Critic Turns Curator:
Investigating Neutrality at OUTPUT Gallery

Image: work by Kiara Mohamed, 2019

2018 was the year in which Liverpool celebrated its 10-year anniversary as the European City of Culture. It was also a significant year for some of the major art institutions in the city, with Tate Liverpool celebrating its 30th birthday and Liverpool Biennial its 20th. 2018 also marked the beginning of OUTPUT, a small gallery located in a space next door to the Kazimier Garden that offers free exhibitions and a public programme supported by Arts Council England. Its main mission is to advocate for artists who are based in, or from, Merseyside, by providing a platform for original shows and events.

Although it’s attached to the Kazimier and its wider family, OUTPUT is the vision of lone gallery manager, Gabrielle de la Puente (GDLP), better known as one half of The White Pube. This means that what gets shown (and doesn’t) is decided by one person. OUTPUT may be a new space, but perhaps cannot be a neutral space. When there is only one gallery manager, how do you separate the programme from GDLP and The White Pube? What happens when you share the same values as OUTPUT but disagree with The White Pube’s comments? The gallery has hosted several public consultations (known conversely as INPUT) and has been praised for working with artists from marginalised groups, but we must not forget the role of the gatekeeper. The recent series of exhibitions at the gallery has been programmed by GDLP alone, however, the addition of Esther Lall-Durowoju as a curatorial trainee (selected by GDLP) means that we can expect to see an additional voice to the next programme. 

From the outside looking in, this way of working may present itself as authoritarian, at odds with the vast amount of work that has been done in recent years to make art more democratic and therefore representative of society. Another way to interpret this is to instead follow the evolution of the content distributed by the gallery manager. Following OUTPUT equates to following GDLP’s taste, and her version of the contemporary art scene in Liverpool. Compared with other independent spaces in the city such as The Royal Standard and CBS (each run by a small collective rather than an individual), GDLP can deliver OUTPUT’s mission without having to compromise the style or vision she has established – which she knows produces outcomes. It is common practice to follow the development of an artist’s work so perhaps we should also extend this to follow how the work of curators, fundraisers and in the context of OUTPUT, the critic, evolves through time and impacts on the art world. We as individuals have the choice whether to follow or not to follow OUTPUT, similar to following someone on Instagram – if you like what they do, you follow them (and ignore them if you don’t). 

An interesting observation is that a substantial amount of the artists presenting work at the gallery are not associated with the established studios of Liverpool: OUTPUT was the first place I saw works by Gina Tsang, Kiara Mohamed and Ivy Kalungi in an exhibition setting. This is refreshing to see, when the frequented route for many artists is to put themselves on the map by association with a studio – the sort of backing that requires monetary investment that not all can afford. OUTPUT allows these artists space to exhibit without taking anything away, thus giving them the capital to gain recognition in the Liverpool arts scene and beyond. The strength of this capital is further ratified each time OUTPUT exhibits work by the likes of Mark Leckey or Kate Cooper – the association with these accomplished figures and of course, an automatic link to The White Pube – allow the artists to further propel their careers and access that all-important audience.

Image courtesy OUTPUT Gallery

It’s an amazing thing to see so many artists making art in Liverpool and having exhibitions in this new space, however, it is hard to predict the quality of these shows. Some artists are able to carefully select works that are suitable for the space and complemented by the bare gallery-as-canvas, but other works get lost in the rough-and-ready setting. It’s painful to see, because it’s so important for artists to find spaces that do justice to their work – the box-standard white wall or plinth are not enough to make the works look good, let alone make a good exhibition. Amongst many other things, artists must pay attention to the light and sound in the space, considering both the possibilities and restrictions of a boxed-off space next to a popular bar (and in the middle of the bustling city centre), and to choose work that suits the space because, unfortunately, there is not much you can do to make it work. OUTPUT’s lack of windows makes it perfect for films (with sound on quiet days, not when musicians are playing in the Kazimier Garden) and works that do well underneath intense spotlights – but little else. I often wonder what GDLP and the chosen artist discuss during install; what level of authority does the artist have when it comes to determining the aesthetic of an exhibition? What negotiations take place? When does GDLP step in?

Image: Gina Tsang, 2018

Referring to herself as Gallery Manager rather than a curator, GDLP sees herself as a facilitator whose role is to support artists to show their work, however they wish. GDLP gives complete ownership of the space to these artists but not all have taken her up on this offer. It’s true that different artists have different ways of working so it’s natural that some have a concrete vision of what they would like to achieve, and others have worked closely with GDLP to work through how they want their exhibition to look. There are also artists who have left the decisions enirely up to GDLP because they feel they have done their part as an artist by delivering their works at the gallery.

OUTPUT’s approach to interpretation is a simple and effective solution to engaging with gallery visitors, seemingly putting the audience first. The series of questions printed on A4 handouts act as handy pointers, encouraging visitors to generate their own thoughts and opinions about the artworks on display. The style in which the content is written, however, is not always consistent; sometimes it is written in the first person (allowing the artist to have a voice), while other times in the third person (creating a distance between visitor and creator). Similar to the bare aesthetics of the gallery, the irregular writing style is evidence that GDLP hands the interpretation decisions over to the artists, and naturally, each writes it very differently, or hands the task back to the gallery.

Naturally the interpretation is edited to ensure content is consistent. It feels odd to read about an artist knowing they wrote about their work in the third person, despite having the freedom to talk to the viewer on a personal level. On the flipside, perhaps these different voices offer a healthy balance to counter the solo programming process. This way, OUTPUT is able to deliver both GDLP’s vision and act as a platform for the voices of multiple artists in Liverpool. 

Whatever you think about OUTPUT, GDLP and The White Pube, it is not possible to hate on someone who is doing something good in the city. OUTPUT has developed a great framework as a gallery that champions local talent, timed perfectly with the end of the 2008 anniversary celebrations. It’s growing and becoming stronger.  

OUTPUT Gallery is based at 32 Seel Street, Liverpool, L1 4BE and open 11am-6pm daily during exhibitions. This piece of writing is kindly supported by Arts Council England.

Sufea Mohamad Noor is an artist-curator based in Liverpool and Leeds.

Published 03.12.2019 by Sinead Nunes in Features

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