September/October 2005

more feature articles:

MOVING MEDIA
Jillian Mcdonald‚s Celebrity Relations
by Sylvie Fortin

CURATING NOW:
An Informal Report

You‚ve heard the hype. You want to know. ART PAPERS decided to tune out the noise, and to invite twenty-five of today‚s most respected contemporary art curators to speak about their respective practices. Four questions were posed. The answersųa constellation of views and approachesųspeak to the intellectual legacies from which current positions are negotiated. They also reflect institutional struggles and changing artistic practices.

 

Views of the guns and bibles that appear in the Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. (courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian; photo: Katherine Fogden)

Paul Chaat Smith

What is the most memorable curatorial project you have ever encountered? What was important about it?

Without a doubt, the 1964 World‚s Fair. I loved everything I saw in Flushing Meadows, and left thrilled with the knowledge that I would spend the rest of my life living in a fabulously cool future of lunar colonies, picturephones, robots, and flying cars. Part of me still wishes that dream came true.

Define your own curatorial practice and trajectory.

During the 1970s I was an activist in the Indian movement. After it imploded I moved to New York where I found the conversations between Indian artists much more interesting than the ones carried on by activists. My primary obsessions are failed revolutions, lost history, the moments outside of accepted narratives, the people and events that aren‚t supposed to exist. After a dozen years of writing for exhibition catalogs, I joined the Smithsonian Institution‚s National Museum of the American Indian in 2001 and worked on their permanent history exhibition. My co-curator Jolene Rickard and I wanted to bring an art-installation aesthetic to a Museum where most exhibits relied on more traditional approaches. Our idea was to see if we could bring our smartest visual and intellectual ideas to a mass audience (the NMAI will have between three and four million visitors in its first year) without dumbing them down. Did it work? Hey, we curate, you decide.

How would you chart the development of curatorial practice over the last decade?

From my particular narrow vantage point, I would say that the work of curators and the notion of curatorial authority have undergone seriousųumm, how should I say this?ųdeterioration, interrogation, recalibration? The very term has always been a little dubious, either a priesthood or a hustle, a self-invented career practiced by charlatans. Of course, both of these things are true, as far as they go. At the same time, these past ten years have seen the rise of independent curators as superstars of the international art world, often more famous than the artists whose work they are curating. Confusing∑

What curatorial initiative would you like to see undertaken? What is needed now?

More shows about animals.

Paul Chaat Smith is a Comanche writer and curator whose work is focused on contemporary North American Indian political and cultural space. During the 1970s he was an activist in the American Indian Movement, first with the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee, and later with the International Indian Treaty Council. He is the coauthor of Like a Hurricane: the Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (New Press, 1996), a journalistic-style account of that shambolic enterprise, and author of numerous essays on cultural politics. He co-curated (with Truman Lowe) performance and installation artist James Luna‚s exhibition at the 2005 Venice Biennale.


Fabian Marcaccio and Claudio Baroni, Pulsation 2ųToronto, performance, 30 minutes, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, May 12, 2005 (courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario)

David Moos

What is the most memorable curatorial project you have ever encountered? What was important about it?

In 1979, at the age of fourteen, I walked into the Guggenheim Museum and encountered the Joseph Beuys retrospective. Intrigued, awed, perplexedųI remain haunted by that experience. In my mind‚s eye I can see myself looking at works like The Pack, 1969, and realizing that art is about those ineffable, unspeakable glimpses of comprehension.

If Beuys is the most memorable exhibition, the most important encounter with a curatorial project happened ten years later in Paris, with Jean-Hubert Martin‚s Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Pompidou. In that exhibition the doors to worlds beyond the metropolitan, northern trans-Atlantic rarified art world I was beginning to inhabit, were thrown wide open. How to make sense of the Third World‚s cultural production, occupying the walls of the Pompidou? Where does the art world begin and end? How do I construct and maintain values in art; defend favored artists? A welter of questions that puts one‚s own beliefs into high relief∑ For both of these experiences, architecture played a key role, as the shaper of encounters.

