Survey: Evan Calder Williams

Survey: Evan Calder Williams

The Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College

May 16, 2023
Evan Calder Williams
The Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College

Why do you teach?

I’ll give two different answers to this one question: I teach because I believe quite sincerely in the ways that a shared practice of critical thinking and research—like the work of tracing historical genealogies or of learning to listen for what necessarily remains unsaid—has very real consequences for how we try to inflect the conditions we’re in. And I teach because it pays the bills, and in a mode that aligns decently with the kinds of research, writing, and discourse that I want to spend my time on.

I don’t give this dual answer to be hard-nosed or play at being cynical but rather because I think that one of the fundamental frameworks of both art and education, and especially where they intersect, is the way that a relation gets articulated between what happens because we care the world about art and what happens because of the circulation of capital. This relation and its frictions can be seen in a lot of forms, including the tension between the aims of many artistic and critical practices and the reality of the structures of funding and commerce that underwrite them. However, it becomes especially fraught and potent in this long-standing idea within art and education that we do what we do because we love it; no matter how true this may be or feel, it can often be used to cover over unfair conditions of work or elide a more clear-eyed reckoning with the structures that shape the broader circuits of contemporary art. This isn’t something easily corrected, and I’m not interested in having some “correct” position on it. Still, I’d wager that the difficult tangle of it is actually a crucial point of departure for those of us brought together—as curators, artists, teachers, critics, etc.—by an institution like the Center for Curatorial Studies to think and talk about the historical currents that coalesce in contemporary art, a living history made of efforts to challenge, celebrate, support, or intervene.

In curatorial education, how do you address that tension between art’s critical function and its institutions? More so than artists, curators seem especially tethered to institutions, fraught as they can be with questionable funding sources and historical injustices.

I agree that curators are the ones who perhaps most directly bear and grapple with these contradictions. Everyone who works in the circuits of contemporary art is enmeshed within this tension, and as I alluded to, the very category of contemporary art itself is historically inseparable from this negotiation, in ways that have tended to be posed critically under the sign and question of autonomy. (As a teacher, I can’t shake the habit and would recommend a vital text on this: Kerstin Stakemeier and Marina Vishmidt’s Reproducing Autonomy: Work, Money, Crisis and Contemporary Art, from 2016.) But although it names a general and structuring condition of the field and its economies, I think curators more than anyone have to navigate this in decidedly intimate ways, insofar as their role often becomes a kind of actively mediating and inflecting conduit between the parts and persons that make up this field, especially in the relation between artists themselves and institutions that exhibit, collect, sell, or archive art.

But how to negotiate between critical aims and the realities of how things currently get funded, exchanged, and potentially supported… I think so much of this comes down to the nongeneralizable ways that curators make very concrete and often nuanced decisions, to how they try to listen amply to those involved, and refuse to instrumentalize artists or treat situations flatly. In terms of both my own approach to this and also of CCS Bard as a program more generally, I’ll note two things: First, we at CCS Bard encourage a deep commitment to curators’ own convictions, and that includes not only the kind of art and research they want to see in the world or the ways in which they want to support and be in dialogue with artists but also how they want to grapple with these necessarily political questions. And I don’t think there’s a single approach to that. There are those who work within institutional forms that they want to inflect and challenge from within, those who do the necessary work of challenging the unacknowledged legacies of so many of those institutions and their forms, and those who work to build platforms and networks that are wholly other to the structures they want no part of. And often one person might be all three of these variants, at different times. Second, it’s equally important that we not begin from a fantasy of purity, of getting to stand outside of these constitutive relations. It’s never especially generative to be merely shocked by the fact of these connections between art and some of the worst legacies and ongoing tendencies of empire and capital. So, I believe a starting point, at least, is to begin with a clear awareness of complicity. Not to simply throw one’s hands up but also not to be scandalized. Almost no human activities on this planet—we’ll see about Mars, but I have my sincere doubts—are separated from the reproduction of capital, and it would be slightly ridiculous to assume that art might magically be so, even if the attempts to strain toward that separation have been highly consequential. I’m using the word “complicity,” because I think that it’s not a matter of compromise, of learning to compromise or accept the loss of conviction. Rather, it’s about starting from a position that can take seriously the historical weight of how these dense links between cultural practice and economic practice got formed and subsequently shaped expectations of what art might do, including directly challenging its own embedded position. Then the question becomes how to keep insisting that this situation remain historical, which does not mean consigned to the past. To designate as historical is to say that it is not natural, not given, and not unchangeable. It came into being for specific reasons and it therefore is subject to being altered in the present.

