by Caitlin Scott
full audio interview:
Sitting on the wooden gallery floor with co-curators Julia Freeman and Satpreet Kahlon, Freeman explains about the first time the US tried to probe another celestial body, “They projected these radio waves, and so they went past the ionosphere and bounced off the moon, Diana, and then they came back”. Freeman is the founder of the art space Project Diana in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle. We are occasionally interrupted by the sound of planes departing Boeing field as she explains that her intention was to create a space that reflected the same unknowing and unexpected return when artists push the boundaries of their normal practice.
Catching the filtered light of a skylight on the building’s first floor landing, Project Diana is a single wall that hosts site-specific works by local and emerging artists. The space is run by six co-curators who not only divide the work of planning and installing, but share out-of-pocket the cost of renting the space. Operating on what Freeman calls a for-loss model, she and her co-curators have very consciously decided to eliminate the financial restraint felt by commercial galleries in order to create a space where artists are pushed to experiment within their own practice, but outside of the safety of the studio and with an interactive, viewing public. Kahlon explains that her motivation in working with such a model lies in her interest in the unseen dynamics of a gallery space “that invite oppression, that invite inequity”. Both she and Freeman detail their vision and process in creating a gallery that Kahlon says fosters an “inherent trust in artist and process”, creating a system that supports artists by valuing the process of self-reflection inherent to experimentation.
Listening to Freeman and Kahlon explain how they see the space functioning, I am reminded of the encouraging dynamic of student shows held in a university setting, or the flexibility that online platforms can provide. But it quickly becomes clear that there is something beneficial in the physicality of the space too. Not all of the viewers are operating within the arts as they might be within an artist’s online network. Some are passersby in the neighborhood or employees of the offices upstairs. Project Diana, being a professional space tucked between three established Seattle galleries (Bridge Productions, Interstitial and The Alice), is also able to offer the support of its curatorial team throughout the process, and artists are able to make changes while installing and even past the opening of their show, thinking through the act of physically putting their work up on display while simultaneously exhibiting it.
Freeman states, “I get the most joy after someone is reflective and learning about their practice”. She says that it is these moments where she learns the most about her own curatorial practice and relationship with art and artists in the community. It is this reciprocal vulnerability that Project Diana allows and encourages through its mindful effort to break apart traditional modes of supporting and showing artwork that has drawn me to the space, and which I discuss in depth with Freeman and Kahlon in the interview that follows:
Caitlin Scott: Is there a mission that you are working with for the space, currently?
Julia Freeman: The space started with the idea of having a place for, I didn’t mention this before, but mostly local artists to take chances and sort of work outside of maybe what they would think of being their art, or what they’re comfortable with. And so the space is really dedicated to experimentation and failure and sort of reaching out beyond what you think you know as an artist.
local artists to take chances and sort of work outside of maybe what they would think of being their art, or what they’re comfortable with. And so the space is really dedicated to experimentation and failure and sort of reaching out beyond what you think you know as an artist.
And there aren’t many chances to do that. For example, The Alice is a curated space, so we’re, you know, pairing things or grouping things together for very specific reasons to create new ideas and forms and thoughts. And so, having that sort of different approach [at Project Diana] to people viewing and experiencing art, I think, was really important in pairing with The Alice. And that has been really fruitful for a lot of artists’ studio practice. I think people have actually learned new things about themselves and their work, and it has taken them on completely different paths. Or they’ve kind of scrapped what they did, and it was just sort of, you know, a way to break up the idea of who they think they are and what they make. But the mission primarily is to support mostly local artists doing site specific work that is experimental for them in their own context and their own studio work.
CS: You brought up the idea that sometimes an idea someone has for the space might not work? I was wondering what that looks like when it happens? I know, Satpreet, you brought up the idea of trust in the space, it being a really comfortable space to work because of that experimental factor that seems to be at the core of Project Diana. I was wondering if you could speak about that at all?
JF: Yeah, I think actually the first artist that showed at Project Diana, her name is KiKi MacInnis, she did this piece—it was these painted logs that were painted onto plywood and then cut out. Then they were sort of attached to the wall, and it looked like driftwood on an ocean. And then she had painted on some sort of transparent paper all of the different sort of, you know, trash, debris, and also seaweed, rocks, and shells, on this glassine sort of paper. And she’d attached it below the logs.
‘Oh, there is fluidity in this wall’. People are able to feel comfortable not saying something is finished or successful or fully thought through, you know, because they are actually thinking on the wall. Which is really vulnerable. And is also very exciting, I think.
