PRINT March 2013


contemporary curating

Viewers with Thomas Bayrle’s Prega per noi (Pray for Us), 2012, Documenta Halle, Kassel, August 17, 2012. From Documenta 13. Photo: Hans Kettwig.

The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s), by Paul O’Neill. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. 192 pages.

Thinking Contemporary Curating, by Terry Smith. New York: Independent Curators International, 2012. 256 pages.

TWO RECENT BOOKS about curating bear remarkably similar covers: capital letters in related fonts in alternating black and white against a plain ground, repeating the main terms of the title. The large black lettering on Paul O’Neill’s book reads: CULTURE CURATING CURATING CULTURE(S), while Terry Smith’s cover repeats his title words—THINKING CONTEMPORARY CURATING—three times. Smith writes that these words signify three separate ideas that might flash off and on to yield different combinations, like one of Bruce Nauman’s neon works. The repetition and multiplicity of meanings implied in the titles and their designs immediately alert the reader that the authors have adopted wholesale the language and ethos of their subject matter.

This intimacy with the topic has its advantages. O’Neill’s detailed study is based on extensive reading of the voluminous literature produced by curators from the late 1980s, as the field created its own distinct curatorial discourse, and on interviews with many of its main figures. This was the period in which curating developed an extreme form of self-consciousness, with all of its main terms and definitions open to continual questioning, acutely echoing the fractious disputes in the art world as a whole over such basic concepts as “art” and “artist.” O’Neill provides a careful account of the impact of biennial culture and the ways in which art practice and curating have moved closer together. Smith’s book covers much of the same ground and also considers the issue of what it means to curate “the contemporary.” It draws on his broad knowledge and lengthy experience in the field to produce an account that is global in scope and that considers a remarkable range of exhibitions, institutions, and practices. Both tellingly describe the increasingly professional, institutional, academic, theorized, and historically informed character of curating. All of this is welcome on many levels, though it tends to produce events and interpretations that are increasingly recursive, inward looking, and specialist. O’Neill and Smith suggest, the former more explicitly, that the megaspectacle and the star curator are gradually yielding to collectively curated series of events and exhibitions that take place over a long duration and offer sustained engagements with specific issues and communities.

Any analysis that too readily adopts the technical language of its subject may stand accused of drawing into itself not just a vocabulary but an ideology. A study of the military, for instance, that too freely used such euphemisms as ordnance and collateral damage might face that charge. In both these books, the authors reproduce texts, with apparent approval, that do little more than display a competence in the prolix use of quasi-theoretical language that is disciplinary and also disciplining. Quite frequently, they adopt it themselves. For instance, here is O’Neill in his concluding section: “Exhibitions are a coproductive, spatial medium, resulting from various forms of negotiation, relationality, adaptation, and collaboration between subjects and objects, across space and time.” Rough translation: People make exhibitions together using objects. They exist in space and time.

This abuse of language is familiar to anyone who has spent much time reading recent exhibition wall labels or catalogue texts. Some of these statements remain opaque even to my graduate students, who bring considerable intelligence and knowledge to their reading. Those that turn out to be decipherable often yield vacuous generalizations. A thick and viscous vocabulary is used to gloss over the agendas and contingencies that form an art event and might otherwise become too transparent: power struggles, competing institutional aims, self-promotion, personal issues, back-scratching, predilections of taste, and pure chance. Language buckles under the strain of bringing the illusion of coherence to that lot, and in darker moments, one may end up wondering whether “contemporary curating thinking,” to take one of Smith’s combinations, really exists. So why is this opacity and vacuity so prevalent?

One obvious answer involves self-preservation. As in so many fields, the linguistic posture is defensive, a specialist language that protects the elite schooled in its thought from too much outside interference. It’s equally obvious, however, in a profession that purportedly produces events for a public, that this defense comes at a considerable cost.

There are other, deeper causes for the problem of curatorial rhetoric. Smith points out that while “curatorial thinking” is usually experienced after viewing a show or event (in a catalogue, for instance), it is usually written well in advance. Its vagueness and complexity may be a register of uncertainty: Such thinking tries to lay out the effects of grouping objects and activities together without the benefit of actually having yet done so. And the kinds of meaning made by such associations may not easily translate into traditional sentences. Hence the insistent feeling, in reading curatorial prose, that meanings are being strung together and groped toward rather than grasped, and in that groping, showers of familiar and closely related terms are emitted, each hard on the heels of the other.

