“The mixture of morality, politics, and bodily fluids […] form a tantalizing cocktail.”
Essen and its Museum Folkwang, an international institution, is more associated with normative traditions than gendered or queer ones. When Karl Ernst Osthaus brought together a stunning collection of 19th and 20th-century European painting and sculpture featuring Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Paul Signac, George Minne, Constantin Meunier, Aristide Maillol, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner et al., leavened by African, Japanese and Oceanic artifacts, it was all about the contemporary—being linked to one own’s time, public, society, art, culture. Folkwang is in fact a contraction of the Germanic Folkvangar: the people’s hall.
Museum Folkwang as we imagine it nowadays was actually founded in 1922. Today, 4 years before its centenary, and 8 years after the inauguration of the new building designed by Chipperfield Architects, following a row of so-called blockbuster shows, a question arose within our ranks. Is Museum Folkwang and its curation capable of queer or is it—if already queer—queer enough to really serve the experience of the contemporary; is it actually aware and capable of handling the challenges of contemporary art, and the culture it addresses? This meant that an institution considered one of the most important German museums, known from the beginning of the 20th century for its progressive art collection—a museum receiving kudos still today in the cultural scene of the Ruhr region—sought to test itself with queerness.
The opportunity to queer ourselves occurred when Bochum’s Ruhr University (RUB), in the person of respectively Änne Söll and Jonathan D. Katz, The Marie Jahoda Visiting Chair in International Gender Studies, approached the museum in late 2016 to organize a symposium on “Queer Exhibitions/Queer Curating.” I had just started as research curator in December of that same year and “profiling” the department—that had been vacant for two years—was a first priority. In order to not float idly in the mainstream discourse, a museum such as the Folkwang has to participate actively in understanding how society, culture and art combine and construct one another. The symposium was the perfect cause to do this, a “mind turn” the museum had to go through in order to stay credible within contemporary discourse and societal reality.
But if we name some sort of curating “queer,” what are the other categories of curatorial practice then? If we talk queer curating, is there straight curating? Regular and irregular curating, etc.? It is about practice, without doubt, perhaps even about some method if we may be said to apply a sort of methodology to curation. As the parole de queer was quite new to the institution, first we had to negotiate the relationship between our innate sense of quality curating and this new approach. The museum had no choice but to question itself: What kind of curators are we, and is queer curating something missing from our practice? Why have we not thought about this until now?
As the local authority in curating, Museum Folkwang seemed to be the best partner to turn to in order to explore these issues. Our first task, however, was to understand what was meant by queer and how that notion applies to curating. The term itself had of course considerable academic and cultural traction, despite its relative invisibility in the museum sphere. In fact, Jonathan D. Katz, the guest professor at RUB from Buffalo, U.S., and the initiator of the symposium, revealed frankly that he had to come to Germany in order to realize a symposium about Queer Curating. He felt it would simply not have been feasible in the U.S. Since in Europe, and especially in Germany, we imagine the United States to be some kind of freely queer utopia, this was a stunning revelation.
Of course, developing fundraising and co-sponsorship for a queer curation conference wasn’t easy. First we had to define the terms. What does queer signify, that is, is it gay and/or lesbian? Of course, we found it suggested something very different. While it’s likely that the term queer presents no difficulties in the U.S., it’s a different story in the Ruhr region. With the exception of the gender studies degree course at RUB, the term had very little appeal within both the museum and the research community that feeds it. No wonder the press repeatedly called the museum’s public relations department in order to ask what queer meant before deciding to write anything about it. By contrast, an interview that the radio station Deutschlandfunk requested was crucial support for our project. Ironically, while queer was much better known in the U.S., it fell to a museum in Essen to mount the conference. When outside funding proved unavailable, as a last resort, Museum Folkwang decided to fully fund it from its own budget.
The international field of queer visual studies and theory proved most supportive. It’s a small, but close network and surprisingly active. In short order, visitors gathered in Essen from all over Europe and engaged in a lively discussion with the international roster of speakers.
As a curator, cultural worker and art historian, queer had not yet figured in my research agenda. Although still very rare in university curriculum, queer is nonetheless there and proves, as even a non-specialist in the field can testify, to be not just about sexuality, but more broadly a social aesthetics through which we might rethink society. If one is to avoid both terminological sloppiness and thin ice, this rethinking needs exemplification. This text has not enough space to fully define what’s meant but we can offer some useful hints. Queer is not all rainbow colours and pink, nor about one’s sexual practice, nor being libertine, but how and why sexuality has served as a classificatory, and policing, tool in our culture. It mirrors perfectly the complex operations of knowledge and acknowledgment, inclusion and exclusion at different layers of the social. That means that queer should not be understood merely as a credible practice for museums that are officially labeled “gay” such as the Schwules Museum* in Berlin. This is just the old practice of demarcation and segregation within an even older form of social domination. Still, it is not really surprising how profoundly normative poses and rules have cornered the gay community into a very specific politics of profession and display, such that this “community” is somehow made other to, even the obverse of, dominant culture. “Community” is in itself already a very problematic term here as it reveals those motors of normative channeling that create “membership” and allocate authority in our society. We have to go even farther and erase that ineffable, naturalized notion that queer is about “minorities;” on the contrary, since it’s about the construction of sexual categories writ large, it’s clearly pan-social. Queer thinking thus, despite the misperceptions, trends away from the specific and the niche towards the large macro-structures in our society.
