Ginevra Shay is an artist and independent curator based in Baltimore, Maryland. She is the Program Manager of The Contemporary, a nomadic museum and the founder of the Current Space Community Darkroom. Ginevra’s work has been exhibited and published nationally and internationally. She participated in recent exhibitions at The Finnish Museum of Photography (Finland), Notre Dame University (Maryland), John Hansard Gallery (United Kingdom), Galleri Vasli Souza (Sweden) and Artisphere (Virginia). Her publications are in the libraries of The International Center for Photography, Indie Photobook Library, Houston Center for Photography, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Do you consider collecting an important part of your practice and does this influence any part of your practice?
I used to spend a lot of time collecting physical visual ephemera: magazines, free books, 35mm snapshots, discarded materials found on the street. The collecting became so synonymous with people’s perception of me that friends started giving me the strange photos or silly pieces of paper they found. My friendship with Dina Kelberman began when I was visiting Baltimore from Vermont and went to a regional hotdog party/clothing swap at her house and saw a sheet of wallet-sized baby photos of her that were laying out. I thought to myself “we have some common ground here, a basis for friendship!” My childhood pictures are full of me making ridiculous faces and poses! We decided to mail copies of our baby photos to one another and since then I’ve curated her artwork into two exhibitions.
Years ago I collected materials for a project with Trevor Powers. We used to travel together to make photographs but we never lived in the same city. We started a journal that we mailed back and forth as a way to stay connected after our travels were over. It’s strange how attached we got to the journal; it was like entering another world where we could express ourselves freely without the slightest bit of hesitation. Within the confines of that book we could have a visual conversation in ways that weren’t possible to do in words, sometimes about really complex or sad things. We ended up journaling together for 5 years. Eventually we turned it into a publication titled, Too Many Places and Times to Remember.
I’m still invested in communication via the USPS but I’m not currently working on any art projects that revolve around the mail. Now I focus most of my collecting energy on zines and artwork. Those things don’t really make it into my practice but are beautiful objects to reflect on and constant sources of inspiration.
What kinds of things do you research or examine as part of your practice? What are you reading at the moment? What artists are you looking at?
I usually do a lot of research for the exhibitions I curate, which is mostly reading philosophy and critical writings about culture. I think about Jorge Luis Borges’ writings a lot and have been invested in short fiction writers for some time. I’m a big fan of Deleuze and post-structuralism. The main thing I’m reading for my personal practice and for fun is Moby Dick. It’s my first time reading it and I’m enjoying how deliberate Melville’s writing and word choices are. I’m trying to be really straightforward in my art practice and reading this book has come at the right time. I’m always looking at different artists’ work. What inspires my practice the most is my friend’s art and work ethic. I’m in the collective Family Family Tree, those folks are endlessly inspiring and hilarious. Also – my husband, Ryan Syrell who is my favorite artist and person, is making work non-stop and constantly inspiring me to amp up my game. Some friends who I think are really killing it right now are Elle Perez, James Bouché, Kyle Tata, Molly Collen O’Connell, Hermonie Only, and Alex Ebstein, but this list could go on forever.
What is your relationship with photography, as a medium or a material? How does technology and/or the internet affect your work?
This is a complex question to answer as an artist, curator, community darkroom founder, and someone who’s done photo archival work. I’ll be honest, I have a complicated relationship with photography, I feel simultaneously attached to and estranged from the medium. When I’m printing in a darkroom, I’m happy and at ease, I feel like I’m in my place. I understand photography better than any other art form; I focused on photo history in college and worked in the photo archives of the Jewish Museum of Maryland and The Afro-American Newspaper. I’m very invested in the preservation of analog processes and the archiving of photographic data.
You know, it’s tough, I think the majority of people who use cameras in the everyday, non-art related sense are still looking to the next technological advancement in photo and aren’t necessarily thinking about the ramifications of that mentality or the shift away from longevity. The impacts of photography on culture are so complicated, as is the history of the process as an art medium and a tool in the arts. Photography is consistently going through these technological innovations, the medium and the message are always subject to change – and that’s an interesting dilemma, through this constant flux photography challenges us and keeps us on our toes. Now, artists are pushing photography as a material in art making, particularly in sculpture and installation, and that’s really exciting to me. The estrangement that I sometimes feel from photography as an art form is in the literal interaction one has when viewing an image. To make that experience more physical, to me, is a step in the right direction for the medium.
