Translating the Explosion of Creativity: Jennifer Burris, ICA’s Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellow

Jennifer is explaining what kinds of exhibitions interest her, what kinds of shows she wants to make. “I like work that helps you understand the world,” she says. “Work that isn’t purely inter-referential. Work that moves out.” She is thinking about a show about what she calls “failed utopias”—self-enclosed bubble worlds perverted by the extremes of capitalism. “Like glam rock toward the end of the Cold War,” she says.
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Jennifer (with scarf) with artist Park McArthur (left) at ICA”s EPISTLE program, at which McArthur read a selection of open letters addressed to artists and activists. Photo: Alex Klein.

Jennifer Burris is ICA’s Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellow (WLCF). Supported by Board Chair Emeritus of the Whitney Museum (and Penn alumnus) Leonard Lauder, every year the WLCF initiative brings a graduate of the Whitney’s Independent Study Program (ISP) to work at ICA for year or two, learning from our curators, organizing an exhibition in our Project Space, and co-teaching a class. Former fellows have gone on to prominent positions at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Queens Museum of Art, The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and to open their own galleries. They are bright, creative young curators, and with luck they leave here with a few more skills, a little more clarity about their approach to curating, and an excellent show or two under their belts.

I often wonder how people end up as curators. It’s a career most adults have barely heard of, certainly not in the fireman-ballerina-doctor grab bag of childhood ambitions. Jennifer was a comparative literature major in college, got interested in aesthetic theory and film, and moved into the study of art through her reading of the writer and painter Henri Michaux. After that she did a Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, writing her dissertation on psychopharmaceuticals and contemporary French art. Some of her research involved talking with artists, and she found she liked it: “I liked that intimate connection,” she says. That’s when the idea of curating dawned.

Last January, Jennifer’s first WLCF show at ICA was Living Document / Naked Reality: Toward an Archival Cinema. An evocative, thought-provoking exhibition, it presented work by six international artists that uses archival film material from the 1920s – 1960s. One work in the show, by Alexandra Navratil, projects early nitrate film frames via four slide projectors which click hypnotically as the images change.
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Photo: Aaron Igler/Greenhouse Media

Another work, by Yto Barrada, is a video constructed of fragments of films from French-colonized Morocco. The show was informed by the Third Cinema movement of the 1960s, whose adherents celebrated the emergence of inexpensive new cameras and film as an opportunity to democratize cinema, using it not just for personal expression but to inspire revolutionary activism.

As is evident both from the concerns of this show and from her preliminary ideas about the new one, the political and the philosophical are what interest Jennifer—the idea that the object points to as much as the object itself. But that doesn’t mean she’s indifferent to the personal. When, in discussing her “failed utopias” project, I suggested that she was more interested in art about ideas than art that came out of artists’ lives, she disagreed.

“Of course this art has to do with their lives,” she explained. “You see yourself in a world that’s falling apart. That’s very personal.”

One reason Jennifer took the fellowship at ICA was because of the teaching component. This year the class she co-taught with poet Kenneth Goldsmith, “Writing Through Culture and Art,” focused on the designer Stefan Sagmeister, whose exhibition The Happy Show is currently on view at ICA. Jennifer led sessions on body art, psychopharmacology and art, and issues around relational aesthetics. She also edited the publication that grew out of the class, 39 Difficult Questions for Stefan Sagmeister (beautifully designed by Thumb), at the heart of which is an intensive interview of the designer by the students.
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Photo: Thumb

The questions they asked were substantive, provocative, and informed, not only because of their native intelligence and passion, but also because Jennifer steered them through a class on how to formulate a question, then led a workshop session for their early drafts.

When I asked her what surprised her about the teaching, Jennifer said, “Working with Kenny is always a surprise.” This, she believes, is part of the key to his success in the classroom, and in keeping the students engaged in their own learning. “I think this is his whole pedagogical structure—what happens next week always come out of the class before. Kenny is an artist, and as a curator your work with artists involves translating that explosion of creativity.”

I like that idea: the curator not a Zeus throwing thunderbolts—not a Prometheus stealing fire from the gods—but a Sibyl in the Delphi of the gallery, helping us hear and understand the occult doings of the gods.

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