ISSUE 1 Curatography
What is Curatography?

The past twenty years has seen the emergence of a growing number of publications focusing on curatorial practices. Within this same period, the establishment of curatorial programs in academia and biennials of contemporary art has increased as well. Curation is no longer seen solely as a practice of art aficionados; the growth of art systems has resulted in curatorial studies emerging as a necessary skill within educational systems as well. Curating has also begun to be applied to new and various contexts, ranging across any type of public presentations, loosely defined exhibitions, and the selection of art.

Chris Evans, Weather vane on the roof of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum(Home Entertainment), Taipei, 2010

It goes without saying that discourses in the new field of curatorial studies can often be heated, advocating various views and diverse applications. This article examines the approaches of such discourses, highlighting the relationships between them so as to locate the aesthetic-political dimensions of curatorial practice, which is becoming an integral part of contemporary culture. The neologism “curatography” literally means “the writing of curation” and intends to designate the discursive practice of curating noetic knowledge. The term is also necessary to explain the relationship between speech and writing, whose interplay is not only an indispensable to the construction of an exhibition, but also to the construction of discourses that cumulate in the production of knowledge. 

As in most art practice, early discourse on curation makes no exception in raising those forms of historiography, which render the discipline possible. One such undertaking is Hans Ulrich Obrist’s A Brief History of Curating, a collection of interviews with legendary curators. Although it bears a similar title to Walter Benjamin’s work on the same subject, it does not offer a discussion on the origins of curating. Instead, the work essentially advocates the view that curating is a type of working wisdom, that the history is still under construction, and as such it places emphasis on hands-on practice. Ultimately, the message of the book is that history can only be retrieved from the records of a few elites. Of his interviews, Obrist claims, “the contributions map the curatorial field, from the early independent curating in 1960s and 1970s and the experimental institutional programs developed in Europe and America at that time, through Documenta and the expansion of biennales.”1 Implicitly, A Brief History of Curating assigns the authorship of exhibitions to curators instead of artists, a sentiment echoed in Harald Szeemann’s term ausstellungsmacher, which literally means “one who makes exhibitions accessible to the public”. Throughout the interviews, Obrist and his interlocutors suggest that the relationships among the artworks to be shown to the spectator are finally decided by curators, thus the relationship between curators and artists comes to reflect the Hegelian dialectic between master and slave. The 1972 exhibition, Documenta, serves as an illustration of such struggles in exhibition-making. For in the end, the authorship of an exhibition is a fundamental issue, because the one who holds the key to unlocking the final meaning ultimately owns the artwork. The discourse between master and slave lies in the professionalism that curators bring to the art system.

1 Hans Ulrich Obrist. A Brief History of Curating. Zurich: JPR Ringier, 2011,p. 9.

On the other hand, there is another type of discourse, which draws on the historical lineage of the history of the exhibition and the myth of the independent curator. One pertinent example is Szeeman’s exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form” (1969), whose legacy can still be seen in biennials today. Although the definition is often muddy and confused, an “independent curator” refers to one who breaks aways from institutional restrictions and asserts her own autonomy. The independent curator seemingly renders her own subjectivity without being corrupted by official or bureaucratic ideologies, and is often associated with criticality and contemporaneity. The refusal to pander to museums and institutions is well demonstrated by the denunciation from Jean-Hubert Martin, curator of Magiciens de la Terre, “The bigger the museum, the more it is closed up within its limits and contradictions.”2 Yet, the myth of the independent curator often omits the fact that Szeemann himself served as director of the Kunsthalle, which is also to say, the independence of curating is largely derived from the dependencies of institutions. Today, as the museum opens itself to new possibilities, and as mega exhibitions, biennials, and Documentas become more institutionalized, independent curators must work according to rules laid down by their intuitions. As such, the nature of their independence must be examined. Even more confusing, when Szeemann’s legendary 1969 exhibition “When Attitude Becomes Form” was restaged in Venice in 2013, it was underwritten by the Prada Foundation, which provided financial support. When one starts to consider the dependencies involved, the notion of the “independent curator” becomes an oxymoron. As a proliferation of mega exhibitions becomes the norm, it becomes more and more important to critically reorient ourselves and critique art intuitions on the pertinent ideological level of political economy. 

2 Steven Rand and Heather Kouris. Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating. New York: Apexart, 2007, p. 41.