An Anathema Strikes the Flesh of the Laborer, master’s thesis exhibition curated by Leo Cocar, installation view, Hessel Museum of Art, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, April 1–May 28, 2023. Photo: Olympia Shannon.

Expanding on mediation, how does this emerge in the curatorial education at CCS Bard?

This question of mediation, taken expansively, is central to our program as a whole, to the point of feeling like a watchword. I’d suggest it occupies that key role because mediation ends up naming a set of commitments to thinking hard about how to frame and extend the crucial ambiguities and tensions of artistic practice. Indeed, one of the versions of this question that has been especially present at CCS Bard in recent years, and that I’ve been particularly attuned to, is how to balance a commitment to genuine forms of accessibility and breadth of possible engagement while avoiding the trap of canceling out the kinds of complex and unresolved encounters that we might have with art or of flattening it into a content, didactic message, or a collection of terms. The question matters a lot, because I know it is these kinds of unsettled and often unsettling encounters and possibilities that lead many of us to make art the set of actions and discourses that consumes so much of our lives.

I don’t think anyone has a simple answer to this, insofar as it is always necessarily situational, and here we return to compelling and really precise questions about what to do in space (whether physical or virtual). However, I’m particularly inspired by the way that Carolyn Lazard approached this in a 2020 interview in BOMB, in which they argue that, “Accessibility is often thought of in relation to the idea of clarity or transparency or coherence, but I think disabled people also deserve access to the incoherency of the experience of art.” 1 I can’t emphasize enough how important I find this to be: to remember that the work of accessibility, which includes the way that encounters with art get mediated materially, economically, and discursively, should make accessible what is complicated, incoherent, and genuinely ambivalent rather than aim to neutralize those qualities.

The kind of convening you describe at CCS Bard—of curators, artists, educators, and others coming together, engaging with history, and acting in the present—is what makes school such a profoundly important place. What has been your own educational experience, and how does it inform your teaching today?

I come from a family of educators, and in the arts specifically. My mom was an art teacher, and an amazing one, in the public school system of our town (and so she was my teacher as well), and my sister is a dean and a professor of graphic design and digital media. So, it’s been a very ongoing part of my life. A few elements of my trajectory through education still shape my own teaching. I didn’t begin in contemporary art or art history: I studied intellectual and social history in my undergrad, and my PhD was in a literature department, though I ended up focusing especially on film and radical history. At CCS Bard I teach critical theory, cultural studies, postcolonial theory, queer studies, theories of disability and sickness, psychoanalysis, aesthetics, media theory, and a few other things. I’ve written on apocalyptic ideology, Marxist theory, digital imaging, sabotage and anticolonial tactics, gay liberation theorists, cinema and animation, ecology, and the practice of a number of contemporary artists. Much of that range comes from trusting my gut—sometimes too much, I’m sure—and trying to trace out the mesh of forces and histories that lie behind single moments, tendencies, or moves that fascinate, horrify, or animate me. In this way, I am a teacher who is heavily interdisciplinary, but one who also takes seriously the crucial understanding that can be gained from dwelling with the kind of intimate knowledge and minor details that come from reading or looking too closely at too many of the same things. Despite the fact that I am our program’s “theory” professor, I’m someone who believes a lot in the kinds of historical frictions that can be gained from really digging into the surface of a work and into its material choices, morphologies, and noise, or what was framed as faktura in early twentieth-century Russian art theory.

