You are on page 1of 145

Ten

Fundamental Questions of
Curating


Edited by Jens Hoffmann


Mousse Publishing, Fiorucci Art Trust
Credits

Publishing director:
Edoardo Bonaspetti

Editor:
Jens Hoffmann

Assistant editor:
Chelsea Haines

Copy editor:
Lindsey Westbrook

Editorial coordination:
Ilaria Bombelli

A project realized in partnership with:
FIORUCCI ART TRUST

Director:
Milovan Farronato

Design:
Marco Fasolini, Fausto Giliberti, Andrea Novali, Francesco Valtolina
Intern: Samuele Anzellotti

Publisher:
Contrappunto S.R.L.
via Arena 23
20123, Milan – Italy


Acknowledgements:
Darren Bader, Nairy Baghramian, Pierre Bismuth, Jana Blankenship, Giulia Brivio, Matthew
Buckingham, Nicoletta Fiorucci, Urs Fischer, Mario Garcia Torres, RoseLee Goldberg,
Claudia Gould, Leonilson Estate, Linda Mai Green, Sophia Hoffmann, Luisa Lambri,
Marysia Lewandowska, Micki Meng, Marsha Miro, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Christodoulos
Panayiotou, Sturtevant, Valerio and Valerio, Vincent Worms


© Mousse Publishing, the authors

All rights reserved. No parts of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted, in any
form or by any means, without prior written permission of the publisher
Why Does the Hydra Have Ten Heads? by
Milovan Farronato, Director, Fiorucci Art Trust

Between September 2010 and the summer of 2012, Mousse magazine
published—on a bimonthly, sometimes quarterly basis—ten booklets in A5
format, each 32 pages long, which have been brought together here in a
well-deserved, appropriate, partially revised version. Ten fundamental
questions about curating—akin to Lacan’s fundamental concepts of
psychoanalysis (albeit only four)—proposed by Jens Hoffmann and sent to
ten distinguished curators: Jessica Morgan, Juan A. Gaitán, Chus Martínez,
Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, Elena Filipovic, Maria Lind, João Ribas, Peter
Eleey, Adriano Pedrosa, and Dieter Roelstraete.

I say “partially revised” because in the current collection, some changes


have been made: the sequence of texts has been altered to create a more
rational sequence of subjects, a crescendo or a diminuendo, depending on
how you look at it. Definitely not a hierarchy of authors, but a consecutio
of the themes that are addressed. Some questions have been reformulated,
while leaving the subject the same (though one might reflect on why
“What Is the Future of Art?” has become “What Is Art?”, for example).
The visuals that accompanied the texts in the previous booklets have
vanished (for closer adherence to the literary genre it refers to, I believe,
and for legitimate reasons of uniformity). It is worthwhile to point out,
however, that in the process of parcelling out the project the first time
around, each curator involved had the option of invite an artist to help
visually support his or her argument. Elena Filipovic’s text was framed, for
instance, within a visual concept by Nairy Baghramian, based on a series
of wall drawings by Blinky Palermo; the audience, as the subject of Juan
A. Gaitán’s investigation, was presented through photos of spectators
comfortably seated in various settings—images selected by Christodoulos
Panayiotou from the Municipal Archive of Limassol, Cyprus—while the
empty frames of a completedly incomplete work by Mario Garcia Torres
alternated with Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy’s animated chronicle. Nor
does this version include the back covers, where other visuals showed
images of projects that, like the Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating,
Fiorucci Art Trust produced, sponsored, or sometimes designed: stills from
a film by Runa Islam, or the poster of a show by Enrico David, a project by
Yto Barrada, an installation by Sharon Houkema, to cite a few. Among
these, we have also lost the image of an unusual climb to the crest of a
volcano, photographed by Goshka Macuga (Stromboli, in the Aeolian
archipelago), as well as the tapestries she presented at dOCUMENTA (13).

Now a ten-headed hydra looms disquietingly on the cover, which has


taken on a much more reassuring shade of green. And this is the only
visual archetype that is left. Jens Hoffmann, the editor of this volume, has
the task of updating his introduction to reflect what is now a complete
vision of the project and the individual contributions. I have the same task,
from what is an obviously much different angle: the standpoint—though I
too am a curator by profession—of the patron. And I’m tempted to ask him
and myself whether there might be space and time for an eleventh question
(I’ve always found odd numbers more reassuring, moreover, much like the
color green): “What About Patronage?” But time is short, space is limited,
and from the patron’s standpoint, I prefer to cut things short.

In the first issue, dedicated to determining “What Is a Curator?” (Jessica


Morgan), which came out as a supplement to Mousse #25, I introduced the
entire project as director of the then newly-founded Fiorucci Art Trust—
which, along with Mousse Publishing, produced the booklets and the
current volume—with a brief text in which I explained why Fiorucci Art
Trust had decided to present itself to the public with this specific
investigation by Jens Hoffmann. The goal at the time (which at least to this
point has been achieved) was to avoid all stiffness and be dynamic and
flexible, not to have a set protocol, yet to follow certain guidelines: “to be
a non-profit entity capable of adapting to circumstances; of promoting
under-recognized artists; of implementing risk-taking projects and
often running into experimental ways of thinking”. All characteristics
which I was sure could resonate with curatorial practice. I thought that the
results of this investigation into curating, or this updated version, would
yield a professional profile that was not definitive, but potentially varied,
fluid and exceptional. I believed the ten questions could lead to new ones,
complicate the story, render the discourse more complex. I can see now
that the results of the investigation have lived up to these expectations, but
at this point, as a precipitous conclusion, I’d rather highlight a few points
where they seem to concur. The recurrence of the word “display” and
related mechanisms and techniques in many texts (my mind jumps to
Syria, with the fourteen-meter-high pillar of Simeon the Stylite, or its
cinematic interpretation by Buñuel); the frequent reservations expressed in
regard to the institutions that systematically train new generations of
curators, due to and/or aiming for a unanimously shared defence of the
personalization of curatorial practice, its educational foundations and its
subjective developments. Many of the authors—almost all of them—set
off from personal anecdotes as a way of introducing their answer to the
proposed question. Some have almost entirely built their argument around
specific biographical information. What is more, I find these—do let me
indulge in this unusual role of patron—to be the most fascinating texts,
like the long dissertation on the future of art by Chus Martínez, or the more
fragmentary but equally heartfelt examination of the curatorial process by
Adriano Pedrosa. But nevertheless, at the beginning there’s still that ten-
headed hydra as a captatio benevolentiae. And so be it…
Ten Fundamental Answers by Jens Hoffmann

It has become almost cliché to introduce a compendium of essays on
curating by taking note of the plethora of recent publications on the subject.
How, in just a few short years, did we reach this point of self-referential
saturation? What do all these publications offer? What questions, exactly,
do they address?

Several of them profess to offer an overview of the curatorial field as it


exists today, or attempt to map its historical trajectory. Others propose a
series of case studies under a common curatorial theme. Some compile the
collected writings or interviews of a single curator. All are hoping to
contribute to this relatively new discipline, and its accompanying canon,
through the putting forth of a shared set of values and knowledge base.

The aim of Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating is certainly to


contribute to this canon building. But at the same time, it aspires to offer a
real critique of existing publications and modes of thinking by explicitly
asking the questions that others may have missed, ignored, or deemed
already answered. By inviting ten international curators to each propose and
then address one question, Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating takes an
almost tongue-in-cheek, back-to-basics approach—a return to a kind of
zero-degree state—at a time when a recalibration of what a curator is and
does seems both necessary and urgent.

The idea for Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating has been with me
for a long time, and it stems from my essential desire to understand what is
happening in the curatorial field today. Over the course of my career I have
repeatedly asked myself questions exactly like the ones addressed in these
essays. I believe it is constantly necessary to interrogate the simplest, most
basic principles of one’s own profession, precisely because the answers are
simultaneously quite complex and almost never given any thought by
others. In the case of curating: What is a curator? What is an exhibition?
Who do we curate for? These questions seem so straightforward, so
fundamental, that most curators bypass them entirely. They take the answers
for granted, assuming the relevance of our work in the wider world, thereby
indulging in a dangerous sort of unchecked, assumed self-importance.

Another impetus for this publication emerged from my perception of a


general confusion, or at least ambiguity, about what this field is, what it has
been, where it might go, and where we all are at this specific moment. I
wanted to bring to light some of these questions in order to discuss them
openly and get a better understanding of the coordinates of curating, so to
speak. The essays included here collectively create a blueprint, a basic
definition and set of roles and responsibilities, to help us reconsider some of
the choices we have made in the development of this profession.

Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating began as a series of ten


commissioned essays for Mousse magazine written over a period of two
years, in 2011 to 2012. Each author examined one key question related to
curatorial practice—an issue that he or she viewed as important personally,
and also as important to curating, art, and exhibition making today. The
questions reflect a broad range of interests indicative of each curator’s
practice.

It opens with Jessica Morgan grappling with one of the most fundamental
and overarching questions of all: What is a curator? Even as she claims a
certain discomfort with labeling herself as a curator, she deftly, albeit
partially, charts out a genealogy and classification system for the
profession. For Morgan, the role of the curator is inextricably bound up in
site—be it the museum, the international biennial, or the small nonprofit—
and the different typologies of curators correspond to their functions in
those sites: the curator of collections, the transnational curator, the director-
curator, and so on. She constructs the possibilities for defining curatorship
today by the institutional, locational, disciplinary, and financial restraints
placed upon us.

If context is the framing device by which we define our practice, then for
whom do we curate? Juan A. Gaitán attacks this question head-on by
focusing on the presumed social contract that exists between museums and
their audiences. He examines the development of the first public exhibitions
in the 18th and 19th centuries and the notion of art in the public sphere that
subsequently emerged. Arguing that contemporary conversations around the
public and the public sphere reflect outmoded models of a harmonious and
homogenized society, Gaitán proposes that we see those who visit our
exhibitions as fractured, disharmonious, and constantly in a state of
becoming.

Chus Martínez asks perhaps the broadest and most intrinsic question in
the minds of all curators: What is art? She explores the question of art—its
categorizations, meaning, future, and (portended) death—by recounting the
story of a philosophy professor’s take on art. In this story, art is already
dead; it is a remnant of an earlier, less-developed age. Martínez’s unsettled
narrative pricks holes in this Hegelian decree, pointing out its
idiosyncrasies and flaws, and indicating her uncertainty regarding the
possibility of ever knowing a beginning or an end to art.

In a time when the role of art itself is in question, Sofía Hernández Chong
Cuy asks: What about collecting? In today’s art world, the role of the
collection curator is definitely perceived as less glamorous than that of the
organizer of temporary blockbuster exhibitions or biennials. Collecting as
an aspect of curating is almost completely ignored in curatorial degree
courses. Hernández begs to differ with this attitude, asserting that
collections remain a core principle upon which the traditional public art
institution is based, and that the private-turned-public collection is
becoming a more and more prominent institutional model globally. How
can a collection originally built on the tastes of a single individual be
displayed and contextualized in a relevant way for a broader audience?

Elena Filipovic endeavors to answer what for many curators is the core
question of the practice: What is an exhibition? She dispenses with any
notion of the exhibition space as neutral or inert and argues that the each of
the different typologies of exhibitions that exist (or may possibly exist in
the future) must be analyzed in their own right, taking into account their
entirely different aims and goals. For Filipovic, a discussion of exhibitions
is always about seeking to determine “what it does, which is to say, how
exhibitions function and matter, and how they participate in the
construction and administration of the experience of the items they
present.” Diving into the function of the exhibition enables us to examine it
as a site for the emergence of dialectical relationships among curator, art,
and audience.

Maria Lind asks a question that we can all agree is increasingly relevant:
Why mediate art? She presents two dominant tendencies in art mediation in
the 20th century. On the one hand there is the traditional, didactic museum
model largely developed by the founding director of New York’s Museum
of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr, and its founding director of education,
Victor D’Amico. On the other she offers up the more radical, participatory
pedagogical practices developed by figures such as the artist El Lissitzky
and the curator Alexander Dorner. Lind argues that the abundance of
didactic materials presented in major museums—wall texts and object
labels, linear display narratives, and an assortment of art educational
activities—is predicated on the notion of an audience fundamentally in need
of explanations. She challenges us to resist this dominant model and
propose other types of mediations, even at the very moment that curators
are increasingly seeming to turn inward, and consider their practices in
isolation from the ever-growing publics who visit art exhibitions. How can
we explain and make relevant what we are doing for more than the already-
converted few, without slipping into bland traditional canon-building or
curating only for other curators?

What to do with the contemporary? João Ribas tackles perhaps the most
frequently used word (second only to “art,” that is) in the field today. What
does it mean to call an exhibition, an artwork, an institution, a curator, or an
experience “contemporary”? Ribas is not so concerned with a comparison
of the contemporary to its modern ontological predecessor, nor with its
more plebian synonym, the “now.” He focuses instead on the ways in which
curators today consider the work they display within temporal, spatial, and
historical frameworks. The evolution from “modern” to “contemporary” is
more than a shift in chronological time, more than just the staircase that
separates one museum floor from the next. It denotes a shift in how humans
see the world, and the art that is created in response to changing conditions.

What about responsibility? Peter Eleey brings up the increasingly


pertinent question of what constitutes curatorial responsibility. For a
number of reasons, which Eleey delineates, curators today are sometimes
accused of overstepping their bounds by valuing their own work more
highly than the art they are showing, commissioning, or otherwise
facilitating. Eleey questions the limits of curating with regard to placing
artworks in conditions or contexts for which they were not made or meant
to be displayed. He advises us to proceed with caution in the brave new
world of the curator-as-author.

Building on the questions around the varying structures of curating,


Adriano Pedrosa asks: What is the process? Researching for a contemporary
art exhibition is, of course, a different beast than art historical research.
While many curatorial degree programs exist, and more will surely pop up
in the years to come, Pedrosa argues for a different kind of professional
methodology—one that is fundamentally interdisciplinary and grounded in
real-life research and experience. Horizontal educational and informational
models and a self-reflexive, inquisitive mentality, as well as an ardent desire
for travel, particularly to the less-charted areas of the art world, are a
productive toolbox for curators today.

Finally, in all seriousness, Dieter Roelstraete asks: How about pleasure?


Of course curating is a serious endeavor conducted by scholarly, intellectual
individuals. As all the previous essays in this compendium attest, the
experience of visiting a museum or seeing an exhibition is meant to be
rigorous, challenging, and consciousness-raising. But even a show curated
with the most aspirational intentions can be a decidedly didactic, antiseptic,
even anti-pleasurable viewing experience. Roelstraete muses: “Does the
invocation of any form of pleasure, visual or otherwise, necessarily align
curatorial practice with the evil forces of entertainment?” How can we as
curators achieve in our projects a middle ground between education and
entertainment, intellect and sensibility?

Curating is a relatively young field with short history. It certainly borrows


from the more established disciplines of art history and cultural studies, but
it is still in its adolescence, still transitioning from an open, creative, largely
undefined practice to a diverse professional arena with many highly
specialized branches of knowledge and practice. But these specialized
branches, while a necessary part of any established field, are producing
mountains of discourse under which I fear many essential thoughts can be
buried, and perhaps suffocate.
Even as this book goes to print, I cannot help but wonder if the questions
these curators examine will all continue to have relevance in five or ten
years. We are still in the early stages of formulating a theory of curating,
and there may come a time (although I doubt it) when no one will want to
talk about curating and exhibition making any more. The more likely
scenario is that a decade from now the role of the curator will be analogous
to a many-headed creature, the perfect embodiment of a peripatetic,
decentralized, deregulated intellectual worker who fills gaps in cultural
meaning through a wide range of products and services to an ever-
broadening consumer market.

Questioning the roles and limits of curating, while certainly a healthy


thing for those of us working in the field, should and must have broader
implications. “Curating” today can mean everything—or utterly nothing—
depending on whom you ask. Clearly and straightforwardly defining this
work, as we attempt to do in this book, means staking a claim for the
substance and relevance of the field as a whole. There are specific questions
—questions that are not specialized—that every curator must ask him- or
herself. How and why do we do what we do?

I strongly believe that anyone working in any intellectual field should,


every few years, review the essential questions of their practice and reflect
on how their relationship to them has changed over time. Curatorial
innovation, new theories of curating, and diverse new conversations should
be welcomed and encouraged. But the new and fashionable should not
distract us from engaging, and re-engaging, with what we already think we
know.

In my own practice, curating is still fundamentally tied to making


exhibitions. It is tied to artists and artworks. My role, as I see it, is to
display artworks in space in a meaningful way according to a particular
concept. Today I sense that such an approach is coming more and more
under question and that curating is moving further and further away from
the gallery. In the debates concerning curatorial practice, we see an ever-
expanding array of viewpoints. These range from the traditional museum
curator possessing deep knowledge of art history and a particular collection,
to the academically trained contemporary curator working in a larger
institution with living artists, to the creative curator or curator-as-author, all
the way to the concept of “the curatorial” as a methodology or operational
tool that is completely untethered to works, artists, spaces, audiences, or
any particular outcome of the encounter between “viewer” and “artwork.”

Curating is now a global phenomenon. New art institutions and biennials


of all sizes and types are springing up across Asia, Africa, and the Middle
East. Museums in the West are expanding as fast as they can secure real
estate and international “starchitects.” The (not-unrelated) continued
expansion of curatorial programs and degree courses assures that new
generations of curators will continue to develop ever more diverse methods
for presenting art and ideas. The once-sharp line between what curating is
and what it is not has become vague and open-ended. I hope that these
essays collectively offer a bit of clarity in a messy world.
Question 1: What Is a Curator? by Jessica
Morgan

A Personal Reflection

To unpack the baggage of ungainly meaning that the term “curator” has
accrued over the last two decades, I feel compelled to try and recall what I
thought a curator was before I became one. Assuming, that is, that I am one.
Strangely, despite being able to claim this as my job title for going on 16
years—in answer to the question of our age, “What do you do?”—my reply
has always felt somewhat illegitimate. Fraudulent, even.

Putting aside general (gendered?) insecurities related to professional


standing and the occasional lack of confidence that might lead to such a
crisis in identification, I come back to the fact that my diffidence about
stating that I am a curator stems also from a lack of identification with any
of the various options that this title conjures in my mind. Like a row of
paper dolls, each kitted out with a particular outfit (more on that later),
objective, and attitude, my notional “curators,” most of them justifiably
employed and many busy with admirable ambitions, form a complex,
multigenerational, interconnecting structure that, more often than not, I
cannot place myself within.

Perhaps this is true of many—here, again, I struggle to say “of us”—


especially those who came to this occupation in a time before curatorial
courses, curating master’s degrees, and the tidal wave of curatorial interns.
Without any real idea of what the job was when I first came to it, and given
the changes and drastic expansions of the field that have taken place during
the time that I have occupied this position, perhaps this lack of
identification is only to be expected. The term “curator” is now a vast, all-
encompassing category embracing many workers in the field of visual arts,
including education and the many disciplines that are (finally) incorporated
into the panoply of an exhibition-making arsenal. But it is also a term that
has in the last decade been commandeered by those selecting food and
wine, designing hotel interiors, and otherwise engaging in various aspects
of “lifestyle culture.”
To return to my first impression of what a curator was: My idea was
formed prior to my arrival in the U.S., when I was still at school in London
in the 1980s. I was only aware of two or three curatorial models, and
identifying with any of them was out of the question. Almost
indistinguishable in attire from the cliché librarian (tweed skirt, buttoned-up
blouse, low heels) was the female curator at Tate who “allowed” me to read
her PhD thesis, which she handed over to me in the museum’s rotunda, near
the metal gate that leads to the curved staircase at the top of which used to
be the library of the museum. I can still hear her shoes on the marble floor,
and the fact that I recall it so well reflects my discomfort at having already
started to feel like an impostor in that environment.

Her position seemed not much different from that of a young academic
(the same training), proximity to art objects and even artists not necessarily
making a great deal of difference. Aside from her male counterpart (a
uniquely British breed of man largely devoid of sexuality, occasionally
displaying an incredible breadth of arcane knowledge but no real sense of
what to do with it), there was the aristocratic model, brought to curating
through ownership and connoisseurship and essentially embodying the
continuation of a collecting/curating tradition that arguably brought about
the first curatorial enterprise: the Cabinet of Curiosities. Now, however,
these aristocratic collector/curators were also employed by museums to use
their personal/professional knowledge to create public/private fiefdoms.

The two sources of real inspiration for my future career were ones that I
did not, in fact, associate with the idea of curating. The verb “to curate” did
not even exist in my mind. London’s ICA was a place to hear music, attend
talks, see films, and experience art. A vibrant, noisy, challenging place, it
was definitely not run by what I thought of as a curator. The only person I
knew who worked in a museum, Bryan Robertson (director of the
Whitechapel during the 1950s and 1960s and a close family friend and
neighbor), was self-educated, surrounded by artists (not academics), and
utterly engaging. Significantly, one of the only other truly important UK
curators, Lawrence Alloway (founding member of the Independent Group
and later a curator at the Guggenheim Museum in the 1960s), also never
received higher education. And in both cases (as Alloway in fact explicitly
identified), this lack of inculcation into the ordered, class-obsessed,
hierarchical British educational system allowed them to develop an open-
minded acceptance and critical acuity.
Historical Precedent: Convention and Exception

While on the one hand my (initially limited) familiarity with academic or


aristocratic models of curating was the result of the very limited context of
the London or UK art scene—which never experienced the rupture of
Modernism and continues to suffer from this inadequate legacy—most
Western countries with an established museum system no doubt
encompassed these curatorial typologies of caretaker and connoisseur.
While the latter is a continuation of the manifestation of the private
collector and patron, in particular after the 15th-century development of the
portable and domestic art object, the former emerged with the establishment
of the public museum in 19th-century Europe. The museum’s development
in the 19th century is itself closely related to strategies of discipline and
enlightenment in the post-Industrial age. The collection and display of
certain objects and artifacts according to chosen curatorial techniques
represented not only the writing of specific colonial and national histories,
but also the circulation of particular values and ideals. A universalizing of
bourgeois views and visions took place, and formed the public support of
the museum. The curator’s role was (and arguably still is) intimately
connected to the notion of education: Visitors were taught not only curated
histories, but also curated ways of seeing and behaving in the museum.

It is interesting, then, to consider the exceptions to these models and how


they came about. Broadly generalizing, one could say that curators who
established diverging practices did so as a result of close affiliation with
contemporaneous artistic movements and were responding to a shift in
production, itself often related to larger contextual issues or politics and
economics, and the resulting rethinking of issues of display and public
presentation. Or, though often the two are in any case closely related, the
independently minded curators may have been concerned with establishing
new publics, or what might be termed counter-publics, rethinking the
bourgeois model of museum or exhibition as rational enlightenment and
establishing different frameworks for exhibition making that generated new
publics. In the former typology, one might assemble a list of figures such as
Walter Hopps, Henry Geldzahler, and Kynaston McShine. In the latter,
curators or directors such as Alexander Dorner, Pontus Hultén, and Marcia
Tucker. Given that most significant artistic movements in the 20th century
were intimately concerned with establishing new publics or audiences,
clearly these two models were more often than not in fact one and the same,
but arguably some curators have demonstrated a consistent desire to rethink
the institution, and with that the constitution and creation of its public, in
ways that have drawn on experience and ideas outside of any contemporary
art practice.

Interestingly, from the perspective of the new professionalized curatorial


career, those most celebrated for their contributions have often emerged
from disciplines other than art history (the logical precursor of the curating
course) and instead migrated from a background in theater (Harald
Szeemann, Francesco Bonami, Jens Hoffmann), architecture (Jean Leering),
film (Chris Dercon), politics and economics (Hans Ulrich Obrist), or poetry
(Carlos Basualdo, Okwui Enwezor). Or were entirely self-educated
(Alloway, Robertson, Hopps).
Transnational Curator

If these two alternative models/approaches can be said to have defined


much of the innovative practice of the 20th century, the third radical shift
was the development in the 1990s of the transnational curator. Subsequent
to the controversy raised by the exhibition Magiciens de la Terre (at the
Pompidou in 1989), the most troubling and also exciting development in the
curatorial field has been the (extraordinarily belated) incorporation of a
global realm of artistic production, and, with that, the redefinition of how to
articulate this terrain and the related postcolonial debate. The large-scale
group exhibition—whether thematic one-off, biennial, or so forth—has
undoubtedly been the arena within which this new practice has emerged,
and its scale is partly a simple refection of the incorporation of the
multifarious forms of engagement now encompassed within this expanded
field.

While also the subject of critique, it is equally true that such large-scale
exhibitions—and in particular globally situated biennials—have provided
new ideas of modernism and modernist histories, and have infused a sense
of contemporary culture in sites that did not have an institutional legacy to
bring this about and helped to open up institutional spaces for artists
working on a local level. Moreover, the resulting research into and
expansion of artistic practice has exploded the idea that there is a lack of
practice in different parts of the world. While this development led to the
establishment of a new form of hyper-mobile curator (epitomized by the
inimitable Hans Ulrich Obrist), it has also resulted in the increased
establishment of locally based expertise, such that curators from certain
regions are justifiably valued for their extensive localized knowledge but
quite often overlooked for their potential but equally important
contributions to the transnational understanding of the contemporary
moment and historical past, which, arguably, remains the privileged
purview of the West. Clearly one of the important developments that could
happen curatorially will be the contribution of these voices to a revisionist
understanding of standard Western art history. With such initiatives and
exhibitions as Paulo Herkenhoff’s XXIV São Paulo Biennial and The
Former West project, we begin to see what promise this might hold.
Curating the Collection

Notably absent from most curatorial courses is any real engagement with
what is in fact the fundamental cornerstone of the museum: its collection.
When students are encouraged to focus in this direction, they inevitably
lapse into “exhibition lite,” organizing the available works into tired
thematic groupings better suited to the small-scale Kunsthalle (if at all).
Given the crisis in funding that most museums now face, it is an opportune
time to start to pay attention to the potential of the collection, but also the
challenges faced given the vastly expanded field of production now under
consideration. Outside of the large-scale exhibition, the collection is the
ideal space in which to pose questions of new histories and new modalities
of display. Rather than simply producing another roundup of the latest and
the youngest, the collection offers the opportunity to entirely rethink how
we understand the past.

