Interview by Lauren Velvick.
Lionel Dobie Project is an innovative residency project developed by Manchester-based artist duo Helen Collett and Lois Macdonald, providing a dedicated space for research and curating, and revealing the dynamic nature of these practices through unusual events and live-tweeted conversations. Collett and Macdonald have been working in partnership since 2009, with an emphasis on research and discursive interactions. They also continue to jointly undertake artistic and curatorial projects outside of Lionel Dobie, most recently with the performance ‘YouI fig. (iv)’ the continuation of a project reflexively examining their working relationship.
LDP is based in an enclosed railway arch near Deansgate station, opposite Castlefield Gallery, and contains one of the specially designed chalets from Jane Anderson and The Office for Subversive Architecture’s summer project Atelier Zero. However, whilst physically situated firmly within the established Manchester art scene, Collett and Macdonald aim to offer something which they feel is not catered for by the existing institutions, and to engage new audiences.
Lauren Velvick: How did you meet?
Lois Macdonald: We met when we were studying at Manchester Metropolitan University, on the Interactive Arts programme there. They have a student gallery space, the Holden Gallery, which we both wanted to curate, and we were given the opportunity to do so together. At the time neither of us wanted to work collaboratively, and it was difficult at first, but we soon realised that we have similar methods and we learnt to trust each other.
LV: How did your reflexive focus develop?
LM: The YouI project (2009) was the first performance we did that was about how we work together, it was very visual and explored how in working collaboratively you have to learn how to respond to other people, in order to get what you want or need out of a situation.
Helen Collett: Our performances have changed with our working relationship. As we have started working on bigger projects we’ve been thinking about how we brand our partnership, and how we are perceived through social media.
LV: So, you reflect on the nature of working relationships, but not necessarily your own?
LM: Yes, I’d never worked collaboratively before we met, and have been interested in the dynamic between people as they learn to productively work together, overcoming initial misgivings.
HC: I hadn’t previously collaborated either, and I think it’s because of this that we constantly question each other, in a competitive, but productive way.
LM: In our most recent performance, where we re-created Youl, the progression of our working relationship over the past three years meant that we were much more concerned with our context. We now have to consider how we fit into the scheme of things, rather than being safe in our identities as students.
LV: LDP is based in a railway arch, with the occasional low rattle of a train going overhead – how did you come to be working in such a striking space?
LM: Soon after we met we developed Free For Arts Festival, an important part of which was to source as many venues as possible, for free. Through our enquiries, we made a contact at the company which owns many of these arches.
HC: We approached her about this project, and have negotiated mutually beneficial deal.
LV: On your website, you describe LDP as a venture “Allowing curators the same freedom of exploration that is commonplace for artists”. Do you feel that curating, as a practice, is otherwise neglected?
LM: It’s not that it’s neglected, there just aren’t the same opportunities for graduates as there are in visual arts, and we want to bring some of that variety of opportunity to curating. We found that when we were approaching graduation and were thinking about what to do next, there were no opportunities to help us take the next step with our curatorial and research practice, no stepping stone between graduation, and owning your own space or working as a curator. We felt that the best way to tackle these difficulties would be to start up a project whereby we could ask what curating is, how important it is, and how change it, whilst facilitating and promoting independent practice.
LV: Do you have any criteria that define a curating practice as opposed to an art practice? Considering how contemporary art forms such as installation and performance can sometimes seem to blur the two?
HC: The difficulty in defining curating is central this project. Our own research is based on observing how the LDP resident curators approach their practice, and how they define curating for themselves. Curating is so vast, and the reality of contemporary curating can differ wildly from traditional notions.
You might want to call yourself an Artist because then it feels like you can do anything, but the title of curator is considered much narrower. With this in mind, we’ve wondered what our title should be, eventually making a conscious decision to call ourselves the ‘project managers’ of LDP.
LM: We don’t call ourselves the curators of the project because we try not to have too much creative input, or control over what the residents do here.
LV: Do you see yourselves as providing a service?
HC: There are so many residency opportunities for Artists that are really open, and something I want to do is provide a similar space for curators, where they can ask questions.
LM: We’re supporting research, and have said that we aren’t going to have any exhibitions here unless they are a part of the research. So far everything has been participatory, with conversations and performative events. We think of it as a ‘think tank’ as opposed to a gallery space, but because the space looks like a gallery a lot of people think that’s what it is!
