Will Wilson, independent curator and a thinker of the modern ages, shares his reflections on Emma Steensma's solo show, "Dream Bleeds".
Will Wilson partnered with All Street Gallery on May 23rd to 25th at 77 East 3rd Street to present Emma Steensma’s debut show in New York, “Dreams Bleed.” Displaying a total of 19 prints and a sculpture, his main objective is to present a cohesive body of work that captures Emma’s solo travels through the Northwest. The exhibition is intended to be a reflection of the dichotomy of cultural extremes between Europe and the US.
In speaking with Will, he delves deeper into the importance of immersing in artists' narratives, creating thought-provoking experiences, and asking open and honest questions.
WW: As a curator, it’s not my responsibility to control the narrative or the art itself. It’s about my job to fully immerse myself with the artists, understand the narrative, and the place in which people will interact. Keeping in mind the physical space but also the mentality of the state: What’s it like in New York City versus having a show in Mexico City, London, or Los Angeles?
I think the goal of the curator is to invite the viewers into the narrative that the artist had been in to create the work, and to investigate the best ways to explore it further.
SC: How was the experience of exhibiting Emma, a Dutch artist who flew in from Amsterdam for this, to the environment of New York?
WW: The show was quite challenging to determine the body of work because there were a lot of elements to consider. All of the photos were taken throughout Emma’s Northwest U.S. travels within two weeks prior to the opening night. Editing and printing also occurred two days prior. Separately, New York City can especially be so oversaturated with content. But my intention of showing any kind of art is just to create fun, curious, and engaged conversations that push people in a direction where they make a new friend, or they get inspired when they're able to reflect on a variety of other things. So I think we accomplished that. Also, Emma had been traveling alone before she arrived in New York for this peak so I think the intensity of the city was present for her. Only few can understand – if you've lived here for long enough periods, you start to see how brutal it can be.
I was in the Netherlands back in April so I had the ability to reflect there with Emma, see her in her family home, and then now, she comes to stay in my home. Together, we explored those differences. Our two states. I think it engaged people in that way where it felt like an abrupt reflection through the lens of the sleep paralysis demon “Night Hag”. I think it translated well, and it caught people's attention in a way it might not have been captured in past shows.
SC: I think Emma's artwork and your curation was able to bring together something so unexpected than what you have commonly seen from a New York exhibition space. There's a level of playfulness and casualness in her work and the way that her work is being presented. I think so many people try to touch on serious topics and present it in a very conceptual way, but I like that, despite her experiencing something quite serious, she's able to turn it around and make it light-hearted.
WW: I’m super happy you said that – I think play is such an important activity, that as we grow older, we are stuck within the confines of the structures of how life is supposed to be or how maybe we want it to be. We forget to play within those boundaries, or outside of them or along the lines.
While I honestly don’t know what I'm doing, I have to trust my education, experiences, conversations, and intuition, and just play along those boundaries.
Always try to push and bounce the ball against it; get it outside. We did talk about serious topics, though not directly within the show. But sleep paralysis is a very real thing, and if you’ve had it, you likely don’t sleep well. But I don't think it's necessary to force that on people; I think it's much easier to engage them in a playful way that if you just look beyond the surface, it's very clear there's many elements to it.
SC: One aspect that contributed well, maybe unexpectedly, was how Emma had hand painted the title and descriptions on the wall. How did that choice come into play?
WW: It goes towards my desire as a curator to step into the artwork with the artists and to understand “Who are they and what is this?” Emma, specifically, speaks English and Dutch but is also dyslexic, so we usually talk through voice messages on the phone. I thought it was so fitting that Emma would handwrite on a wall instead of us slapping up a very clearly structured font. I also feel like the color choice and its natural scope very well adds to the saturation and playfulness of the images. It felt like a dorm room in some ways where there's a lot of personality added to the space. It’s not just a white cube; we wanted to break that.
SC: When the photos of the vinyl were first sent to me, I had actually zoomed into the background of Emma's drawing because I was somehow drawn to the way that she drew or wrote the G of ONLYCHILDMAG. I don't know why, but I thought she had drawn a monster because that G looked so funky to me. I was like “What is that?” but also weirdly, in the best way.
Personally, I'm so used to typing out ONLYCHILDMAG. Obviously working in media, it's about presenting it in a thoughtful way. So I think just seeing it in somebody else's handwriting drew me in so much that I zoomed into the photo. Something as small as that really made the biggest difference.
WW: It's so intricate, and that's what we're trying to do, right?
What I've learned in all of my travels, studies, jobs, and just curiosity is when you see someone like Emma who's so unapologetically and honestly themselves, you feel connected to them in some kind of human way.
Whether that might mean that you are intrigued, repulsed, or feel any kind of desire, lust, inspiration, excitement, vigor, or power – it's well received information. I like challenging the artists I work with, to really focus on that honesty – the raw sharing and giving of information.
