Building Living Archives through Relational Curating
In June of 2018, I gathered with a group of equally enthusiastic arts professionals in the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts in Cambridge, MA for VoCA’s eighteenth Artist Interview Workshop.1 Among us were some known faces, some new, some local, some who had traveled from as far as Puerto Rico and Scotland for the event. Two days later, as we left the space, we were invigorated from engaged dialogues, better listeners than before, and enveloped with a feeling of being held in community, within the VoCA family.
As part of my preparations to write this essay, I found my notes from the workshop, carefully kept as a treasure, despite moves and housing instability, for the last four years. Amongst these papers were the top ten takeaways — a worksheet by VoCA; a list of participants, organizers, and speakers; an itinerary; and a collection of my notes. Reading through these resources was like reconnecting with an old friend — I was reminded of the warmth of the gathering (especially in the wake of pandemic isolation), and also of the resonance of the ideas I had absorbed and see evidence of in my current practice as a curator and living archive builder. Of particular note, Jen Mergel gave examples of the many forms that an artist interview may take, and how sharing expectations upfront can lead to clarity, trust, and access between interviewer and artist.1 In the VoCA worksheet list, I found familiar reminders to take into account the humanity of the interview interaction: to know one’s own perspective and goals, to treat the conversation as a give and take, to embrace silence, to allow interviewees space and time and grace in their responses and to hold space for an unexpected memory or response. Deeply part of my own practice and social practice as a whole, the last concept from the list rings true: building long-term relationships through conversation. Julie McGee’s insights have stuck with me significantly: she taught us to look closely for how we hold interviewer bias; how an interview can allow for autonomy, self-articulation and autobiography of the artist; the need for awareness of power structures and external influences at play and layers of translation; the need to allow for (rather I would say celebrate) fluidity of identity, opinions, status, and ideas; and the guidance to not be confined by existing terminology or categorization. She reminded us that an interview is an extraction, for which there must be an offering in return, paraphrasing artist Edgar Heap of Birds.2
The awareness of these realities is especially important in working with artists who also hold marginalized identities. As a disabled curator, I live within and draw strength from the disability and chronic illness communities: it is here that I work, here that I rest, here that I find joy, here that I learn and share, here that I hold others close with care, here that I live in community. And here there are community members who hold intersecting identities, whether BIPOC and/or LGBTQI2SA+, who live in the daily effects of additional systemic oppression and who should be raised up on the shoulders of disability justice.3 Here, we need trauma-informed care.4 Here, we need to hold space for each other, for mutual respect, for taking time for support through mutual aid5 and in crip time,6 for naming oppressions and taking action to dream and to build our own better futures, and for listening to each other’s stories.
Over the course of 2020-2021, in the wake of many enthusiastic conversations with other disabled art workers and a curatorial practice heavily informed by dialogue and artist interviews in the context of social practice, I founded Holding Space. Holding Space is a living archive to bear witness to the art and the lived experiences of those who are marginalized by chronic illness and disability.7 Holding Space is a platform, a long-term and socially-engaged curatorial project, to intentionally hold a space where disabled and chronically ill artists and art workers can be safely held in community and their voices can be augmented. The three areas of the archive are: exhibitions, artist interviews, and written texts/manifestos by disabled and chronically ill creators. The guiding principles of the project are: artist agency, interdependence, and intentionality and care.
The meaning of the name Holding Space is three-fold: 1) verb. to hold space for each other to share one’s own experiences in a community of support. Picture a ring of humans, all holding onto one another to form a circle, keeping ableist chatter at bay beyond and behind them, while you speak freely and/or rest peacefully within the circle, held in the care of others. This is Holding Space. 2) noun. a space of confinement. As many who identify as chronically ill or disabled are often limited to their home or a single room due to complications (this is even more true in the age of the pandemic and need to protect ourselves), a holding space in this sense acknowledges our frequent physical isolation. 3) noun. A repository, a place to collect and store things considered to be precious. Holding Space is an archive which is more reflective of us, as a counterpoint to the standard ableist narrative/canon.
