A Correspondence On Curation, Independence and Collaboration with Dave Beech
For the book ‘Curating Subjects’ edited by Paul O’Neill
A Correspondence On Curation, Independence and Collaboration
Independence is always independence from something. In art, there is a first-order sense of independence, in which the artist is an independent practitioner. In this aesthetic version of self-employment, the artist can make what he or she likes in self-determined activity. It is precisely through this aspect of self-determination that Steve Edwards can interpret art as resisting the division of mental and manual labour, which he uses in putting forward art as a model of utopian work. However, this first order independence is predicated upon the freedom of the market. The market allows anyone to bring their goods to it (in principle) and enter into relations of exchange with other commodities. This is one of the conditions for Modern art’s independence. As Terry Eagleton reiterates in After Theory, it is capitalism which is disinterested not dons. But here, being independent is also being isolated: it is commodities not persons that the market brings into relationship with each other.
The relation of the curator to the first order independence of the market is, perhaps, harder to gauge. The curator works directly at the point of arts reception: the job of curation is to mediate the reception of art. It is worth remembering how new this contemporary idea of the curator is: if it first emerged in the 1970s, it is only in the last ten years that it has become such a prominent and pervasive presence in the art world.
I am tempted to speculate that there is a connection between the recent rise of specialist, technical jobs at the point of arts distribution and the recent changes in contemporary capitalism. It is well documented how contemporary capitalism has evolved a logic which is ‘cultural’ rather than productivist. There is an inversion of the relationship between the commodity and its image: whereas the image used to support the sale of the commodity now the commodity supports the sale of the image. Companies such as Nike no longer own the means of production of Nike goods; the ideal state for such global corporations is to own nothing – to outsource all production. What Nike sells is not so much trainers and the like, but ideas. And isn’t art in a similar position? With hindsight, the conceptualist scrutiny of the ontological status of the artwork coincided with capitalism’s shift from things to ideas. No wonder that ideas of dematerialization became prevalent in art at a time when this was exactly what was going on with capitalism. So, perhaps it is possible to link the rise of the structural position of the curator within art’s social relations with an ontological shift in capitalism itself. This is not to suggest that all (or any) curation can be reduced to the economic. It is to suggest one way, at least, in which curation is dependent on ideological, hegemonic structures. Furthermore, any curation which wishes to assert its independence must do so from a position which acknowledges its dependence: that it does not operate under conditions of its own choosing.
It is tempting to think of independence as only being possible as a kind of second order independence. That is, it is not possible to be independent of the existing dominant institutions of art unless you are also within them. If the fault line of divisions, absences, aporias, lacks, ills and so forth does not run between art and everything else but rather through art and everything else, then tackling art politically is going to be a matter of attending to division within art. The adoption of the philistine is predicated on seeing the negations within art as co-terminus with the negations inherent to capitalism. It is not possible to be independent as an individual. If dependence is about the relationship one has with others, then so is independence. Independence must be a collaborative project.
For curation, an essential question is something like: how is the position of the curator placed within the existing divisions of art? For example, it is hard to think of any advertising agency as ever being in a position to be politically radical. Advertising is trying to sell you things you don’t want, and as such is a vital component in the running of contemporary capitalism. Now it is possible to study (and presumably practice) such a thing as “ethical advertising.” But it is hard to think of a better example of what Zizek calls interpassivity. Making advertising ethical is a way to change things to stop them really changing: indeed, of avoiding thinking the kind of change that would be necessary to bring advertising to an end. Is curation in a similar irredeemable position? Perhaps we could ask the question this way: is it possible to have philistine curators? Or, perhaps, is it possible for the philistine within each curator to have expression in what the curator does, qua curator?
How might we think about what it is that the curator does? One way of thinking of the curator is as a kind of expert of display. I think that this is a fairly dominant self-image of much contemporary curation. Bolstered by a myriad of theoretical terminology, the curator deploys techniques, strategies and methodologies. As an expert, such practice can be thought about in terms of efficiency, accessibility, transparency and the like: technical criteria for a technical practice. In one sense, this is all well and good: being incompetent is not easily reconciled with radical practice.
