Opening Doors: An Interview with ACT Consulting Curator Laura Knott

Joan Jonas: Sources and Methods. Exhibition curated by Laura Knott, 2018. Photo by Chelsea Polk.
ACT at MIT

Opening Doors: An Interview with Laura Knott by Marissa Friedman

“I have come to think of my role as a person who opens doors,” Laura Knott, ACT’s Consulting Curator, and an alumna of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, says. “For me, giving students – or other interested parties – access to reading materials, to a place to read them, to a syllabus that’s otherwise sitting in a file, to an artist’s personal collection, is a way to provide multiple entry points to a work or works. What can I do to help people come to art and enter it?”

Knott has recently completed ACT’s latest exhibition, Joan Jonas: Sources and Methods, which features the work of ACT Professor Emerita, Joan Jonas. An internationally renowned performance- and video-artist since the late 1960s, Jonas has recently had several large, international exhibitions, including at the Tate Modern in London. Jonas represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2015, and is the 2018 recipient of the Kyoto Prize, which will be presented to her in November. On Monday, December 3, Joan Jonas will be joined by Sung Hwan Kim and ACT Director Judith Barry for a discussion as part of ACT’s Fall 2018 Lecture Series.

Marissa Friedman: What was the origin of this exhibition?

Laura Knott: Judith Barry is very interested in revitalizing the teaching of performance at ACT, so it seemed like a really opportune time to focus on Joan’s work. I was interested in doing something in the ACT space that let students gain insight into how an artist of Joan’s stature brings the images and the structures of her work to the surface; and how she uses her underlying practices to create the final works. Joan is a very literary person, so part of what I wanted to do for the exhibit was to bring together a collection of some of the books that she references.

MF: How did you choose which works would be included?

LK: We worked on this in a very short and intense period of time. Judith Barry was involved from the beginning. We went back and forth about what we thought might work in the space, and we made a proposal to Joan’s studio. At the same time, Joan’s studio staff was literally checking storage to see what works were available. When we felt fairly confident of which videos and drawings to show, the object list went back to Joan, who was pleased with the selection of works.

MF: This exhibition is at an academic program; is the student population the primary, intended audience?

LK: I definitely had the students in mind, but I was also thinking about the contemporary art audience in the region who already know Joan’s work, and who would be engaged by understanding where that work comes from. She’s very open about when she is and is not using literary sources, where the drawings come from, what she’s looking at, and I think – from what I know about her practice – she sees reading as part of what she does, drawing as part of what she does, collecting things and travelling are all part of what she does. So, for those reasons, I wanted to give a three-sixty degree view of how it seems to me that she thinks about her work, how she begins to bring it to the surface.

I think it’s important for people to know that here’s this person who’s known for video and performance, who has given herself permission to continue a practice of making drawings. Joan draws in performance all the time and irreverently tosses the drawings to the floor; this is a different way of looking at her drawings. And it’s especially great for students coming into an art program at this moment in contemporary art when everybody is questioning what is and is not a valid art practice. I think that by putting those drawings there, we insinuate that there are many valid practices, and there are lots of ways to sustain work across media, and here’s one of them.

MF: Speaking of different practices, you yourself were a choreographer and student here at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies. What drew you to this program?

LK: When I started studying choreography in the mid-70s, it was in a moment when dance was very closely tied to visual art. In fact, a lot of the experimental work was happening in parallel, and had to do with getting outside of the gallery, outside of the performance space; using pedestrian movement, thinking about dance as a life practice, not as a concert practice.

I came to a point in my dance life where dance and video were on a collision course, and I wanted to learn the language of video. I had a part time job at MIT and was making dances and performing, and I was friends with a student at CAVS who pretty much recruited me into the program. When I got there, it was obvious that the CAVS artists were working in areas that I found extremely interesting, and I also discovered that by being at CAVS I had access to the film and video program at the Media Lab.

Somewhere along the road, I taught a course about issues in contemporary art. One of the things we talked about was how the relationships between museums and artists were changing. I became really interested in how curatorial decisions were being made: about what was shown, how it was shown, what was collected by a museum. So, I took the only museum job that would have me, which was an entry level job in the architecture and design collections at the MIT Museum. I learned the curatorial work on the job, which forced me to pay attention to how work is shown and what the voice of the curator is, and helped me define for myself the role that I wanted to play. I didn’t grow up in a place with any contemporary art, so when someone would invite me in, I was always very grateful.

MF: How do you define the role of the curator?

LK: I think part of the role of curator, especially when working in contemporary art, is to take care of the artist – to be honest and fair and true about their intentions, and not to over-interpret the work. I did a lot of reading to understand and think about Joan’s work and how best to present it. I used quotes from interviews, and from her writing, as the labels for the objects; instead of trying to interpret work myself, I’m hoping to let her voice come through. Like in this little vitrine—it has 14 or so objects from her personal collection—the quote is about how she used to like to go to antique stores with her mother, but she says “like the surrealists, I’m very interested in collecting.” So here, in a couple sentences, she is telling a story that’s deeply personal, but at the same time, connecting her practice to the practices of artists 100 years ago. I’m not interested in just creating a container for the work; I want to make sure that the choices I make act as buoys and support for the work and not as my voice drowning out the voice of the artist.