And yet, independent curating is also separated from institutional curating in the area of discourse, and this can be traced back to the origins of the museums, according to most historical narratives. Different names were once used for curators. They were called “guards” in the Louvre and “keepers” in the British Museum. Curators were seen as watchdogs for noble treasures, cabinets of curiosity, and exotic artifacts from colonial empires. Most such precursors of the contemporary notion of the curators also worked on the architecture and interior design, which in the ideal exhibition venue––the salon––could be presented together with art to the general public, and especially the bourgeoisie. What is often neglected is that early curator was a necessary stage in fostering a highly precarious art system, then still in the process of segmenting into institutions for education, exhibition, criticism, and collections. It thus made the display of art to the public possible for the first time in human history. The institutional curator created a public space for art then as the independent curator does today. In that sense, the institutional curator, albeit a part of the museum system, enables democracy by means of public display. The democratic moment of the exhibition, as fabricated through various curatorial techniques, is seen continuing through twentieth century modern art. In creating its exhibition spaces, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, employed display techniques that Alfred Barr described as a “field of vision”, by which the viewer is given to an eye-level horizontal reading of sequential artworks. The aim was to create a democratic viewing experience. The general white cube aesthetic was the necessary apparatus for spectators to view artworks in such a democratic fashion. The modern art museums were thus radical in creating a laboratory situation, which encouraged the participation of a democratic public.3

3 Mary Ann Stainszewski. The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installation at the Museum of Modern Art. Cambridge: MIT press, 1998, pp.25-27.

Although there are different ways to historicize curating, its history does not only equate to that of exhibitions. Bruce Altshuler’s two volumes of The Exhibitions that Make Art History and Afterall’s Exhibition Histories series serve as a foundation for understanding the development of exhibitions from salons to contemporary biennials. The exhibitions they describe however do not necessarily distinguish between solo exhibitions and group exhibitions, so that these two different types of curatorial intervolvement are often discussed interchangeably. When a curator becomes involved in  in an exhibition, the act of curation creates a new frame for the artworks, which then introduce aesthetic, institutional, and social context., which is to say, how art should be looked at, how art may engage in dialogue with the public, and how its communication is mediated by institutions. In order to establish a history of curation, it must be rooted in the historiography of culture and the social history of art. However, our current history of exhibitions is based more on art historical methods, such as biography and historical events, which is to say, exhibitions are treated as art objects capable of delivering aesthetic experiences and significance. However, a history of curation must be written according to the social matrix which connects art with public affairs. Recent histories of curation cannot fail to take special account of the various new phenomena produced by a globalized art system.

.”4Terry Smith’s Thinking Contemporary Curating makes an attempt to single out the thoughts of curators in order to compare them with those of art historians and art critics. He distinguishes critical, curatorial, and historical modes of thinking about art according to a phenomenological method, which interprets knowledge according to the different historical moments at which it was arrived. Much in the same vein of Edmund Husserl, Smith analyzes various historical conceptions of how art is understood and comes to signify various meanings. For example, an art historical perspective assesses an artwork according to “the profile of its era” by looking at styles and tendencies, while an art critical perspective seeks out an artwork’s meaning according to “the moment it is first seen by the critics”. Res publica is meanwhile concerned with curating rather than individual endeavors. Smith clearly states, “Curating seeks to encourage or enable the public visibility of works by artists either by assembling a selection of existing works for exhibition… so that they may be seen by a disinterested audience for the first time or be seen differently by such an audience because of the ways the works are presented.”4

 

4 Terry Smith.Thinking Contemporary Curating. New York : International Independent Curating, 2012.

Hito Steyerl, Traitors, Taipei, 2010

Many of this curatorial school believe that curation should be self-reflexive so as to disclose art’s political nature. Much in the same way that Chantal Mouffe and Jacques Rancière use the term “the political” to reveal the ontological dimension of politics, “the curatorial” can be distinguished from curating, which is merely seen as an act of exhibition-making. This new dimension of self-reflexivity brings criticality into the realm of curation. Lind recounts, “Curating is business as usual in terms of putting together an exhibition, organizing commissions, programming a screening series, and etc… The curatorial goes further, implying a methodology that takes art as its starting points, but then situates it in relation to specific contexts, times, and questions in order to challenge the status quo.”5 The curatorial is designated in order to reveal the metapolitics of curating and the changing nature of “business as usual.” The curatorial’s “political moment” can be seen when an exhibition uses different framing devices to create situations of contested meaning or other antagonisms. This is not simply a critique of institutions of art but also of art as a social institution. In this way, curatorial practice implies trans-disciplinarity, or the crossing of boundaries from being a mere exhibition-maker to becoming also an educator, communicator, editor, publisher, and so on. In Rancière’s terms, the political goes beyond the ethical regime and into the aesthetic regime. By the same token, the curatorial includes a dimension of self criticism which transcends the limitations of art institutions and the social domain as it engages with public space. The curatorial is the manifestation of a politics of art.