What is interesting, is what the idea of expertise leaves out, or cannot address. At one level, it is hard to imagine that this view of curation could be become critical of its own constitution and conditions of possibility: of its own political and social determinations. But to view the curator as an expert on display is also to think of the curator as an expert on art. And here there are certain difficulties. If we take art to be a critical project of self-making and self-transformation, then it is difficult to see what an expert on art is an expert in? The old fashioned (pre 1970) curator was a keeper of a particular collection: someone who had expert knowledge precisely because the object of their knowledge was fixed and finite. The curator of a diverse, troublesome and changing art, surely needs to begin from a position of doubt and uncertainty, or, indeed, from a position of listening. The curator qua expert is someone who knows in advance what is art and what is good for art. The curator qua listener is trying to find out what a particular piece of art might need. That is, what this latter curator might do is going to be determined by entering into a reciprocal and collaborative relationship with artists. A condition for this possibility is the independence of the curator from institutional and established ties, both contractual and ideological.
In a way, this is to suggest the possibility of the curator becoming a co-producer with the artist. This is dangerous territory, re relational aesthetics and all that. We need some analysis of different kinds of collaboration and agency.
For the Lacanian psycho-analyst, what defines the analyst is not that he or she is the subject supposed to know but that he or she knows that the subject supposed to know doesn’t in fact know. The purpose of analysis is not to impart the analyst’s expert knowledge but to provide the conditions in which the patient can disabuse him- or herself of the belief in the subject supposed to know. In as much as the investment in a guarantor of meaning is the negation of agency of the subject, psycho-analysis is the negation of a negation. It is a process not only without compensation but against compensation: the outcome of psycho-analysis is that the patient accepts that there are no guarantees, which includes abandoning a model of compensation.
The curator could be imagined as a subject supposed to know. What would be interesting would be to imagine the curator as someone who knows this and knows that the subject supposed to know doesn’t exist. Of course the artist is not exactly in an equivalent position to the analysand – or is she? One way to describe the analysand might be as someone who is not independent enough – someone who is not able to act outside of an economy of guarantees and compensations: someone who is watchful of being watched. And is not the danger for the artist to be making work in relation to the (false) universal Art – to be looking to Art as a guarantor of his or her actions as an artist?
The problem with curation is not that it mediates the reception of art (how could the reception of art not be mediated?) but that it so often adopts a position of expertise in a way that implicitly asserts an authority over art. This is the assigned position of curation within the dominant modes of distribution for art: a practice that deals in cultural capital. But it is not the only possibility for curation. A curation which is sure of itself, in the sense of not having a critical self-awareness of its own agency, goes to reproduce the accepted norms and authority of art and to elide the contradictions and divisions of art. A critically self-aware curation would have to enter into a mutual and dialogical relationship with artists. It might not even be clear that such a practice was curation at all. Such a practice would have to live with doubt and conflict.
The question that haunts the critique of curation is this: how can individual curators exceed the political economy of the curator as subject to a discipline, as an historical figure and as an institutional functionary? Or, less optimistically: what prevents curators from doing something else? Anti-art is, here, preferred as a model to professionalism, competence, skill and so on. Doing something else thus stands in for a range of activities and positions that resist complicity. If, as you say, independence is always independence from something, then complicity is always complicity with something – a market, an institution, a history, a conception of art’s social value, an anthropology of the art-goer – and, therefore, doing something else means resisting the specific constraints of the market, art’s institutions, art’s histories, etc. As we learn from anti-art, resistance to complicity (to complicities) does not derive from isolating one’s practice from the social world, but from interrupting and infecting art with social contexts that are suppressed or excluded by art’s official discourses.
