Our Emerging Curator Competition Winner on Her Plan to Carry Rauschenberg’s Torch Into the Future

After combing through 138 exhibition proposals from five continents, 13 countries, and 78 cities, the judges for the Robert Rauschenberg Emerging Curator Competition chose four young curators as finalists—and our social media audience voted Nicole L. Bray as the winner. Bray’s proposal, “The ROCI Road to Peace: Digital Edition,” takes its first step toward realization today as her online exhibition goes live on Artsy.

ROCI, the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, was initiated by the artist in 1984 as a six-year program to promote peace and cultural exchange through art, with outposts in 10 countries undergoing political unrest. Bray will collaborate with curators at the Rauschenberg Foundation to organize and mount an exhibition at her home institution, New York’s Sotheby’s Institute of Art, that underscores ROCI’s relevance in the contemporary landscape. Pairing a Rauschenberg piece, which will serve as the exhibition’s “anchor work,” with a rotating group of artworks by contemporary artists from the 10 ROCI nations, Bray’s exhibition will also include a curated selection of digital works submitted via social media. Judge Sarah Roberts, curator at SFMOMA and director of the museum’s Rauschenberg Research Project, commended Bray’s “ambitious, global, democratic” proposal for its smart incorporation of crowdsourced artworks. “I think it will be a challenging and incredibly enriching process for a young curator—to look at submissions from all over the world and make defensible choices for the final presentation,” Roberts said. “It is a tremendous opportunity to see what's going on in different regions and countries, and it will require coming up with a set of curatorial criteria for why she’s making the final selections.”

On the whole, the judges responded enthusiastically to Bray’s intention to put Rauschenberg’s work in conversation with works by other artists, and to create a constantly evolving environment for the artwork to inhabit over time.“This is something that people seem to not understand about Bob’s work,” said Christopher Rauschenberg, president of the foundation dedicated to his father’s work and himself an established photographer. “There’re always people proclaiming that ‘this is what this piece means. This means this.’ Well, it means that to you today—when you’re talking to it today—but as soon as you leave and the next person comes up to the piece, it’s talking to them about something else. And I think that’s possibly the most important thing about Bob’s work that people don’t get.” John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, agreed that Bray’s proposal succeeded in “allowing the contingency of interpretation, which is very much consonant with what Bob’s work is all about.”

The Australia-born Bray has lived in London and Los Angeles, and now calls Williamsburg, Brooklyn, home. Before enrolling in the Contemporary Art masters program at Sotheby’s Institute, she worked for 11 years at the global advertising agency TBWA, developing campaigns for clients such as Apple and Visa. She is currently working with the New York-based painter Edwin Cohen on his 10th solo show, which will open in December at Chelsea’s Winston Wächter Fine Art. We caught up with Bray on the eve of her online exhibition launch, and she offered insight into her curatorial process, her plans for the physical exhibition, and the artists who are carrying the ROCI torch today.

Artsy: How did you come to be concerned with Rauschenberg’s work, and how does it fit into your larger curatorial ambitions?

Nicole L. Bray: At Sotheby’s Institute, I have studied under some of the most inspiring faculty members; Professor Victoria Miguel, who worked for the John Cage Trust and was the recipient of the Rauschenberg Responsive Grant in 2012, not only inspired my academic appreciation for Rauschenberg’s work but also revealed to me his reputation as a genuinely beautiful human being. As a result, Rauschenberg became the focus of my master’s thesis, in which I attempt to study, discover, and validate the long-held academic attribution of “openness” to his work. I have reviewed in detail Rauschenberg’s assemblages, “Combines,” “Combine paintings,” “Experiments in Art and Technology,” and installations, and compared these studies against the theoretical foundation defined by the Italian semiotician and philosopher Umberto Eco, who examines the artist’s decision to leave some of the compositional arrangement open for the viewer to complete—and to chance.

This project, among others, has refined my ability to create a central idea, or theme, and express it through an impactful visual story. Building a narrative through artworks, artists, viewers, and the exhibition site is an incredibly fulfilling experience, both creatively and intellectually. As artistic mediums continue to expand into the digital space, the parameters for curatorial innovation become wider and more exciting. By nature, the trailblazing spirit of Robert Rauschenberg inspires this new frontier for curatorial innovation.

