In this series of interviews, we ask people with artistic jobs about their profession and life after graduation. This time we have a nice conversation with Valentina Peri – a Paris-based, independent curator, art critic, and author.
Her research focuses on the role of technology in contemporary culture, with a particular interest in love and intimacy in the digital age, as well as media histories and technologies in the anthropocene. She has curated exhibitions, published writing and given lectures on a broad range of topics in these areas. “Data Dating”, her travelling exhibition, has been seen in France, Israel, and the United Kingdom. She co-edited an essay collection called Data Dating. Love, Technology, Desire, which was published by Intellect in connection with this exhibition (2021).
In 2021, she curated the exhibition “SWIPE RIGHT!” at iMAL in Brussels (Belgium), continuing her dating research. She expanded her research to include the topic of Romance Scam in West Africa and wrote “The New Romance Scammer’s Instructor,” an edited compilation of original texts from Ghanaian Internet scammers.
She has also been a Guest Curator with peer-to-space, a Berlin-based independent exhibition platform. Valentina worked at Galerie Charlot Paris–Tel Aviv from 2011 to 2021 and curated various exhibits with artists such as Quayola, Eduardo Kac, Sabrina Ratté, Manfred Mohr,!Mediengruppe Bitnik, and Addie Wagenknecht. Valentina is also a co-founder of SALOON Paris, an international and diverse network of female artists in Paris and other places.
SK: What were your beginnings like?
I started my career in the gallery sector through a series of internships and short collaborations as a student, during my Erasmus exchange in Paris. In 2009, together with some friends and University colleagues, I founded a cultural association for the promotion of young artists, called InkLink. We received a consistent fund from a student grant and we launched an open call for an exhibition on the theme of metamorphosis. The group show, featuring the work of international and French artists ran in 3 different places for 2 months: a contemporary art gallery in the Marais, the hall of University Paris 7 and a squat in the 13th Arrondissement that doesn’t exist anymore.
Thanks to this fantastic experience I understood that curating exhibitions was exactly what I wanted to do. Two years later I joined Galerie Charlot in Paris, a contemporary art gallery specializing in digital art. I took the great opportunity to develop a program dedicated to new media art in a young gallery that had only been founded six months before my arrival and was looking for its own identity. It is within those walls that I presented my first exhibitions and started building my career as a curator.
While working at Galerie Charlot, it was natural for me to combine my background as a cultural anthropologist with the digital environment in which I was immersed: the new media artworks I used to deal with in the gallery space and the use and abuse of technology in the outside world, and both realities combined online.
SK: What pushed you to become a curator?
I guess my vocation to become a curator began during my student life in Italy (where I come from) and more precisely in the city of Bologna, where I used to live with a group of Swiss artists. Our house was a port and many international artists visited us daily. I loved the creativity and the exchanges generated by these meetings, the possibility of following works in progress, of exchanging ideas on many political and social issues and of having a vision that was somehow external and parallel to one of the artists. My critical eye developed in this context. I did not organize any exhibitions in Italy at that time. It was only when I arrived in Paris that I launched myself as a curator, first in an associative context, then in a more institutional one.
I think that the role of the curator, not unlike the artist’s, is first and foremost one of cultural criticism: we observe and scrutinize the processes and tendencies that are shaping the society and culture of our time to produce a commentary.
Becoming a curator was not a deliberate decision, I think it has been due to life’s fortuitous events, encounters and choices that I made more or less consciously. I like letting events and encounters take me to situations and contexts I didn’t plan to be and then find my place, if I think there is something interesting to dig and discover, something that helps me express myself.
SK: How long have you been preparing for this job?
As I said before, I presented my first exhibitions and built my identity as a curator while working at Galerie Charlot in Paris. I joined the gallery as an assistant in 2011, and by the time and the experience in conceptualizing exhibitions, writing texts, understanding the works and the artists’ intentions, I started to develop my vision and critical insights on my practice.
I officially put the name “curator” next to my name only in 2014, when I curated South Korean-American artist Inhye Lee’s solo show in Paris, in partnership with Arte Laguna Price (Venice). Since then, I never stopped planning, thinking and organising art exhibitions and collaborating with artists on different levels.
SK: How has your education prepared you for your career?
Since I was a child I was immersed in the arts thanks to my mother’s passion and practice. At first, I didn’t choose a career in the art sector for my education, as I was more interested in Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology. But progressively, I found a compromise, and through my specialization in Anthropology of Art I reconciled my two main interests, with a thesis on Contemporary African Art and the Dakar Biennial. Back in 2007, I left Italy for an Erasmus exchange program in Paris, and there I attended courses at EHESS, a French grand Ecole dedicated to human sciences. Later on, I attended art history courses at the Ecole du Louvre in Paris and I took part in the Master in “Curating New Media” at the University of Sunderland in the United Kingdom.