Have there been any anti-curators? The über-curators can be radical, innovative, challenging, interesting; but none of the key players in curating have been anti-curators, have they? Quite the opposite (and your point about authority comes in here): the curator has taken up the mantle of the author after artists have adapted to the death of the author. In order to get a glimpse of what an anti-curator might be like, then, we need to look at artists curating. Bank exhibitions such as ‘Zombie Golf’, ‘Cocaine Orgasm’, ‘Bank TV’, ‘Dog-u-Mental’ and ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ were gloriously incompetent curatorial projects, crackling with division, conflict and contingency rather than orchestrated according to professional standards of museum display. What is significant, here, is not that Bank and other anti-professional artist-led projects might offer some bad tempered model for ill-at-ease curators. Quite the inverse. What artist-led projects suggest is that the question of the critique of curating is actually a broader question of how art is organised socially. Curators, then, are not the experts of display, reception and interpretation; they are collaborators in art’s social relations. In this respect, perhaps, the analogy with the analyst (as the one who is supposed to know) is not required except insofar as the curator has taken on the institutional role of the one who knows. Curators have become an additional slice of management only by concealing their dependence on the knowledge of others. In fact, this concealed dependence on others is true of all post-Taylorist managers: the division between mental and manual labour, that is the separation of organisation from activity, is always dependent on workers sorting out problems ‘on the ground’.
In a recent email exchange with a young curator, some of these issues have come up. His curatorial strategy – which is not uncommon – seems to involve coming up with a vague framework and hoping that the artists will save his blushes. When confronted with this he said, “I trust the capability of critical/engaged/political cultural producers to express any thoughts, concerns and solutions regarding the ‘theme’ with their work”. If there is anything wrong with his curatorial framework, then, he is confident that the artists will rectify the exhibition for him. His dependence on the artists is concealed by the explicit commitment to the critical engagement of artists which the curator forgoes. Art&Language, in a public talk at Tate Britain a couple of years ago, took issue with curators of this sort by making something of the possibility that an artwork might stand out from the institutional framework that is supposed to bring meaning to it. “The group show can be bad while the individual works were good”, they speculate, concluding, therefore, that “paintings [by which they mean ‘internally complex artworks’] are subversive of the institution.” If my young curator is anything to go by, on the contrary, such internally complex – ‘good’ – artworks are manna from heaven for the institution. Art&Language’s either/or argument (either object or institution) is ontologically blunt because they want to preserve a space for artworks to outrank the institution, they want the artist to resist the bullying of the curator. This is ontologically unsustainable, though, because it involves splitting off the artist and the art object from the totality of art’s social being. You wouldn’t even have an artist to split off from the institution if art’s institutions had not fostered the modern conception of the artist in the first place! Similarly, our critique of the curator can neither begin with nor hope for the splitting off of the curator from art’s social being. What’s more, if the curator is to be able to do something else then curating must be rethought as embedded in social being. In other words, if the objectionable tradition of curating is based on the curator being split off from art, culture and society, the radical critique of curating needs to reinsert the curator back into the cultural totality. Doing something else means being something else.
If, for the curator, doing something else means being someone else, then it seems important to stress that this “being” encompasses the occupation of existing structures in a different way. It is not being something other than a curator. The institutional role of curation is predicated on a de-totalizing split in art’s social relations. Such a split is both a necessary condition for the constitution of the curator and what is maintained by the very idea of the curator. The curator is always already embedded in social relations. The problem of rethinking the curator as embedded in social relations is the question of what that embedding might be. The conventional and objectionable tradition of the curator does not so much split off the curator from art, culture and society than preserve a separate sphere of action and influence within art, culture and society: a sphere that conceals and denies the existing social relations of art (and therefore of the curator him- or herself). Curation has been, perhaps, not so much split off from art, as the demarcation of a split within the totality of art’s social being. The political task for curation, in overcoming the de-totalizing split inherent within curation, is not to formulate some alternative, positive model of curation. On the contrary, if the de-totalizing split inherent in curation is the negation of certain experiences and so on (the negation of modes of being), then the uncovering of the concealments, refusals and denials hitherto present in curation is the negation of these negations.
Anti-curation, along the lines of the anti-art, might offer a way of thinking through the predicaments of curation. However, if this is an act of “interrupting and infecting art with social contexts,” then this could also be the invoking or remembering of that which has been repressed, excluded and denied. Social contexts, I want to say, have always been present in art and “art’s official discourses:” they are present as the cause of symptoms rather than the condition of agency (in Bhaskar’s sense). That is to say, they are present as absences.
