A Conversation with the Artist and Curator Aaron McLaughlin

April 12, 2023
Author Rosana Lukauskaitė

Aaron McLaughlin, a talented multidisciplinary artist and curator originally hailing from Ireland, who has been based in Amsterdam since 2013, co-founded Still Making Art, a platform dedicated to nurturing artists during the often challenging early stages of their career. Currently, Aaron is curating the exhibition ‘Still Making Art Klaipėda’ at the KCCC Exhibition Hall, which runs from 31 March to 30 April, showcasing a diverse array of artists (JACENT [Jade Fourès-Varnier and Vincent de Hoÿm], Isaac Lythgoe, Jonas Morgenthaler, Emilija Rivière, Matthew Lessner, Jurgis Lietunovas, Robertas Narkus, Eglė Ruibytė) and their innovative works.

Rosana Lukauskaitė: Aaron, how has your own background as an artist influenced the way you curate and manage the Still Making Art platform?

Aaron McLaughlin: Still Making Art was established initially for my own needs. It ran alongside the precarity of being an early-stage artist in my own life, which very much informed the platform. I would in fact even say this is still the case, the project is sort of my own pocket para-institution, in which I can employ alternative models (which eventually will go far beyond the exhibition format), ultimately with the intention to support artists who are in the danger zone of pre-emerging.

Exhibitions are sporadic, and have usually been without funding, so they depend on circumstances, high-agency problem-solving, and people working together. As I have my own artistic practice, the project is not full-time. I currently define the platform to be yearly group shows on an indefinite basis.

In a way, the platform is very much a living model, trying to work with or through problems while being publicly active, including the obvious contradictions of funded projects (criterial requirements/adhering to the conditions of the current institutional model), and how my aesthetic preferences and biases will always get in the way when selecting artists. I already have a few ideas that I am developing to overcome these issues, namely resources of open, decentralised support, but it’s obviously no easy task.

In terms of my own background, I would say it was influenced before I considered myself as an artist. Situation-wise, I shouldn’t really have ended up at art school. I am from a working-class family in Ireland, later raised by a single parent in England, and due to a weird string of circumstances, it sort of happened. I was initially going to study Maths at university, without any thought on the matter or even the notion that I had the ability to choose what I wanted to do. Perhaps this formality could be one condition that influences the platform. I feel a little bit of an infiltrator that wants to bring the mystique of money and adversity to the surface, as well as reveal the aspect of relentless pathological work required to succeed, not as a means to dissuade anyone, but rather to assure the disparaged artist that it is a normal process for many creative practitioners which can be overcome with continual steps.

For example, when initiating this project in 2013, I supported my work during this time by living in a squat without water and electricity for around eight months, sleeping in my institutional school building for around three months, stealing from supermarkets, working at numerous jobs, and committing fraud in order to receive government support. Alongside this, Still Making Art, having numerous creative outlets at this stage, hosted our BYOP (bring your own paint) demolition party at our squat, destroying my last pair of presentable shoes by 2014.

As another point of influence, I studied for my BA in Glasgow, where I experienced a DIY etiquette and underground energy unlike any other city I have lived in: everybody I knew was either in a band, producing club nights for free, transforming their flat into a temporary exhibition space, or some other sort of communal activity. During my formative years in Scotland, this very much rubbed off on to me: producing community-based projects (from a cassette label, a publishing outlet, a squat/project space, numerous events and exhibitions, etc) always felt like a normal thing for me to do.

Robertas Narkus ”#9_A6&l” (from the series “The Board”), 2020. KCCC Exhibition Hall, 2023. Photo: Aaron McLaughlin

Robertas Narkus ”#9_A6&l” (from the series “The Board”), 2020. KCCC Exhibition Hall, 2023. Photo: Aaron McLaughlin

RL: How did you and Simon Boase initially come up with the idea for the Still Making Art project, and how has it evolved since its inception in 2013?

AM: Without sounding too cute, the project was based on friendship. It was initially a means for Simon and me to continue working together internationally. At this stage, we considered Still Making Art as an ‘art franchise’: we made artwork (as Stijl Making Art), a club night (Still Making Art International Services), and a few other things. Simon is a music producer and DJ, alongside being an artist. The club night Still Making Art International Music Services was a way to get him over to Amsterdam and perform. He is more of a silent member of the project for the time being, as he has his own projects/life going on in the UK; yet he is always mentioned to play with the anonymity and original purpose of the project.

