Since the 1990s the profession of the curator has enjoyed a level of attention previously unknown. Beginning with the historical landmark of the figure of Harald Szeemann, a star cult developed around curators that, as a number of lectures and publications of recent years suggest, has banished artists and art critiques to a lower rank in the field. This intense engagement with the professional profile, with the tasks and demands of curatorial praxis, is thus in no small measure due to a conflict of hierarchization that has almost necessarily emerged within the field. The artist and initiator Susan Hiller opened the multiyear lecture series The Producers: Contemporary Curators in Conversation in Newcastle by asserting that the curator has replaced art critics and artists today: a statement that was subsequently taken up, discussed, and, with various results, denied by the speakers.1
If one examines the arguments that have been advanced in the tribunals on the status of the curator, it is striking that the embattled front by no means describes a clear line but is rather characterized by interruptions, abrupt turns, and spatializations. For while curators on one side are enthusiastically granted an extraordinary status ‘on par with the artist’, which is seen as progress in the advancement of the field, on the other side this very similarity with the artist’s role has triggered vehement criticism and hostility. The relevant perspective shifts in accent, here on the definition of the work done, there on the process of organizing a public sphere or on adapting to consumer behavior once again, can transform from praise of a prominent subject position for the curator to condemnation as presumptuous and improper. What is on trial is not just the redistribution of social privileges that would go along with a rise in the professional image of the freelance curator but also, quite fundamentally, the nature and efficiency of participation in the processes of constituting meaning.
Perhaps more than any other profession in the field of art, curatorial praxis is defined by its production of connections. The acts of collecting or assembling, ordering, presenting, and communicating, the basic tasks of the curatorial profession, relate to artifacts from a wide variety of sources, among which they then establish connections. The possibilities for such connections are manifold and, once the objects have been removed from their original contexts, can also be constructed anew.2 As exhibited objects, the materials assembled are ‘in action’3: that is, they obtain changing and dynamic meanings in the course of the process of being related to one another. Ideally, these connections result from formal and aesthetic features or from content, but they also relate to the corresponding cultural, political, social, and economic contexts that attach to the exhibited objects their historicity.
In 1998 Zygmunt Bauman located the curator’s position “on the front line of a big battle for meaning under the conditions of uncertainty, and the absence of a single, universally accepted authority.”4 To put it simply, he was hoping to find the roots of a semantic pro-duction based in processes of connection in the postmodern transformations in the field of art. Against the backdrop of such antithetical assessments of the role today, one also hears in Bauman’s formulation the two essential conflicting poles between which the current, more highly differentiated debate has evolved. On the one hand, there is the positive assessment that the figure of the curator represents the hope for finding footing again in the jungle of meanings that has resulted from the loss of clarity and binding norms. On the other, there are reservations about giving the installation a new position of authority that lays claim to special powers to interpret the processes of connection.
