When is an exhibition “successful” or “good”?

How do we know that Stitched Voices was by and large a “success”, that it was somehow “good”? Success for whom, good in doing what, and who is allowed to judge this?

Berit: A couple of months ago, at an academic workshop where we talked about our experiences with organising Stitched Voices, a colleague told us that it was odd (or maybe she meant narcissistic?) that we dared to judge our own exhibition a success – this task should be left to art critics! I do not entirely agree with this. I think it is great to hear what professional critics have to say about an exhibition, and we will introduce you to some of our critics in the weeks to come. But art critics have a very specific take on exhibitions, and one which might not do justice to the specifics of conflict textiles. Also, I think it should be allowed for organisers to have an – of course subjective – impression of how things panned out. And beyond critics and self-evaluation, there are so many other aspects that can indicate whether an exhibition has “worked” or was “good” – and this is indeed what we feel about Stitched Voices.

Dani: Yes, so what is it that tells us that an exhibition, and/or the work within it, is “good”? The fame or infamy of the artist exhibited seems to be a dominant way, an achievement for the gallery at least, and then a site for people to demonstrate their cultural clout in critiquing the work displayed. For commissioners, success could be to deliver the exhibition on time and within budget, and then once it’s up essentially the job is done. For me, I think this exhibition has been a huge success, yet that success is measured in something else.

Christine: One major aspect was certainly how Stitched Voices created and recreated a solidary “us”. Lehrer and Milton [1] urge that in the context of “curating difficult knowledge” – such as our conflict and protest textiles – , there is “an ever-present need to ask which ‘we’ is inquiring, deciding, acting – and on whose behalf” in the making of an exhibition. One might reasonably be apprehensive about a “we” behind an exhibition, which sees itself as pre-given and therefore detached from the violent conflicts with which it purports to deal through exhibiting them. This points to a very interesting experience of ours: how a certain “we” – us, the team – emerged through the process of the exhibition. Of course, we are not involved in the sense of ourselves having lost relatives or being threatened by violence. But we are not, or rather no longer, detached from these violences. Our exhibition made a “we”, which is solidary with the makers and activists whose work it shows. And we sought to draw other people into this “we”, too, by organizing events at which the makers of arpilleras, banners and handkerchiefs came into conversation with one another and our audiences, or at which we did needlework with our visitors. In our experience, the detached “we”, which Lehrer and Milton seem to be intimating, was challenged and at least in part undone through the process of the exhibition; and it was through this process that a new and more solidary “we” emerged.

Dani: For me a way of being in and expressing solidarity is also what the textiles show through their existence and placing in a gallery, rather than in the images they depict. Seeing these pieces allows people to make the common flippant claim when seeing contemporary art of “I could have done that”! But in this case I mean it literally! Not as a way of dismissing the quality of the art (or craft), but as a way of inspiring people to respond to conflict and violence. Becoming involved in the handkerchief project has certainly done this for me, and we know from feedback that the exhibition has allowed visitors to see that they already have the tools to respond to issues themselves, in their own homes, in this way.

Feedback from a visitor

Berit: I also think it was absolutely important that we did not take works done by others to exhibit them in a sterile way in a gallery, but that we actually tried to make the connections with makers, stories and practices of sewing, stitching and embroidering. This is, as Dani just said, also reflected in the feedback we received from visitors – another way to know perhaps whether the exhibition has “worked”. For many, Stitched Voices has brought about a change in perspective: one visitor commented that it made her more “humble and fortunate of my own situation”, another one was amazed “[t]hat there might be ways to unify community care and expressing outrage/hurt”, and yet another visitor felt “[r]eassured […] to hear young people studying international politics and promoting democratic participation.” Many visitors were also inspired to raise their own voices, “to learn more about this movement and maybe take part in it” and to “research into these conflicts”, with one visitor commenting that “it did open my eyes to show me that [there] are many forms of fighting for what you deserve/want.”

“I did not know that these types of arts could be so powerful and inspiring. Glad that I came”

Christine: I would like to add that our exhibition succeeded, or at least I feel that it did, in not representing or talking about violence in a sensationalist way. In fact, it did not at all rely on the ways we are most used to for depicting and speaking of violence and suffering, and even the most graphic/vivid arpilleras did not cater to an “appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain“. [2] This is something I think about a lot in my research and I am rather happy with how we accomplished this aspect in the exhibition.

Lydia: That the arpilleras and other textiles focus on telling stories about violence and protest without displaying graphic imagery of “bodies in pain” brings out a distinction between different ways of knowing conflict. The makers of the textiles are viewed as political subjects, rather than objects of study.

Dani: I think most importantly I can call Stitched Voices a success because for me the exhibition would succeed, if people in the “community” (however defined) felt they were a part of the process. That they had some ownership over the exhibition, pride in it, and a sense of collaborating. This is something that is difficult to evidence. But I know this is how many people feel towards Stitched Voices, from Dave Gillam (the Director of the Wales One World Festival who put on a film stream for Stitched Voices) and Damian Gorman (the Northern Irish poet who wrote a poem for the exhibition), to Becky Knight (who ran the textile workshops), to Eileen Harrisson (who had a piece in the exhibition). The lending of pieces based on trust, friendship, and a mutual belief in the project shows this as well. And the countless conversations we as a team had with countless people in the 18 months of planning and preparing the exhibition, when ideas were shared and potentially interested parties brought together. This is the point that underlies all of this for me. These relationships that were built, and the way in which collaborations with the exhibition developed organically, could not be rushed nor copied from elsewhere or prescribed. They needed time. The same exhibition in terms of content could have been pulled together in half the time we spent preparing. But it would not feel the same, as it would be an exhibition of textiles that people would visit but I believe would not feel the connection of their community to the exhibition and gallery space.

What do you think? When is an exhibition good? When is it a success? Should conflict textiles be exhibited at all, and if so, under what conditions? What is your experience as maker, visitor, curator or organiser/commissioner? 

[1] Lehrer, Erica; Cynthia E. Milton 2011: Introduction: Witnesses to Witnessing, in: Lehrer, Erica; Cynthia E. Milton; Monica Eileen Patterson (eds): Curating Difficult Knowledge: Violent Pasts in Public Places. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1-22, here: p.4.

[2] Sontag, Susan 2003: Regarding the Pain of Others. New York, NY: Picador.

Picture (top of page): Stitched Voices title quilt made by Aberystwyth textile artist Becky Knight

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s