Even just for a moment. You don't have to give all of yourself completely. As long as you give enough of yourself for an amount of time, you can share it with people and make them feel something too.
There's a slice of cheese at the MET by Robert Gober. It's in a glass case and there's hair coming out of it. It's one of my favorite things there. I'm not saying that I like it, it’s more repulsive, but that's such a cool feeling to have from just an object. So if an image, a painting, or an object can make you do that and feel something, that’s powerful. It's your brain working. So I think trying to know Emma’s brain and challenge her to have it work in ways that are very natural for her is better than just challenging her to do things that would be cool or fit a certain aesthetic.
Initially, in this process, we weren't aligned in what she and I were envisioning. It was a lack of communication on personal preferences and understanding of the art. I was understanding the art she's making in a way that was different than what she was intending it to be understood as, and I think intention can be challenging.
As the curator, I think it's critical to understand that intention, but as a viewer, I think it's much more open for interpretation. But if all of them align, then I think the curator has done a good job because it’s true.
SC: Do you mind elaborating on the creative differences that you and Emma had experienced in the beginning, and how you, as the curator, managed to work through those differences and present her work in a way that best suited her and her personality?
WW: It found alignment through open and honest conversation. I guess, what I’ve learned from this is that it comes down to asking more constructive, specific, and open questions. You get to understand peoples’ intention and direction better, especially artistically. So initially, I was seeing images and hearing brief statements about the intention behind this exhibition. There was a bit of push-back later on, because in my head, it was a playful idea that was going to be a bit more serious. And I wasn't trying to make it overly serious like we had talked about. Though, she wasn't really coming from that angle. So just listening to her, asking better questions, and trying to break down “Okay, what are these ideas? What are the feelings you're exploring with this art? When you put on the suit, or you ask someone else to put on the suit and you photograph it, what's going through your mind? What are you channeling? And how do we then convey that through images that we show and through displacement and situation, and the rest kind of falls around it.”
I gotta call it a mental pivot. When you hit a wall or you feel stuck, you mentally step back and you look around – look up, down, left, right – all over the place. You turn around and maybe walk somewhere else. So I think Emma and I were able to just understand that, “This is the direction that it’s actually been going in. Let's keep pivoting to stay alive.” That happens in many minor ways throughout the exhibition, but I think we had a good understanding as we concluded, for sure.
SC: I really commend you for being transparent, because rarely do we ever get to hear about a curators’ experience in not only incorporating your creative choices but also keeping the artists’ creative choices.
Will: Just to slightly expand on that — it goes back to the control I mentioned early on. And Emma, through that conversation, was actually worried about giving up control of her art. I was trying to explain from my end, and just like any misunderstanding through any relationship, that I wasn't trying to control her art or her narrative. I was just trying to understand it and do my job of sharing it, and she was trying to do her job of making the art and embodying it. So, there can be places of friction when both parties don't fully understand what's trying to happen. It's really the job of the curator to try to fully digest what is taking place — to put themselves in the shoes of the artists. It’s like acting where you literally step into the shoes of the character, which is something I did for many years.
I'm still me, I'm still bound by my own rules, but I'm able to take on the rules, the parameters, the structure of a character, and give it my own spin — which I think is curation.
SC: This exhibition “Dream Bleeds” is really an embodiment of both you and Emma's creativity. How do you see yourself in this exhibition?
WW: I very clearly figured out how I want to do this more and how I can do this better. I mean, I'm always looking to grow and expand, and I love constructive criticism. I think when people provide suggestions, it's even more helpful.
I think my intuition is just, “Oh, how to ask better questions in these areas. How to be more upfront in the beginning about certain things so that we don't have to have that conversation halfway through about getting more aligned.” It might still happen, and that's totally fine. But to structure a creative space for the artist and for the team involved to best understand what our goals are in displaying these bodies of work, and then how we can go forth and do that.
I have to think about it from a creative lens, which is very intuitive, but also from a business lens, with a structured pattern to it.
Will Wilson, acting under the umbrella of Balloonapuddin, attended Sarah Lawrence College and UAL's Chelsea College of Art, for his undergraduate studies in 2017, studying a wide spectrum of curriculum from Environmental Psychology to Physics, Colour, Game Theory, Modern-Art History, and Sculpture.
Some notable highlights of his past experiences include organising the "Rising Stars" music camp in Los Angeles. The camp featured 35 R&B and Rap artists ranging from 18-45 years old, providing a platform for emerging talent in the music industry.
Additionally, Will has curated an exhibition in London, displaying works of several talented visual artists Julian Wasilewski, Vivienne Cohen, Charlotte Seux, Ivy Johnson, and MinJeong Son. This show was made possible by Wari.
Coming up next, Will is set to collaborate with All Street Gallery once again for a curated group show in September. Be sure to look out for it on ONLYCHILD!
Connect with Will Wilson on: Instagram