If we choose not to view the current ‘curator hype’ and star cult as simply a side effect of the enormous growth in exhibition activity as part of today’s event culture but also admit it has critical modes of action and effect, then the relationship between these two antithetical assessments of the phenomena becomes more significant. When trying to put curatorial practice in perspective, which is necessary if it is to have a critical potential, this relationship proves to be an essential aspect, which can for its part be made useful as an element of a critical praxis. Hence the remarks that follow will be devoted to it. They are based on the assumption that a specific variety of criticality is appropriate to curatorial practice, given its procedure of creating connections.5
Art’s claim to autonomy is one of the main points of reference for the reservations raised about the role of the curator today. The art sociologist Paul Kaiser observes along these lines: “The success of curators as social figures in recent years derives from the old dilemma of art in the (post-)modern age, i.e. the need for art to assert its supposed autonomy in a market heavily regulated by economic factors.” In comparison to earlier decades, he identifies the specific nature of the present situation as the fact that the other authorities that have previously responded to art’s need for commentary “newspaper criticism, academic study, educated patronage (…)” have “largely ceased to be parallel sources of creative production (…)” in our “fun, consensus and aspirin society.”6 The commentaries on the figure of the curator mentioned above reflect this assessment of a crisis. Even if they disagree on what triggered the crisis, art theory, art criticism and even art itself have all been held responsible7, they all share the view that the genesis of the curator position can be attributed to the inadequacies of other positions in the field of art. Kaiser’s formulation makes this judgment concrete and at the same time once again puts the curator in the service of art as ‘marketing manager’, ‘artistic intellectual’, or ‘amateur trend scout’.8
The basis for the discussion is a development in the field of art that began in the 1960s with the rapid growth of activity, increased differentiation within the art field, and the associated rise of new professions, including both the freelance curator and the increasingly specialized curator associated with an institution. Ever since curators have been sharing the tasks involved in communicating art with scholars in various disciplines, gallery owners, critics, and teachers. The ‘dealer-critic system’ that Cynthia White and Harrison White identified in their groundbreaking 1965 study of the development of art institutions in France in the nineteenth century as the structure of the art field in the modern era had added a whole series of new players.9 Enhancing the status of the freelance curator to the extent that is done in the current discourse means an essential shift and concentration of the power to constitute meaning that had previously been distributed more equally among various authorities for communicating such meaning. The trend was encouraged by the deprofessionalisation that began at the same time in the 1960s as these processes of increased differentiation in the filed and have clearly accelerated again in the 1990s, in a kind of countermovement to efforts at professionalisation institutionalized in courses and schools.10 In these trends, two fundamental developments of art reveal their consequences for the roles and tasks in the field of art: increasing conceptualization, on the one hand, and a focus on context, on the other. Artist’s encroachments on tasks and roles that had been assigned to other players in the field of art were closely connected to this concentration on the discourse of art. Because these other players in turn exchanged and appropriated various activities and positions among themselves, since not only artists but also critics and curators can write, create exhibitions, teach, and sell art, because aspects of both harmonization and indistinguishability emerge in these mutual transfers, it is also possible for professionals who do not explicitly think of themselves as artists to participate in the elevated social status of the ‘artist’.
The debate over power and status appears to become especially heated around the profession of the freelance curator, who is thus not tied to an institution. The basis for this is the social status associated with communicating art, which is part of the various professional disciplines in the field of art. Institutions that mediate between art and the public, be they museums and collections in private or public hands, exhibition houses, commercial galleries, magazines, publishing houses, universities, or art colleges are authorities that consecrate and legitimize. In their dependence on their objective relations and positions in the field, they participate in the process of evaluating art as art. The players active in them and for them, curators, gallery owners, critics, publishers, teachers, and theoreticians, carry out these processes. For its part, the effectiveness of these players develops in dependence on their position in the field, in their relationships of powers relative to other players and the institutions. From this plexus obligations for the mediators emerge that cause them to be torn between artistic and economic, individual and institutional, aesthetic and social, immanent and contextual demands. They are ‘double forms’ in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense, uniting in themselves contradictory dispositions through which they can remain close to each of the sectors of the art field. Contexts that ensure recognition and success in an economic sense must to be understood and handled, as they are supposed to possess an understanding of and affinity to artistic working processes and conditions.11 This intends a hybrid role that then develops a potential for conflict when it abandons the balance between the two directions that is established by the rules of the game in that field.
This becomes evident in the analogous balancing act that Bourdieu associates with the figure of the ‘priest’ in the religious field: the priest possesses an authority in the capacity of his office and by means of his belonging to the church exercises control over the access to the means of production, reproduction, and distribution of sacred goods. He preserves the existing doxa and sees himself as a mediator between God and humankind.12 Transposed to the art field, it is the mediators, in their role as ‘priests’, who exercise gatekeeper functions, who guard over the opportunities of the production, presentation, and distribution of art, who employ the relevant set of values and rules in evaluating art as art, and who see themselves as agents between art and their public.
