Shiri Shalmy,
Part One

Data as Culture Shiri Shalmy

Data as Culture, curated by Shiri Shalmy, is a new partnership between FutureEverything, the Open Data Institute and Lighthouse, exploring the relationship between data and art.  In the first installment of this two-part interview, Michelle Collier speaks to curator Shiri about the partnership, her approach and her practice in general.

Michelle Collier: So first things first, could you tell us how the collaboration with FutureEverything came about?

Shiri Shalmy: The Open Data Institute (ODI) organised last year’s Data as Culture as their first public project, commissioned by CEO Gavin Stark only 12 days into his new role. In partnership with MzTEK (a women-led art and technology organisation), the ODI put a call out for data-driven work to be exhibited in their east London space. They received a large number of submissions from UK based and international artists, and showed the first exhibition curated by the ODI Art Associate Julie Freeman for about a year.

For the second round of Data as Culture the ODI decided to appoint a curator to develop an exhibition rather than select from individual submissions, and to expand the programme into a wider partnership, helping to establish Data as Culture as a significant opportunity for artists working with data. The partners this year are FutureEverything festival in Manchester, and Lighthouse in Brighton, two of the most established organisations working around these issues. The collaboration also expands the geographical remit of the programme, making it less London-centric.

MC: As an individual working within London’s creative scene, has it been a different experience putting together a show ‘up north’? Is there as big a cultural gap outside of the country’s capital as perhaps the media might have you believe?

SS: If there is a big cultural gap between London and the rest of the country I’m afraid I’m probably guilty of perpetuating it, as I have almost never worked outside of London. Not having grown up in the UK I have shamefully little experience of the world outside of London as I have no particular links to any other part of the country. London is where I landed when I first arrived in 1999 and where I made all my contacts. It is, however, true that as a Londoner you are made to believe that it’s a desert out there.

The collaboration with FutureEverything is the first time I’ve worked in Manchester and so far I’m having such a great experience. The city seems to offer lots of opportunities for artists and art organisations, and the sector feels really dynamic and risk-taking. FutureEverything is a great festival and I feel very lucky to be working with them on Data as Culture, as well as with our southern partner Lighthouse in Brighton.

MC: Your work has seen you develop your own independent initiatives for a range of projects, as well as work directly for larger cultural organisations. How has your approach evolved over the years, and responded to the challenges or opportunities offered by each?

SS: I have been developing my own projects since about 2001 but had a stint at working for larger cultural organisations between 2008-2012. There is a lot to say for the security of a salaried job in a sector that mostly offers unstable employment and very little money. However, I felt that working within a larger organisation, taking in office politics, donor demands, and mid-management antics was not for me, so I moved back into self-employment.

In past years I generated most of the projects I was involved in, for example gallery:space, the independent art organisation I set up in the middle of Finsbury Park, north London. Working this way means being in charge of all parts of the project – from fundraising to curating, supervising volunteers to painting walls – and usually also involves taking some financial risk. It also means having almost complete freedom in choosing themes and artists, and how to present work. I say ‘almost’, because for me an important part of working this way were the partnerships I was able to form with other groups and organisations, who equally contributed to the development and production of work.

MC: To touch on those partnerships; you’ve put together many rich and varied exhibitions over the years, covering unique topics with artists working across a range of mediums. Is there a running thread for you in terms of how you go about selecting, curating, and developing works? Or is each an opportunity to do something different?

SS: There are definitely a number of themes that re-occur in my work alongside a marked tension between two opposites: the politically and socially engaged work, and the interest in abstraction and a more formal investigation of artistic themes.

I feel thoroughly passionate about politics – and that covers the full range from political history to gender politics, cultural identity to economy – and believe that deconstructing the political narrative is key to understanding the forces that govern our world. I am very interested in the role of the artist as a political commentator and agitator and the capacity of art to provoke critical engagement while being aware of the thin line between investigation and propaganda, art for it’s own sake and art as a social tool.

On the other hand I am equally fascinated by work that is, at least on the surface, disengaged from any real-life concerns and is instead dedicated to the careful study of form, gesture and material; the building blocks of the artistic practice. Exhibitions like Muhammad Ali Talpur’s or Lee Simmons’ (both gallery:space, 2007) were an opportunity to meditate on the nature of mark making and composition, line and pattern.

MC: Your interest in people and social politics certainly shines through. You have tackled big, broad issues affecting society at large; whilst at other times appear to have taken a more intimate line towards specific social groups. Has this happened by chance or necessity? And do you find they present different challenges?

SS: I’d like to think that there isn’t really much difference, that specific social groups are affected by the same broad issues affecting society as a whole and on the other hand, that questions of cultural identity affecting particular ethnic groups are equally relevant to the wider society; surely race issues are not only the problem of racial minorities or gender issues not only relevant to women?
By curating exhibitions touching on these subjects and presenting them in public spaces I try to generate a discussion and offer a space for dialogue, as well as investigate the place of art in the conversation. For example, the retrospective I curated of the Caribbean Artists Movement (Visions of Consciousness, 2007) was looking at a range of issues that are relevant to all migrant communities but also, of course, to the majority culture which is inevitably influenced and enriched by the cultural and political legacy brought by waves of immigrants. Later on, when I was curating at the Jewish Museum in London, I continually tried to highlight these links between the particular experience of one migrant group and the universal experience of migration and displacement.

MC: How important is it to you to have people interact with, and become implicit in your exhibitions?

SS: Public engagement is always key for me as I think art must be relevant to the context in which it is created and presented. I am always very curious and conscientious about the exchange with the viewer; the moment in which the authority is passed from artist to audience.

Data as Culture offers a few opportunities for people to become involved with the work: from recording your working hours via Sam Meech’s Punchcard Economy project, and taking part in the ‘work pattern to knitting patterns’ workshop (on Sunday 30 March as part of FutureEverything), sitting on YoHa’s Invisible Airs Data Rider and experiencing local authority spending data in the most physical sense. The audience can also take part in thickear’s Pink Sheet Method, where the artists will collect personal data through a series of ‘data consultations’ at FutureEverything, process the information at the ODI in London, and present the data analysis in a performative talk at Lighthouse in Brighton.

Data As Culture is part of City Fictions at FutureEverything, on Saturday 29 and Sunday 30 March in various locations across Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Read part two of Michelle’s interview with Shiri here.

Michelle Collier is a writer and editorial manager at The Neighbourhood, Manchester.

Image: James Bridle Watching the Watchers