The relatively unfashionable status of the collection-oriented curator is


largely (and sadly) attributable to the difference in time-scale involved in
the collection display and the corresponding lack of publicity or frequency
of PR-related attention. Whereas the large-scale exhibition has a period of
anticipatory publicity, the frisson of opening events and postmortem
reviews, the collection display is deemed of public interest only in the case
of a major museum’s re-hang or the opening of a new building (vis–à–vis
the Tate Modern in 2000, MoMA in 2004, or the Walker Art Center in
2005). In reality, the collection is where millions are educated and
inculcated into an understanding of what art is, and as such it is surely a
highly significant place for a curator to work.

Moreover, from the perspective of a sustainable museum, the collection is


locally based, and it requires minimal transport and fewer resources for
display. For better or worse, however, the collection is also at the heart of
the politics of the museum and represents the public display of the
increasingly contested relationship between private collection and public
institution. Very few, if any, museums are able to collect without private
support, and while this has brought invaluable funds as well as in some
cases exceptional collections, it has also led to the loss of control of the
collection focus. The combined effect of the disarray caused by the
expanded global field and the corruption of independence of thought has
left most institutions at an apparent impasse with respect to their
collections, and yet this area seems to hold the most promise for future
curatorial initiative on a lasting and expansive scale.
The Curator and the Undoing of the Critic

Since the 1990s, the curatorial voice has to a large extent merged or
surpassed the critical one. No longer can we imagine a time when a critic
such as Clement Greenberg might weigh heavily on the development of art.
In part a result of curatorial involvement in the critical and theoretical
discourse of the 1980s, the critic/curator has merged into one double-
headed beast, the risk being of course the loss of a critical platform, given
the codependence of the curatorial world and the consequent lack of
publicly voiced dissent.
The New Professional

The massive increase in the number of museums as well as the expanded


activities undertaken by these institutions has, presumably, resulted in the
need for more curators, and with that an explosion in curatorial courses
offered by enterprising institutions of higher education. Sometimes this
equation strikes me as a little like the chicken-and-the-egg conundrum, and
I am unclear whether, in fact, museums proliferate because of the number of
job-seeking curators. This massive increase in a largely pointless profession
reminds me of the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wherein the
“useless third” of the population (hairdressers, management consultants,
insurance salesmen, and the like) are tricked into evacuating the planet on
Ark B and, upon arrival at their destination, are unable to do anything but
run around trying to cut each other’s hair, sell nonexistent insurance, and
the like. MAs in curating would definitely have been sent on Ark B.

Of all the things that can be studied, curating seems almost a complete
waste of time, and it is alarming to think that the majority of curators now
being employed emerge from this limited purview, rather than from the
many different disciplines and backgrounds from which some of the great
contributors to the field came, not to mention the even more numerous
autodidacts and artists who have until the last decade occupied the
“profession.” With this narrowing of the field of those considered
“qualified” comes the concomitant narrowing of new approaches, non-
hierarchical thinking, and attempts to unravel the limited categorizations of
art, art history, and exhibition making. Also worrying is the myopic focus of
curatorial courses on art and institutions of the years post-1960.
Authorship

The question of authorship and the curator has been contested ground in
the last few decades, the presumption being that the curatorial role has
seeped into the realm of the artist and threatens at times to eclipse the
latter’s position and independence (see Anton Vidokle’s recent “Art
Without Artists” on e-flux journal). While in fact it is the artist-curator who
has probably taken the greatest license with others’ work (think of such
legendary interventions as Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum at the
Baltimore Art Museum in 1992, Hans Haacke’s Mixed Messgaes in 2001 at
the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and Urs Fischer’s Who’s Afraid
of Jasper Johns at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 2008), this critique in fact
pertains to a small part of the curatorial world, as the vast majority of
curators remain unseen and relatively unknown in the apparently-neutral
and all-encompassing facade of the institution.

The notion that current museological display is an impartial and naturally


evolved environment has been resolutely discredited, and yet the
transparency of authorship and intervention by the curator/institution
remains largely un-investigated. The critique of the author/curator risks
hindering much-needed experimentation and exploration of new forms of
display within the museum, new approaches that undoubtedly require
authorship and a rethinking of the contextualization of art. We eulogize the
great achievements of radical exhibition experiments such as Documenta V
—for which Harald Szeemann brought together many of what have become
the seminal figures of the time in a 100 Day Event—but we forget that they
were similarly attacked by the artists in the exhibition (Daniel Buren and
Robert Morris for example) for encroaching on their artistic independence.
And what would a non-authorial curator look like? I certainly don’t care to
know.
Co-Production (Many Authors)

The reality is that any exhibition or display is the culmination of a


multitude of authors. Whether this is explicitly manifested as it has been in
recent large-scale exhibitions—from all the iterations of Manifesta, each of
which has involved a curatorial team, to the more than 10 curators of the
2003 Venice Biennale and the team behind Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta
11—or in the collectives (both curatorial and artistic) that make this
collaboration a standard part of their practice, or indeed as it is made
manifest by the work that takes place every day in any large-scale museum
with its complex structure.
Director/Curator

The natural progression for many curators has been toward the role of the
museum or institutional director. In recent years there has been much
discussion of the lack of appropriate candidates for the job of director, a
position that has fundamentally changed over the last two decades. Largely
the result of increasing demands for fundraising (itself in part a reflection of
the dramatically expanded role of the museum as a provider of
entertainment, education, and architectural experience), the perceived need
for a more businesslike approach to the running of a quasi-corporation, and
the need to operate diplomatically but also politically in the realm of the
board of trustees, the end result is a drastic decline in the curatorial duties
of the director.

Perhaps a cause for further consternation is the desire for specialized


training of directors, who are now encouraged to undergo reprogramming in
order to fit neatly alongside the captains of industry who support, but also
increasingly control, the museum through its funding. While the capacity to
manage a staff, budget, and fundraise are all necessary requirements, the
desired schism between the curator and the director evidenced in recent
years is a worrying trend. Visionary, experimental, art-centered directors are
needed more than ever. Given the central role that museums now play in
contemporary culture, the desire to mold this position to fit the corporate
ideal seems misguided, especially considering the attraction of the museum
for those working outside it (whether visitors or trustees) as precisely a site
of difference from the realm of the relentlessly commercial.
What Else?

I have deliberately avoided discussing the daily activities of the curator,


although I am often asked what a typical day consists of, the classic
assumption being that curators spend their time actually hanging art (“Up a
little, over to the left”). The answer is dependent entirely on the curator: an
academically capable researcher who spends the majority of their time in
libraries versus a transient, independent curator visiting the studios of a
global array of artists? Or an institutionally based, bureaucratically driven
curator fulfilling the demands of trustees versus the director of a small
nonprofit scrambling for financial support but relatively free to experiment?

The possibilities are endless, although, hopefully, especially if we are


talking about contemporary curators, the majority of one’s time is spent
thinking about art and working with artists. Given the increasingly
prominent role of the museum in contemporary culture—arguably the
cultural experience of the 21st century—quite possibly the role will
continue to evolve in ways we have yet to imagine.
Question 2: What Is the Public? by Juan A.
Gaitán


The exhibition has become a more unformed and uncertain phenomenon
than one might infer from the passionate criticisms that are being launched
against it and its makers. Who, after all, are its makers? One could accept, as
one of the most recurrent criticisms has it, that the exhibition has become the
curator’s medium, but exhibitions in fact operate uneasily in an encounter
among the institutions that host them, the artworks that are contained in
them, and their public. The exhibition is the museum’s medium, the
biennial’s, and the gallery’s. It is also, even in our time, art’s medium. With
increasing force, in what can be seen as a current paraphrasing of its old
rhetoric, it is diplomacy’s medium. If we are to follow Marcel Duchamp’s
celebrated axiom that art is a rendezvous, it is also the public’s medium—the
medium through which the public becomes public. And it is in relation to this
last encounter, the encounter of the public with itself and with its own image,
that the discourse around the exhibition of art, contemporary or not, begins to
unravel most of its utopian formulations and justifications.

In 2004 a book called Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust
appeared in bookstores and went almost unnoticed. Edited by James Cuno
with essays by several museum directors from around the Western world, it
was, from the point of view of institutional critique and by the standards of
contemporary discourse on museums and exhibitions, an inconsequential
contribution. Nevertheless, the book and the writings in it now seem
symptomatic of an entrenchment of cultural institutions in “traditional”
values—values that, though invented and reminiscent of another era, provide
a recognizable foundation for the existence of the museum and of art.

In his preface Cuno writes that the book focuses on the museum’s
contract with its public, a contract that is founded on the public’s trust.
These words, of course, have one meaning among the trustees, another
among the wider public. They also have one meaning in the United States,
another in Germany or France, yet another in China, and so on. Despite (or
in spite of) these ideological and situational contingencies, Cuno explains
that the absence of oppositional voices in his volume has to do with the fact
that he doesn’t want to “present a debate, nor a sampling of current
opinion.” Instead, he wants the book “to be focused on first principles, on
the basis of the contract between art museums and their public.”1 The
implication inherent in this distinction between opinions and first principles
is that the former are topical, the latter trans-historical, if not timeless. The
contract between museum and public he summarizes thus:

In the end, this is what our visitors most want from us: to have access to
works of art in order to change them, to alter their experience of the world, to
sharpen and heighten their sensibilities to it, to make it come alive anew for
them, so they can walk away at a different angle to the world.

Despite its grammatical shiftiness, this paragraph was approvingly cited by
John Walsh at the outset of his own contribution to Cuno’s publication. To
such univocality of opinion one might ask: If this is the museum’s contract
with its public, then what is the exhibition’s function within it?

The history of exhibitions is not so remote that one can afford to forget that
its former incarnations were all acts of empire: For instance, the 1851
exhibition at the Crystal Palace, which famously and infamously included
displays of living human beings; the world fairs and expositions, which were
often conglomerations of imperial lootings; the princely galleries of the 17th
and 18th centuries—one of which would later become the Louvre—with
their collected iconography of empire. All were acts of self-reference through
which a total image of empire was affirmed. Nevertheless, we accept today
that exhibitions serve a different function, one that is relative to the public
sphere. In fact, exhibitions were one of the first manifestations of the birth of
the bourgeois public sphere, the sphere to which the exhibition now belongs.
But many things have changed since the doors of the princely gallery were
slung open for all. Not least among these changes is what the word “all” has
come to represent. The ongoing aim of the notion of the public sphere, as
conceived in the West—which is to say, of the bourgeois public sphere, as
this is the one that the exhibition belongs to—the project since then has been
to make the universe that is signified by the word “all” more inclusive and
real, less rhetorical and ideal, encompassing more human beings; more
cultural, political, and social interests; more religious inclinations and beliefs.

In modern history this “all” and its margins have had various names: the
people, the collectivity or collective, women, black people, indigenous
peoples. In more classed analyses: the masses, the proletariat, the
lumpenproletariat, the workers, the peasants. There are also newer, more
abstract notions such as “the common,” based on the quintessential principle
of our times, property. There is also the notion of citizens, which is a more
ideologically neutral form of the word “bourgeoisie” (city people). One of
the recent favorites in the English-speaking world is the electorate, a concept
that, deliberately or otherwise, narrows democratic participation to those
whom the State recognizes, and their participation to the rule of choice. The
word “public”—on which the classical concept of the republic was erected,
and with it the modern notion of democracy, and which in antiquity
designated a narrow segment of society considered to be suitable for
governing itself and others—has been wholeheartedly embraced in the
language of cultural institutions. “The public” means the segment of society
that visits museums, libraries, galleries, concert halls, cineplexes, circuses,
and theaters; watches television; listens to the radio; and so on. What this
means in the context of my question is that the public sphere has a number of
forms, and “the public” is the form through which exhibitions of
contemporary art can be seen as taking part in it.

Most contemporary exhibitions assume as a premise that works can come
together and be arranged under a tentative theme, even a category, then
dispersed once again. These arrangements are provisional, and also often
spontaneous, intuitive. They are therefore of the order of what Cuno
catalogues as “opinions”—opinions that are contained within “first
principles” but are not as absolute, and which establish nonessential
relationships among works of art, between those and the theme, between the
institution and its public, all the while relying on the conviction that those
provisional arrangements are timely, that they are vital contributions to
dialogues that are taking place in the public sphere, that they potentially
counterpoise (without pretending to be entirely disentangled from) what is
being articulated in the spaces of official politics, religion, the economy. It
is this that brings exhibitions closer to the format of the essay (an attempt, a
weighing, a submitting to proof). The exhibition thus functions within the
space of that contract that Cuno presents as the museum’s first principle, but
as a disruption of the shake-of-hands between the museum and its public. It
is therefore a “problem of opinion” that Cuno must bypass in order present
the museum itself as an entity whose function, in his formulation, runs
contrary to the critical one we ascribe to contemporary art: “We have all
heard stories of people going to museums in the days following September
11, just to be there, quietly, safe in the company of things that are beautiful
and impossibly fragile, yet that have lasted through centuries of war and
tumult.”2 But such palliative reassurances of humanity’s resilience are
certainly not what we should aim for when conceiving of an exhibition.
Which idea of humanity are we speaking of anyway? And what public are
we speaking to?

In fact, if anything has characterized exhibition making in the second half
of the 20th century, it is the ongoing endeavour to dissociate the exhibition,
as well as art itself, from the establishment of grand historical and political
narratives and to aim at reality’s discontinuous character rather than at the
confirmation of common sense. This we can call the exhibition’s
dissociative factor. Schematically, the exhibition is the space within which
the order of this unilateral contract between two institutions (the museum,
its public) is interpolated. In this respect exhibitions of contemporary art
potentially simulate—albeit sometimes uncritically—the way the public
sphere is structured today, as a gathering of non-parallel and exponentially
individualistic identities and interests. A refusal of the whole, which is to
say, an indication that, in the context of contemporary politics and society,
the word “all” means that which is not yet whole.

This structural non-integrity of the public sphere, as we live it today in
the West, is the topic of Artur Zmijewski’s video-based installation
Democracies (2009). The work is composed of 16 flat-screen monitors
hanging on the wall, evenly spaced and at eye level. Each one plays a video
clip of a public manifestation. There are images of the funeral of the ultra-
right-wing Austrian politician Jörg Haider next to images of anarchists in an
anti-NATO rally in Strasbourg destroying storefronts and throwing Molotov
cocktails. There is footage of a number of separate protests against the Gaza
War, in both Israel and Palestine; celebrations after a football game between
Germany and Turkey, with German hooligans waving the German flag at
Turks on the streets of Berlin; and the yearly Orangemen’s Day Parade in
Belfast (at one point a woman yells at the camera “fuck off back to
Poland”). And several clips shot in Poland, a particularly telling one
showing a military reenactment that is now held yearly in Warsaw,
instituted by the Kaczyński twins, who in 2006 and 2007 were the country’s
president and prime minister. It is a rehearsal of national pride that is
intensely entangled with the Polish Catholic Church, commemorating
Poland’s 1920 battle known as the Miracle at the Vistula in which the
Bolshevik assault on Warsaw was “miraculously” crushed.

This coup-d’oeil over the present conceptions and uses of the so-called
public sphere makes the sinister point that democracy’s pluralism has
reached a point of self-effacement. And the work itself—that is, the
deliberate gathering and serialization of heterogeneous and radically
incompatible public manifestations—proposes that if there is a public
sphere to speak of, it exists merely as an accumulation of inarticulate
political activity. By “inarticulate” I don’t mean that those expressing
themselves aren’t individually clear about what they want or how they say
it, for they are. I mean in a more general sense that the actual structure of
political action is contained by the ideal structure of contemporary
democracy, which regards all of these manifestations as legitimate.3 They
are legitimate because, in all their excessive expressionism, they are
ultimately expressions of democracy. They don’t interfere with the
democratic process, even if they threaten private property—which, unless
one asks the Thatcherites, is not a democratic value.

Here, for the purposes of this essay, I will only highlight two aspects of
Zmijewski’s work that are critical. The first is that there is an almost
absolute identification between democracy and representation, and this
mutual identification is consummated in the image. The second is that,
because of this mutual identification, and because of this consummation in
the image, everything that happens within the image can be immediately
consumed by democracy, as an expression of itself. One could regard such a
point of view as excessively dystopian, but one can also take it as a warning
that the heart of the public sphere is being transmuted by the systematic
reduction of politics to a series of minuscule, increasingly incompatible
factions that are harmonized by their inclusion in the space of democracy,
which is to say, into the liberal-democratic right of self-representation.
Thus, to put it in vulgar terms, the exhibition should not function in parallel
to the liberal democratic principle, as a harmonizing agent of discontinuous
fragments; it shouldn’t be conceived, either, as speaking to the public or for
the public. If it has a function within the context of the contemporary public
sphere, it is to use its logic—a logic of fragmentation—in order to present,
in the absence of the public, a public that is always to come.

Ostensibly “the public” is that for whom the exhibition is made—that into
which art’s institutional, social, and historical responsibilities are projected.
The values and principles on which contemporary art is predicated aren’t
universal. They have historical and social specificity. Today, given the
retrenchment of geopolitical differentiations, the invention of new
“traditional” values, and the right-wing rhetoric that everywhere calls for
breathing space for culture, “the public” is also becoming more
geographically specific. Thus, one must pay heed to the exclusions that are
performed by the apparent inclusiveness of the public sphere. For the public
comes together intermittently, and its rendezvous is not exactly harmonious.
Often, it is just not there. Or there only in principle, in numbers, but
fundamentally fractured. One of the characteristic traits of contemporary art
is that it allows and often incorporates these fractures. Perhaps
contemporary art is the space where the fractures of the public are made
most visible. Perhaps, against the museum’s contract with the public, and
against Cuno’s notion of a first principle—that in the encounter with art the
public sees itself reassured as belonging to a humanity that, even if fragile,
is also eternal—the exhibition’s role is to dispel the notion of the public and
interpolate this unilateral contract between the institution and “the public”
(this “first principle”) and to present another principle, one that is closer to
the public sphere’s current methods of fragmentation and dispersal, of non-
identification or disidentification.

The continuing classification of works of art under the category of
Relational Aesthetics is one recent failure to recognize this factor of
dissociation—a factor that, incidentally, is already contained within many
of the works in question. At least in principle, and in spite of some
recalcitrant adherences to high modernist critique, there is no “whole”
implied in exhibitions of contemporary art. In fact, it is often the aim of an
exhibition to present each work autonomously, albeit in relation to the
others. The public is thus, to conclude with a tentative axiom, a radically
separated entity that is continuously produced and harmonized so that the
production of culture—if not the culture industry—can be said to belong to
the public sphere. It is the culture industry’s phantom limb.

1 James Cuno, Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust, (New Jersey: Princeton
University Press, 2004): 7–8. My emphasis.

2 Cuno, 49–77.

3 But legitimacy itself is split between a legal and a political condition. In the legal condition,
legitimacy refers almost exclusively to the right of recognition by the father: Am I, by birth or
right, a legitimate offspring? Am I, by birth or right, a legitimate citizen? In politics, however,
legitimacy is determined in the direction of judgment: Am I, by how I parent, a legitimate parent?
Am I, by how I rule, a legitimate ruler? Or, in the third person: Is this or that act legitimate under
the law?
Question 3: What Is Art? by Chus Martínez

The future of art must be, because it is cynical to state that art has no
future. Art having a future means that art has a continuity, which is different
from saying that art is the producer of a future, of its idea. As notions,
future and utopia are not even friends. The main trait of Utopia is that
everything is subordinated to conscious human will. Utopia is the longing
for the realization of the perfect time as messianic eschatology: An ideal
vision of rightness realized in a perfect space—as Utopia.

The future is a completely different question. It does not require a perfect
time and space, but the production of the very fabric of time. The future of
art is, therefore, related to the question of duration, to the conditions under
which art is continuously made, to its history. The future of art is the same
as its end, a matter of language.

* * *

Hegel and his thesis of the end of art have been extremely popular. It
seems obvious because, logically speaking, all that starts may end as well.
However, what really appeals to critics and people interested in the future
and the end of art is not art, but the future. That is, to be able to anticipate
the future, to see beyond the present.

The end of art is one of my favorite statements. Every time one gets
enthusiastic about art and waxes lyrical about the fact that not only are there
great artists, but the real revolution of human sciences is happening now
and through art, another voice pipes up that art already ended. But why
would one want to collapse the future of art just because it ended? The same
logic would suggest that all that ends can start again, and that there is no
necessary causality. Art, indeed, needs to end. Certain parts of our logic, our
language, and our discourse are unable to deal with art: Truly of a
nonsensical nature, art poses active resistance to description and to
interpretation. In front of the impossibility of total inadequacy between the
language and the things, language kills the matter.

To declare the end of art is an exercise in foreseeing. Stating it before it
happens—art ends and ends, and yet it continues to be there—is a trick of
the mind. This mind trick is always exposed to the dangers of animism, of
having to deal with specters, of not having an object before the eyes, of
losing its power in front of the material world. The mind is a magician, and
even when it dies, art remains part of the show.

Art is the world talking back. But not everyone is ready to listen, or even
to notice. In certain moments of history, words are unable to follow
properly the order of the disciplines to which they are submitted; they also
seem unable to properly deal with the exercises in matter, form, experience,
and thought that are happening inside the substance of art. This made art
invisible for a while—not for all, but for those looking for sameness. And
these same people mistook its inevitable mutation for death. On the other
hand, the mutation is death, since certain traits ceased to be there and others
appeared. Nothing is more fantastic than imagining the future of art, and
nothing seems more necessary in order to avoid the routine attacks on it and
the recurrent dangers it is exposed to. In order to work in peace, art needs to
move away.

* * *

If one would ask: What is the future of art? The answer is a tautology:
The future of art is art. The future of art should be art. Ad Reinhardt wrote it
clearly: “Art is art and everything else is everything else.” So “what” is
clear. “How” is another question. But even more important: Who poses this
question? Art does not. Meaning, art is art and is not concerned with its own
future. Why should it be? The question of the future is one of continuity,
and therefore of systems and structures that make continuity possible. Art is
not an apparatus, but it surely is also “there.” The end of art has happened
many times, and so has its future.

* * *

Hegel was mandatory. Meaning, one could not study philosophy and skip
the Hegel course. There were only six of us in that year, so, it made sense to
open some seminars to students in other departments. Hegel was the “art
guy,” and the two semesters dedicated exclusively to the reading of The
Phenomenology of Spirit were also highly recommended for art history
students. Only male students decided to be concerned with Hegel and
enrolled in the course. And, since there were only two female students in
philosophy, the class had a really nice, strange tension. I landed there after
an intense year at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Madrid. Also in
Madrid I was “reading” Hegel. The Institute was next door to the famous
Residencia de Estudiantes, the place of the intelligentsia in the short, epic
Spanish Republican years.

The Institute of Advanced Studies in philosophy was a place for
researchers. They were very serious and concerned about the future of
Spain, concerned with the ability of the country to get to “know itself,” so
they spent their days also reading Hegel. The three volumes of The
Phenomenology of Spirit were yellow and my eternal question before
leaving home every morning was if it made sense to carry all three to the
Institute. The philosophers at the center were very pleased by my attitude (I
was mute for a year) and recommended me to study abroad. Meanwhile I
was sent to Barcelona, where I was to “read” Hegel again—this time with a
majority of future art historians. I bracket the verb “to read,” since
“reading” in this context was synonymous with “holding” the book in a
certain style, making sure to follow the indications for which part of the text
the tutor wanted us to engage with. He also announced that if we were
interested in reading about art, we should get another book: The lectures on
aesthetics Hegel gave in Berlin between 1818 and 1826. It is these
transcribed lectures that deal essentially with his idea of the “death” of art.

The silence in the room was, as always, a constant. Nobody says a word
in these contexts; it is very difficult to make a sound that would sound right
to articulate a word that would sound right. The tutor rephrased his
comment as a question: Please raise your hands, those who would prefer
knowing about his art theory. The “mass” decided for art. And the fun also
started there.

I noticed in the teacher the same joy that I saw in his Madrid colleagues
as he hurried to arrive at the jolly conclusion of the death of art. The
professors all belonged to the same generation that spent its youth in an
oscillation between total impossibility and complete openness, and all
wanted art to be dead. No one had any doubt: Art was dead, like Franco was
dead. Even if it had lasted longer than expected, it finally happened, and
with it, time for something else, obviously. The conversations in the Madrid
seminar were like those among relatives around a corpse. One could sense
that the “death” they were talking about was a recent one. Clearly they all
thought that art could not be the last thing at the pinnacle of transcendence.
True, it seemed important, but also too mundane in its institutions, as Hegel
had already pointed out. Art was too explicitly dependent on the structures
that socialized it, and too irrational to provide the expression the highest
form of the spirit needed. For those professors, it seemed so necessary to be
Hegelian, to acknowledge the death of the most important thing, art and
culture, to properly renounce the limits and bonds created by tradition. True
newness is not possible if one still enjoys painting, literature, poetry, if one
perceives the past embedded in these objects carrying all previous
identities.