In terms of my own education, it was also a path marked heavily by activities outside of and at times against the classroom, by forms of informal education and collective intellectual work, both as an organizer involved in anti-austerity education struggles and as an editor. (I was part of the editorial collective of Viewpoint Magazine for a number of years, and I recently became a contributing editor at e-flux journal, which I’m quite excited about.) I’ve learned from brilliant people in a lot of fields, and their thought still marks me. However, I learned as much if not more through ongoing conversations and dialogues that reached beyond the classroom and often never passed through one. This informs my teaching to no end. My primary hope as an educator is to help generate lines of inquiry that might start in a seminar but that I know will be realized elsewhere, in forms I can’t predict. This is one of things that makes teaching in a curatorial program so compelling to me, the way that work we do in a more theoretical and scholarly format will also inform and be routed through exhibitionary and programming practice.

Right to Mother, master’s thesis exhibition curated by Jiwon Geum, installation view, Hessel Museum of Art, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, April 1–May 28, 2023. Photo: Olympia Shannon.

What artwork, broadly defined, do you return to most often in your teaching? What lesson do you hope it imparts to your students?

In recent years, I’ve found myself returning a lot to Ana Vaz’s 2016 film Há Terra!. It’s a remarkable work that draws on—and draws into the present—histories in Brazil of both marronage and of the Landless Workers Movement. (With regard to the latter, I’d also recommend Chão [Landless], a 2019 film by Camila Freitas.) I’ve taught Há Terra! alongside a few texts, from Sylviane A. Diouf’s necessary Slavery’s Exile: The Story of the American Maroons to Bernhard Siegert’s essays on projection and empire, as well as other films, like Joyce Wieland’s Rat Life and Diet in North America. However, the reason I’ve found Há Terra! generative to watch together in seminar is less about its backdrop or content and more about the way that it makes that backdrop inseparable from its camera movement, montage, and sound. That kind of deep juncture between style and historical friction is, of course, something that we can find in a lot of art, and it marks most of the practices I find myself committed to. However, what I think is especially striking in Vaz’s film is the restlessness of how that juncture happens. For example, we share vision with the camera, which oscillates uncertainly between a predatory sight that roams the visual field to target the protagonist and a discontinuous yet stable way of framing single gestures, like the hand that touches the earth or traces down a wall. This is to say that themes of fugitivity, vision, and territory, and the question of who is able to build a life in what kind of space, all get enacted on a granular stylistic level, far more so than in any explicit content. So, in watching it together, I think we access a space in which to move beyond a flat logic of illustration—in which an artwork gets reduced to an instance of a theory or history—and instead think of the dense patterning of visual, linguistic, and sonic form by the frictions and potentials that a work inherits, whether or not the artist wants it to.

What unsaid has been spoken in your seminars recently? What discourses are percolating at CCS Bard?

If you look at Rising and Sinking Again, the thesis exhibitions that opened recently that are curated by our graduating class of 2023, you’ll see a pretty expansive range of the discourses helping articulate the work of the students, so I’m hesitant to identify certain ones as more present than others. But I’ll highlight two that have been of special relevance recently: First, in our partnership with the Forge Project, we have further articulated and supported a commitment to new scholarship around Indigenous art and critical work, which includes the upcoming exhibition Indian Theater. Some of the questions central to such scholarship and curatorial practice, such as the effort to refuse dominant tendencies to consign Indigenous experience and knowledge to the past and instead focus on forms of ongoingness, continual innovation, and what Leanne Betasamosake Simpson frames as “resurgence,” are certainly present elsewhere in contemporary art publication and exhibition, but I believe that our program can make meaningful contributions, especially through students who will carry their work out into the world and field. Second, I think the very categories of saying, unsaying, voice, and silence have themselves become especially present and pertinent. This is manifest in the thesis exhibitions but also in the teaching of our current Keith Haring Fellow in Art and Activism Haytham el-Wardany (who is teaching a seminar on quotation and another on “listening to the dead”), in faculty member Nida Ghouse’s elective on “ways of listening,” and on a new commission that DeForrest Brown, Jr. has developed at EMPAC (Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) with a group of second-year CCS Bard students advised by CCS Bard visiting faculty and EMPAC associate director of arts Vic Brooks. Questioning these categories is also central to my own teaching and key texts and touchpoints within it. This spans from Saidiya Hartman’s pivotal work on the silence in the archive to the category of speech within postcolonial theory and from the logic of noise and interference between psychoanalysis and media history to the kinds of political agency that historically get excluded from counting within predominant conceptions of public voice.