After ebbing between these different arrangements, from 2018 the project was solely defined as a curatorial outlet. However, I am currently employing other aspects in the project for the upcoming years; the idea of an art franchise is still very much alive.

RL: Considering Still Making Art’s focus on community, self-representation, and non-art spaces, how do you, as an artist and curator, ensure that the chosen works for each exhibition are accessible and engaging to a diverse audience with varying backgrounds, nationalities and artistic sensibilities?

AM: I obviously can’t ensure this for definite, but a lot of artworks have an immediacy to them which could be considered more accessible to a non-art-affiliated audience. Institutional contexts can also alienate this demographic, so sometimes I feel it’s better to think outside this setting for this goal. In fact, I originally wanted to produce this exhibition in a format that could move to anywhere in Klaipėda/Lithuania, but of course with an institution that has their own space, preferences and allocated budget, this was, unsurprisingly, difficult to realise.

JACENT (Jade Fourès-Varnier & Vincent de Hoÿm), “Cœur (Sous-bois)”, 2022. KCCC Exhibition Hall, 2023. Photo: Aaron McLaughlin

RL: How do you approach the balance between showcasing early-emerging artists and including more established ‘star players’ in exhibitions like Still Making Art Klaipėda?

AM: In this show in particular, it is a spectrum of artists at different stages. Due to the many limitations in this exhibition, as with unfunded shows before, I wasn’t able to be glorified with choice; it was more, so what would be possible within these conditions. That’s why the idea of theme can be a little bit unrealistic (if not already quite reductive to the artists involved), when the conditions are as so, the theme is usually ‘this is what was possible under the given circumstances.’

RL: Can you elaborate on the themes of duration and accessibility in the works selected for the exhibition, and how these themes contribute to the overall ethos of Still Making Art?

AM: How would you like me to elaborate? ‘Each chosen work in the exhibition is concerned with notions of duration and accessibility, pertaining to the overall Still Making Art ethos. Whether it be the perpetual looped dancing of Matthew Lessner, the inflationary packing sculptures of Eglė Ruibytė, the tautological performative counterparts of Robertas Narkus, or the electric argon-fuelled roses of Emilija Povilanskaitė, a thread ties all these artists together, bowing a ceaseless interdependent poiesis. As for Still Making Art, I think the connections with duration and accessibility are already quite self-evident.

RL: As an artist and curator, how do you balance your time and creative energy to ensure you can nurture your personal artistic pursuits while simultaneously managing and growing the Still Making Art platform?

AM: Coffee and dark chocolate. Aside from this, I try to temper Still Making Art as much as possible, declaring it as an annual indefinite project (that I will do until I die). Keeping everything at a steady pace gives me time to have the project not overtake my personal practice, in theory anyway. There is the intention to be very slow, which I think is also a valid and useful part of the project’s message.

Jonas Morgenthaler, “It’s A Fine Day, People Look Out Windows”, 2022. KCCC Exhibition Hall, 2023. Photo: Aaron McLaughlin

Jonas Morgenthaler, “It’s A Fine Day, People Look Out Windows”, 2022. KCCC Exhibition Hall, 2023. Photo: Aaron McLaughlin

RL: How have your experiences as an assistant curator in South Korea and a remote artist-in-residence in Japan influenced your curatorial approach and the development of Still Making Art?

AM: I guess any art project experiences with institutions can influence my approach for subsequent projects. I would say specifically these projects are quite separate, as the exhibition at Doosan art gallery was a curatorial experiment in how artists were selected: I made a list of artists for someone else to select from, and I was provided with someone else’s list. It was a nice experience to engage with work completely out of my usual network of sources. The remote residency in Japan was a completely different project working with all sorts of circumstantial formalities which I won’t get into here.

RL: How do you envision the future of Still Making Art, both in terms of its ongoing exhibitions and the potential development of additional resources or support mechanisms for artists in the early stages of their career?

AM: I would envision larger group shows, all eventually leading to a transition of the project. I have a few plans in mind, but am ideally aiming for an independent funding model providing micro-grants for early-stage artists. How I do this is still somewhat of a question mark. I have a deadline set for 2038, so maybe ask me again then …

Emilija Rivière-Povilanskaitė, ”O₃”, 2020, single channel video, 00:01:18, sound, looped; ozone, custom-made scent. KCCC Exhibition Hall, 2023. Photo: Aaron McLaughlin

Isaac Lythgoe, “Every movement ended with a manifesto”, 2022. KCCC Exhibition Hall, 2023. Photo: Aaron McLaughlin