drucken Bookmark and Share

by Olga Fernández

Just What is it That Makes 'Curating' so Different, so Appealing?

I have always been intrigued by the fact that, in order to define what a curator is or a curator does, curators think about their practice in terms of analogy. Tom Morton haswritten on this topic that "curator as ... constructions speak of a welcome self-reflexivity and plurality of approach but (…) there’s a faint atmosphere of subterfuge about them, ofborrowing the glamour or gravitas of another profession"1. Most analogies are related to other professions2 maybe because the difficulty of putting into words a kind of experience and knowledge that is learnt and developed in practice. Curators’ expertise is usually defined by a set of procedural skills and organisational abilities, and intellectual production. My argument will be that this knowledge combination is a key element in the post-fordist economy.

In the last years a new understanding of curating has been taking place in which it is seen as a wider cultural practice. It has been stated recently that curating is "a practice which goes decisively beyond the making of exhibitions, within a transdisciplinary and transcultural context, as a genuine method of generating, mediating, and reflecting experience and knowledge"3. The curator is portrayed here as a producer of knowledge, a definition similar to that of curating subjects, "a performative and exemplaryagent, acquiring subjectivity in and by the act of mediation"4. The connection of curating with knowledge and mediation has increased particularly since curatorial studies havegained a place in Academia, a fact that has encouraged, since the early 2000s, what is known as the 'educational turn'5. In this scenario curatorial practice is less adisplay/meaning production activity and more a mode of inquiry/enquiry. This background resonates too in the current debates that bring together art, education and research in the academic field, especially in PhD practice- based research done by artists6.

Research turns out to be a key category in the knowledge/ art economy and exhibitions as a mode of enquiry, one of the possible instruments of research. In parallel, the rise of the curator as a producer of immaterial knowledge comes hand inhand with the centrality of innovation and creativity in the post-fordist economic system. We can further look at this topic with two new analogies taken from Paolo Virno’s texts. Virno talks about the figure of the artist (virtuoso) that can be used metaphorically to think about the post-fordist worker7. But Virno also talks about a notion of entrepreneur that fits better with the particular make-up of the curator’s job.

"An entrepreneur is someone who manages to combine given elements in a new way, like a wordsmith. Now, "wordsmith" refers to the linguistic animal; using language means making new combinations with given elements. (…) The work of this liberal economist [Schumpeter] includes the following distinctions: there is the innovative capacity that consists of combining elements differently and, in addition, there is another kind of innovation that consists of the introduction of a new original element. Two forms, and as I suspect, of artistic production"8.

This analogy can be explored in two directions, one related to the form of exhibitions and the other related to the role of the curator. Regarding the former we need to go along with Virno’s thesis. In the same interview he is asked about the distinction be-tween two types of research practice that he char-acterises as the 'logic of justification' (distinctive of science and based on methodology and compara-bility) and the 'logic of discovery' (related to artists’ modus operandi that use 'unvalidated tools' such as analogy and hybridization.) Most of 'discursive' exhibitions, such as national surveys, thematic or retrospective shows, could be ascribed to the first mode. On the other hand, a defining feature of the second mode, since avant-garde exhibitions, is the use of juxtapositions and associations (physical, material, conceptual or interdisciplinary), that challenge established logics. In this view the more the curator 'combines the elements' under a logic of discovery, the more 'artistic' the exhibitions become. We can think of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s shows as examples: "Rather it would be a travelling laboratory that would show its results on its way. Every step of the exhibition would be a step of the research and it would be ongoing over two or three years"9, he states about Cities on the move. Another way to explore the idea of 'curator as entrepreneur' is focusing less on the outcome (the exhibition) and more on the process (curating). Curators are paradigmatic of the way a post-fordist worker performs: flexibility; lifelong learning; subjective collaboration; heterodox application of existing rules in an exceptional situation. We can think about how exhibitions come about and the degree of uncertainties that the curator needs to manage: unpredictable artists, precarious workers, not-always reliable providers, and economic/political dependent institutions. A remarkable amount of immaterial knowledge comes from this laboratory. The paradox is that immaterial knowledge makes it difficult to find the instrumental applicability that characterised to the old scientific-experimental method.

