On the 15th of September, a performance by Jota Mombaça and Tessa Mars took place to initiate de Appel Curatorial Programme’s exhibition series called super feelings with their performance sinking could be. The performance started the moment that the doors opened for the audience. As soon as one entered the exhibition space, they were transported to a heavy, oceanic, and sombre world. All thanks to the blue-tinted window, sounds of whispers filling up the space alongside a rumbling droning noise that fluctuates like waves. The audience makes their way into space around a bed of sand with two buried bodies to be found.
As the whispers turn to chants, the bodies rise from their seeming slumber and make their way to the microphones to provide overlaid poetic pieces that made note of the drowned, the migrating, and the sunken. Afterwards, the two speakers return to the sand and start digging for metal sculptures that they later propped and left up for display. This was only the first performance to contribute to this interesting exhibition format that came in the form of 4 episodes each with an artistic intervention to kick it off. This exhibition was curated by Melissa Appleton, Ka-Tjun Hau, Chala Westerman, and Monika Georgieva. These four make De Appel’s curatorial programme for this year. I spoke with Ka-Tjun, Chala, and Monika.
Thierno: How is everyone doing?
Chala: We are doing well, great actually! We’ve already had a nice, rather quiet weekend. We were here at de Appel over the weekend to welcome visitors. That was a great start. But now we are actually already concentrating on the full production of the next episode, which is coming soon.
Monika: It’s weird. I mean, the feeling you have after an opening is like: “okay, you’re done”. But actually, three more are coming.
T: Do you expect the production to feel repetitive as episodes pass?
C: We learned a lot from the first episode and its technical aspects. Where do the visitors gather? How do they move around the space? But of course we will set up a whole new environment each time, so it will change completely.
M: It’s also very interesting because the artists want to first see what the remains of the last iteration look like before adding their work – for example, with the sand that stays in the space throughout the exhibition. So a lot happens when the artists arrive in these three very dense days of instalment.
T: Are the objects staying as well?
M: The blue light and the sand will stay. The objects and the sound will go to San Francisco.
T: Could everyone here introduce themselves?
C: My name is Chala Itai Westerman. I grew up here in the Netherlands, in Groningen. When I started my bachelor’s degree in art history, I moved to Amsterdam. I did an internship here at de Appel under the guidance of Monika Szewczyk, the former director of de Appel. I was also Jennifer Tee’s studio assistant and worked at Mondriaan Fund for a year. As I am half Japanese, I also spent some time in Japan during my studies.
M: I am Monika Georgieva. I am originally from Bulgaria. When I’m not in Amsterdam, I live in Vienna. I am a trained architect who then slipped into curating. In Vienna, I run an independent project space called Laurenz together with the artist Aaron Amar Bhamra. Before coming to Amsterdam I was working for the Vienna Secession. And now I’m here.
Ka-Tjun: I’m Ka-Tjun and I live in Amsterdam. I’ve been living in Amsterdam for almost 12, 13 years.I came to Amsterdam to study fashion, did that for two years, and then went on to study media studies at the UVA with an interest in digital art, and internet art. I then went on to work as a professional in the cultural field of Amsterdam. I had a traineeship at Foam. Started working for The Amsterdam Fund for the Arts (AFK) as a local fund advisor. I programmed events and small exhibitions for different cultural organizations in Amsterdam, among them being We Are Public. And the one missing is our fourth colleague – Melissa Appleton. Melissa comes from Wales and worked as a curator and producer before joining the programme.
T: What made you decide to join this curatorial program?
M: I was drawn to the programme thanks to all the things I’ve heard of de Appel – the experimental spirit which the institution carries, and what Monika Szewczyk did with it. We all applied during her period. Maybe it’s because I’m coming from architecture, but I find this idea of the institution without a house very interesting. The constantly moving exhibition house, the walking institution, as Niels Van Tomme called it.
C: I studied art history. At university they try to teach you what a curator “supposed to do”. But I never felt at home in that academic language. I tried to find other ways to connect with art and not just through theory. That’s how I came to work with Jennifer Tee and Monika Szewczyk. During my internship here, I learned more about de Appel and the curatorial programme, which led to my application.
K: At that time I was working for We Are Public and then applied for the curatorial programme. I felt that the programme really appealed to me because of Appel’s approach to Nieuw-West and because of its education department led by David Smeulders. When I read their website and their long-term plans, I could see that there was this genuine and sincere way of collaborating with local communities while also being honest about shortcomings. I felt that this was the right institution for me. Both honest and open, and trying to push boundaries by daring to experiment.