Define your own curatorial practice and trajectory.

I understand contemporary art through art history, as an agon with modernity. I am trained as an art historian and cannot but think about contemporary work in relation to previous movements. Art history is made up of conversations between artists. I am interested in framing those exchanges, and rewriting art history through the lens of contemporary art.

How would you chart the development of curatorial practice over the last decade?

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ascendancy of global capitalism, curatorial practice has shifted from scholarship to spectacle. Neither good nor badųthis is the state of affairs. With the geometric expansion of the art world, curating has become a means of filtering ever-increasing amounts of art information generated by artists, galleries, collectors, critics, curators, and other participants who weave together the event horizon of exhibitions, art fairs, biennials, auctions, etc. Curators have become protagonists in this field.

Boris Groys, an astute commentator, aptly characterized the situation: „[A]bove all, it is today‚s artists and intellectuals that are spending most of their time in transitųrushing from one exhibition to the next, from one project to another, from one lecture to the next or from one cultural context to another. All active participants in today's cultural world are now expected to offer their productive output to a global audience, to be prepared to be constantly on the move from one venue to the next and to present their work with equal persuasion, regardless of where they are."

What curatorial initiative would you like to see undertaken? What is needed now?

What makes one place distinct from every other place, and why? I am working on the content that will occupy the new Frank Gehry-designed Center for Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada, that will open in 2008.

David Moos is Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, and a Contributing Editor of ART PAPERS.


 

Installation view from Surf CultureųThe Art History of Surfing, an exhibition co-curated by Tyler Stallings and organized by the Laguna Art Museum in 2002. This exhibition traveled around the U.S. and Australia.

Tyler Stallings

What is the most memorable curatorial project you have ever encountered?
What was important about it?

The most memorable recent project has been Dia:Beacon in upstate New York. It is one of the best presentation of artworks I‚ve seen in a building. It‚s one of those instances where I was reminded of the power of art and why I love it so much.

Also very inspiring are The Rubell and Marguiles collections in Miami, that is, private collectors who make their own museums. You can really feel the sizzle of energy in their places. They can respond quickly since they don‚t have to deal with a board of directors.

Define your own curatorial practice and trajectory.

Since 1995, when my professional curatorial career began, I‚ve defined my practice as that of a curator of contemporary art and popular culture. Since I always look at objects and ideas as visual culture, I‚ve done shows that juxtapose fine arts and cultural artifacts. This move is now becoming less significant as others have defined their practice as purveyors of visual culture rather than art in the strictest sense.

I have always viewed the contemporary curator as someone who acts as a node through which various flows of ideas run. When the time comes to organize a show, the curator can bring awareness to some of what is coagulating at the moment and facilitate its assessment.

How would you chart the development of curatorial practice over the last decade?

I view the curator both as a custodian of artworks and as a cultural producer who facilitates projects. This approach obviously blurs a fine line as the curator also, in a way, becomes an artist.

What curatorial initiative would you like to see undertaken? What is needed now?

It would be great to have a post-graduate program like the Whitney Independent Study Program here on the west coastųa less doctrinaire version of a center for art and curatorial practices. It could be attached to the Museum of Contemporary Art or to the Hammer Museum, for example. It would provide a way for people interested in curating to be part of the scene without having to pursue a Ph.D. or work as an assistant in a bigger institution.

Tyler Stallings is Chief Curator at the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, California.


 

View of the exhibition The natural state, Espai Zero1, Olot, 2004 (courtesy of Marti Manen)

Marti Manen

What is the most memorable curatorial project you have ever encountered? What was important about it?