The case of the Barcelona seminar was a little different. It was not a
mourning for an old and dear aunt. Here the tone was different. The teacher
always smiled in announcing—probably years after he had for the first time
given the same sparkling, eventful announcement—that art is DEAD! He
said this while staring at the art history students, so the rest of us turned our
heads toward them. What sense does it makes to study a discipline that has
no subject? The first premise of philosophy is that it is purposeless, and,
after this, nothing can go wrong. The case of the art historians was
different: If Hegel was right, they had been maintaining a discipline with a
dead substance. The future art historians did not seem to care about this.
They looked back at us, probably thinking that one trait of philosophy is to
try and abolish anything that could potentially turn into a subject. Nothing
tangible should be the correlate of thinking; thinking could never be about
something. If art was just pure speculation, the philosophers would claim it
as philosophy; if it involves matter and form, then it needs to perish. It
seemed true. In the eyes of the teacher one could see his happiness in his
rigorous avoidance of being distracted by any toy.

* * *

But whatever quarrel took place regarding the disciplinary and post-
disciplinary thinking of philosophy toward other forms of knowledge, the
fact was that the death of art was a political murder. Not in the hands of
Hegel (even taking into account that he was a contemporary of Napoleon, a
fact that also opens up to a possible reading of his statement). But in the
hands of the Spanish philosopher the words of Hegel were rehearsed with a
bitter sense of not being part of life anymore, with an acute sense of a new
separation between the generations, provided by art. Art must be dead. He
could not imagine himself being part of the huge movement of renewal that
was taking place in the country after the death of Franco. All these
proliferating multiplications of gestures, forms, voices, and, among all,
expression. No, Hegel had said so, and that is the way it was.

He was an ex-seminarian, like many other philosophers of his generation.
Families with no means or from a rural milieu used to send their kids to the
seminary to study, to become a priest or eventually to rejoin secular life
under another form. In his case, he reentered society as a philosopher. A
true Hegelian, he was. Democracy is one thing, another thing is all this
passion for art—contemporary art, they called it now. The word
“contemporary” was even more irritating to him than “art.” It was
contemporary art he really needed to kill. Art was anyhow dead, since
nobody but he and some of his old friends and their new wives was
interested in doing a tour to see the Old Masters. His colleagues in the
Kantian seminar tried to critically address this notion of the “master,” but
everyone knows that Kantians sell out quickly to all new trends, even in
academia. He was convinced of a huge difference between what art was and
what it had become. However, even his summer tours were slightly
changing, and the grand tour cities were slowly being replaced by Paris,
first, to see the Pompidou, and then New York, a biennial in one of the
summers in between, and then London.

This became an obsession, and he started to call other “witnesses” in the
case of art’s death. He heard I knew somebody in New York who was also a
big defender of this thesis. And he started reading Arthur Danto. In English,
even. Danto was also convinced that Hegel was entirely right: Art had come
to an end. Art resembles life so well that it is life itself. All these Brillo
boxes that the eyes cannot distinguish from the real ones in the
supermarket: They all confirm that art is over!

* * *

Sitting twice a week in that seminar, witnessing his brave attempts to kill
art, was convincing me. All through Europe and especially in Spain, new
spaces for contemporary art were created day after day. What was he
saying, then? Was it a strange form of post-traumatic denial, this continuous
negation of art? What were these spaces containing, if not art?

The public arena was taken by what seemed to be a new interest in
contemporary art, in how it was capable of producing social interaction,
experience, economy, knowledge. It all looked like a sudden
transformation, but it was not. The institutional life of art, as well as all the
discourses in favor of it or critical of it, were capable of functioning as both
signs and organizers of democracy in the face of post-Capitalism. The
institutional life of art performed the duties of the system. Values such as
transparency, citizenship, and knowledge were working as performers of a
system capable of critique, of self-reflection. It all pointed toward the
future. The art institutions became the new technology, and art the new
science of the social. Unlike in past art institutions, the historical
transmission of certain knowledge was not at stake, but rather the very act
of instantiating the future, that is, rendering it present, giving it a concrete
form. The contemporary art institution was a space for a particular form of
rehearsal, a place where the visitor, the “everyone,” could afford these
collective rehearsals, and thus to engage in an anticipatory futuring of the
self. Seeing the future was not interesting anymore, when one could
perform it.

The practice of a technology focused on organizing new forms of
participation, in the social and in the political, took over as one of the main
functions for this particular public space. Art spaces became plazas for an
advanced, interactive leisure technology of experience, functioning less as
representation spaces than as instruments of self-fashioning for what one
was to become. And the same was true of the anti-institutional voices. It
was all part of the same dialectical exercise oriented toward a rhetoric of
politics where, through the limits of the system, one could play with them
and learn at the same time about the bad features of the system, the double
moral of continuous growth. And so emerged a movement against the
undifferentiated time/future of corporations, or the flow of capital, claiming
the new art institutions as constructions of a more local, differentiated time
with which one could be connected. The cities also saw an opportunity of
futuring themselves, by both being local and at the same time catapulting
themselves ahead of the national time. The cities became the locus to
signify the world, the nation, and the local area, and, at the same time, to
signify that the “international,” in the form of contemporary art, has arrived.

And yet this man was insisting on the death of art. He could have been
another reactionary voice asking who needs art if one has economy, but this
was not the case. He was not interested in art, nor he was a detractor of it.
He was just trying, through the Hegelian mantra, to understand the culture
of transformation we were going through. And like in a self-fulfilling
prophecy, art started to disappear, as well as the voice of the artists. The
whole discourse that was taking place was generated around policies, the
different ways art and the artists performed in power, in the market, inside
or in the inside/outside relationship with structures.

The futuring of the self needed strategies and certain aesthetics, as well as
ways to represent these, to make them visible, and the contemporary
provided expectations to a sensuous form, a form of the time.

Art was dead only insofar as its social, political, and institutional
circumstances were part of the discussion, ensnared in a sentimental form of
empiricism. Hegel, in fact, never said that art is dead. This is a detail of no
importance, but it is true that he did not use a biological metaphor. He
claimed something more interesting: That, eventually, it would come to an
end. And he needed to come to this conclusion in order to resolve the
conflict between the bourgeois subject’s drive for freedom and its desire to
express unity with the world. The more autonomous the subject grows, the
less it can justify its existence; the more full-bloodedly it realizes its
essence, the more alienated and contingent it becomes. And so radical
liberty is radical homelessness.

Hegel, of course, never thought that art could think, and that its thinking
could actually be the same as he was expressing for the human, for the
spirit. One may think of the overcoming of the human and its institutions in
order to become radically free, in order to realize its dream of pure
productivity without a product.

* * *

After some months of listening nonstop to the compulsory attempts to kill
art from a growing group of Hegelians, I understood that it was love, and
not hate, that drove them. Fearing that he could be mistaken for a resentful,
midcareer male philosopher unable to get rid of his old values—or to have a
proper affair with a younger student that would revitalize his image—he
started to invite friends. He sent a letter to Arthur Danto, who accepted to
come to Barcelona to explain his views. Danto’s books were not translated
into Spanish, nor were they about to be. His coming to the faculty, a
concrete building ugly like ugliness can be in a university context, was
anticipated like a “second coming.”

In 1953, in the hardest years of Franco’s regime, Luis García Berlanga
made the most amazing movie I have ever seen, Welcome Mr. Marshall! In
the movie, Villar del Rio is a small town some hours north of Madrid.
Somebody working in an office in the big city hears that some American
diplomats are about to visit Spain and will pass through Villar del Rio on
their way to the capital. They conceive of a plan: They will disguise this
Castilian village as an Andalusian one. They will wear Andalusian
costumes and hire a prominent flamenco performer to impress the
Americans. Flowers in their hair and hopeful of benefiting under the
Marshall Plan, they learn to sing a song: “Americans, we receive you with
joy! Americans, you come to Spain healthy and good-looking!”
(Americanos, os recibimos con alegria! Americanos, vienen a España
guapos y sanos!).

The appearance of Danto had that Villar del Rio effect on us. The letter
was written by one of the students whose mother was from the United
Kingdom, because the tutor all of a sudden realized that he did not speak
English. He was in a panic and dedicated another class to the all-
encompassing hegemony of the English language: An imperialist discourse,
deaf to the achievements of thought in French and German as well as to the
intelligent reflection on the human condition carried out by Spanish-
speaking literature. However, true or not, his English remained the same.
He subsequently called on another prominent philosopher, who had spent
two semesters at Harvard, to address the Hegel question and determine if
any of the mute students were fluent in English. He was a man of the world,
this thinker, who actually was better known as a writer because of his
incredibly acute sense of humor. He started the class in English right away,
imitating an American accent and screaming, “Art is dead, isn’t it?” and
“Now, young people, what is going to become of you?” “Think,” he
continued, “that the only genre we master is disbelief. We are not good at
producing anything, so we must doubt with style what everyone else
produced.” And then he tried to continue the class in English. The scene
was incredibly funny, but nevertheless useless to provoke any English-
speaking proficiency on our part. Danto was arriving and the only
remaining option was a translator.

By then it was not necessary to promote the event. A photocopy was
posted at the door of the main aula of the so-called Faculty of Human
Sciences, and a couple of telephone calls to the neighboring departments
would guarantee the attendance of no less than 400 to 500 students and
staff. The most active ones were the “pre-Capitalists,” what in other
countries were known as archeologists, who were always attending every
lecture to check if it was politically correct. The day arrived and everyone
was there, dressed casually. The pundit of “metaphysics,” normally wearing
a bow tie, was wearing a turtleneck under his jacket, and the women faculty
replaced their flat shoes with salon-style heels. The six philosophy students
and the art history students of the same course were the first in line. We
were also kind of nervous, as we had been asked to bring “a good example
of art” for Professor Danto to analyze after his lecture.

* * *

After an introduction by our teacher, Danto started a really lively lecture.
Art came to an end with Pop: A nice coincidence that the embodiment of
American art was also the end of it. Art merged with the real in such an
intelligent way that it was impossible to tell them apart. If the main goal of
art was getting to know the nature of reality, then it was suddenly achieved,
when can and washpowder packages were declared art. We all felt that even
if a soup can was now art, nothing was proved but an interesting twist in
realism. The argument was really catchy, made for those who like surprises
in the museum galleries and were wondering, if after the over-quoted
Fountain of Marcel Duchamp, something of the kind could still happen.
And, surely, the boxes and the cans did their part. Art never claimed any
ontology to state that it could be more real than the real was, for that matter,
otherwise all marble statues could be claimed to dream of being flesh.
Accordingly, all these cans were happy being real cans; they were as happy
as stone objects being real stone objects, or metal sculptures being metal, or
wooden art objects being wood. True, a can representing a can could be
taken for a can. But, so what? It could also be a sign of the end of cans, not
of art.

However, sitting there listening to him was reassuring. Yes, he was so
pleasant, smiling at us all with the headphones of the simultaneous
translation, reacting to arguments and jokes with a lag of just 30 seconds.
We all smiled with our eyes, and we all secretly loved Mr. Marshall for a
night. Sure enough, he seemed as reactionary and incapable of thinking
outside dialectics and the philosophy of history as our teachers were. But he
seemed happier, without shadows, ready to encounter our young souls. We
all wished he could take us to New York to tell us more about how the
world would talk, think, look—after the end of art.

He stopped talking. Big applause. Even the pre-Capitalist students
clapped. The head of the art history department said that the lecture was
exceptional and that we needed more lectures like it. Questions? Silence.
Mr. Danto observed that this was already a sign that we all recognized that
art had come to an end. Laughter. Our teacher said that the class had
prepared a question. He made a gesture with his hand, and I moved toward
the VHS. The projector was on. The color code appeared, an acute sound,
the timer, and then the title on a black background: “Action 1. Orinando
(pissing) by Itziar Okariz.” Then the image. A woman in the middle of the
pedestrian section of one of the Manhattan-Brooklyn bridges, pissing. A
good-looking woman with a black dress and black sneakers, in daylight, in
the urban landscape, pissing. Silence.

* * *

The students were now all looking at the philosopher. The philosopher
was looking at me. I was looking at my teacher. He smiled, our guest.
Finally he said that it was indeed very interesting and that his first reaction
was to think that this was, indeed, a very good example of art or an “art
hangover” after art had died. He asked me why I had chosen this example. I
said that it took me a long time to think of an example that would not be an
object, that would refer to a different form of being art. But also that I
wanted to find something that would be as similar as possible to the can, to
the object being both for real and a fiction of art.

The translator tried his best. He made a strange face, like when one
listens to an unpleasant family surprise over the phone. That kind of a grin
was on his face. He said he did not understand what this example had in
common with the soup can. What was the similarity? Everybody in the
entire room turned their heads, and there was a noise of bodies moving over
the wood-furnished aula to be able to see me when I answered. I said, I
thought this was not an object but an action identical to another very well
known one of a man pissing in the street. I thought—I said—that it was
interesting that only the refusal of sitting down made the image so
powerful, a young woman standing on the street pissing. All of a sudden,
like the can, she recalled an everyday reality, not that of a supermarket but
of the bad habits of some people, recalling as well some gender patterns.
But she was not claiming that pissing in the streets was coming to an end.
Moreover, this gesture—like the can— was not killing art but actually
revitalizing it. He started laughing and said he never understood why these
things—pointing to the image projected—were so popular nowadays, but
that perhaps there was something to it. Yes, this will be my next book, one
needs to talk after the end of art.

“Thank you,” he said, “to all of you, it was lovely!”

I was also relieved. I was not worried at all about the end of art or its
future, since that is art’s concern and not ours. I did, however, need a letter
of reference to go abroad to study, and I felt a bit like I was in the Berlanga
movie, risking my hope to be rescued by the Marshall plan.
Question 4: What About Collecting? by Sofía
Hernández Chong Cuy

In front of me, stacked over my desk, are more than two dozen
publications on or about curating. They are mainly anthologies; some are
interview books. There are also a couple of journals and several folders of
article clippings on the subject. I’ve read most, re-read a few, skimmed all.
I’ve highlighted sections, marked a page here and there. I’ve used these
publications throughout the years for inspiration. They’ve helped me think
about ways of working with artists, find ways of resolving institutional
challenges, and creatively engage existing or new publics. I’ve used these
publications for reference to articulate curatorial processes for certain
projects, and to think about exhibition formats and their histories. As of
late, however, I find myself referring to them less and less often. It is not
because they are no longer influential for me or because I now consider
them irrelevant. It is because they mostly do not address one of the aspects
of curating that I am currently exploring.

Let me disclose this up front: After having spent a decade curating in
nonprofit arts organizations and public institutions, where commissioning
art was my modus operandi, I’ve spent a year curating a collection of
contemporary art for a private foundation, the Colección Patricia Phelps de
Cisneros. In this new role, research and art acquisitions are tasks finely
intertwined with building a discourse around a body of existing works and a
current set of practices. (I have yet to begin interpreting the collection
publicly, through exhibitions or other initiatives, but I will come to the topic
of activating collections further on.) On a regular basis, colleagues ask me
if I still curate.

I’ve found the question both surprising and disconcerting, but productive
nonetheless. My first response was the obvious, or so I thought: Curating
collections includes devising a selection criterion and entails a program, a
direction, as well as the caring for and interpretation of artworks and, I will
add, the consideration of artistic practices. I keep forgetting that common
sense does not exist; dominant discourses do. Contemporary curating is
generally associated with exhibition making. Most importantly, I keep
overlooking that collecting is tied to the art market, money, interests, and
other touchy subjects that are perceived, perhaps, as somewhat shameful or
too real; that these are subjects if not forces that defy the autonomy that
artistic and curatorial practices tend to ferociously defend. Eventually, I
stopped making such an effort to respond to the question, and instead put
my mind to understanding how such a question could arise.

This is when I began noticing that most publications on curating elude
collecting practices of contemporary art, whether at the institutional or the
individual level, the public or the private sector. Sure, there are texts about
collecting—institutional histories, collection catalogues, interviews with
and profiles of individual collectors, and publications of exhibitions
studying artistic tendencies of archiving and collecting. But why is it that in
print and in discussions on contemporary curating, the subject of art
collecting practices fails to be addressed? What are the paradigms that have
formed the dominant discourses of contemporary curating, where
temporality, which appears to be entangled in the concept of newness but is
not its equivalent, is championed over permanence, which in turn seems
associated with collections? How is it that in the foundational contemporary
curatorial study programs, courses on collecting are missed? What could be
some of the topics on collecting, if it were to be addressed in curatorial
discussions? And, ultimately, why would it even be relevant to address
collecting practices in the frame of contemporary curating?

In the past two decades, the working dynamic between artists and
curators, and between curators and institutions, has been the focal subject of
many discussions on contemporary curating. The leading questions have
been how ideas are manifested spatially, negotiated contextually, and
mediated publicly. One reason why collecting practices are largely absent in
discussions of contemporary curating is that many of the individuals
considered paradigmatic for having expanded curatorial practice were not in
charge of building or interpreting collections. And if they were, that work
and their curatorial contributions to the subject of collecting practices are as
yet unexplored. Another explanation, somewhat connected to the first, is
that exhibitions involving context- and site-specific art have been
fundamental to expanding contemporary curatorial practice.1 Such
exhibitions turn people and places into hosts and guests of an art exhibition.
They also turn site into situation, and give preference to subjects over
objects.2 That curatorial shift owes much to exhibitions of “new art” in the
1960s.3 A special emphasis has since been placed on the conversation-
driven relationship between the artist and the curator, a collaborative
relationship that impacts both the making and the format of exhibitions.4
These generally contextual and intention-weighty discussions began
widening curatorial practice,5 and by the 1990s, the role of the
contemporary art curator, beyond the old dichotomy of the connoisseur or
the auteur-cum–exhibition maker, was starting to be publicly voiced and
defined.6 Descriptive terms abounded, some of which are still in currency,
such as the curator as catalyst, cultural agent, and producer.7

For better or worse, the articulation of contemporary curatorial practices
was assisted by the emergence of formal study programs. Contemporary
curating came under both the spotlight and the microscope.8 In 1992 the
Royal College of Art in London began a graduate program in curating. De
Appel in Amsterdam initiated its Curatorial Programme in 1994. That same
year in New York, Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies (CCS
Bard), which was founded in 1990, launched its curating master’s degree
program. These three programs all started with, and continue to maintain a
focus on, curating contemporary art;9 of these, only CCS Bard, where I
studied from 1998 to 2000, developed a museum with an art collection
alongside its program of study.10 At the time of my studies there, it
appeared that the museum was under a certain scrutiny. Publication titles
such as On the Museum’s Ruins and Museum Without Walls and the
exhibitions “Mining the Museum” and “Museum as Muse” were influential
and incessantly cited.11 Institutional Critique was an established art
practice and mindset, as were revisionist methodologies, thanks to
poststructuralism and postcolonial theories.12 Informal though prevalent
discussions at school also focused on networks and contemporary art
institutions in Eastern Europe created post-1989, and on the art spaces there
that were crumbling, redefining themselves, or starting up on the occasion
of the political and socioeconomic reorganization of the region. Political
changes were indeed triggering or, in some cases, simply
“internationalizing” other kinds of festival-driven organizations, such as the
contemporary art biennial exhibition format.13 Curatorial practice was
imbued with connotations of political efficacy and a kind of mandate to
carry out cultural critique; curators were now expected to produce
exhibitions and discourses that were somehow alternatives to shows of
celebration, spectacle, and populism.

Somewhat in the background at school, yet at the forefront in the media,
were the opening of the Guggenheim Bilbao and the market frenzy
surrounding the YBAs; their media impact was no doubt a major
contributing factor in the unprecedented popularization that contemporary
art was enjoying, and has since, on a global scale. In the classroom,
however, critiques centered on the meaning of a museum name being
franchised, and on questioning, among other things, why the publicly
funded Brooklyn Museum was taking on Sensations, an exhibition of
contemporary British art from Charles Saatchi’s private collection.14 Not
even then—whether in seminars, essays, or informal debates—did
discussions of contemporary curating methodically address art collecting
practices at either the institutional or individual level.15 At CCS Bard there
was a single though well-intentioned practicum with the goal of collectively
curating, as a class, an exhibition of artworks from its museum collection.
Even then, the collection was a given, and the process lacked any sustained
dialogue about its makeup or the museum’s acquisition processes. My
recollections of our discussions in graduate school—which were far more
animated than this version—drive home how little attention was given to
the histories and precedents and case studies surrounding collecting.

If art collecting practices were addressed in discussions of contemporary
curating, I think that these could be some guiding topics: collaboration,
contingencies, and responsiveness to art innovations. To elucidate on these,
I will briefly touch upon some cases that I’ve been researching, leaving for
a different occasion other ones, such as experimental art dealers in the
1960s, genealogies of video art, the parameters set by time-based work, et
cetera. I approach this text as a work in progress and am sharing highlights
of current research from firsthand experience. Hopefully this text is the start
of a conversation.

In regards to collaboration, two cases come to mind, one being the
independent initiative Société Anonyme, which could very well be
considered a proto-curatorial office, and the other being the German
Kunstverein. The Société Anonyme was founded by Kathryn Dreier, Man
Ray, and Marcel Duchamp. The peculiarity of this itinerant organization
was that its mission included activities of both programming and collecting.
With a pedagogical mission,16 it created dozens of programs and
exhibitions of “progressive art” between 1920 and 1940; it also developed
a collection, which began with donations by the artists it exhibited. When it
ceased its activities, it donated its collection to a research museum, the Yale
University Art Gallery.17

What I find interesting about the German Kunstverein is its foundational
membership-based administrative model, which allowed this type of
institution to be, for at least a century, financially self-sustaining and
culturally edifying.18 In 1836 in Hamburg, the Kunstverein model
introduced a culture of art collecting to its community. Acquisitions were
made through the investment of membership fees, and artworks were
distributed to members through a raffle system. I find two particular things
interesting in these examples. First is that the founders of the Société were
artist-curators, and those of the Kunstvereine were the burgeoning middle
class, not the State or aristocrats—that is, groups of people rather than a
single patron.19 Also interesting are the “ends” of the collections. Instead
of founding a museum to house its collection, the Société strengthened an
existing institution, and also ensured that future audiences would be able to
study and experience the collection. The collection is exemplary of the art
and material culture of the times as well as the Société’s aspirations and
artistic community—a window into its belief in the progressive, the
modern, the new. In the case of the Kunstverein, the raffle system (which, to
my knowledge, is no longer in place) encouraged art appreciation and an
especially horizontal formation of a collector base community. The
potential of this latter condition shaped a culture of philanthropy.

When I mention the topic of contingencies in collecting practices, I mean
to say how certain collecting policies and activities unexpectedly
circumscribe art histories. Looking at institutional collecting policies may
help inform current explorations of the meaning of the contemporary in art.
For example, consider the formative years of the painting and sculpture
collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Since its origins,
MoMA “conceived of a collection that would ‘metabolically’ discard older
works as it acquired newer ones, to honor the spirit of ‘modern’ as meaning
of the present, and ever-changing.”20 That didn’t exactly happen. What did
happen is that “the modern” became a period with a beginning and an end, a
territory within the field of art history, a project and ideology that preceded
“the contemporary.”

The metabolic principle, originally envisioned to tactically address the
constant contemporary, was considered again some decades later in the
same city by the New Museum of Contemporary Art. While pronouncing
itself a museum from the start, the New Museum didn’t declare outright a
mission to form an art collection until 1978, a year after its opening. That
was when the museum initiated its “Semi-Permanent Collection, a concept
that would allow the Museum to rotate and review its collection by
deaccessioning works after ten years. The idea was never fully
implemented, however.”21 The driving question giving shape to this policy
—“Could a collection of contemporary art remain contemporary?”—was
revisited by an exhibition at their venue in 1995, yet not much tackled
thereafter.22

In my current research, I’ve also been studying how certain private
collections have been made publicly accessible, and the ways in which such
shifts have generated new institutional models for the exhibition and
conservation of contemporary art. In that investigation, I’ve particularly
focused on how contemporary artistic practices shape collecting practices,
and how these form new kinds of museums. For instance, consider Philippa
de Menil and her husband, Heiner Friedrich, who created Dia Art
Foundation in 1974. Their collecting practice was inspired by a particular
set of artistic practices of the 1960s and 1970s. Part of Dia’s collection is
sited throughout the United States, at the original sites where the artworks
were created by the artists. Among other projects, it includes their
commission and ongoing care of Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field
(1977), an earthwork located in New Mexico, and since 1999 the
acquisition and care of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) in Utah’s
Great Salt Lake.

Dia Foundation’s commitment to site-specific art, long-term exhibitions,
and commissioning work is also characteristic of its acquisition and
conservation policy. While Dia’s collection also includes discrete works
displayed in galleries, namely at its building in Beacon, New York, its
multi-sited version of a museum proposes an alternative model that
responds to and respects a new art form. Some of the questions to which I
try to respond today center around the collection or conservation of project
work emanating from social art practices and similar forms of current art
making endemically sited in particular places. The differences between
Earthworks and socially engaged projects are no doubt plenty. One such is
centered on communities, yet both require an experience of site, involving a
pilgrimage for a public to experience the artwork in person. That social
projects also have ends—these mostly begin and end, become something
other that is far from a general understanding of art; these do not have
intentions of being collectable but of becoming catalysts for change—
unlike that of the art object begs the question of whether a collection in the
traditional sense, of a museum, is what is needed to house them for future
experiences. What the options could be, I don’t know yet with clarity. But
the reason for thinking of options is clear: A series of photographs under a
vitrine, or books and videos, only tell about these projects, and fail to
generate the experiences that they put in motion. I often wonder if a new
kind of multi-sited museum must be created to study, conserve, and
necessarily reimagine this work as time goes on.

So this is where I am at—with questions fueled by curiosity triggered
when studying a variety of collections and institutions, and when visiting
artists’ studios, seeing exhibitions, traveling to experience projects and art
scenes. Without a doubt, I was giving much thought to collections before
joining the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. This was particularly
while I was directing Museo Tamayo in Mexico City some years ago. But
the curatorial challenges there were so different; at that museum, more
situations than questions needed response. My focus then was devising
ways of “activating” an existing museum collection that had been largely
unattended precisely because it failed to cohesively represent a time period,
artistic practice, or art scene.

