Curatorial Statements: otherwise, or temporary moves towards utopia

At the conclusion of the 2021 fall semester, the students in Gwyneth Shanks’s course, Performing the Museum, staged a performance exhibition entitled otherwise, or temporary moves towards utopia at the Colby Museum of Art. For the exhibition, students Jensen Ghidella ’22, Domenica Gomez ’25, Sakina Mustafa ’22, Brian Vera ’25, and Madeleine Zullow ’24 conceived and performed original works of art. The students also wrote curatorial statements on the work of another artist in class, as well as artist statements on their own work. This is the first of two articles on The Lantern featuring their statements, paired with documentation of their performances. Read their curatorial statements below: 


     Lost in Translation is a juxtaposition between the enjoyable and the dreadful in the lives of undergraduate students of color across the United States. The artist, Domenica Gomez, has accrued many questions in her first semester at Colby College, the most important one being: do colleges support the mental health of students of color? Created out of frustration with the College’s lack of support for its nonwhite students, especially during times of personal crisis, as well as the artist’s desire to express herself in Spanish (a language she rarely speaks outside of the classroom while she’s in Maine), Lost in Translation seeks to present a multitude of experiences. However, why is it called Lost in Translation?
     When information is passed from one person to another, a certain degree of translating occurs. The content, as accurately and as intentionally as it may be given by the speaker, is changed as it is received by the listener, by the simple act of being passed along. This change is not the fault of either party; it is simply the nature of communication. It is also usually quite imperceptible, of no consequence. But what about when the speaker is not respected by the listener? Or when the speaker uses a different language than the listener?
     During a translation, how do we account for what gets lost along the way? What is the relationship between what was salvaged and what was lost? How does the meaning of something get lost when it is translated?
     Lost in Translation acts as the artist’s way to share the stories of those like her on her own terms, in her own ways, despite administrative neglect. What do you do when those who are supposed to take care of you fail to do so? You call attention to what is happening, and present your story as you know it. You tell your truth, despite the inevitability that some of what you say will be lost in translation.
     Hito Steyerl’s “Is This Museum a Battlefield?” was an important inspiration for this performance. While Steyerl’s work is focused on the relationship between museums and battlefields, and how war and its casualties are made real to us through media representation, it employs the same powerful spoken word storytelling interwoven with video. Moreover, while Steyerl approaches a podium in front of a large screen as if presenting a TedTalk, Gomez emulates something similar with the projected video and microphone stand. Both performances possess a dual nature wherein one element contextualizes and informs the other, making for a contemplative experience for viewers. This dual nature of video and voice, as well as the interchanging Spanish and English, demands that the audience of Lost in Translation accept multiple ways of communication to engage with the performance. Not everybody will come away with the same knowledge – those standing farther away may not register the words on the screen, and those who do not speak Spanish will only understand half of the stories. Everyone will have a unique translation of the content, and therefore, everyone will come away having lost something different.
— written by Jensen Ghidella for Domenica Gomez’s piece, Lost in Translation

Domenica Gomez performing Lost in Translation

     Moving Through the Galleries, a performance art piece by Jensen Ghidella, explores the preciousness of artworks in museums and how that subsequently renders visitors unprecious. Jensen’s performance consists of her moving through the galleries located in the ground floor Lunder Wing in the Colby College Museum of Art. She will be walking in between each gallery with a pair of roller skates hanging from her shoulder, a folding museum chair in one hand, and a sign with “SKATES ON” on one side and “SKATES OFF” on the other side in her remaining hand. Once in each gallery, Jensen will sit on the folding chair and carefully put on her skates. After that, she will stand up, as if to begin skating, show the side of her sign that says “SKATES ON” directly to whatever camera is in the gallery, and then sit right back down. She will then carefully remove her skates, show the side of her sign that says “SKATES OFF” to the camera, and walk to another gallery to repeat this action. She will continue to do this until she has completed a loop throughout all of the galleries in the Lunder Wing.
     A senior at Colby College studying English and Theater & Dance, Jensen’s performance is a direct result of her thoughts surrounding being an artist in museum spaces. Coming from a background in dance, when thinking about this project she naturally gravitated towards the use of her body and physicality as an instrument. Moving Through the Galleries builds a tension between herself and the artwork by utilizing an object that is usually forbidden in galleries as prestigious as the ones in the Lunder Wing. Although she is not actively roller skating, the act of preparing to do so encourages the audience to think about Jensen’s, and their own, positioning in relation to the artwork. In preparation for thinking about this performance, our class was visited by Mariana Valencia, who performed in roller skates at the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Jensen took note of how Mariana was only able to skate in the lobby of the museum because there was no art to damage and wanted to take this idea a little further. Jensen was also inspired by some of Michel Foucault’s writings about docile bodies and rendering the body available for surveillance & control. The aspect of her performance involving the signs is in direct conversation with Foucault’s ideas. By aligning the signs so that they are directly facing the surveillance cameras in the galleries, she is making the audience aware that they are also being perceived and surveilled. This idea of self-surveillance comes into play as the audience is watching Jensen do something seemingly un-allowed while making gestures to security cameras. The idea of the signs was borrowed from the artistic work of the Surveillance Camera Players.
     What does it mean to be less precious than the artwork, and how does self-surveillance result from this unspoken dynamic? This is the main question Jensen wishes to explore in her work. This exploration, she hopes, will bloom from the imaginations of viewers while watching her performance. There is purposely no description of her performance, the title is quite vague, she does not speak during it, nor are questions encouraged afterwards. This performance is truly one of self-reflection and observation, which beautifully go hand-in-hand with the concepts she is trying to delve into.
—written by Sakina Mustafa for Jensen Ghidella’s piece, Moving Through the Galleries

