Interview with Allison Collins
By KT Duffy, Assistant Professor of Art, Art + Technology at Northeastern Illinois University
Allison Collins is a curator, writer and researcher who is currently the Media Arts Curator at Western Front artist-run centre for contemporary art and new music in Vancouver. Collins served as Guest Curator for the exhibition side of the New Media Caucus’ first ever conference and exhibition. Although the call for works was put out by the NMC in order to critically engage relevant topics around the implications of borders within a New Media practice, it was Allison Collins who gave form to this conversation. From the pool of submissions Collins was most struck by the ways in which artists are using data to process huge questions around migrations and symbolic representations. By applying diverse sets of new media skills and approaches artists are addressing borders and bodies in ways which are exciting to Collins. The selection of works for the exhibition represent an enthusiasm for the meeting of technique with the redefinition of borders and bordering.
What motivates you in your everyday curatorial practice?
In my regular curatorial practice I primarily work in production, meaning I work with artists to realize new works of art. This focus centres close relationships with artists and working through ideas, as well as longer term engagements with artist’s practices.
My motivation for this work comes from artists themselves, whose perspectives on the world are vital and worth supporting and fostering.
How do you define new media, and how has your definition of the medium changed over the span of your career?
I loosely refer to new media as practices that intersect with technology in its various forms and also address technology as a subject. I work as a curator in an art centre, Western Front, which has long had a relationship with artists using video and other forms of technology, such as broadcast. At our centre we work together with artists regardless of their level of expertise with media. I am often reluctant to weigh in on definitions of terms like ‘new media’ because I’m more interested in how an artist might choose to pursue an element of technology within their practice than any one form of technology itself. Over the course of my career I have worked mainly with artists using video as a medium, but have more recently focused on artists who have adopted computers as a medium, or using VR space as a viewing platform.
As you were going through the jury pool, what were you most struck by, and what themes began to emerge?
The engagements of the artists where the media became a vehicle for a consideration of the world around them tended to stick out the most. Diverging themes were quite natural as this was an open call. We discussed the projects as a team and tried to allow this many-faceted approach to come together as part of the project.
Many artists were using technology to look at the natural world, assemble views of the natural environment and I was struck by how the natural world cannot be contained by political boundaries. Mapping and imposed borders is evident in various within certain works, as cut up schematics at times, or the literal interpretation of maps. The immediate situation of citizenship and the transgression of organized national boundaries was also important and personal testimonial approaches to this have become an important theme that can approach the more personal elements of border control.
What was your thought process when developing a concept or structure for the Borders Symposium show?
The process was one of group discussions. Although I’m a caretaker for the show, as it’s named curator, the project comes primarily from the New Media Caucus open call, and is a direct response to their call for submissions. Taking on this kind of decentralized approach is a new task for me as a curator, and the process intrigued me as I became interested in how this open-ended approach might offer different perspectives and new insights into the subject matter. I think it has also exposed some limits, in terms of the ability of an academic organization to reach outside of its established core audience. As a result, many of the respondents are affiliated with academia in some way, either as professors or students.
The structure of the show responds to the works offered by the call, as an attempt to assemble order from shared concerns. The grouping offers guidance to the overall terrain of thinking and artwork that is on view, but in many ways the show offers plurality instead of cohesion.
How did place impact the crafting of this show ? How were you influenced by Anne Arbor, Michigan in general, University of Michigan and the Penny W. Stamps School Of Art & Design?
I have not yet visited Ann Arbor, but I grew up less than two hours away, in Sarnia, Ontario. The landscape and general terrain of economics and industry of the region are both familiar and unfamiliar, and this is something I used as an anchor to think about my role as an outsider to this community. I think that proximity can bring you into conversation with things you might not otherwise seek yourself, and through this show new relationships will form with artists who are not from the region and perhaps those that are. As a Canadian citizen, I have regularly reflected on the ease of my ability to enter the United States. I have never been denied entry to the USA, although friends have, and many artists and members of the wider arts community globally could not say the same. I am quite mindful of the privileged relationships of our two nations and how this feeds norms and beliefs about our shared border that do not hold true for everyone.
The opportunity for a more concentrated period to consider this question has been very rewarding. Working on the project at Stamps has likewise been rewarding, as they have a keen sense of their role in the community as part of the University of Michigan. The director Srimoyee Mitra, has a long track record of intelligent programming and exhibitions on the subject of borders, and I’m very glad that this project will come to fruition under her care and guidance.
What kind of trends do you see in new media genres, and which of these most excites, interests, or worries you?
I’m not certain that I can offer a definitive answer to satisfy this question. I think any new form of technology will entice artists to approach and take an interest. That might be complex VR filmic worlds, or it might be consumer-grade electronics that are now so widely available that anyone might have access to publishing or broadcasting their own thoughts, ideas and artistic work. Technology should be the hands of artists at any level of complexity because artists are an important and vital element of the ecosystem of community thinking and being. Artists offer insight and provocation through any media, and that is what interests me the most.