A brief introduction to that kind of collecting practice, which I sense is
commonly appearing nowadays in different guises: During the 1970s and
1980s, the artist Rufino Tamayo formed a collection of international
contemporary art expressly for a museum. His vision for the collection was
influenced by his travel experiences (his art was recognized abroad earlier
than in Mexico, his native country) as well as his anxiety over a certain
sense of nationalism in the arts of Mexico (as denoted by the constant praise
of Muralism). Tamayo’s aim was to present visual art, artistic concerns, and
philosophical topics being explored abroad to a local audience. In order to
form this collection, Tamayo mainly acquired works through exchanges and
purchases carried out with his own gallery, Marlborough. Thus, the
collection is largely the product of Tamayo’s and that gallery’s vision of art.
The museum opened to the public in 1981 under the auspices of a
corporation, Televisa.

Then, in 1986, after several disagreements with the museum
administration, Tamayo requested that the institution and its collection be
nationalized. And so it happened. Museo Tamayo passed from being
privately administered to joining the national network of state-run
museums. Tamayo and his wife, Olga, who had been pretty much single-
handedly forming the collection, passed away some years later. Since the
State lacked a systematic program for acquisitions, the collection was then
stalled, like those of most other public art collections in Mexico. Museo
Tamayo’s collection was seldom incremented, primarily through donations
by foundations or exhibiting artists, and the chronological and discursive
gaps widened between its temporary exhibitions and its permanent
collection.

To add to this, in the last decade, collections of contemporary art in
Mexico have been almost exclusively created privately, by individuals; in
some cases these collections are made publicly accessible in galleries
founded by their owners. (Not that this situation is so disconnected from
Museo Tamayo’s own history.) In the back of my mind, I thought about Inés
Katzenstein’s prognosis for private collectors opening museums: “Within
institutionally weak contexts … such projects tend to mislead audiences in
terms of what they should expect of a museum.”23 What may those
expectations be? No doubt they are of curatorially articulating how and why
things get there—how and why they are collected, displayed, and valued.
And no doubt it is a curatorial framework that can provide a sense of
rationale… or whim.

If the Museo Tamayo collection was not exactly representative of so-
called international and contemporary art, there were still ways to work
with it meaningfully. Artworks in the collection could shed light on current
practices, could be shown to discuss pertinent issues of our times, could be
used for curatorial experimentation. To create a program that would ensure
this at the museum, I looked at several contemporary curatorial initiatives
that were creatively activating collections. There were several influential
initiatives, and I will mention two here. One was a program led by the then–
chief curator at the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York, Marysol
Nieves, and the other was a series of exhibitions by Charles Esche and
Annie Fletcher at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. At
the Bronx Museum, Nieves invited artists to use the collection for creating
projects. The most playful was Manicurated (2001) by Judi Werthein. For
this part-exhibition, part–participatory project, Werthein displayed a
number of artworks in one of the museum galleries and set up a manicure
salon at its center, where audiences could have their nails professionally
painted according to the artworks of their choice, all the while discussing
artistic intent and content. At the Van Abbemuseum, the ongoing project
Play Van Abbe uses the collection in different scenarios—exhibitions,
performances, lectures, et cetera—responding to the question of an
institution’s mission to collect. One recent exhibition in this series, The
Pilgrim, the Tourist, the Flaneur (and the Worker) (2011) paid attention to
forms of experiencing culture, and accordingly offered mediation tools to
accompany the exhibition.
At the Museo Tamayo, the program for activating the collection had
different iterations. We launched a magazine, Rufino, and commissioned
emerging art curators and historians to write about artworks of their choice
in the collection, whether the artworks were in the galleries or in storage.
The exhibition program was quite diverse. The curator Raimundas
Malašauskas worked with the artists Gintaras Didžiapetris and Rosalind
Nashashibi to “shrink” the museum floor plan into a single gallery and
display artworks that confused world proportions. The curator Daniela
Perez worked with the artist Jorge Méndez Blake in creating an installation
taking as its cue the personal library of Rufino Tamayo, which is part of the
museum’s holdings. In like manner, the curator Juan Carlos Pereda worked
with the artist Alejandro Cesarco to make a work using photographs and 8-
millimeter films from Rufino Tamayo’s research and travels. The curator
Magali Arriola has been working with the artist Ryan Gander to revisit the
first installation that entered the museum collection, during the days of Olga
and Rufino Tamayo’s acquisitions: an artwork by George Segal.

None of these curatorial approaches used the collection to offer grand
narratives of what so-called modern or contemporary art was or is. They did
do something just as important: research a collection and give it visibility
using a curatorial rationale. Whether by experiencing a single exhibition or
the entire series, the proposal offered the public different ways of
experiencing a corpus of work as a “current of thought.”

1 Since the late 1980s and throughout the early 1990s, sites to consider in exhibitions ranged from
an entire city or a particular neighborhood to an abandoned or inhabited building, and, to some
lesser extent, a collection or storage facility at a museum. Art projects by Michael Asher and
Andrea Fraser, among others, are exemplary of this latter idea of reviewing and exposing
rationales (and whims) of museum collections.

2 Among the most influential exhibitions of the time that championed this curatorial approach
were Chambres d’amis (1986) in Belgium; Places with a Past: New Site-Specific Art (1991) in the
United States; and Sonsbeek: Project Unite (1993) in Holland. The Migrateurs project series
(started in 1993) of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris was also important. Initiated in
2003 by Hans Ulrich Obrist, it was “an attempt to locate the exhibition both inside and outside the
museum … to have exhibitions where one least expects them.” See “Can Exhibitions Be Collected:
Hans Ulrich Obrist interviewed by Noah Horowitz” in Everything You Always Wanted to Know
About Curating, But Were Afraid to Ask (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011): 149.

3 For example, to the emphasis on site and its relationship to the multidisciplinary and the
participatory in exhibitions such as Dylaby: A Dynamic Labyrinth (1962) at Stedelijk Museum in
Amsterdam and Hon: She—A Cathedral (1966) at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. By the
mid-1960s, however, site slipped away from the confines of gallery spaces. See Pontus Hultén
interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist in A Brief History of Curating (Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2010): 40–
41. This interview was originally conducted in 1996 and published in 1997. On another note, these
abovementioned exhibitions were probably influenced in some way by avant-garde exhibitions
such as El Lissitzky’s interactive installations, Fredrick Kiesler’s exhibition displays, and Marcel
Duchamp and Salvador Dalí’s Surrealist exhibitions. Dalí’s Birth of Venus (1939) especially comes
to mind when looking at images of Hon: She—A Cathedral. Anyway, what is palpable is that a
certain sensibility, a playful attitude, from those earlier public presentations of art trickled into
the exhibitions of the 1960s.
In New York, Seth Siegelaub’s intent to find “different ways and possibilities to show art, different
contexts and environments” ensued in the creation of a variety of exhibition formats. See Seth
Siegelaub in an interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist in A Brief History of Curating (Zurich: JRP
Ringier, 2010): 120–21. This interview was originally conducted in 2000 and published in 2011.
Concurrently, the 1969 group exhibitions Op Losse Schroeven, curated by Wim Beeren for the
Stedelijk in Amsterdam, and When Attitudes Become Form by Harald Szeemann for the
Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland, were literally groundbreaking presentations of “new art.” See
Christian Rattemeyer, Exhibiting the New Art, vol. 1 (London: Afterall, 2010). Szeemann’s
exhibition was as influential as his ensuing resignation from his directorial position at the
Kunsthalle Bern, marking the start of his trajectory as an “independent curator.” Daniel
Birnbaum points out that, with his resignation, Szeemann became “something that had never
previously existed, assuming a role that would affect the most fundamental operations of the art-
world community for decades to come: the independent curator.” See “When Attitude Becomes
Form: Daniel Birnbaum on Harald Szeemann” in Artforum (summer 2005): 55.
4 I make this observation based on the curators’ description of their practice and processes
toward exhibition making as noted in A Brief History of Curating. It is important to note that
many of the interviews collected in that book were conducted and published between the mid-
1990s and the early 2000s, for instance the one with Pontus Hulté n in 1996–97; Seth Siegelaub in
2000–2001; Harald Szeemann in 1995–96. This is also telling of their relevance in 1990s exhibition
making and expanding notions of curating.

5 These relationships triggered questions such as where and when art was made, of how and when
to make it public, and by who or for whom it was done. With time, that dialogic relationship
became more inclusive of other exhibition interlocutors, from specialists to general audiences,
provoking, among other things, more event-based work and socially engaged projects.

6 In the mid-1990s, Artforum began consistently publishing interviews with curators discussing
their exhibitions and practices. There were other attempts, including Michael Brenson’s
groundbreaking essay (and conference report) “The Curator’s Moment,” published in Art
Journal, vol. 57, no. 4 (winter 1998): 16–27. Also see Jens Hoffmann, “A Certain Tendency of
Curating” in Paul O’Neill, ed., Curating Subjects (London: Open Editions, 2007): 137–42. And
take note of the curatorial journal that Hoffmann founded, The Exhibitionist, whose first number
was published in January 2010.

7 See Stopping the Process?, a publication that crystallizes then-current explorations on curatorial
tasks. It’s considerably a seed publication on the subject of contemporary curating to the many
conferences, books, and articles that followed.

8 I do somewhat apologize that the influences I mention here are, with few exceptions, pretty
much focusing on Western art and exhibitions. This was a reality of the accessible references (I
had) and the dominant discourses (I participated in and that were) circulating and being
discussed at the time. If anything, the “professionalization” in the field of curating contemporary
art—fueled by both art history and curatorial study programs shaped in the 1980s and 1990s, the
communities they created, and the exhibitions, art criticism, and scholarship that followed—have
significantly diversified the pool of references and discussions.
A handful of now-seminal publications dedicated to the history of exhibitions were influential on
my decision to apply to school, and have been key references to the field at large: Bruce
Altshuler’s The Avant-Garde in Exhibition (1994) and the anthology Thinking About Exhibitions
(1996) edited by Bruce Ferguson and Reesa Greenberg. Another formative book of the times was
The Power of Display (1998), a historical analysis of exhibition design focused on the Museum of
Modern Art in New York, by Mary Anne Staniszewski. Paradoxically, in the three foundational
curating schools that I list here, few to none of the authors in the abovementioned publications
were fully involved in the formation of these programs or in the day-to-day of these schools, nor
were key practitioners responsible for making curating as elastic a practice as it was then or even
as it is today. As the school year began at CCS Bard, during the fall of 1998, we were handed the
publication Stopping the Process?, an anthology of statements by active curators reflecting on their
practices.
9 At that point, contemporary art largely referred to postwar art using as its basis a Western art
historical canon, even if Conceptual art of the 1960s and after was the main impulse, or if group
exhibitions of art after 1989, which were presented at the time, posited a new historical episteme.
On another note, many other institutions worldwide were creating study courses or full-on
programs of the kind.

10 See CCS Bard’s statement on its official website (last accessed on November 11, 2011):
http://www.bard.edu/ccs/museum/collection. This is an excerpt: “The foundation of the Center’s
permanent collection is the Marieluise Hessel Collection of 1,780 paintings, sculptures,
photographs, works on paper, artists’ books, videos, and video installations from the mid-1960s to
the present… The permanent collection also has works that have been given to the Center by
Eileen and Michael Cohen, Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz, Asher Edelman, Martin and Rebecca
Eisenberg, Robert Gober, Joan and Gerald Kimmelman, Eileen Harris Norton and Peter Norton,
Toni and Martin Sosnoff, Thea Westreich, and Ethan Wagner… The collection also provides the
basis for faculty research and teaching.” My summary of recollections of the courses and
discussions held during my student years at CCS Bard are written for the sole purpose of this text’s
argument on the lack of attention given to art collecting practices in discussions of contemporary
curating.

11 I want to thank Niko Vicario for making this observation, and for reminding me how influential
On the Museum’s Ruins was during that time.

12 There are many examples to give on this subject. Let me name a couple of instances that were
influential to me, as they pertained to critiques of curatorial and institutional practices: Brian
Wallis was analyzing the impact of neo-liberalism in the scholarship, sponsorship, and media
representation of nation-centered exhibitions, and Mari Carmen Ramirez was breaking down
discourses “beyond the fantastic” in U.S. exhibitions of Latin American art. See Mari Carmen
Ramirez, “Beyond the Fantastic: Framing Identity in U.S. Exhibitions of Latin American Art” in
Art Journal, vol. 51, no. 4 (winter 1992): 60–68; Mari Carmen Ramirez, “Brokering Identities: Art
Curators and the Politics of Cultural Representation” in Thinking About Exhibitions (London:
Routledge, 2006): 22–31; and Brian Wallis, “Selling Nations …” in Museum Culture (London:
Routledge, 1994/2011): 265–81.

13 While the itinerant biennial, Manifesta, whose first edition was in 1996, can be symptomatic of
the lure for mobility topical of the times, the intentions of the incipient Johannesburg Biennial for
creating an artistic event to consolidate communities in post-Apartheid South Africa signaled a
wider political context for cultural work. (The Johannesburg Biennial closed in 1997, with its
second edition curated by Okwui Enwezor.) Paulo Herkenhoff’s use of the concept of
anthropophagy as a lens to look at art in the 23rd São Paulo Biennial (1996) overturned any prior
understanding of influence and hegemony. See Elena Filipovic, Marieke Van Hal, and Solveig
Øvstebø, eds., The Biennial Reader (Norway: Bergen Kunsthalle and Hatje Cantz, 2010).
14 Courses were led by the art critic Michael Brenson and the artist Andrea Fraser, among others.

15 There is no question that at school—whether in study programs of art history, curatorial or


museum studies, et cetera—only the basics of “contemporary art” are actually learned. Most of
one’s knowledge of “the contemporary” actually takes place in the field, through the experience of
working at institutions and with artists. My observations here of “what was taught and discussed”
at school are to emphasize how the discursive weight in and of curatorial practice, diminished
attention to the histories and future care of the object of art (and anything can be turned into a
“work,” as Conceptualism in the 1960s, and performance today, has proved). It is also to advocate
that curatorial study programs can, at best, teach forms of thinking curatorially, and at worst
champion spaces and forms of exhibition making. It is also to suggest that, as it turns out, with the
market pressures, it is ideal to learn some of the histories of art collections and issues on collecting
practices.

16 Their mission was to study and introduce so-called progressive art in America, namely, the
“new art” of the times and what is referred to today as Modern art.

17 The Société Anonyme closed its operations once the Museum of Modern Art in New York was
founded. Marcel Duchamp, who executed the will of Kathryn Dreier, herself an artist, art patron,
and collector, was responsible for donating to public museums many of the artworks in her
private collection. This included Duchamp’s own work in Dreier’s collection, which was donated
to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

18 Seeing its possibilities—and the artistic interests and financial possibilities of many young
professionals today—it is surprising how a programming institution such as the Kunstverein, and
similar collaborative collecting initiatives, have not been influential to newer contemporary art
institutions and collections. Sort of a disclosure: I am a board member of the Kunstverein
Amsterdam, founded in 2009 by Krist Gruijthuijsen and Maxine Kopsa. The administrative
model and funding strategies of this flexible contemporary art institution reflect and test the
membership model, and while it’s been a challenge and, for the time being, mostly subsidized
through public and private grants, it is slowly expanding a community of audiences and members.
Considering the severe public funding cuts for arts in the Netherlands, which were announced this
year, the model of the Kunstverein emerges at a timely moment in Amsterdam.

19 See Barbara Hess, “Kunstverein in Crisis” in Metropolis M no. 5, 2010. She introduces this
pointing out that “The early founders of Kunstvereins were generally neither philanthropists nor
rich patrons, but representatives of an aspiring, wealthy bourgeoisie wishing, in the period leading
up to the 1848 revolution, to challenge the supremacy of the aristocracy not only in economic
terms but also culturally.” In this illuminating article, Hess also describes the ways in which the
Kunstverein has evolved both over time—due to wars, changes in the field, et cetera—and in
terms of its members, missions, and visions. So has its finances and funding base.
20 Inspired by the relationship that the Musée de Luxembourg in Paris had with the Musée du
Louvre, the MoMA held a more than 20-year discussion with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in
New York, so that the latter institution could take on artworks in the MoMA’s collection once
these were deemed “classics.” For a detailed essay on this, see Kirk Varnedoe, “The Evolving
Torpedo: Changing Ideas of the Collection of Painting and Sculpture of the Museum of Modern
Art” in The Museum of Modern Art at Mid-Century: Continuity and Change (New York: MoMA,
1995): 12–73.

21 See the New Museum’s website: http://www.newmuseum.org/about/history (last accessed on


November 1, 2011).

22 See the New Museum’s website:


http://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/289/temporarily_possessed_the_semipermanent_collection
(last accessed on November 1, 2011).

23 See Inés Katzenstein’s statement in the special museum issue of Artforum (summer 2010):
http://artforum.com/inprint/issue+201006&id+25707 (last accessed on June 29, 2011).
Question 5: What Is an Exhibition? by Elena
Filipovic


What is an exhibition? artists have been aware of the implications of the
question for a long time. Gustave Courbet’s 1855 rogue pavilion (across the
way from the official Salon), featuring a self-financed presentation of his
own paintings, was perhaps the first and most dramatic indication of artists’
desires to reimagine the way institutions organized and displayed their
work. And from some of the earliest avant-gardes (Constructivists,
Dadaists, Surrealists) to the present, artists have been the most active
instigators of critical responses to, and reinventions of, the exhibition as a
form.1

Think of Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore’s 1957 exhibition, bluntly
titled An Exhibit, which had no images and “no subject, no theme other than
itself; it was self-referential,”2 thus making the display of display both its
content and driving methodology. Or of Graciela Carnevale’s 1968
exhibition in Rosario: At the height of the Argentine military dictatorship,
she locked up guests at the opening, who only realized afterward that their
sequestration in the empty exhibition space (and the resultant confusion,
fear, paranoia, and eventual escape) was the exhibition. Or of Martha
Rosler’s 1989 If You Lived Here…, an exhibition series that refused to be
the solo show requested by the institution, and instead offered a makeshift,
disorderly mix of art and non-art items related to housing injustices in New
York that delivered an implicit critique of the host institution. Or of Felix
Gonzalez-Torres’s 1991 Every Week There Is Something Different, set
against a backdrop of seismic shifts in recent American history (who could
ignore, for instance, that the first Gulf War was at that very moment
changing the rules of politics and war weekly, if not daily?), and offering a
checklist and arrangement that the artist changed each week, so that the
exhibition was not a singular constellation of artworks or a single,
consistent message, but instead several constellations, each revealing how
one object put next to another could provoke different readings of both. Or
even of David Hammons’s unannounced 1994 exhibition at a shop for
African objects, in which items “made” by the artist and the regular wares
of the shop were mixed with little indication, through presentation or price,
of their differing status. These are just a few examples among many.
Each artist’s approach was different. But long before the advent of that
professional species—the curator—and not letting up in the face of its
spectacular rise, each found a way to lay bare and counter some of the
implicit and most stalwart expectations of the exhibition as such. Their
example makes it apparent that this seemingly simple question—What is an
exhibition?—should be asked, all the better to interrogate the premises that
quietly support and perpetuate the most conventional notions of “the
exhibition.”

The critical consensus today would seem to be that an exhibition—from
its 15th-century roots in legal terminology as the displaying of evidence—
is, in the most basic terms, an organized presentation of a selection of items
to a public.3 Simple enough. And reductive enough, even presuming that
the “presentation” can be physical or virtual, real or projected; the “items”
either spectacular or discursive, material or immaterial; and the “public”
either known or unknown, composed of one or many. But if the roots in
legalese suggest that what is held up for view aims to convince and
demonstrate like evidence in a court of law, resulting in exhibitions
organized to speak conclusively, authoritatively, and absolutely, then the
tacit understanding of “the exhibition” seems problematic.

What exactly are we viewing, as spectators, or contributing to, as artists,
or organizing, as curators? No theater of proofs, the exhibition should be a
performance of another sort. Of course it can be many things, but perhaps
first and foremost it is not a neutral thing. In its many lives, it has been
understood as a scrim on which ideology is projected, a machine for the
manufacture of meaning, a theater of bourgeois culture, a site for the
disciplining of citizen-subjects, or a mise-en-scène of unquestioned values
(linear time, teleological history, master narratives).4 Political powers and
the institutions they support may long have been invested in making the
exhibition each of those things at different moments in history. But if we
adopt instead the model of the exhibition that artists have at times called for
—critical, oppositional, irreverent, provisional, questioning—the term
might be understood in an altogether different way.

The exhibition? A single category term speaks for what can have such
wildly different aims and ambitions, with vast intellectual, aesthetic, and
ideological—not to mention geographic, economic, or institutional—
differences between its organizing bodies. Retrospective, monographic,
survey, group, biennial, triennial: each denotes a variant in the category. To
say nothing about the fact that the tenor of the result can be alternately
overwrought, spectacular, modest, sensitive, eloquent, transgressive… The
list can go on and on. All equally merit the term “exhibition.”
Implicit in the question is thus not so much what the meaning of the
exhibition is as a category/genre/object, but what it does, which is to say,
how exhibitions function and matter, and how they participate in the
construction and administration of the experience of the items they present.

It goes without saying that, without artists and artworks, the exhibitions
of the sort we are discussing would not be possible (and curators would be,
quite simply, out of a job). Artworks are the essential fulcrum around which
both exhibition and curator turn. Still, an exhibition is more than the series
of artworks produced by a list of artists, occupying a given space and hung
more or less high on a wall. And no matter how vital ideas may be to its
preparation, conception, or thematization, an exhibition is not a merely
transparent representation of ideas (or ideology or politics) in space.
Organize the very same artworks in the very same space differently, give
the exhibition a new title, and you can potentially elicit an entirely different
experience or reading of the contents. This suggests that an exhibition isn’t
only the sum of its artworks, but also the relationships created between
them, the dramaturgy around them, and the discourse that frames them.

Can it be argued, then, that what a particular exhibition is lies as much in
its contents as in its method and form? And, further, that one cannot
actually separate any of those elements as if one were not part of the other
in the construction of an exhibition? In other words, that there can be no
such thing as contents (artworks) participating in a show which are not
concerned, in the very moment of being exhibited and for as long as they
are exhibited, by what brings them together and what company they find
themselves in? This is not to say that the presentation is the message or
context is content. And make no mistake: This is no plea for the status of
the curator as an artist or for the curatorial conceit to itself approach the
status of quasi-artwork.5 What is at stake is an ethics of curating, a
responsibility toward the very methodology that constitutes the practice.6
That responsibility is also the responsibility to attend to artworks in a way
that is adequate to the risks that they take.7 I have seen this done before.
The exhibitions (whether organized by an artist or a professional curator)
I’ve admired most and have found most engaging and thought provoking
seem to have developed their methodology and form from the material
intelligence and risk of the artworks brought together. In these, the artwork
was generative of the exhibition itself.

You might then say that an exhibition is the form of its arguments and the
way that its method, in the process of constituting the exhibition, lays bare
the premises that underwrite the forming of judgment, the conditioning of
perception, and the construction of history. It is the thinking and the debate
it incites. It is also the trajectory of intellectual and aesthetic investments
that build up to it, for artist and curator alike. But, most importantly, it is the
way in which its very premises, classificatory systems, logic, and structure
can, in the very moment of becoming an exhibition, be unhinged by the
artworks in it. If artworks are simultaneously the elements in an exhibition’s
construction of meaning while being, dialectally, subjected to its staging,
they can also at moments articulate aesthetic and intellectual positions or
define modes of engagement that transcend or even defy their thematic or
structural exhibition frames.8 The artwork can, in short, resist the very
exhibition that purports to hold it neatly in place. That is the idea of the
work of art to which I would like to subscribe.

That said, we have all witnessed the scene: an exhibition whose heavy-
handed curatorial premise and lack of sensitivity instrumentalizes the
artworks it presents. Such an exhibition may leave even a great artwork
little possibility to articulate itself against its context—although I’d like to
think that the force of the artwork can still unsettle what the curator says he
or she is showing or doing in the exhibition. Much better, of course, is when
the curator doesn’t seek to illustrate curatorial ideas with artworks (as if
exhibition making were like lining up docile ducks in a row), but instead
allows the particular recalcitrance of the artwork to be a model for thinking
what the exhibition could be. Either way, because the exhibition is a
temporary state of affairs, its framing of the work of art—whether done
sensitively or badly—is, by definition, fleeting. One might even say that if
it can last indefinitely, it is simply not an exhibition. The frozen immobility
of Donald Judd’s Marfa, Texas, compound is not an exhibition, I would
argue, but a shrine, a temple, a permanent collection—and that
notwithstanding the fact that the contents are displayed for view, that Judd
himself conceived their presentation as the ideal and ultimate public
presentation of a specific grouping of works, and not notwithstanding
whatever other exhibition-like qualities it might be said to have. For there is
an immutability and conclusiveness in a presentation conceived with no end
in sight that is contrary to what an exhibition is.

The ephemerality and lack of absoluteness of an exhibition might be its
most important features. Against the model of the exhibition as the display
of some indelible proof, one might admit how subjective an enterprise it is,
and inevitably so. I can’t help thinking here of Writing Degree Zero, Roland
Barthes’s response to Jean-Paul Sartre’s claim that all texts involve the
mutual exchange of responsibility between reader and writer (incidentally,
the latter were gathered in a publication titled with the question What Is
Literature?). Barthes is in partial agreement with Sartre but he argues that
how a text is written—its form—is as important to the politics of its
exchange as what the text says. And, he insists, one cannot escape from the
fact that there is a form. Even the kind of writing that attempts to achieve
the appearance of neutrality, a “zero degree” of style, denying that it even
has a form, in fact has one.9 As with writing, so it is with exhibition
making, with some curators and art institutions invested in the appearance
of a zero degree of the exhibition and the pretense that the artwork
selection, organization, dramaturgy, and discursive framework could not
have been otherwise, as if their choices represent the unflappable truth of
History, instead of one possible reading among many. That is how dominant
ideas, positions, and values solidify and get perpetuated.