However, anyone who dares to upset the balance of this intermediary position by stepping over to the side of the art producers, violates the rules. This corresponds in the religious field to the transformation from priest to prophet. The latter receives his power not through his office but on the basis of his personality and his charisma. He is interested in the production and dissemination of ‘new kinds of sacred goods,’ which can also lead to the discrediting of the old ones. The group of initiates that assembles around him can evolve, in accordance with the processes of sacralization of what was once sacrilege, from a sect to a church and thus become the new guardian of the true doctrine.13
The parallels to the art field become especially relevant if one considers the political dimension of the position of the freelance curator. For in comparison to the priests, the freelance curators lack a fixed connection to an institution that would lend them authority, and in this respect thus resemble the prophets, so that, forced to rely on their personal charisma, they obtain and reobtain their authority procedurally.14 Through this process of adoption, they too can deviate from the doctrinal opinion represented by the institutions only to become a part of the institutions themselves at a later stage when the hierarchies and dogmas they introduce are recognized. In the end, like the prophets they too have a closer relationship to the object being communicated: if the prophets are distinguished by the fact that they are not, like the priests, the advocates of humankind before God but rather God’s spokesmen on earth15, then analogously one can say of the freelance curators that they function not so much advocates before artists and art of the various spheres within their audience but rather the representatives of art and artists to the public. The sacralization effects that function in the art field by means of establishing distance are thus transferred to the curators: the distance that the priests and mediators dramatize and preserve between the public and the goods they are communicating also exists between the public and the prophets or artists. In a cult-like adaptation, this distance ultimately feeds on the star cult around the freelance curators as well, even though their circumstances do not warrant assigning them entirely to the status of the priests or to that of prophets, and in contemporary practice they may have an artistic background but it is just as likely to be something else.
Such attributions of status place freelance curators in conflict both with other parties active in communicating art and with artists, and they do so in several ways: not only do they not hold to the distribution of tasks that has been worked out in their relationship to gallery owners, staff curators, theoreticians, and critics, according to which they are responsible as ‘double forms’ for establishing the connection between art and the public that appreciates it, but rather operate on the art side. Hence they also take stances by means of the other communicating positions to which they ascribe more subservient actions that are limited by a wide range of institutional, social, and economic guidelines. Because they claim the freedoms that have traditionally been granted artists, they also take from the other communicative roles the aspects of their activity that are constitutive of meaning. Curators tied to institutions see themselves as placed in a role relative to freelance curators in which they are merely responsible for the administrative, architectural, and financial framework of an exhibition project. Another factor is that their relationship to artists becomes more tense, because the latter have to concede to curators not only their exclusive claim to a special place in society but also aspects of their role in the production of meaning. The clash between Harald Szeemann and Daniel Buren on the occasion of Documenta 5 in Kassel in 1972 demonstrated this zone of conflict exemplarily in that Buren responded to the subjugation of participants in the exhibition to a thematic focus by taking over sets of tasks that were normally the responsible of curators.16 Both the curatorial and artistic approaches of the subsequent three decades would, despite a wide variety of circumstances and objectives, continue the same struggle for power in the process of creating meaning that was practiced there. This may be seen the recent exhibition series on the theme ‘Spaces of Conflict’ or in the debates over Eric Troncy’s curatorial interventions or the communicative practices of context-oriented artists.17
The fact that freelance curators enjoy particular appreciation in this latently conflictual position is due in large part to the similarities that have evolved between artistic and communicative practices in the field of art over the last fifteen years and to the exemplary character that these practices have adopted outside the art field in the economic world. I am referring to the forms of ‘immaterial work’ that Maurizio Lazzarato has defined and described as a characteristic element of post-Fordist economic structures.18 This form of work, which is directed not at material production but the creation, administration, and distribution of meaning should be understood as a direct analogy to the curatorial practice of assembling, arranging, and communicating. The critique of a ‘parasitical’ fundamental character of the contemporary ‘art of communication’19 undergoes a re-evaluation as a process of selection and connection that is characteristic of postmodernism and that can be applied as a social practice not only to tasks with museums and other cultural facilities but also in work situations that are primarily economic in orientation. As a process of the production of meaning, it is ascribed the potential to liberate creativity under conditions of self-determination and self-realization. With this kind of accentuation of the difference relative to Fordism that temporarily suppresses the simultaneously occurring forms of self-exploitation and self-discipline, those members of society who have traditional been granted a space characterized by freedom and self-determination, namely artists, obtained their function as model actors who are to be imitated.20