Another thing that excites me about photography is this resurgence of support for the analog and antique processes. Photography is an umbrella medium filled with many dynamic and beautiful processes.
As an artist I use the medium/material in a very utilitarian way and try not the get hung up on the history of the practice. Right now I’m trying to push the medium in ways I haven’t before in a traditional black and white darkroom. For example, I’m trying to get more physical with the silver gelatin process without changing the surface of the paper. I’m also exploring was to make an image feel more sculptural within the limitations of the process.
Part of your practice is making zines, books, and publications. How often do you make publications and what is that process like?
I feel like publications are the most intimate things I make. They’re a tactile object that someone can experience privately or share with another person in the location and time of their choosing. Publications are kind of the most comfortable way to get close to art, and that’s a beautiful thing. I think publications are inherently romantic for these reasons. For me, the process of creating a publication is different every time. Sometimes the project is initiated by an opportunity to collaborate with another artist on a new idea, such as Shay/Bouché, and sometimes it’s a good way to end a long series, like with Too Many Places and Times to Remember. Inbetweenie was my first zine; I had a body of work that I wanted to share in some capacity so I used that work as a launching point to create a series specifically for the zine format. Later I ended up doing There’s Treasure Everywhere and that work was also created with the publication as the ideal viewing format in mind. There’s Treasure Everywhere was also my return to working in black and white photography.
With the creation of the Current Space Community Darkroom and the completion of an additional smaller gallery space at Current, I helped initiate a solo photography exhibition program to coincide with the workshops and darkroom membership program. The photo exhibitions started while the darkroom was still being built as a way to get the Baltimore arts community involved with and excited about photography. In 2013, I curated three solo photo exhibitions in the new gallery space. I got to work with Elle Perez, Kyle Tata, and John Zimmerman, and for each show we created an exhibition catalog or handout. Catalogs are a good way for a viewer to take the exhibition home with them and continue to revisit the work over time.
What is your work process like?
I’m usually working on a number of projects at once; my process is a kind of an organized chaos. My recent drawings and photographs are abstract in nature and focus on material and process. The photographs I navigate intuitively and the drawings have set parameters from the beginning so I know where and when I’ll be ending any given piece.
Does your geographic or spatial location directly or indirectly impact how and what you make?
Baltimore never ceases to inspire me and keep me going. This city is filled with many talented and hardworking individuals – it’s because of their passion and commitment that I live here. We have a strong arts community, the artists and people who support the arts in Baltimore are very proud, dedicated, and continue to help the arts grow. There’s a lot of collaboration within the arts here and that’s refreshing.
Baltimore is an old port city with diverse architecture woven into a post-industrial landscape. We have an abundance of space and I like to think that space gives people the liberty to take risks in art and exhibition making – I know the amount of space I have access to pushes me to think more creatively.
I live in a post-industrial neighborhood that is a mix of old factories and row houses. The warehouse I live in, The Annex, has been divided into six, 5,000 sq ft live/work spaces. I live in a unit with my husband Ryan Syrell who is a painter/sculptor, Chester Gwazda a recording engineer/musician, Cara Beth Satalino a musician, Mason Ross a playwright/actor, Rob Dowler a musician, Abe Sanders a photographer/musician, and Brynn Herrick who just moved here from LA. Each of us has a studio space and bedroom. We’ve built out our unit to suit our creative needs – for example Rob has built a sound proof room where he can practice drumming, Chester has a grand piano in his bedroom/studio space, and we have a woodshop so we can build the things we need.
What are some of the concepts or themes you are exploring in your practice at the moment?
My grid drawings are about exploring the idea of imperfect systems – attempting to create something very meticulous and precise but being ok with its flaws in order to find an unexpected outcome through the process. The first drawing in this series is on a full sheet of printmaking paper. From far away it looks like a drawing of woven fabric that’s slightly billowing – when you get up close you realize it’s a grid of 17,000 smiley faces. The grid is imperfect because it’s drawn by hand and from the slight shift in line and space there are these convex and concave pockets that create an illusion of woven fabric from far away. Right now I’m really interested in silliness or humor in minimal art. My vinyl works on paper are in part inspired by films like Mon Oncle by Jaques Tati and the art of Ray Johnson and Eva Hesse.
