Photography: Jon Barraclough

Ending a year of thought-provoking, often political, exhibitions at the venue, artist, film maker and performer Wu Tsang’s UNDER CINEMA exhibition is currently on display in FACT’s gallery spaces. The solo show explores issues of identity and representation through film making. Alongside the exhibition, which features a non-traditional documentary on Warp Records artist Kelela, FACT present Refuge, a programme of activity looking at notions of safe space and refuge.

Here, Jessica Fenna asks FACT’s Head of Programming Ana Botella about the origins of the exhibition, some of issues explored in the pieces and broader questions brought up by the subject matter.

What was the springboard for the exhibition? How did the idea come about?

We have been working with thematic threads throughout the last few years, and it seemed imperative – considering the current state of the world – to frame 2017 within a more political focus. We wanted to establish a dialogue with our fast-paced present, to talk about post-truth, fake news, and memes, big data and new ways of observing and making sense of the world. And, within this context, we also wanted to talk about cultural resistance, and new politics of representation.

We really weren’t interested in dogmatising or assuming an ideological position, but rather in showing that art is able to provide meaning through ambiguity and in-betweenness (to use Wu Tsang’s beautiful concept). This is something that is lacking in the current political and media discourse, so self-righteous and so black and white – we must resist this incredibly simplified binary way of thinking that predicates that there are only two choices for everything.

So this is how the idea came about, very much thinking about art as a haven from which to complicate and deconstruct our world.

How did you approach Wu Tsang? How did the collaboration start?

Mike Stubbs (Director of FACT) had met Wu Tsang in a Creative Capital retreat in New York some years ago, and I knew that Nottingham Contemporary was also doing a project with her, so once we agreed that she was the right artist, it all moved vary fast. Mike and I Skyped with Wu and the idea of ‘refuge’ instantly resonated with her.

And then Wu did her site visit. I showed her Gallery 2 and she was instantly fascinated by its location underneath FACT’s main cinemas. This then led to [authors] Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, and their notion of the ‘undercommons’, and this idea of the underside, the underground space where alternative narratives and subjectivities and relationships can emerge, ideas that cross through Under Cinema in every direction.

What is the significance of giving Tsang a solo show?

We wanted to finish the year with a monograph, after two very intense thematic group exhibitions. The decision was all about challenging the given power structures. I feel like Wu captures brilliantly a major shift of this moment. It really is about in-betweenness (to use Wu’s concept again), about transcending unitary and binary ways of thinking and remaining in the liminal areas. And this is a tactic, not only applicable to issues of representation, but to all other arenas of life, be they private and public, personal and political.

Her sense of aesthetic is seductive and mesmerising, and really understands the need to pull the viewer in. It is amazing how she thinks about the tiniest detail in terms of the staging of her environments – every one of her worlds is perfectly constructed and as such can never be repeated twice. Maybe it is about accepting the limitations of language and choosing to communicate through affect and emotion instead, which is when art can really become transformational.

"The challenge for us – and for us all – is how to be truly inclusive as an organisation without simplifying the conversation or being literal or patronising." Ana Botella, FACT

Wu Tsang talks of her work creating a world which serves as a platform (particularly for marginalised groups). The related events that form part of the exhibition includes a series ‘Refuge’ exploring the notion of a ‘safe space’ in art and arts institutions. To what extent do you feel that art institutions have a responsibility to provide a platform for underrepresented groups and how should they go about this?

We wanted to turn this idea of ‘Refuge’ that was there from the very start of our thinking, into a whole season of events. It consists of an events programme that takes place every Wednesday, several showcases (including Future Aleppo, a powerful and touching VR experience which we co-commissioned with Sheffield Doc Fest and which is running until after Christmas), and learning activities with and for families, young people and other groups and communities.

This method of deep engagement is very much what characterises FACT’s way of working, which is exactly the opposite of parachuting artists in with the main purpose of enabling them to produce an artwork. We are fierce believers in the power of art, but we are not really the type of organisation that fetishises the artistic personality or ‘genius’. The way that we work is that we create solid structures, or ‘safe spaces’, and this always takes a long time: they require strong and committed partnerships without whom we would not be able to do the work that we do, and we engage with groups over long periods. It is key (and this is by no means an easy task) to create spaces that are protected and safe and structured, while remaining open enough for the unexpected to happen, for art to take place. Because it is within this framework that we invite artists to come and push boundaries and shift perceptions through the production of collaborative projects that can go in so many directions. It is not so much about participation as it is about ownership, and this takes time, time and nurturing.

So in a way this is the opposite of the current museum or gallery trend of large numbers and ‘ticking the box’ activities. Yet ‘Refuge’ has pushed us to go further, asking how we can give more public visibility to these voices, and also incorporate new ones through new channels that do not necessarily require deep forms of engagement. The challenge for us – and for us all – is how to be truly inclusive as an organisation without simplifying the conversation or being literal or patronising. In my view, being inclusive and accessible means – most importantly – talking about things that everybody can relate to, and this is what we always keep in mind while we design our programmes.

The exhibition launch coincided with the Homotopia Festival and it is a significant year being the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality. Have you seen a shift in the representation of queer artists in the arts? How have the subjects that mainstream institutions display changed? Is there still a way to go in terms of representation and topics that arts institutions should be engaging with but aren’t?

For me it is not so much about one group or another, but rather about “spreading the difference”, as Gertrude Stein would say. Over the last few years there has been an immense change in diversifying and opening up conversations that used to be held between only a few. There seems to be much less tolerance and patience than ever with the traditional white patriarchal model, which is so clearly not working – a mixture of anger and eye-rolling to a way of thinking of the world that is antiquated and exasperatingly outworn. There is so much hunger for things to be different. And it cannot be accidental that this is coinciding with such a dismal political and social moment.

I do not want to come across as delusionally naïve. I realise that there is still a long way to go, yet I do feel that we have achieved some significant progress in terms of destabilising deeply established power structures, and “spreading the difference” not only in terms of gender and sexuality, but also race, class, and disability. To mention just a few examples of meaningful milestones that have taken place only this year: the Harvey Weinstein scandal (and the #metoo or #notsurprised campaigns, revealing the terrifying magnitude and the ubiquity of sexual harassment), the Turner prize nominations (three of which are women, and two of them over sixty), that British Vogue is now edited by Edward Enninful (the magazine’s first black –  and first male – director, whose first issue was unafraid to make political statements while celebrating the country’s talent), and a whole series of major shows in mainstream arts institutions exploring issues of diversity and equality.

The big change that needs to happen includes our artistic programmes, yes, but also goes way beyond that – Who decides what is being programmed? What are the invisible agendas? I believe we are talking about a cultural shift, and here the symbolic plays a crucial role in provoking such irreversible social and political transformations. But this optimism does not make me unaware of the reality of the “new conservatism” – neoliberal in essence, secretly disguised as progressive and socially conscious. And here I must end by once again invoking the urgent impulse which lies at the core of Wu Tsang’s work: in between-ness, as a powerful form of subversion and resistance.


Under Cinema is on display at FACT until 18th February

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