Seth Orion Schwaiger is a critic, curator, and artist based in Austin, Texas, and Glasgow, Scotland. His research interests include the development of arts systems with particular focus on the growth and direction of urban and regional art scenes in relation to larger national and international trends. He is a frequent contributor to many publications including Arts+Culture, The Austin Chronicle, Glasstire, New American Paintings, as well as Sculpture Magazine. I am pleased to bring you this interview with Schwaiger about his impressions of Austin and the balance between his curatorial work and art practice.
- As an artist also working as a critic and curator, your roles are constantly evolving and flipping, perhaps even allowing you to see several different perspectives that would not have otherwise been apparent. Have you found that these different (yet admittedly quite related) ways of thinking complement or erode each other?
Yes. Both. Each field is incredibly demanding. You have to throw yourself completely into whichever you happen to be working on at that instance, and so necessarily the others have to suffer. That erosion is inevitably balanced by productive lateral thinking working across these fields. My own artwork became much more focused on the viewer’s experience when I began curating. I’m more aware of how arrangements of art and environment choreograph a viewer’s movements and shape their experience on physical, emotional, and intellectual levels. That awareness is often the backbone of my writing, which reciprocally keys into how I craft shows and which artists I’m interested in. Of course I wish I had more time for each of these pursuits. It can be very exhausting, and at times I find myself believing the many intelligent people who’ve told me that it’s impossible to keep this sort of pattern up. All things considered though, I think it’s important to address your passion from as many angles as possible, and my passion is the way people experience art — the way they experience anything, really.
- How did you begin curating? Talk a little about The Chalet in Glasgow and your involvement with that program.
When I lived in Glasgow I had a studio in one of the stabbier parts of town. There were lots of good artists there because of incredibly cheap rents and lots of available space. My partner was getting her master’s degree at the Glasgow School of Art at the time, so we ran in two distinct social groups: the academic high-theory people and the gritty DIY folks on the south side. The potential for synergy seemed obvious with each group tempering the other. With the help of folks like Jason Mathis, Michael Ball, Lola Dupré, Heather Lander, Simon Harlow, and Collin McDougall we took our unnamed dilapidated studio building and branded it The Chalet, the name claiming lineage to a legendary multilevel studio in Glasgow named The Chateau that was eventually condemned by the city. I started curating experimental exhibitions there showcasing artists from both groups and eventually people from further afield. It gained momentum and wonderful collaborations came out of those early experiments.
- It is exciting to see an artist/curator based in both Austin and the UK. How do you balance these two very different places? Do you feel like there is an international dialogue happening in or around Austin?
Well, I don’t get back as much as I’d like to, and as far as balance goes, I admit that there is none. (If anyone reading this knows of an artist discount for airfare please get in touch.) It’s too easy to say that Austin’s art scene could learn a lot from Glasgow’s. Glasgow’s thriving scene has received a lot of focus lately for a variety of reasons, and of course I’d love to see that kind of attention on Austin. But the truth is they are very different ecosystems, even if they share some ostensible similarities. I think Austin is entering the international conversation, but it’s still a fairly small voice amongst some very loud friends. If Austin, or any other city in Texas really wants to be heard, I think the only truly viable strategy is for us to speak with one voice as a cohesive regional scene rather than fractured urban ones. The only way we can grapple with other global art capitals is to use our shared gravity (Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin, Houston, and smaller centers like San Antonio and Marfa) to make things happen. Those interurban connections are getting stronger in Texas, and while I’m not aware of any other trans-city precedents as such, I still stand by that theory of unified voice.
5. In one short sentence, how would you describe the art scene in Austin?
Austin’s artists and galleries have been tempered by frequent disappointment (mostly centered around a lack of money), but that harsh environment produces exciting, engaged, and often experimental artwork and curating with a center of gravity firmly in the eastside of the city. If you had asked for just one word — potential.