HOLLY ROUSSELL ​容思玉 in Lausanne, Switzerland, laptop, cat, WFH, Museum, covid

MUSEUM 2050 Dispatches

467 days away from home – a displaced curator’s dispatch in 2021

Holly Roussell

It has been exactly 467 days from the time of writing since I jumped in a casual Didi from my home in Suzhou Industrial Park to drive to the Wuxi Sunan Airport for a short trip to Hong Kong and then the Philippines. Ten days prior to that, I recall booking our flights to visit a small island off of El Nido for a week of digital detox, then immediately panicking about the erupting volcano causing havoc in the country. Needless to say, the news hasn’t been talking so much about Taal Volcano since February 2020.

As for so many people around the world, my life was upended last year when the pandemic began to wreak havoc on our global community. I found myself in a hotel in Manila on February 3rd with a backpack, beach clothing, and my laptop with no way to return home to Suzhou because passengers having visited China in the last two weeks were no longer able to pass through many airports in Southeast Asia. The Philippines had stopped all flights to Shanghai. In a bit of a knee-jerk decision, my husband and I booked a flight to Switzerland hoping we would soon be able to fly from there home to China soon.

The wait took a bit longer than we expected. I write today sitting in my new home office in Lausanne. We have a new year-old cat, Mihos, who is sleeping behind my laptop, settled atop my computer monitor’s cables, and I have absolutely no idea when I will be able to return to the place I had called home for years. When we were displaced, after 6-8 months of instability and no news about when foreigners from the United States would be able to return to China, we made the decision to move back (at least temporarily) to Switzerland. It was a difficult decision, because we did not intend to move. Perhaps only in the intensely networked global culture that grew up pre-COVID were international relocations like this matters to be decided one day to the next and the steps seamlessly set in motion. That is a little bit about how my 2020 happened.

All of my professional and curatorial projects were upended in 2020. It was a year of delays, cancellations, displacements, patience and reinvention. In the interim before exhibition projects started picking up again, when our creative community faced uncertainty about meeting in person, I piloted an experimental initiative to ensure that professionals in the photography world could continue to interact, support one another, and collaborate. With an artist and colleague based in London, Alma Cecilia Suarez, we launched MEET, a free platform that facilitates serendipitous meetings by uniting networks from around the world, allowing diverse innovative communities of artists to keep working. Our platform innovates on current models, such as digital portfolio reviews or mentorship programmes by using an algorithm to match photographers and professionals based on shared interests and objectives. The open call was supported by Picter.com and was enthusiastically embraced by artists. We received more than 1175 applications from more than 92 different countries in the course of two months. We then organised, based on the algorithmic filtering and selections of 50+ experts, 129 MEET-ings for 138 different artists. To date, we are receiving emails from artists and experts alike letting us know about the collaborations and projects initiated during these rencontres. The project, thus, has proven an incredible success, and we look forward to continuing pushing the possibilities of inclusive and qualitative peer-to-peer exchange in a post-pandemic world.

After MEET in November, museums began reopening in certain areas, yet my curatorial work has remained exclusively virtual, and projects decidedly local. One project, a major travelling exhibition, Civilization: The Way We Live Now, was exhibited in New Zealand at the Auckland Art Gallery from June to October 2020. In March 2021, we virtually installed (via whatsapp) Civilization in Marseille at MUCEM. The team there were fantastic. They even sent tantalizing photos of the crates being unpacked on a loading dock with a view of the sea!

Civilization: The Way We Live Now in Marseille at MUCEM France

As museums are still closed in France, the exhibition has a purely virtual existence until May 19th. There have been video tours, installation photographs shared online, and repostings from artists and galleries.The experience reminds me of a conversation I once had with a close photographer friend who felt as if some projects seemed to exist uniquely in the digital realm. Such shows were, presumably, physical exhibitions or events, but none of those that posted, engaged – or even gossiped about the events – had actually ever been. We have now reached a particular extreme, where French newspapers are writing articles about “the best exhibitions we wish we could visit (if we were not confined to the 10km around our home)”. A long-time collaboration with Brooklyn-based Pixy Liao has also just opened in New York at Fotografiska. Your Gaze Belongs to Me was intended to open in June 2020 at the Stockholm branch of Fotografiska. When COVID closed the museum, they rescheduled our project, and we adapted the installation to New York’s spaces to open on 2 April 2021.

But, how do you manage a virtual installation? Is it really possible? I think these are questions many curators have asked themselves this last year – myself, of course, included. To these questions I would add:  is the necessity to travel greater than the necessity to keep oneself and others safe?  How do we, curators and artists, justify our existence on site, when exhibitions will be presented without us in 2020 and 2021?

I have erred on the side of caution this year, and as a result, spent more time than usual on sketch-up and InDesign to design installation plans to the centimetre. Normally during installs, I always move works around upon arrival in the space, and I nearly always refuse to commit 100% to a hang prior to being on site, but this year I’ve had no choice. It has been a lesson in letting go of the impulse for complete control, and in ceding a certain amount to collaborators. After attempting to view the disposition of works in the space during our MUCEM virtual hang, I quickly realised that it is impossible to gain a true sense of space and presence of an artwork from a video call. The best approach seemed to be empowering the on-site team, informing them, in detail, of my personal thoughts and potential concerns, and then discussing together when a major question would arise. Curating this year has been an exercise in patience and sharing of knowledge with colleagues on-site in ways I had never before anticipated. Previously, we would be running around in preparation for the opening, and I would rarely have the time to converse with on-site exhibition coordinators or installers about why one work should be hung slightly lower than another, or why the section title needed to appear on one wall rather than another to convey a meaning more effectively; my work was about making decisions, not about explaining them. This year, we took time, we took risks, and worked together to make projects happen. I am looking forward to getting back to installing exhibitions in person, to finding the perfect balance for the visitor’s experience within the space and ambience of galleries, but, for now, I am so thankful to both Fotografiska, particularly Grace Noh, and MUCEM, particularly Leonore Branche and Jean-Luc Delest, who each coordinated with me on a daily basis to meticulously install these exhibitions so they could be available to their local publics. I hope that later this year I will be able to visit both the exhibitions in Marseille and in New York.

Exhibitions are alive, and like all living things, they exist in ecologies. Ecologies of space, of discourses, of works, and of audiences. I look forward to finding my own place within them and learning what they will teach me.

About the Author:

Holly Roussell is a Swiss/American independent curator, museologist, and author specialising in photography and contemporary art from East Asia.

About the Series:

Museum 2050 has always been about bringing people together through our community’s shared passion for museums and institutional development. As the world slowly and carefully starts reopening, we are checking in weekly with various members of our broader network to share personal reflections, anecdotes and musings about how they and their institutions have been operating in the face of this pandemic. In these incredibly difficult times for all, we hope that these brief vignettes from around the world bring us closer together, and remind us that even when the world stops and museum doors close, we still persevere.

Holly Roussell on video call viewing the disposition of works in the space during MUCEM virtual hang; Civilization: The Way We Live Now