Two curatorial projects were particularly important to me. The first is the exhibition El límits del museu [The End(s) of the Museum] presented at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona in 1995, under the direction of Manuel Borja-Villel and curated by John G. Hanhard and Thomas Keenan. This exhibition assumed a conventional format (a physical space, artworks displayed traditionally) but presented a very pointed critique of the idea of the exhibition and the art institution. The artworks critically read „the Museum,š understanding the visitor as an analytical user. No single, clear idea of what the museum should be was presented. That was not the intention. It was more opportune to offer questions than answers. A provocative symposium was organized in conjunction with El límits del museu, leaving the exhibition space to non-narrative discourse.

The second one is The Stockholm Syndrome, a CD-ROM exhibition curated by Måns Wrange, and presented outside of conventional art spaces. It relied on a different channel to reach the audience. The CD-ROM exhibition was included in an issue of the now-defunct art magazine NUųThe Nordic Art Review, and offered to its readers. The exhibition format was really interesting. Three levels of reading coexisted: a historical narrative (the kidnapping that produced the concept of the Stockholm Syndrome), a sociological account, and an artistic plot (with the selected art works venturing beyond factualism to introduce other issues). Different timelines were also offered, and the user could select what to interact with, and when.

Both projects presented content while redefining the exhibition‚s format, ushering in a new role for the user of the exhibition. For me, that‚s what matters in these two projects.

Define your own curatorial practice and trajectory.

My curatorial practice has been something like a process. I started curating exhibitions in my own apartment. For five years, I had a sort of institution there, where I combined the notion of institutional space with the emotional inflection of home. This project explored the idea of exhibiting, trying to understand the five-year process as a sequence with some internal interactions. Since then, I have been playing in different structures where I offer tools for users to construct their own exhibitions. The exhibition Take away is one example: bringing together practices and artefacts that may be difficult to present in traditional exhibitionsųinteractive works, digital photo, audio, or posters with computer codeųthe exhibition foregrounded interaction and exploration.

I have also been exploring structural and institutional issues to understand how they impact the reception of the contemporary art exhibition, curating a project in the natural history museum of Mexico City („hidingš contemporary art), at AARA in Bangkok (comparing the contemporary art structures of Barcelona and Bangkok), and organizing seminars to debate the gap between institutional reality and the attitude that fuels independent practice.

My practice has focused on the concept of exhibition as a platform for a critical dialogue, understanding the user of the exhibition as someone who participates in the production of meaning.

How would you chart the development of curatorial practice over the last decade?

The role and function of the curator have been redefined over the last decade. The contemporary curator is someone who is experimenting more than presenting results. The curator is someone who creates contexts where dialogues can start. The big events have also been changing a little bit. The Populism project is a good example: medium-size exhibitions were dispersed in different venues, accompanied by seminars, with  „resultsš presented only at the end of the project. At the same time, however, big events have been internationalized, and their influence now works in real-time. The globalization of the art world has been very swift. The resulting information flow has  opened more than minds; the attitude, project culture, and the ease of informationaccess have somewhat homogenized the development of curatorial work.

It would be interesting to analyze how the curatorųas a new nexus of art productionųhas been seen with hope and suspicion by artists and institutions simultaneously, if differently.

What curatorial initiative would you like to see undertaken? What is needed now?

The permanent modification of the curator‚s role, perhaps. The curator should be involved at several levels at the same time, making the process transparent from the very beginning in order to create a different level of usability for the exhibition.

To curate is not merely a spatial enterprise. It can mean the creation of a temporal context, where the exhibition is blurred and mixed with other formats like the workshop, the seminar, the publication, TV or radio programs.

It may be interesting to investigate other creative fields in order to incorporate other discourses on reality into our own.

Emotional contact with the user can be a main focus as well. This means understanding the exhibition horizontally, as a platform where experiences are shared.

Born in Barcelona, freelance curator Marti Manen lives and works in Stockholm.


Michèle Thériault

What is the most memorable curatorial project you have ever encountered? What was important about it?

There is no such single memorable project, but a number of them. Take the Parti Pris series presented at the Louvre in the early 90s. For this project, different thinkers were invited to mine the Louvre‚s drawing collection. I saw Jacques Derrida‚s Mémoires d‚aveugle, and Peter Greenaway‚s Le Bruit des Nuages two years later. It was fascinating to see a mind at work through the works.

