Interview with Giulia Casalini: Curating is not just a profession but also a matter of political practice

“It is crucial to place our work in context and overcome the arrogance of thinking that we are the first ones doing the things we do.”

As a part of the recent theater festival BITEF, Platform for the theory and practice of common goods zajednič organized an international conference titled “We are sitting on the branch: solidarity or downfall”. The topic of the conference was the climate crisis, and in one of the talks, “Society, art, and theater in a world without people”, in addition to philosopher Andrija Filipović, playwright and performer Maja Pelević, and philosopher Boris Buden, independent curator, and researcher Giulia Casalini was a guest.

Giulia is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Roehampton in London, where she researches transnational queer feminist performing arts. She also works as an independent curator, artistic director, and producer at several queer feminist cultural organizations and events such as the “Ecofutures” festival and the “Cuntemporary” organization, which we also talked about. In addition to the experience of her work so far, we also discussed three theoretical and political principles – the principles of radical solidarity, radical empathy, and radical restructuring – which she presented at the conference, and her vision of the curatorial profession, burnout, queer theory, and art, as well as the importance of researching history.

You presented three theoretical and political principles on which work in the arts and culture should be based. These are radical solidarity, radical empathy, and radical restructuring. So, let’s go one by one: what does radical solidarity mean?

What I mean by ‘radical solidarity’ actually refers to political solidarity. It aims to find common ground in political struggles based on the principles that we share. In practice, it is about connecting the efforts of entities that tend to work separately, such as activist groups, individual artists or collectives, museums, cultural institutions, or universities. Radical solidarity raises the question of how to create systems of mutual support not only among institutions and art practitioners but also across diverse groups of individuals, geopolitical locations, or areas of research. In academia, for instance, the fields rarely speak with each other in a fruitful and sustained way, and the theory they produce rarely leaves its ivory tower. The arts should also try to engage more with their local communities and other domains of practice to expand the terrain in which art is allowed to live and be experienced. For me, it is crucial to break those many (at times self-imposed) boundaries and bring art, theory, and activism together to create transformative and long-lasting political synergies. These connections also create a continuity of struggles by uniting our present efforts to those that have existed before us, and upon whose legacy we are building our current work.

What do you mean by radical restructuring and to which institutions does it refer?

This point refers to the internal restructuring of formal and informal institutions by questioning the established ways of operating. Thinking beyond the capitalist system is a complex, imaginative and lengthy process: it is challenging to get out of the habit of product-driven art. Going against this when organizing a festival, for example, would mean making the program less intense, creating more time and spaces for people to meet and relax, rather than having too many activities which are difficult to follow. From a stricter ecological perspective, we must also acknowledge our carbon footprint emissions and make all efforts to lower them.

Restructuring is political because it criticizes institutions from within: it points the finger at the privileges that institutions and their leaders (e.g. curators, directors) occupy within the system. We can also call this self-reflexive stance ‘positionality,’ which implies thinking from which position one is curating and creating (in terms of identity, class, language, accessibility, etc.). I also don’t believe that a single curator is enough: we should always work in dialogue and exchange. The idea that we are just individuals or independent beings is an illusion: we are all connected; only relationality is possible. Which leads to the question: how can we work more horizontally? In institutions, for example, can we open directorial positions that are not assigned only to one person but to a collective? For example, “Live Art Development Agency” in London earlier this year opened their new leadership call also to collectives: they recently appointed two new Black directors, which is great! Another question is: how to allocate resources to people who have different needs? The myth of equality must be replaced with the prospects of equity. If we all had a universal basic income, it would enable artists to work freely without the pressure to produce and sell their work, but to achieve the same goals, some people need help. For example, allocating benefits or resources to people with a working-class background, disabled individuals, with chronic conditions, mental health issues, or people of color who experience structural racism and marginalization.

Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia 2 (2018); Photo: Orlando Myxx, 2019.

And what is radical empathy and how does it relate to the previous two principles you talked about?

It is a strategy of solidarity based on affects or feelings. Trying to ‘feel’ like any other marginalized human (or nonhuman) can teach us how to operate and survive from that very position of oppression. For example, how can we center a disability justice perspective in curating and creating art, rather than adding this as an after-thought?

One of the aspects of radical empathy concerns the way we connect with others, or how to fall in love with them. Once you are in love with someone, you would give anything to that person to make them feel good and keep them at your side. An ecosexual perspective, for example, would consider nature as a lover, not as a mother: we cannot take nature’s love for granted. Then, how to place that nature-lover at the center of our discourse? Radical empathy looks at the margins, at the positions of subjects that are not only human, but also – from a posthuman perspective – plant, animal, or inorganic matter. These strategies are complex and require time to implement – but that’s okay. We need to slow down and think more like nature – or being with nature – rather than succumbing to what we are used to in our fast-paced capitalist society. Trees do not know time as we know it: so, let’s start working with timeframes that are more long-term and tree-like, rather than short-term and unsustainable (which is comparable to how politicians egotistically operate during their mandates).

How do you, as a curator, view your profession and its place in society?