After she was finished we had the opening. And I think she came back maybe three or four times and changed that glassine portion, [changed] where it was, because she didn’t like how it ended up being. So it became almost like a studio wall for her. She could come—because we give the artists keys—so they can come and go as they please, and we, you know, we offer support in doing installation, or whatever. But also I think primarily for Project Diana the artists have really wanted to work alone. And it’s actually—that hall space has turned into almost a studio space. I think a lot of artists have come at night, just to avoid people. To have this sort of solo experience. Which I did not expect at all. But I think that was the first time, and it was really exciting for me because I was like, ‘Oh, there is fluidity in this wall’. People are able to feel comfortable not saying something is finished or successful or fully thought through, you know, because they are actually thinking on the wall. Which is really vulnerable. And is also very exciting, I think.
CS: You mentioned, Satpreet, when you were performing in the space, that it was something that was outside of your comfort zone- not really what you have been doing previously in your practice. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that at all, with the flexibility that Project Diana allows.
Satpreet Kahlon: Yeah. I think, also building on what Julia was saying, artists know that we fail all the time and we try different things and it doesn’t work. But I think—and curators know that too—but there’s this idea with galleries where artists, who are like these kind of marginalized—it’s a marginalized career where you don’t have a lot of resources, but then you’re expected to present work that is so finished and so polished, and present it to the public to keep up this idea of this mysticism of the artist, right? That we just poop out these beautiful things all the time without a struggle, and if it’s a struggle, it’s a glamourous one. But so often that is not what your studio practice looks like.
And so now you have a public sphere for experimentation where if you fail, no one is going to reprimand you and no one is going to say, ‘Well I really wanted this thing to be sellable or whatever, marketable or whatever’.
And so I think Project Diana is about breaking down—for me—it feels like breaking down that mysticism. And so as soon as a curator says, ‘Oh, you can fail and that’s ok’, that’s something I’ve never heard from any other curator before. And so now you have a public sphere for experimentation where if you fail, no one is going to reprimand you and no one is going to say, ‘Well I really wanted this thing to be sellable or whatever, marketable or whatever’. And then you’re removing the curator’s ego from the process which just leaves the artist to have all this space for their own ideas. And that really creates this space for risk taking without feeling so afraid. You only have your own fear and not the fear of disappointing somebody else. And so, that is what allowed me to do something that was so different from—like I said, it’s the only performance piece that I have done to date, and it’s because of the comfort and freedom that I felt in Project Diana and with Julia that allowed me to do that.
CS: Do you feel like you’re experience in the space changed your practice afterwards at all?
SK: Totally, yeah, totally. It was a super overtly political piece, and now I’m extending that piece. I’ll be presenting it at the open engagement conference in Chicago at the end of April.
SK: Yeah, thank you! My work has just become- it was like, what happens if I’m overtly political? What happens if I’m not subtle and quiet and don’t make work that is beautiful as well as really quietly political. And then I did it and the world didn’t end. It actually felt really honest and true, and it was like, ‘Oh, maybe I can make this kind of work too’. And Julia, one of the first things that she said to me when we met was ‘you don’t have to be one kind of artist’ and I think I see that in the space, and I think about that a lot in my practice since then. It’s this act of actively un-pidgin holing artists, right? And giving them the freedom. We’re all different kinds of people, so why can’t we make all different kinds of work?
CS: I’m wondering how both of you see or hope to see Project Diana interacting with other current galleries in Seattle and if this is a conversation that you have been having with other curators in the area?
JF: No, not really. And I’m sure other people are doing stuff like this, I mean, I don’t think it’s mind blowing, the concept. It just requires support, I think. Do you?
SK: No, I don’t think so. I think there is a lot of conversation around these ideas. I think people know there is something—a lot of people feel there is something missing from traditional gallery models. But ultimately, if you’re trying to make money off of your gallery…
JF: You cannot do that.
SK: Yes. What’s realistic for you is not what your ideal situation is. And so we have the privilege—there’s six of us—so we split costs, and we all have other jobs. And so The Alice and Project Diana is not how we make money. I’ve never thought about money in terms of The Alice, except how much I’m going to put into it. And I’m sure that’s true for Julia and anyone else who has been involved. And so I think that gives us the freedom. It is a privilege to be able to say ‘If you fail it doesn’t really matter because we don’t need to sell anything to make rent’, you know? So I think that lack of capitol and resource is what’s missing. It’s like that gap between what is conversational and what is reality. But luckily we’re able to bridge that gap.
It is a privilege to be able to say ‘If you fail it doesn’t really matter because we don’t need to sell anything to make rent’, you know? So I think that lack of capitol and resource is what’s missing. It’s like that gap between what is conversational and what is reality. But luckily we’re able to bridge that gap.