Creating a complex web of relations between art and the construction of the world, large constellated shows such as Face à l‚histoire at Beaubourg are always engaging.

When they reveal the work of an artist to whom you had not paid attention or when they completely transform your understanding of an artist‚s work, retrospectives can also be significant. I‚m thinking of the recent Donald Judd retrospective at Tate Modern and the Bridget Riley show at Tate Britain, or The Michael Snow Project at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in the 90s. All of them made me see their work and practice differently.

Raymond Gervais‚ Phono photo at Montreal‚s Dazibao is also memorable. What mattered in this small show was the rethinking of photography in the light of its use by experimental musicians and on record jackets.

All of these curatorial efforts (which were collective in some instances) engaged me in a profound reflection on artmaking, its nature, and parameters.

Define your own curatorial practice and trajectory.

I began slam bang right in the mainstream. I was hired by a large-scale Fine Arts museumųToronto‚s AGOųin the early 90s, when contemporary curating still had a voice there. I was fortunate to work with a curator who had (and has) a rigorous practice. It reinforced my notion of curating as a form of intellectual engagement. I then curated independently for six years and taught. I now run a university art gallery. It is very satisfying for me because I have a place and a space where I can do projects with relative freedom in terms of programming.

My practice is concerned with the investigation of contemporary issues through exhibitions and other public formats. Resistance is at the center of thisųthe resistance of practices to being circumscribed, to being transparent, to fitting easily in the mainstream, and the resistance of the word in relation to a specific project, work, practice. Writing is integral to curating for me. Not because art needs to be theorized, but because it fascinates me to attempt time and time again to give a form to my thinking about art through words: a mode of thinking that is governed by other structures.

My practice is also deeply inflected by my locale and place of workųMontreal and the specificities of the Gallery I direct. All curatorial projects at the Gallery are subjected to its idiosyncracies and to varied negotiations.

How would you chart the development of curatorial practice over the last decade?

It has been marked by widespread professionalization. That‚s what is changing curating the mostųfor better and for worse. There is now a whole generation of people who have gone through curatorial studies programs. The better is that curating is no longer an oddball and suspect occupation. The worse is the homogeneous nature of the curatorial work being done.

What curatorial initiative would you like to see undertaken? What is needed now?

Well, there are curatorial projects undertaken all over the world by high-profile curators, and a whole army of curators toiling away. One would want more support and encouragement for curators who do truly innovative work in the shadows. Many of these curators are shaping how local and national communities look at their art and artists. They have also developed a body of thought that resists integration into the international art worldųit cannot be processed and spit it out again. Much curatorial work is thus ironically invisible. Generally, I would call for more independent and innovative work overall: work which is not concerned with one‚s positioning in the art world, or the desire to penetrate that world. But I don‚t see it going that way. Yet pockets of resistance exist everywhere∑

Michèle Thériault is Director/Curator of the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery at Concordia University in Montréal.


 

Ruben Ochoa, Study for Freeway Wall Extraction no. 1, acrylic on digital print, 12 x 23 inches, 2003 (courtesy of the artist and LA><ART)
Bottom: Ruben Ochoa,
errrrrrr, acrylic on digital print, 12 x 23 inches, 2003 (courtesy of the artist and LA><ART)

LA><ART is collaborating with Ruben Ochoa on a public project with the support of Creative Capital. It is an intervention onto a freeway wall which serves as a site for cultural activity, creating a hybrid language inflected by familiar sites of cultural exchange in L.A.ųmurals, graffiti walls, and billboards.

Ruben Ochoa's series of
Freeway Wall Extractions are straight photographs with a sly perspective. Ochoa camouflages fragmented freeway concrete slabs in gentrified neighborhoods in L.A., encroaching upon and disrupting the suburban calm.

