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> > > Interview: House of Vernacular

Wendy McGowan-Griffin interviews Matthew Miller, Co-Director of Fabrica Gallery

Matthew talks about the curatorial decisions made during the installation of Martin Parr’s 'House of Vernacular,' which ran from 2 October to 28 November 2010 as part of the Brighton Photography Biennial.

Transcript of interview follows below

image of the inside of a luxurious aeroplane

Dictators Aeroplanes © Nick Gleis, Aeroplane Interior, Archive of Modern Conflict

As an artist you’re quite interested in installations. I’ve got one or two questions about the exhibition here – The House of Vernacular. Obviously it’s very much an installation within the huge building, Fabrica. Perhaps first of all you could you tell me a little bit about the background to the exhibition and about your working relationship with Martin Parr.

Well Martin Parr is the curator of the Brighton Photo Biennial, which is this year focused on five venues in the city. We’re one of those. Martin’s overall theme for the biennial is documentary photography. Alongside that he has a very clear vision for the exhibition to be hung unframed, so it’s prints in the raw in a sense. He came to us with an idea to display seven different collections of vernacular photography. And he describes vernacular photography as photography done for a purpose other than to make art or to be displayed in exhibitions. And he’s – as I’m sure you’re aware from his own work and his own collections, his own fascination with collecting – that’s a really key area of interest for him.

He came to us with that proposition, with some ideas about how they could be displayed as well. The aeroplane materials for example – he was very keen that we should try and mock up a fuselage for those to be displayed in. So we began talking about how the other collections might be displayed in a similar theatrical style, to bring out the quirkiness or poignancy of those images in a more emotional and all-encompassing way.

What freedom did you feel you had to integrate them into the exhibition – because obviously there are seven separate series. It seems like quite a challenge to integrate them into one exhibition.

If you know the space here – it’s an old church, it’s just one big open space. And the idea of hanging an exhibition of – I don’t know how many we’ve got here actually – maybe a hundred photographic prints in this space – is quite an absurd one when you think the available wall space is probably only a few square metres. So the first thought is – how can we accommodate an exhibition of this kind in this space? So we need to construct walls. Each collection is very different, so they need to be contained in different ways. So it was a very practical starting point if you like.

But the idea of something that takes a photograph beyond a print on a white wall is something we’re always interested in – and Martin was very up for that as well. We work very closely with the artists who exhibit here, often creating new work and new installations, and we see our role as a collaborator in that process. So Martin was very keen for us to take a lead in some ways in developing the framework for the exhibition. His interest in how that’s shown is a keen one, but he trusts us to work very closely with him on that.

W**hat processes did you go through, and I wondered what kind of themes you might have found to pull it together?**

For example, in the room we’re in now with these photographs of babies and toddlers taken in a commercial photographic studio, with these strange landscape backdrops or brightly coloured backdrops, there’s a sense of kind of capturing these children off-guard in a way. But also kind of almost an institutional feel in some ways I feel. So the idea that this is a strange – not maternity ward exactly – but some kind of utilitarian, functional, almost clinical space seemed appropriate somehow to emphasise the quirkiness of some of the images, and the idea that babies collected in a space are often in a kind of hospital or nursery context - so it’s that kind of feel really.W

What common themes did you find amidst the collections?

Well it’s hard to find something common other than a kind of association with architecture actually in some form or other. That was our starting point. To think – is there a place in which these images might be seen outside of an exhibition context – on a domestic wall for example – which follows for the Brazilian images and the American images – they’re shown in a space which we imagine to be the space in which those images were taken in, for example. Whereas the aeroplane interiors we’re just kind of in a way mimicking what’s seen in the images to some extent, as a way of placing the viewer in a different space.

It seems to me as if the exhibition itself has created levels of vernacular. Would you say that that was the case?

Yes, I would say so. We’ve been very playful in the way we’ve picked out details of the décor and pieces of furniture, trying to make those associations with our own homes, with our own idiosyncrasies and our own everyday experience. It’s a fine balance I think how much you do in that respect to create that theatrical idea. So some rooms have more a sense of a specific place than others. Some are more open to interpretation I would say.

