“…’totalizing arguments do not work.’ I really liked this idea. We do not need to be saying “this will happen,” or “this is the idea”, because things are more complex. There are no rules or statements that we can make about curation either. “ — Sandra Nuut
By Brooke Viegut May 23, 2023.
For our ongoing series, “In the Field,” D–Crit alum Brooke Viegut (2022) sat down with fellow alum Sandra Nuut (2014) to discuss her recent projects and the future of curation. With work across the design field spanning lecturing, writing, and curatorial projects, Nuut was recently appointed curator at the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design in Tallinn, and just published the Dear Friend Catalogue, an anthology of all letters and additional texts from the Dear Friend project.
Brooke Viegut: Could you identify yourself in this current moment?
Sandra Nuut: That’s a big question! In practical terms, I work as a curator here at the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design in Tallinn. My role is to do research, deepening our work in the design field. One of the missions that I was tasked with when I joined is creating a graphic design collection within the design collection. So working with graphic designers, but also doing archival work, researching, and creating exhibitions.
Right now I’m working on an exhibition that will open in October 2023. This has a focus on time and space for sleep. I am interested in progress, time crises, and how our need to control and develop has changed the bedroom. Technology and how it relates to our changing perception of time and room is also a facet of this show. Another program that has been going on since last year is a public program called When is Design?. This is something that we curate and organize together with Kai Lobjakas once a month in the museum, inviting different designers to talk about their practice through the work to open up what design can actually be, the understanding of design, but also involving different generations.
BV: It sounds like you’re exploring a lot of different things in your head at one time. That has to be exciting. What has your recent transition from teaching to this full-time curatorial role been like?
SN: It’s really different energy-wise. It’s very funny to say, but working at the Academy of Art was fundamentally different because there I worked as a coordinator and lecturer. So although both jobs require research, this work in the academy was like a highway. You’re always doing things at high speed. So the research I do [at the museum], I am allowed to have more time, which is really nice to have in this new space! So the museum does provide a sort of comfort that I can work fully on research. There is more time to focus and deepen knowledge on different topics on a larger scale.
I have had very different positions throughout my career, first full time at the Chamber Gallery. There I was a project manager-gallery associate, which was very much project managing and putting exhibitions together and up with the curators. This allowed me to learn a lot about the contemporary design scene. In the transition back to Estonia, to the graphic design department, I have been in very close contact with the graphic design scene. So, in that way, this has also been very fulfilling.
BV: I’ve noticed in looking at your work from, Dear Friend to the Silent Negotiations project, to even looking at your D–Crit thesis, there’s a really strong curiosity in the ways audiences converse with art and design., from intimate dialogue to larger political conversations. What draws you to this kind of work?
SN: It’s not that I am looking for communication projects, to be honest. It’s just happened. I always had the need to find ways to communicate, to share ideas. It’s something that is very challenging for me; I have always thought that expressing myself, in a clear way, is something that I have to work on. All the projects were born because I had the need to do something. Dear Friend, this snail mail project that we initiated together with Ott Kagovere was very much a publishing project, but also a writing project to give ourselves a platform and connect with contacts at home and abroad. We really wanted to be in touch with people. This is really to find on a very basic level, contact with people. Of course, it had some other outcomes–it’s a platform for voices, let’s say–but there has been this underlying drive to connect with people.
Silent Negotiations (2021), was a very different communication project. It also started with a very strong feeling to express frustration. I knew the work of Judith Seng. We were in these weird political times–I can’t say that the political times are somehow better–but this was something that really connected to this piece. Silent Negotiations is basically communicating via sand. You have sand, but you can’t speak. The possibility to learn something via movement, that you speak with someone through movement with colorful sand led me to approach Judith. She was also intrigued to have these different kinds of contexts for the project in Tallinn.
BV: Let’s talk about curation. It’s a way to share ideas, it’s a way to explore ideas. You told me earlier that you consider yourself new to the field. Why do you say you’re new? What brought you into this vein?
SN: Tu, tu, tu… Maybe saying that I’m new to curation is a bit of an in-between thing because I have done a few curatorial projects, so maybe not entirely true. I do feel that with museum curation I now have a different responsibility. Before, I would do a one-off project and then it lives, or it does nothing. But here, I feel that there’s a different responsibility at stake. So that’s why I’m saying that I’m learning. I’m getting to know how things are done here, and also trying to learn what I can do and how I can contribute.
BV: You now have a home. It’s different when you have a place to sit down and really explore for a while.
SN: Indeed, yes.
BV: What do you see as the future of exhibitions, where do you think we’re headed?
SN: I was worried about this question… I don’t think that we need to only look for the new in some ways. All the D-Critters know that research is very important. Research is the key. We need to know our material, and be able to look at it from different angles. This is definitely something that has to be done if you want to do a good exhibition–good is also relative, but to be doing something it needs to be researched.
I recently listened to a podcast where Aric Chen talked about manifestos, and he said that the ‘totalizing arguments do not work.’ I really liked this idea. We do not need to be saying something like “ this will happen,” or “this is the idea”, because things are way more complex. There are no rules or statements that we can make about curation either. Or, maybe this is my insecurity speaking, but I don’t want to make a full statement. I don’t think it matters to say that, “oh, this is the direction we are going.”
The only thing that I can say is I am in an intriguing place between Western ideas, and ideas that come from a very different place. The Soviet past [in Estonia], if we talk about design history and moving forward, combining these things in this certain context, geographically, idea-wise, and history-wise is something that will probably give the opportunity to navigate in a different way.
BV: Since we’re chatting on behalf of D–Crit, how has the program shaped what your life now looks like?
SN: I went to the program with the idea that I really wanted to get better at writing. During the studies, I understood that they [mediums] do need to work in different formats, and I found combining exhibiting, writing, and doing events seemed to be the right way for me. Discovering my right way to go forward was something that happened there.
There was this talk between Alice Twemlow and Murray Moss [Apples to Oranges: Dialogues between Art and Design in Commerce and Culture] that was very important to me. Curation does not have to be–funnily enough, I’m now working at a museum–but it doesn’t need to be only museum-quality work. It can be more experimental, it can be something totally from a different angle, something that Murray was doing for years. This really made me loosen up. The whole program, D–Crit, was much looser than my previous studies. That made me more courageous, to be loosened up, and think more openly.
Sandra Nuut is a design writer and educator working as a Curator at the Estonia Museum of Applied Art and Design. Nuut’s work includes lecturing, writing and curatorial projects in the design field, such as the symposion and art book fair “Making Public and Public: Art Publishing in Context” at the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design in 2019. Together with Ott Kagovere she is behind the monthly publication Dear Friend, that covers issues of design and culture. In 2022 Lugemik published the Dear Friend Catalogue, an anthology of all letters and additional texts from the Dear Friend project.
Nuut has previously worked at the Department of Graphic Design of Estonian Academy of Arts and New York-based gallery Chamber 2014–2017. Her writing has been published in Sirp, Müürileht, and Design Observer. Nuut graduated with an MA in Design Criticism from the School of Visual Arts and a BA in Art History from Estonian Academy of Arts. More about Sandra can be found by visiting her here.