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Curating Contemporary Art (MA)

Salomé Jacques

'Breath Variations'

Breath Variations is a new body of work created by Irish artist Christopher Steenson (b. 1992) for Flat Time House, the former home of British conceptual artist John Latham (1921–2006). With a background in psychology and the sonic environment, Steenson’s work uses sound, analogue photography, writing and digital media to forge ways of ‘listening to the future’. Using sound, video, and transmission-based methodologies, Breath Variations explored the materiality of time and the power that attention has over its transmission and state of matter. By manipulating and extending the sonic dimensions of Flat Time House, Steenson investigated the capacity of breath as a ‘least event’ – Latham’s term for the shortest departure from a state of nothingness – to punctuate linearities of time and space.

The site-specificity of Breath Variations was driven by a residency at Flat Time House, undertaken by Steenson in April 2023. Alongside periods of archival research, through which the artist explored the history of the space, Steenson also used this time to gather sound and video recordings connected to the gallery and the surrounding area.

Through engaging with Latham’s archive, Steenson has taken particular inspiration from Latham’s artwork Big Breather (1972) – a structure that simulated the movement of tides using seawater and a bellow system, and which was considered by Latham to present a method of capturing tidal energy. First presented as a proof- of-concept at Gallery House in London, Big Breather was never installed in the proposed location of the North Sea, 12 miles southeast of Arbroath, Scotland.

For Breath Variations, Steenson presented a new sound work, inhale, exhale (oi- io), which was broadcasted in synchronicity with the high and low tide times of the East Scottish coast. This transmission-based artwork explored the circulatory action of inhalation and exhalation by broadcasting both outside and inside the gallery, similarly to how Latham’s book sculpture How the Univoice is Still Unheard (2003), transects the front window of Flat Time House.

Drawing visitors further into the gallery space, Breath Variations premiered Steenson’s first significant moving image-based work, comprising a spatial sound component that activated across different spaces of the building. Using video and sound captured during Steenson’s residency, ranging from the minutiae of passing road markings and electrical wires, to emanating fields of electromagnetic radiation, the work’s form seeks to further expand upon the idea of the ‘least event’ by meditating on the relationships between breathing, electricity, and through-lines of time.

Salomé Jacques (b.1999) is a feminist writer, curator and art historian. Raised in Saint-Barthélémy, she practices in London where she completed a BA in Comparative Literature (Queen Mary) and an MA in Art History (University College London). She is now completing an MA in Curating Contemporary Art at the RCA.

Curator Salomé Jacques posing in an artist studio.

As a curator, I envision my role as supporting women artists, fighting for their recognition, and making feminism accessible to all through exhibition making. My dissertation explored the ways in which institutional displays of women’s history are still hesitant to embrace the radical essence of feminism. I use the term ‘herstory’ purposely to make a distinction from the gendered male ‘history’ and highlight the fact that women’s voices from our past remain deeply undervalued in our consideration of culture. Empathy is central to my approach to curating as I try to elevate its aspirational value as best as I can. I trained academically as a social art historian before joining the RCA in 2021. In like manner, I am interested in the representation of society through human emotions and the manifestation of female rage remains a theme which I aspire to explore further.Still to this day, I work in tension with the philosophy of ‘arts for arts sake’; in my views, the aesthetic qualities of an artwork should enhance the inherent political attributes of art. All things considered, my thinking is deeply inspired by storytelling; I consider cinema, literature and music as equal influences as fine art in my own curatorial practice. Therefore, the historical and contemporary are constantly in conversation with one another in my own curatorial work. I am also very interested in the use satire, humour and irony as tools which enable us to push back against the deeply unsettling state of the modern world. As one of the curators of ‘Breath Variations’ with Flat Time House, I was co-leading the liaison between ourselves, the gallery and artist Christopher Steenson. I also helped write and edit the exhibition text and publication. My feminist endeavours have led to the participation of Dr. Sasha Engelmann in conversation with Christopher Steenson as public programming.