In order to avoid the economization of the cultural that is built into this, and instead open up spaces for critical action, it is necessary to reinforce more explicitly another parallel between curatorial and communicative practice. This refers to a site-specific mode of operation in art that was an especially frequent subject of discussion during the 1990s.21 In expanding the approaches to ‘institutional criticism’ and to working with the architectural, social, economic, and discursive functions of the sites at which exhibitions were held, it was also necessary to take into the account the effects that are triggered by the practices that become evident at that those sites. This form of contextualization brings out the various obligations to which not only artists but also, and especially, freelance curators are put: to art and artists as well as to various circles of the public and communities or institutions and the professionals occupied there. The project Services, initiated in 1994 by Andrea Fraser and Helmut Draxler, performed the perspectives contained therein of artistic labour defined by analogy to ‘service task’ in a way that set new standards for the 1990s.22 Going beyond the analyses that were worked out with site-specific procedures and also including the effects of practices means for contemporary art making its own practices more flexible and structuring them as temporary, contingent, and polyphonic.
This would be a good starting point for someone who wanted to take advantage of the status attributed to freelance curators with their conflict zones in the sense of a critical practice. Choosing, linking, presenting, and communicating in a way that reflects the relationships, conditions, and effects of these acts with the goal of taking part in the changes or displacements corresponds to the ‘criticality’ that Irit Rogoff called for in a contemporary approach to art: working from ‘a trembling ground of genuine embedment,’ according to Rogoff, a criticality on the basis of an awareness of the limits of one’s own way of thinking, which takes into account that new things can only by learned by forgetting the old.23 In the work of freelance curators, the process orientation that this demands applies both to the meaning of individual objects and to their constellations; to their relationship to the place as well as to various circles of the public and communities; processes of generation, performativity and transitoriness develop here. It is, however, also necessary to incorporate into such a procedural approach the position the curator has adopted, with its attributions, tasks, roles, and once again its overlapping with other positions. To the extent it is about the political potential of the curatorial, it is quite fundamentally about processing the curatorial role, in addition to other processes of ‘becoming’. It represents a continual process of negotiation in which the positions taken vary in relation to the other subjects or objects involved in exhibitions, take on new directions, and appear in various constellations.
According to Michel de Certeau, the rejection of a fixed position to which power, hierarchies, and status could be attached in an unambiguous and lasting way takes place as a space-generating movement that manoeuvres between established codes. This movement in which various things are temporarily linked and then separated possesses, according to Certeau, a subversive, even ‘criminal’ potential. The space that it produces is, for its part, shaped by and permeated with conflict programs and contractual agreements.24 Anyone who performs the movements between the various attributions and tasks from a curatorial position can produce in relation to the subjects and objects with which she or he operates a social, discursive, and aesthetic space of action that destabilizes, annuls, and reformulates the conditions and relations between which the movements occur. An exhibition understood in this way reveals the political dimension that Jacques Rancière describes in the context of the politics of the ‘distribution of the sensory’: aesthetic practices can take part it in to the extent that they sublate the usual coordinates of sensory perception and reframe the overall network of relationships between spaces and times, subjects and objects, the universal and the individual. Art can create a stage, in a museum for example, on which politics can play out as a reconfiguration of the distribution of the sensory as a way of making the invisible visible.25 On that stage an ‘unreasonableness’ is manifested that for Rancière is the center of any political argumentation, as the presence of two worlds in one.26
Integrating the role of freelance curators into these space-generating, politically conceived processes means drawing up the various tasks and positions that have beenassigned to them as well as the processes of reframing and redefinition described above. Rather than adopting a ‘natural’ order, under which curators would have the status of ‘prophets’ or ‘priests’, the operations of assembling, ordering, presenting, and communicating could be freely distributed and interchanged among the parties engaged in an exhibition. Equally, the proximity and distance, the hierarchies and dependences in the relationship of curators to objects, to artists, to other communicating professionals in the field, and to the various communities and spheres of the public must always be renegotiated and fixed only temporarily. Taking into account attributions of status that now resemble ‘prophet’, now ‘priest’, comparing them, exposing the differences and areas of intersection with the circumstances used to justify them, transforms the seemingly clearly defined profession of the curator into a playable role that can be recast performatively in an imitating, reflecting, or parodistic balance with the various expectations made of it. Understood in this way, the curatorial task proves to be a flexible, dynamic, and contingent constellation of operations and positions, a specific form of criticality in the art field.