But what if we thought of the exhibition as the site where deeply
entrenched ideas and forms can come undone, where the ground on which
we stand is rendered unstable? Instead of the “production of knowledge” so
frequently cited in institutional statements of purpose, an exhibition might
provoke feelings of irreverence or doubt, or an experience that is at once
emotional, sensual, political, and intellectual while being decidedly not
predetermined, scripted, or directed by the curator or the institution. In my
experience, the artwork can change (and often does change) what I think I
know, and an exhibition is at its best when its curator can admit that.
Celebrated here, then, is the exhibition as a place for engagement,
impassioned thinking, and visceral experience (and of course even pleasure,
as Dieter Roelstraete so vociferously calls for elsewhere in this volume),
but not necessarily as the platform for the sort of empirical knowing that we
have all too often been led to believe is important to the artwork and the
exhibition alike. As Susan Sontag explains:

A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a
statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is
something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or
commentary on the world… . [Artworks] present information and
evaluations. But their distinctive feature is that they give rise not to
conceptual knowledge (which is the distinctive feature of discursive or
scientific knowledge—e.g., philosophy, sociology, psychology, history) but
to something like an excitation, a phenomenon of commitment, judgment in
a state of thralldom or captivation. Which is to say that the knowledge we
gain through art is an experience of the form or style of knowing something,
rather than knowledge of something (like a fact or a moral judgment) in
itself.10

The defense of the particular excitation Sontag speaks about could be the
intangible contract the exhibition offers both to visitors and artists. It
cannot, in that case, attempt to educate and prove the answer, but might
instead encourage unconventional ways of looking at and reading the
artwork (and then the world). The following may perhaps serve as an
example. Collected in the pages of his book Inside the White Cube is Brian
O’Doherty’s description of a major Claude Monet exhibition held at the
Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1960. In O’Doherty’s telling, the
exhibition’s curator, William Seitz, had decided to take the frames off the
paintings. He hung the works, frameless, on the gallery walls; sometimes he
even inset the canvases to make them flush with the wall itself. In a single
gesture, Seitz showed Monet’s paintings to be something other than
portable commodities used to elegantly line bourgeois homes, something
other than polite renditions of water lilies in dappled light. In their stead,
Seitz stressed what he saw as their “implicit flatness and doubts about the
limiting edge” (as O’Doherty so keenly observes).11 Seitz advanced a
reading of Monet’s particular brand of modernity and presented it so that
viewers could confront the artist’s oeuvre as they never had before. It seems
to have riveted the young artists who saw it, not surprisingly, since they
were at that moment grappling precisely with questions of illusionism,
edge, and the relationship of easel painting to the wall.

Reading about that show as a curator just starting out, I recall being in
turns impressed and slightly disturbed by the audacity of Seitz’s curating.
“What if he had been wrong?” I remember thinking to myself. That was
before I had realized that it isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) a question of right
or wrong, of proving something to be true or not. To propose a reading of an
artwork is different than to claim to know what that artwork ultimately or
definitely “means”; the artwork, after all, is not an algebraic exercise with a
single given answer, determined by the set of equivalencies between a
certain form and a certain meaning. In other words, the exhibition need not
be the place for an empirical object lesson, but instead the place for us to
take the risk of reading an artwork against the grain of its already accepted
historical meanings. In understanding this, I remember also understanding
that, somehow, an exhibition is always made (perhaps can only be made)
from the vantage point of the moment in which it finds itself (and Seitz’s
moment was one of Color Field painting, Clement Greenberg, a young
Frank Stella, and, of course, the discourse on flatness). This realization
underscored the fact that an exhibition, no matter what else it is, is not
abstract or ahistorical, but a concrete situation located in a particular place
and time.

At their best, exhibitions venture out on a limb, allowing all of the strange
and wondrous incommensurability of the artwork to provoke its own terms
of engagement. Such an endeavor could only be subjective in the extreme,
and, as a result, fallible, inexhaustive, potentially contradictory, and
provisional—all things that some of the best exhibitions in my memory
have dared to be. The task, I think, is to celebrate exhibition making in
which the immediacy and persistent intelligence of an artwork (and,
through it, its particular way of responding to the world) might lead to the
construction of exhibitions that could offer themselves as a
counterproposal, an idyll, an antidote of sorts to everything else (the media,
the market, the culture industry, History…) that claims to know what the
“right” art and narratives are at any given moment. An exhibition should
strive, instead, to operate according to a counter authoritative logic and, in
so doing, become a crucible for transformative experience and thinking.

What is to be done, then, with what Documenta artistic director Carolyn
Christov-Bakargiev recently referred to as “this obsolete 20th-century
object, the exhibition”?12 We can, of course, remain mortgaged to the idea
that the exhibition cannot be other than what it has already conventionally
been or what some so doggedly want it to be, in which case it might indeed
be obsolete as a valid enterprise. Or we could lobby for it to be what
exceptional examples in the recent and distant past have already pointed to.
In that case, there is no reason the question “What is an exhibition?”should
ever lose its relevance. It should probably be asked at regular intervals,
again and again, lest we forget that the exhibition must not become calcified
into an inviolable or unquestionable edifice.

1 Art history has been exceedingly slow to account for the importance of the exhibition as a
cultural form. And if it seems vital that we finally take adequate account of the history of
exhibitions, the goal is less about simply creating a new object for art history, and more about
undertaking real discussions about the role and repercussions of the exhibition. See Bruce
Altshuler’s The Avant Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the 20th Century (New York: Harry N.
Abrams, 1994) and From Salon to Biennial: Exhibitions That Made Art History, vol. 1, 1863–1959
(New York and London: Phaidon Press, 2008)

2 “Pop Daddy: An Interview with Richard Hamilton by Hans Ulrich Obrist” in Tate Magazine no.
4 (March-April 2003): http://www.tate.org.uk/magazine/issue4/popdaddy.htm.

3 This definition paraphrases the way Wikipedia and most dictionaries define the term.

4 See Donald Preziosi, The Brain of the Earth’s Body: Art, Museums, and the Phantasms of
Modernity (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2003) and Tony Bennett, The Birth of the
Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London: Routledge, 1995).

5 The understanding of the artwork, artist, and curator on which this essay is founded could not
be further from the idea that the curator is a producer or coproducer of the artwork itself, as
argued for in numerous essays by theorists and curators, including Boris Groys, “Multiple
Authorship” in The Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions and Biennials in
Post-Wall Europe, eds. Barbara Vanderlinden and Elena Filipovic (Cambridge, Massachusetts:
MIT Press, 2005): 93–100; or, more recently, John Roberts, “The Curator as Producer: Aesthetic
Reason, Nonaesthetic Reason, and Infinite Ideation” in Manifesta Journal no. 10 (2009–10): 51–
59.
6 The conception of the exhibition that this essay pleads for is diametrically opposed to the idea of
the artwork as impotent and in need of being “cured” by the curator. See the following essays by
Boris Groys: “Politics of Installation” in e-flux journal no. 2 (January 2009), http://www.e-
flux.com/journal/view/31; “Curator as Iconoclast” in History and Theory, Bezalel no. 2,
www.scribd.com/doc/47605999/Boris-Groys-The-Curator-as-Iconoclast; and “On the
Curatorship” in Art Power (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2008): 43–52. All of these
contain a variant on the following statement: “In its origin, it seems, the work of art is sick,
helpless; in order to see it, viewers must be brought to it as visitors are brought to a bedridden
patient by hospital staff. It is in fact no coincidence that the word ‘curator’ is etymologically
related to ‘cure.’ Curating is curing. The process of curating cures the image’s powerlessness, its
incapacity to present itself. The artwork needs external help, it needs the exhibition and the
curator to become visible. The medicine that makes the image appear healthy—that makes the
image literally appear, and do so in the best light—is the exhibition.”

7 After struggling for the words to describe this responsibility, I encountered the notion in Briony
Fer’s brilliant Eva Hesse: Studio Work (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010). There she
speaks directly to the role of the art historian attending to artworks in ways “appropriate to the
risks they take,” but this idea matters just as powerfully for the curator of an exhibition. I have
borrowed her beautiful formulation here.

8 This has always seemed the force of exhibitions as cultural objects and what utterly separates
them from, say, illustrated essays, which might on the surface seem like an appropriate
comparison. After all, illustrated essays (or even an art historian’s slide lecture) create
juxtapositions, comparisons, and relationships between (images of) artworks accompanied by
theoretical arguments (maybe even the same ones that might be expressed in an exhibition
catalogue or press release), but both lack the material confrontation with the artwork itself, which
can refuse the very conventions that purport to hold it in place.

9 Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill
and Wang, 1977).

10 Susan Sontag, “On Style” in Against Interpretation (New York: Picador, 2001): 21.

11 Description detailed in Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space
(Berkeley and Los Angeles: UC Press, 1999): 25: “Impressionist pictures which assert their flatness
and their doubts about the limiting edge are still sealed off in Beaux-arts frames that do little more
than announce Old Master- and monetary-status. When William C. Seitz took off the frames for his
great Monet show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1960, the undressed canvases looked a bit like
reproductions until you saw how they began to hold the wall. Though the hanging had its eccentric
moments, it read the pictures’ relation to the wall correctly and, in a rare act of curatorial daring,
followed up the implications. Seitz also set some of the Monets flush with the wall. Continuous with
the wall, the pictures took on some of the rigidity of tiny murals. The surfaces turned hard as the
picture plane was ‘overliteralized.’ The difference between the easel picture and the mural was
clarified.”

12 Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, “Letter to a friend,” an open letter first circulated by email via
the dOCUMENTA (13) newsletter and recently published as the third volume of the series 100
Notes—100 Thoughts (Kassel: Hatje Kantz, 2011).
Question 6: Why Mediate Art? by Maria Lind

Vermittlung—“mediation” in german—signifies a transfer from one party to
another, the pragmatic transmission of a message. It also stands for attempts at
reconciling parties who disagree on something: nations, for instance, or people
in conflict. Although there is an abundance, even an overproduction, of
traditionally didactic activities within art institutions today, I believe that now is
the time to think more and harder about the mediation of contemporary art.
About whom we as artists and curators want to communicate with, and the
associated questions of how art actually functions in contemporary culture. It is
a seeming paradox: an excess of didacticism and simultaneously a renewed
need for mediation.

The two different conditions to account for here, before the dance with the
question of mediation can begin, occupy different positions in discussions
about art and curating. The first is generally considered more annoying than
useful by the professional community. The second is by contrast little-
discussed, even below the radar of most practitioners. I am referring to the
educational and pedagogical approaches that are in place at most art
institutions. On the one hand they can be overbearing, and they may even
obscure the art. On the other hand there is the increasing bifurcation between
experimental, cutting-edge art and curating, and the ambition of institutions to
spread art beyond social and economic boundaries. An effect of the latter
condition is a growing sense of isolation between spheres of interests and
activities in the arts, not to mention an almost total lack of mediation beyond
relatively closed circles in the more experimental arenas.

The one institution that has played a greater role than any other in setting the
standard for mainstream museum education is the Museum of Modern Art in
New York. The model that its founding director Alfred Barr instigated in the
1930s did not add pedagogy at the end of the exhibition-making process, as
icing on the cake, but rather integrated it into every exhibition. In the brilliant
book Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800 to 2000, the art
historian Charlotte Klonk demonstrates that exhibitions at MoMA have always
been consciously didactic, promoting Barr’s formalist view of art. His main
purpose was to refine the aesthetic sensibility of visitors and to mold a mode of
spectatorship based on what she calls “the educated consumer,” in contrast to
the 19th-century ideal of the spectator as a “responsible citizen.” Despite Barr’s
famous charts of stylistic developments and well-written, accessible catalogue
texts, the educational approach in his exhibitions tended to be more visual and
spatial than discursive. The paintings were hung low on the white walls, and
numerous partitions created more wall space. The selection of works and the
display strategies themselves were of utmost importance. “Points” were made
in the exhibitions: for example, in the 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract
Art, the identification of historical and non-Western visual sources for 20th-
century Western geometric abstraction.

The fact that MoMA from the outset quite literally situated itself as a
mediator between industrial producers and distributors (a powerful interest
group with a strong presence on the board of trustees) and a “buying” audience
cannot be underestimated. MoMA openly borrowed display techniques from
department stores and other commercial settings. And visitors were considered
not just consumers, who in conjunction with certain exhibitions could even buy
the displayed design objects in the museum shop, but tastemakers who were
expected to become responsible members of the emerging society of
consumption. Thus market strategies and business interests merged and shaped
new ideals of spectatorship. Given MoMA’s influential status, its approach was
taken up at innumerable other art institutions in all different parts of the world.
The idea of “winning people over,” of persuading them, was central to
MoMA’s didactics from the outset, just as it was in the contemporaneous
advertising industry, which was itself coming of age and transforming for the
new modern era. Within this largely commercial scheme, unconventional and
“innovative” art was accepted as long as the innovations remained on a formal
level and did not allude to, let alone provoke, any practical overlap between the
sphere of art and the sphere of social and political action.

This should ring more than one bell for those familiar with contemporary art
museums and curating. Another familiar phenomenon is the concept of the
education or pedagogical department. Despite the fact that MoMA’s particular
brand of curating was based primarily on integrated didacticism, in 1937 a
separate education department was started. Under the leadership of Victor E.
D’Amico, it deviated from Barr’s ideas about a more or less detached spectator
and promoted visitor participation. Instead of emphasizing enjoyment or
judgment of the art on the wall, it encouraged visitors to explore their own
creativity. John Dewey’s pragmatist philosophy and theories about art as an
emancipatory activity with great potential to stimulate political participation in
democratic societies played a certain role. Nevertheless, in the cases of both
Barr’s educated consumer and D’Amico’s participant, a heightened sense of
individuality was promoted. This was markedly different from the collectivist
approaches to spectatorship, influenced by Constructivism, that around the
same time and even before were promoted by artists such as El Lissitzky and
curators such as Alexander Dorner, both in Europe. Collective spectatorship
was inspired by the Russian Revolution and by Einstein’s theory of relativity. It
encouraged a varied and active experience through dynamic exhibition design,
where things looked different from different angles, while simultaneously
emphasizing the totality of the installation. It also promoted ideas of shared,
collective encounters with art.

Today, Barr’s didactic model of “educated consumer spectatorship” can
easily be identified in the operations of most major museums and other
exhibiting institutions, from MoMA in New York to Tate Modern in London to
the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The idea of “Constructivist spectatorship”
has been largely left behind, although it hibernated and survived in the work of
Group Material, the group around Shedhalle in Zurich in the late 1990s, and
artists such as Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Philippe Parreno, and Liam
Gillick. At the same time, museum practice in the United States has, since the
early 20th century, promoted itself as reaching out to a wider audience.
European welfare states have done some of the same in the postwar period and
in the name of equality have supported both broader access to high culture and
reformulations of what constitutes high culture. Educational concerns are
important, maybe even essential, in democratic societies. But this attitude often
clashes with high-modernist ideas about art not imposing itself on its viewers—
that it is, or at least should be, strong enough to stand on its own feet and speak
for itself, removed from “external” contexts. Which leads to decontextualized
“What do you see and what do you feel” pedagogy.

Again the art in question does not typically challenge the status quo; it is
about enjoyment and judging. We can call this method “the establishment of
the canon,” relying mostly on developments internal to art and certainly
echoing Barr’s ideas. This method aims at producing a genealogy of artists, and
to a certain degree also a sequence of accepted themes, whose work can be
included in a master narrative of the history of art. Importantly, however, this
maneuver happens at the expense of more investigative approaches where a
stated ambition is to contextualize artistic practice and to study and question
current phenomena and inherited norms and procedures. In other words, to
decode and recode artifacts and activities that pertain to contemporary life,
guided more by what is interesting and relevant than by what is “pleasurable,”
“good,” and “lasting.” Nowadays this model can itself be contextualized within
the widespread call for canons of culture, blueprints of “eternal quality” to be
implemented in school and university curricula.

So what does this have to do with mediation? All of the above count as
forms of mediation, employed more or less consciously: integrated didacticism,
supplementary participatory education and pedagogy, and, finally, narrative
information deployed both inside and outside the institution. This last was
historically generated by educational and pedagogical departments but
nowadays it comes more and more from PR and marketing people. Whereas
the added participatory education is based on an assumption that there is a
deficiency among the visitors—a gap to be bridged, a hole to be filled, or even
a conflict to be solved—the other two are concerned more with a perceived
lack of contact between parties, a “misunderstanding” or a conflict to be
straightened out. The idea that a sort of “dating service” is needed to put the
right people and “things” in touch with each other. At the same time, mediation
can be much more than this: It is essentially about creating contact surfaces
between works of art, curated projects, and people, about various forms and
intensities of communicating about and around art. As a term, “mediation”
seems to be open enough to allow for a wider variety of modes of approaching
exchanges among art, institutions, and the outside world. In short, mediation
appears to provide room for less didacticism, less schooling and persuasion,
and more active engagement that does not have to be self-expressive or
compensatory.

Let us return for a moment to the current abundance of didacticism. It is an
excess that pertains in equal measures to what is typically considered the very
nucleus of the craft of curating (for example Barr’s model of selecting,
installing, and in other ways contextualizing work) and what is tagged onto a
curated project (gallery tours and workshops, wall texts, labels, audio guides, et
cetera). Whereas the latter is frequently deemed over-didactic, the former is not
commonly thought of as “didactic” at all but rather as common practice, the
normal thing to do. It is almost not-visible, like curating before Harald
Szeemann—invisible hands selecting and arranging. In addition to the type of
curating described above (the didactic establishment of the canon, with
narrative information added on), among the most common modes of
interpellation in art education within exhibiting institutions today remains the
participatory format promoted by D’Amico. Experience-based guided tours and
workshops where visitors are asked to share what they see and what they think
and feel about what they see, to discover “the creator” in themselves, are part
and parcel of this.

The division of labor in larger art institutions involves the educational and
pedagogical departments taking responsibility for educating the audience, in
essence for “fixing” what ought to be the responsibility of other social
institutions such as schools, colleges, and universities. The collections and
temporary exhibitions departments take care of the more persuasive, integrated,
and therefore probably more efficient didactics. An interesting feature of
D’Amico-style formats within this scheme is that they are easy to avoid—we
don’t have to join in unless we really want to—as opposed to Barr’s model,
which is baked into the institution or exhibition. This is also the case with the
many overly simplified and often promotional wall texts, brochures, and other
presumably generous narrative techniques, which tend to render art at the same
time more simple and more spectacular. The pure promotion has reached
almost obscene levels, particularly in press releases. Marketing and PR
departments have gradually taken over responsibilities that used to be shared
between curators and educators. In many art institutions, marketing and PR
take the lead on any added narrative, and they can for example decide not to
provide written information about a specific project, even though it is up and
running, because it detracts attention from the blockbusters. It is not unknown
for marketing and PR people to interfere with the program itself, even.

But do we really need more mediation? Maybe what we should call for is
different types of mediation, and in other contexts. As well as a heightened
awareness of the specific forms of mediation that are already employed in
institutions, not least the persuasive mediation embedded within the traditional
craft of curating. We as professionals would certainly benefit from methods that
help us reflect upon what we do and how we do it, as a form of consciousness-
raising. Furthermore, most of the methods of mediation in use today have been
modeled on modern art, which functioned in radically different ways than
contemporary practice. Formats derived from one paradigm are being applied to
art from a different paradigm.

But most importantly, it is time to consider and take seriously the fact that
the art and curated projects at the forefront of experimentation, which
formulate new questions and create new stories, are growing increasingly
remote from the mainstream. These sidestreams, many of which test various
forms of “Constructivist spectatorship,” trickle further and further away from
the situations where most people encounter art and curated projects (large
institutions in big cities), and here mediation, whatever type it may be, is
marginal. This kind of strategic separatism is in many ways a survival strategy
in order to guarantee other proportions of self-determination; the mainstream is
not particularly welcoming to the sidestreams, and the sidestreams prefer to
stick to themselves. And yet the inevitable result is self-marginalization, where
only the already-converted are reached.

Another reason for asking what is the good of mediation: More and more
over the last decade, I have observed in emerging curators and students of
curating a relatively limited interest in communicating about art beyond
professional circles. This pattern stands in stark contrast to the developments in
mainstream institutions discussed above, which suffer from too much (and too
much one-sided) didacticism. Together with a number of colleagues I am partly
to blame for this development, having supported ideas around all kinds of
experimentation, both artistically and curatorially, advocating the necessity to
try out the unknown without having to constantly glance at the reception. We
have been motivated by the need to create other ways of thinking and acting—
a direct reaction to a perceived stasis among mainstream institutions, including
their overly didactic modes of address. The experimentation has more or less
only been possible in the sidestreams. And I will continue to pursue it, but
while trying to keep more of an eye on how what we are doing might be
communicated beyond the confirmed believers. On how mediation can create
space for exchange with something “other.”

This limited interest in communication beyond the select audience of one’s
peers manifests itself in two tendencies among younger curators and students.
One foregrounds smart curatorial concepts and another privileges collaboration
and new production. The first one, let’s call it the “curatorial pirouettes,”
focuses on the ideas of the curator. Here art tends to be included based on
illustrative or representational grounds and the outcome is usually a thematic
group exhibition. In this category we can also include some of the more self-
reflexive curatorial models, which tend to focus on reworking structures and
formats. The second one, which we can term the “over-collaboration,” involves
close collaboration between the curator/student and an artist with the purpose
of creating new work. Although the rhetoric involves “avoiding traditional
notions of authorship” and “escaping individuality,” this intense interaction
between the two players often ends up being close to a symbiosis. Others are
kept outside, and the result is a “super-artistic” subject who has two bodies
instead of one and is surprisingly self-expressive.

In both situations, a third term—a wedge to trigger a dialectical dynamism—
is missing. Instead there is little exteriority, almost no outside and very few
“others.” Again, this is the opposite of the theoretical open-arms strategy of
mainstream art institutions. The curator/student creates a separate universe for
her/himself and her/his ideas or artist buddy. Of course any show involves
detailed work that needs to take place behind closed doors, but I believe that
the moment has come to insist on experimentation while simultaneously
attempting to develop new forms of mediation—to consider earnestly the
question of what art does in culture, what its function can be in society, and to
be more generous with the material at hand. And to shift the terms of the
existing forms of mediation in mainstream institutions in order to make room
for other types of exchanges, and possibly also to let art use more of its
potential.

Given that consumption is one of the most widely known and accepted forms
of engagement with the surrounding reality, we should ask whether dismissing
MoMA’s model of the “educated consumer” is necessarily a good thing. Is it
actually the fastest and most efficient means by which to reach new audiences,
or, rather, to develop a different “exteriority”? Most likely this model can be
used in other ways, for different purposes. At the same time I wonder if we
have not already seen the emergence of yet another model, that of “the
entertained consumer,” where visitors arrive at the museum with the
expectation that they must be constantly amused and entertained. And yet the
collectivist spectatorship advocated by the Constructivists continues to have an
allure. The theoretician Irit Rogoff has argued for a related version of
spectatorship, or rather “terms of engagement,” in which the physical
participation that is part of the 200-year-old art habitus carries the nucleus of a
qualitatively better form of democracy than the separation offered by
representative democracy. If we take Rogoff seriously, “reaching new
audiences” is less relevant than changing the terms in which we talk about how
we together produce a public or semi-public space thanks to, with, and around
art, curated projects, institutions, and beyond.
Question 7: What To Do with the Contemporary?
by João Ribas

In the 16th century, missionaries in the andean highlands encountered a
peculiar phenomenon: a people “with the future behind them.”1 The
indigenous Aymara maintained a reverse conception of time, in which their
speech metaphorized chronology as the exact inverse of Indo-European
time.2 For the Aymara, one faces the past with one’s back to the future, so
that tomorrow is a day behind. While the known past is laid out before
them, an unknowable future lurks where they cannot see it. In contrast, the
temporality of the West, centered as it is by a moving ego, faces the future
with everything moving past it.3 The present becomes the fading of the
future into oblivion, into messianic time and eschatology, and a history to
which it turns its back. If anticipating the future is the condition of our
present, then what can we make of what is contemporary to us?

The only thing self-evident about the contemporary is that nothing
concerning the contemporary is self-evident anymore. Within the field of
contemporary art, the term itself has become the topic of recent books,
academic conferences, and critical discussions in magazines and journals.
The present seems adumbrated to the point of becoming entirely obtuse.
What lies behind this apparent need to engage in the empiricism of the
“now”?4 As a critical assessment of present conditions, an inquiry into
“What is contemporary?” is one whose very unanswerability may define the
condition of its object: such self-reflexivity may come to reveal, in the end,
an untimeliness. Are we perhaps so concerned with the contemporary
because we have failed to reconcile with finitude? That is, to conceive of a
future beyond ecological disaster, technological singularity, or terror-fueled
millenarianism?

The recent interest in the contemporary may be an attempt to
contextualize the cultural production of the postwar period within a new
conception of history, one beyond postmodernity. The past two decades has
seen the field of curating, in particular, beginning to historicize itself. This
ongoing historiography of curating has at its core a particular attention to
the role that exhibitions have played in the history of art. Concerned with its
own putative historical narrative, such historiography displaces the
traditional art historical focus on objects, style, periodicity, or “related
critical histories.”5 Until recently, art history has maintained a distance
from curatorial work as an object of critical relevance. Empirical histories
of modern art exhibitions—as cultural forms central to the public
presentation of art since the 18th century, including critical assessments of
how such forms directly affected modes of artistic production—only began
to be written in the early 1980s.6

What such histories continue to show is the role that exhibitions, as sites
of knowledge production, have played in the formation and understanding
of art throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. Curatorial work—
meaning the production of exhibitions and related discourses—is being
shown through this history to operate in a critical state of “in-
betweenness,”7 that is, between the care for the present and the writing of
history, between temporalities, geographies, and categories.

