VANESSA NORWOODOpinion

Things I have learnt, things I am learning and some things I may never get.
(Excerpt from the book The Architect’s Guide to Effective Self-Presentation)

15 November 2013
Architectural Association, London

 

The Architect’s Guide to Self-Presentation, edited by Andreas Luescher, Taylor and Francis, 2013.

Education cannot prepare you for the real world. When you’ve decided to undertake a degree in Visual and Performing Arts one increases that risk to a forgone conclusion. I needed to somehow plot a career fresh from a study environment that rendered one passionate but ill-equipped to steer that passion into a job. I was lucky that serendipity led me in a straight line (that became an arc) to the Architectural Association, onwards to architects’ offices, an architectural communications company and back to the AA.

 

I have to confess to not having a CV but rather a list of projects and past employees. Within that list, under subheadings and bullet points alongside sketches, doodles and photographs are the details that form the trajectory of my career.

 

The Architectural Association is an intense hub of activity. More ideas, conversations and projects are crammed per square foot into the Georgian buildings that make up its home, than imaginable. Many new things are learnt, accepted and then, after some time, revisited and more new things are learnt from seeing them in a new light. This is challenging. Usually in one’s career, a steady build-up of information occurs, where knowledge is amassed and you become an ‘expert’.  Exhibitions are more often than not different every time, with a new set of demands and challenges; like the architect who asked us to build him an invisible house or the practice that turned the AA Gallery into a Japanese bathhouse.

 

There are differences to learn; like those between curating shows and organising them. With curating, you get to be the author, to be visible in a way that you should resist doing if you are organising on behalf of someone else.

Curating a show can be the most amazing opportunity to gather together great works. Autoprogettazione Revisited, a show celebrating a project by Italian legend Enzo Mari, allowed us to invite a selection of artists to revisit and respond to Mari’s existing work. The show resulted in new pieces especially commissioned by Phyllida Barlow, Martino Gamper and Graham Hudson amongst others.

 

Inviting artists to show and then watching them work can be an amazingly instructive opportunity to learn about constructing an exhibition. The Russian artists Olga and Alexander Florensky’s Moveable Bestiary show at the AA was one of the best. The Russians have a saying that roughly translates as ‘Oily Oil’ which means that something is overdone, or too much. To avoid oily oil they cleared the gallery space totally and then introduced work piece by piece. Their art is truly quirky so it was interesting to see that there was so much method to a look that resembled madness.

 

The 2010 Reading Landscape exhibition which presented a selection of contemporary photographers who work in the realm of the uninhabited.
Image credit: Sue Barr

When you look back, there are fine threads that can be traced through your career. People, interests, questions that can continue to hold a fascination for years.  It is important to recognise and nurture them. A love of photography sparked at art college turns into an appreciation of good photography that becomes an understanding deep enough to be able to ask interesting questions of the subject and reframe it in new and interesting ways. The photography exhibition we curated as a department at the AA, Reading Landscape, collected a body of work that did not show any built environment at all. The works were all nominally landscape, although in all the pictures the landscape was manipulated or revealed in such a way that the photographer was somehow present (although unseen) in the frame. The exhibition included work by some of the finest contemporary photographers around.

My recent work as co-curator of the British Pavilion for the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale has taught me that all the experience in the world can never totally prepare you for the rush of a huge project executed in very little time. Venice Takeaway is a project that turned all conceived ideas about an exhibition to be shown in a national pavilion on its head. Rather than showing architecture from the UK we sent 10 teams made up of architects, writers and curators around the world to bring back ideas with the aim of provoking debate on changing British architecture. While other design teams in other countries were already finessing the drawings of their installations to be shown in their own pavilions, our ‘explorers’ were gathering material in various parts of the globe to become the raw material for the Venice Takeaway show. This created a huge, daunting and amazing challenge for curators, designers and participants. I believe the show will bring real changes to the way we think about architecture in the UK.

 

Your career is the passing of years used to build up a bank of knowledge. Spend that time to look at the world as much work as you can; build yourself a personal visual encyclopaedia to be drawn on. Keep your eyes open. There are definitely things I have learnt and I am still learning too many things to list. As for the things I suspect are beyond me I shall keep them to myself, only adding the importance of accentuating the positive. Keep calm; enjoy the strange mixture of purposeful decision and arbitrary chance that is called your career.

 

For more information:

Buy The Architect’s Guide to Self-Presentation on Amazon

AA Exhibitions

An interview with Vanessa Norwood about curating Venice Takeaway