Interview with Clarissa Corfe, Contemporary Art Curator - Harris Museum & Art Gallery

Clarissa Corfe is the contemporary art curator at Preston’s Harris Museum & Art Gallery. The museum has been an important part of Preston’s community since its founding in 1893. Continuing to celebrate its local community by creating links between Preston’s past and present, the museum’s collections and exhibitions highlight the people of historical local importance while introducing the current day and contemporary to their local and wider audiences. Writer, Emma Sumner caught up with Clarissa to see how the museum, gallery and collection have influenced her interests.

Emma Sumner:  What attracted you to the Harris?

Clarissa Corfe: I had been curating at Castlefield Gallery for a few years and knew the space intimately. Designing the space had become almost intuitive or second nature. I really wanted a new challenge and the prospect of curating a programme in juxtaposition to a fascinating and wide ranging collection, within the context of this incredible neo-classical and imposing building was really exciting.

ES:  That’s quite a switch between two very different venues. Would you say that your curatorial interests have changed at all? How have you put your own curatorial stamp on the Harris programme?

CC:  I’ve always been interested in notions of the ‘live’ within different mediums and working within a historic building and collections has enabled me and the artists I have worked with to explore this further. For The Varieties exhibition that I co-curated with Harold Offeh, we used objects associated with the Preston born acrobat, clown and filmmaker Will Onda from the social history collection as a starting point. I’ve always been fascinated in different approaches to display and curation of artworks and objects; deconstructing and examining the function of an exhibition. I’m interested in the history of curation and the way in which trends have changed and evolved over the last 70 years and the way that artist-curator approaches have become increasingly absorbed into the mainstream - Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Venice Biennale exhibition Utopia Station that I saw in 2003, for example. I enjoy instigating artist-curator projects - they have a much broader ‘licence’ to playfully ‘meddle’ with the context of artworks/objects in a way that is more collaborative, which curator could and should never do. They can seem like singular artworks or single installation – a kind of gesamtkunstwerk - and we experience the works in a different context, through a different lens. It brings fascinating issues around curatorial and artist authorship and autonomy of artworks into play. Whether displayed in a traditional white cube, an artist-curated project in a museum or gallery, the context is always a ‘mediated’ one. Gavin Wade writes really fascinatingly about this. The white cube context is a relatively recent phenomena and is as ‘un-neutral’ or even, as ‘contrived’ as any other space.

I developed an exhibition using the theatre of the absurd as a starting point and commissioned some really brilliant works. One of them was Nathaniel Mellors’ new Ourhouse film. We won the Contemporary Art Society Award 2014 with him which has enabled him to shoot his most ambitious film, also helped by a major partnership I set up with UCLan’s Media Factory. Its an absurdist drama that was shot in various locations around Preston and features an eccentric family who inhabit Preston’s iconic, brutalist bus station. It has a T.A.R.D.I.S. – like interior that subjects them to a series of fantastical events in which they migrate from pre-history to post-history. The film could be appreciated on many different levels but for me it explored what it means to collect, preserve and display, re-imaging and altering our seismic understanding of time and history through the irreverently humorous lens of Nathaniel’s imagination. The actors’ performances were absolutely brilliant and the film was loved by adults as well as children.

ES: Tell me about your interest in the building?

CC:  The building is ‘neo’ classical. It was built around 50 years after this style of architecture was popular. Back then already it was a representation of a former style of architecture, you could say ‘mock’ classical and therefore reminds me of a prop, stage set or sculpture waiting for the possibilities to engage with its actors. I’ve always wanted to completely empty the building of all artworks and signage, enabling visitors to engage with the building as a sculpture and fall in love with it again. I love the idea of there being just one artwork in the building, commissioning one at a time, or replacing one object from the collection at a time purposefully and having a city-wide discussion around each one as it is reintroduced to explore the cultural significance, similar to the British Museum’s ‘a history of the world in 100 objects’.

The contemporary programme over the last couple of years had an overarching title of Dance First, Think Later looking at ideas around performativity and the human condition, tragedy and absurdity as I’m interested in the way the live manifests itself in all mediums but I’ve also programmed a number of live events in the museum - the building provides an engaging context for this. Traditionally, the museum is seen as a repository for historic objects preserved for posterity, the gems, archetypes or fossils of the future. Bringing the live the temporal, ephemeral and the experimental into the programme and building with all the ‘authority’ it commands creates flux, re-negotiating the notion of the ‘permanent’. The fact that all this can happen under one roof, for me, creates a really stimulating environment to work in.

ES: You mention that the collection at the Harris influenced you as a curator. Are there any aspects of the collection that you have found particularly fascinating?

CC: Both the historic fine/decorative art and social history collections are fascinating, the largest ever collection of perfume bottles - these objects are amazing! The social history collection is also fascinating, for example objects linked to the Dick Kerr Ladies Football club - the only UK female team to compete and tour internationally at the time. The prolific filmmaker Will Onda who documented social events and happenings all around Preston. His films are held in the BFI film archive.

The way in which objects and artworks are curated within a traditional museum is really interesting. The musicological approach to curating is scientific, almost forensic - finding out the facts and filling in the knowledge gaps of history. Working with contemporary artists is completely different, its much more intuitive, open-ended - throwing convention in the air and seeing where the ideas land.

ES: On contemporary art do you see a programme to support emerging artists being part of what you’re doing here?

CC: Definitely. I think this is really important to support emerging and regional/local artists, and so do our funders. A studio group called The Birley is in residence at the moment. They are all graduates from UCLan and their talent is vital for the ecology and energy of the city. I have integrated emerging/local artists work into the main exhibitions programme of artists that have national and international renown. That has been really important.  The events programme has been really busy, for example, panel discussions around the open exhibition looking at art and education, with Maurice Carlin, of Islington Mill Art Academy, Ruth Kenny, curator at Tate Britain, I did an in conversation with Anthony d’Offay, commissioned Lisa Le Feuvre to talk on ‘failure’, and a range of artists’ performances, including non-artist performances like a high-bar gymnasts routine in the rotunda, panel discussions around Nathaniel’s film and the exhibition, solo artists’ talks and in conversations, commissioned essays and portfolio reviews. These events have been really well attended so there’s definitely a demand for critically engaged discussions and events in Preston. The next few months is also really busy. I’ve invited Martin Creed for a Words and Music gig to coincide with the exhibition of his work I have curated. The museum as a social space is also important and I’m organising a free gig with DJ Dave Haslam of Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass band. Preston based artist Maeve Rendle has also developed a spectacular performance for the second floor balcony of the museum, and more so please watch this space.

ES: Do you feel it’s important to have a regional focus?

CC: I think it’s important to have a balance. In larger institutions there’s a tendency to get further away from working with artists, whereas in smaller organisations you work more closely with artists. It’s the balance of emerging and established, regional and international, old and new, experimental open-endedness and the didactic historic displays, the live and the ‘fossilised’ that I find so stimulating and that for me creates a museum that ‘pulsates’. The social and historic fabric of the city is really interesting to me; Preston-centric on the one hand, but the artists I am working with also connect internationally with the past with the present. Its important that the programme has wider resonance, almost like looking at Preston as a case study. I hope people will be able to look at the programme at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery who don’t live nearby and get something out of it.

ARTIST ROOMS: Martin Creed is on at the Harris Museum until 3 June 2017.