M: Yes, David Smeulders is doing an amazing job with Appel’s educational programme.
K: He has built a long-term educational programme and relationship between primary and secondary schools in Nieuw-West over the past five years.
M: Sometimes you come to de Appel and there is a whole kindergarten with tiny humans in the living room eating their snacks and talking about the meaning of curation.
T: That’s adorable! With the super feelings program, how did you come to the concept? What was so resonant about the idea of the overmind?
M: We should start with the beginning, because the first thing we had to figure out was how to work together. The four of us met for the first time in January, we didn’t know each other before. So, it was especially important that we give ourselves some space and take the time to get to know each other and work out how to build a nurturing relationship that would eventually lead to an exhibition. At the time we didn’t even know it was going to be an exhibition, but that was the first big challenge. How can all of us, who come from different backgrounds, start a project together? The first big decision was, which is not a given, to do something together as a group and not to do four individual smaller things; not to have each of us bring an artist, for example. Since we made this decision to work together as one organism, the next challenge was to imagine what triggers this organism, what moves it.
We met for the first time at a poetry seminar led and organised by Mayra A. Rodríguez Castro, who also wrote the introduction for the super feelings reader. It was a beautiful session where we had the opportunity to share our favourite poems with each other. Mayra created a very generous, safe atmosphere where we quickly moved on to sharing about very personal things: Home, origin, roots. This was a very personal, magical moment for the four of us in the aula of de Appel – it all started with poetry. Poetry is also something we are very passionate about, but none of us comes from a literary background. So, it’s something we encountered together. We started reading a lot of poetry. We read Audre Lorde, which kind of led us to H.D.’s work. The title of the exhibition – super feelings – actually comes from H.D. In one of her essays, she describes a state of consciousness one reaches when one is aware of their feelings, which she calls the ‘overmind’ That’s where we saw ourselves – four entities trying to act as one. The way she describes this state of consciousness is fascinating – something real but also not, visible, with a defined body, yet fluid, transparent, jellyfish-like. Maybe we saw ourselves as the four tentacles of this jellyfish, the four tentacles of this collective project, with more tentacles added by the artists. So, it was like…
T: A shared state of consciousness?
C: Yes, what came out of that first seminar was the question of how we can sense collectively. When we re-read H.D.’s work, we came across that she also talks about how the mind, knowledge, body and feelings can function as one. And how becoming aware of this “one” can make you feel and perceive in different ways. We felt this form of collective sensing, whatever that is, during the poetry seminar. And decided that we want to expand this idea.
M: We really liked the idea that poetry speaks out of feeling. We also started asking ourselves: can we communicate through feelings? How can we make an exhibition that communicates through feelings? Can we communicate with the artists in the same way?
T: Were there any points of conflict feeling wise as you were trying to get to know each other and work together?
M: I mean, of course, it’s not easy, but we decided to communicate through feelings. So, there was a lot of talking, a lot of emotion. So, everything was always on the table.
K: When we look at how the exhibition is set up, it also shows our way of working. We have created a framework, a structure of how we imagine things should go, but the concept with the four episodes is very dynamic; we never really know what will happen the next day. We have formed this structure, but we are also defined by it. We have to accept this fluid way of working, it is part of the process.
M: We invited the four artists, but we gave them the opportunity to invite additional artists. This was a means to give them ownership.
T: You guys have made yourselves vulnerable emotionally to each other. But you also have to do that with the exhibition and the artists as well.
M: We’re very lucky because the artists are responding the same way and it gives so much energy and care back. The way they work and approach us and the way they approach the Appel team, the visitors, it was really beautiful.
C: We didn’t know the artists we ended up working with before starting this programme. We chose together, as a group, who we wanted to work with and then sent out the invitations. A lot of people say, “Oh, you are four curators and four artists, so everyone chose one”, but that’s not the case.
M: We have consciously chosen to work with artists we have met during these 10 months of our collective journey.
T: What was the selection process like when it comes to the artists?