Translated from the German by Steven Lindberg
1 On this, see the introduction to the series by Susan Hiller and the responses of James Lingwood, one of the directors of Artangel, London, and Sune Nordgren, director of the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Newcastle, in: The Producers: Contemporary Curators in Conversation, March 30th 2000, University of New Castle, Department of Fine Art. James Lingwood and Sune Nordgren in Conversation chaired by Professor John Milner, in Susan Hiller and Sarah Martin (eds.): The Producers: Contemporary Curators in Conversation, Gateshead: BALTIC 2000, 12, 13, 21
2 On the changing connections in the handling of what has been collected, see seminally Walter Benjamin The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge/ Massachusetts: Belknap Press 2002, p. 204, 205, and Allan Sekula “Reading an Archive” in: Brian Wallis (ed.) Blasted Allegories: An Anthology of Writings by Contemporary Artists, Cambridge/ Massachusetts: MIT Press 1993, p. 117, excerpted from “Photography between Labour and Capital” in: Mining Photographs and Other Pic- tures, 1948–1968: A Selection from the Negative Archives of Shedden Studio, Glace Bay, Cape Breton, Halifax 1983
3 Susan M. Pearce describes the contexts in which the objects in a collection take on new meanings under the title “Objects in Action”; see Susan M. Pearce Museums, Objects and Collections: A Cultural Study, Leicester: Leicester University Press 1992, p. 210
4 Zygmunt Bauman, quoted in Mika Hannula, “Introduction: Remarks on the Discussion during the Seminar Thank God I Am Not a Curator” in: Mika Hannula (ed.) Stopping the Pro- cess? Contemporary Views on Art and Exhibitions, Helsinki: NIFCA – The Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art 1998, p. 13
5 On the concept of ‘criticality’, which searches by way of other forms of the critical for the ‘criticism’ of errors and pursues ‘critique’ that makes the investigation of the premises that makes something seem logical, see Irit Rogoff “WIR. Kollektivitäten, Mutualitäten, Partizipationen” in: Dorothea von Hantelmann and Marjorie Jongbloed (eds.) I Promise It’s Political: Performativität in der Kunst / Performativity in Art, Bonn: Theater der Welt 2002, 54-55
Gillick, in: The Producers: Contemporary Curators in Conversation, October 24th, 2001, University of Newcastle, Department of Fine Art, “Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Liam Gillick in conversation Chaired by Susan Hiller” in: Susan Hiller and SarahMartin (eds.) The Producers: Contemporary Curators in Conversation, Newcastle 2002, 23
9 See Harrison C. White and Cynthia White Canvases and Careers: Institutional Change in the French Painting World, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1993; originally published, New York: Wiley 1965, 94-98
10 The deprofes- sionalisation of the exhibition curator is described by Nathalie Heinich and Michael Pollak as a development that played an essential role in the enhanced status of the subject position of the curator. See Nathalie Heinich and Michael Pollak “From Museum Curator to Exhibition Auteur: Inventing a Singular Position” in: Reesa Greenberg, Bruce Ferguson and Sandy Nairne (eds.) Thinking about Exhibitions, London: Routledge 1996, p. 231–259, esp. 238
11 See Pierre Bourdieu The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, trans. Susan Emanuel, Cambridge / UK: Polity Press 1996. A depiction, often uncritically organized around economic contexts, of the obligations that curators may find themselves exposed to in the expanded and accelerated art world, is to be found, in overstated form in: Doris Rothauer and Harald Krämer (eds.) Struktur und Strategie im Kunstbetrieb: Tendenzen der Professionalisierung, Vienna: WUV Universitätsverlag 1996