Yet questions regarding the contemporary within curatorial discourse
have been mostly genealogical or methodological, concerned with how to
incorporate a divergent and hetereogeneous field of practices. Such
questions are a continuation of the reflexive institutionalization of various
forms of cultural production within the field of art at large, from Carl
Einstein’s study of African sculpture to the ongoing projects of feminist
recovery and “decoloniality.” At the same time,even as curatorial
historiography began producing its narrative—initially centered on the mid-
century emergence of curatorial auteurs—new forms of art challenging the
normative assumptions of that narrative were already evident. Part of a
“social turn” in exhibition practices in Europe and North America in the
1990s, these new methodologies were being put in place by new
generations of artists and curators whose dialogic, social, participatory, and
collaborative forms of art were crystallized in exhibitions such as Traffic at
the C.A.P.C. (Musée d’Art Contemporain) in Bordeaux in 1996, and
eventually historicized in surveys such as the theanyspacewhatever at the
Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2008.8

If curatorial practice has been particularly attuned to such critical
discourse, it has been much less attentive to the historical and epistemic
conditions of its field, to the temporality it inhabits and its role in the
ongoing debate on how the contemporary is symbolized and historicized.9
This despite a central fact the history of curating evinces: how exhibition
practices have functioned as the “archive” of the contemporary, as “the
system that governs the appearance of statements” in the Foucauldian sense,
and as such, how they structure the contemporary as a historical and
institutional object.10 The ongoing historiography of curating demonstrates
the significant role that display and site have played in producing the
interpretative horizon for the practices historicized as contemporary art.11
Yet scant attention has been paid to curating as a historical practice in itself,
compared to the self-critical assessment of the role institutions and
exhibitions play in a political economy of culture.

As Andrew Wilson has argued, though the role of the contemporary art
curator has been the topic of much debate, “there has been little discussion
about the curator’s relationship with and position concerning history” even
though curatorial practice directly reflects “on how the products of a certain
activity can take their place within an evolving sense of history” and impact
“the ways in which history is itself dealt with, understood, and
presented.”12 Fundamental to the ongoing practice of curating is thus a
need to articulate the relationship of curatorial work to the conditions of the
contemporary—its temporalities and epistemic conditions—beyond dealing
with, or caring for, the present. Along with continuing to provide spaces for
the production of new artistic models and methodologies, curatorial work
must come to articulate its position toward the ongoing formation of the
“contemporary” as a historical, epistemic, and institutional object. To do so
would mean to stake critical ground in the debate regarding how to revel “in
the warping of time by looking past the contemporary,” attending to history
while also “trying (even if failing) to see beyond the present.”13 A central
question for curatorial practice remains how the field will situate itself
within the dialectic between historicity and contemporaneity that in fact
defines what is so often, and so self-evidently, called contemporary.


The Belated Owl

There are three times: a present of things past; a present of things
present; and a present of things future.
—Augustine of Hippo14

In 1948 the Institute of Modern Art in Boston issued a statement
outlining its decision to replace the word “modern” with “contemporary” in
the institution’s name. “Modern art,” the museum explained, “describes a
style which is taken for granted; it has had time to run its course and, in the
pattern of all historic styles, has become both dated and academic.”15
Under its new name, the museum, which had been established 12 years
earlier as a branch of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, could now
remain in a state of “permanent contemporaneity.”16 As an early
institutional imperative to remain a site for the display of the now, the
decision was echoed by an exhibition organized the following year at the
Kölnischer Kunstverein on “contemporary art” in the newly formed West
Germany, which was to be repeated every four years.17 The Museum of
Modern Art in New York maintained a plan of deaccessioning artworks to
the Metropolitan Museum, so as to continue to focus on the art of the recent
past rather than become a historical museum of modern art.18 Such an
imperative is part of a historical process, initiated by the Musée des Artistes
Vivants in the Luxembourg Palace, founded by Louis XVIII in 1818, whose
policy was to send its art off to the Louvre after an artist’s death.19

What such institutional practices point to is an emergent categorical
distinction between “modern” and “contemporary” as both temporal and
descriptive terms. The two were largely interchangeable in critical debates
about modern art throughout the 1940s and 1950s.20 The received use of
the term “contemporary art” today is defined precisely by rejecting any
such equivalence; rather, “contemporary” identifies a separate and
supposedly distinct historical object.21 The term has seemingly shifted
from being synonymous with modern art being made in the present to
defining recent art which follows from it historically; its nominal function
is employed to denote practices situated as coming after modernism.
“Contemporary” has come to serve as a term largely displacing, and
historically superseding, much-benighted terms such as “neo avant-garde”
and “postmodernism.”22 Attempting to pinpoint a decisive historical
boundary between the modern and the contemporary is of course blurred by
their constitutive relation: the modern is that which contemporary art
ostensibly takes as its direct lineage, and from which it represents a
progression, if not necessarily a rupture.23 As announced by Documenta
12, the contemporary takes modernity as its antiquity.24 If contemporary art
no longer simply means modern art of the present time, it is because the
term designates a new historicity itself.25 The familiar usage of the term as
a temporal signifier—for every present there has ever been—has come to
assume a periodizing function that delineates a category of art in the
postwar era. “Contemporary” is not simply a temporal description for art
being made now, but rather a reflection of a historical shift and
corresponding changes in artistic practices, while broadly encompassing an
intergenerational field from Joan Jonas to Mariana Castillo Deball.26 What
complicates any easy lineage or larger definition is the indeterminacy of the
historical and critical paradigm to which it relates. The contemporary seems
to resist any imposed historicism, and so lies beyond “historical
determination, conceptual definition, and critical judgment,” as Hal Foster
has recently suggested.27 Contemporary art, while manifesting an
awareness of a history—being, in fact, constituted by it—would seem to
differ from the modern, in Baudelaire’s terms, in that it no longer proceeds
toward any supposed teleological conclusion derived from it. Such a post-
historical condition would seem to leave contemporary art susceptible to
becoming reduced to mannered references, and at worst a form of
cryptoamnesia (where a forgotten memory returns as a novel thought). Here
lies the source of the distempered claims about contemporary art and the
logic of the museum, in which “all art has a rightful place, where there is no
a priori criterion as to what art must look like, and where there is no
narrative into which the museum’s contents must all fit,” in the words of
Arthur Danto.28 Is there more to the term than a temporal distinction or
self-evident description?29 Is contemporary art more than a process of
positive legitimation by a market short of historical objects, or institutions
attempting to subsume the culture of the present into their model of edifying
knowledge?30

Much of the current interest in the contemporary can be attributed to the
increasing acceptance of recent art within the discipline of art history.31
The numbers of dissertations on living artists and the art of the immediate
past, as well as dedicated academic and institutional positions for
contemporary art, have expanded significantly in the last two decades.32
Contemporary art as an institutional formation explicitly deals with the very
present that modern art tended to overlook or reduce to a “self-effacing
moment” between past and future, as Boris Groys suggests.33 As such, the
contemporary represents an attempt to engage what Fredric Jameson called
the “ontology of the present,” suggesting it is not merely a temporal
category but a discourse, a particular relationship to time itself.34

The contemporary is a time experienced as a new temporality, a present
that makes demands on the past and future.35 This is perhaps nowhere
clearer than in how the developing concern with the contemporary
complicates a central discursive formation of the institution: the past. The
term “contemporary art” somehow functions to encapsulate the pluralistic
and wide-ranging variety of current artistic production while also now
describing a specific historical object. The contemporary in the museum
performs a double role: already a historical category on the one hand, it
delineates an ever-deferred contemporaneity on the other, one for which a
narrative is still being produced.36 The contemporary is thus seemingly
outside of time, already anachronistic, removed as it is from its grounding
in the present while also functioning as the recent past.37 As new forms of
art are historicized as contemporary, the very contemporaneity that defines
them, their sense of being contemporary with something, is lost in an odd
periodicity. As an institutional object, the contemporary opens what James
Meyer describes as a “temporal gap between a now and a then, between the
present and a past it insists is past despite its recentness.”38 What we call
the contemporary is already waiting for the belated owl of Minerva. The
paradox is glibly reconciled in Maurizio Nannucci’s neon sign for the
facade of the Uffizi: All art has been contemporary (2009), itself a reversal
of the injunction of the cultural commissar of the October Revolution, to
simply “let everything be temporary.”39
If the care for the past has been the traditional charge of the curator, and
itself the topos of the institution, to what historical or epistemic criteria can
the care of the present be indexed? How can the contemporary be said to
have a history beyond the speculative accumulation of present objects?40
Do exhibitions produce a history for the contemporary? What role is
curating to play within this relationship to time that the contemporary in
fact represents?41 Curatorial practice might inhabit this odd mix of
historicity and contemporaneity as form of the future anterior, as the what-
will-have-been of the contemporary. As a critical practice of what it means
to be with time, curating must implicitly wrestle and contend with “a future
coming from all sides into the present,” in the words of Vilém Flusser.42


An Untimely Meditation

The historicity that defines the contemporary is centered on two singular
turning points that structure its political and cultural imaginaries: 1968 and
1989. Their curious relationship is made evident in Peter Friedl’s Untitled
(Barcelona) (1998), a wall painting of these two revolutionary years in
which the numbers have been cleverly flipped upside down (68/89). The
latter date is perhaps the most significant political and historical event that
defines the condition of the contemporary: The years following the Eastern
bloc revolutions of 1989 saw “the emergence of a new historical period,”
defined within the fine arts as “the contemporary,” as Alexander Alberro
has claimed.43 This new historicity arising out of political revolution has
clear antecedents: French historiography has traditionally called histoire
contemporaine the epoch after the French revolution of 1789; Russian lines
are drawn, instead, at 1917; and German “contemporary history” denotes
everything following the era of National Socialism.44

Within this new period of the contemporary, the major ideological pivots
of the postwar era no longer structure the political. The West found itself
situated in a new post-historical period: the “end of history,” constituted by
globalization, computerized knowledge, and consensus concerning the
legitimacy of liberal democracy.45 Yet the event that best defines the
cultural identifications of this same contemporary period in artistic practice
is actually “the second event” of 1968, evident in Catherine David’s
Documenta X (1997): the historicization of the politics, language, texts, and
visual culture of the 1960s.46 It is, in the words of Cuauhtémoc Medina,
“the déjà vu of a revolution that never entirely took place.”47
As a result, the aesthetic vocabulary of much politicized art remains the
aesthetics of the politics of the 1960s, and the most frequently cited texts
and buzzwords in art discourse are those arising from, or associated with,
the coterie of soixante-huitards and its attendant discourse: Guy Debord and
Situationism, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Antonio Negri, Michel de
Certeau, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, et cetera. As the
vulgate of cultural politics, such discourse can be linked to the recent
institutional interest in the art of that time, particularly in the conceptual
and expanded media practices of the 1960s from Western and Eastern
Europe as well as Latin and South America. The cultural imaginary of the
1960s continues to provide the basis for the aesthetic vocabulary of much
contemporary art production, not to mention the critical language brought to
it—wryly captured in a recent painting by Michael Krebber, titled Das
politische Bild and dated 1968/2010.
Contemporary art—as the art of a post-historical moment—is thus
underscored by a tension between its cultural imaginary, which structures
its aesthetic modalities, and its historical and political conditions. As
demonstrated by FORMER WEST, an ongoing research, education,
publishing, and exhibition project initiated by BAK (basis voor actuele
kunst) in Utrecht, the so-called West has “failed to recognize the impact of
the massive shifts put into motion by the events of [1989].”48 This is not to
say that art imbued with the aesthetics of the failed politics of 1968 or the
New Left is by default drained of radicalism or politicization, but rather to
ask if the politics that define our present condition are being reflected in the
aesthetic language of contemporary artistic practice. Or the obverse: What
is the relevance of political forms such as collectivity or revolutionary
spontaneity today? Have they been reduced to cultural effects by virtue of
being without a social or historical project?


Once Upon a Time in the XX Century

Footage of a statue of Lenin in Vilnius being hoisted off its plinth—arm
outstretched, as if flying out of history—was shown on CNN throughout the
last decade as symbolizing the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc.49 In
Once in the XX Century (2004), the Lithuanian artist Deimantas
Narkevičius pairs video drawn from the country’s state television archive
with a freelance cameraman’s documentation of this same event. The two-
camera perspective allows for the images to be edited as if to seemingly
reverse the sequence of historical events, the monument appearing as if
being erected rather than removed. The reversal enacted by Narkevičius
tersely foregrounds one of the defining aporias of the contemporary: a
historicity that does not know what to do with the recent past. One statue of
Lenin in Vilnius was pulled down and replaced with a monument to Frank
Zappa.50
It is a temporal condition that extends beyond the mere repetition of
historical styles, the paroxysm of hybridity, or mere pastiche. Rather, it is
evidence of the need to accrue traces, or, in the words of the historian Pierre
Nora, “to keep everything.” “Fear of a rapid and final disappearance
combines with anxiety about the meaning of the present and uncertainty
about the future,” Nora writes, giving “even the most humble testimony, the
most modest vestige, the potential dignity of the memorable.”51 Memory
becomes the “storehouse”—in the form of museums, libraries, archives, and
databases—of what would be impossible to remember. 52
This storage and hoarding of the past is the inverse of the consumption of
the past in narrative.53 In the attempt at a complete conservation of the
present as well as the total preservation of the past, even “Venus becomes a
document.”54 The preservation of such a totality of the past—its
institutional objectification—is necessitated as much by the status of
knowledge in late capitalist globalization as by what Nietzsche in his
Untimely Mediations called the “hypertrophy” of historical time in
modernity. It is the kind of archival memory that obscures the importance of
the unhistorical and untimely, and that obliterates the present into a future
past.
All of this emphasis on archiving the present demonstrates how
contemporaneity is in fact a repository of time, of myriad temporalities that
comprise what we simply call the contemporary, as Terri Smith has aptly
analyzed.55 Such an accumulation of time is actually what allows the
contemporary to function.56 As Smith writes, contemporaneity is
comprised of many “ways of being in and with time, and even in and out of
time at the same time.”57 This multiple and laterally expanding
“contemporary” is perhaps most importantly defined by what Ernst Bloch
called the very “non-contemporaneity” of the present.58 “Not all people
exist in the same Now,” Bloch remarked, and so history must be seen as “a
polyrhythmic and multi-spatial entity.”59
If the contemporary is governed by such an accumulation of time, with no
narrative of linear historical development with which to subsume it, this has
also given rise to opposing historiographic impulses within contemporary
art. A new historicism is reflected in the recurring interest in temporal
knotting, minor histories, restaging, and reenactment—in short, the
modalities of the past in the present, as described by Dieter Roelstraete—in
the work of artists such as Matthew Buckingham, Joachim Koester, Melvin
Moti, Paulina Olowska, and Simon Fujiwara, to name only a few.60 A
similar undercurrent can be seen in the recent interest in a revisionist
modernism, reflected in exhibitions such as Modernologies at Museu d’Art
Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) (2009), Modernism as a Ruin at
Generali Foundation (2009), and Formalismus at the Hamburger
Kunstverein (2004).
The recent emphasis on archival practices in contemporary art functions
in a similar manner, though in another direction.61 The archive is itself not
a question of the past but rather of the future, of a concern with a
responsibility for tomorrow.62 “More than a thing of the past,” Jacques
Derrida writes, the archive should “call into question the coming of the
future.”63 Such practices represent an ongoing process of archiving the
contemporary; they are a form of temporal displacement producing a future
past. How can such practices inform the present of curatorial discourse?
Perhaps it may mean being out of time, as Giorgio Agamben’s “What is
the contemporary?” proposes. Defining contemporariness as a relationship
with time that adheres to it only through disjunction and anachronism,
Agamben writes that those who coincide with their time, “those who are
perfectly tied to it in every respect,” are not contemporaries precisely
because they do not manage to see their time.64 It is a question not of
blindness, but of darkness: “The contemporary is he who firmly holds his
gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light but rather its darknes…
[to] perceive, in the darkness of the present, this light that strives to reach us
but cannot—this is what it means to be contemporary.”65 To keep one’s
eyes fixed on this obscurity, the darkness of one’s own time, means to
return to the present that has never been, to the untimely potentialities of the
past and present.66 It is a fundamental necessity of curating to situate itself
within those contemporaneities that remain in darkness, untheorized and
“unlived.”67 The question that remains is what we will do with these
involutions of time—all of this obscurity of the present that lies before us,
or is perhaps already behind us.

1 Rafael E. Núñeza and Eve Sweetserb, “With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence
from Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of
Time” in Cognitive Science no. 30 (2006): 1–49.

2 Ibid and Inga Kiderra, “Backs to the Future Aymara Language and Gesture Point to Mirror-
Image View of Time,” http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/newsrel/soc/backsfuture06.asp

3 Kiderra, “Backs to the Future Aymara Language and Gesture Point to Mirror-Image View of
Time.”

4 Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, and Anton Vidokle, “What Is Contemporary Art? Issue Two” in
e-flux Journal no. 12 (2010), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/issue/12

5 John Rajchman, “Les Immatériaux, or How to Construct the History of Exhibitions” in Tate
Papers no. 12 (2009),
http://www.tate.org.uk/research/tateresearch/tatepapers/09autumn/rajchman.shtm

6 Martha Ward, “What’s Important About the History of Modern Art Exhibitions?” in Reesa
Greenberg, et al., ed., Thinking About Exhibitions (London: Routledge, 1996): 462.

7 I am borrowing the term here from Hans Ulrich Obrist. See Søren Andreasen and Lars Bang
Larsen, “The Middleman: Beginning to talk about mediation,”
http://www.itu.dk/~jonfe/boompearls/litteratur/Andereasen_larsen.pdf, p. 27.

8 This “social turn” was the topic of the symposium “Art and the Social Exhibitions of
Contemporary Art in the 1990s” at Tate Britain on April 30, 2010.

9 Alexander Alberro, “Periodizing Contemporary Art” in Jaynie Anderson, ed., Crossing


Cultures: Conflict, Migration, Convergence (Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing, 2009):
935

10 Here I am following Hal Foster’s formation of the archive as that which supplies the terms of
art historical discourse. See Hal Foster, “Archives of Modern Art” in October 99 (2002): 81.

11 Jean-Marc Poinsot, “Large Exhibitions: A Sketch of a Typology” in Thinking About


Exhibitions, 39.

12 Andrew Wilson, “Making New” in Paul O’Neill, ed., Curating Subjects, ed. (London: Open
Editions, 2007): 194.

13 Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Questionnaire on the Contemporary” in October no. 130 (2009): 6.

14 Saint Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, trans. J. G. Pilkington (Edinburgh: T & T
Clark, 1876): 304. Cited in Wolf Schäfer, “Global History and Present Time,”
http://www.stonybrook.edu/globalhistory/PDF/GHAndThePresentTime.pdf (accessed September
15, 2010).

15 Nelson W. Aldrich and James S. Plaut, “Modern Art and the American Public” in Dissent: The
Issue of Modern Art in Boston (Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1985). See Serge Guilbault,
“The Frightening Freedom of the Brush: The Boston Institute of Contemporary Art and Modern
Art” in Marcia R. Pointon, ed., Art Apart: Art Institutions and Ideology Across England and North
America (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994): 231–48.

16 Christoph Grunenberg, “The Modern Art Museum” in Emma Barker, ed., Contemporary
Cultures of Display (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999): 42–43.

17 Walter Grasskamp, “For Example, Documenta, or, How Is Art History Produced” in Thinking
About Exhibitions, 67.
18 Hal Foster, “It’s Modern, but Is It Contemporary?” in London Review of Books (December 16,
2004): 23–25.

19 Ibid. and Jesús-Pedro Lorente, “Galleries of Modern Art in Nineteenth-Century Paris and
London: Their Location and Urban Influence” in Urban History no. 22 (1995): 193–95.

20 The terms are used interchangeably in the pages of the College Art Journal. For example, see
Lester D. Longman, “Contemporary Art in Historical Perspective” in vol. 8 no. 1 (1948): 3–8; and
Jesse Garrison, “Historical Art and Contemporary Art” in vol. 9 no. 2 (1949–50): 158–67

21 Hal Foster, “Questionnaire on the Contemporary” in October no. 130 (2009): 3.

22 Foster, 3. For a discussion of the terms and their relation to the formation of contemporary art
history, see Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, and Anton Vidokle, “What Is Contemporary Art?
Issue Two” in e-flux Journal no. 12 (2010), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/issue/12 and Mark
Godfrey, “Questionnaire on the Contemporary” in October no. 130 (2009): 30.

23 Kirk Varnedoe, Modern Contemporary: Art at MoMA Since 1980 (New York: Museum of
Modern Art, 2004): 12

24 Georg Schollhammer, “Editorial” in Documenta 12 Magazine, no. 1, Modernity? (Cologne:


Taschen, 2007).

25 See Alberro, “Periodizing Contemporary Art”; Terry Smith, “Contemporary Art and
Contemporaneity” in Critical Inquiry no. 32 (2006): 681–707; and James Meyer, “Questionnaire
on the Contemporary” in October no. 130 (2009): 74.

26 See Terry Smith, What Is Contemporary Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

27 Hal Foster, “Questionnaire on the Contemporary” in October no. 130 (2009): 3.


28 Arthur Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1997): 5.

29 Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, and Anton Vidokle, “What Is Contemporary Art? Issue
Two” in e-flux Journal no. 12 (2010), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/issue/12 and Mark Godfrey,
“Questionnaire on the Contemporary” in October no. 130 (2009): 30.

30 Raymond Guess, Politics and the Imagination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009):
102–112

31 Joshua Shannon, “Questionnaire on the Contemporary” in October no. 130 (2009): 16.

32 See Richard Meyer, “Questionnaire on the Contemporary” in October no. 130 (2009): 18; and
Joshua Shannon, “Questionnaire on the Contemporary” in October no. 130 (2009): 16.

33 Boris Groys, “Topology of Contemporary Art” in Moscow Art Magazine 2005–7 (English
digest), http://xz.gif.ru/numbers/digest-2005-2007/. Cited in Terry Smith, Contemporary Art and
Contemporaneity, 701.

34 Here I am following Reinhart Koselleck’s thesis that the temporality of modernity, or in this
case, the contemporary, repositions the relationship between the past and the future. See
Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe (New York:
Columbia University Press, 2004). See also the discussions of temporalities of the contemporary in
Terry Smith, What Is Contemporary Art, 6 and Terry Smith, Contemporary Art and
Contemporaneity, 702–5.

35 In the words of Koselleck, “The more a particular time is experienced as a new temporality…
the more that demands made of the future increase.” Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of
Historical Time, 3.

36 Terry Myers, “Questionnaire on the Contemporary” in October no. 130 (2009).

37 David Carrier, “Art Museums, Old Paintings, and Our Knowledge of the Past” in History and
Theory, vol. 40, no. 2 (2001): 170–89.
38 James Meyer, “Questionnaire on the Contemporary” in October no. 130 (2009): 74.

39 Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharskii, cited in Street Art of the Revolution, 1918–1933, eds.
Vladimir Tolstory et al. (New York: Vendome Press, 1990): 13.

40 As Mihnea Mircan has written, “[In] order for the present to have a history other than the
progressive agglomeration of present objects,” art history “must not adhere to the past as an
inexorable condition or to a future as a necessity of confirmation.” For a discussion on some
possible artistic models for “curating as a historiographic enterprise,” see Mihnea Mircan, “Art
History, Interrupted,” David Roberts Art Foundation,
http://www.davidrobertsartfoundation.com/aolpublic/oneoneone/docs/art_history.pdf

41 See Nancy Condee et al., Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity,
Contemporaneity (Raleigh-Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).

42 Vilém Flusser, Writings (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002): 118.

43 Alexander Alberro, “Periodizing Contemporary Art,” 935; and Alberro, “Questionnaire on the
Contemporary” in October no. 130 (2009): 55.

44 Reinhart Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History, trans. Todd Samuel Presner et al.
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002): 155.

45 See Francis Fukyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Penguin, 1992).

46 The idea of a “second event” of the 1960s to define this historical process was suggested to the
author by James Meyer in conversation. For a discussion on the relationship between “the event”
and historiographic discourse see Michel de Certeau, “History and Mysticism” in Jacques Revel
and Lynn Hunt, eds., Histories: French Constructions of the Past, trans. Arthur Goldhammer et al.
(New York: The New Press, 1998): 441.

47 Cuauhtémoc Medina, “Contemp(t) orary: Eleven Theses” in e-flux Journal no. 12 (2010),
http://www.e-flux.com/journal/issue/12

48 http://www.formerwest.org/About (accessed October 15, 2010)

49 Deimantas Narkevičius, “Instead of Today,” gb agency, Paris, February 25–April 22, 2006,
exhibition press release (accessed October 15, 2010).

50 Kate Connolly, “They tore down Lenin’s statue - and raised one to Frank Zappa” in The
Guardian Saturday 29 January 2000 12.58 EST,
http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2000/jan/29/lithuania

51 Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History” in Jacques Revel and Lynn Hunt, eds., Histories:
French Constructions of the Past, trans. Arthur Goldhammer et al. (New York: The New Press,
1998): 636.

52 Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History” in Jacques Revel and Lynn Hunt, eds., Histories:
French Constructions of the Past, trans. Arthur Goldhammer et al. (New York: The New Press):
636.

53 Fredric Jameson, foreword of Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on


Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984): xii.

54 “Art becomes a matter of education and information; Venus becomes a document.” Theodor
Adorno, “Valery Proust Museum” in Prisms (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983): 177

55 See Terry Smith, What Is Contemporary Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

56 “[The idea of ] accumulating everything, of establishing a sort of general archive, the will to
enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all
times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organizing in this
way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place, this whole idea
belongs to our modernity.” See Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces” in Diacritics no. 16 (spring
1986): 22–27.
57 Terry Smith, Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity, 702.

