...or not to be a curator

clare molloy on curatorial overdosing

In 2003, Jens Hoffmann initiated a call to arms: “The Next Documenta Should be Curated by an Artist.” It resulted in 25 fiery artists’ texts on the act of exhibition making and the tension between the role of the curator and that of the artist. Now, almost a decade later, it seems that if there’s one thing the art world is certainly not short of, it's curators. There’s no shortage of artists either, but the word curator has seeped seamlessly into the vernacular and any act of selection seems to be termed curation: curated blog content, curated pop-up stores, curated dinner parties. You’re probably a curator yourself. But alongside the exponential trajectory of the term curator, I have been noticing for a while now a growing number of exhibition makers who are quite clear that they don’t want to be called curators. This leads to asking, has the term curator become overloaded? Has it become diluted? And where does this leave curatorship? Curious about what this trend responds to and what it questions, I spoke with three artists engaged in the practise of making exhibitions: Luis Berríos-Negrón, Nina Hoffmann and Reynold Reynolds.

Luis Berríos-Negrón’s statement for Synapse – The International Curators’ Network at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt begins with “Luis Berríos-Negrón, is not a curator.” No delicate aside or an apologetic I’m-from-a-visual-arts-and-architecture-background, Luis makes it clear that he sees the term curator as problematic. He explained: “Instead of acting as a facilitator for the artist, the curator has become the power structure. Free-market Capitalism and the rash commercialisation of art have demanded that the curator become a fundraising agent, a narrative builder, a storyteller.”

In most circumstances, instead of being a matter of situating artworks, curatorial practise, the process of making exhibitions, has become about constructing a grand or meta-narrative to provide entertainment for an audience. The differences between representation and entertainment, situating and modelling, have become blurred, and not in a productive way. Among many others, Anton Vidokle muses that, by and large, the curator has become a structure that the artist has to fight against as opposed to working with.”

Luis refers to curators as falling foul of a “protagonist fetish,” using exhibitions to illustrate their vision rather than engaging with the artists and the artists’ intent with their work. As one of the 25 artists engaging with Jens Hoffmann’s premise, John Baldessari acerbically commented on the flourishing rationale of this power structure: “A logical extreme of this point of view would be for me to be included in an exhibition entitled ‘Artists Over 6 Feet 6 Inches,’ since I am 6 feet 7 inches. Does this have anything to do with the work I do?”

Are curators whose only thematic concerns are potential narrative structures latently damaging exhibition making? “It is not that the curator should be removed. There are some extraordinary curators out there,” says Luis, “It’s that they are removing themselves. Curators need to be experts in representation, and in so many instances they’re not. It’s a valuable tradition; a huge history that stands behind exhibition making and it is surrounded by a bizarre ignorance. But this is leading to more self-organization between artists—an exciting by-product.”

In January, an exhibition opening invitation slid into my inbox: “‘Über Dich’—put together by and with Nina Hoffmann.” The exhibition at Galerie Kamm probed exactly what Luis posits as missing from so much curatorial practice: an exploration of the nature of representation. Nina Hoffmann is a force of nature and “Über Dich” bristled with her engaged approach to “putting together.” She explored the relationship between the person in front of and behind the camera through an exhibition that paid precise attention to the spatial relationships of the works. “I could have used the term ‘curator’ to make it clear that I chose the exhibited artists” Hoffman explains, “However, to me, curating is much more than that. It’s an in depth praxis: writing, reading texts, thinking, going to countless exhibitions, meeting with artists. Curators should be knee-deep in discourse.” Hoffmann’s exhibition making practise stems from her curiosity as an artist and her understanding of materiality.

This understanding of materiality is perhaps why “Alive She Cried,” organised by artist Reynold Reynolds at Galerie Zink, was one of Berlin’s strongest video and film exhibitions of 2011. The moving image is perhaps the medium that suffers most from badly executed exhibition making, when the way that sound will travel through a space, the correct formatting or the throw of a projector aren’t correctly considered, the work is effectively maimed. At Galerie Zink, works from 22 artists working in film and video were shown packed tightly together with their integrity intact, because Reynolds precisely understands how the medium functions, as well as how audiences interact with and encounter film and video exhibits. “Being a curator is the new DJ. People think it sounds cool and easy. It’s not easy; it’s a lot of work,” Reynolds explains, “When you look at the roots of the word curator it comes from the Latin cura, to care. It often gets forgotten that a curator should be taking care of the art works.”

Perhaps taking care is easier when acting as a curator within a defined context where protagonism isn’t so necessary to secure funding, spaces and media coverage. The independent curator is a relatively new phenomenon, and it’s not clear if it’s just a fleeting position or a sustainable model for the future. Traditionally, curators are custodians of museums, galleries and collections, while independent curators are operating in a radically different modus. The ability to take care is not empirically tied to whether curatorial practice is independent or within the context of being employed by a cultural institution, but it is empirically tied to how the artist’s vision is situated in an exhibition.

Nina Hoffmann’s “Über Dich” took the nature of representation and positioned the artists’ work so that it had space within which to articulate a response; Reynold Reynolds' “Alive She Cried” was organised around and amid questions provoked by the economic crisis. Neither exhibition tried to position art works so that they illustrated a prescribed agenda; instead, Reynolds and Hoffmann concerned themselves with the delicate process of representation. The fact that certain artists Reynolds approached were endlessly flexible about how their work could be shown, to the point where the artwork itself seemed to be on the brink of compromise, seems overwhelmingly a result of artists having worked with overreaching curators where the curatorial vision subjugates that of the artist—wittingly or unwittingly.

For Reynolds, it’s clear what makes a good curator. “The best curators love art,” he says. “They’re the type of person who is curious enough to walk across town in the middle of the night to go and see a show. They are engaged in ongoing research and building an encyclopaedic knowledge of art and artists.” At its best, curatorship is a precise and passionate profession, but can this be taught effectively as a discipline?

The establishing of academic curatorial programmes seems to offer a return to rigour and to researching modes of representation. Reynolds argues, “I question the emergence of so many curatorial programmes. If everyone takes these courses then the work of the curator will become even more prescribed and I don’t think that this necessarily is the best model for creating exhibitions. If we look at scientific discoveries, we realise that there is, in actuality, no real method. They often come about by chance or as by-products of research into something else.”

What curatorship could certainly do with is scientific rigor. Hoffmann believes that the curator enacts such an important role because “everything already exists. Everything has been done, twice. Everything is referenced. Everything is processed and then processed again, and there’s also the original. There is every medium, every boundary has already been crossed and so on and so on. Precisely because of this proliferation is the situating of art works so important—really seeing that when things are situated together they have different meanings.”

This summer is set to be pivotal in terms of explorative exhibition making, with Documenta 13, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, beginning its 100 day programme in June. Next month in the Hauptstadt the 7th Berlin Biennale opens under curation of, yes, an artist. Artur Żmijewski’s programme is pointedly political and will no doubt prove a dynamic discourse on representation. In his response to Jens Hoffmann’s provocation, Alfredo Jaar wrote very succinctly, “The next Documenta should be curated by a great mind.” And this is the point: whether curator or artist, the practise of exhibition making needs to use the terms and methodologies that facilitate the free and rigorous workings of great minds.

by Clare Molloy

[Image: Installation view “Über Dich,” courtesy Nina Hoffmann and Galerie KAMM]