Before Covid-19, I organized “Ecofutures”, a festival of queer, feminist, and decolonial approaches to art and ecology. That festival, and the subsequent pandemic, made me rethink my role as a curator and producer. In the previous years, I had a different approach to my profession: I thought that the way to ‘succeed’ was to work more, but that work was never enough. My physical health started to get compromised: the year before “Ecofutures” I was diagnosed with a chronic health condition. Then, I decided that less is indeed more, and slowed down the pace. The fact that I am now on a fully-funded Ph.D. has helped me with that, as I can say ‘no’ to things I would have had to accept otherwise. As a result, my health immediately got better.

What specifically did you do in your practice to enable that paradigm shift?

I decided to give more time to my creative practice. Of course, my approach was already creative: I call it ‘performing curating’ as I practice it from a place of horizontality, where the curatorial and the artistic dimensions are co-constitutive. But giving more space and time for my creative expression and personal relations has been fundamental for me: without feeling the pressure to do things, but to stop and listen and see what is happening around you. Instead of adding more voices to the rich cultural cacophony of queer-feminist discourses and practices in London, I am now in the phase of checking the current ecology and supporting other artists. For now, I am taking a step back to observe and get involved in other people’s work, working from ‘below’, conducting small-scale workshops or research groups, and most of all, joining events that I am not involved with – for pleasure. I was craving this time for self-reflexivity and research. Everyone deserves that.

It seems to me that in the cultural sphere the prevailing way of thinking is industrial, in which it is imperative to constantly produce new content. If you stop producing, you lose visibility and then people just stop working with you and forget about you.

Yes, I feel that same pressure coming from my friends who do clubbing evenings: if they don’t do one night a month or one post a day on their social media, they think they will lose their audience.

Quimera Rosa, SF Trans_Plant, workshop; Photo: Loredana Denicola, 2019.

We are all trapped in that mindset. It is necessary to fight it every day.

Absolutely. It is tough to reach a certain position or ‘status’. Then people will recognize you by what you did, and they will expect from you something similar, or even better… But maybe these are your projections. You become a slave of this circle of work and expectations. I just think that when what you do is not fun or good for you anymore, you should let it go.

Tell us about your queer-feminist practices: how and when did you start to deal with such politics in your work? What did the London scene look like back then?

When I co-founded the queer-feminist arts organization “Cuntemporary” in 2012, there was nothing like it in London: we were the first to bring queer and feminist practices, theories, and activism together in a more structured and public-facing way. We even registered as a company, whilst other groups were either grassroots or unincorporated art collectives. The intersection of queer and feminism was lacking at that time, and feminism was mainly centered on cis, white women. I was craving diversity, and “Cuntemporary” provided a platform for that. Now, about a decade later, we can see an expansion of queer, crip, Black, Asian, feminist, migrant art practices in the whole of the UK, with a multiplication of events, exhibitions, clubbing culture, the establishment of individual artists or collectives, the opening of academic courses, and so on. “Cuntemporary” has been foundational for that, and it is still part of this ecology, living through its pulsating networks.

You mentioned that it is important to be aware of the history and things that other people have done before us. It seems to me that here every generation erases what everything that preceded them and does not know enough about what was done only ten years earlier, I think there is a kind of ageism. Why is historical research important for current thought and practice?

It is crucial to place our work in context and overcome the arrogance of thinking that we are the first ones doing the things we do. When I curated “Ecofutures”, it took me about three months of research to find out how previous exhibitions have dealt with the intersections of feminism/queer/decolonial practices. There were only a handful of examples back then, but you have to do your research to find out. It requires labor, time, and care to do this. For me, curating is not just a profession but also a matter of ethical practice and responsibility that I want to pursue in my life. The indigenous and Black populations know well how to value what came before them – the value of the ancestors and the spiritual power that these bring into the present time. We have lost that connection, which I think is vital to re-establish, both spiritually and politically. Whatever happened in the past (near or far) has an impact on where we are now.

How can queer be practiced in the everyday?

The queer theory works in practice towards a more equitable society. It aims to recognize, love, and cherish the beautiful variety of our differences, the freedom of expressing our sexualities and genders, the freedom to live and love with enjoyment. From a queer kinship perspective, for instance, we should be allowed to form families outside of biological ties – but social structures and politics still make this impossible. We have to live in the fear that maybe the child we think is our own will be taken away; or that we can’t visit someone at the hospital because we don’t have official paperwork to prove our relationship.

I think that love is an underestimated word that is not used enough. Perhaps, religions use it more often – although mostly in a hypocritical way, without truly practicing it. Love, empathy, softness. We are afraid to use these words in academic writing and political thinking. But love is transformative. It is power. It does not recognize differences.

This article was ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in Serbian on Nov 23, 2021.

The text was created within the project which is co-financed from the Budget of the Republic of Serbia – the Ministry of Culture and Information. The views expressed in the supported media project do not necessarily reflect the views of the body that allocated the funds.


Citizens protest against the upcoming amendments to the Law on Expropriation

“We harbor no fear and we will defend ourselves!”, protesters state in unison