Curator, writer, editor – an art polymath of sorts - Francesca Gavin never expected to do “anything with art” when she was growing up. Learning to read music before she could read the words on a page, music was her main creative output until a collection - that is still ongoing - of art postcards, that she inherited from her mother at the age of nine, inspired her decision to study art history.
Freshly out of her studies, Gavin worked her way up at Dazed and Confused magazine, where “the one thing I didn't want to be was a journalist“, of course became her profession and has now led her on to editing roles at many a notorious publication, including the aforementioned Dazed and Confused magazine, AnOther magazine, Twin Magazine and now Semaine - she has also written five books and has another on the way.
However, her achievements don’t just dwell in the print world. What Gavin is best known for, all over the world, are her unique, genre and medium traversing exhibitions that question the formation of culture and observe historic culture shaping icons and motifs. This is something that can be seen in her most recent work that explores the cultural and historical narrative surrounding the mushroom. In a documentary style, Gavin’s exhibition 'Champignons' at gallery PCP, puts mushroom-centric pieces by John Millei alongside mushroom-centric pieces by Jeremy Shaw, and forces the reader to learn and look into the relevance of the seemingly humble mushroom, while forming a new understanding - with a factual basis - of the menial fungi as something crucial for human development both physically and socially. Described as an overflowing of things she is interested in, Gavin’s love for art all stems from that large collection of art postcards, and as she puts it she “stumbled into the art world much later and it was a perfect fit”.
Consulting as the Soho House group’s curator for seven years, Gavin harnessed her network of young artists and pulled together a collection of over 3000 works which can be seen in the houses and restaurants internationally. Now, working on a more freelance basis, amongst her projects broadcasting with NTS and in her many writing and editing positions, Gavin has curated exhibitions all over the world, including locations such as Paris’ Palais de Tokyo.
Evidently enthralled by her own occupation, Gavin’s ability to reference pieces against pieces, and interact with any work put in front of her is most certainly what has made her such an in-demand voice in the art world. Which is why it is such a privilege to have her present this instalment of the Semaine podcast series, interviewing the innately political Broomberg & Chanarin specifically about their screen-based project with Art in the Underground. The exhibition ‘The Bureaucracy of Angels’ is a 12-minute film based on the destruction of 100 migrant boats, in Sicily and will be shown in Kings Cross Station from the 27th September 2017.
Joining forces with the jazz singing, dance-crazy curator, this week is an introduction to a name, face and voice, that you’re going to be seeing a lot more of. So, welcome our new arts-editor, Francesca Gavin, as she introduces us to some of the coolest artists around and schools us in what it means to forge out a career in the contemporary art scene.
Semaine: There is no surefire way of becoming a curator, how did you come to find it as a profession?
Francesca: I fell into journalism a few years after I graduated. I started out at Dazed and Confused sweeping floors and opening the post and loved every minute of it. I started to write, originally as the magazine’s book editor. I began freelancing, writing trend pieces, features on soul music, street art, interaction and graphic design for everywhere from Dazed to Blueprint. The contemporary art world wasn’t really my scene. It was much smaller and more obtuse then.
The first show I curated took two years to create. I was so naïve and had no idea how the exhibition process worked. I got artists to rework my personal postcard collection over two years. I wanted to honour the work of the psychedelic artist Mati Klarwein who was ‘improving’ found paintings at the end of his life. When I opened the show in a small pop up on Rivington Street in Hoxton, I started heavily going to private views and exhibitions and everything worked out from there. Having a strong art historical background gave me a good grounding in the subject and art felt fresh and interesting.
Curating as a job came later after I had already written a few books. Once I wrote a catalogue essay for Jonathan Yeo, who asked me when I was drunk in Venice to co-curate the collection for the hotel and restaurant Dean Street Townhouse with him. That led to a seven-year curation gig overseeing the Soho House group art collection and I quickly started getting asked to curate shows around the world. I have a lot of energy and have my fingers in a lot of pies.
Semaine: Tell us about the recent book you authored. How did it come about?
Francesca: My next book is something I’ve been thinking about for two years. It’s called ‘Watch This Space’ and is an extension on a lecture I did in Eindhoven about our relationship to screens. I’m dissecting what the contemporary screen it, the politics of the object, our emotional relationship to the screen and how artists are working with it as a subject and medium. Pentagram have designed the book, so it looks incredible. It comes out early November. It is my sixth book but my first attempt at something closer to cultural theory.
Semaine: Can you divulge your own opinion on the matter?
