Issue 1/2017 - The Post-Curatorial Turn
The very first Wikipedia definition for ‘curator’ was entered at 23:19 on 6 December 2003 by the IP address 22.214.171.124. It was then a one-sentence description that defined a curator as ‘a person who manages the institution’s collection’. It might seem surprising that only such a minimal explanation was provided at the time when the discourse around ‘the curatorial’ was being established. Indeed, the ‘curatorial turn’1 was soon to expand curating and further move it away from what curators used to do in ‘the storage rooms of their collections’2 to a proposition that defines ‘the curatorial’ as philosophy of curating.3 Today, when referring to Wikipedia, the definition of curator has eight sections and includes references, further readings and a list of links to curatorial courses, predominantly in Europe and North America. This by no means exhaustive description accompanied by the process of editing and developing the definition for ‘curator’ on Wikipedia reflects how the understanding of what a curator does, what the subject/object of a curator’s concern is and how the field of curatorial activities have changed over the years. Not only is the definition constantly under construction but the practice itself is influenced by forces normally considered outside of the field of art proper.
The question of the curatorial or precisely a Post-Curatorial Turn, which the editors of this issue announce, points to an end of sorts and suggests some kind of transition taking place in the practice of curating: a transition (that some take to be a crisis in the field of curating) that is defined as ‘curationism’.4 Given these changes it is timely to contemplate possible futures of exhibition making and devise institutional and individual strategies that can sustain these futures. As part of this task, in this short essay I deliberate on material histories of curating and present curatorial formats. This is a project of curatorial genealogy (already initiated)5. Here, my intention is to refer to the two main points that such genealogical project raises, namely to expand the history of curating beyond the narrative of its main protagonist – the curator; and to assert the inclusion of new forms of curating (for example in relation to social media) in a genealogy of curating which is part of institutional histories of art and curating that see the curator as a person that manages an institution’s collections.
Today, curating is a massively distributed phenomenon that is no longer available to curators only, or reserved as an activity specific to curatorial and art contexts. The Post-Curatorial might be a nostalgic reaction to the present recognition that everyone (including software and algorithms) can be a curator; and that anything (including salads) can be curated.6 And as the ‘post’ is reminiscent of some past that is no more, it is also evocative of the ‘present’ that has not been yet accepted. The Post-Curatorial Turn might be an attempt to update ‘the curatorial’ for the times where post-digital and post-Internet art are the next new thing. But it might be also an occasion to start coming to terms with the death of the curator.
Reflection on the rise of the curator
The contemporary model for modern curatorial practice has been shaped by the rise of the figure of an independent curator. Practices of curators in the 60s and 70s, in particular Harald Szeemann, Walter Hopps, Lucy Lippard or Seth Siegelaub, among a number of others,7 were central to establishing the figure of a curator as a creative force; not a facilitator but a figure performing an instituting potential of curating as practice. Curatorial idiosyncrasies developed in such curatorial projects as Szeemann’s When Attitudes Become Form (1969), Lippard’s series of Number Shows (1969–1974), or Siegelaub’s Xerox Book to name only a few, gave rise to a curator as a practitioner who works with concepts and not just with practicalities of exhibition making and museums’ collections. These historical examples are considered prototypical to what now constitutes the domain of independent curating. Conceptual structures and distinctive curatorial methods including Szeemann’s Agency for Spiritual Guestwork, Museum of Obsessions and Individual Mythologies are more than just proto-curatorial models. These are radical methods of self-institutionalisation8 which strengthen the role of the independent curator and establish new formats that reaffirm curatorial legislative powers that support the curatorial authority to exhibit outside a museum or a gallery.
Such enterprising tendencies in curatorial practices and their institutionalization as independent are a common feature of independent curating today. At the time, however, these strategies resulted from an interest in the very art and its process, in demystifying how and where art was produced and exhibited. For Siegelaub it was a practical solution offered by a curator and in no way ‘intended to be a 9 The question then appears as to what was this a solution/s to? From an art-historical perspective the rise of the independent curator took place at the time of a particular urge amongst artists to re-define the object of art and dematerialize it. Minimalism and conceptual art were challenging traditional models of display and presentation. The urgency to break with an art object as a commodity, and a new conceptual form that some of the artists worked with required new approaches to exhibiting. And so historical chronologies and museum categories that had been a standard for exhibition making were replaced with concepts and ideas that became a framework for presenting art.
