Fraught territory – Curatorial Fellowship notes by Sharon Gubbay Helfer
The first four months of my curatorial fellowship with CEREV have involved negotiating a lot of fraught territory. As a Jewish scholar of Jewish studies involved in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, I chose to put myself in a difficult position with a project of gathering and then curating Palestinian Canadian life stories. I chose to challenge myself by seeking to record life stories from what remained for me on the “other side” of an ongoing conflict, after my many years of dialogue work. In addition to the challenges of doing oral history in the context of potentially politically charged relationships, I wanted to explore what it might mean to practice “shared authority” in what started out as “my” project of curating Palestinian Canadian life story material. (“Sharing authority” was the guiding framework for the large project under whose umbrella the Palestinian life stories had been gathered, the Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by Wars, Genocides and Other Human Rights Violations.)
For much of the time since the beginning of my fellowship in January I have felt as though I was walking a tightrope, where the survival of this project depended on my remaining upright and balanced. Seldom an easy proposition, this was made more challenging by the emotional and ethical commitments I bring to my work. My internal negotiations led to the birth of a personal performance piece, the embryonic first moves of which I filmed in the CEREV lab space several months ago. This dance-based piece is structured around an imagined path leading me to the two Palestinian women who were my first two interviewees. It expresses my desire for freedom and fellowship, as well as the ways in which I trip myself up and get in my own way, my anger and hope, doubts and resistances. In what follows, I offer a few notes on the main benchmarks of the “outer” curatorial journey so far, the path that should lead next to a preliminary online presentation of the curatorial project some time in June.
On January 27th I made a first presentation of “my project” to a working group of curators and other academic colleagues in the CEREV lab. Based on the feedback from this session, I made two decisions. The first was to separate my own artistic expression from the project of curating Palestinian life story material. The second insight was that the life story material needed to be co-curated, together with one or more of the interviewees. Both of these decisions led to further challenges. The first, still to be finally resolved, has to do with what kind of presence my personal voice should have in the resulting exhibit(s).
I am meeting the second challenge, of co-curation by constituting a working group out of the five interviewees, the project videographer, and myself. None of us has curatorial experience. Some of the interviewees knew each other before, but not all. For one of the participants, issues of privacy and security have come up. For others, the curatorial challenge has raised or revived questions about the meaning of their Palestinian identities. In addition, our time is very limited. It is a big challenge!
On April 2nd, this newly-established curatorial group met together for the first time, in the CEREV lab, for an intense two hours. For the first hour, CEREV director Erica Lehrer and postdoctoral fellow Monica Patterson were present to listen and share their curatorial perspectives and goals. The current project intern, McGill student Florence Béland, was also present for the first hour. The whole session was filmed in order to document the process and provide additional potential material for the prospective exhibit.
Later that week I met with Monica and Erica to review the state of the project and start to look at ways to concretize the next steps and to reflect on options for operationalizing the co-curation. At their suggestion, I proposed that the group met at the Centre d’histoire de Montréal, where we spent a couple of hours visiting the exhibit We Are Here, which presents the results of the Life Stories project sponsored by Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia. After the visit, we had lunch together and discussed our impressions.
The next step for our project is to gather material for a preliminary CEREV online exhibit. Each participant has agreed to contribute something based on personal meaning and the story or stories they wish to tell. The first submissions have come in and the others are expected over the coming days. I am very much looking forward to the path ahead, as we continue to learn together what curation involves, and how we can best present the fruits of all of our efforts and our sustained commitment to this project.
Post by Sharon Gubbay Helfer