Artsy: How did you come up with the idea of having an “anchor work” for the exhibition? How did you choose which artists and artworks to put in dialogue with that piece? 

NB: I felt that having a rotating exhibition over the course of the academic year at Sotheby’s would facilitate the best experience of the work and, to an extent, mirror the journey that Rauschenberg took over the six-year course of ROCI. At each moment throughout the exhibition, the ever-present anchor work by Rauschenberg serves as a tribute to the past and Rauschenberg’s original intentions to foster peace through the exchange of artistic ideas and practices. The rotating works by established contemporary artists from each of the original 10 countries represent the present, cycling consecutively with Rauschenberg’s work. The digital submissions from artists around the world will be displayed on television screens, representing the future.

As the space at Sotheby’s Institute already has multiple screens installed, I wanted to take advantage of this and explore various video-based works. Alfredo Jaar, from Chile, is an artist whom I admire tremendously. After seeing his work representing Chile at the 2013 Venice Biennale, Venezia, Venezia, and the reenactment of A Logo for America (1987) in Times Square, I have found that his political interventions, and the way he questions the status quo and promotes global unity through mixed-media works, align with the original values of ROCI. Venezuelan artist Javier Téllez has a sustained interest in bringing peripheral communities and “invisible” situations to the forefront in his art. One Flew over the Void (Bala perdida) (2005) performs a social action at the border of Tijuana and San Diego, where the marginalized and “invisible” are made visible through a border crossing that resembles a circus-like extravaganza. In March 2014, I visited the studio of the very talented Pedro Reyes in Mexico City. Gun violence is rampant across Mexico and since 2008 he has been making works such as Guitarra (2013), where he turns confiscated weapons into musical instruments. Each weapon is tainted with a history of bloodshed and violence; however, its reconfiguration into a working musical instrument turns the weapon into a requiem for the lives lost when played. Other artists included in my proposal, such as Cai Guo-Qiang, Wilfredo Prieto, and Tan Wei Kheng, continue to build on the original themes of ROCI, broadening artistic practices and mediums with the intent of unveiling social commentary or political intervention.

In the spirit of ROCI, it was incredibly important for me to explore artistic concepts that embraced new media and explored behaviors in online and offline realities. Sebastian Schmieg’s Search by Image (2011) was a perfect example of this. Schmieg examines the interconnectivity, consequence, and speed of contemporary life, by creating a recursive algorithm where outputs of Google image search become the inputs. Through this algorithm, Schmieg is somehow able to show a short history of the universe in 2,951 images at a rate of 12 frames per second through a process of symbol manipulation. The fleeting cacophony of images questions the validity of Google as an archive and gives an almost dismal snapshot of life as we know it. Meiro Koizumi’sPortrait of a Young Samurai (2009) continues to explore the power of the media, the construction and intervention by the artist, and the blurring of realities within the performer in a highly charged, nationalistic environment.

Artsy: Your plans include a lot of thinking on your feet and responsiveness to the submissions you receive as the process unfolds. Do you have any preliminary methods or goals in mind that will help you navigate this onslaught of material?

NB: The spirit of Rauschenberg’s commitment to expanding the boundaries of art and fostering global connections between artists remains at the core of this proposal. The call for submissions from artists around the world to submit their work digitally for the exhibition inherently pushes the curatorial parameters into the unfamiliar and the unknown—a territory that Rauschenberg himself continually strived for. Personally, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to gain first-hand access to such a wide volume of work from artists all across the world, who are equally inspired by Rauschenberg and seek to carry on his legacy. Each artist will be asked to submit a photograph of their work with the hashtags #BobsLegacy and #TheROCIRoadtoPeace. The submissions from various social media platforms will be aggregated and monitored through a program, such as Tagboard.com, a tool which will enable me to see all the artwork submitted on one simple dashboard.

As for being able to think on my feet and react to unexpected situations as the process unfolds; well, my experience from working in the fast-paced world of advertising combined with my calm, rational Aussie sensibilities will hopefully quickly kick in to help navigate any issues. If that doesn’t work, I will simply open a can of Coca Cola and ask myself, “What would Bob do?”

Halley Johnson

Explore “The ROCI Road to Peace: Digital Edition” on Artsy.

Follow the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation on Artsy.