CS: When you enter the Hamilton Building it’s pretty hard not to notice the interconnectivity between the spaces here. And of course not just physical space, but the curators in all of the spaces. I was wondering how you all feed off of each other, how the spaces feed off of each other.
JF: Yeah, it’s fucking magic. I mean, seriously, it really really is. It’s kind of incredible. So Sharon Arnold was previously—so I guess it’s four years ago—was previously in the space that is now called The Alice and she was running a gallery called LxWxH. She left and was curating elsewhere for a year and so she let my co-founder, Julie Alexander, know this space was available. And so we, you know, took her up on it. And she basically donated all these lights and all the tracts. It had been made into a gallery space, people knew where it was, although we changed the name and what we were doing. She basically nurtured us to be here. She really did.
I think my mentioning that is the three of us [The Alice/ Project Diana, Bridge Productions, and Interstitial] have very different models and it’s really special, I think, the way that we support each other.
And then when she came back a year later and started Bridge Productions across the way, she set up her own space and re-named, obviously, to Bridge Productions. She had started with these boxes. She was really trying to reach folks that didn’t feel comfortable, or didn’t have the experience of, collecting art. So she was really trying to make it accessible. So you would get these beautiful one of a kind boxes, and in it would be 3-4 different artists contributing very unique pieces. And that’s how LxWxH started. She is still continuing that at Bridge Productions. She now has a roster of artists, so she is representing artists. She is a commercial gallery. So that’s one- I think my mentioning that is the three of us [The Alice/ Project Diana, Bridge Productions, and Interstitial] have very different models and it’s really special, I think, the way that we support each other. So Sharon is a commercial gallery, but she’s definitely not compromising who she is showing and the work she is showing to make more sales. She is choosing the artists and the work based on what she thinks is really great art. And it is. Her roster is really amazing.
So that’s one really interesting model. And then Julia [Greenway], at Interstitial—when we first moved in, they had moved in a few months before, her and Kira [Burge], and it was called Interstitial Theater at that point. Before they had actually got the space they were doing these huge projects all over the city, like in warehouses. It just was moving all over and enormous—so much time and so much work. And I’m not sure exactly how they’re fully running, but they’re now a not-for-profit. So they also have someone that runs their grant writing and helps them do, you know, publications and stuff like that. And Julia is the solo curator, so she curates mostly solo exhibitions, mostly new media, and is a not for profit like I said before.
Then we have The Alice, which is a for-loss gallery. We all pay rent and we lose money every month. There’s six curators and we share the space in a way where we have blocks of time that we’re in charge of. And when I say that, that means, for example, I curated this exhibition and I also curated Project Diana. But in a couple months it will be two of us that decided they want to work together. And so they’re curating that exhibition, which is going to be visual art and poetry. So we kind of run off of a model of—we have programming, but you know—Julia is a-year-in-advanced programming, and so is Sharon. They are thinking really far in the future because they’re doing it by themselves, and with six people we can kind of shift things around, program- not as we go, but we trust that the next person has the next thing going on.
They are thinking really far in the future because they’re doing it by themselves, and with six people we can kind of shift things around, program- not as we go, but we trust that the next person has the next thing going on.
We are in constant communication over text and email—because there is six of us—about thoughts and ideas and exhibitions and how we’re going to form each show together, because we’re all involved with each show in some sort of way. Whether it’s coming and sweeping the floors before install, or painting the walls—but you don’t actually curate. And the other part is, I mean, we just like to hang out together. Like The Alice [curators] specifically. We have a really great group of people.
And then another thing that I think is really important is that hall, that physical space. On Saturdays when all three galleries are open, whoever’s sitting at The Alice and Julia Greenway and Sharon are sitting out there. And we’re basically together for seven hours and we’re covering all the bases. I mean we’re really good friends. It’s really wonderful having art conversations, doing stupid shit, I mean it just depends on the day and the hour and the minute. But I think because of that hallway where we can hang out, we have a good relationship with each other and we really try to support each other. In different ways.
CS: Wonderful. Shifting gears a little bit, I was hoping that the two of you might be able to speak about personal experience shaping your approach to curating? I know that we talked about this a little bit previously, but your experience as an artist, as an instructor, as a gallery patron.
JF: When I first—when Julie Alexander and I first started The Alice I had not thought… I don’t think I’d really thought too much about curation and what that actually meant. And when we got the space, I realized that-we had a seven person show our first show, I think-I started to see it was really like installation art for me. That was how I had to think of it. And I wasn’t making the pieces, but I was creating the meaning by proximity and relationships, so that was kind of an interesting thing I didn’t realize that I was going to come upon.