The changing parameters for exhibition making were influenced by these new curatorial models which are illustrative of how curators were actively engaged in forms of institutional critique. Historically what is now referred to as the first wave of institutional critique has been predominantly associated with artistic practices that question the institution of art by challenging its object. Yet, following these more radical curatorial methods introduced at the same time reveals that curators too were critically engaging with art and its institutions. The critique in the context of curating unfolds differently to institutional critique performed by artists as it was predominantly driven by the pragmatic need to come up with functioning models which could first articulate and then shift the interests present in the work of art. The practical and hands-on approach characteristic to Siegelaub’s work, the self-institutionalizing strategies of Szeemann, or Lippard’s concept-based approach to exhibition making are highly experimental and sophisticated critical curatorial models. And contrary to Siegelaub’s claim, they should be seen as radical curatorial acts within the context of institutional critique.
Such an approach opens up the historical analysis of this rich period in curatorial history that so far has focused mainly on the authorial powers gained by the curators. Yet, these novel curatorial models resulted from the critical engagement with practical curatorial issues concerned with the very format with which curators work – the exhibition of art. Their far-reaching capacity to move beyond the institutional limitations expanded the institution itself while offering new forms and spaces of display for the sake of an artwork and with attention to its reception. These critical practices actively transformed curating but so far, much attention has been given mainly to their tactics that resulted in establishing the institution of independent curator in its authorial capacity. Paying attention to how these curatorial models intervened into curating as practice might expose a curatorial history that does not rest on the curator as author and where exhibition making is only seen as a form of rhetoric preoccupied with ‘the issue of the messages of exhibitions’.10
The curatorial and net.art curating
The focus on the curator as an author of exhibitions has influenced developments in mainstream curating in the 1990s. Curating proliferated as an independent practice and it contributed to establishing ‘the increasingly professional, institutional, academic, theorized, and historically informed character of curating’.11 It also gave rise to the new figure in the history of curating, namely that of ‘the curatorial’. This at the time new concept should be considered in the context of institutional critique, or rather its stagnation. As Simon Sheikh argues ‘institution has become internalized in curators and artists alike’ who opt for institutions and see them as a solution and not just a problem.12 This attitude supported a process of neutralization of what had been a radical form of institutionalization of the curatorial-self, as thriving independent curatorial practices often merged the curatorial vision with the self-interest of the institution. New Institutionalism13 or Institution of Critique14 defined the crisis of institutional critique. Not only was ‘the curatorial’ seen as a way to revitalize critical practice within the institution of art but it framed the discourse led by curators.
At the time when ‘the curatorial’ was being established as a major framework for debating burgeoning cultures of curating and its institutions, a new domain of artistic practices was expanding in unprecedented ways on the Internet. Largely unknown to the traditional art institutions and their curators, a number of artists started to make work within a net browser. The net.art artists were working with and developing a ‘language of new media’15 giving rise to new artistic forms specific to networks. Their intervention in the art world was to move their practice onto the Internet where to be an artist was to ‘be a curator, a system administrator, an art critic, an archivist or a vandal of your own work’.16 As Olia Lialina observes, this character of making and creating on the Internet was shared by all. Not just net.art artists but anyone making their very first web pages ‘was diving into an ocean of unknown, unexpected occupations, that in so many cases would change a person’s life completely’.17 net.art was made for browsers, with code and hyperlinks and it was accompanied by a growing community which even though clearly working in an art context too, was outside the radar of most of the mainstream art institutions at the time.18 It is then not surprising that the new curatorial models that could contextualize and accommodate the distribution and presentation of these new art forms, were being investigated by their own creators.
Art.Teleportacia (1998) dubbed as the very first Internet gallery was one of the first projects that addressed issues of the curatorial nature in the context of Internet art.19 The starting question for Lialina, a net.artist and initiator of the project was how to sell and own net.art. By engaging critically with issues that we are facing still today, the project opened up questions of what it means to sell art which is at the point of its creation open to mass reproducibility, while investigating and speculating on processes involved in materially owning a piece of net.art. This approach reveals an early recognition and familiarity with the new digital domain on the one hand, and on the other, it is driven by genuine necessity to address these issues in relation to the presentation, collection and ownership of digital and networked art.
This attitude represents an innovative curatorial method at least for two reasons. Firstly, it engages with the context in which net art was being created, that is the technological, social and institutional reality of net.art. Secondly, it introduces curating as a research method investigating practicalities of Internet-based art works. Curatorial method here too is driven by the pragmatic and hands-on motivation that could be seen in previous examples of curating by Sigelaub and others. Lialina’s later project The Last Real Net Art Museum (2000-ongoing) expands the curatorial inquiry to include questions of digital archiving and online distribution. Driven by an interest in ‘infinite reconfiguration of information in an open system’, Lialina’s own net.art project My Boyfriend Came Back from The War (1997) is offered as a reference for other artists and a material with which to create a number of variations, mixes and remixes.
