What It Looks Like is a Toronto-based podcast that brings aural storytelling to visual art. It’s a pretty difficult task that creator Alison Cooley handles with adventure and grace. She experiments with interviews, anecdotes and digressions in monthly thematic episodes. Topics include “Unprofessional Development,” “Understanding Your Biases,” and “What is Art.” We caught up with Cooley right before she premiered the latest episode about Canadian artist Brendan Fernandes to chat about modern art criticism and why you can’t wait around.
Studio Beat: We’re big fans of What It Looks Like. Is it weird to imagine people listening to your voice while cooking dinner?
Alison Cooley: No–that’s totally what I want! That’s my relationship with podcasts. I’ll be on transit learning about where blood types come from. There are a lot of podcasts that use storytelling to walk you through the technical aspects of a scientific topic. No one was really doing that with art.
Are artists afraid of storytelling? Is there a fear that it diminishes the art?
There’s absolutely no reason why we can’t use storytelling to talk about art. Art is full of really meaty, difficult, controversial and sometimes convoluted content. Storytelling is a way to cut through that. It gives the audience credit to make up their own mind. At the end of the story, we’ll both witness the same information in the same way, but you can feel differently about it.
Do you consider What It Looks Like to be experimental?
Steven Cottingham wrote an amazing article where he talks about how art criticism is so safe and it adheres to a formula. It’s about how people talk about art in really prescriptive ways. Right now we’re in this very precarious moment–
We are? What does that mean!
I think so. Permanent jobs don’t exist in the same way that they used to, especially in the arts. In the past few years, art councils have pulled back funding and we’ve seen magazines like FUSE go under. There are art organizations with a huge legacy that can no longer support themselves. We’re in this moment where it’s ride or die. Cottingham’s article says that things are pretty shitty and we can’t just sit around. If there’s ever a time to take some risks and thing about doing things differently, this is the time to be creative and experimental.
Does the same thing apply to artists?
Artists have been doing it already and it’s not being reflected by the administration of arts organizations or writing in a broad sense. It’s time to rethink the ways that we talk about art.
What prompted you to start What It Looks Like?
I wanted a podcast like this to exist and nobody else was doing it. Instead of waiting around and thinking, ‘Oh, I wish someone was making a good podcast about art,’ I thought I might as well do it and figure out a way. I knew a few people who had done community radio or had experience with audio editing and I asked questions. Everyone said all I needed was a microphone and people with interesting stories.
How do you find the stories?
The content is the hardest part. It’s a constant struggle. I do this podcast by myself, no one helps me. People will suggest stories they’ve encountered but I mostly decided what to do and do it. At first, I thought it was a bad way of doing things. I reached out to people to be collaborators or on an advisory committee but it was difficult to coordinate availabilities and time. I realized that if I do it by myself there’s a lot of freedom.
What do you hope people take away from your podcast?
I want people to realize that talking about art doesn’t have to adhere to formulas. It can be experiemental, it can be really weird. It doesn’t have to be an interview or a review. It can have a story or a techno song in the middle of it. It can be whatever–it’s all allowed.