An Interview with Co-Curators Erina C. Alejo & Diana Li
by: Melanie Rose
Melanie Rose: How did you get into curatorial work? And in your opinion, what is the main role of the curator?
Diana Li: Erina asked me if I wanted to do a show together with our friends Ren Ebel and Tanner Cook as third years in the Visual Arts Media (Video) program at UC San Diego. The show was called RERUN.
Erina C. Alejo: RERUN helped us get our first arts grant. Using that, we built a suburban family home in the campus gallery and bought disposable cameras for audiences to take pictures of the show’s domestic anxieties and our performance as a family.
DL: RERUN helped all four of us learn to make installations from our video-based practices. It was fun to sleep in the gallery every night as a “family”, but we won’t be doing that anymore for a long time.
DL: Erina and I did another show the following year.
ECA: That’s when our work started being more cohesive and focused on alternative narratives (at least in our school).
DL: We’ve been collaborating on projects ever since. As for the curator’s main role… Well, like [Erina] said, alternative perspectives.
ECA: That, and valuing and practicing collectivism– which are also sources of conflict as curators. Our fellowship is teaching us the need to create a diffusive barrier between ourselves as artists and curators. It could be as tangible as withholding information from the artists so that we reveal it at a specific time.
DL: It’s all a matter of strategic communication so that there is understanding at different levels of work.
ECA: As curators, we’re also doing a lot of backend work, like press, seeking food donors… a lot of grassroots work.
MR: If you could describe your curatorial style in three words, what would they be?
ECA to DL: Do you consider yourself as an artivist?
DL: I think so, but I’ve also been reflecting on the word activism. I feel more like a community organizer than an activist. But they also go hand-in-hand.
ECA: Recently, I’ve been using the term community-engaged scholarship to describe my post-grad work.
DL: That’s nice. Those are three words!
ECA: But what does that mean to you? To me, that means bridging the intellectual gap between grassroots work and the ivory tower. I believe they have different ideologies and praxes of organizing people. As someone who wants to do work in both worlds, I want to connect them – even if that means oscillating between the two, if not being right in the middle.
DL: The first that I think of, in terms of three words to describe a curatorial style, is collaboration. But also collaboration with the artist. Because, what’s an art show without the artist? In terms of the community-engaged scholarship that’s happening with our show on multiple levels. We’re curating as well as hashing out ideas and figuring out how to install with the artists.
ECA: Back to the main role of the curator, Diana and I were both community organizers and exhibiting artists in college. We held student leadership positions that facilitated both our organizing capacities and artistic expressions. I value how nonhierarchical my art collaborations have been, but now as curator, understand the need for validation of the curator’s role in overseeing the whole forest while tending to the individual trees. We’re the park rangers!
DL: Those are only two words, though. So, we’ll stick to “community-engaged scholarship”.
MR: What is the title of your exhibition? Tell us a little bit about the theme and how you developed your concept.
DL: It’s called Appendix.
ECA: It started from one of [Diana’s] pieces at SFAI.
DL: I wasn’t thinking about that when preparing the show, although it was a precursor. [Explaining to the viewers] in my “Appendage” video piece, I cut my hair and called the cut hair an appendage. The title, Appendix, developed as we were contacting local artists we knew if they had any pieces relating to intergenerational trauma when we were applying for ECP [Emerging Curators Program]. When we received all the works, I noticed some of them were pretty visceral. I thought, what if I related this [visceral reaction] to a body part? I thought of the appendix, an evolutionarily forgotten human structure–same inside a book. But then, an appendix could also attack back at an unexpected moment. I feel like this is how trauma and intergenerational memories work. We remember them, but they come back as triggers or cycles. We don’t really know when they will happen.
ECA: You’ve explained it! Ready to write an academic article and put it on JSTOR.
DL: [Whispers] This could be my thesis for grad school.
MR: What is the most valuable lesson you have learned so far while producing this exhibition?
DL: We’ve already talked about some: figuring out communication with the artists, so that they are clear in what they need to do–not overloading anyone with information they don’t need and filtering that with different people. That was a huge aspect to learn from our ECP workshops.
ECA: Also, learning how to work with institutions.
ECA: Our venue is at the Pacific Heritage Museum. Its heyday was reputably in the 70s. To continue its operations, the museum has now partnered up with a prominent bank. This partnership has shaped the kind of art works that have been exhibited there, historically. We as curators are learning how to negotiate and make compromises with the museum directors towards mutually beneficial decisions. And so, being strategic in communicating with the artists but also with our community partners. Our exhibition establishes the first partnership between Asian American Women Artists Association and the Pacific Heritage Museum. We’re setting the path for future artists and curators in AAWAA to continue working with the Pacific Heritage Museum. We’re learning professionalism and transparency in our process.
DL: Definitely. Especially about professionalism. Setting up meetings is just one aspect–emails, setting up exhibition layouts to present, discussing the artworks, more emails. But another fun fact, to go back to the concept of Appendix: in the end, we were really happy that our show is at the Pacific Heritage Museum. That site is its own appendix because it has this forgotten past that a lot of people in San Francisco aren’t aware of. It’s a historical landmark of San Francisco and California as one of the first U.S. Bank Mints in SF!
ECA: When you visit our show, go talk to Roy about the museum’s history and his involvement. Bring a chair, too!
MR: Do you have any advice for other emerging curators of color?
ECA: For me, realizing that sometimes, there won’t be a designated space for your vision. So, you must create that space. Don’t be apologetic about taking up that space. Also, learn, too, the importance of working with different communities and community organizations. We are realizing the vision for Appendix together with our communities. As for working with artists, connect with folks from your past, present and future. For Appendix, we are working with artists with whom we’ve never collaborated with; some, we knew as artists but hadn’t worked with in the past. Look back to different friendships and partnerships significant to you in the past and bring them out in the present. For instance, I went to highschool with some of our artists– back then, we didn’t even realize we were going to collaborate as artists! But also, holding onto already fruitful partnerships: so, my friendship with Diana and our curatorial work together.
DL: And even making those primary initial contacts with whatever resources that are out there. Go see what AAWAA is, Kearny Street Workshop, Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center. There are so many resources out there. And it’s not just in the Asian American community of course. Reach out to those and see what they offer. Apply and see what you can get – any fellowships or programs that they have. And if you can’t find what you need, start it on your own and find the support from others!
ECA: Also, document your work. Archive it. So important.
DL: Another thing, is to pay attention to self care throughout the process. Before this interview, Erina and I were talking about how this curatorial process has been digitally exhausting. When we meet, we are always on our laptops.
EA: We’ve been technically meeting every Saturday since the start of our fellowship in late February.
DL: In order to stay committed, make sure that you make time to check in with each other about things like your personal lives, too – if you’re collaborating. But also check in with yourself if you’re doing your projects by yourself, but make sure you have that support network.
ECA: On that note, feel free to connect with us – email, check out the Appendix social media updates – we’re looking forward to seeing you at our show’s opening reception.
DL: May 28th, from 1-4PM. Memorial Day weekend.
ECA: Good food, good company, new and familiar faces.
DL & ECA: See you there!
Both Erina and Diana are fellows of Asian American Women Artists Association’s Emerging Curators Program. APPENDIX opens May 28 at the Pacific Heritage Museum. Visit the APPENDIX page for more info about the exhibition.