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Liv Barrett

We met Liv Barrett atop a West Hollywood hotel bar, a rendezvous suggested by Liv who confessed the venue was a more appropriate reflection of her working practice than any one workspace. Born and raised in Melbourne, Liv talked us through her curatorial journey, a cyclical process of revisitation and re-examination, which has eventuated in her move to LA.

How did curating become the central focus of your practice?

The last three years have been devoted to curating. While that may sound like a strange thing to specify, I came to it through writing and different methods of production. I studied Philosophy and Art History; I studied fashion for a short time; I had a period of making books; writing; working on objects; and that all ended up being incorporated into exhibition. Then at some point I made a decision that if you coalesce all those activities, concentrate them into one endeavour, it could be described as curating. I felt that there wasn't an MFA program in Australia that could teach me about curating in a way that seemed meaningful and practical for how I wanted to pursue it - I had already built some practical skills with work at ACCA, Uplands and other galleries - and I wanted to play with it as an amateur before it became professionalised. It seemed like a nice level to be involved at and I decided that everything I would do would fall under 'curating', which eventually became a lot more interesting, as I was less occupied with these questions of 'What am I doing; what kind of producer am I' and just focus on the content.

As someone who was also once involved in 'production', what did working with the outcomes of someone else's process mean to your curatorial practice?

Considering the etymology of 'curate' which is vaguely 'to care for', historically curators worked almost only with end products because a curator really had a role only within a museum framework. But over the last 30 years the contemporary art market has grown long arms and legs and so has the idea of the curator. It's has a strange, pervasive, dynamic, unavoidable influence in terms of how artists work now because curators are often a kind of conduit to a gallery or commission and, in being so, become heavily engaged with the material. The interesting thing about curating - which is adorable but sometimes confusing - is that it's completely dependent on human relationships. The investment comes from so many places; it's a careful business.

Is that more of a typical situation when working outside an institution?

Yes, because in an institution you're justifying your motivation and it's much more thoroughly documented. The wishes of the many must be addressed in an institution, whereas when you steer the project more wholly, it's just you and the artists. The last couple of exhibitions I've curated on a singular occasion with a gallery, Chinatown: the sequel and Hotel Theory, I asked Matt Hinkley to design letterheads for both occasions. I really love letterheads and always take them from hotel rooms: it's a prompt for correspondence and correspondence is made from the substance of human relationships. Through the letterheads, the exhibition creates these pages that can be shared around and continue without me as author. This is quite important and of course the people that will really take that on and use it are probably those involved personally or professionally with the exhibition. It's a way of dealing with that complicit dynamic between social continuum and exhibition making.

What was the process of putting Chinatown: The Sequel together?

It has its own narrative history because I was initially invited to do an exhibition at the gallery in LA that I'm now working for full-time, where I was asked to make a proposal for a show with Australian artists. And this was a real problem for me because I have nothing to say about geography - at least, nothing interesting or worthwhile and if that was the framework of the show then it would become this incidental thing where I have arranged artists in a show about this subject that I am not confident talking about... So I called the show Chinatown, which was the best way I could identify with a show about geography: Chinatowns being these displaced, cultural islands that don't accurately translate where they are coming from but they do generate some new cultural object. It's novel, strange and interesting of itself; and then of course there is the film Chinatown, which is, for a lot of people, the inception story of Los Angeles. Within that, I could deal with the artists' works in different ways, without having to be thematic, which is appealing to me...

To avoid theme?

To avoid something that seeks to define or shrink the work. It doesn't make sense to me in terms of the way that I relate to art objects. There were timing issues with making the show at PRISM and I found another gallery that wanted to receive the show. So the exhibition was renamed Chinatown: The Sequel being the sequel to a show that never happened By then I had become more interested in the idea of the sequel than 'Chinatown' and I started to focus on these scenarios of remaking, continuing, pushing narratives further, creating tangents, film-industry concepts - there was a lot about the 'sequel' that was attractive.

We've met you at Sunset Towers Hotel Bar and you had mentioned in your email how you would regard a hotel and other 'places of transience' to be more like a studio than any fixed space. It's beginning to emerge why.

Three or four years ago, while I was studying Fashion at RMIT, I had a studio space in the city with James Deutscher, Saskia Schut, Christopher LG Hill, Joshua Petherick, Simon Taylor, Matt Hinkley... It was a little about having a space to work, but mostly about being around these brilliant people. After fashion studies stopped and I didn't have patterns and folios to work on anymore, I didn't need a studio space. Around the same time, I went to LA and became fascinated by the aura and implications and poetry of hotels: the designed space, the flow of sociability through them, the anonymity, their flaneur effect, the repetition of rooms, the idea of losing yourself in a domestic space that you haven't determined, the borrowing, the fragrance... At the same time I was thinking about this, I found a book by Wayne Koestenbaum called Hotel Theory. I was at the early stages of imagining an exhibition for Y3K that I decided straight away to call it Hotel Theory, that was an exhibition about atmosphere, these immaterial things that really give themselves over heavily - language, perfume, time.