And when we got the space, I realized that-we had a seven person show our first show, I think-I started to see it was really like installation art for me. That was how I had to think of it. And I wasn’t making the pieces, but I was creating the meaning by proximity and relationships
Another thing with curation for me- I was talking about this the other day- we had a panel discussion and it was about Latinx curators and so a guest artist Edra Soto was in town and she’s also an artist and a curator and she also said that same sort of, you know, pairing installation with curation. That’s how she thought of it as well, which I thought was really, really interesting that someone else was kind of working in that way.
But then also, relationship-wise, I really like to form relationships with the artists I curate with and amongst, because as an artist you’re always wanting people to sort of dive deeper into your own work and, you know that’s part of communicating. When you can’t communicate—and this is the only way you can communicate these things that are complex or hard or indescribable—so kind of wanting to mine that a little more relationship-wise with artists. So when I work with artists I don’t force people to be my friends but I definitely try to get into what they’re doing. And that’s just my personal way that I work. And if I feel that it’s too much I definitely—I try to read people’s energies, and I back off and respect that for sure.
So, you know, I’ve taught a lot and I think that also feeds into this. This is such a learning experience. You know, I learn from the artists I work with constantly and I really love to be constantly, like, digesting things. So it’s really exciting for that. And I feel like I’m getting educated all the time through the people I work with and through the work I am working with. And I think I mentioned this before, but sort of the balance of The Alice being a curated space—not that Project Diana is not—but Project Diana is this space where that chaos can happen that I’m really interested in. And that relates to my studio practice in that way.
SK: Yeah, and I would just say that for me I think… So I haven’t curated a solo show. I just was… I got asked to be a part of The Alice in November of 2016. I haven’t curated a show by myself yet. I will be doing that in May. I’m in the process of it, so I can’t speak too much about the challenges of curation, but for me it really was like—when I got asked, I hadn’t really thought about curation too much. But for me it’s always been about… I think about agency and power in my work, and I’m an educator as well, and an activist. So I think about these kind of power dynamics, and I’m really good at seeing power dynamics and inherent flaws within those systems, so for me it was like this scary moment where now I’m like a part of it, I’m a part of the system. So, in all the ways that I held other people accountable, I have to hold myself accountable in those ways too. But there’s this beauty in that, and having the power to hold yourself accountable.
And so, I feel like by being a curator you’re given all this agency and power and then I feel like it’s my responsibility to pass on that agency and power to the artist that I’m curating so that they feel, not like they are working for me or serving somebody else’s needed by contributing to a gallery space, but that I hope that it’s like a collaboration so that we are working together so that they feel empowered, and the gallery is serving them as much as they are serving the gallery.
And so, I feel like by being a curator you’re given all this agency and power and then I feel like it’s my responsibility to pass on that agency and power to the artist that I’m curating so that they feel, not like they are working for me or serving somebody else’s needed by contributing to a gallery space, but that I hope that it’s like a collaboration so that we are working together so that they feel empowered, and the gallery is serving them as much as they are serving the gallery. So, I don’t know. I just think that’s really important and once again, it is like that because we don’t have to make money off the work. So that gives us more freedom to let… to really trust the artist. It feels like such an important part of curating, and I can’t imagine curating for any other reasons.
JF: I remember when we received our first boxes of art, and I remember unpacking it and being like, “oh my god. I’m handling someone else’s art.” They are all the way across the country. And it scared the shit out of me. I have to be really careful—because with my own work, I’m just really sort of not careful. I’m really sort of whatever, like aggressive with it. So it’s really interesting to have to be—so I’m a caretaker for these peoples… for these artists’ thoughts and memories and experiences that they’ve chosen to represent in an object or, you know, a flat image or a piece of fabric. It was—I don’t want to sound cheesy—but it was like touching a memory or like this really vast thing that they just sent to me. So that for me put my respect for people that make work… it just shot up really high for me.
CS: I think kind of inherent to the practice of curation is an idea of selection. What ends up being shown. With such an experimental space, kind of built up around this idea of forming relationships, and being a really nurturing space, what does that process look like for Project Diana?
JF: Well, I think it… you know, we don’t pair it necessarily with what’s at The Alice. But sometimes it has been paired, so this is relating to what’s out there. For me, when I’m curating it [Project Diana], I’m looking at the Seattle arts community and I’m thinking about people that need to be sort of tipped, or propped up in some sort of way.
I’m looking at the Seattle arts community and I’m thinking about people that need to be sort of tipped, or propped up in some sort of way.