58 The notion of a laterally expanded contemporary, with the opening of the narrative of
modernity to its postcolonial dimensions, is suggested in the writings of Okwui Enwezor and
Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie, and by Enrique Dussel’s concept of “transmodernity.

59 Ernst Bloch, Heritage of Our Times (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press,
1991): 62. Cited in Wolf Schäfer, “Global History and Present Time,”
http://www.stonybrook.edu/globalhistory/PDF/GHAndThePresentTime.pdf (accessed September
8, 2010).

60 See Dieter Roelstraete, “After the Historiographic Turn” in e-flux Journal no. 6 (2009),
http://www.e-flux.com/journal/issue/6.

61 Recent examples include the C.A.P.C. Musee d’Art Contemporain in Bordeaux archives and its
Documents exhibition program as well as the recent “Speak, Memory” symposium on archival
practices at the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art, Cairo, in 2010. For a discussion of the
archive in contemporary art, see Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse” in October no. 110 (2004): 3–
22.

62 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press):
36.

63 Ibid, 34.

64 Giorgio Agamben, What Is An Apparatus? and Other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stefan
Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009): 41.

65 Ibid, 41–46.

66 See Terry Smith, What Is Contemporary Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 51–52.
67 Ibid.
Question 8: What About Responsibility? by Peter
Eleey

A few years ago, i was pestering a dealer about an artwork I was planning
to propose for acquisition. How should it be shown? What could we do and
not do with it? Had the artist made any particular stipulations regarding its
care or exhibition to which the museum would need to adhere? At a certain
point in the conversation, the dealer told me that once we paid her, we could
throw the piece off a cliff. While this anecdote will surely confirm artists’
worst fears about the people they entrust to merchandise their work, it
obliquely points to an important fact: the sovereign power of those who
possess a work of art. The dealer, of course, was right: As soon as we have
the thing itself, we can do whatever we want with it.1
The sovereignty of curators over the objects we show is absolute. As we
have deployed that power more aggressively, we have rightfully subjected
ourselves (and been subject) to critical exercises in how we define our work
and responsibilities. Much as the behavior of doctors is regulated because
of the power they wield over their patients, a number of participants in the
system of exhibition making seem to want a kind of code of conduct that
would prevent, or at least call attention to, bad curatorial behavior. Because
artists and audiences have better things to do, we curators have been the
ones most interested in articulating ways of considering ethical issues that
surround the making of exhibitions.
“Curatorial responsibility,” Anthony Huberman recently argued,
“involves the invention of ways to appropriately pay tribute to the lives of
artworks and artists—not the invention of curatorial methods for their own
sake. By always putting the artist first, a good exhibition behaves like a
guest who takes care to do whatever is true to the spirit of the work.”2
Huberman’s sensitive emphasis on behavior reminds us of that platitude of
curatorial humility—that we should always put the artist first—which,
while all too easily forgotten by many of us, is nevertheless a maxim few
would dispute. And yet perhaps some cursory digression into
irresponsibility might be useful. What counts as bad curatorial behavior?
Can it ever be acceptable? And how does curatorial responsibility differ
from artistic responsibility?

First, however, we need to distinguish between bad curatorial behavior
and plain old bad curating. (Though they may overlap, they are not the
same.) Bad behavior of the type I am concerned with here involves the
misuse of art to “authorial” ends, done with a degree of self-awareness. Bad
curating is an accidental outcome that results from a lack of attention or
skill.3 Humans are, it should be noted, equipped with a range of ways to
rationalize bad behavior, and any number of motivations for doing so.
Regardless, any effort to rationalize the curatorial misuse of art must begin
with the explicit acknowledgment of the practical modesty demanded by
our position: that whatever power curators have is accorded to us by the
people we depend upon to do our work.

Continuing in that spirit of self-awareness, it is useful to situate these
discussions of ethical “curatorial practice” alongside the broadened
application of the “curator” that has arisen in the past decade. Indeed,
people speak of “curating” all variety of things—music, travel itineraries,
menus, or experiences more generally—to imply a judicial selection or
arrangement, rather than the caring or healing aspects of the term’s
etymology that undergirds Huberman’s prescription. In this expanded use,
“curators” are editors and guides, providing a trusted filter in the new
economy, helping to cut through the noise of dramatically increased culture
and information production that has marked this same period. Curating
salves a larger anxiety about choosing well in an era of overabundance.
While this informational excess has been a useful backdrop for the rise of
the pop curati, other shifts in the past decade have sparked debates about
control and use that have more considerable bearing on the ways we think
about curating contemporary art. Significant legal, political, and economic
battles have taken shape during this period around (de)regulation and
property. The financial crisis, for example, with its roots in home
ownership, involved both—as have major litigation, legislative, and
business disputes between content producers and distributors, and those
surrounding the governmental and commercial collection and exploitation
of personal information.4 What can and cannot be owned? Who owns what,
and how much control does such ownership afford its owners? And, just as
essentially, what should and should not be controlled? The discussions we
have among ourselves about curatorial responsibility, I believe, are
informed by these larger disputes and reflect them, since curating is, at
base, not simply an act of selection or arrangement, but an act of use and
control. Furthermore, we might consider the anxieties around curators’
misuse of art as related to more general concerns about the loosening of the
tight relationship between art and its makers, which has accelerated over the
past decade, as it has across all forms of cultural production. The ability of
artists to control the circulation and use of their work—both as “object” and
as “image”—has been eroded, from both within and without. Some
significant examples of this loss of sovereignty, all of which have roots in
earlier periods:

• Art has been ruthlessly commodified in its display and in its
consumption. The proliferation of fairs has submitted art to the exhibition
conditions of trade shows; it circulates with increasing activity on the
secondary market and now denominates an increasing number of
investment funds.

• Art has been subject to re-performance, and performance subject to
objectification. The interest in reading production backward out of product
has snowballed through the art history and museum practices of the past 10
years as we have labored to historicize and preserve performance art.

• Art increasingly locates meaning beyond its object boundaries, with its
definitions gradually shifting toward methods and vehicles of distribution.
We speak of “dispersion” and characterize painting as being “beside itself,”
dependent upon a larger distributed network.5

• Art continues to be appropriated by other artists. While historical
appropriation has reappeared during this time in exhibitions of Pictures
Generation artists, newer forms have involved the wholesale unattributed
use of the work of other artists, as well as the deployment of art by other
artists within authored installations that mime curatorial practices.

• Art has been aggressively recontextualized by curators in group
exhibitions, some of which sublimate the art to various authorial agendas.6

Not surprisingly, many of the artists who have garnered attention in
recent years can be seen as responding directly or indirectly to these
conditions, or participating in them. That we celebrate such artists affirms
that we place particular value on contemporaneity, on being of one’s time.
(The hegemonic position of contemporaneity is similarly evident in the
reactions against it—in the turn toward the archaic or the primitive, for
example, as well as the more general discussion of the virtues of
untimeliness as a resistant position.)
The superior valuation of contemporaneity in our appraisal of art poses
some difficulties if we dislike aspects of the current cultural context that an
artist may be representing in their work, especially if they are making
certain conflicted political or economic forces visible by emulating or
participating in them. Assessing Jeff Koons’s 2008 survey at the Museum of
Contemporary Art Chicago, Peter Schjeldahl summarized the challenges
raised by Koons’s acute reflection of the troubling relationships between
high wealth and low culture in America:

But then there’s Hanging Heart (Blue/Silver) (1994–2006), an immense
steel heart in dreamy blue with steel ribbons in glittering silver, which
greets visitors to the show. Passing beneath it, you sense its great weight,
perhaps with a touch of physical dread like that stirred by Richard Serra
sculptures. It looks (and is) incredibly costly—and as sweet as dime-store
perfume. It apostrophizes our present era of plutocratic democracy, sinking
scads of money in a gesture of solidarity with lower-class taste. Noblesse
oblige, never mind that noblesse isn’t what it used to be. (Neither is
obligation.) We might wish for a better artist to manifest our time, but that
would probably amount to wanting a better time.7

Writing just months before the financial crisis, Schjeldahl anticipated the
political developments that would follow in the United States, in which the
wealthy have defended themselves by instrumentalizing the tastes and
prejudices of elements of the lower classes who might otherwise be
antagonistic to their inequitable consolidation of money and attendant
political power. Though this redistribution has lately accelerated, it began at
the end of 1970s, ushering in an age that the economist Paul Krugman has
termed the Great Divergence. This is, of course, exactly when Koons began
his career, quitting his job at MoMA’s membership desk to sell stocks, the
profits from which he used to produce his first significant body of work,
appropriately titled The New (1980–83). Can we laud Koons’s trenchant
embodiment of the Great Divergence while still criticizing the effects it has
had on American society? Or should we hold him and his work accountable
for participating in (and profiting from) a cultural development we may
consider deleterious?
Schjeldahl himself seems to provide an answer in a review of Damien
Hirst’s global show of spot paintings (1986–ongoing) that occupied all of
Gagosian Gallery’s venues around the world simultaneously in the winter of
2012. Noting Hirst’s debt to Koons, Schjeldahl described the “formulaic
concept” of the spot paintings as “intellectual formaldehyde” and bemoaned
Hirst’s “deliberate deadness.” But he was more ambiguous in some of his
other comments. “Hirst is originally unoriginal,” Schjeldahl noted, asserting
that he “will go down in history as a peculiarly cold-blooded pet of
millennial excess wealth.” As he did previously with Koons, the critic
located Hirst’s transgressions firmly within the era of their making. “Just as
no law forbids the sale of bundled credit default swaps… no agreed-upon
aesthetic principle invalidates paintings that are churned out by proxy and
then bid up at auction as fungible commodities.” Most essentially: “The
deadness of Hirst’s product lines—flipping the bird to anyone who naively
craves more and better for art—upsets a lot of people. I deem their ire
misdirected. Don’t shoot the messenger. Hirst honestly vivifies a situation
in which the power of money celebrates itself by shedding all pretext of
supporting illiquid values.”8
Schjeldahl’s resigned rationalizations deftly defer blame to the cultures
that produced Koons and Hirst, but they are most remarkable because they
take each artist’s lack of resistance as a demonstration of their particular
contemporaneity. If we valorize contemporaneity and demand it of artists,
we probably do have to qualify the extent to which we hold them
accountable for fulfilling such demands in ways that, lacking criticality or
antagonism, might trouble us. Don’t shoot the messenger. Or maybe just
shoot them with a rubber bullet.
My assessment of curatorial bad behavior, and the manner in which it
might be permissible, nevertheless turns on this rationalization of bad
artistic behavior by way of its formal topicality. Can curators be considered
“messengers” in a similar sense, actors permitted to occupy a place both
inside and peripheral to the culture that provides the content and context for
their work? Messengers who, in exchange for reflecting back to their
recipients essential characteristics of contemporary life, are accorded a
comparable degree of indemnity from responsibility for the way we use
things, people, institutions, and ideas?
There are, obviously, some crucial differences between artists and
curators that inform this discussion. Artists are responsible for everything
they make, whereas curators are never totally responsible because we don’t
ever make anything by ourselves. The singular self-possession of the artist’s
voice is its distinguishing factor in the same way that dependence on other
voices is what marks the curator’s work. Expression is an artist’s
fundamental act; use is a curator’s. Just as we would defend an artist’s
absolute freedom to express themselves, so I would argue on behalf of a
curator’s ability to use whatever they want, however they want to use it.
This means that we can agree that artists are always right, but also that there
may be occasions when we don’t need to listen to them, or might even
antagonize them. We ought to be able to ratify a basic position of curatorial
humility, but also reserve for ourselves the freedom to reflect and model the
times and cultures in which we work in ways that may sometimes be as
discomfiting as the conditions we take as subjects—and prepare to be
judged accordingly.9
In short, if we are going to defend curatorial (ir)responsibility, we should
do so not simply by likening it to artistic license (which is a false
equivalence), but by embracing curating’s overarching contemporaneity—
the present coincidence, for example, of curating’s “work” with the macro-
level cultural renegotiations occurring around regulation and property. To
the extent that we permit ourselves to creatively misuse art within the arena
of the exhibition on such grounds, we should likewise admit that this
justification necessarily comes with an expiration date. At some point,
society will move on to other battles, and curating as such will no longer
enjoy a close formal relationship to the larger discourses of the day.
In the meantime, we would do well to consider the extent to which the
relentless critical appraisals of “curatorial practice” may be but one part of a
gradual shift toward greater skepticism and regulation of contemporary art
—for now, self-imposed, and the more valuable for it. Various indications
of a changing climate abound in the United States and elsewhere in the
West. Numerous laws have recently been contemplated and enacted to
police secondary sales of art by private collectors and deaccessioning by
museums; continued growth in the market will eventually invite more
regulatory attention from securities officials. Art criticism is excised from
daily newspapers as auction records make the front pages, binding
contemporary art ever more closely to its elite social and pecuniary value in
the public mind. Against this setting, major collecting museums raise their
admission fees while appearing increasingly entangled with the market;
some have recently begun offering their curators as consultants to the
private sector. Additionally, art curricula is being squeezed out of primary
education, bequeathing to the future a shrinking audience that will be less
charitably inclined toward contemporary art.
Doing what we can to counter these larger trends that run against
expansive models and platforms for both art making and exhibition making,
we should remember that in exhibitions, as in art, something always needs
to be put at risk. For now, we should feel emboldened to act as badly as we
can justify, and grateful if we can find people who still care enough about
what we do to complain.

1 A few caveats. “Things,” of course, don’t have to be objects, per se; they can also take the form
of permission to do or show something, which can be similarly abused (with or without the
artist’s grant of authority). And at collecting institutions, admittedly, the broad authority I
describe isn’t strictly true. Though we think of museums as places where we can encounter
history, they are in fact conceived against history’s action, which tends toward dispassionate
misuse. Accordingly, there are various rules and covenants that we create or accept which
govern how we handle the objects in our care. Such strictures are partly meant to inspire trust in
the artists and dealers who choose to sell art to us. Despite being unconstrained by similar codes,
a private collector is yet subject to certain market pressures in their behavior; while they could
throw a piece they have purchased off a cliff, they might find it hard to buy something else
thereafter.

2 Anthony Huberman, “Take Care” in Mai Abu ElDahab, Binna Choi, and Emily Pethick, eds.,
Circular Facts (New York: Sternberg Press, 2011): 13.

3 This self-consciousness comes with its own set of problems. Johanna Burton has reasonably
described “a new formalism of critique whereby certain artistic and curatorial practices are
valued precisely for their polite enumerations of awareness, their performances of consciousness.”
Johanna Burton, “On Knot Curating” in The Exhibitionist no. 4 (June 2011): 54.

4 Recent examples of the latter include the fight over the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)
in the United States, which pitted the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) against a
number of technology companies, and the ongoing case in American courts in which Viacom and
the English Premier League are asserting massive infringement by YouTube for posting
copyrighted video material (Viacom International Inc. et al. v. YouTube Inc. et al., 2nd U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 10-3270; and the Football Association Premier League Ltd. et al. v.
YouTube Inc. in the same court, No. 10-3342).

5 See Seth Price, Dispersion (2002–ongoing), free download at


http://www.distributedhistory.com/Dispersion2008.pdf; and David Joselit, “Painting Beside Itself”
in October no. 130 (fall 2009): 125–34

6 See, for example, Hal Foster on my exhibition September 11 (2011) at MoMA PS1, which he
termed “an extreme version of the now-familiar practice of the curator-as-artist” in Artforum no.
50 (January 2012): 211.

7 Peter Schjeldahl, “Funhouse” in The New Yorker (June 9, 2008): 130–31.

8 Peter Schjeldahl, “Spot On” in The New Yorker (January 23, 2012): 84–85.

9 While purposefully avoiding a discussion of the terms that should be used to judge such bad
behavior, I nevertheless think that our evaluation should take into account the degree of acuity
and complexity with which the resulting exhibition represents the circumstances it takes as a
subject, and not simply the criticality or antagonism it achieves.
Question 9: What Is the Process? by Adriano
Pedrosa

Curating in Fragments

Curating is a vast, highly specialized, diverse, idiosyncratic, and
fragmented activity—at once a privileged occupation and a poorly paid one.
For this very reason, as a professional activity, curating defies
categorization. In the field of art alone there are countless ways of curating:
in institutions or independently, with private or public collections, with
contemporary artists or those of another era, with objects, performances, or
other “practices,” with biennials, festivals, conferences, or fairs, in teaching
and writing, in editing and publishing. And then there are the curators of
dinosaurs, textiles, and other assorted objects, not to mention wines, hotels,
and handbags. In recent years, curating has been co-opted into marketing
and commercial fields, linking connoisseurship and expertise to exclusivity
and privilege, in areas that have a stronger (even if shallower or more
fleeting) impact on culture at large than our much smaller (albeit dignified)
field of art. A Google search for “curated shopping” in March 2012 returned
1,500,000 results, whereas “curated exhibition” returned a mere 421,000
results. We might have to find a less contaminated denomination for the
term “curator.”

Here I will restrict myself to the vast field of contemporary art curating,
speaking from my standpoint and taking into consideration my experience
as an independent curator based in São Paulo, conversing and negotiating
with many interlocutors and agents, reaching out to different archives, and
navigating through different territories and fields, be they geographic or
disciplinary. Yet curating is also, at the end of the day and above all else,
inescapably personal. A useful model is Ivo Mesquita’s curator as
cartographer, a subject who travels through geographies, networks, and
fields of knowledge.1 Curatorial practice is limited on the one hand by
one’s travels, books, archives, and memory, and on the other by one’s
known networks of colleagues, curators, artists, and intellectuals. Yet the
register is not just territorial, but also temporal; one travels in geography
and in history. There is no clear, singular, ultimate map, plan, route, or
record of this intricate process, which necessarily unravels and unfolds in
multiple fragments. It is through an unstable amalgamation of different
readings and positions that one constructs one’s own singular, at times
shifting, standpoint.


Truth, Fiction (Favorite Game)

Truth, Fiction (Favorite Game) is the title of a small drawing made by the
late Brazilian artist Leonilson in Amsterdam in 1990. In it, a small, naked,
male, faceless figure is drawn with a simple, minimal black outline on a
mostly untouched paper measuring 21 x 13.5 cm. As it is typical of
Leonilson’s drawings of that period, the figure is small and simply
composed, positioned off center, slightly closer to the left and upper edges
of the paper. Its delicate, precious quality is set up against the blank
background, and the diminutive quality of the work is counterposed by the
potency of the narrative that stems from it. The figure is sided by two words
—“truth” and “fiction”—entities that frame and tear the man’s bare
existence. But rather than a victim caught up in an existential dilemma that
splits him between truth and fiction, the character takes pleasure in this
division; “favorite game,” Leonilson has also written on the drawing. Is this
a self-portrait or a fictional one? The answer may be what Roland Barthes
wrote epigraphically in his meta-autobiography: “It must all be considered
as if spoken by a character in a novel.”2


F[r]icciones

F[r]icciones articulates the notion of Jorge Luis Borges’s fiction with that
of friction, with the intention of constructing a complex and incomplete
panorama of Latin American art. In his book Ficciones (1935–44), Borges
questions the clear distinctions between literary and textual genres,
compiling texts that individually blur these boundaries and bringing
together fiction, criticism, and history. F[r]icciones, the book and the
exhibition that accompanies it, attempt to call attention to frictions that
exist between history and fiction, between art and text, between historical
and contemporary works, and also between their multiple media, languages,
formats, designs, and contents. Some thematic and formal leitmotifs
(always in friction) are articulated in this narrative: the grid and the web,
cities and maps, fragments and texts, ethnic and cultural composition.
F[r]icciones presents itself as an allegory, a procession of images and texts,
weaving a web, a net, a labyrinth also inhabited by some of the landscapes,
peoples, and histories of Latin America.3


Histórias

[Unlike the more limited English term “histories,” the Portuguese
histórias, much like the French histories and the Spanish historias, may
identify fictional or nonfictional texts, thus marking at once the historical,
the anecdotal, and the literary.]


Geography

“I am here, in this exhibition, to defend neither a career nor any
nationality,” stated Cildo Meireles in the exhibition catalogue for
Information, the landmark 1970 show at the Museum of Modern Art in New
York. Said Hélio Oiticica in the same publication: “I am not here
representing Brazil; or representing anything else: the ideas of representing-
representation-etc. are over.”4 Boundaries and limits always call for
questioning. The principle of nationality is the simplest of curatorial
criteria, and frequently has more to do with bureaucratic, political, and
diplomatic necessities, or limitations in budget and research, than true
curatorial investigation or relevance.

In 2009, as the curator of the 31st Panorama da Arte Brasileira, a
biennial dedicated to Brazilian contemporary art organized by the Museu de
Arte Moderna de São Paulo, I included only foreign artists whose work had
somehow established connections with Brazilian culture. (A number of the
artists were also invited to undertake residencies in the country.) My
proposal was to question the notion of “Brazilian art,” pushing it to its
limits via the idea that “Brazilian art” is not necessarily solely produced by
Brazilians, but can also encompass productions with Brazilian themes,
connections, references. A single Brazilian national was invited by me to
participate: Tamar Guimarães, a Belo Horizonte native who had lived
mostly outside the country and was exhibiting in Brazil for the first time.

When the project was announced in the press, there were many detractors
who objected with protectionist and xenophobic arguments. The title of the
exhibition, Mamõyguara Opá Mamõ Pupé, was in many ways a response to
them. It was an appropriation of the title of a neon text work made
especially for the exhibition by Claire Fontaine, the Paris-based collective.
The cryptic sentence is a translation of the expression “Foreigners
Everywhere” into Old Tupi, one of Brazil’s first and now extinct languages.
Ironically, the play on the national, the native, and the foreign made
reference to an indigenous language that is more authentically Brazilian
than anything else, but has been wiped away from everyday life by the
violence of Portuguese colonization. Claire Fontaine’s sentence is part of a
series of neon sculptures that appropriates the name of a group of anarchists
from Turin who fight racism. If Oswald de Andrade in his 1928 “Manifesto
Antropófago” advocated a position for Brazilian intellectuals in which they
would cannibalize European culture through a sort of postcolonial
appropriation avant la lettre, digesting it and producing something of their
own, now, as the 31st Panorama demonstrated, it was Brazilian culture that
was being cannibalized and poached by foreigners.5


Antropofagia: An Incomplete Project

De Andrade’s antropofagia harked back to the cannibalistic practice of
the indigenous Tupinambá people, the proto-Brazilian fathers of
appropriation who ate the flesh of their enemies to acquire and embody the
latter’s strengths and virtues.6 For the Brazilian modern and contemporary
intellectual, antropofagia becomes a productive and liberating
epistemological tool true to our own mestizo origins. Yet the limits of
modernist antropofagia lie precisely in its excessive orientation toward the
European matrix. Antropofagia must live up to its mestizo vocation,
devouring our African and Amerindian histórias. As we reestablish
connections with other matrixes, we rewrite histórias of the past and
propose new histórias for the future.

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro has considered indigenous Brazilian culture
through Amerindian perspectivism, affirming that “Perspectivism is the
resumption of Oswaldian antropofagia in new terms.”7 In this sense,
antropofagia remains an incomplete project: Learning from the Amerindian
and African matrices entails unlearning Eurocentrism. One may think of
antropofagia as an “epistemology of the South” (in Boaventura de Sousa
Santos’s terms) or as a process of “de-Westernization” (in Walter Mignolo’s
terms). In this trajectory, new, productive relationships of knowledge and
reflection may be developed, expanding beyond our mestizo origins toward
the margins, the Global South. After all, the South-South connections
remain largely unexplored, and in them lie the richest paths of intercultural
production and reflection for the future. There are several connections
among the margins, and the first is precisely that we are at the margins—of
Europe, of the West, of European modernity, of the first, rich, and
developed world. The marginal position is positively associated to Hélio
Oiticica’s 1968 famous poem-flag “Seja marginal, seja herói” (“Be a
marginal, be a hero”). There are also commonalities among the margins
(however varied these may be) in terms of a colonial past, of mestizo
cultures. Such a geographic position has political and poetic implications
that inform thinking; as with Walter Mignolo: “I am where I think.” Above
all, the creation and stimulation of platforms for conversations and
exchanges will encounter, discover, and unveil other connections, relations,
and readings—something that must be found in practice, not merely in
theory.


“The Straight Mind”

There is a historical political connection between the gay movement and
the women’s liberation movement that still resonates for me today, even at a
time when some speak (in Euro-America) of the “end of gay politics” and
when one can no longer speak, as Linda Nochlin did in 1970, about the
nonexistence of “great women artists.”8 More than three decades later,
Monique Wittig’s radical words in her 1978 manifesto “The Straight Mind”
remain urgent: “The discourses which particularly oppress all of us,
lesbians, women and homosexual men, are those discourses which take for
granted that what founds society, any society, is heterosexuality… The
straight mind develops a totalizing interpretation of history, social reality,
culture, language, and all the subjective phenomena at the same time…
Straight society is based on the necessity of the different/other at every
level. But what is the different other if not the dominated?”9

The strong presence of female artists in my work as a curator also harks
back to my own Brazilian background, as many key Brazilian artists have
been women, from modernist figures such as Tarsila do Amaral, Maria
Martins, and Anita Malfatti to the mid-century luminaries Lygia Clark and
Lygia Pape to contemporaries such as Adriana Varejão, Beatriz Milhazes,
Rivane Neuenschwander, and Renata Lucas. Working outside of Brazil, one
sees how the situation is different elsewhere, and one often encounters
exhibitions and projects that are still dominated by men. I am thus
frequently led to privilege women in my research. A recent manifestation of
this was the 12th Istanbul Biennial in 2011, which I co-curated with Jens
Hoffmann. Departing from the work of a gay Cuban–Puerto Rican artist,
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, the biennial was largely anchored in the work of a
group of senior female figures: Claudia Andujar, Dora Maurer, Elizabeth
Catlett, Füsun Onur, Geta Bratescu, Letizia Battaglia, Martha Rosler, Teresa
Burga, Tina Modotti, Yıldız Moran Arun, Zarina Hashmi. We chose not
release an artist list before the opening of the exhibition, yet given the
demands of the press office and in thinking strategically about the
dissemination of the biennial in the press, we did distribute images of works
by these female figures, several of them portraits of women and self-
portraits, which went on to have substantial appearances in the art media.


