The Co-dependent Curator

Paul O’Neill on the dysfunctional relationship between independent curators and institutions

Co-dependency is an emotional and behavioural condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. Independent curators working without an institutional post could be said to have co-dependency issues. Replacing the term independent with co-dependent merely acknowledges the impossibility of curating beyond institutional negotiation and highlights the dysfunctional aspect of these relationships that are often one-sided and emotionally destructive. Certain curators become dependent on certain institutions but all curators working outside institutional posts will be either dependent or co-dependent on these short-term, institutional relationships at one stage or another.

In 2004 Witte de With and TENT co-organised ‘Tracer: Six Curators on Art in Rotterdam’. The equation was simple: six curators, six exhibitions looking at art in Rotterdam shown at one hosting space. ‘Paraeducational Department’, curated by Annie Fletcher in collaboration with artist Sarah Pierce, was one of the six exhibitions. Part of their project was a one-day seminar that addressed self-organisation and alternative models of art education, which resulted in a dynamic public discussion that was soon transformed into a specific fight for local voice. This was only one public airing of the considerable local criticism levelled at the programme of the then chief curator of Witte de With, Catherine David, which focused primarily on contemporary Arab representations, heterogeneous approaches to documentary and the socio-political context of the Middle East and beyond. David was attacked for being an outsider, for her lack of participation in the local scene and for a programme that had little relevance to local practitioners or even a local audience. These tensions happen everywhere, but it was obvious that there was little respect for either David’s programme or her critical voice as a practitioner. The notion that a curator could have a semi-independent and semi-autonomous critical practice stemming from interests outside and beyond the institution and local context seemed impossible for many people to grasp. The David debate highlighted the chasm that can exist between artists, curators and institutions within contemporary curatorial discourse.

Institutions have recognised the need to have a strong and identifiable curatorial voice within and there has therefore been a recent tendency for freelance curators like Matthew Higgs, now director and chief curator at New York’s White Columns, or Nicolas Bourriaud who has been co-director of Palais de Tokyo, Paris, Vasif Kortun at Platform Garanti in Istanbul, Maria Hlavajova at BAK in Utrecht and others, to take up these institutional posts. In addition, curators associated with ‘New Institutionalism’ such as David, Charles Esche and Maria Lind have now moved on from the spaces where they were adopting a more flexible, semi-autonomous, discursive institutional framework: part meeting place, part activity space, part community centre, part laboratory and part art academy. But what happens to semi-autonomous curatorial practices within the framework of an institutional post?

Jens Hoffmann, now Director of Exhibitions at the ICA, is a co-dependent curator who has made the leap to an institutional post. He recently described to me how his signature style used ‘the idea of the world as a stage: something that is fluid and temporary, constantly changing, evolving, unpredictable and in continuous progress. I am interested in a concept of curating as directing, the exhibition as a play and the play as an exhibition. It is the idea of the curator having a role in the set-up of an exhibition that is similar to the one of a director in the set-up of a theatre play.’

The recent exhibition ‘London in Six Easy Steps’ was representative of the theatricality of Hoffmann’s multi-layered approach to exhibition structures. Hoffmann claimed in the accompanying publication that it attempted ‘to examine London as it is today, to make sense of how the city’s social and political imperatives condition the production, presentation and interpretation of art’. The sequence of six quickly changing exhibitions by six guest curators occurring over the space of six weeks would ‘refer to the constantly changing fabric of London, a city that is characterised by a multi-layered and quickly shifting urban landscape, and a nascent contemporary art scene that has yet to establish a firm terrain’.

Experience of place and of a particular space is always time-, distance-, money- and subject-specific. Inevitably, each exhibition within the overall structure of ‘London in Six Easy Steps’ attracted different invited audiences, exhibited distinct curatorial positions, and articulated semiautonomous narratives. The project could be read as an altruistic act, opening out the institution on a short-term basis to participants from without and confirming the institution’s desire to be part of a local cultural discourse. But does the overriding structure of such a project suppress the critical voice of each curator or artist by absorbing them into the overall institutional structure? The temporality of such a project is suggestive of institutional puppetmastery of the local freelancers it employs. Each exhibition moment, stage, or ‘step’ will inevitably lead back to the contextual departure. All roads will lead to London and all Londons will end up at the ICA. For example: ‘Even a Stopped Clock Tells the Right Time Twice a Day,’ curated by Tom Morton and Catharine Patha, explored the trickery that time plays, and by making temporal links between the Vorticists, Eduardo Paolozzi’s later sculptures and Gareth Jones’ plinth work Sliced Cube, 2000, the show had enough thinking behind it to be considered an example of retro-critique, but it had little to do with the subject of London as place – past or present. By giving over the curatorial reins to six guest curators, the ICA declared itself open; but in fact it hid the institutional process involved in selecting these specific six curators at the expense of placing the curatorial responsibility on the invitees. The relatively short duration allocated for each exhibition also put strains on the institution, the invited curators, artists and gallery visitors alike.

