding sculptures exist in the threshold between two states of mind- subscribing to both scientific logic and an evidence based understanding of the world, whilst simultaneously employing esoteric behaviour, juxtaposing with Sol Bailey Barker’s techno shamanic totems which are the embodiments of Biotechnophillic ecosystem caretakers which, having been installed in an old military base, also acted as guardians to a potential otherworldly ceremonial site.

The logo of the exhibition  is black and says Earth Eaters with yellow letters. The images shows golden lips with a black tongue, held by hands. The tongue goes inside a turquoise earth-shaped bowl.
Earth Eaters , 2020. Logo designed by Tom Nikeas. Courtesy Cole Projects.

Last but not least, I partnered with Hoxton 253 Art Project Space to produce 17 artist show Earth Eaters which was delayed from earlier in the year. ​Earth Eaters explored the relationships between philosophy and nature, ideas of the personal and the political, destruction and construction, and considered the distinction of non-human and human agents- the works questioned what is at stake in the ecological crises of the 21st century. These questions were navigated by blending diverse areas of expertise, including paintings, sculptures, videos and installations to challenge the conventional systems of classification, suggesting a worldview that strives to dislocate humans from their assumed position of centrality and superiority as knowers and actors in the world.

The image shows the text "Building An Interspeific Queer Utopia". In the background leaves and a yellow and red flower.
Institute of queer ecology ‘building an interspecific queer utopia’, 2017. Video Still. Courtesy the artists and Cole Projects,

The exhibition opened at the end of September and we had to follow all the restrictions but in reality I think it actually made for a better experience of the exhibition. We worked out how many could be in the room at one time, which meant that you always had space to observe the works, the fully booked time slots meant you engaged with the exhibition instead of socialising (which happened outside). We even had the police swing by, after a member of the public told them about the show – but they looked at the list of names, time slots etc and said all was fine. I think people were really respectful of the rules when they visited the show as we had a renewed appreciation of culture that we had been missing.

Francesco Ferranti: Have you seen any curated art events that have inspired you in this time period?

I really enjoyed ​Thorp Stavri’s Five Hides at Manor Place in South London​. I think after so many online viewing rooms I really craved monumentality. The venue they found was also mind blowing – the Kray twins used to box there – and the space leant itself perfectly to a wide range of sculptures. The exhibition featured ​Josephine Chime, Charlotte Dawson, Jack Evans, Katharina Fitz, Enam Gbewonyo, Ellie Hayward, Kate Howard, Alice Irwin, Thomas Langley, Shepherd Manyika, Anousha Payne, Anna Perach, Sean Rennison Phillips, Anna Reading, Ally Rosenberg, Corbin Shaw, Christopher Stead, Tess Williams and Hannah Wilson.

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