Most fundamentally, the strand of contemporary curating supported by both O’Neill and Smith has a horror of fixity. Smith argues that curators deal with works in a stage of gestation between the privacy of the studio and their exposure to a public, where they will eventually find meaning at the hands of art critics and art historians, among others. If curators are shy about assigning meanings to works, this is in modest awareness of their role as the midwives of public interpretation. Smith quotes theorist and curator Irit Rogoff: “Moving to ‘the curatorial,’ then, is an opportunity to ‘unbound’ the work from all of those categories and practices that limit its ability to explore that which we do not yet know or that which is not yet a subject in the world.” This is a usefully typical, idealist statement, in which the absolute freedom that supposedly inheres in artworks is freed of all bonds. Contemporary curating for Smith, like art itself, has to be “multitemporal, multidirectional, and inherently multiplicitous” and must resist “reduction.” Or similarly, O’Neill writes about the curatorial as “a durational, transformative, and speculative activity, a way of keeping things in flow, mobile, in between, indeterminate, crossing over and between people, identities, and things, encouraging certain ideas to come to the fore in an emergent communicative process.” This in some ways offers a salutary reaction against the trend to glorify master curators, whose tastes and selections were not open to challenge, and the branded coherence of many museum displays in which the diversity and indeed antagonistic aspects of art are flattened into an assured consumer experience in Starbucks mode. Yet a show that has an argument may at least be challenged critically; the art event that as a matter of principle shuns coherence appears and aspires to lie beyond the reach of critique.

So the inability to say anything specific is seemingly structural. Yet this ambiguity remains a problem, and not just for the confused viewer of curated events. Both authors dwell on the rise of an academic discourse around curating, and their books are destined to be used in courses that offer curatorial training. While the poststructuralist contents of many humanities classes uncomfortably run up against the closely audited culture of their delivery, in this case the paradox of a profession founded on the indeterminate must be acutely felt.

Both books reveal, sometimes accidentally, tics particular to curatorial language, through quotation and in the authors’ own usage. The word interrogates, for example, usually refers to something of which no particular questions will be asked; specific is almost always used to refer to something that will go unspecified. Smith describes the words of his title flashing on and off to create “almost sentences,” into which language is often broken “these days.” It is true that curatorial prose is often written in “almost statements” that gesture at but fail to achieve meaning. One extravagant display of these quasi statements accompanied Documenta 13, that media juggernaut equipped with a star curator who was happy to flaunt her credentials as an über-artist. One may, then, think that the more modest, collaborative, and networked events that O’Neill and Smith recommend complement rather than displace the spectacular engines of the art industry. Yet even the recommended assets of the new model have an eerie familiarity: among them, mobility, flexibility, multiplicity, portability. Not only were these terms also laid out as attributes of older curatorial ideals, and indeed of art itself since the Conceptual turn in the late 1960s, but far from being confined to specialist curatorial discourse, they are also found in business writing as it mutated in response to the revolts of 1968. Thomas Frank, Luc Boltanski, and Ève Chiapello have all famously analyzed how these corporate practices brought management and art closer together in the celebration of mandatory creativity and nonconformity; an apparently liberated managerialism provides a specious solution to the opposition in a mash-up of poststructuralism and audit culture.

Curiously, audiences (or customers) remain a spectral presence in both books. In O’Neill’s tract, there is no sustained discussion of the public, which seems to be conceived of as a black-box unknown, another integral and indeterminate manifestation to set alongside the artwork and the event, and that may be created by them. Smith notes that general viewers remain a systematic omission in current curatorial thinking; his audiences (in what he admits is an ideal description) have novel works placed before them and are “disinterested.” This Kantian description, while in apparent tension with the virtues of multiplicity and mobility, allows them to be seen as placeholders for autonomous bourgeois individuals, free to think and feel without restraint before the unbound work of art. In another passage, Smith writes that institutions tend to judge the public on attendance figures, and thus on the “rule of the dollar, which reduces museum visitors to sheer numbers.” It is true that the first model has been close to the assumed ideal horizon of much historical theorizing, and the second has been close to the reality. Yet the urge to explore networks, collaboration, and participation is built on the ethos of the digital, which continues to radically alter the broadcast culture of which curating has been a part: first, by putting a vast amount of artistic material online, making it available to be seen and “curated” by anyone with Internet access; second, by providing the opportunity for people to say in detail what they think about an art event and to develop their views through discussion in their own various and generally nontechnical languages. This is feedback that goes far beyond whether a ticket or a catalogue is bought or a threshold crossed. Given the definitional morass that surrounds the term curation, the availability of such feedback may well further erode the barriers between creation, curation, and reception. Perhaps it is this erosion that curatorial language hopes to slow.

Julian Stallabrass is a writer, curator, photographer, and lecturer, and the author of Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art (Oxford University Press, 2004), among other titles.