In the first year, supported by a Collective Futures Fund inaugural grant, we hosted our first open call with a now forthcoming exhibition: [Un]Rest for the BodyMind, built the archive’s website, held a panel event (with disabled/chronically ill artists as panelists talking about a chronically ill artist’s work in the lenses of disability history, theory, and experience), launched the Conversations series (artist interviews centering lived experiences), and added a reference library and an Accessibility Archive (resources and a crowd-sourced accessibility think tank) to our site. In the upcoming year, together with community collaboration and co-creation, we will host two workshops focused on accessibility (with artists Carmen Papalia and moira williams), launch our Conversations archive of artist interviews, and build our second and third exhibitions. Artists are encouraged to submit in all areas of Holding Space’s archive, whether their art via open calls for exhibitions and the permanent collection when open calls are closed, or their thoughts and ideas to the Conversations series and Accessibility Archive. In the library, there are links to find reference texts in accessible formats via local public libraries, and an opportunity to suggest more books to our list. Everything in and about the archive is crowd-sourced and community-driven.
Holding Space dismantles and reimagines the archive as we know it, through two key strategies which work together to concurrently disrupt and rebuild, guided by intentionality and care: relational curating and the creation of a living archive.8 Both approaches center artist perspectives, the first through relationship building, the latter through documentation.
Relational curating prioritizes the building of relationships and trust between artists and curators, and places value on artists over art objects. It flattens traditional curator-artist hierarchies/power structures — fostering curator-artist relationships over typical extractive,9 transactional, capitalist methods. Here, we center the artist’s voice and perspectives, with a focus on humanity, brilliance of creative thinking, and interdependence and care. It engenders better communication of artist self, needs, creative practice, and relation to others. Roles are delineated but overlapping. Relational curating invites open dialogue over long periods of time (months to years). Relational curating means advocating to an institution for an artist’s access needs or work display preferences as primary and necessary. In this model, curators understand and practice accessibility as an active social construct dependent upon interpersonal relationships. Through this process, people — the people who make art — are valued over art objects, and curatorial methods are adapted in real time to the needs of each artist.
Similarly, a living archive is an archive which centers the artists’ lived experiences, presents artists’ first-person perspectives together with the documentation of their work. Living archives bear witness to knowledge as animate, through the dynamism of (disabled) humans; these archives are not static. Oral history archives are living archives; in this way, everything from historical and cultural stories, songs and ballads, to local oral history projects, to Alice Wong’s Disability Visibility project10 and Chris Vargas’ MOTHA (Museum of Trans Hirstory)11, is a living archive. But a living archive is more than just an oral history. It places the artist’s work in the context of their experiences and ideas and their story, in the context of who they are as a whole person, rather than focusing on their work or their personal narrative alone. As a living archive prioritizes artists’ lived experiences,12 it is a manifestation of relational curating, echoing the tenets of valuing artists over objects and ever-adapting to the verdancy and growth of knowledge. Though a living archive holds oral history at its core, it goes beyond that to center relational interdependence, that is, the co-creation of independence through building of relationships and community.
In this way, relational curating is inherent to living archives; it supports the creation of these archives by building community and dismantling traditional power structures. Through the practice of relational curating and the model of a living archive, a new understanding of stewarding contemporary art can be achieved. Here, individual voices are amplified and contemporary artists are supported to feel heard and seen alongside their work.
Through both relational curating and the building of a living archive, there is potential for creating this kind of hierarchical shift, and for dreaming better futures. Let’s take the artist interview as a tool for growing interdependence, artist agency, and intentionality and care. In terms of interdependence, the artist and interviewer can stimulate each other’s thinking. This process can lead to new, innovative thoughts that either one may not have come to on their own, and the dialogue fosters interdependence and co-creation. Artist agency can also grow in the context of an interview informed by relational curating. The artist interview can provide a space of respect for the interviewee and their ideas. There can be a shifting of power of who controls the narrative. Artist interviews, especially those which center the artist’s voice, can allow artists to control their own narratives, write their own history. Here, the documentation comes directly from the artist. In the case of Holding Space, it is a platform for disabled artists, who are traditionally marginalized, to create or heavily inform the documentation of themselves and their work. Lastly, intentionality and care must be preeminent in the entire process of documentation; let us note the reminders from VoCA’s workshop to be self-aware of biases and to hold an openness for the person we are interviewing. Our open intentions to listen must be set from the beginning. In terms of care, we must allow for access needs13 which present themselves in the moment and be ready to adjust accordingly; we must operate under the training of trauma-informed care; and we must listen with the goal of better understanding the artist’s perspective. We need to bend and flex and creatively rethink what an interview format can look like, as we hear artist access needs and together with the artist responsively incorporate new strategies and create new interview methodologies. Our role as interviewer is not to control, but rather to listen and support the artist in the telling of their own stories.