My current research fields as a curator, the role of technology in contemporary culture, love and intimacy in the digital age, media and technology histories in the anthropocene, are the result of a mix of participant observation that owes a lot to my training in cultural anthropology, a great curiosity for contemporary social and cultural phenomena, many readings and a good dose of self-teaching in various fields.
SK: What was the most important skill that let you become the curator?
I think that a “good” curator is a person firmly rooted in their time, one who has the power to be ahead of certain cultural trends, to appropriate them on a theoretical and aesthetic level and then to “stage” them, while resorting to more or less classic (or cryptic) registers according to the specific audience they are trying to reach.
What really matters is to address specific topics that resonate with one’s time, but from a distance. I am referring to a kind of contemporaneity defined by Giorgio Agamben, that is, a peculiar relationship to the contemporary, through disjunction and anachronism, when the gaze is not revealing the bright sides of the present, but rather its darker areas.
Ubiquity is one of the key ingredients: to be simultaneously IRL and online. It takes a lot of energy to juggle these roles, to document oneself, to be always aware of what is happening in the local and international art world, to get new ideas and to develop smart strategies and an interesting exhibition program.
This is a job in which the boundaries between professional and private life are blurred. The advantage is that you work from passion, but this passion is also work.
You are on the job 24/7, even when you least expect it.” When casually scrolling your Instagram flow, when visiting an exhibition in your spare time, when meeting friends of friends… opportunities arise at all times, new ideas could lie anywhere. It is a very exciting job, one that I love and that enriches me very much. It allows me to travel and meet new people all the time, to open doors to a variety of contexts, a perfect fit for my insatiable curiosity.
As a curator, I believe it is my job to orchestrate the elements that I bring together – the works of art – by giving them all the space they need to stand alone and be powerful, but also include them in a collective statement of which I am the catalyst. I think that the work of the curator should not be limited to the exhibition space: a curator should be a spokesperson, an activist for the causes he cares about.
SK: What is the riskiest decision you had to take in your work?
Becoming an independent curator during the pick of the COVID-19 pandemic, after 10 years working as an associate director in a contemporary gallery.
This move has proved to be very good, as I immediately started organising new exhibitions and I have plenty of projects and art residencies planned in the next months. Really exciting!
SK: What has been the most difficult task you undertook so far?
I guess the most difficult task is to be able to define a work plan that is not too intense, to find spaces for rest and relaxation, and to plan your workflow well so that you are not overwhelmed by your own schedule!
SK: What was your biggest setback, failure, or defeat?
I think of a big exhibition project that I conceived and developed and that it couldn’t be done in the end. An institution was committed, we worked for months, having regular meetings, and finally, my interlocutor announced that it would not have been possible to go further, for political reasons, because the subject was delicate, it tackled sexuality and therefore they considered it a bit touchy.
Of course, this situation allowed me to develop something else and to reframe the subject. It also helped me be stricter about my way to manage contracts. It was a lesson about me being dragged down by the trust, instead of asking about written partnerships and rights. In the art sector, it is always a delicate task to talk about these issues at the beginning of a collaboration. With hindsight, if I had a contract, at least I could have been compensated for the time I spent on the project and the meetings. And luckily the institution did not “use” my idea without me being involved in the project, which can happen as well.
I think the subject was a little bit too ahead of time. I am confident this exhibition project will be realised one day.
SK: What do you consider to be your biggest success?
My exhibition “Data Dating”, an exhibition about love in the Internet Age that I curated in Paris in 2018. The show was later presented in Tel Aviv, in London, and ZKM in Karlsruhe. I recently expanded it in a book: Data Dating. Love, Technology, Desire (Ania Malinowska and Valentina Peri eds.) published by Intellect UK in November 2021.
In addition to lively acclaim from the public and the press, Data Dating was the starting point of ongoing research on the subject of love and technology. In October 2021 I curated the second leg of this project at iMAL Brussels. This new chapter, the exhibition “SWIPE RIGHT!”, focus on dating and digital intimacy through the lens of the global pandemic.
Lately, I started a research on “Romance Scam”, Internet-based frauds from West Africa through dating websites and I recently received a grant from Fluxus Art Projects to pursuie my research on the history of computer dating.
SK: What three tips would you give someone who wants to become a curator?
Surround yourself with the right people
Be coherent with your values
Respect the labour and work of all the people involved in your exhibition (from the artist to the shipper, from the cleaner to the registrar and so on…)
SK: If not a curator, what would be your dream job?
As I have already been a gallerist, I would say…collector 😉