The North Tongue

Curatorial studies programs in the North have been pouring hungry
curators into the highly active and overpopulated scenes of London, New
York, and Berlin. Yet few of them venture into Lima, Manila, or Ramallah.
When I recently visited Kuala Lumpur I asked Zanita Anuar, a key figure in
the Malaysian scene and a curator at the National Visual Arts Gallery, if a
Brazilian had ever been there. She recalled a visit sometime in the 1980s
from a Bienal de São Paulo curator. As I was leaving Kuala Lumpur the
next day, the airport immigration officer commented on the rarity of the
Brazilian passport and remembered when I’d come in a few days before. An
exotic curator.

These personal anecdotes are telling, as the situation today is not so
different from what the Cuban curator Gerardo Mosquera described 20
years ago: “One of the worst problems of the Southern Hemisphere is its
lack of internal integration and horizontal communication, in contrast with
its vertical—and subaltern—connection with the North… The cultures of
the South urgently need to know and think of each other, to exchange
experiences, to embark on common projects.”10 Indeed, the discourses of
globalization and postcolonialism are deeply rooted and developed in the
North, predicated on that logic. Again with Mosquera: “The lack of South
to South communication is a postcolonial legacy that has been insufficiently
modified. The globalization we are witnessing is an expansion of a world
network linking more diversified power centers and their numerous, highly
diversified economic areas following a North to South axis. There has been
little progress in South to South globalization, because the process has been
developed from and for the North.”11

It is in this spirit that Nochlin’s feminist question was cannibalized by the
Filipino curator Patrick Flores, director of the Vargas Museum in Manila,
as: “Why have there been no great curators outside Europe and
America?”12 The year 1989 was a turning point in the history of global
exhibitions, not so much because of the Eurocentric Parisian project
Magiciens de la Terre, but more because of the 3rd Bienal de la Habana;
Mosquera was part of the curatorial team, which was led by Lilian
Llanes.13 This biennial pioneered the dialogues and juxtapositions of
contemporary art productions from the Global South. In the 12th Istanbul
Biennial, Jens Hoffmann and I attempted to bring together contemporary art
productions from several regions, but with a special focus on Latin America
and the Middle East, which share a recent past of authoritarian regimes in
the periphery of European modernity. There are countless exhibitions
devoted to African, Asian, Latin American, and Middle Eastern art that tour
Europe and North America, often stopping in Paris, London, and New York,
but we still lack exhibition projects and researches that establish dialogues
between those regions. The routes are rich, and remain largely unexplored.
As the curator Koyo Kouoh recently wrote to me from Dakar: “The axis
Rio-Dakar-Luanda is more interesting and important than Rio-London-New
York.”


The Mestizo, Anthropophagic Toolbox

In the past two decades we have seen a growing decolonization of the
contemporary art scene. The international art world has expanded its
territory and grown from Euro-America and the North Atlantic axis to
include artists and curators from all over the globe. In this movement, there
is no longer a single, Eurocentric, universal master narrative, but several
polyphonic, pluriversal histórias. The task now is to decolonize modernism
and the 20th century, reaching out to the masters and pioneers in Africa,
Asia, and Latin America. A similar movement may be observed with female
masters and pioneers, who are now being reconsidered and brought into the
narrative. One may think of rich juxtapositions such as Amrita Sher-Gil,
Nena Saguil and Tarsila do Amaral; Lygia Clark, Saloua Choucair and
Charlotte Posenenske; Lygia Pape, Gego and Nasreen Mohamedi.

In this process, one must attempt to discover other models and theories
beyond the Euro-American toolbox of abstraction, pop, minimalism,
conceptualism, the grid. To learn new tools we might need to unlearn old
ones. The proposal is not necessarily to throw away all European models
and languages, but to intercross them with other ones. The anthropophagic,
mestizo toolbox may provide opportunities to cannibalize the biennial, the
exhibition, the museum, chronology, and history. In that sense, the notion of
mestizaje, the blending of races, languages, and cultures from indigenous
African and European roots, is a key one that informed much of the cultural
debate in Latin America in the 20th century. The challenge is to expand,
develop, and complexify the mestizo, anthropophagic toolbox, not just in
terms of thematics and imagery but also in terms of concepts and languages.
A reconsideration of indigenism—which rescued indigenous references in
20th-century art and literature not only in Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru,
and Mexico, but also in India and the Philippines—is now in order.
Indigenism is a modernist preoccupation, linked to cultural and ethnic
identity but also to language and power, thus having strong political roots
and repercussions.


Education

I have always been suspicious of curatorial programs. Each curator must
develop his or her own cartography and standpoint through their own
readings, travels, researches, interests. In this sense, curatorial studies
programs are prone to produce similar, cookie-cutter outcomes. If a certain
theory, topic, or art becomes fashionable or the norm, it is better to stay
clear from it. There can only be one common goal among curators: to
promote diversity while avoiding the “totalizing interpretation of history,
social reality, culture, language, and all the subjective phenomena at the
same time,” as Wittig put it. We must multiply the ways we look at the
world, read it, interpret it, write it, and represent it.

I myself graduated in law at the Universidade Estadual do Rio de Janeiro,
studied economics at the Catholic University in Rio, studied art at the
Escola de Artes Visuais do Rio de Janeiro, obtained an MFA in art and
critical writing at California Institute of the Arts, and dropped out of a PhD
program in comparative literature at the University of California, Los
Angeles. My work as a curator emerges from an artist’s practice and
background (although I stopped making art almost a decade ago).

My real training as a curator came on the job as an adjunct curator of the
24th Bienal de São Paulo in 1998, working with chief curator Paulo
Herkenhoff, and later as an associate curator with Ivo Mesquita in the
project for the unrealized 25th Bienal de São Paulo in 2000. Today, my
involvement with education is better understood as an engagement in
programs of “interlocution.” At PIESP—Programa Independente da Escola
São Paulo, a program I founded in 2010, we bring not students, but artists
and curators, to discuss each other’s work in weekly seminars. There are no
teachers or instructors but rather interlocutors, of which I am the “director-
interlocutor.” Escola São Paulo is non-degree school and the PIESP does
not offer a diploma. I, too, learn from interlocution with the younger artists
and curators.


Exhibition Auteur

At least since the 1960s we have been witnessing, in several fields and
disciplines, a certain skepticism toward purely objective (as opposed to
subjective) approaches in the humanities and elsewhere. In literary
criticism, there is Roland Barthes and his critique of criticism and truth. In
history you have the École des Annales and microhistory, which reflect a
critique of the total, unbiased master narrative. In ethnography, the presence
of the ethnographer in his or her territory of research is far from invisible
and, in fact, disrupts the daily life of peoples and cultures, jeopardizing the
ethnographer’s supposedly scientific and unbiased report. Even in
contemporary design and typography, there cannot be truly transparent
design. Beatrice Ward’s famous image of the “crystal goblet,” with
typography and design understood as a “crystal clear glass,” is now seen as
utopian, if not naive. We could go on in the same way with language, with
architecture, with art history, certainly with journalism, with the questioning
of photography as a reliable truth-revealing machine, and with the
documentary film genre.

Psychoanalysis plays a crucial role in these approaches, Sigmund Freud
having pointed out the significance of the most seemingly banal slips of
language, which in the end reflect the speaker’s subjectivity. In museum
studies this comes up as the critique of the neutrality of the white cube.
Behind all of this is the notion that the subject of the writer, critic, historian,
architect, designer, journalist, ethnographer, and so forth is always revealed
through his or her practice—that these activities are always somehow, and
unavoidably, contaminated. It’s as if we have been realizing that many
layers (some of them yet to be discovered, and others doomed to remain
undiscovered) exist between us and the world, and we cannot escape or
bypass them. The exhibition auteur is a reflection of these changes:
someone who acknowledges the impossibility of detaching his or her
cultural and personal context and who does not struggle to do so, but rather
takes advantage of it.14


Cartographic Curating, Learning and Unlearning

Moving between many territories, fields, and locales in short and
successive intervals, yet maintaining a slow, reflexive, and concentrated
focus, at once open, critical, and generous. Curating is learning,
researching, discovering, but also unlearning, be it in a political or a
personal way, from the young artist in Ramallah or Hanoi to the pioneer in
Lima or Bucharest, from textiles to maps, from rituals to dance. We’ve
learned from Lisbon, London, Madrid, New York, Paris. We must now learn
from Accra, Alexandria, Amman, Asunción, Bangkok, Beirut, Belém, Belo
Horizonte, Berlin, Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Caracas, Cotonou, Delhi,
Dubai, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Jakarta,
Johannesburg, Kochi, Kuala Lumpur, Lagos, Lima, London, Manila,
Mexico City, Mumbai, Paris, Porto Alegre, Quito, Ramallah, Rio de
Janeiro, Santiago, Sharjah, Yogyakarta. It is a long, arduous route. After all,
the periphery is greater than the center.

1 Ivo Mesquita, “Cartographies” in Cartographies (Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery, 2003).

2 Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (Los Angeles: University of California Press,
1994): 3

3 Ivo Mesquita and Adriano Pedrosa, F[r]icciones (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte
Reina Sofia, 2001).

4 Kynaston McShine, ed., Information exhibition catalogue (New York: Museum of Modern Art,
1970)

5 Adriano Pedrosa, Mamõyguara Opá Mamõ Pupé—31º Panorama da Arte Brasileira, 2009
exhibition catalogue (São Paulo: Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, 2009).

6 The XXIV Bienal de São Paulo (1998), in which I worked as an adjunct curator with chief
curator Paulo Herkenhoff, brought antropofagia to the international debate, proposing it as a tool
to look at contemporary art and art history through the exhibition and its publications. See Paulo
Herkenhoff and Adriano Pedrosa, XXIV Bienal de São Paulo, catalogues, 4 volumes (São Paulo:
Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, 1998).

7 Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “O perspectivismo é a retomada da Antropofagia Oswaldiana em


novos termos” (2007) in Renato Sztutman, Encontros com Eduardo Vivieiros de Castro (Rio de
Janeiro: Beco do Azougue, 2008).

8 Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in Women, Art, and Power
and Other Essays (Westview Press, 1989).

9 Monique Wittig, “The Straight Mind” in Russell Ferguson et al., ed., Marginalization and
Contemporary Cultures (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1990).

10 Gerardo Mosquera, “The Marco Polo Syndrome: Some Problems Around Art and
Eurocentrism” in Theory in Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung, eds., Contemporary Art since 1985,
(Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005): 222.

11 Gerardo Mosquera, “Power and Intercultural Curating” in Trans>arts. cultures. media no. 1
(New York, 1995).

12 Patrick D. Flores, Past Peripheral: Curation in Southeast Asia (Singapore: NUS Museum, 2008):
35.

13 See Rachel Weiss et al., Making Art Global (Part 1), The Third Havana Biennial, 1989 (London:
Afterall Books, 2011).

14 “Truth, Fiction (Favorite Game) [Attrib.]”, Catherine Thomas Interviews Adriano Pedrosa” in
Catherine Thomas, ed., The Edge of Everything: Reflections on Curatorial Practice (Naming a
Practice) (Banff: Banff Centre Press, 2002).
Question 10: How About Pleasure? by Dieter
Roelstraete

Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige’s wall there was this one: “Matters
of great concern should be treated lightly.” Master Itei commented,
“Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.”
—Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai


A couple of years ago, I had the singularly good fortune of being involved
in an exhibition-cum-conference-cum-publication project titled Academy—a
room with many doors, one of which led into the museum where I continue
to work until this day. I have fond memories of it as a great project for an
equally great number of reasons, including the opportunity to exchange
ideas with a small group of exceptionally intelligent and otherwise gifted
individuals, and the good luck of embarking upon (or at least of having the
feeling of embarking upon) an odyssey into unmapped territory that shortly
thereafter witnessed a gold-rush-like influx of even more intrepid explorers
looking at the now-well-publicized tangle of questions relating to art
education, knowledge production, and artistic research.

I also have fond memories of it as a partially failed project—a project that
was somehow, and certainly as an exhibition, derailed. Retrospectively—and
I did not need much time to figure this out—my greatest critique was that
Academy as a whole, and certainly as a series of exhibitions, was far too
academic. And this, alas, is not meant ironically. (Sometimes, though not so
often as we are led to think, “academic” really is a bad word.) An exhibition
titled Academy and subtitled Learning From Art, I always thought (and still
believe), should try to avoid at all costs the obvious pitfalls of projects
endowed with an emphatically discursive nature. First and foremost, it
should refrain from burying the image—the crux of all art, after all—under
heaps of discourse; it shouldn’t feature too many video works of talking
heads pontificating away in their creaking swivel chairs; it should go light
on the black and white; it shouldn’t degenerate into an orgy of diagrams,
maps, statistics, or words. In short, it should resist the inevitable
academization of its subject.

None of this happened, of course—quite the contrary. At times and in
parts, the exhibition did end up looking as pedantic, bookish, and drab as
both its title and subject gave us reason to fear. (That the project remained
thoroughly engaging and interesting throughout speaks for itself, but that is
not what is at stake here.) I had long been aware of this danger and very
early on started lobbying tirelessly for the inclusion of at least one artwork
whose glaring crassness and harsh colors (to put it bluntly, or mildly) would
challenge the dour, discursive monoculture of so much of the stuffy, uptight,
proselytizing art we were looking at, at the time. I was successful, in the
end, in securing the participation of the Viennese mock-actionist group
gelitin, whose unfailing talent for something I would like to call “critical
infantilization” (or “critical infantilism”), to my mind at least, provided
some much-needed relief from the exhibition’s droning one-directional
narrative.

Gelitin’s contribution to the exhibition consisted of a giant Plasticine
monstrosity, a kindergarten-turned-postapocalyptic wasteland that had been
originally produced in actual collaboration with children (at the Freud
Museum in Vienna, no less). I still remember taking some of my colleagues
in the Academy project on a rushed tour of the exhibition: they nodded
approvingly and smiled contentedly as I guided them through room after
room of videos featuring only talking heads, wordy diagrams, and black-
and-white graphics—until we entered the room with the giant (and
ridiculously overilluminated) gelitin sculpture, whereupon a pained grimace
of irrepressible disapproval and haughty disappointment contorted their
faces. “Oh dear oh dear, what have you done here?” I heard them sigh in
unison. And, appropriately, “You will never learn, will you now?” Though it
shouldn’t have been much of a surprise, this reaction nevertheless still
shocked me somewhat.

For me, the invitation extended to gelitin in the context of Academy was
connected with what I understood to be the foursome’s unique take on
pleasure—for that, too, must certainly be regarded as integral to the
pedagogic experience—pleasure sufficiently rattling to destabilize the more
cerebral end of curating with one fell, deservedly foul-smelling, swoop.
Unnerve, rattle, and destabilize they certainly did—and very successfully
too, judging from the visceral response that the work triggered in my
colleagues’ usually composed countenances. So, in that sense, the exhibition
was a half-triumph after all. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I
decided to dwell on this anecdote, which in itself is not terribly meaningful
or important, because it speaks so symbolically (to me at least) about one of
a handful of pregnant questions that face curatorial practice in today’s post-
theoretical, post-ideological world: What about pleasure? (Inter alia: The
question of pleasure is, of course, an eminently ideological one.) And, on a
related note, what about bodily enjoyment? Does the invocation of any form
of pleasure, visual or otherwise, necessarily align curatorial practice with the
evil forces of entertainment?

Allow me to stick to the path eked out by gelitin for a while longer, for I
have long thought of them as my teachers in this regard (that is, in the
various attempts aimed at addressing the aforementioned questions,
embodied curator that I am). Much of their work ostentatiously relies on a
specifically Viennese talent for abjection, and in it obscenity, sex, humor,
and the disruptive discomforts triggered by failing bodily functions mingle
to produce an explosive, intoxicating cocktail that is certain to destabilize
even the sturdiest (and driest) of intellectual curatorial constructs. It is rather
fitting, therefore, that, in the aforementioned exhibition, the one work by
gelatin should have resembled a lunar landscape upon which infantilist
energies gone haywire have laid waste—a minefield, so to speak, riddled
with the serious, well-meaning curator’s most vexing questions: What
constitutes seriousness in curating? Can a “serious” exhibition—that is to
say, one that addresses the pressing political issues of the day without being
too overtly or directly political—indulge in the lowly pleasures of anarchic
bodily laughter? Is it OK to fart… in art?

It is of course notoriously difficult to make “funny” art, or otherwise to
strike the right balance between art’s traditional claims to being sérieux and
the centripetal forces of humor. But is it at all possible to curate “funny”
exhibitions? I believe it is. Or at least I have tried to make them. Of course,
most exhibition projects of the humor-in-art ilk are invariably doomed to
end up as singularly dispiriting and depressingly humorless affairs clogged
by the type of tiring jokes your balding bachelor uncle used to embarrass
you with during endless family dinners. And the same is mostly true of
exhibitions devoted to the messy subjects of sex, erotica, and carnal longing
(when these are looked at through the lens of private joy, that is): rarely will
unsexier art events ensue. Food, fellatio, flatulence, sports, and other facts of
life that actually make life worth living or serve as dependable sources of
entertainment in everyday, non-art life only rarely appear worthy of
“serious” curatorial consideration. (I know—I am jumping to conclusions
here, or deluding myself with crass generalizations: what exactly constitutes
“seriousness” in curating?) And only rarely do these basic instincts make
for good art, let alone (and this is of course much less noteworthy) for good
exhibitions. And so the question remains: What, or (rather) how, about
pleasure?

* * *

Writing about pleasure may be notoriously unpleasant on most occasions
(mostly because it is written with such little regard for actual reading
pleasure), but a handful of authors thankfully provide enough exceptions to
this general rule to allow us to retain some measure of trust in the possibility
of thinking pleasure pleasantly, or thinking joy (enjoyment?) joyfully—and
one of them is a man named Roland Barthes. Here, a lengthy quote from his
delightful little Le Plaisir du texte is in order (in which the notion of “text”
can easily be replaced with that of art, the exhibition, or the artwork):

An entire minor mythology would have us believe that pleasure (and
singularly the pleasure of the text) is a rightist notion. On the right, with the
same movement, everything abstract, boring, political, is shoved over to the
left and pleasure is kept for oneself: welcome to our side, you who are
finally coming to the pleasure of literature! And on the left, because of
morality (forgetting Marx’s and Brecht’s cigars), one suspects and disdains
any “residue of hedonism.” On the right, pleasure is championed against
intellectuality, the clerisy: the old reactionary myth of heart against head,
sensation against reasoning, (warm) “life” against (cold) “abstraction”:
must not the artist, according to Debussy’s sinister precept, “humbly seek to
give pleasure”? On the left, knowledge, method, commitment, combat, are
drawn up against “mere delectation” (and yet: what if knowledge itself were
delicious?). On both sides, this peculiar idea that pleasure is simple, which
is why it is championed or disdained. Pleasure, however, is not an element of
the text, it is not a naïve residue; it does not depend on a logic of
understanding and on sensation; it is a drift, something both revolutionary
and asocial, and it cannot be taken over by any collectivity, any mentality,
any ideolect. Something neuter? It is obvious that the pleasure of the text is
scandalous: not because it is immoral but because it is atopic.

To the left, to the right—and in the middle. Someone once shared a
Brechtian quip with me that went something like this (I have never been able
to verify whether Brecht really said anything of the kind, so for the sake of
confirmation or negation, Brechtians of all countries come to the fore!): In
the end, the capitalists (the “right”) will probably emerge triumphant from
the battle of ideologies because they have the best jokes, the best whisky,
and the best cigars (though probably not the best sex). Really? Can’t we—to
continue the present rhetoric of bodily pleasure—have our cake and eat it
too? What, in short, is wrong with pleasure?

* * *

Pleasure, entertainment, enjoyment, fun. Yes, but at what price? The most
common and obvious (double) objection to be leveled at exhibitions and
curatorial projects that seek to engage, however sensibly, with the fun facts
of life—that both seek to entertain, or indulge in entertainment, and address
“entertainment” as such—is simply this: that art as an institution of critique
is far too important to squander its precious energies over such futilities as
“fun,” and that it is quite simply a blasphemous expression of stupidity and
insensitivity to look for (or otherwise single out) “fun” in a world as royally
fucked up as the one we live in. Indeed, doesn’t the curatorial have anything
more important, urgent, and serious to do than to engage in the production
and/or distribution of pleasure? Isn’t the production of pleasure already
sufficiently taken care of in most (if not all) other quarters of the culture
industry? And is it at all morally expedient to produce pleasure, or actively
seek out the production of pleasure as such?

One of the problems of this critique, of course, is that it regards pleasure
as unimportant—and it probably does so because it is “of the body”—or as
something that is only important insofar as it can be instrumentalized for the
purposes of ideological affirmation (hence: to the right of the left, and thus
also left over to the right). This reminds me of a remark made by Susan
Buck-Morss at a lecture in London in 2010, soon after the publication of her
Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History and a mere week after the devastating
earthquake in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince that left some 230,000
dead: “Ever since the women’s movement, I have had great reservations
about trying to do politics without feelings”—feelings of both pleasure and
pain. And then, somewhat impatiently answering an incorrigible cynic in the
audience who had critical misgivings about the flood of charitable,
“humanist” feelings washing over the Western world in the days following
the quake: “What does it mean to think without empathy?”

Here, we return to Barthes’s crucial remark about the unique delights of
thinking (one highly specialized form of which is called curating, I’d like to
think), for the aforementioned double objection also assumes that pleasure
itself cannot think—that it is “unthinking” and therefore does not belong to
the world of the intellect—and that thinking, conversely, cannot possibly be
a source of real, quasi-erotic pleasure. Strange Cartesian dichotomies. Are
we to consume art with our logical faculties alone? Check our bodies,
trusted seats of “feeling,” at the reception desk? Automatically distrust every
laugh, smile, or smirk that swims to the surface of our countenance as a
perfidious symbol of intellectual bondage, every time we walk through a
museum?

Yet more fundamental questions: Is it possible to make a genuinely
entertaining exhibition, one that does not shy away from entertainment as
both a quality and a subject, without aligning oneself with the entertainment
industry? Are leisure and pleasure one, in the same way ethics and aesthetics
are? Is it obscene and irresponsible to curate a “fun” show? It is indeed, if
we silently and sheepishly accept that these brutal times and our cold world
make any consideration of even the possibility of pleasure unbearable, that
any suggestion of entertainment in our subcultural field must be
immediately and irreversibly tainted by the nihilistic charge of “escapism.”
According to this classic Adornian argument (in whose shadow much of the
art world’s critical establishment continues to dwell, no matter how
pampered its actual living conditions), the last thing art should do is provide
relief from the constant anguish of being. If life is bare, which it is, then art
—as the privileged witness to this bareness—should be just as bare, or barer
still.
As for at least one of the many questions listed above, the answer
probably goes something like this: It is possible to make a genuinely
entertaining exhibition, one that does not shy away from entertainment (or
pleasure more generally) as both a quality and a subject, without aligning
oneself with the entertainment industry—but it is very difficult. In other
words, it requires an almost superhuman effort of the intellect. (As Master
Itei commented, “Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.”) It
certainly is a lot more difficult than making a genuinely repellent (or merely
cerebral) exhibition about the repellent facts of life, considered only
cerebrally, which embraces the anguish of being and dutifully plunges the
abysmal depths of bare life. Those exhibitions are much more easily made,
probably because there is so much more suffering to be reported, and
because art has become very good at “reporting” exactly—and that is
undoubtedly also the reason why there are so many of them. Which is a
good thing, of course. God knows we need such exhibitions if only to
remind us, even in the comfortable seclusion of art, of the stark reality of the
human condition outside art, in this darkest of all dark ages.

* * *

Let me conclude with a quote culled from a rather improbable source: “If
one starts out from the solid position of socialism, then there cannot be, in
my view, any taboos in the field of art and literature. That applies to
questions of both shaping the content and of style.” These are the words of a
certain Erich Honecker—not someone known for his fine taste or overly
developed intellect in artistic matters—from his “Hauptaufgabe umfasst
auch weitere Erhoehung des kulturellen Niveaus: Schlusswort auf der 4.
Tagung des ZK, Dezember 1971,” published in Neues Deutschland. Note
the If one starts out from the solid position of socialism… That presumed
solidity was, certainly at that point in time, not much more than a mirage,
precisely because “socialism,” whatever we may think of Honecker’s
conception of it, had long appeared irreversibly paralysed by one taboo too
many, one of which—and here we return to the aforementioned Brechtian
quip—concerned precisely life’s guilty pleasures. Among which art, to a
certain extent, must surely be counted.

It can sometimes seem as if the puritanical culture of taboos that we have
come to associate, rightly or wrongly, with the Stalinist and post-Stalinist
experiment in actually existing socialism has since migrated into the more
enlightened, “intellectual” top tier of the curatoriat—in many ways (insofar
as the absence of real capital can only be made up, forgotten, or made
tolerable by the acquisition of symbolic capital) also my own natural milieu,
as the story of Academy attests. In this oftentimes oppressive and/or
repressed environment, where rigor is regularly mistaken for frigor, the
Diogenes in me can sometimes be seen wandering around with his lamp,
looking not so much for honest men as for honest portrayals of pleasure—
and of the desire that, in the end, drives us all in the pursuit of pleasure
through art.