Holding Space is a living repository for voices otherwise excluded from the canon, from the documentation of art history. It is a place, as disabled artists and art workers, to intentionally document our own stories, perspectives, insights, work, practices, and our lived experiences. It is a space to write our own art history enriched with our own primary sources, our own artist interviews.14 In a world whose historical narrative has silenced or skewed disabled experiences, it is a radical act to tell our own stories. As is best said by a hallmark phrase of the disability rights movement, “nothing about us without us.”15 Here, we are reimagining what an archive can be, we are creating our own living archive. In true disabled creative style, we find new ways of being in the world to overturn systems of oppression; relational curating rewrites traditional curatorial hierarchies, and a living archive re-envisions how an archive functions, both functioning through the tool of dialogue to understand the beauty of human complexities. Though rooted in disability-led spaces, these strategies can benefit non-disabled curatorial and archival work as well, for everyone has needs and can benefit from being better heard and understood.
Within Holding Space’s three main areas — exhibitions, conversations, and manifestos — is a place for dialogue, specifically dialogue to inform the understanding of artist’s works and their experience as a disabled person. Within Conversations, which has just opened for submissions in Fall 2022, there are three avenues to share one’s story as an artist: formal interviews, first person narratives, and cozy chats. The first, the formal artist interview, and the last, the cozy chat, are most heavily informed by the VoCA workshop.
Anyone who identifies as a disabled artist16 is invited to propose a conversation, on a rolling basis, via an application form on the Conversations page of the Holding Space website.17 After applying, each artist will be contacted by Holding Space organizers to discuss their proposal, access needs, preferences for the conversation and its format, and to plan logistics. As many disabled artists are continuing protections for the pandemic, and as disability often lends uncertainty for one’s day-to-day capacity, all interviews will be conducted remotely and in crip time. All artists will be consulted to preview and if desired, to edit their completed conversation before it is published in the archive. Conversations will only be publicly published with the full consent of the highlighted artist, placing the artist in control of their own narrative. Holding Space serves as the repository, and artists retain the rights to their own narrative and work. Each conversation will be digitally archived within the Holding Space online database (Omeka), with the publishing options of Vimeo and Instagram as well. The conversations may take on a range of formats, according to the artists’ preferences and access needs. When final versions are posted, as many formats as possible will be shared for each conversation, which may include: video with subtitles, ASL interpretation, written transcripts, and audio recordings.
The formal artist interview follows a similar framing to what you might expect from a VoCA Talk, in which the curator and artist discuss the artist’s work, in a structured setting, informed by research and prior conversations. These segments will focus on one’s identity as an artist, and will allow the artist to give the context of their work. One may apply as an artist, or as an artist with a chosen interviewer. If one submits as an artist only, Holding Space will pair the artist with an arts organizer/interviewer.
The first person narratives focus on the artist’s lived experience (incorporating experience of disability as much or as little as the artist prefers). Written or verbal submissions are accepted. This is an open-ended, autobiographical arena, a platform to tell one’s own story on their own terms. This format gives the artist the most agency to control their own narrative.
The cozy chats are my favorite of the three, and the interview style for which I have received the most enthusiastic feedback. Think of this category as a combination of the other two. The conversation is meant to be casual and relaxed. The artist and interviewer are invited to grab a cup of their favorite beverage and/or a favorite pillow, and have a thoughtful conversation with a friend. It is an opportunity to share musings on anything disability/art-related, in the form of a conversation with someone you enjoy. This interview style seeks to actively conjure the cozy feeling of access intimacy,18 of the feeling of safety and support in disability-led spaces where access needs are acknowledged and treated with care, where there is a certain joy in connecting with others who share a mutual understanding of existing as a disabled person in an ableist world.
In contemporary practice, we are given the extraordinary gift of being able to talk to living artists about their practice. And in writing about living artists, we, as curators, bear the responsibility to put the artist’s voice at the forefront of any texts we write or conversations we have regarding their work. Whereas in writing art history about bygone artists, if we are lucky we have primary sources from the artist’s perspective. At worst, though, the writing can become pure supposition. How much more important is it then, to accurately convey contemporary artists’ voices in the present, as we actively write the art history of the future? It is a responsibility and an opportunity to hold tenuously with exuberance and respect, with open ears to the artists of our time. Our best tool in this valuable effort is the artist interview. It is through this practice that we gain the framework for documentation of artist perspectives, the structure to better listen to what is waiting to be said.
1 Mergel, Jen. VoCA Artist Interview Workshop presentation. Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Cambridge, MA. June 2018.
2 McGee, Julie. VoCA Artist Interview Workshop presentation. Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Cambridge, MA. June 2018.