Following from this we could ask how the expanded version of curating relates to institutions. If sociality is inherent to institutional formations, in the post-fordist scenario institutions can be transformed into a medium, not because of themselves, but because post-fordism treats sociality as a medium for wealth creation. In this case, the social is the medium. Some art institutions are still interested in building a public for 'modern' or 'contemporary' art, to exhibit artworks, generate discourses and to expand the educational mission that Enlightment museums used to have. But some others have incorporated knowledge production in their agendas10 and this knowledge is primarily about the social. The social is seen not only as the goal of representations (artworks and exhibitions during the 1990s turn to the social), but also as an issue dealing with 'living together' that expands into a reflection on democracy, new forms of political/cultural action, translating difference/s, and so on11. We can look at examples, such as Esche’s work at the New Rooseum: "The 'community' is created in the 'gallery' rather than the gallery addressing existing fixed groups. Here, the art institution becomes the reason for community and describes the process of its coming-into-being as the responsibility of the gallery itself. (…) What 'particular purpose' would bring people together?"12.

Another site to examine the topic could be biennials, paradigmatic scenarios of the multi-dimensional activity of the curator, trying to mediate in a particular Chinese encyclopaedia of different nations, cultures, all of class of workers, politicians, economists, urbanists, academia, market, media, audiences, communities. In his article trying to characterise biennials as 'unstable institutions', Basualdo affirms that biennial curators "are art profes-sionals who must respond to a variety of extra-artistic conditions and questions, their work is necessarily different from that of those who preceded them"13. The kind of immaterial knowledge that is at stake in biennials is translation, not meaning14. In the international space the multiplicity of visual grammars do not translate into one another, but they translate to produce difference, as Sarat Maharaj asserts15.

The difference that makes a difference nowadays is translation as mediation. Enwezor’s view of the biennial model can be related to this idea: "The biennial model as a place-making device constitutes what the theorist Hakim Bey calls a 'temporary autonomous zone (T.A.Z.)' of encounters (…). The large-scale exhibition model, despite its shortcomings does offer new institutional capacities for curators to articulate the new possibilities of contemporary artistic discourse globally"16. T.A.Z. and other types of new institutional forms, characterised by collaboration and networking, need to operate through translation, understood "as a mode of social praxis rather than a mode of epistemological mapping", in Ned Rossiter’s words17. This kind of translation also needs to take place between all kind of social for-mations - institutions and ekstitutions18 -, making them complementary rather than antagonistic. In this new scenario whether radicality is placed inside or outside is of no real consequence. While autonomy is a pre-condition for creative production, critique is consubstantial to insti-tutional/capitalist regeneration19.

It has been widely pointed out that the most prominent result of institutional critique has been the strengthening of the institution. This boomerang effect has been labelled as 'paradoxical' or too much institutionalized critique. From this point of view, artworks and artists are entrapped in a double bind. If, as Andrea Fraser says, institutional critique works "against the exploitation of artwork for economic or symbolic profit because of their autonomy"20, freeing art from the institutional constrains will mean that at the end autonomy is strengthened by institutional critique. However, autonomy is precisely the pre-condition of post-fordist economy21. If, on the contrary, we negate all autonomy to art, it becomes incorporated in other fields or dissolves into life and we don’t need art institu-tions anymore. In that case art is bound to the social relations it may produce.

Returning to the original question, we can put forward what makes curatorial practice so appealing, and for whom. The entrepreneurial abilities of the curator and the expanded exhibitions formats are symptomatic of the new economic conditions that require new contexts of collaboration and interaction. Expanded exhibitions are able to produce social relations. In this point they coincide with an increasing number of artists, engaged in forms of artistic practice that question and experiment with the social as medium. The difference may be that what artists do stays in the realm of representation: their works are not social laboratories, but a staging of them. Conversely, curators produce social forms of production more than forms of social production, involving real economic transactions. The relational nature of the curator’s job compels him/her to bring forth and develop social encounters and circuits beyond representation.

Taking the institution’s sociality as a medium, entrepreneurial curators are in a better position than artists to be actants22. As Simon Sheik states: "managerial critique of institutions has had far more effects on art institutions than the artistic critique from conceptual art practices such as institutional critique"23. Nevertheless, the idea that exhibitions are being thought about as "construction site, laboratory, think-tank and distribution channel, metaphors borrowed from the lexicons of industry, the media, corporate culture and science"24, may reveal that the curator’s practice is very likely to be co-opted. In fact 'curating as institutional critique' seems to be a shortcut in order to update old institutions (museums and kunsthallen) for the new economic paradigm, by reconfiguring them from within. Institutional critique is useful as it points out the limits of a certain institutional formation (a formation of power and knowledge) showing the contingency of it, but it has difficulties to go beyond the frame.

Following Foucault’s version of critique, we should ask not only about the processes, but also about the effects produced by a certain discourse25. Curators should be conscious of their participation in the post-fordist process and aware of their responsibility in the consequences. To move in this direction, curators should practice critique upon themselves (as a new institution), and not only upon institutions. They should use self-reflexivity to propose unstable situations and breaking points. Have we learnt something from Manifesta 6’s failure? Or from graffiters invasion in the 2008 – void-driven- Sao Paulo Biennial? Curator’s intellectual production, procedural skills and organisational abilities (immaterial knowledge, translation abilities and mediation skills) would benefit from more short-circuits and misunderstandings and less smoothness and transparency.


