in Curating, Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK)
Propositions on curating
In the following, I will sharpen our approach to curating:
In our programmes, weunderstand curating or the curatorial not as a philosophical concept but as a practice that is deeply involved in politics of display, politics of site, politics of transfer and translation and regimes of visibility. It is based on a concept of critical research that takes as its starting point the investigation of what is often the overly simplistic understanding of the curator as a new agent in the fields of art and culture. The programme understands the curatorial as a multi-authored approach to the production of meaning, which is intrinsically linked to transformations of contemporary societies, the reorganization of labour, cultural policies, politics of inclusion/exclusion and issues posed by points of intersection.
The problematic of the notion of “the curatorial” is a nobilitation of this complex production, and therefore it is in danger of becoming nebulous. Also, the idea of insisting on just another way of authorship has its problems; curating can become a driving force exactly in the moment, when it leaves the pattern of single authorship and becomes a project of shared interests. This was also the approach of Connecting Space Hong Kong, in which the process of working together became crucial.
Curating exists at the interface between the spatial, the theoretical and the visual. Curating produces meaning in the manner analysed in Roland Barthes’s Mythologies for complex sign systems. This meaning is produced in a specific historical moment in relation to the arts, to a political situation, to a cultural context, to a social situation.
Curating produces subjects in the sense that each instance of curating consists of a media conglomerate representing an invocation. Subjects can be overpowered by intense and emotional environments or be positioned in an overview situation; above all, they can be entertained. It is not easy to attain true participation; this is only possible when both the content and the form are taken into careful consideration, whether by an artist or by curators.
Curating is a discursive formation as sketched by Michel Foucault; it produces inclusions and exclusions, it rules over right or wrong (“good” art or “bad” art), it produces constellations such as discourse societies and institutions, as well as material conditions (production, budgets, etc.). In this sense, curating is knowledge production and truth production (if this is conceived of as historically produced, with very specific effects). From the structural perspective, curating, as a product of Western cultural art production, comprises racist, sexist and sociological – i.e. class-oriented – exclusion mechanisms. To curate means to be aware of this and to also be aware that culture is produced continuously. “What people call transculture is culture as it happens. Culture alive is its own counter-example. Transculturation is not something special and different. It is a moment in a taxonomy of the normality of what is called culture. To assign oneself the special task of cultural translation or plotting cultural translation has therefore to be put within a political context.”[i] Along this line of argument, Connecting Spaces understands transculturality not so much as a dialogue between “Asia” and “Europe”, as the implied understanding of “culture” tends to either stay abstract or have an identitarian effect. But cultures (in the plural) are understood as constantly migrating, in flux and leading to hybridizations on a societal and on a personal level, not limited to geographical fixity or civic identity, but also including disciplinary provenance, gender or social backgrounds and the power structures involved.
Curating takes place with artworks (which themselves often already represent complex situations), but also without: the act of curating a panel discussion, an archive, a social situation, a website, etc. is an act of meaning production through the selection and combination of cultural artefacts in space and time. In relation to art, curating is a subordinate system (within the framework provided by the art system, an institution, a city, a nation, a tourism strategy, etc.). This is emphasized by Magda Tyzlik-Carver: “So what is a curatorial system? Firstly, we need to identify various elements that are part of this system. Curating is one of them, but also online platforms, networked tools, software, and a public as users/producers/immaterial labourers. However, the notion of a curatorial system also recognises the interactivity among all the elements, the relations generated and forms of production mobilised within the system.”[ii]
Curating means to negotiate. To have access to a space of representation always also means to work in a contested space. Envy ensues, various groups and players strive to exert influence. Every curator has to work in a sphere of intersecting and contradictory demands and limitations. To be aware of this, and to test the limits, is what Felix Ensslin means when he examines curating within the context of the hysteria discourse and the university discourse.[iii] Therefore Connecting Spaces itself has to deal with the tensions between the affirmation of the institution that is its commissioner and an institutional critique as well as between different forms of knowledge and its practices. It may act as a space that opens up the opportunity to leave the university for some time – and to come back to it with new questions and desires.
Curating is not to be reduced to a form of administration, as is implied by various study and further training programmes. These courses provide their participants with a number of organisation and management tools, for example, knowledge of loan contracts, condition reports, insurance, transport, cooperation with business enterprises, etc. While it is true that this can all be part of curatorial work, art handling as such is just one organisational part of curating.
Like everything in the art field, curating is always and unavoidably linked with the art market. There is no such thing as “outside the discourse” or “outside the market”. For curators and artists alike, what is crucial is the decision as to how one positions oneself within and in relation to the discourse/market.
As with any cultural utterance, curating is only able to interfere in an instance of social change as an active player, if this meaning producing activity will cooperate with other social urgencies and demands. Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau have called this forming a chain of equivalence. Therefore, we are back again at the “Curating and Social Change” Workshop. Curating can offer a space of representation, a space of discussion, a meeting space, a space for reflection, a space to learn from one another. Art, curating and political action are not the same, but culture is a space in which to create consent or dissent relative to political systems. Therefore, our programmes have been developed in the context of cultural analysis, theories of power, and theories of communities based on feminist, queer, postcolonial, ecological, post-Marxist and other political and emancipatory positions. Many of these positions emerge out of political struggles or social movements. We see curatorial knowledge production as a space for the negotiation of social, political, cultural and economic conflicts. Therefore we understand curating as agency from which new constellations emerge.
[i] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “More Thoughts on Cultural Translation,” eipcp (2008), http://eipcp.net/transversal/0608/spivak/en, accessed 8 March 2016.
[ii] See Magda Tyzlik-Carver, “Interfacing the Commons. Curatorial System as a Form of Production on the Edge”, http://www.kurator.org/media/uploads/publications/essays/public-interfaces/tyzlik-carver.pdf, accessed 6 January 2017.
[iii] Felix Ensslin, “The Subject of Curating – Notes on the Path towards a Cultural Clinic of the Present,” in Dorothee Richter, Barnaby Drabble (eds.), “Curating Degree Zero Archive: Curatorial Research,” OnCurating No. 26 ( 2015), http://www.on-curating.org/issue-26-reader/the-subject-of-curating-notes-on-the-path-towards-a-cultural-clinic-of-the-present.html#.WXjoyY7_QiM, accessed 25 July 2017.
Parts are translated by Judith Rosenthal
Proofread by Stephanie Carwin