WRoCAH Small Award Series: Francesca Curtis

WRoCAH Small Award Blog Series

This collection of blog posts shares the innovative and productive ways in which WRoCAH students have used the Small Awards scheme. Click on any of the names below to see how Small Awards have helped with these students’ research projects and/or professional training.

Francesca Curtis

Art Gallery Research Trips

Megan Henvey

My Life in Small Awards

Clare Danek

Silk Screens and Wobbly Pots

Gabriel Jones

Musical Performance

Michael Bennett

Archival Research


Francesca Curtis

Department of History of Art, University of York

2018 Cohort

Small Awards have given me the opportunity to take multiple research trips throughout the first year of my PhD. As my research focuses on international contemporary art, these trips have largely consisted of gallery and museum visits in the UK and Europe. Along with multiple visits to London, I also visited Berlin, Venice and Madrid.

A highlight has been my visit to the Venice Biennale in August 2019. The aim of this trip was to expose myself to both the biennale exhibition format and a vast amount of art being created today. As the major biennale of contemporary art, it epitomises the ways in which the global art system functions. The exhibition’s sheer scale, artists with whom I am both familiar and unfamiliar, and theme of “May You Live in Interesting Times” all provided significant insights. I viewed works that will both directly and indirectly inform my thesis, by artists such as Hito Steyerl, Newton Harrison, and Marina Abramović. Steyerl’s This is the Future (2019)a film using AI technology to tackle the often-unquestioned military applications of the medium, was a particular favourite. Abramović’s Rising (2018), which uses VR technology to simulate rising sea water, also raised interesting questions about the role of empathy in art. Both artworks provided a vastly different approach to the uses of technology to address today’s environmental crisis.

My experience of the biennale overall will also enhance the third chapter of my thesis, which examines the ways in which ecological art functions in a globalised art system.  The biennale format will be compared to earlier Land art practices, as both art methodologies are centred on direct experience and local identity. My visit to the Venice Biennale was timely in this respect, but it has also hugely impacted my understanding of contemporary art in a way that will hopefully have a much longer-standing effect.


In September, I visited an exhibition at Matadero Madrid, titled Eco-Visionaries: Art for a Planet in a State of Emergency. This exhibition featured multiple contemporary artists creating fascinating work around the themes of the environment, ecology, and climate change, often in technological mediums. The works of Ursula Biemann and Jenna Sutela were personal highlights and will greatly impact my second chapter, which looks at how artists today are using media to explore how humans communicate with the non-human world. I had been greatly anticipating the chance to see Biemann’s and Paulo Tavare’s Forest Law (2014), a two-channel video essay that tells the story of a legal battle between the Sarayuku people of the Ecuadorian Amazon and oil and mining companies; it did not disappoint. Beyond this work, Eco-Visionaries allowed me to see the works of a great number of artists within my field in one space, also including Tue Greenfort, Zheng Bo, and Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. What was so interesting about this grouping of artists for this ecologically-framed exhibition was that it was situated in an arts centre that used to be a major slaughterhouse and livestock market in Madrid. The tension created between the site and the subject raised some fascinating questions about site-specificity that I hope to take with me throughout my PhD.

Throughout the year, I have also taken multiple trips to London to see various exhibitions related to my research. Most recently, I visited Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life at Tate Modern. Eliasson’s retrospective exhibition, tackling the challenge of how to make climate change more meaningful through sensorial experience, has many similarities with the theories of ecology at the centre of my research. I used this opportunity to write an exhibition review for the new History of Art postgraduate journal at the University of York, Aspectus, which was published in October as part of the first issue.

Elsewhere in London, I have seen exhibitions at the Seventeen Gallery, the Barbican Centre and Gasworks, all of which provided varying experiences on the themes related to my thesis. From Pedro Neves Marques’ examination of the gender politics of genetically-engineered mosquitos to the Barbican’s techno-utopian AI: More than Human exhibition, these trips have allowed me to keep up to date with the exhibitions relevant to my area of research. This has helped me narrow down exactly which artworks I want to focus on, within a contemporary art field of greatly diverging practices.

In Berlin, I attended a three-day event at Haus der Kulturen der Welt called Life Forms. This interdisciplinary event explored the question of how to consider life in today’s technological, scientific, and environmental climate. Bringing together varying artists such as Jenna Sutela and theorists such as Melody Jue, Lisa Baraitser and Elizabeth Povinelli, this event exposed me to a wide variety of themes and theories surrounding my research area. Although largely focused on the role of technology, it also addressed questions of care, language and human exceptionalism. I visited this event in April of my first year, just as I was exploring different areas of contemporary art and ecology and attempting to narrow the focus of my thesis. Life Forms was highly enlightening in this respect, and I am grateful for the opportunity to listen to speakers such as Jue, who I hope will become a major aspect of my own research.

While I was in Berlin, I also took the opportunity to visit several of the major contemporary art galleries in the city, and a personal favourite was König Galerie. It was then exhibiting a work by one of my favourite artists, Camille Henrot, called Tuesday (2017); this is a film that compares the bodily movements and power relationships of horses and Jiu-Jitsu fighters.

Overall, WRoCAH’s small awards dramatically shaped the ways in which I conducted research in my first year. Not only is it vital to see many of the artworks I wish to write about in person, an awareness of how the art world is engaging with my areas of interest is key. Keeping up with the contemporary art world is not always an easy task, but the research trips that I have undergone have meant that my work so far has not been conceived in isolation. This would not have been possible without WRoCAH’s support, and, as a result, I am hugely grateful for the opportunity to have seen so many wonderful exhibitions and events in multiple incredible cities.


To read more about Francesca’s PhD project, ‘Methods of Decentring: Towards an Ecological Logic of Artistic Relationality, 1966-2018‘, visit the WRoCAH Research pages.