The project’s intention to highlight a diversity of curatorial approaches was successful, ranging from Gilane Tawadros’s classical, and well-considered revisiting of identity politics in the art of the 80s in ‘The Real Me’, to David Medalla’s sprawling, performance-based retrospective installation, ‘Anywhere in the World’, curated by Guy Brett. However, as host, the ICA divided its average budget for a single exhibition between the six curated shows. Is this representative of the project’s limited ambition or a creative use of resources? The use of available ICA gallery space was reduced, the branding of the exhibition was everywhere, and there was little or no funding for making new work. Many innovative curatorial ideas in London suffer from a lack of funds, in particular those spaces that adopt an artist-led approach to curating that stems from a tradition of DIY initiatives in the 90s. A number of semi public/private spaces in London such as Arthur R.Rose or Sali Gia (both sadly no longer with us), Cell Projects, Redux, temporarycontemporary, MOT as well as the more established Cubitt or Showroom and other artists have realised innovative curatorial programmes with little to no funds over the last few years. So by reducing the budget at the ICA, the diversity of curatorial positions was undermined by a sense of limitation that is apparent throughout London already.

‘London in Six Easy Steps’, like many of Hoffmann’s initiatives such as his e-Flux project ‘The Next Documenta Should be Curated by an Artist’ from 2004 or ‘Exhibitions of an Exhibition’ at New York’s Casey Kaplan Gallery in 2003, represents a certain curatorial self-reflexivity. Self-reflexivity within curatorial practice suggests that the ever-changing roles of curator and critic are ideologically, historically and culturally produced. It is fast becoming the most over-used populist buzzword linking the two activities. Exhibition curating has become self-reflexive about self-reflexivity itself. We are becoming so self-reflexive that exhibitions often end up as nothing more or less than art exhibitions curated by curators curating curators, curating artists, curating artworks, curating exhibitions (all of which can be rearranged in the order of your choosing). The principle is so dependent on the double negation of self that a responsible proposition and the negation of its negation mean one and the same thing. ‘Artists Favourites: ACT I & II’, presented at the ICA last year, which claimed to give over the curatorial reins to artists by inviting them to select one of their favourite works of art by another artist, is a case in point. Art & Language, whose favourite was Fairest of Them All, 2004, by Charles Harrison, highlighted the self-reflexive escapology. A framed text panel mounted upon a lectern-like plinth and spotlit from above read: ‘In appearing to make a real distinction between artist and curator the organisers have proposed a single negation: “artists are not curators”. In fact, the curatorial presence in the exhibition has been doubled. The result is a double negative: the artist is simply not not a curator. And that’s in fact how it is. A different kind of work is needed if we are to reshape the distinction and reintroduce a critical negation.’

‘London in Six Easy Steps’ and ‘Artist’s Favourites’ are both dynamic and systemic approaches to curating. Such exhibitions mediate dense, expansive and polyphonic relations and refuse to offer clearly defined edges of responsibility. Like scientific models of dynamic systems used to describe the swinging of a clock pendulum, the flow of water in a pipe, or the number of fish that appear each spring in a lake, there is a fixed rule that describes the time-dependence of a specific point/place/event in a geometrical space. With any dynamic system there will always be small but noticeable alterations in the state of the current system that is perpetually dynamic. The rule of evolution in any dynamic system is fixed and as a rule it prescribes what potential future states will follow from the current state. The rule is self-deterministic and for a given time only one future state will systematically follow from the current state at any one moment.

Over the last ten years or so, curatorial practice has been subject to constant transformation, states of hybridity and a discourse that is in continuous flux. Like any such dynamic phase, curating’s future will be determined by the small shifts that are currently evolving. The activity of curating is now integrated into the places where art and artists were historically given the prime slot. There may be as many curators now as there are artists or critics who write for mainstream art magazines, curate exhibitions, or occasionally make the odd piece of art. This is not only indicative of the change in art criticism and the multi-tasking role adopted by curators but it also represents the ubiquity of curating within the cultural entertainment industry as a whole.

