Sarah Cook: Curating The Upstarts

April 2010

April 28, 2010

Sarah Cook has just arrived from New York and in three weeks will leave for Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. For the past 10 years she’s gained an international reputation in the smallest of niches – curating new-media art – and is in Ottawa to do a month-long residency with SAW Video’s Public Domain project.  She’s an academic to the tips of her sensible shoes, but there is anarchy rolling around her eyes.

Cook will only admit to a “small amount” of subversion in her professional capacity, a path that is helping add new tiers of production, distribution and consumption into an art world that even at its most democratic is fiercely hierarchical. New-media art claims it isn’t displacing traditional forms; it simply uses technology to change how we see and engage in the creative process.

Sarah Cook. Photo by Mike Levin.

An example is New York artist Steve Lambert, who designed Add-Art software that when installed on a computer, blocks out online advertisements and replaces them with art images – of course with the artist’s permission but perhaps not with the advertiser’s. Exchanging commerce for beauty? Sounds totally seditious to me. “Well that’s art, isn’t it?” Cook says softly.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in new-media art, where anything legal goes in the name of creativity.  Its raison d’etre is to create experience, often in a collaborative environment, that diminishes the boundary between art and life. Cook says it is simply variations on other artistic media without the traditional restrictions of format. For the public it has a strong scent of a tidal wave, easy to grasp in theory but with no concept of its momentum in reality.

Cook was born in England and grew up in Montreal, but has lived most of her life outside Canada. She has a Masters from The Center for Curatorial Studies and Art in Contemporary Culture, in Annandale-on-Hudson in New York State, and a Doctorate from The University of Sunderland on England’s Northeast coast, where she remains a research fellow.  This job requires that she curate projects in partnership with arts organizations anywhere in the world. Hence a loaded frequent-flyer card.

Curating is difficult to define outside one’s own practice. It seems to require being a middleman, a tastemaker and a matchmaker. “Yes, but I try not to let them get in the way,” Cook says. “Some of my value to artists is connecting, helping situate art into context.”

At this point my head starts to buzz; “art into context” means subjective perception, and I’m still trying to figure out what kind of image would look good in place of a blanked-out Google advertisement. I’ll get a better understanding tomorrow (April 29) when Cook presents a seminar on Curatorial Practice & New Media Today at the National Gallery of Canada Lecture Hall, at 6 pm. Admission is free.

Despite her academic perceptions, Cook and her path are intriguing. New media, ironically, is something we’ve all been involved in since we first logged onto the Internet, and she simply assumes that the arts side of it will soon become as ubiquitous as emailing. It won’t even require a revolution as it erodes old ways of seeing things. This is, after all, a woman who co-edits the CRUMB Website, which stands for Curatorial Resource for Upstart Media Bliss.

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