Pozen Welcomes Zoe Butt as Visiting Professor

Zoe Butt is a curator and writer who lives and works between Chiang Mai, Thailand and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Her practice focuses on critically thinking, historically conscious artistic communities; fostering dialogue among cultures of the globalizing souths; working with public/private institutions and independent artistic operatives, globally. After nearly two decades of directing artist-initiated arts infrastructure, enduring ideological censorship and surveillance in China and then Vietnam, she founded ‘in-tangible institute’ in Thailand in 2022. This institute seeks to nurture locally-responsive curatorial talent in Southeast Asia, believing the resilience of artists in their collation of hidden histories and its ensuing evidential social disenfranchisement is deserving of greater value in our increasingly commodified, cultural and educational landscape. 

Previously, Zoe was Artistic Director, The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Ho Chi Minh City (2017-2021); Executive Director, Sàn Art, Ho Chi Minh City (2009–2016); Director, International Programs, Long March Project, Beijing (2007–2009); Assistant Curator, Contemporary Asian Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane (2001–2007). Notable curatorial endeavors include Pollination (2018 ongoing), linking curators, artists, and private patronage across Southeast Asia; Sharjah Biennial 14: Leaving the Echo Chamber – Journey Beyond the Arrow (2019), one of the most prominent international platforms staging the latest in contemporary art, organized by the Sharjah Art Foundation, UAE; Conscious Realities (2013-2016) and San Art Laboratory (2012-2015), educational programs and artistic production focused on interdisciplinary expertise from across the Global South. Possessing an extensive exhibition and public speaking career, her writing has been previously published by Hatje Cantz; JRP-Ringier; Routledge; Sternberg Press, to name but a few. 

Zoe is a Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) International Curatorial Fellow, New York; a member of the Asia Society’s ‘Asia 21’ initiative, New York; and a member of the Asian Art Council, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. In 2015 she was named a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. Zoe is currently a PhD candidate with the Centre for Research, Education, Art, and Media (CREAM), University of Westminster, London; Lead Advisor (South East Asia and Oceania), Kadist Art Foundation, Paris/San Francisco; and Academic Advisor, TIMES Museum, Guangzhou.

Make sure to attend "Sidebar with Zoe Butt and Tiffany Chung" on April 5 at 6 p.m. at the Gray Center. Find more information here.

During Spring 2023, Zoe is teaching Embodying Method: How Artists Catalyze and Sustain Knowledge (HMRT 23491). Learn more about the class here.

What drew you to your work?

A love of history. As a child, I learnt much more about the social world from visiting my local regional gallery than I did from textbooks. Great art tells stories. Thus, artists, for me, are the most inspiring of storytellers. Many of them go to great personal risk to share what they see, discover, and interpret as either fact, fiction, or perhaps (and increasingly in our 21st-century lives) a necessary bit of both.

Can you tell us about the artists you work with?

I work predominantly with artists who live in contexts with very little support, their worlds engaging a differing cultural ecosystem to that of the dominant global art world and its galleries, museums, collectors, writers, and academic pursuits. Most of these artists live in or come from the ‘Global South’ - a tricky geo-political term, my own referencing here pointing to communities who endured/endure colonial/foreign occupation. The artists I love working with are committed not only to their material practice (their paintings, installations, films, and so on) but also their communities, whereby many are also teachers, lobbyists, activists, archivists, and more.

What is the focus of the in-tangible institute (www.in-tangible.org)?

I started ‘in-tangible institute’ with a need to possess a platform with which to speak about artistic labour – the space of artistic production – as a crucial social space. And that such intangible labour is deserving of greater attention by curators who typically focus predominantly on the artwork alone. After nearly 20 years of working in Communist contexts, witnessing the great innovation and tenacity of artists living the struggle of a lack of visibility (due to the limited support for their work), I recognize how important it is for people like me – curators – to really understand the context with which artists work and commit. The focus of my institute is to mentor curatorial expertise in Southeast Asia, towards greater connections in this regard, whilst also connecting this landscape with more conscionable and generative financial support. 

Is there anything else that you want to tell us about how your work connects with human rights?

Culture is a basic human right. It is the liminal space with which our memories are forged and given collective renewal, often through particular ritual, language, and material. In our ever increasingly disenfranchised regulated world, where our access to information is highly surveilled, it is incredibly important that we nurture agency in our cultural producers, to encourage them to be critical of the economic impetus of culture as mere entertainment, to understand that where there is great tragedy, there are always learning lessons that glean wonder with the human spirit. Art, for me, is that special grey zone where debates about assumptions should be open, with respect, and with access to all.

What do you hope students will learn from your class? 

My course ‘Embodying Method: How Artists Provide Responsive Strategies for Catalyzing and Sustaining Knowledge’ is a deep dive into the socio-political contexts of artists and how their conscience is a great mentor in their work and commitment to community. I hope that students, from an intersection of the arts with other critical human production, will take away the necessity to get involved with culture in our daily lives, not only to consume but to participate in questioning its relevance. It was a surprise to be invited to the Pozen Center – a curator who sits on the margins of artistic visibility – but I am grateful for its leadership in giving recognition to the validity of not only my own work but the artists who continue to battle on the extractive fringes of society today.

What's the best (or worst) advice you've ever been given?

This may sound cliché, but ‘trust your instinct’ is my dictum. In order to trust my instincts, I have had to critically assess my ethical and moral compass on a regular basis. I believe this is healthy. 

The worst advice, for me, is to think ‘stability’ equals inserting yourself into an existing acceptable, financially lucrative system. I believe life is about taking collective risks, challenging the status quo, and ultimately ensuring we keep learning constructively together. In that, we have to move our minds and bodies in ways that do not assume anything, for that is how we innovate.