Jon Hendricks, 2016

The phase of the lifecycle that we refer to as “narrate” considers how a project is represented. For example, when you create a website, show documentation, give a lecture, or talk to friends, you are narrating your own projects. When you read about projects online and in books and hear how they are recounted in lecture halls and podcasts, someone besides you is likely narrating the project. If you then describe a project in conversations with friends and colleagues, you are also narrating.

We will begin by addressing what is said or written in any narration, and then continue with a discussion about whose voices can be heard. We will share stories from the artist Sharon Louden who includes labor in her narrations on gallery and museum wall labels and co-author Susan Jahoda who provides a story about encountering a narration at an exhibition that helped situate her conditions of existence. See Chapter 6: How Are You in the World and How Is the World in You?.

Many artists work directly with curators to determine how their projects will be narrated. For example, the New York based artist Sharon Louden speaks about why she believes it is important to carefully determine the narration of her work in wall labels, to include the labors of all the people who worked on her projects. Louden writes:

Fellow artists: here is yet another awesome thing we can do, especially when we work with artists who run institutions. I just completed a site-specific installation at the Philbrook Museum thanks to many people, a lot to the awesome artist/preparators who installed the work. Artist/Museum Director of the Philbrook Scott Stulen agreed with me that the names of those who installed the work and the curator Sienna Brown should be included on the museum label. This was literally a 30 second conversation and the first time in the museum’s history people are included as they should be. Every museum should do this and every artist can insist upon it. It’s a small thing but it’s important validation and a form of gratitude as well as transparency as to who is really behind the way art is displayed in public places. Many thanks to everyone who participated in this project and most to Andy DuCett, another artist, for introducing me to Scott Stulen.

Sharon decided to narrate the phase that we call labor, naming the preparators as artists and giving their names on the wall label. This ensured that their names will travel with the project, and that the museum might do this with other texts, in the future. What information should travel with your projects? See Chapter 13: Labor for a further discussion about the organization of labor in any project.

Imagine if every wall label and public artist’s talk included forms of labor, support, and transfer that were used to bring a project to completion. How would knowing about the forms of support used to facilitate a project’s completion change your understanding of its meaning? You might pay tribute to the support structures that allow you to make your projects, including friends and family members and networks of mutual aid. You might reproduce and normalize rituals of “dedication” or “acknowledgement” as seen in books, thanking the people who have made your project possible.

We talk a lot about narration and whose voices are heard. For example, forty years ago Sharon Louden would not have been able to make the intervention that she was able to make today. Susan Jahoda, an artist and co-author of this book, shared the following story about a narration that impacted her with Caroline Woolard, an artist and the other co-author of this book:

When I was in my early 30’s, I saw Mary Kelly’s installation Interim, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. The visual and textual strategies that Kelly used to narrate the different ways in which women’s bodies are regulated had a profound impact on my own practice as an artist. I understood how I was recognized and affirmed by the male gaze, by patriarchy. I felt so much rage at this. I realized that rather than seeing myself as a victim, or blaming myself for some purported inadequacies, I could explore the conditions that had made me think I wanted to appear in a certain way. I began to seek out more readings to help me understand my experience. Interim gave me a context to understand my feelings about my own body.

Susan’s story highlights the power of narration. She was able to understand her own lived experience in relationship to Mary Kelley’s project and to connect this to a broader social, political, historical context. See Chapter 6: Historical Consciousness for more. Susan also recalled the first time she was taught by a female faculty member was in graduate school. This was the first time that she saw women artists as examples and role models in a space of learning. Susan was rarely given the opportunity to hear women narrating their own projects. Again, who speaks is as important as what is said.

Download the full chapter: Narrate as a PDF

Download Teacher/Facilitator Guides

  1. Future Project: Narrate (worksheet)
  2. Past Project: Narrate (worksheet)
  3. Historical Consciousness (worksheet)
  4. Form for Describing and Analyzing Projects in Critique (worksheet)
  5. Formats for Engaging with My Work / Critique Menu (worksheet)
  6. Discussion Wall (activity)
  7. Critique Activity: This work was made by everyone. (activity)
  8. Anonymous Questions (activity)
  9. Role Playing for a Fictional Visit (activity)
  10. Media Training / Talking Points: Meeting People Where They Are (activity)
  11. Artist Statement (worksheet)
  12. Audre Lorde’s Questionnaire to Oneself (activity)
  13. Make a Project to Address a Former Silence (assignment)
  14. General Writing Checklist (assignment)