3 Disability justice is “a movement developed by disabled Black, indigenous, other people of color, and queer/trans people, originating in the Sins Invalid community. The focus of disability community work is shifted through the principles of: leadership of the most impacted, intersectionality, anti-capitalist politic, commitment to cross-movement organizing, recognizing wholeness, sustainability, commitment to cross-disability solidarity, interdependence, collective access, and collective liberation.” This definition comes from the University of Minnesota’s Critical Disability Studies’ terminology bank: https://cdsc.umn.edu/cds/terms
4 For more information about the principles of trauma-informed care, please see: https://socialwork.buffalo.edu/social-research/institutes-centers/institute-on-trauma-and-trauma-informed-care/what-is-trauma-informed-care.html
5 Mutual aid has its roots in BlPOC communities, and is a central part of the queer/trans and disability communities. It is a means of community members supporting each other’s needs and providing for each other, rather than depending on institutional structures which have failed them. For more information and resources about mutual aid, please see the work of Dean Spade and: http://bigdoorbrigade.com and this video: https://vimeo.com/667302454
6 Crip time is a term often used in the disability community, to indicate how our body-minds move at a different pace. Alison Kafer describes it as, “rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds.” For further definitions of terms in disability theory, please see the University of Minnesota’s Critical Disability Studies’ terminology bank: https://cdsc.umn.edu/cds/terms
7 Holding Space welcomes anyone who identifies as disabled and/or chronically ill, or the many manifestations therein, such as: Mad, sick, neurodivergent, Deaf/deaf, hard of hearing, blind, non-visual learner, wheelchair user, mentally ill, environmentally ill, crip, spoonie, immune-compromised, chronic pain, sensory disability, and/or any other identities one may hold within disability or chronic illness.
8 I have come to recognize these two strategies in my own practice and that of others, and to give them the names relational curating and living archive, as these terms felt appropriate and self-explanatory. This is the first published instance of publicly naming these models/ coining their terminology.
9 Thanks to moira williams, for our conversations about extraction of disabled artists, and for all you have taught me.
12 Carmen Papalia’s community-based accessibility tenets of Open Access include the point that each person is an expert in their own experience. This understanding has impacted my own interpretation of the world and my curatorial practice. Papalia, Carmen. “Open Access Tenets.” Training for the Not Yet, https://trainingforthenotyet.net/files/training/00002/CarmenPapaliaOpenAccessConceptualframewo.pdf
13 Access needs is a term that refers to specific needs a person has in order for a space or an activity to be accessible to them. For example, some common access needs are: ASL interpretation, extra time for responding (for instance if dealing with brain fog or brain injury), a need to pace and take breaks, captions on Zoom, etc.). A standard practice at the beginning of a disability-led gathering is to do an “access check-in,” allowing participants to voice their current access needs so that they can be incorporated into the accessibility of the space that day.
14 Shayda Kafai writes in Crip Kinship (2021), “we, the disabled, the chronically ill, and the Mad carry within us archives…Because so many of us often do not speak in our own voices and are instead, spoken for, disabled storytelling is a radical act.” She goes on to note the decolonizing and community-enriching effects of “storytelling as activism, as crip-centric strategy” as she discusses the work of Sins Invalid.
Kafai, Shayda. Crip Kinship: The Disability Justice & Art Activism of Sins Invalid. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2021.
15 A core phrase in the disability rights movement, “nothing about us without us” is discussed in depth in a book by James Charlton by the same title: https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520224810/nothing-about-us-without-us
16 Please see footnote 8. Holding Space invites and welcomes all who self-identify in the broad range of disability and chronic illness.
17 If the form is inaccessible for you, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
18 Access intimacy is, in brief, “that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else “gets” your access needs.” This quote is taken from an article by Mia Mingus, a disability justice advocate, in which she describes the fuller meaning of the term. For the full article and discussion access intimacy, please see: https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/access-intimacy-the-missing-link/
Chenda Cope (she/her).
Score for a Perfect Day.
text, bedsheet, thread. 96” x 60”. 2021
A photographed segment of a yellow floral patterned bed sheet with a printed schedule in black ink detailing tasks to do at 10 am and 11 am, like “Go back to bed.”
The images accompanying the essay are sourced with permission from artist submissions to the first Holding Space Archive open call, “Bed Portraits.” The place of bed can encompass many feelings and experiences, especially for those who are chronically ill and/or disabled. These works aim to express some of these layered states of being. The works will be part of the upcoming exhibition, “[Un]Rest for the BodyMind,” set to launch next month on the Holding Space website.