Today The Last Real Net Art Museum is an archive of all these works and different ways in which artists decide to work with source material. It is an exhibition concept and a method of exploring how the same data can be re-mixed and recreated from source. As such it could be also considered in its relation to what today is defined as content curation.20 This curatorial project is furthermore a model of archiving where data is open to an infinite number of remixes and interpretations and where access to data is negotiated through artistic and curatorial collaborations. This is increasingly becoming a standard of working with archives in more traditional museums today, which open their vaults to artists in hope to revitalize their collections and connect with their publics anew.
Software curating and art platforms
These early experiments in curatorial methods show that artistic and curatorial domains have been amalgamated and that they now function within highly networked, social and technological conditions. Artworks require new methods and spaces of display and archiving while the practice of curating has been moving outside the very institution of art. As idiosyncratic curatorial methods were behind establishing the figure of an independent curator as a model for contemporary curatorial practice in the 1960s and after, the curatorial process has been now opened to social and technological forms that take part in making culture more broadly.
In recent years this new context of curating has been recognized and its conditions defined and theorized. Joasia Krysa’s understanding of curating as software sees the curatorial process as ‘a collective and distributed executable that displays machinic agency’.21 The curator functions within such a curatorial process as both a tool and a force of change. And curating is a system opened up to communicative processes and transformations beyond the usual institutional model and into the context of networks and their languages based on programmability and algorithms. Eva Grubinger’s C@C Computer Aided Curating (1993) was probably one of the earliest attempts to create a software-based curatorial and artistic framework for production, presentation, reception and sale of art. But it is with the rise of social media and the growing accessibility of social technologies supported by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and many other platforms, that such efforts have been more successful.
TAGallery (2007–2010), a project by Vienna-based curatorial collective CONT3XT explored the most basic network artefact – the link - as a representation of the artwork, its context, and an exhibition format at the same time. Using the social bookmarking site del.icio.us and its distributed system of bookmarking, tagging and social taxonomy (folksonomy) TAGallery created a repository of 782 links to 680 artists and art-collectives, to 714 artworks and projects, as well as huge amount of tags. The exploration of how art is made, presented and received, and how these changes influence curating is investigated outside of the art context, taking into account technological processes and social networks that influence how art is made and curated when socio-technological networks are involved.
Digital-born artefacts and Internet-based creative practices and their organization are considered by Olga Goriunova as ‘art platforms’ and as an instance of ‘organizational aesthetics’22 which account for collective and distributed process of making culture in the network society. Idiosyncratic forms of curating dependent on the curatorial subject are replaced by art platforms that perform creativity as collaboratively executed living practices. Curatorial capabilities to classify, document, display and archive are performed in and through human and technological objects, relations and interactions which are active in and simultaneously organized through art platforms. Runme.org, a software art repository active since 2003, is one of such art platforms where art and software culture connect. Described as a club, infinite exhibition, open collection and set of relationships it reveals how curating is not only concerned with art, but how it is an element that functions within a wider ecology of social and technological relations that take part in making culture.
‘not-just-art’ art and posthuman curating
Art platforms and software curating engage complexity present in creative practices. They offer an account of how to understand processes that result from assembling together human and technical objects and relations. Computation influences how art is made, displayed and archived and it is the effect that software and associated practices have on curating and organizing creativity on the Internet, that these two propositions recognize and investigate. Matthew Fuller defines art made in such conditions as ‘not-just-art’ art when the speculative engagement with software makes the work operational within the field of art and the Internet simultaneously.23 The Web Stalker (1998) a software application by I/O/D for reading and manipulating information on the Web is a forerunner of art that is not-just-art. Instagram performance of Amalia Ulman Excellences and Perfections (2014) is one of the examples of how this genre is updated for social media.
This is the new condition that has become the context for curating as a daily practice of displaying, linking, posting, re-blogging, commenting, categorizing that takes place non-stop on many social media platforms and is performed by its users. Here not just not-just-art art but not-just-art curating challenges traditional art monopolies. As once we were told that everyone is an artist, today every user of networked technologies is involved in some form of curating. The mundane activity of re-blogging images from Instagram or adding content via Tumblr dashboard participates in curating on a massive scale. And in the case of curating content, curatorial control is distributed beyond the human agent as it is performed by software and algorithms which aggregate content and categorize access to it.
In this new curatorial context, it is not just object/subject that is curated but its data. Often defined as traces of our digital lives data in fact is not a representation of every single user and her interactions with the World Wide Web. It should be rather considered as realization of correlations and situated connections among many agents that generate data. Content curating makes a person function in the regime of big data to select, manage, distil and contextualize content while also becoming its essential part. Content curating is also part of computational counting and visualization which makes it directly operational for big data.
