Interview with Dr Paul O’Neill, Artistic Director at PUBLICS by Majken Overgaard & Nicklas Larsen
Dissolving the Curatorial Power
What happens when audiences become a part of the curatorial process, and how can curatorial power be dissolved in the future? To find answers to these questions, we look to PUBLICS, a Helsinki-based curatorial agency punching above its weight. Under the creative direction of Paul O’Neill, PUBLICS explores the relationship between critical social thinking, contemporary art and ‘publicness’.
We met with O’Neill to learn about his outlook for the future of art intuitions, audience involvement, about breaking down boundaries, and how the library he took over four years ago became the centre through which a new type of art organisation would emerge.
How is PUBLICS different from other participatory art initiatives?
Co-creation sessions on a given topic, or an exhibition, often happen within confined and controlled spaces within established institutions. PUBLICS differs by not only being participatory, but by continuously renegotiating its space with the audience that essentially gets to impact and develop the institution. As such our curatorial programme is created alongside the evolution of PUBLICS itself through, for instance, Parahostings, where we provide space for other people, bodies, and ideas, and allow ourselves to be taken over. We might help with the programmes or funding but it’s the Paraguests’ projects.
How do you facilitate such conversations?
When we commission public art, we do it in a way that engages the audience to transcend the so-called ‘art world’ while still being in dialogue with it. This could take the form of listening or reading sessions or conversations about fearful futures where something meaningful emerges — for instance, centred around questions of climate crisis, increased volatility around national borders, the refugee crises, and how COVID exacerbated economic and social divisions.
Would it have been possible to dissolve the curatorial practice if you weren’t an artist yourself?
For me, the possibility of contemporary art playing political and social roles within culture was always important, regardless if I was an artist or a curator or a writer. It’s the constant questioning of what constitutes the role, function, and position of the art producer, the exhibition producer, organiser, facilitator, author, and so forth. Like art education often does, mine emphasised the learners participating in a way that enables education in more informal and challenging ways, so when I had my studio-based practice, I was very committed to blurring boundaries and sometimes even breaking them down completely.
What does the future hold for art and its audiences?
It’s important to acknowledge that future generations are already here, cohabiting and living amongst us. What we need to do is to use our skills, knowledge, networks, and expertise, to engage with those young people who we at PUBLICS call the public of the present future. What are the needs of the current generation of young people between 17 and 23, and what is it that they’re interested in?
How do you engage future generations at PUBLICS?
We are currently developing a Youth Advisory Board of teens, where the public of the present future will be paid to curate with PUBLICS and participate in thedevelopment of the institutions and its programmes. We also organise an intersectional and transdisciplinary festival called Today is our Tomorrow in a mix of discussions, talks, workshops, installations, screenings, events, performances, DJ sets, curatorial projects, and live music across interconnected venues. This festival is a very important aspect of how we draft professional coalitions, how we think about who the future public is, and how we cater to the future audience for art.
From your perspective, how are traditional art institutions struggling with this?
There’s always been this contradiction within contemporary art, where the idea of artistic autonomy exists on two levels. At one level you have art, which is the romantic tradition, separate from the world. At the other level you have another version of artistic autonomy, where art is completely dissolved into the social fabric or becomes political currency of the world. I think we’re still struggling with these two ideas. For art to be vital and important and urgent to this generation it must compete with video games, social media, noise, popular music, right wing rhetoric, consumer culture, hyper capitalism, and fashion. But rather than being in competition, all these things are ultimately still part of contemporary art in different ways.
How do you see the future art audience being digitally influenced?
I subscribe to Legacy Russell’s (American writer and curator, ed.) idea that there is a glitch between the digital self and the physical, embodied self. But this glitch is not a separation anymore. We need to understand how the online identities of young generations are integral to how they see themselves in terms of identity politics, and their relationship with the world. It’s tricky to capture their attention. The time young people can spare is scarce because they’re very busy and have their own take on what constitutes creativity — perhaps they often find that traditional art institutions are not for them.
What does the future art institution look like to you?
It’s inclusive and transdisciplinary. The moments of education, of display and of participation, are equal. It supports diverse practices, is less white, and certainly queerer and more feminist. It listens more than it speaks and when it speaks, it’s aware of how it speaks for and on behalf of others. It works in contrast to continuous monoculture by constantly being in dialogue with others than its patrons and ticket holders. It sees beyond the wealthy and the people attending to large mega exhibitions, who often do not view the experience as being something which can transform, change, or challenge the culture they live in.