I think I mentioned before, Gretchen Bennet, she’s a pretty well know artist in the community and she does these really beautiful colored pencil drawings. So I really emphasized to her to do something she’d never done before. And I think for her, it was a really great. It was a big challenge though because she was like, ‘People who see me know that I make this kind of work’, so something that is not identifiable as you is kind of one thing I’ve seen. Let’s see, who else has been really interesting in their approach… every Project Diana [show] I’m like, ‘Oh my god, it’s my favorite project Diana’. I mean Ryan Feddersen, Satpreet curated Ryan Feddersen, which was last month. And it was this enormous latex—was it latex? Vinyl. Vinyl map of the United States and she had used these red vinyl dots to mark where Indian missionary boarding schools were established in the United States from 18… I can’t remember the year.
SK: Some of them are still running, though.
JF: Sill running, yeah.
SK: I mean, not doing exactly what they were doing, but yeah. And so she has this portion—she had this touch sensitive tape, so she covered all the names of the—so she mapped out… so the schools is here and then she’d draw a line and then write out the name of the school and then cover it with touch sensitive tape that reacts to the temperature of your hands. And then people just rub [the tape] to see [the name of the school] and to interact with this history that had really been erased and eradicated from our minds and our memories, and we don’t think about this genocide at all. And so making a piece—really taking advantage of the hallway and this space where a lot of people move through—and forcing this interactive moment to happen that is unpleasant but is necessary.
JF: I’ll say that people we have been interested in—just watching their work and have been sort of seeing it evolve. New artists, young artists too. But I think the main thing is supporting people that maybe need to be pushed or people that have maybe not had the opportunity show and supporting that.
CS: Before we wrap up, any parting words?
SK: I would say, I think, a lot of the time—and I am so guilty of this- walking into a gallery and being like, ‘I don’t like this’ or ‘I do like this’ and just making a decision and I feel like we all benefit if we think more about the intent of the work and allow ourselves to be challenged aesthetically or conceptually. And I think Project Diana is a space where artists are challenging themselves and maybe are confused about what they’re making. So I think it’s ok to bring that confusion and unknowing into the space when you’re reading [the art] and looking at it, and giving yourself that time to maybe not know if you like it or don’t like it or understand it, and asking yourself those questions, reading the artist statement, maybe asking somebody else questions. I think those moments of uncertainty are super important. And especially for a space like Project Diana.
And I think Project Diana is a space where artists are challenging themselves and maybe are confused about what they’re making. So I think it’s ok to bring that confusion and unknowing into the space when you’re reading [the art] and looking at it, and giving yourself that time to maybe not know if you like it or don’t like it or understand it, and asking yourself those questions, reading the artist statement, maybe asking somebody else questions. I think those moments of uncertainty are super important.
JF: I was definitely the kid that spun a lot and fell over and was lost. I loved being tipped upside down and spun and being really confused and then having to figure—find my way out and using all the resources around to get back up again and that’s the way I personally learn. And so that is what actually, Project Diana kind of does. It sort of really forces people to spin and catch their ground and sort of figure out how to get out of it, or what to make out of it in some sort of way.
And so that is what Project Diana kind of does. It sort of really forces people to spin and catch their ground and sort of figure out how to get out of it, or what to make out of it in some sort of way.
There’s always this idea that you have to struggle to learn anything. And I don’t want it to be about that either. Like, I really—that’s a bullshit Puritan idea. And it’s really interesting to, you know, be confused together and have a party out there. And that has happened. We’re just hanging out there all together and we don’t know what it is. Julia and I did that, and it’s like, ‘What is wrong with that’? Which really stems into this idea of oppression and capitalism mounting on top of the art world and forcing people to be the masters of their practice in order to have a product that is polished and concrete, because we really like stability, right? And not all of us have stability in the world, so that earthquake and that movement is really uncomfortable for people and I think they are more comfortable in a world where they can sort of possess stability, right? And so I’m always trying to challenge that sort of underneath instability and push it in ways that’s comfortable, because a lot of people have to create stability out of instability all the time.
Which really stems into this idea of oppression and capitalism mounting on top of the art world and forcing people to be the masters of their practice in order to have a product that is polished and concrete, because we really like stability, right?
And so this is—it’s also just a community project too. I think it’s really important in the Hamilton Building that people that aren’t even in the arts—that work in the offices or have an architecture business—that they interact with Project Diana more than anybody else. And so they’re our main viewership because they’re here every day during the week. And some of them sort of give us input but some of them—most of them—don’t give us feedback or input. But there’re are a few that really have something very interesting to say, always. I love hearing their points of view, always. That’s an interesting thing that I didn’t know would happen. And those are my favorite things about this space [The Alice] and Project Diana. It’s like ‘I didn’t know that was going to happen, wow.’ I love that.