C: As we mentioned before, we decided to work with artists we met during the programme. De Appel’s curatorial programme is famous for the big international trips that the participants go on to meet artists, cultural practitioners etc. When we started off in January, everything felt very uncertain – the pandemic, the war…. It felt right to be more mindful, to travel by train, when possible, to stay in Europe and to understand our surroundings better. We visited the ‘big art events’ in Europe and reflected together on what we saw, what we experienced. We spent quite some time traveling in the Netherlands, in Belgium and in Germany.
M: We really wanted to work with artists who are nearby and whom we can meet in person, a close collaboration with the artists was very important to us. No, zoom! That happened quite naturally. The artists we work with for super feelings come from all over the world, but are currently based in the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Germany.
T: Were you trying to see what the artists wanted to do and figure out how you can achieve their goals within the context of the theme? Or did you offered the theme and dictated what they could do with it?
M: We wanted to give artists space to experiment. The idea was that every episode starts with a performance, but the performers are invited by the artists. So, we completely give up on any control and just support them the best way we can. But of course, we picked artists who had topics in their practice which were interesting to us.
K: When we invited the artists, we sent them the texts and poems we were reading. We immersed ourselves with them in the history of de Appel – the building where the institution is now located, the Aula. We shared with the artists the same conditions we were dealing with, as an invitation to reflect on these together. Given the conditions, the artists had the freedom to do with them what they felt was right.
M: Everyone has picked up on different things. Jota Mombaça’s practice moves with and across bodies of water. She was thinking about the history of this place near the Sloterplas lake, where sand was extracted for the construction of the western garden cities of Amsterdam. The sand we used for Jota’s episode is river sand, also coming from water. Paola Siri Renard is very interested in Greek mythology and incorporates architectural and mythological motifs into her sculptures. The sculptures she has chosen for her episode, as well as the artist she invited – Mira Mann – tell stories about the underwater world. Kate Cooper was quick to pick up on H.D. ,connecting the thought of the ‘overmind’ to her current work, visualizing the universe inside the human body. The work that Thuy-Han Nguyen-Chi will show also reflects on the history of the Lely building as a former school and refugee centre. So they addressed a lot of different topics, but we like to think that we gave them the conditions, and those conditions apply to us as well. We share them. We have ten months to work, but you don’t really have ten months to curate. It took us five months to get to know each other, and then we had a couple of months to curate the exhibition. So we didn’t approach the artists saying, “We want this work or that work”. We invited them to collaborate and experiment.
T: From what I’ve seen, it’s very easy for some curators to make it more about their ideas and their ego. But I’m not sensing that with this show. When I was reading H.D.’s text ‘Notes on thoughts and vision’, I was imagining that the overmind was more like a third eye, a higher consciousness. I never thought of it as a state of shared higher consciousness. So, it made me want to ask you all, were there any other reconceptions of the term overmind?
M: It was funny because each of us imagined the ‘overmind’ as something different. I remember these long, very abstract conversations about what the ‘overmind’ is, what it feels like. It was a constant back and forth. I remember Chala saying that the ‘overmind’ is something very condensed, enclosed, and Melissa saying that she thinks it’s just the opposite, fluid and open. We came to the conclusion that it’s all these things together.
T: Pretty much up to interpretation.
M: Just as H.D. describes it – enclosed and yet open, transparent, where thoughts swim like fish in clear water, a jellyfish.
K: Basically, it’s everything and nothing. I’m glad to hear you read it and liked it.
T: It was interesting the way that she was describing the ways in which mind and body are connected. There’s something about the way she was writing that felt a bit ableist though.
C: That was also something we were struggling with.
M: Yes, as she mentions the “perfect” body and the “perfect” man or woman. But one should also bear in mind that H.D. was a bisexual female poet writing in the early 20th century. I can imagine that it is very different from what she would write today. We should read her poems and texts together and not just focus on the essays. Her poems are very different. When we looked at ‘Notes on Thought and Vision’, we talked a lot about the saturation in language that one also finds in poetry, especially in H.D.’s poems. So we were also looking for that when we talked about the “overmind” – that saturated space, whether a third eye or a shared consciousness. Just a saturation of feelings that you can feel without necessarily understanding or describing them.
The Super Feelings exhibition is still running at the Appel. The 3rd episode initiation will be taking place on the 13th of October at 19:00. The artist Thuy-Han Nguyen-Chi has invited performer Frankie to give a concert at de Appel. The 4th episode with Kate Cooper will take place on the 27th of October with a screening as it’s initiation. More information on the whole exhibition can be found here.