Francesca: I’m totally addicted to screens and fascinated about how we engage with them, but I also am aware of the huge political and social fallout from screen culture. Everything from social media companies spying on us through apps to the supermarket superficiality of internet dating. I think we need to come up with a new way to engage and use the screen. I miss people making eye contacting and talking without checking their screen for updates over dinner.
Semaine: What is your creative process when you are thinking about a theme for an upcoming show you curate?
I always say I am a journalistic curator. Ideas usually come out of seeing connections between different works. The artist list grows from there. It is very much a similar process from writing a feature or book. I see art every day, in life and in reproduction. I buy a lot of books and magazines. I meet a lot of people. I think walking through cities is often very inspirational for how things emerge. My brain is a fat sponge of visual information! I just squeeze it and exhibition concepts come from there.
Semaine: Is there anything you definitely wouldn’t curate a show about?
Francesca: I hate exhibitions where you have to read the press release before you understand what is going on. I’m not a giant fan of 1970s dry minimalism and conceptualism. I have to be excited to want to curate something.
Semaine: Is it difficult to take on a piece of work from an artist and imagine a new home for it amongst the work of other artists, or even in a completely different context to what it was intended for?
Francesca: I think the role of curator is really to bring attention to an artist’s output. It really should be about them and the work. Artists often enjoy the recontextualisation of their work, so I’ve never had many struggles with that. Keeping artists happy is very important to me.
Semaine: Is it hard to gain the trust of artists?
Francesca: For me, not at all. I’m a very direct and upfront girl. I love non-conformist people - probably because I am one! I think artists who work with me know I really want to understand and get to grips with what they do so I share that with to a wider audience. It is all about being open, honest and genuine.
The week of your feature coincides with London’s biggest art fair. What are your thoughts on the transformation of art fairs over the last years? Do you think it’s mass proliferation is a good thing expanding the art world’s reach, or do you feel it is presenting work in a sterile and context-less environment?
The audience for art is ever-growing and personally, I think that can only be a great thing. There are arguably too many fairs, and it is very exhausting for everyone involved to maintain the schedule of them. I do like how they can create a focus for looking at things for a moment however and bring people together. I think the art world is really a crazy travelling circus way. I like the high adrenaline craziness of seeing lots of shows in a week and always try to make some new discoveries. I think fairs have to work harder to have their own sense of identity to make sure they don't all feel the same. I personally prefer seeing work in studios or exhibition context, and the booths at fairs I like most often have a more curatorial, exhibition-led vibe around them.
Semaine: How did you choose Broomberg & Chanarin as your subjects for your first podcast as contributing arts editor.
Francesca: I’ve always been fascinated by how their work layers politics, poetry, time and visual references. It felt like a very smart dissection on how we relate to photographic images. I also think their work is very accessible, something I always admire in artists. It felt like a natural fit to discuss their new project.
Semaine: Why do you think their latest work, The Bureaucracy of Angels is an important piece to call attention to?
Francesca: I think migration and the refugee crisis and how it is represented is one of the most important issues of the modern era. The racism and fear-mongering around refugees definitely is influencing the frightening rise of the far right around the world. I think works like this film are a brilliant poetic take on the humanity behind the headlines.
Semaine: Knowing that this piece was brought to life through the support of Art on the Underground, how important is public art to you?
Francesca: I’m a north London girl and know the tube like the back of my hand. I think the insertion of art in such a public space is incredible. Art on the Underground have become increasingly experimental and interesting in the artists and mediums they choose. In general public art can be so saccharine and dry. Why it works it is worth celebrating!
Semaine: How does an artist grab your attention, in order to be included by you?
Francesca: It is a gut reaction. I love originality. I love things that make me laugh. That makes me think. I like quite pop work. I have certain soft spots - references to music, dance, psychedelia, counterculture and African-Americana, and of course technology.
Semaine: Any parting advice to those wanting to pursue careers in the art world?
Francesca: Keep showing work. Anywhere. Find new spaces or ways of disseminating what you do. The process of showing work I think is the biggest push to making artists develop their practice.
Semaine: And lastly, tell us about your passion for dancing.
Francesca: Dancing makes me happier than anything. If I don't do it at least three times week I get itchy and depressed. I’ve been doing classes for four years with Joelle D’Fontaine who runs At Your Beat (www.atyourbeat.com) learning routines to Beyonce, Rihanna, Janet Jackson and the like. Phrases like hair whip, slut drop and twerk are a normal part of my weekly vocab! I love how dance makes you focus on your body and be present. I’m not amazing but I love learning. Dancing is my happy pill.
By Kezia Navey for Semaine.