Memory Work, master’s thesis exhibition curated by Claire Kim, installation view, Hessel Museum of Art, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, April 1–May 28, 2023. Photo: Olympia Shannon.

In addition to Indigenous knowledges and categories like voice and silence, what other epistemes or senses can curating engage more deeply? What’s on the horizon for CCS Bard?

I think being pretty plain about the notion of sense is important here. Given my role at CCS Bard, much of my own teaching focuses on theory, research, and scholarship rather than on curatorial practice per se. But like my colleagues, I recognize fully how at the end of the day, our students’ exhibitions, expanded programs, and performances are ones that take place in space, in time, and in a complicated negotiation with sensory experience, even though they are richly informed by their research and engagement with discourses in contemporary art. In other words, we always want to keep actual engagement with exhibitionary practice—in all its forms—central to what we do, and that means continuing to think closely and idiosyncratically about conditions and structures of display, transmission, storage, and access. It also means never losing sight of that fundamental curatorial labor: creating conditions in which the bringing together of discrete artworks generates unexpected connections, echoes, and torsions. I don’t see these commitments as outmoded or formalist in any way. Rather, they are the sign of understanding artistic and exhibition practice as a form of thought and experience itself, one that should never be reduced to a facile illustration of an already existing critical or conceptual framework.

Within this, we at CCS Bard are planning in coming years to even further amplify our focus on grappling with how time-based art, such as video and sound, gets presented and enacted in exhibition spaces that were decidedly not built with them in mind. This is no surprise to anyone working in our fields. There’s a real gap between the prevalence of work that requires projection, screens, and sound and the architectural and infrastructural inheritance of museums—for which the “white cube” gets used as a kind of sloppy synecdoche—that are at best inadequate and at worst hostile to such art. We already think extensively about this problem, and the brilliant work done in the Hessel Museum by Ian Sullivan, director of exhibitions and operations, and the team of preparators he works with shows the nuanced negotiation of this discrepancy. You can see it in Rising and Sinking Again and in those of Lauren Cornell, director of the graduate program and chief curator, such as her landmark Dara Birnbaum retrospective in 2022. It’s part of my teaching too. One of my favorite seminars, “Counterplans,” is an ongoing attempt to rethink the contours and often underconsidered lineages and technical possibilities of museum and gallery space, doing so not through exhibition histories themselves but through attention to a wider range of human practices of exhibition, memorialization, transmission, etc. (Practically, this means we study cemeteries, shopping malls, HVAC systems, video game space, urban parks, data storage, and on from there.) But we want to further develop our focus on this, both in our curriculum and in how we prepare students for the kind of curatorial work they want to continue to do out in the world. So that means taking technical knowledge seriously: really understanding how projection works, what sound does in a gallery space, how to deal with different video codecs, what to do with directional speakers, and so on. It’s vital to never see those questions as something to be relegated to an install team. They should be central to how any exhibition is imagined from the start, and in a way that can develop and build on a rich dialogue between that team, artists, and a curator.

The last thing I’ll note on this question is that while it’s important to be realistic about how antithetical most museum and gallery spaces are for so much of the time-based work that curators hope to bring into them, this isn’t necessarily a problem. It is also a chance to defamiliarize conditions of perception and media experience, conditions that are themselves always shifting between moments where they are so stabilized that we cease to notice them and others where we can’t help but do so. I remain pretty haunted by a comment a student made in a film seminar I was teaching at Parsons years ago. We were talking about our own viewing experiences and habits, about where we watch and how we do, and a student said that she didn’t like seeing movies in cinemas because she could hear other people breathing. I’m old enough, and enough of someone whose life has been so shaped by time spent in cinemas of all kinds, to have found this immensely mournful. But when I step back from it, I take it as the sign of something generative too. Look at how frustration with spaces and their limits and contours can also bring about new forms of noticeability. Look at how that disconnect can make us hear each other breathe. Museums may be terrible places for a lot of moving image or sound work, but they are spaces where those limits and inadequacies can be brought to bear on what we become aware of, and how we do, and what the consequences can be.

