How to Throw Yourself a DIY Retrospective

(as an artist with a community-based live art practice and a side of polymath)

I curated a DIY retrospective of my artwork, and it was awesome. Here’s how you can do it too.

Photo of Lair Fera gallery installation by the artist
Photo of Lair Fera gallery installation by the artist

STEP 1: Make stuff and keep it.

This might be obvious, but in our increasingly digital age it might be difficult to produce actual artifacts of your work, unless you’ve kept a lot of things like ephemera, costumes, notes, and/or are meticulous about organizing documentation afterwards.

Photo by the artist

TAKEAWAY:

For those of us in community practice, we’re often working at the edges of subcultures and our documentation is important. We may well be THE ones to tell our stories, and to lift up the voices around us. That alone is worth the time of archiving, to me. I don’t want some historian to get it wrong later: we’ve been creating our stories ourselves this whole time.

STEP 2: Identify the time and place for the retrospective.

SPACE

TAKEAWAY

I don’t think a retrospective, the way I wanted to do it, would have been possible without the super generous gift of space, including a week of install and three days of event, that my friends at Lair Fera gave me.

Photo by Heather Acs

STEP 3: Gather a team

I didn’t make all this art by myself and I certainly wasn’t going to get it up and organized all by myself either. Add that to the fact that this was also going to be a Big Grown Lady Party and I knew I’d need help. Luckily, BECAUSE I’d spent time producing and curating hundreds of events in the past, I knew exactly who to call. I recruited a dear friend to be stage manager and another to coordinate performers. I called on folks I know who are expert video installers, event space builders, lighting/industrial designers, installation artists, photographers, and so on.

Photo of Heather Acs, Sabina Ibarrola, self — by the artist
Photo of self, Bitsy Bentley by the artist

TAKEAWAY

Key to this process was reinforcing my learning that I do not need to be good at all things — nor am I. It was really beautiful to see my various friends come through and flex their expertise, giving me everything from literal hands on building help to ideas that never would have crossed my mind. It WAS better because I collaborated and diverse viewpoints DID make a big difference: theory in practice!

STEP 4: Retro-spect

Once the basics were cooking, I sent myself out of town for a week to get away from the emails and promo and dust my unearthing of stuff did to reflect and retrospect as well as make a list of all the work I’d done. Costumes, albums, multiple unpublished books, workshops, speaking gigs, performances, poems, videos, anthologies, community events, two musicals…

TAKEAWAY

“WOW SELF YOU SURE DID A LOT SO FAR.” I had to contend with the materiality as well as the psychology of being a maker of stuff. At times, it felt like this:

Photo of Madrid, NM by the artist
Photo by the artist

STEP 5: Dream it Up

Along with pulling past work, I decided to create a Retrospeculative Game to invite the audience into the work. I figured if *I* was overwhelmed — and I knew what all this crap was, that others might need a goal in order to create a meaningful pathway through the content. I also wanted very much not for the show to be an exercise in 90s and 00s nostalgia. I wanted to make a new thing that could live forward.

Photo of self and Maya Suess, Retrospeculative game participant, by unknown

TAKEAWAY

PARTICIPATION FOREVER. I hope to get to run another pilot of this game again at a conference or gallery show, since engagement was high and authentic, and the creativity ran wild. It was amazing to test a non-didactic way to give in-person event attendees ways to genuinely engage with the content. How often do you go to a gallery and folks are just hanging out talking not looking at the work? The inclusion of the clue maestros was KEY, as they provided the intervention between the work and the game and participants.

Photo of Retrospeculative game participants by Maya Suess
Photo of Retrospeculative game participants by Maya Suess
Photo of Retrospeculative game participants by Maya Suess

STEP 6: Find the Stuff

I’m a natural archivist and trained as a digital asset manager so finding the content was doable, even though I had to dig around in my files.

Photo by the artist
Photo by the artist, books I printed for the show.
Photo by the artist of Actual 90s Zines.

TAKEAWAY

Prepare for some casual weeping. Who was that girl who made those 90’s zines? Who was that young babe who wrote those poems about lack and heartbreak? Why did she worry so much and where the hell did all that fight and resilience even come from? I didn’t make the show because I feel lost or in a crisis, but I couldn’t help having moments of deep WOW and some serious amazement at where I’ve been and where I am today.

STEP 7: Place the stuff in a space

Bless gay people because we can take raw materials, scrunch them, and create DECOR. See, pink zuzzh (zhusshz?) center right:

Photo by the artist — v1 of wig/chain wall

TAKEAWAY

Other people are miracles and you need their help. Honestly without Sully, Heather, Andre, Yana & Sabina… The stuff would not have been in the space in any way that made sense or had pizazz. Or it might have been in the room, but without Bitsy and Caitlin it would have looked less amazing. Plus look at what keying two projectors can do (the yellow is the doorway to the gallery room, from the video room):

Photo by the artist / video install by For the Love of Video.

STEP 8: Get folks there and enjoy!

On my own I would have failed at promo. But: I had a team. That team, in particular my production manager / dear friend Sabina Ibarolla helped me get people there. And Heather Acs, my longtime collaborator corralled a bunch of people into a Saturday night Retrospectacular

Photo by Nogga Schwartz
Photo of Shelly Weiss by Nogga Schwartz
Photo of Mariam Bazeed by Nogga Schwartz
Photo of Sabina Ibarrola reperforming Hot Pink Mass by artist
Photo of artist and Zack Wager Scholl by Nogga Schwartz
Photo of Felice Shays and Theresa Michelle by Nogga Schwartz
Photo of Glenn Marla by Nogga Schwartz
Photo of Sequinette reperforming Hair Bump PSA by Nogga Schwartz
Photo of Dusty Shoulders by Nogga Schwartz
Photo of Rudy Rameriez by Nogga Schwartz
Photo of Heather Acs by Nogga Schwartz

TAKEAWAY

If you can get your beloved artist friends to reperform any of your work, DO IT. And consider yourself blessed.

Photos by Maya Suess
Photo by the artist
Photo of retrospeculative by Maya Suess
Photo by Maya Suess
Photo by unknown

CURATORIAL STATEMENT

Looking back, there’s no way I could have ever, EVER guessed all of this artmaking might happen in my life. I believe life is random. We’re not here for a reason, there’s no God, and none of us are “where we need to be” or “getting what we deserve.”

Photo of costume live paper doll wall by the artist
Photo of Sabina and Heather Renee Russ, gallerist, by the artist
Photo of video installation by the artist

design strategist & facilitator // economics researcher @rffearlessmoney // progressive technologist // performer

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