5 Maria Lind, in Jens Hoffmann and Maria Lind “To Show or not to Show,” Mousse Magazine, no. 31, July, 2019, http://moussemagazine.it/jens-hoffmann-maria-lind-2011/

Allan Sekula, Alle Menschen werden Schwestern, Kassel, Germany, 2007

Indeed, in the past decade, many new and eclectic ideas of curation have aligned with the curatorial. These include concepts from critical theory such as those from the Frankfurt school, gender theory, and cultural studies, spinning out as institutional critique, performative curation, critical curation, and the educational turn. Curation is not merely a means of making commentary on art, but rather a cultural and artistic practice in its own right—the practice of art as a critical act. In international curatorial conferences, symposiums, and workshops, discourses on curatorial practices are discussed, presented, and debated. Borrowed terminologies can offer working concepts that apply to exhibition-making. The notion of performative curation, for example, stems from gender theory, and in it the role of the curator is “performed” in order to designate the exhibition apparatus as a social construct. Generally, discourses on new thinking in curation offer mixed approaches in a hope that experiments by exhibitions can be realized. On one hand, there is an attempt to engage with curating per se; on the other, the desire is to demonstrate contemporary art’s urgency by treating the present as a critical moment within a disrupted temporality. Giorgio Agamben pointed out our consciousness of contemporaneity is a sort of anachronism, involving a discontinuity from both the past and the future. In such a case, an individual’s engagement with the present becomes crucial. As much as an individual act, the curatorial production of knowledge becomes a practicing wisdom, which involves curation’s ontological dimensions. As the etymology of “to curate” suggests, there is a sense of “care” and “cure” involved, as from the Latin curare and cura.

As one looks for the essence of an act of curare or cura beyond the history of the exhibition, only then does one realize what is involved in an act of curation. Harald Szeemann once stated that in order to understand what it means “to curate”, one needs to look at the root of the word. Up until the seventeenth century, the term “curator” was used by religious orders and the civil service to designate a guardian of a minor. The Latin term cura animarum literally means “to care for the soul”, and is used to refer to helping those in need and providing medical treatment for the wounded. The role of the overseer, keeper, or guardian has always been implied. In other words, if we trace “curator” back through its past meanings, there is an element of power involved. As Kate Fowle has pointed out, “a curator is someone who presides over something—suggesting an inherent relationship between care and control.”6 Even if we take curating as caring for the soul, we also already know from Michel Foucault that caring for minors and those in hospitals and asylums is governed by juridical systems. This suggests that a curator may already be an integrated part of social governmentality, an uncertainty left to us by these historical discourses. 

 

What is the “something” that a curator presides over? How are these powers transferred to the contemporary curator, the exhibition-maker? How is “care” manifested or displayed? What is to be cured? Who or what is in need of curing and caring?6

 

6 Cautionary Tales, 26

Some would say it is the artist who is in need of cure and care; some, the artwork; others, the general public. Yet in the context of art, it is impossible to establish a standard for care and treatment. Boris Groys borrows Jacques Derrida’s philosophical examination of “pharmacology” to discuss the notion of curation and the network created between curators, artists, and the general public.

Groys argues, “Curating is curing. The process of curating cures the image’s powerlessness, its incapacity to present itself. The artwork needs external help, it needs an exhibition and curator to become visible….Indeed, curating acts as a supplement or a ‘pharmacon’ (in Derrida’s usage), in that it cures the image evcen as it makes it unwell. Like art in general, curating cannot escape being simultaneously iconophile and iconoclast.”7 

7 Boris Groys. Art Power. Cambridge, MIT press, 2008, p.49

Claude Wampler, Untitled Sculpture(LARGE-SCALE PERFECT THICK & DEEPLY GROOVED CORTICALLY FOLDED BRAIN LEASHED BY LONG CURVED SPINE TO IMMENSE & VOLUPTUOUS SPHERICAL HUMAN FEMALE ASS). Taipei, 2010

Curating’s cure is at once both a poison and a remedy. The paradoxical nature of the cure lies in the fact that exhibitions bring visibility to artworks, which otherwise remain hidden in a museum’s archives. It is curators, not artists, who mediate between artworks and viewers. In Groys’ view, a curator is essentially an iconoclast, a true believer who destroys icons. A curator intervenes via various structural techniques––the exhibition, the curator’s statement, or even simply the lighting in the gallery––to create a new context for the aesthetic objects that artists have prepared in their studios. 

If Groys is correct, we can even go further and argue that a curator’s act of iconoclasm serves to obliterate the autonomy of an artwork, an autonomy which originally belonged to the artist. Within the current art system, even when an artist is given the role of curator, the position of the exhibition-maker remains indispensable. A curator’s power comes as supplementary, a service to something more primary––art at its very origin. 