The series of photograms I’m working on aim to explore the minute interactions between materiality and process. The majority of my past photographic work had been landscape or portraiture. I wanted to move away from narrative or perceived narrative – really I wanted to dissolve any sense of referential or concrete associations – so I decided to strip my process down to something straightforward; exploring materials on a surface. I’ve really enjoyed making the photograms because it’s the first time I’ve felt like I have complete control over the photographic medium. There’s no camera dividing me from my subject, it’s literally me using very simple materials: ink, paint, salt, windex, plastic, etc. with glass, paper, light, and chemicals. Each photograph is a unique one-of-a-kind object and they’re either 8×10″ or 11×14″ to be shown alone or in a grid.
The series is titled “Lesser Chains of Being” and it refers to “The Great Chain of Being”, this idea that everything in this world could be assigned a value in a hierarchical structure. The title was inspired by a conversation I had with poet RM O’Brien. It’s kind of a joke for myself. Each image is titled “Lesser Chains of Being (and then a number)” the numbers loosely order the images by when they were created but are pretty much irrelevant. I don’t see any image as being better than the others; they are all about exploring a process.
The idea of a lesser chain of being, a hierarchical caste of something really specific like smells, is really funny and absurd. Can you imagine trying to order all of the smells you’ve ever smelled from best to worst? It’s so silly.
As an artist who is also an independent curator, how do you approach your curatorial projects? What kinds of artists do you work with? What are the concepts you like to investigate and explore through your exhibitions? Do you find your curatorial processes similar to your artistic processes?
It’s different every time. For example, Guest Spot approached me to curate an exhibition in their gallery, which is on the first floor of the row home that they live in. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to create an exhibition that works with and also critiques the concept of the “home gallery.” I’ve been obsessed with the idea of hyper-reality since I was a teenager, so I was interested in curating something that revolved around the idea of simulacra. I thought it would be fitting to work with artists who explore facets of domesticity or memory because of the nature of the space.
For a solo exhibition like Elle Perez’s we spent a lot of time talking about what it means to dismantle gender binaries through action, life style, and photographs. We talked about Elle’s experiences making pictures, meeting people, sleeping outside in the country for the first time and how that affected who they are and how they see the world. All those conversations translated into essays, statements, and a cohesive exhibition that told a story about IDA, a safe space in Tennessee, and to some extent a story about Elle.
What I’ve learned is that the role of the independent curator is largely determined by the artists, the work, the exhibition space and the context of the show. A smart curator is flexible, nimble and responsive. I like to work with artists who have a strong understanding of their medium and are willing to take risks. All of the exhibitions that I’ve curated explore or critique contemporary culture in some capacity. Yeah you know, I do find my curatorial process and artistic process to be similar; they’re both about arranging ideas and objects in space.
What upcoming art projects, exhibitions, publications, etc. are you working on now?
I recently curated a two-person exhibition of Sophia Belkin’s and Suzanna Zak’s work titled, Find No Two Suns at Current Space. The artists in this exhibition use photography as a launching point to explore the surface qualities of the materials depicted: sap, skin, juice, asphalt, dirt, dust, mud, and wood. Belkin and Zak juxtapose these materials with objects found within the vicinity of Current Space. Through object- making and collaborative installations Belkin and Zak decontextualize these forms and reassign them new meanings – highlighting the complexities of the ‘Spirit of Place.’
I’ll be in an exhibition that Max Guy is curating which opens in June. More info will be announced soon.
1. Sinking Whale (SnakeFoot Remix) – Wren and Mary
2. Rosalina – Nose Bleed Island
3. Lola – The Raincoats
4. Invisible Man – The Breeders
5. Bloody Mouth – ALLIGATOR
6. Before the Bridge – Future Islands
7. She’s A Bitch – Missy Elliott
8. Not Anymore – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
9. I Was Divided – Outer Spaces
10. Skewed – Chester Endersby Gwazda
11. Tonight You Belong To Me – Steve Martin and Brenadette Peters