If anti-art infects art with social contexts then anti-curation infects curation with social context, likewise. Anti-art is not “not-art” and anti-curation is not “not-curation.” The subversive potential of anti-art is not about championing something outside of art (the excluded, the everyday, etc.) at the expense of art: rather it is about confronting art with what is internal to art but which art itself refuses to countenance. In this precise sense, anti-art is the dialectical transformation of art: the absenting of absences. Anti-art implies that there is something about art worth transforming. My hesitation over the word “infects” is because it implies that there is something pure, complete or uncontaminated, which falls prey to an outside force. Whilst this captures both the violence of the situation and the self-image of art in art’s dominant discourses as something positive and pure, it misses out on the way that art is always already marked by splits and absence. Remembering the past might offer another metaphor, if we think of remembering as a repetitive nightmare rather than misty nostalgia: the repression of a traumatic event making itself felt. Could we say, perhaps, that anti-art haunts art like a nightmare?
And what of curation? Anti-curation implies that there is something about curation (in the social relations of curation) worth transforming: that it is worthwhile for the curator to be something else. The point about artists doing curation is that these artists were anti-curators to the degree that they transformed the social relations involved in producing the shows that they did. Needless to say, there are plenty of artist-curators, whose curation does not question how art is organized socially: who are following a conventional career path. As Art & Language might put it, they are quite happy to bully themselves. We need to take care to see the divisions between curators, artists and other art professionals as secondary divisions: as themselves upshots of the divisions internal to each and internal to art and culture as such. That is to say, the social relations between artist, curators and so on, follow the internal repression in art of certain knowledges, experiences and so on: art’s current social relations are built on the concealment and denial of these primary divisions.
You hesitate over the use of the word ‘infects’ because it implies that there is something ‘pure, complete or uncontaminated’ which anti-curation spoils. I don’t think this conception of infection implies a pure, complete or uncontaminated curator; I think it implies a conventionalised identity that acts as a horizon for practice. Infection does not presuppose a closed totality of this sort. On the contrary, it is the resistance to the idea of an outside to curation that implies the closed totality. I’ll explain this in a second. First I want to dwell a moment on how much we agree.
Curation has to be seen as riddled with absences, splits, ills and contradictions – despite its apparent, ideological and institutionalised professional identity. In fact, that apparently cohesive identity is itself an absenting force. And in this sense you are absolutely right that anti-curation confronts curation with what is internal but repressed in curation: anti-curation thus absents the absences of curation. Repressed absences, such as the social relations of curation, are already absented, so anti-art has to absent those repressions as well as absent (ie transform) those social relations. Of course, if curation was not characterised by these sorts of absences and ills then anticuration would be indefensible. It is because curation is riddled with all manner of absences that anti-curation is called for.
However, I am concerned here about turning curation into a closed totality for which absences and constraints will only ever be internal ones. Bhaskar makes this point in relation to Hegel’s dialectic. Hegel follows a set pattern in his dialectic characterised by preservative sublation. This is because Hegel’s conception of totality is closed. All sublation therefore preserves and overcomes internal limitations on truth. Bhaskar argues that this is false by showing that there are also external constraints and also that no preservative sublation can avoid loss of some sort – something has to be lost, even if it is only time. So, the idea of infection, of an external force, can’t be ruled out. In fact, the force which curation needs in order to absent its own absences is likely to be an external one if curation is the result of the sort of detotalizing split that you refer to. What curation needs now, I would argue, is an infection of that from which it has split in order to shape itself as a separate practice.
Hence, when and if the curator does something else – and becomes something else – I agree that this ‘being’ occupies existing structures differently but I want to go further and suggest that this ‘being’ also occupies different structures differently. So, I want to add something to your insistence that doing something else ‘is not being something other than a curator’. I want to add this: doing something else means being something other than a curator as a curator. It is this collision of otherness and identity that I am thinking of according to the model of infection – it is not a question of discovering what is already internal to the curator or of abandoning the curator altogether; it is a question of transforming the curator by infecting the curator with that which is other to the curator. Like anti-artists who resisted the institutional tramlines of artistic and aesthetic practices, the anti-curator needs to resist the horizon of curation. It is to the outside, the other, the external and the alien that the curator needs to turn, and to turn into.