Issue 1/2017 - The Post-Curatorial Turn
The text originated as a collection of notes made by the curator, who despite not keeping a field diary combines observations on the changing realities of his profession with observations of the social sciences – certain of their theories and the conditions within which they themselves operate.
It concerns observations that need to be made for a number of reasons. One of these is in order to formulate a set of arguments constituting the institution of contemporary art, and in their formulation it is necessary to be aware that the goal of such observations is to bring theory closer to the practice that I have the opportunity to influence as a statutory and executive representative of a specific institution.
The organisation in question has the moment of transition enshrined in its name (tranzit). Transition as a temporary interval between two disparate states. In its mission the institution advocates social-political transformation as the basis of its project. Within the cultural sphere, the transformation of post-socialist countries onto the scene of the “new world order”, was accompanied by activity based on a faith in the “autonomy and independence” of the cultural project, offering an arena for the operation of autonomous artistic, academic and activist organisations. This can be documented not only by institutions such as tranzit, but by the majority of organisations of new institutionalism, whose agenda was to open up a space for countercultural subjects, knowledge and communities to operate within. The period of “transition” has now reached its end, after more than one decade. The conception of society as a malleable material that begins to enter into a state of flux under the influence of the powerful external temperatures of historic events (the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution), a material that can alter its hitherto solid state and be shaped by alternative forces of an independent, autonomous counterculture is over. Society has cooled and ossified. The cold shower of the privatisation of assets, the invasion of global capital and the tightening of their grip on power by the victors of this crusade have altered the conditions of the environment to such an extent that the original post-revolutionary humanist idealism (which had a universalist, inclusive dimension) today appears as a criminal (or entirely infantile) failure of judgement.
The concept of a transitory institution aptly identified the dependency of the institutional agenda on the transient nature of mapping social-political processes. These institutions were established in order to help society get from point A (Eastern European systems) to point B (the Western European system). Economic privatisation and material and capital transfers during the period of transition have been grosso modo completed, whilst the social demands accompanying them have been suspended, confined to waiting lists, put on ice etc. by the neoliberal ideologists and political realists. Transitory institutions gradually began to fulfil the function of reservoirs for those political, social and cultural desires that were displaced by “realistic economics”. The organisations that were intended to assist evolutionary transformation, under the influence of toxic waste were transformed into institutions of transition – dumping grounds of displaced pasts and unfulfilled expectations of the future. It was further demonstrated that the West is not the final destination, and that the transformation of the East is itself a component of the transformation of the West.
Nowadays, in addition to the conflict with the altered social and political reality, the institution of transition comes into an epistemological conflict also with the terms of post-contemporaneity, post-institution, post-human, as conceptions of speculative realism. As mentioned previously, transitory institutions can be placed within the broader context of new institutionalism, an established designation of critical institutions from the end of the 1990s. They addressed currently urgent issues. The directors and curators of these institutions sought ways in which to temporarily represent minority policies of equality (social class, gender), criticised the arrogance of power (in the economic sphere in the form of exploitation, the extraction of natural resources), materially mediated symbolic transactions which a classic museum was incapable of for ideological reasons (see e.g. Picasso in Palestine, 2011), and generally speaking they always attempted to stand alongside the disadvantaged minority (somewhat in the spirit of Sartre's similarly formulated definition of the public engagement of the intellectual). Critique of speculative realism by figures such as Suhail Malik does not resonate because of the low effectiveness of the critical process (it therefore does not relate to intensity or means), but is focused on a romantic horizon of an escape of art from art, from an anarchist-realist dictum that sees hope for art beyond its boundaries (activist groups, free schools, laboratories, etc.).
One of the key economic problems of Western Europe over the last decades that has divided political projects of the political left and right is that of “delocalisation”. Liberal approaches proposed even greater liberalisation, leading to a reduction of labour costs, social approaches emphasised a strengthening of regulatory economic institutions within the framework of national borders. Delocalisation1 is an economically motivated process of the relocation of manufacturing plants and factories from the former West to the countries of what was formerly Eastern Europe or to the south, where average labour costs are lower and trade unions weaker. The delocalisation of a firm reduces costs, increases profitability and expands markets. In the countries from where production is relocated, it leaves unemployed labourers and administrative staff, and abandoned factory buildings. As remarked by Hito Steyerl in her essay Is a Museum a Factory?, the new function of empty factory buildings (primarily those from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century) is to become museums of contemporary art.2 Gentrified factory complexes providing asylum to museums and galleries (in the East the same type of premises host shopping malls3 that sometimes host museums) close a historical circle. The artistic work Workers Leaving the Factory in 11 Decades, Haroun Farocki, 2006, as well as the Lyon museum of cinematography, return workers and production back to the place they were forced to abandon due to the process of delocalisation, but return them as a spatial installation of moving pictures of factory work.4
The main argument presented in favour of the privatisation of industry by the ideologues of the free market was the “influx of capital” which was “missing” here, as well as access to “know-how” which was hitherto unavailable that will both contribute to the creation of a free, self-regulating market.