Jensen Ghidella performing Moving Through the Galleries

     From a very young age people are introduced to the world of art and very quickly we learn that different pieces are priced very differently. You learn that the street art of your family drawn on your vacation is not the same as something like the Mona Lisa. Yet who determined that? That drawing that cost an insignificant amount compared to the priceless painting by Da Vinci might not be valuable to anyone except you but to you that drawing brings back memories of joy and nostalgia.
     The first step in pricing an artwork is finding the popularity of an artist to help determine an initial price range. The time period and story behind the art proceed the artist in details determining value. Then the condition of the piece is taken into consideration. Then it is in the hands of the contemporary art market to decide the value of the piece. This is the simplified process for an art piece making its way through the market. Madeline wishes to challenge the wide acceptance of this process by daring participants to question a well-established method of pricing art.
Thinking about this concept more closely, who determines what kind of art is valuable? What makes one artist more valuable than the other? If it is the meaning of the piece then why do we value classics? If it was accuracy then why are modern artists who can use many methods to achieve hyperrealism not valued like those who create innovative and surrealist art? There is no set precedent for valuable art. Artists can go unappreciated in their time but have renaissance decades after their death yet their art had not changed.
     The Colby Museum of Art which focuses on American and contemporary art will be the location of Museum Tour. The museum’s collections include artists such as John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale, Winslow Homer, William Merritt Chase, Mary Cassatt, Robert Henri, Paul Manship, and Georgia O’Keeffe. The museum holds many pieces that could be considered very valuable among them Pablo Picasso’s Vollard suite. Many of these pieces are in storage and only a fraction of the artwork housed by the museum will never see the light of day.
     This museum tour will be like no other you have ever seen because it will challenge the preconceived ideas that you may have over art valuation. The artist Madeline Zullow wants to take you all on a journey through an exhibit and give all attendees an opportunity to analyze art valuation through one of the Colby Museum of Art’s galleries. Through this tour attendees will be encouraged to guess the prices of the pieces of art in the collection. Through this Madeline wants to bring firsthand experience to the participants of her tour what art valuation is like. By creating an auction type of environment where participants can attempt to identify the prices of artwork during what appears to be a normal museum tour.
     Questioning the value of art especially when it reaches ridiculous figures is something that occurs quite a bit. Museum Tour shares this space with the film “The Price of Everything” which works with artists and people within the contemporary art market to provide a deeper look into how everything looks from the inside.
     By provoking her audience into deeper thinking by putting them in a position where they are making the decisions, Zullow demonstrates how art valuation is not intrinsic and is in fact very dependent on circumstances.
—written by Brian Vera for Madeleine Zullow’s piece, Museum Tour