I wondered what questions were brought to mind about authorship and intention regarding the images. And how their status might have changed from the original image-making.

Yes, that’s interesting. None of these images have been produced with the intention of them being exhibited as art or otherwise – other than to be exhibited on a mantelpiece at home or in a photo album. So there’s no intention of the photographer in any of these displays. We haven’t spoken to any of the photographers about how they would like their images displayed. So it is in a way taking a liberty with that. But I think all these photographs in a sense the transaction when they’re either sold or collected is that they are put out into the public domain in a form which the author has no control over anyway. So in a way they’re passed on to be done with whatever happens.

There certainly seems to have been created a sense of otherness, of looking through in some ways the creation of the house. It almost seems like a vehicle in which to see through to the images in a particular way.

Yes, I think that’s right. I think there is something more to be gained by the metaphor of these rooms. But in a way I don’t want that to be too leading for people. I want there to be an ambiguity in there, for people to bring their own ideas about what these images mean. We’re kind of suggesting something in the way that we’ve shown them, but it’s not, I hope, too prescriptive in that way. I’ve described this as a kind of dream-like architecture and I think in that way it is open to interpretation. That we all have our own dream architecture and dream landscapes which we inhabit and we find our own meanings in those, even though there may be common elements, and I hope it’s taken in that way really.

Certainly when I looked at the exhibition a lot of people were talking quite curiously about themselves, and so it seems to have been successful in that respect. I wondered what was your favourite series of images and perhaps you could say a little bit more about the steps you took to show them at their best.

It’s difficult to choose between them because they all have their qualities, but I think the litter-bin series is something that stayed with me the longer I’ve been with this work, and it’s something about the stark reality of them which I really enjoy, and the urban scene behind. They’re images taken just as a public record. There’s no intention to do anything fancy with them – just to show what is, and in a very formal sense. But nevertheless they do carry with them some system of values and qualities which I think you recognise as being not of this time but of some time past. And I think that’s of interest to me as well, how subtly that kind of idea can be brought out in those images. And I think the way for us to display them is very simply to suggest an outside space, perhaps an urban courtyard where these things may once have been. But then to leave that to the imagination of the viewer, where that might be. For me it’s an enclosed square in a housing estate near where I grew up, or the school playground. There’s one of the images which is very much like the school I went to.

Certainly for me I had some kind of intimation of rebellion socially, sort of images of what you should do – and then the space you’ve created.

Yes, it’s the kind of space you’d get up to no good in.

That’s great, thank you. What do you feel you have gained from this particular curatorial experience?

What’s been really fascinating actually is that we’ve created in this gallery something that we’ve never done before, which is to enclose the whole space into a series of rooms, in such a way as you can’t see the building as it exists. All our exhibitions previously have been intended to work with the building as an architectural form in itself. So this is the first opportunity we’ve had to create another space entirely in here, or another series of spaces entirely in here. And that is something I had concerns about doing actually. I guess we’ve always felt there’s some kind of purity in working with the space as it is, and that building something inside of that somehow negates what we’re about. But actually it’s been a revelation to find that to be the opposite case actually, and it’s been very, very refreshing to do this.

So that creates new possibilities.

Indeed, it does. And opens up our imaginations to do other things, which is great. This is a very versatile building and we’ve never been short of things to do in it. But this has just taken us in a direction we that perhaps we wouldn’t have considered hadn’t we not be working with Martin Parr.

Thinking about the building – what are the next challenges that you’re facing. What’s coming up at Fabrica?

Just before Christmas we’ll be closing the gallery for a couple of months. It’s a kind of traditional cycle for us in the year that we close in the winter to public exhibition. But we’ll be carrying on doing development work and running closed events in the gallery. But our next exhibition opens in April. That’s Forty Part Motet, by Janet Cardiff. It’s a work that’s been shown elsewhere before, but it’s one which I think will fit perfectly into this building. That will run from April through to the end of May. It’s a sound installation, which is something I’m very interested to explore as well because the acoustics in this building are wonderful, so I’m very much looking forward to that.

Thank you very much Matthew.

Go to DAOs review section for Wendy McGowan-Griffin's response to the exhibition