The “absence of an artistic market” within the space of Eastern Europe signalled something worse, namely an absence of value, with all the lack of clarity concerning how the “artistic-historical market” determines the value of a work of art. An example could be an international conference on the writing of the post-war history of art in Eastern Europe that took place in Prague in 2004. Despite the fact that the theme of the conference was historiography, most of the exchanges of opinions between the Western and Eastern curators centred on the lack of an art-market. The representatives of the East at the conference complained that significant works of post-war history (somewhat less than contemporary art) exist in a financial and economic vacuum, and do not have prices commensurate to those in the West. They manifested signs of panic due to a dual absence – an absence of value, which reflected the lack of importance of art in a social situation where significance is measured by money, and also due to the absence of a history of Eastern European art within the museum canon of international art, to which it had been denied access without the support and marketing of private collectors, commercial galleries and institutions that are dependent upon the recognition of the market. The Western colleagues at this meeting and in similar debates occupied a highly critical position towards the artistic market as a manifestation of mercantile capitalism, and said: “be glad that no market exists where you are, try to hold it off for as long as possible”.
If a museum is a factory, is a curator a labourer?
The rationalisation of factory production, Taylorism, Fordism, today occupies museums and galleries in the form of projected moving images of workers, but is fully beginning to control the internal organisation of labour. How is it possible that this is taking place so late, at the time of the fourth industrial revolution, when museums should be automated and curators should be replaced by robots? Probably because within this type of organisation up to now, expert fields have been accumulated, expertise has not been bureaucratised and credentialised (as ultimately documented also by the recently established disciplines of Curatorial Studies, Museum Studies, Cultural Marketing, etc.). A further reason may be the very tangible, material agenda of the museum-gallery complex, which though it may be digitised, still remains legitimised by the concept of the “artistic original”.
A characteristic feature of modern factory production5 is conveyor belt production on assembly lines, in connection with an ever more advanced division of labour. The well known scene from Chaplin's film Modern Times depicts Little Tramp, who has newly been employed on a production line to tighten bolts on parts of some kind of product. The assembly line moves at a speed which is beyond his capabilities, and as a result Little Tramp is constantly falling behind.
During the course of the third industrial revolution, the incarnation of the conveyor belt became software: the table processor (Visicalc, 1979-1985, Lotus 1-2-3, 1983-2002, Excel, 1983-) and the personal information manager. The non-linear organisation of employees' time, complicated by a set of machinery within which various specialisations are connected to one another and are bound by sequentiality, ideally corresponds to the function of the Excel table. The Excel table is an endless Grid, whose aesthetic-signifying character is clarified by Rosalind Krauss in her famous essay.6 Whereas museums modestly but falsely conceal modern Excel methods behind mimicries of aristocratic, royal palaces, eccentric or exhibitionist gallery buildings administrative complexes – the most modern factories of the tertiary and quaternary sector, in the design of their facades transparently mirror the methods of their organisations – rows and columns of Windows, arranged like table processors.
The creation of an artistic artefact today is an event that on a material level is co-participated in and co-financed by several subjects: the artist, private gallery, production company, gallery, museum. The reason is amongst other factors the demanding nature of production, material costs, the utilisation of a whole range of copyrighted procedures, patented technologies etc. As a rule, change of ownership takes place indirectly – by means of private galleries, agents, auction houses, at large international trade fairs, as well as via other connecting links, and it presupposes investments in the promotion of works, galleries and events. The transit of artefacts requires specialised transports, insurance and technological solutions upon their installation.
In museums and private collections, artefacts are the subject of inventories and documentation, they require supervision of the safety of visitors, as well as of the protection of the works themselves. The organisation of an exhibition presupposes media service, promotion, marketing and visitor service. An exhibition requires long-term pre-production, legal service, specific techniques, conditions of installation, climatic regime and restoration service. Within the framework of organisation, all of these services require financial backing (combined from private and state resources) and organisational backing. This is a rough and somewhat disorganised enumeration of the expanding specialisations of the experts directly employed or called upon within the framework of an artistic organisation.