The tendency that emerges from studying the genealogy of curating is, however, not a post-curatorial turn, but a posthuman form of curating. The difference between the two is important. The former is a speculation that functions with reference to the history of ‘the curatorial’, whereas the latter can offer speculative strategies to think and realize the future of exhibitions while recognizing curating in its many new forms and contexts. Posthuman curating opens up curating against and towards new subjects/objects as curating is defined outside its usual locations within the art world and at the same time firmly linked to them. It allows mapping relations, links and affects while being attentive to different/other agents that perform curating. Posthuman curating is a matter of responsibility that can sustain ‘the ongoing reconfiguring of the space of possibilities’24 for future curating and account for human (not just curators) and nonhuman others that are active in curating today. And while there might be a talk of Post-Curatorial Turn, perhaps posthuman curating might offer a way to deal with the changing materiality and relationality of curating as practice.
1 Paul O’Neill, Curating: Practice Becoming Common Discourse, in: /Seconds, 3. Juli 2006; www.slashseconds.org/issues/001/003/articles/poneil/index.php. Paul O’Neill, The Curatorial Turn: From Practice to Discourse, in: Judith Rugg/Michèle Sedgwick (Hg.), Issues in Curating Contemporary Art and Performance. Chicago 2007, S. 13–26.
2 Georg Schöllhammer, „Kuratiert von …“ , in: Christoph Tannert/Ute Tischler (Hg.), Men In Black. Handbuch der kuratorischen Praxis. Berlin/Frankfurt am Main 2004, S. 31–34 (zuerst erschienen in: springer – Hefte für Gegenwartskunst, Band II, 1/1996).
3 Jean-Paul Martinon, The Curatorial: A Philosophy of Curating. London 2013.
4 Vgl. David Balzer, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else. London 2015.
5 Vgl. Kapitel 1 in Magdalena Tyżlik-Carver, Curating In/As Common/S. Posthuman Curating and Computational Cultures, Dissertation, Universität Aarhus 2016.
6 Vgl. David Balzer, Reading lists, outfits, even salads are curated – it's absurd, in: The Guardian, 18. April 2015; https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/18/david-balzer-curation-social-media-kanye-west.
7 Ein Verzeichnis namhafter KuratorInnen bietet Hans Ulrich Obrist, A Brief History of Curating. Zürich 2008.
8 Ebd., S. 88.
9 Ebd., S. 125.
10 Dorothee Richter/Rein Wolfs, Institutions as Medium. Curating as Institutional Critique?, in: On Curating 2, Nr. 08, 2012, S. 3.
11 Julian Stallabrass, Rhetoric of the Image. On Contemporary Curating, in: Artforum, März 2013.
12 Simon Sheikh, Notizen zur Institutionskritik, in: Transversal – eipcp, Januar 2006; http://eipcp.net/transversal/0106/sheikh/de.
13 Jonas Ekeberg (Hg.), New Institutionalism. Oslo 2003.
14 Hito Steyerl, Die Institution der Kritik, in: Transversal – eipcp, Januar 2006; http://eipcp.net/transversal/0106/steyerl/de.
15 Vgl. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA 2002.
16 Olia Lialina, zitiert in: Domenico Quaranta, NET.ART, in: Spike Art Magazine, Herbst 2016; www.spikeartmagazine.com/de/artikel/netart.
18 Zu den wenigen Ausnahmen gehören das 1995 von Benjamin Weil initiierte äda 'web (www.adaweb.com/), das 1998 von den New Media Initiatives des Walker Art Center übernommen wurde, und das 2001 vom Whitney Museum gegründete Kunstportal artport, das heute eine Spezialsammlung des Whitney Museums ist.
19 http://art.teleportacia.org/. Ein früheres Projekt war Computer Aided Curating C@C (1993–95) von Eva Grubinger; vgl. www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/c-c-computer-aided-curating.
20 Mit dem Thema Content Curating befasse ich mich ausführlich in meinem in Kürze erscheinenden Artikel „Posthuman Curating and its Biopolitical Executions. The Case of Curating Content“, in: Helen Pritchard/Eric Snodgrass/Magdalena Tyżlik-Carver (Hg.), Executing Practices, DATA Browser 06, Autonomedia 2017.
21 Joasia Krysa, Software Curating. The Politics of Curating In/As (an) Open System(s). University of Plymouth, 2008, S. 4.
22 Vgl. Olga Goriunova, Art Platforms and Cultural Production on the Internet. London/New York 2012.
23 Matthew Fuller, A Means of Mutation. Notes on I/O/D 4: The Web Stalker, in: Variant, Nr. 6, 1998, S. 6–8; www.variant.org.uk/6texts/Matthew_Fuller.html. Matthew Fuller, Art Methodologies in Media Ecology, in: Simon O’Sullivan/Stephen Zepke (Hg.), Deleuze, Guattari and the Production of the New. London/New York 2011, S. 45–55.
24 Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham/London 2007, S. 391.