While appealing to your disinterest in geography, these places existing as emotional limbos.

Completely - and these are the spaces that I enjoy. So I decided to make this collection of perfumes for the show. One was Gucci Envy - I became curious about 'envy' being a sprayable material - there were three compositions of the male Envy and the female Envy - so one that was 50% male, 50% female, another that was perhaps 15% male, the rest female..

You are accepting a certain level of integrity from Gucci...

Yes! I am taking it at face value because that's the other reason I am fascinated by perfumes - what is less describable than scent? Unless it is a very particular fragrance that has one origin, perfume marketing is about attaching an idea or an emotion. There was another perfume that came from some Lil' Wayne lyrics "You smell me girl, I smell like money" where I vaporised some American $1 bills, which just smelt like dirty water, but it was the literalisation of this expression to do with fragrance. The other scent came from a passage from Madame Bovary, a description of Emma that aligns the experience of encountering her with the feeling of walking into a church, smelling roses but feeling the coldness of marble. So an extracted rose scent was placed with tablets of cold marble. Hotel Theory became two shows; one where there were these curatorial propositions and another solo exhibition and performance by Mateo Tannatt. One element from the first part of the show was making a flower arrangement each day with Joshua Petherick, which is part of an ongoing project. It began when we were working on an ACCA @ Mirka show - we had both acknowledged a shared interest in flowers, arrangements and decorative composition and we wanted to arrange flowers at the opening. Mirka is a restaurant/reception space so it made sense to borrow from this vocabulary of display. ACCA was also sponsored by Dulux and I had this colour chart which had the most incredible, heavy-handed, romantic names for the colours that we were using to pick a colour for the walls. Going through it, we decided it might be better to choose the colour based on name, ignorant of the shade. They were just so ridiculous and evocative, we wanted to submit to the language. But instead we devised another strategy to deal with this. Joshua was travelling overseas shortly after the exhibition opened and we agreed he would send me jpegs from his travels from which I would extract the most salient colours, find their corresponding colour on the Dulux colour chart, source flowers in these colours, make an arrangement then index the Dulux colour names. The names would then become a poem like 'Poolside Love Pat Seabreeze Butter' - these awful and amazing combinations of words. I would send the poems back to Joshua and this would complete the cycle. And we've done it since, in different variations.

Is there a particular interest in the incidental or circumstantial elements of things?

I will oscillate between different ways of working - like at the moment, working with a commercial gallery on a George Condo show is completely exciting, as it doesn't have anything to do with me making structural decisions. My role is to arrange the works in a way that permits their viewing in a constructive or illuminating way, to find the relationships in the works but not overwhelm them and then of course to try to sell the works to collectors and engage an interested audience. So different to some other projects I've worked on! So I guess if I had to define a way that I work, it would be that I enjoy vacillating between things. A dear friend with a wonderful mind, Fayen D'Evie, is very good at analysing meta, thinking about thinking, and one of her recent observations about the way I work is things are never totally resolved. They'll re-enter the loop from a different time, a different position...

It suggests that there is also a personal evolution to the way you work-

The idea of the 'personal' isn't something I have talked about much but it's interesting that you pick it up. As a curator, I find myself occupied with reading things carefully then configuring things beside each other in my imagination as well as exhibition. Even doing this quite strict George Condo show, in writing the essay, I have somehow managed to work in items from Michel Houellebecq's The Map and The Territory because it provides an alternative analysis on Condo's work from a source perhaps not directly pointing towards it. So that personal aspect it still there.

So now that you are here, what is next?

I guess now, working in a commercial gallery over here, there will be more distance in the way I think about work and artists and how I piece things together. Coming from an environment in Melbourne that is deeply personal and sociable, where everything coalesces in the one space, is a hugely enjoyable thing but maybe it was time to work in a new way.

Unavoidable in Melbourne - might prove to be unavoidable in LA too!

Maybe! But back to the geographic having some relevance - here you really are forcefully separated from some things. The very last thing I did in Melbourne was writing for James Deutscher's show. When he asked me to write some text for it, at first I said 'Absolutely not' - the work seemed perfect and felt people shouldn't see it through my voice or optics. But at the same time I did really want to write about the work! This was an interesting problem and the solution came from reflecting on our shared fascination with the politics and economics of the art world and what writing, language and critical ideas contribute to the value of the work - a symbolic value or a financial value. So out of discussions we agreed that I would write a unique text for a collector for each piece of work purchased. So around 700 words each, a unique print for the collector of the work, edition of one with 2 artists' proofs. The digital file was destroyed. He sold 4 or 5 works from that show, so I wrote 4 or 5 texts. It was a way of thinking about and negotiating the market as well as the work. This has always been interesting for me and why I took up this position in LA working for a gallery that is so determined by the market but also with space to contribute what I would want to see in a gallery, which is exciting, and a little serious!



Photography courtesy of Liv Barrett, LTD Los Angeles and Joshua Petherick.