Ritual Significance | The Collection, Lincoln | 21012014

This interview with Harvey Whitehouse was posted on This View of Life earlier. Very useful.

Today we (Ashley and I – Josh and I met last Tuesday) started to firm up the list of works that we hope to display. We also discussed commisioning new work(s) from Am Nuden Da and Justin Parker, as well as developing a new app with Joff & Ollie, so that our audience can access the research (ALL published in open access journals) that is informing our approach to curating the show.

This is the (draft) statement that we’ll be submitting to the Tate in support of our loan request:



Exhibition Statement

Although an organ may not have been originally formed for some special purpose, if it now serves for this end we are justified in saying that it is specially contrived for it. On the same principle, if a man were to make a machine for some special purpose, but were to use old wheels, springs, and pulleys, only slightly altered, the whole machine, with all its parts, might be said to be specially contrived for that purpose. Thus throughout nature almost every part of each living being has probably served, in a slightly modified condition, for diverse purposes, and has acted in the living machinery of many ancient and distinct specific forms.

(Darwin 1862:348)

The idea that art emerged through sexual selection was fairly common a century ago, and seems to have fallen out of favour through neglect rather than disproof.

(Miller 2000:271)

The first two decades of the twenty-first century have seen a resurgence of evolutionarily informed scientific interest in the arts (Boyd 2009, Boyd & Richerson 2005, Dissanayake 2000, 2009… to include all the papers in the reference list not directly cited in the text)

To the best of our knowledge no public arts institution in the UK has yet responded to this dynamic new field through its exhibition programme. Whilst we recognize that it is certainly beyond the scope of any single exhibition to give a comprehensive introduction to such a divergent field of enquiry (there are active research programmes making valuable contributions from disciplines as seemingly unrelated as cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary anthropology), it is hoped that by reviewing some of the recently published work of leading researchers, and limiting ourselves primarily to the implications for contemporary practice in public institutions, we might curate an exhibition that goes some way towards expanding both our profession’s, and the public’s, understanding of contemporary practice from an evolutionary perspective.

Curatorial Statement

In our view the arts, including contemporary practice, can be understood as a complex combination of different exapted adaptations; genetic, epigenetic, behavioural and symbolic in origin.

Ritual Significance will explore how many of the questions, contestations, and challenges of contemporary practice fall where these combinations occur.

Furthermore, we also propose to use the same evolutionary toolkit to examine the practices of curating and gallery education in public institutions; as we take seriously the proposition, which is emerging from the research of scholars like Ellen Dissanayake and David Sloan Wilson, that exhibition making, in public, is itself a cultural practice exapted from various group level adaptations, rich with evolutionary and Ritual Significance.

Curatorial Methodology

Our curatorial approach, and practice, will be informed by the ethologist Niko Tinbergen’s four questions.

Ontogeny: How does this behaviour develop over the course of an individual’s life?

When did you start to make art?

Phylogeny: When in the history of that species did the capacity to produce this behaviour evolve? 

When did we start to make art?

Proximate: What are the events preceding the behaviour that contribute to its occurrence?

How do we make art?

Ultimate: What are the effects of performing the behaviour on reproductive success and thus, why has natural selection retained the ability to perform that behaviour?

Why do we make art?

(Nettle 2009: 259)

In addition, we will also be posing questions like:

What can art be?

What may it become?

What is the value of attempting to understand the arts, and life, through an evolutionary lens?

Our plan is to devote each wall of the gallery to one of Tinbergen’s questions, and to have an ‘active’ artist facilitator in residence at the centre of the space; creating, thinking, reading and talking with visitors.

So, from where in our evolutionary history do the ‘old wheels, spring and pulleys’ that we claim are reused in the arts come from? And how, exactly, do those exapted adaptations work?

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