The project space at LAX will actualize a fragment of a freeway as a monumental concrete sculpture, in dialogue with the public project.

Lauri Firstenberg

What is the most memorable curatorial project you have ever encountered? What was important about it?

Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany, under the artistic direction of Okwui Enwezor. The curatorial process was framed collaboratively by a team of curators, academics, and writers (Mark Nash, Ute Meta Bauer, Sarat Maharaj, Suzanne Ghez, Carlos Basualdo, Octavio Zaya). This created a scenario where critical discussion was paramount. I have always held this mode of collaboration as a crucial model for my generation of curators.

Define your own curatorial practice and trajectory.

Modest, uninstitutional, independent.

An Image Bank for Everyday Revolutionary Life, a project I am co-curating with Anton Vidokle, is the most evolutionary and elusive project I have worked on to date. An Image Bank for Everyday Revolutionary Life is a multi-phase project that begins as an online photographic archive produced and presented by e-flux. It makes publicly available over five thousand images from the twentieth century for the first time. The source is the collection of Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who compiled the photographs over the course of his own extraordinary life.

The archiveųunique in structure, content, and intentionųwas explicitly designed for use by fellow artists as a means of inspiration and a source of found imagery. As Siqueiros wrote, „Nothing can give the [artist] of today the essential feeling of the modern era‚s dynamic and subversive elements more than the photographic document.š In keeping with his wishes, the contents of An Image Bank for Everyday Revolutionary Life are now being organized for access by artists and researchers. The custodians of Siqueiros‚ project intend to introduce the archive to contemporary art audiences and to extend the useful life of its photographs.

The content of the archive, which spans the 1930s to the early 1970s, offers cultural and social portraits of several eras and nations. The collection contains photographic documents that capture a range of events from political protest to film and theater performances, from anti-fascist demonstrations in New York and riots in Los Angeles to moments in the Russian stage and Mexican cinema. As the title of the project suggests, the archive offers a politicized vision developed in the context of revolutionary struggles in Mexico and abroad.

The photographic archive, approximately half of which is now available as a digital image bank, is organized according to Siqueiros‚ original categories, which include „Architecture,š „Objects,š „People and Historical Figures,š „Models,š „Painting,š „Sculpture,š „Workers and Industry,š and „Misery.š The original archive, from which An Image Bank for Everyday Revolutionary Life is drawn, is housed at Sala de Arte Publico Siqueiros (SAPS) in Mexico City. In the 1960s, while Siqueiros was engaged in both art and activism, he converted his house in the Polanco district of the city into a public art space. The house now functions both as a museum for Siqueiros‚ work and a contemporary art venue.

The SAPS archive will serve as the point of departure for the second phase of the project, in which an international group of artists and writers will be invited to work with the archive‚s material. This collaboration will result in a traveling exhibition launched at REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) in Los Angeles in February 2006.

How would you chart the development of curatorial practice over the last decade?

Biennalized. It is attracting me to less spectacular, more contracted curatorial endeavors.

What curatorial initiative would you like to see undertaken? What is needed now?

In collaboration with an incredible group of artists, writers, and curators, I am in the process of founding a new non-profit contemporary art space in Los AngelesųLAX (LA Exhibitions)ųin an effort to provide a venue for new types of local and international curatorial practices. Responding to Los Angeles‚ cultural climate, LA><ART questions given contexts for the exhibition of contemporary art, architecture, and design. With a renewed vision for the potential of independent art spaces, LA><ART provides a center for interdisciplinary discussion and interaction, and for the production and exhibition of new exploratory work. LA><ART offers a space for provocation, dialogue, and the confrontation of practices on the ground in LA and abroad. LA><ART is a hub for artists based on flexibility, transition, spontaneity, and change. The space responds to an urgency and obligation to provide an accessible exhibition space for contemporary artists, architects, and designers.

Lauri Firstenberg is Director/Curator of LA><ART. Her interview with Orit Raff was published in the May-June 2005 issue of ART PAPERS.

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