LV: In terms of being a service provider, how do you see yourselves as distinct, or linked to alternative education projects, and the arts courses at the Manchester universities?
LM: There are educational elements to the project, in that the curators who are resident here have hosted open seminars. Helen and Myself also work at Manchester School of Art, so we’re linked in that sense.
HC: I think it’s important to keep Lionel Dobie very separate from my work as a tutor, we want students and graduates to engage with the project, but as something separate to their course. It can also function as a link between the different local Universities.
LV:Could you tell me about your current resident curators at LDP?
LM: There’s the Lionel Dobie Project Collective, whereby we have fortnightly meetings and an events budget, and then there’s Mike Chavez Dawson, who’s our first resident. He’s looking at performance and curating; where an artwork actually exists.
HC: We’ve been talking a lot about whether his work is curatorial or artistic.
LM: He has been doing lot’s of projects outside of this residency, but he sees them as all part of the same thing, under his name. It’s been really interesting working with him, as he is quite name-driven and highly motivated.
LM: Then we’ve got Conway and Young, who are actually based in Leeds but are doing an MA here, and they come from a design background – they look at the design of space.
HC: They have been considering curating in a traditional sense, as ‘taking care’.
LM: Our third resident is Toby Huddlestone, who is based in London and is interested in archiving. He is working towards an exhibition, which he is trying to predict beforehand, by archiving it before it happens.
HC: We really like his work, but as he’s based in another city we mostly work with him online.
LM: We wanted to pick up on the idea of ‘active research’, so whilst the curators are working they get feedback as they’re going along, so instead of working towards one big show at the end, we thought it would be better for them the host a few small events throughout the duration of their residency.
LV. Do you take applications for residencies, or do you seek out curators to work with?
LM: It’s been a combination, for the first few we did choose people to invite because we were interested in the way they worked, and now we’re hosting an open submission. Anybody can apply, and we’ll select somebody who’s work contrasts with the previous three. There will also be a sixth residency, which will be chosen based on what we’ve done so far; we wanted to leave the last few open because the whole project is an experiment, and we want to leave room for it to grow and change. The residencies are six months long, with each starting two months after the last so that they overlap. It started at the beginning of July 2012 with Mike’s residency, and will finish at the end of August 2013.
LV: Outside of the LDP residents, do you have an audience in mind – are you seeking to engage local creatives, or a wider public?
LM: We want the audience to be as broad as possible – not just people who are already involved with art, which is why some of the events won’t be held here. Discussion is really important to the project, and hopefully we’ll be able to engage people who aren’t necessarily art fans to begin with.
LV: Is your use of terms like ‘think tank’ and ‘project managers’ part of this?
LM: I did some interviews on the opening night, asking people about curating with questions donated by people associated with LDP. The questions were things like; ‘do curators have a social responsibility?’, which I felt were fairly straightforward. However when I was typing up the answers it seemed like people were quite daunted, perhaps because they are used to considering art in terms of individual pieces of work, but not how and why the work is there. There is a gap there, and that’s something we need to think about.
HC: We’re also really interested in ideas around inclusivity and exclusivity at the moment, which has arisen from deciding who we should invite to events.
LM: Some of the conversations and debates we’ve hosted so far have been really intense and focussed on specific ideas, and we haven’t wanted to invite people who’re just going to be bored. Whereas now we’re looking at hosting events which still ask questions about curating, but are perhaps easier to engage with.
LV: Whilst the LDP website (http://lioneldobieproject.com/) doesn’t have a huge amount of information on it, anybody can follow what happens here in great detail via your twitter (@lioneldobieproj). Why have you decided to engage so heavily with social media?
LM: We’re using them for different things, it has been a time issue as well, but the website is there as a standing document of what we’re doing here, but [LDP] is developing all the time, and we can’t convey that on a website; it wouldn’t be the right way to do it, it would be too much information.
HC: When we first started using twitter it was quite promotional. Then when we got the rest of the collective in and they all had the login codes, we got more of a conversation going, which is what we needed to engage properly.
LM: We wanted to focus a bit more on audience participation in this project. Not coming to watch what the artist and curators are doing, but actually being involved, and that follows through into social media; we don’t want people just to agree with us and pat us on the back, we’re asking questions, and we want to hear as many questions and constructive criticisms as possible. We’re not hear to say we’re right, we’re here to get to the bottom of things.
Lionel Dobie Project’s Twitter account can be found at @lioneldobieproj
Lauren Velvick is an artist, curator and writer based in Manchester.