The crux of queer thought in society and in queer studies—and I am quite bold now as an outsider of that particular research—is its own history of struggle. First it was about sexual freedom and equality and the fight against intolerance and violence, then it was about widening the societal horizon, with queer suggesting a state beyond the melee of straight and gay. But the notion of “community” maintained, unwittingly, the very structures of difference and commonality that the term queer sought to put under pressure. Society is structure and thus draws support from labels and definitions according to extant hierarchies. Abandoning this delimited idea of community is thus like trying to take a soup can from the bottom of the pyramid.
What does that mean in terms of the arts? The art scene is insistent that it’s completely free and open—because we, who work with art, cannot be by definition reactionary. But for those of us who work in museums, or the institutional side of the art scene in general, there is a nasty surprise: the selection process in the arts constitutes one of the most hyper-Darwinistic competitions in any cultural reality. Infrastructure, values and contexts, display, critique, and discourse are carefully layered, checked, and categorized. Worse, if a work or an exhibition tries to be queer, it is quickly tagged as merely sexual, an instance of an embarrassingly libertine exhibitionism seeking to reify its own “freethinkerism.” And queer itself is no less often stuck as the epitome of the sexual.
Alas exhibitions that seek to explore queerness collapse too readily into merely explorations of sexual difference, leaving the whole apparatus of queer—its defining refusal to accept dominant culture’s denomination of a single majority and minority sexuality—unspoken. Gay relationships and gay sex, so powerful precisely because they are so rarely seen in a museum context, kick every other nuance off the stage and a queer exhibition ends up reinforcing the very majority/minority characterization of sexuality that queer sought to dismantle. This is the great irony of queer exhibitions few can evade.
The danger is that queer discourse thus becomes misleading and rather more hermetic, even illegible within a broader social radius. For artists, collectors, dealers, curators, art critics, writers, and art historians, queer seems to generate a contradictory cluster of self-referential codes. So how can we seriously apply queer to our curating practice, in a way that does not make it merely a synonym of gay? Abstracting it into a form of of aesthetic practice, a societal aesthetics, which comes closest to its defining “multiness,” queer encompasses a decentered way of thinking social and cultural processes. What happens if we substitute queer for the usual meta-cultural, meta-sexual, meta-historical interpretive context; not as some artificial autopoïesis, but as a real proposal and possibility, a mode at our disposal that might enrich the quality of cultural work of any sort. Queer here becomes a very particular kind of de-encrypting hermeneutics, of “reading society,” a participatory sociological vehicle if you will. In fact, the idea of queer curating, of labeling curating as being queer has evidently not been intensively studied thus far. Too often, when it does get mentioned, it’s rather sloppily defined as a mere synonym of LGBTQ, thus missing the larger social pay off of accepting sexuality as a non-binary, a true queer revolution. We are still quite loathe to accept queer’s self-conscious explosion of biological rules and heteronormativity. Amoebas are, in that light, even more progressive than we have ever been; they are truly queer as they propagate without any of our constructions of gender or sexuality. As Karen Barad wittily remarks: “What is or isn’t an ‘individual’ is not a clear and distinct matter, and that seems to be precisely the scientific sticking point […] Social amoebas queer the nature of identity, calling into question the individual/group binary. In fact, when it comes to queering identity, the social amoeba enjoys multiple indeterminacies, and has managed to hoodwink scientists’ ongoing attempts to nail down its taxonomy, its species-being defying not only classification by phylum but also by kingdom.”
Queer is well beyond mere biology. Within this ideology lies its proposal for a progressive, constantly shifting society, whose proper sphere, in cultural as well as artistic terms, is resolutely, the global. The problem, unfortunately, is that most of us still define ourselves according to an essentializing mythopoetics, one in which biology matters, nationality matters, skin tone matters, religion matters, age matters, sex matters. But queer’s challenge is not just the evasion of these refied biologisms; it must also avoid becoming merely chic, the new flavor in the international art scene. It cannot become, as we put it in German, merely the next sow being chased through the village. There is no handbook for queer as its application is a product of an unpredictable confluence of social and historical factors. Whether in curating or culture or artistic work, queer is also fragile, an idea in struggle with itself. Malleable, oscillating between particularity and generality, utopianism and realpolitik—queer still faces genuine impasses, not least the curator’s.
Isabel Hufschmidt, born in 1982, curator, studied art history in Cologne where she was awarded a Ph.D. in 2009 for her thesis “Die Kleinplastiken von James Pradier. Skulptur im industrialisierten Kunstbetrieb des 19. Jahrhunderts.” Since 2004 she has been active in provenance research, has worked in the fine arts market and the gallery sector, and furthermore as an author, publicist, and a lecturer at Cologne University’s Dept. of General Art History. Her publication and lecture activity comprises subjects on 19th-century and contemporary sculpture and media-based art. In December 2016 she was appointed research curator and provenance researcher at Museum Folkwang, Essen.