16 For further details on the relationship between Harald Szeemann and Daniel Buren on the occasion of documenta 5, see Beatrice von Bismarck “Der Meister der Werke: Daniel Burens Beitrag zur documenta 5 in Kassel 1972” in: Uwe Fleckner, Martin Schieder and Michael Zimmermann (eds.) Jenseits der Grenzen: Französische und deutsche Kunst vom Ancien Régime bis zur Gegenwart; Thomas W. Gaehtgens zum 60. Geburtstag, Cologne: DuMont, 2000, p. 215-229
17 On these discussion, see, for example: Spaces of Conflict: An Audio-visual, Research-based Essay on Insti- tutional Spaces by Mike Bode & Staffan Schmidt at the Kunst-Werke, Berlin, November 28th, 2004 until January 9 th, 2005 and the discussion “Institutionelle Räume” on January 8 th, 2005, that accompanied the exhibition; Jean-Max Colard “Collustre: Collection Lambert – Avignon” in Artforum, November 2003; Marius Babias “Vorwort” in: Im Zentrum der Peripherie: Kunstvermittlung und Vermit- tlungskunst in den 90er Jahren, Dresden: Fundus 1995, p. 9-26; Hal Foster “The Artist as Ethnographer” in: The Return of the Real: The Avant-garde at the End of the Century, Cambridge/ Massachusetts: MIT Press 1996, p. 171-203, and the response to it by Renee Green “Der Künstler als Ethnograph?” in Texte zur Kunst, no. 27, September 1997, p. 154
18 See Maurizio Lazzarato “Immaterielle Arbeit: Gesellschaftliche Tätigkeit unter den Bedingungen des Postfordismus” in: Toni Negri, Maurizio Lazzarato and Paolo Virno Umherschweifende Produzenten: Immaterielle Arbeit und Subversion, Berlin: ID Verlag 1998, p. 39-52
20 For more detail on this, see Beatrice von Bismarck “Kuratorisches Handeln: Immaterielle Arbeit zwischen Kunst und Management- modellen” in: Marion von Osten (Hg.) Norm der Abweichung, Zurich: Edition Voldemeer 2003, 81-98
21 See two considerably earlier contributions to the discussion, James Meyer “Der funktionale Ort” in Springer 2, 4, December 1996 until February 1997, 44-47, and Miwon Kwon “One Place after Another” in October 80, 1997, 85-110
22 See Helmut Draxler and Andrea Fraser “Services: A Proposal for an Exhibition and a Topic of Discussion” and “Services: Working Group Program at the Kunstraum der Universität Lüneburg” in: Beatrice von Bismarck, Diethelm Stoller and Ulf Wuggenig (eds.) Games Fights Collaborations: Das Spiel von Grenze und Überschreitung; Kunst und Cultural Studies in den 90er Jahren, Ostfildern-Ruit: Cantz 1996, 72-73, 74, 196, 197
25 see Jacques Rancière “Aesthetics and Politics: Rethinking the Link”, manuscript of a lecture given at the Institute of European Studies, Berkeley, September 30th, The idea of a space that makes political action visible can be related to Hannah Arendt’s concept of “space of appearance”: a transitory space that results when people interact, speak, and thereby manifest their presence to one another. See Hannah ArendtThe Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1958, p. 250-254. On this, see also Rancière’s critique of Arendt’s definition of the political sphere, in “The Thinking of Dissensus: Politics and Aesthetics” lecture held as part of the conference “Fidelity of Disagreement: Jacques Rancière and the Political”, organized by the Post-Structuralism and Radical Politics and Marxism specialist groups of the Political Studies Association at Goldsmiths College, London, September 16th until 17th, 2003, information available online http://homepages. gold.ac.uk/psrpsg/ranciere.doc
26 see Jacques Rancière Dis-Agreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1999, and “Eleven Theses on Politics”, information available online http://theater.kein.org/node/view/121