Madeleine Zullow performing Museum Tour

     The world moves fast. School semesters fly by and we might feel overwhelmed and stressed every day. We may constantly face obstacles that bring us down and sometimes events happen that make us feel like there is no end in sight. Although you are currently giving yourself time to spend watching performances at a museum, there are probably thousands of other thoughts roaming around your mind about what you must do this week, and the next, and the next. Stop! Take a moment to breathe first.
     Now close your eyes and recall the last time you felt cheerful. What do you imagine? What was around you? Was there a specific thing that evoked this reaction? It is difficult to define what happiness means because it is such a universal concept, but it can be easier to identify the things that make us feel joyous. Maybe you remember how you felt after turning on your desk fan during a hot summer day, think of how that blanket that you used to carry around everywhere brought you comfort when you were younger, or perhaps you think about the joy you experience when capturing moments behind a photographic camera. Regardless of what objects or experiences come to mind, it is likely that there is at least one possession that makes you feel happy.
     Sakina Mustafa is a senior student at Colby College who is double majoring in African American Studies and Theater & Dance. As an artist and theatrical performer, she wanted to challenge the traditional idea of what it means to perform in a contemporary museum. In order to conceptualize her performance, Sakina pondered upon several questions. She hoped to know “What does happiness mean in the context of objects?” and “What objects bring her friends contentment and why?” She asked people she trusted to lend her some of the objects that brought them joy to learn if past memories affected which objects a person associated with feelings of cheerfulness. She requested her friends to recount personal stories about why they chose to share that particular object with her for her final performance.
     Therefore, Sakina created an art installation called Happy Pieces where she will display a collection of objects that make her friends feel happiness. Sakina hoped to explore the abstract idea of how people experience the feeling of happiness through material objects. Each item in Sakina’s display tells a story that the audience may never hear, but the important thing to note is that there is a rationale why she selected each one of these objects: they brought happiness to the people that she knows.
     Sakina is in dialogue with the artistic style of Ai Weiwei. Ai Weiwei is a contemporary artist and activist from China. He utilizes objects and art installations to express his political opinions and advocate for human rights. During his performance Sunflower Seeds (2010), he allowed each of the audience members to take home one out of one billion porcelain sunflower seeds displayed on the floor. His exhibit was interactive and granted the audience the freedom to interpret the ascension without offering them the context behind the performance. Sakina was also inspired by Romero Britto’s Happy Art Movement. The primary mission for this artistic movement was to inspire happiness and optimism around the world through colorful displays of art. Sakina wished to display objects that evoked similar feelings amongst her friends. Furthermore, her primary critical idea was focused on how others interpret items without hearing the stories behind the objects.
     Consequently, you are invited to visually interact with Happy Pieces. Sakina wonders what feelings will these objects invoke in you? Do you feel happiness when you see and analyze the objects upon first glance too?
—written by Domenica Gomez for Sakina Mustafa’s piece, Happy Pieces

Sakina Mustafa’s installation, Happy Pieces

     A short 20 minute or so drive from Augusta, the capital of Maine, rising high above the small former manufacturing town of Waterville, lies Colby College, one of the nation’s most prestigious liberal arts institutions.
     Like its peer institutions, Colby College is undoubtedly wealthy, boasting an over one-billion-dollar endowment. And for the majority of the college’s history, its student body has been largely the same. A study of economic diversity performed by The New York Times in 2017 reported that Colby College students have a median family income of over 200 thousand dollars and over three quarters of the student body come from the top 20 percent.
In recent years, the college has made efforts to diversify its student body, both in regards to economic status and racial / ethnic identity. Colby College is a partner institution of the Questbridge Scholarship Program and Posse Foundation, which provide full – ride scholarships to recipients, and offers multiple merit scholarships to admitted students. The college also promises to meet the full demonstrated financial need of all admitted students through the “Colby Commitment”. This has successfully led to increased diversity in Colby’s recent student body. But college entrance rates are not an accurate representation of the student experience on campus.
     The transition to college is never easy. And the transition to a predominately white institution in relatively isolated central Maine, the second whitest state in the country, makes the transition even more difficult. Add to this the steep learning curve forced upon first generation college students with little to no institutional support, and the transition often becomes near insurmountable. Countless pressures and responsibilities build upon each other, crushing these new students under an ever-growing weight. And while strong support systems are often created between students to supplement the lack of school aid, for some individuals this is not enough. It is easy to admit a more diverse student body. To properly support them and aid in their long-term success is more difficult.
     Artist Brian Vera, a first-year student at Colby College and a Texas native, began to notice during his first semester how the initial enthusiasm and hope many incoming first generation, low income, and minority students had for their next four years at college quickly waned once they arrived. And when interacting with more senior students at the school, Vera saw this sentiment increase. From these encounters grew the basis for his performance, Exhaustion.
     Exhaustion is inspired by both Vera’s own experiences and the experiences of other Colby College students. The anecdotes heard throughout the performance, while anonymous and performed by volunteers, are true accounts from current and former Colby College students. Vera asks why students grow to hate Colby College, in an attempt to reflect upon the larger feelings of discontent and dissolution first generation, low income, and students of color feel at elite institutions of higher education. Vera also explores whether or not these students can succeed under the strain of so many challenges to their survival in college. This includes challenging the student body of Colby College, of which a large number are white and wealthy, to consider their normal action, or inaction, towards the lack of commitment by administration towards minority students.
Vera’s work is in dialogue with student artists and activists behind social media accounts such as “@dearpwi”, which works to reveal instances of racism on US college campuses, as well as Mikes Poppe, who’s work De Profondis (2017), in which he is chained to a block of marble, represents the symbolic burden of history. It is important to note that in De Profondis Poppe is unable to free himself from the stone, just as in Exhaustion, Vera is unable to catch up to the white students.
     Through a combination of audio and visual performance, Vera’s Exhaustion questions the work of Colby College and other similar institutions of higher education to support first generation, low income students, and students of color, and argues how severely detrimental this lack of institutional support can be.
—written by Madeleine Zullow for Brian Vera’s piece, Exhaustion

Brian Vera performing Exhaustion