According to Derrida, the pharmacon takes what was initially a poison and poses it as an antidote, so is by its very nature paradoxical. Writing, in its resistance to the phonocentrism of western philosophy, becomes an epitome of such a medicine/poison. Derrida states, “Conceived within this original reversibility, the phamakon is the same precisely because it has no identity. And the same (is) as supplement. Or in différance.”8 For the curator, acting as both medicine and poison means embracing paradox and both of its contradictory sides, and as such curation can never have a fixed nature or character. For this reason, the curator is always met with a measure of doubt, in part because the role is extra or superfluous, and in part because it is very difficult to define or clarify. As with Derrida’s notion of différance, an artwork’s uniqueness can only manifest itself through the curator’s absence. In making an exhibition, what a curator does is to effect the re-presentation of existing artworks. Tautology, the writing of the same, is the very form of the pharmacon, and is widely employed by today’s curators. The current proliferation of biennials and triennials has in their redundancy precisely become a tautology of curatorial discourse.

 

8 Jacques Derrida, Dissemination. Translated by Barbara Johnson, London : Athlone Press, 1981, p.169

The curator’s pharmacology stems from historical discourse and expands the discourse of the political-ontological. The only question it leaves unanswered is, how does the public enter into the play between curator, artist, exhibition, and artwork? It seems that the public viewer is actually he, from whom the curator must protect the artwork. A member of the public walks into a museum as a mindless intruder, and the curator seems to play the role of the shepherd, warding off attacks of wolves. Today, the public is heterogeneously composed and cannot be singly defined. Exhibitions welcome local and international visitors together as a transcultural site. The public becomes a part of the exhibition through participatory projects and educational events. The viewing public of today is hardly neutral. As exhibitions increasingly become sites of democracy, clear transformations are taking place in the exercise of Dingpolitik, or the politics of things, inside public space. Today, members of the so-called “general public” attend exhibitions in large numbers, yet one of the drawbacks of democracy is that people easily tend to forget. The exhibition amnesia of the white cube prevents us from remembering the past. It is precisely in this sense that the writing of Curatography can produce artificial memories of the previous existence of things. It can serve as a Pharmacon, both beneficial and harmful, for the rereading and re-mediation of the art we already know. 

1 Hans Ulrich Obrist. A Brief History of Curating. Zurich: JPR Ringier, 2011,p. 9.
2 Steven Rand and Heather Kouris. Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating. New York: Apexart, 2007, p. 41.
3 Mary Ann Stainszewski. The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installation at the Museum of Modern Art. Cambridge: MIT press, 1998, pp.25-27.
4 Terry Smith.Thinking Contemporary Curating. New York : International Independent Curating, 2012.
5 Maria Lind, in Jens Hoffmann and Maria Lind “To Show or not to Show,” Mousse Magazine, no. 31, July, 2019, http://moussemagazine.it/jens-hoffmann-maria-lind-2011/
6 Cautionary Tales, 26
7 Boris Groys. Art Power. Cambridge, MIT press, 2008, p.49
8 Jacques Derrida, Dissemination. Translated by Barbara Johnson, London : Athlone Press, 1981, p.169
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Author
Hongjohn Lin is an artist, writer and curator. Graduated from New York University in Arts and Humanities with Ph.D. He has participated in exhibitions including Taipei Biennial(2004), the Manchester Asian Triennial 2008, the Rotterdam Film Festival 2008, and the 2012 Taipei Biennial, Guangzhou Triennial (2015), and China Asia Biennial (2014). Lin was curator of the Taiwan Pavilion Atopia, Venice Biennial 2007, co-curator of 2010 Taipei Biennial (with Tirdad Zolghadr), and numerous curatorial projects such as Taizhong’s The Good Place (2002) and Live Ammo (2012). Lin is serving as Professor at the Taipei National University of the Arts. For the past 10 years, he has been working on project based on George Psalmanazar, A fake Taiwanese in the early Enlightenment. He is interested in transdisciplinary arts, politics of aesthetics, and curating. His writings can be found in Artco magazine, Yishu magazine, international journals, and publications of Art as a Thinking Process (2010), Artistic Research (2012), Experimental Aesthetic(2014), Altering Archive: The Politics of Memory in Sinophone Cinemas and Image Culture (2017). He wrote the Introductions for Chinese edition of Art Power (Boris Groys) and Artificial Hells (Clair Bishop) . His books in Chinese include Poetics of Curating (2018), Beyond the Boundary: Interdisciplinary Arts in Taiwan, Writings on Locality, Curating Subjects: Practices of Contemporary Exhibitions.
Archive
Archive
Issue 1 Curatography
Editorial /​ One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward Hongjohn Lin
What is Curatography? Hongjohn Lin
Les fleurs américaines Yoann Gourmel, Elodie Royer​
There are No Blank Slates Eileen Legaspi Ramirez​
Archive
Issue 1 Curatography
Editorial
Hongjohn Lin
What is Curatography?
Hongjohn Lin
Les fleurs américaines
Yoann Gourmel, Elodie Royer
There are No Blank Slates
Eileen Legaspi Ramirez