The fragility of this dynamic period of productivity, progress and visibility for curators has meant that many have avoided pinning down exactly what is dynamic about their practice. There is a need for individual curators to articulate which curatorial initiatives have influenced their practice and decide what forms of curatorial practice are akin to their own. Instead, we have recurring themes within curatorial discourse that perpetuate curating’s dynamic phase: there are more curators than ever before, there are more exhibitions than ever before, and the current discourse around curating has resisted the modernist tradition in art history according to which the discourse around art developed through artists being seen to have been influenced by their predecessors and in dialogue with their contemporaries. In addition, although curating takes on many diverse forms, the critical focus is too often on outcomes (exhibitions, catalogues, projects) rather than the reproductive process of institutional power structures. Reviews of group exhibitions tend to focus on the separateness of artworks measured against curatorial statement rather than incorporating artworks into a critical analysis of the plurality of curatorial/artistic productions. The curatorial voice is too often perceived as separate from that of the artist; artists are deemed to speak on their own behalf, the curator on behalf of some abstract notion of culture.

It seems there is little need to distinguish between different curatorial methodologies and models of practice, when symposia on curating and recent publications still rely on overgeneralised questions such as: what is the role of the curator or do we need any more Biennales or can curating be taught? With rare exceptions, the curator is seen as omnipresent rather than present within the exhibition/public outcome, with the curator championed if it all works out and scapegoated if it does not. There is an assumption (poorly articulated) that most artists can make good curators whilst even the best curators will never be good artists.

Artists from Marcel Duchamp and André Breton, to Joseph Kosuth and to Goshka Macuga have curated exhibitions as artworks. In a recent column for frieze, curator Robert Storr expresses his fears about such a notion by refusing to call curating a medium since it ‘automatically conceded the point to those who will elevate curators to the status critics have achieved through the “auteurization” process’. Storr situates the origins of the idea of the curator as artist in Oscar Wilde’s 1890 essay ‘The Critic as Artist’ (where it is the eye of the beholder that produces the work of art) rather than in Barthes’ poststructuralist analysis of authorship. Storr’s conclusive response, ‘No I do not think that curators are artists. And if they insist, then they will ultimately be judged bad curators as well as bad artists’, reiterates the artist/ curator divide and inadvertently returns the power of judgement to the critic. Storr’s argument against curating does not allow for the embodiment of today’s curator-artist in works by Fareed Armaly, Dave Beech, John Bock, Andrea Fraser, Liam Gillick, Mike Kelley, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Macuga, Philippe Parreno, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Gavin Wade and many others. It does not allow either for the inversion of the art-as-curating equation for post-conceptual art-projects in the guise of curatorial initiatives. These include ‘Do It’, ongoing since 1993, by Hans Ulrich Obrist as a late conceptual artwork; ‘The Sixth Caribbean Biennial’, 1999, by Maurizio Cattelan and Jens Hoffmann as a performance; File, 1968-88, by General Idea taking the form of a magazine/ exhibition/ multiple artwork; Art Metropole, ongoing since 1974, by General Idea as a curatorial project/ artshop/ bookshop/ gallery and most importantly as an artwork, and Reena Spaulding’s Gallery, a real commercial gallery in New York as an artwork based on a work of fiction by artist collective The Bernadette Corporation. Will the semi-autonomous figure of the curator-artist be subsumed by institutionalisation and overgeneralised critique? Will the independent curator become dependent rather than co-dependent?

Many exhibitions have moved beyond the predominantly illustrative, single, authored narrative; indeed, exhibitions are not the only outcome of curatorial ideas. Curating is a discipline using and adopting inherited codes and rules of behaviour. Institutional curating will coexist alongside co-dependent curating and, having learned from artists, curators will adapt forms of artistic practice for as long as artists continue to take on the role of curator and curators continue to produce semi-autonomous collaborations with artists. Why is it so difficult? Like Storr, Jonathan Watkins, writing for Art Monthly in 1987 (AM111), used Wilde’s idea that objects were transformed into art by the critic as the starting point to his polemic that curated exhibitions were akin to Duchamp’s ‘Readymade Aided’ artworks, where the display or exhibition is aided by the curator’s ‘manipulation of the environment, the lighting, the labels, the placement of other works of art’. As a description of what curators/ artists/ critics do it may no longer be completely in synch with what exhibition display practice has become over the last 18 years, but Watkins’ belief that curating is a ‘necessary, if insufficient, medium through which the communication between art and its audience takes place’, seems in tune with how the cross-fading of individual positions within the cultural economy has aided the transformation of artistic practice which was slightly shifted away from an author-centred cultural hierarchy and moved towards a more post-productive discourse, where the role of curating has become just another recognised part of the expanded field of art production.

Paul O’Neill is an artist and curator researching curatorial histories at Middlesex University.

First published in Art Monthly 291: November 2005.

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