Olga Fernández López is teaching Curatorial Strategies – Past and Present at the Curating Contemporary Art Department, Royal College of Art, London and is a visiting lecturer at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. She has previously worked as a curator at Museo Patio Herreriano in Valladolid, Spain.



1 Tom Morton, "The Name of the Game", Frieze, (March 2006).

2 Some of them: Robert Storr, curator as editor; Heinrich and Hoffman, as film director, Manacorda as psychoanalyst. Others such as Farquharson, as des Esseintes and Groys, as iconoclast, are less focused on professions and more in an attitudinal image.

3 In the brochure of the conference Cultures of the curatorial (January 2010, Academy of Visual Arts, Leipzig), www.kdk-leipzig.de/ veranstaltungen. html?.../ Conference%20 Cultures%20of%20the%20 Curatorial... (accessed March 25, 2010). The italics are mine.

4 Soren Andreasen and Lars Bang Larsen, "The Middleman: Beginning to talk about Mediation", in Curating subjects, ed. Paul O’Neill (London: Open Editions, 2007), 27.

5 Irit Rogoff, "Turning", e-flux journal, nº 11 (2008), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/18/(accessed March 25, 2010).

6 Check the whole issue of Art and Research, vol 2, nº 2, spring 2009, which gathers issues and experiences in artistic research presented on the occasion of significant international conferences and symposia dedicated to artistic research held between May and December 2008.

7 Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life (Los Angeles/New York: Semiotext(e), 2004).

8 Sonja Lavaert and Pascal Gielen, "The Dismeasure of Art. An Interview with Paolo Virno" in Being an artist in post-fordist times, ed. Pascal Gielen and Paul de Bruyne (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2009), 43.

9 Hans Ulrich Obrist, "Kraftwerk, Time storage, Laboratory", in Curating  in  the 21st century, ed. Dave Beech and Gavin Wade (Walsall: University of Wolverhampton, The New Art Gallery, 2000), 48.

10 I am thinking, for instance, about 'relational aesthetics', new institutionalism and educational turn models.

11 In some cases – i.e. new institutionalism - this knowledge is self-referential, as institutions are themselves under scrutiny.

12 Charles Esche, "The possibility forum", Artlink, vol 22, no. 4 (2002).

13 Carlos Basualdo, "The Unstable Institution", in Manifesta Journal, nº 2, (2003), 58.

14 Check "The Art Biennal  as  a Global Phenomenon. Strategies in Neo-Political Times", monographic issue of  Open,  nº  16, (Rotterdam: Nai Publishers,  2009).

15 Sarat Maharaj, "Perfidious Fidelity: The Untranslatability of the Other" in Modernity and Difference, Stuart Hall and Sarat Maharaj, (London: InIva, 2001).

16 Okwui Enwezor, "Place-making or In the "Wrong Place": Contemporary Art and the Postcolonial condition" in The History of a Decade that has yet not been named,  ed. Stephanie Moisdon and Hans Ulrich Obrist, (Zurich: JRP/Ringier, 2007), 217.

17 Ned  Rossiter, Organized Networks. Media Theory,  Creative Labour, New Institutions (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers,  2006).

18 "Networked environments or what could be called "ekstitutions" are based on exactly the opposite principle: they promise to provide instant access to knowledge. Ek-stitutions exist: their main purpose is to come into being. They exist outside the institutional framework, and instead of infinite progress, they are based on a certain temporality" in Florian Schneider, "(Extended) Footnotes On Education", e-flux journal, nº 14, (2010), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/14/61318/extended-footnotes-on-education/ (accessed March 25, 2010).

19 Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2007).

20 We could try to compound a definition made of a combination of her ideas: "a methodology of critically reflexive site-specificity about forms of domination in its immediate field of activity and against the exploitation of artwork for economic or symbolic profit because of their autonomy" in Andrea Fraser, "What is Institutional Critique" in Institutional Critique and after, ed. John C. Welchman (Zurich: JRP/Ringier, 2006).

21 In Virno’s words: "It is a condition for my exploitation  that I produce intelligence and collaboration, and I can only do so when I am, to some degree, free. So I need to be granted a  certain  degree of autonomy in order to be exploited"  in Sonja Lavaert and Pascal Gielen, "The Dismeasure of Art. AnInterview with Paolo Virno" in Being an artist in post-fordist times, ed. Pascal Gielen and Paul de Bruyne (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2009), 31


Go back