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WWJD? In Conversation with John Hurrell

WW..D? Is an interview segment where we get to know awesome people that are a part of the creative community in New Zealand.

This week we spoke to John Hurrell. John is an artist, writer, curator and editor of EyeContact a website which focuses on the publishing of reviews engaging critical discussion of New Zealand’s art landscape. 

You’re a trained painter – are you still painting? 

Yes I am, but in the form of sculpture production that sometimes references painterly markmaking. In recent years I’ve exhibited suspended objects made of cable-ties, peg baskets, curtain rings and hair curlers at Antoinette Godkin, Christchurch’s Artbox and Waiheke Island’s headland: Sculpture on the Gulf.

Some people think there is a conflict of interest for a practitioner to be a critic but I don’t agree. When I was at art school in the seventies some of my lecturers used to write for the newspaper, and internationally there have been some wonderful critics (like Peter Plagens) who have been artists too. Plus EyeContact is a genuine forum with many writers – many opposing opinions – so diverse approaches beyond any editor’s private taste are clearly encouraged.

EyeContact is the country’s most established daily arts publisher. How and when did EyeContact come about? 

I used to write reviews for The Christchurch Press in the eighties, and when I was curator at the Govett-Brewster in the mid-nineties I initiated a weekly column in the local New Plymouth paper where I could discuss items from the gallery collection. I greatly enjoy writing, and after I was pushed out of Waikato Museum in 2004 (with a bunch of other ‘stroppy’ curators), I began writing for Lee Cunliffe’s Artbash site in Christchurch. I was dissatisfied with Lee’s policy of encouraging pseudonyms, so after setting up eyeCONTACT blogsite I began discussions with CNZ about getting help. That was in late 2007. In 2008 I started conversations with Chris Taylor about whether it could be run as a business, and in 2010 we transformed it into the more user-friendly EyeContact, with advertising and easy to locate contents.

What is the current state of arts criticism and where should it be heading?

Obviously there are many types, but with online discussion debate is quicker to set out than with hardcopy, as it is much more effective in its documentation of participation. Hyperlinks, for example, are more straightforward in their presentation of contextual information, creating less journalistic spadework. Online processes make democratic participation easier. In hardcopy publication it takes much longer to set things up and get opinions circulated.

You’re a key figure in New Zealand in terms of art criticism. Art criticism is a field which isn’t always well received or appreciated. How do you negate this negative perception? 

I’m not sure that there is much negative perception – unless you mean jargon filled theoretical texts that seem impenetrable to members of the general public. Artists, curators, collectors, dealers, teachers and historians all acknowledge the value of art criticism, and EyeContact only provides the ‘first word’ in assessing shows – not the last. It presents a point of view that readers can agree with or challenge, and suggests that thinking about art and its attendant issues is a normal activity for any intelligent citizen. It is attempting to galvanise the art community into expressing publicly views that are normally only kept private. The trouble is readers are often scared of offending their immediate peer group, potential employers, and alleged artworld ‘gatekeepers’ (like curators, directors or critics). It is important to make art audiences gutsier and more vocal.

The online forum welcomes some of our most notorious keyboard warriors. As EyeContact’s editor how do you moderate while still encouraging debate? 

EyeContact is devised to stimulate debate, and so all articulate views are welcome. I only intervene in the threads if somebody is hogging the floor in order to publicise their own career without being engaged in relevant discussion. If necessary, as editor, I’ll try to clarify contributors’ expression or grammar, and remove typos or overt personal abuse.

There is a massive misconception of negativity equating criticality. # was recently confronted with the question what is criticality? What does ‘critical’ mean to you? 

‘Criticality’ doesn’t necessarily mean prone to finding fault or being negative. If anything it suggests a certain theoretical disposition used to elucidate (and promote) ideas advocating social change behind art in experimental spaces. It may appear in EyeContact, but not always – for it is one of several ways of examining exhibitions.

I see myself – as editor – as trying to stimulate honest debate. We are adults, not babies, and art is a serious matter for conversation. It is also fun and shouldn’t be perceived as scary or only for eggheads. So much art writing however is merely promotional. That aspect is important but it is not the only approach for conversation between artlovers, and dissent shouldn’t be smothered by public relations. There are lots of opposing points of view that are rich areas to mine, with juicy topics that can be brought out into the open. Online reviewers sometimes barely scratch the surface and there are many levels that can be added to by others.

Any words of advice for young art writers?

Think about your writing in aural terms and cadences, about how it sounds when you read it aloud. It is important to exploit the musicality of language so you can seduce your reader, so they hang in there and keep absorbing the points you are trying to get across. It is also crucial to keep rewriting your text, cutting out flabby surplus and focussing on your word combinations. For this last point, reading quality literature can be a great help.

Also learn how to look at art closely, analysing its visceral and mental effects so you can attract your audience by waving a sort of carrot. Art practice may at times overlap with literature, social studies, history and philosophy but it is not their equivalent. It has a different focus, often instead being about layering and juxtaposing as new methods of creating meaning.


Image: Flying Haptics Waiheke manuka detail

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