Sabotage by Clémentine Deliss
A big thank you to Defne Ayas, Pierre Alexandre Mateos, and Charles Teyssou for their stimulating Provocations. They have provided us with the flesh on which we shall now operate. I’d like to begin by dissecting the subject of this Debating Chamber, to find out what body of knowledge curatorial practice attends to. I’d like to make it jitter, vibrate, and slide off the butcher’s table, so we can carve out a critical imaginary and not take curatorial practice for granted any longer.
My work as a curator is potentially very different to someone else’s, but the issue is how this difference is located – intellectually, economically, through relations to others, in particular to artists, through a practice of autonomy, or one of risk and transgression? And is independence for a curator desirable today, can we promote it at all without initiating professional bankruptcy and disassociation?
By extension, is acceptable curatorial practice only that which an institution is ready to mediate? Here the curator represents the institution, and is contractually bound to follow its rules both discursive, aesthetic, and societal? If a curator, and the artists they work with, steer an alternative course to the normative mechanisms of the venue – say divert from the rules of a communications department, or a team curatorial sector, they are held accountable and can lose the gig.
Other curators have cut their teeth on biennials, believing in the collectivity and generative growth of these temporary gatherings. But sometimes one can discern a type of credit-card-curating, a fast purchase of diverse global art practices with little long-term engagement on the part of the curator, no glue to hold together new fragile relationships being forged between artists who meet for the first time at biennials. Here you may ask, does the curator hold a responsibility to artists to make sure they are not treated like one-hit wonders, disposable and replaceable cabaretistes in the theatre of exhibition making.
Other curators work for private foundations, and dealer galleries, benefitting from the market structure and its high-octane finance. Wow! the scale of a private production is well worth the engagement of an artist – why refuse to collaborate with capital investors, if it can give you and your work massive calibration and visibility? And those curators who have the ‘in’ to such foundations, who select artists on the grand luxury magnitude, they know that ultimately money is at the whim of the private individual, and therein lies their risk.
But other curators prefer public venues, seeing themselves as cultural workers, feeling conscientiously that art is always democratic, intended for a wide audience and therefore must be public-facing, never private, not held behind closed doors, not initiate, otherwise it falls into the murky cabbalistic cellar of proto-fascist expression.
So I can’t help thinking that transgression is a modernist violence, an avant-garde concept that smacks of outdated understandings of the underground, mediated by deceased artists whose body of work remains seductive. Today’s high visibility precision reconnaissance implies that both the artist and the curator need to be aware of whom they are addressing. No longer, “my exhibition is for the whole world”, but who can I trust to show my work to? Who provides that safe-space? Which form of art venue? Which curator?
And then there is the discipline that subtends a curatorial practice. Did you study art history, anthropology, design, architecture… because this gives you legitimacy? How about if we recognize these disciplines in terms of the colonialism and extraction that generated them? If we are working toward a decolonial curatorial model, then what are we doing about context? Context is not a given, but inherently tied to the discourse of a discipline. It is not set in stone, neither are collections nor is curatorial practice. And what to do about contentious material? Do curators help to defuse stereotypes and can this be done without falling prey to the master explanatory language transmitted by wall posters, labels, apps, QR codes, but instead through the direct reception of the work, and the efforts of artists to forge new visions, new metaphors and basta! Surely as curators, we need to trust the power of the artwork to address an audience without all the didactic prostheses currently deployed in exhibitions, as if the artwork alone was inherently insufficient, and the public unable to grasp the little it provides.
And so it becomes easier for curators to search for themes to exhibitions that rather like a menu in a restaurant correspond to a current flavor for which artworks can illustrate the subject at hand be it climate, oceans, identity politics, gender, activism, the undercommons, cult or topical movements, archives, whatever.
Why has curatorial education since it emerged in academia in 1990 focused primarily on how to make an exhibition? If it’s not about exhibition-making then wherein lies the NERVE? To have the nerve, to risk one’s career, to throw one’s skin in the game…. Is this something problematic, fussy, and frowned upon? If artists are ready to search for that that nerve, in their own work, if they are…then why are curators acting like service departments in a large hotel? What can we do against standards and norms of scheduling – three months, and another show – and another budget, all utterly unsustainable. Is it more valuable to spend 50,000 on scenography, or 50,000 on artists’ productions and curatorial research?
What are we frightened of? What is failure for a curator? Who upholds the criteria of success? Visitor numbers? Likes on Instagram, ticked boxes? Is queueing for an exhibition a sign of its success? Is the widest possible consumerism of art the objective of curatorial practice? In the future, what roof will shelter us from the populist command of the curatorial industry? This sabotage operates on the tired flesh of curatorial practice, in the hope – and hope is essential here – of animating greater courage and perhaps less conformity.
So I say, let the horse out of the gate!