What do you envision for the future of art education and how can it be achieved?

Bologna Process reboots combined with increased organizing around student debt forgiveness with more practice-based PhD programs, as well as the further proliferation of para-academic education routed through both museum education departments and for-profit galleries? Skynet × David Zwirner collab?

All of which is to say: who knows? I’m wary of prognostication, but I can offer two thoughts about future directions, routed through the recent and longer past. First, I think the way that both institutional education and contemporary art navigated shifting conditions generated by the pandemic is pretty instructive about the way that substantive changes do—and above all do not—happen. Amid all the difficult conditions and personal losses that people were going through, I noticed certain strands of optimism about what changes might emerge. We can see this in how educational institutions scrambled to adapt to forms of asynchronous and telepresent learning, and in ways that often ended up closely following some of the forms of flexibility that disability advocates in education had long been asking for. Or in the hopes that different priorities and forms of financial support and a reduced fixation on productivity would take shape in the structures of contemporary art. We’re a couple years on from that, and I don’t think that it takes an especially cynical imagination to realize the tremendous force of inertia and the persistent desire to return to how things were, with some of those temporary intervals of different possibility closing fast except where people are able to fight to hold onto them. So, I think we should never underestimate the durability of predominant social forms, even as the ground around them can be thoroughly eroded and remapped. It takes so much work to not only produce openings for experimentation but also to defend them.

Second, I have in mind this remarkable anecdote that the radical filmmaker Joris Ivens told about how he learned to edit politically. In 1929, when he was in charge of an educational and cultural film program for workers, he and his collaborators would take the commercial newsreels—which were a standard form mixed into the stream of features, cartoons, etc., that cinemas showed—and cut them up and re-edit them. They would add new intertitles, alter the order of the montage, and practice producing new meanings that could not only challenge the ideologies articulated in the newsreels but also develop new connections and critiques of imperialism between a local situation and the “distant” events shown in the newsreels. And then they would undo all of their work and re-edit the newsreels back into their original form and return them to the commercial distributors “who were none the wiser!”

I love this story and think about it a lot. One of the key points for me that it raises is how to ensure that we hold open this idea of practice. Not in the generic sense that we now talk about an artist’s practice or one’s curatorial practice but in the sense of doing work that is not necessarily the final thing to be seen. Understandable pressures about professionalization—understandable because people both want to be able to make a living and also to have the things they do get seen and circulated in the world—can have a knock-on effect of putting so much pressure on all activities to become potentially final things. But what goes missing is what I see as a crucial sense of the draft, of practicing itself, of trying things out without any sense that they might become a final version, and indeed of knowing that the time will be “wasted” making something that won’t see the light of day but that will change you and those you practice with in the process.

The other key point I take from this anecdote is about how such processes happen at their best when they are collective, when they spill out beyond just ourselves. That’s another one of those pressures that has to be resisted, because for all the talk in contemporary art about care and networks of support, there is, of course, a much broader ideological tendency, which we still occupy and often bolster, to think of cultural work and political thought alike through the narrow gateway of the individual artist and citizen. So, I believe that it remains essential to hold onto the promise of what happens through moments of transindividuality, of practicing and trying and making and unmaking together. As for years to come: sure, some of those interlocutors may be human, some may turn out to be other forms of computational protocol or response. But what matters is working through and with the many-headed and making thought itself relentlessly polyglot.


See .

Education, Museums
Curating, Exhibition Histories, Indigenous Art, History, Video Art, Sound Art, Autonomy

Evan Calder Williams is an associate professor at the Center for Curatorial Studies for Bard College, where he also teaches in the Human Rights program. He is the author of the books Combined and Uneven Apocalypse; Roman Letters; Shard Cinema; and, forthcoming with Sternberg Press in 2024, Inhuman Resources. He is the translator, with David Fernbach, of Mario Mieli’s Towards a Gay Communism and is a Contributing Editor to e-flux journal, as well as a former member of the editorial collective of Viewpoint Magazine.


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