What use is a glorious artwork if it exists in an elitist bubble? Whether it’s fragrance, fashion or fine art, one could say the most impactful pieces of art are those which speak to an audience regardless of age, gender or income.
One such crusader for equality is Michael Irwin, who has been busy helping art escape its confined realms of stale museum shows and exclusive velvet ropes. He is the assistant curator for Late at Tate at Tate Britain, former assistant curator for the Young People’s Programmes at Tate Britain and Tate Modern, as well as founder of the online art platform Float, which supports emerging artists by exposing them to wider audiences and connecting them with art institutions.
In the following interview, Irwin discusses the democratisation of art, the museum of the future and olfactory art installations.
If you could describe your style of curation, what are your specific points of focus?
It came from using disused and problematic exhibition spaces. I never had shows in white cube spaces, so for me it’s about creating a harmony between the space and the artwork. Even if you’re a painter that might be creating two-dimensional work, it’s still looking at how they respond to the space and the crossover between it. It is really key for me to create a site-specific element with what I curate.
What inspired you to start Float?
I was working as a curatorial assistant in exhibitions at Firstsite in Colchester and alongside that role I was also starting to work on a program called Circuit. It was a nationwide program headed up by Tate, spanned across several Tate Plus galleries and was all about offering autonomy to people ages 15-25 within gallery spaces. There’s this epidemic across museums around what are they going to look like in the future, what is the museum of the future if those younger generations aren’t engaging in the museum, finding it relevant, or seeing the space for them.
Me and my colleague at the time, Liam Roberts, put on a digital residency, which was a really big success, and then started to put on monthly showcases at the gallery. Gradually it gained more and more momentum and that led through to the Circuit festival in 2016, which was a big part of the showcase. The show started to have a much wider impact.
There is a real discrepancy between younger generations, how they are looking at artwork through the screens, and traditional institutions. Float strikes an interesting middle ground between that. It is democratizing art because it can otherwise feel like quite insular, especially for new and emerging artists.
That’s why we wanted to keep Float going when I left Firstsite. That had been our continuous space and those are hard to come by, so that’s where the digital element ramped up because we wanted to keep the visibility there and keep exposing emerging artists to a wider audience.
Websites can become dead spaces where things just sit and nothing actually happens, so the idea for Float is that the online space is always active and interactive in different ways — whether that’s a young artist wondering how someone who is in a similar field to them got to where they are, or institutions looking for artists to feature. The concept is also to be linking artists with art institutions. We were doing that in a physical way monthly and the website is a digital conduit for that mission as well.
What would the museum of the future look like, where are we headed?
The segmentation of audiences will be reduced and you will end up having a much more inter-generational experience. The collection at Tate is the nation’s collection, and one of the key things in my work here is trying to enable younger or new audiences to understand that this is their work as much as anyone else’s. So it is that democratisation and the creation of equity in the collections and exhibitions as well.
I’d like to think that museums start to become less traditionally curatorially-led in terms of exhibition programming and event programming. The traditional forms of curation and curatorial practice can be seen as quite elitist and exclusive at times. If you don’t see yourself represented in a space you’re simply not going to come in here. In every artwork there is something that someone can respond to, it’s just a case of breaking the artwork down in a way that someone can actually understand how it’s relevant to them, how it does actually mean something to them in their day-to-day lives.
In a digital as well physical sense, there are more artists experimenting with augmented reality, virtual reality that will be interesting to see in terms of how technology increases and how that impacts museums.
Have you seen any engagement with our olfactory sense in artwork or any of the artists you have come across? How is that fitting into the current landscape?
Artists have used different sensory experiences for a long time but I think that more and more it is becoming used in exhibitions in terms of full-sensory and immersive experience. The last Turbine Hall commission was Tania Bruguera and she had a Crying Room. I didn’t think a smell could evoke this reaction, but you walk in there and you are hit with this overpowering smell and your eyes start streaming. That was really powerful. It is similar to virtual reality in terms of accessibility in a museum, that the more technology successfully carries through those elements the more they exist. I think that more artists are going to be experimenting with it in the future but it’s that ability to carry it off.
We consume so much through the screen and it’s predominantly visual, but smell is one of the few things that hasn’t been captured, so the physical space might be seeing more of it. It’s harkening back to our primal senses because we can’t smell through the screen.
The increase in screen use, people consuming artworks and designs through their Instagram, Pinterest, you name it, it does raise the question: where is the value in the object anymore? I think that is something, again around the democratization of archives and a collection — opening up those objects, understanding the specificity of the place. The power and potency of the object is here, in these spaces, and it’s just a continuous collective approach to open it up.
The same with smell. It would be a really interesting way of opening up the gallery spaces to something where you walk in and cannot experience it through a screen, images, video. You need to be there too. The archive and the collections need to be activated in a similar way. The value of these spaces need to be appreciated ahead of Instagram. That’s a really tough thing because more and more artworks are being digested in that way.
What are some of the most exciting new talents or general developments that you’re seeing in the art world right now?
I recently worked on a project called LDN WMN. I saw some incredible work being done there, welcoming and putting women, female-identifying and non-binary artists to the front of the conversation, and highlighting these new social debates around gender, sexuality, and carrying that program off on a city-wide scale across the whole of London.
That was incredible, some of the artists that I have worked on with that have gone from strength to strength. One artist in particular is a digital artist called Susi Disorder. The way she is working with coding, constant data flow from Google, Google Analytics and Twitter — it’s amazing to see. It is a weird critique of the problems with social media and the networking sphere that we’re in but also embracing and creating artwork from it. Another artist is Soofiya Andry, a non-binary artist who is working in education but also for body and gender acceptance. I think that Soofiya is probably one of the most inspirational artists that are up and coming, in terms of the waves they are creating and exposure of their art practice.
Do you think fragrance can be considered an art form?
Fragrance definitely is and can be an art form, it’s just the context in which it’s presented. Art is also a consumer product. Artworks can be mass-produced, printed on T-shirts, consumed like anything else, but the context in which these things are presented in makes a huge impact.
The processes through which scents are made — the research, the concept, the way that the projects are presented — lend it to a much more artisan and artistic concept. But any other sort of fragrance that is highly consumer-based would be much harder to define as artwork. There is a blurring between consumer culture and an art form, fragrance definitely sits in the middle.
Last but not least, if you could curate an exhibition around scent how would you go about it?
There is no doubt that scent would need to be at the forefront of the experience and the concept behind why that is too. It would depend on the artists or whoever I was working with, on how they would want it presented, but you would need to remove all visual stimulation from it to really put an onus on the smell and what you’re trying to convey with that.
In the same way a scent might be used to enhance the visual aspects of an artwork, there could be lighting, steam or something more interactive that could be an asset or an influence on the scent. I would be really interested in flipping that from the visual being a provocation for the smell rather than the other way around. That would be my starting point. Michael’s
Adrian Shaw – Influencing my current work at Tate.
Charlie Bryan – Content Curator for Float and a big influence getting it to where it is now.
Source: Escentric Molecules