Within this network, curators have a designated place and competences, but their symbolic capital enables them to move across the network of production relations. However, their place within the chain of the organisation's activities is no different from Chaplin's Little Tramp. The institutional chain of terms and norms also determines the time within which curators must present the list of displayed exhibits, when they are to begin and complete co-operation with the architect on the exhibition libretto, when they must finish writing the text and works on the catalogue, promotional materials, programmes for the public, the technical-content parameters of the works, exhibition texts, labels etc.
All of these terms are determined and controlled both by the management and by the backer financing the organisation. Is the problem of the curator, like that of Little Tramp, caused by insufficient time for individual working and research tasks?
Would the solution to be to slow down the conveyor belt? In a lecture on contemporaneity, Jacques Ranciere recalls two types of time spoken about by Aristotle. “Au nevieme partie de la poetique Aristote opposait deux temporalites. D un cote rationalite poetique, de l autre l´empiricite historique. L historiciite decrit les evenments comment ils arrievnt l una pres l autre. Alors que la poesie decrit les evenements comment ils peuvent arriver. Elle est dercrit comme enchainment rationelle de cause et effets selon la necessite ou la vraisemblence.” The distinction between two types of linkage of time corresponds to a distinction between two types of people: “There are those whose time is situated within the logic of events which may occur. This takes place according to the logic of cause and effect, in which a role is played by knowledge and free time … thus the time of people who have time. Whereas on the other hand there are people who live in the present, in which things occur one after another, the time of people who don't have time. Time endured and constructed by sequentiality, or time constructed by causality.” We could find a similar distinction between the powerful and powerless in the different potentiality of time within human conduct, as defined by De Certeau, in the difference between tactic and strategy.7
Within the art-bureaucratic complex the curator works within both modes of time simultaneously, which is all the more important for the fact that the “logic of events that may occur” is not the poetic logic that Aristotle had in mind, but the logic of art-bureaucratic production. Its author is naturally not the poet, the curator, or even the head of the institution. Its author is the alienated and inhuman logic of modern bureaucracy, whose most advanced forms have been a part of delocalisation packages.
According to David Graeber, modernistic bureaucracy is distinguished by features regardless of the ideological paradigm of the bureaucratic apparatus: “In the big picture it hardly matters, then, whether one seeks to reorganize the world around bureaucratic efficiency (socialistic countries) or market rationality (capitalism): all the fundamental assumption remain the same. This helps explain why it's so easy to move back and forth between them, as with those ex-Soviet officials who so cheerfully switched hats from endorsing total state control of the economy, to total marketization – and in the process, true to the Iron Law, managed to increase the total number of bureaucrats employed in their country dramatically”.8 Graeber's comparison of the history of modern bureaucratic organisations feeds into the argument that “The most profound legacy of the dominance of bureaucratic forms of organization over the last two hundred years is that it has made this intuitive division between rational, technical means and the ultimately irrational ends to which they are put seem like a common sense.”9 In other words, that “bureaucracy is the first and only social form of institution that treats the means of doing things as entirely separate from what it is that's being done.”10
In addition to the sequencing of tasks within the framework of the organisation of an individual institution, the employee of an art-bureaucratic complex is embedded within the global time of operation. This tempo is perhaps best captured by the bleeping emitted by invitations from e-flux (art agenda, art education, architecture…). Messages about artistic events taking place in locations all around the entire planet are collected in centralised form in a single location in order to be synchronised in a single time (New York), and then once again sent out to 90,000+ locations around the globe. Events are reordered in a purely mechanical chronology, creating a global present, constructed by the sequentiality of notifications of one event after another.
In a text from the end of the 1980s, the Czech philosopher Ladislav Hejdánek asks the question as to whether life in an authoritarian society, in which nothing “real” happens, where the public arena is a lethargy of repeated, empty rituals, finds itself outside of history precisely thanks to this ritualised emptiness. His conclusion was that it does not, because in his view history is shaped by any gesture in the tradition of thought, and may proceed independent of the frozen and controlled public arena. I ask a similar question again today, when we feel ourselves to be part of the empty rituals of artistic bureaucracy, the transfer of intellectual exchange to the exchange of power, but together with Hejdánek we must share the feeling that history is in motion – paradoxically – that it may take place only elsewhere – during the breaks in the working day (the proverbial Coffee breaks), in “free” time, or in timelessness. Or for example in bed – Mladen Stilinovič, Artist at work, 1978.
Towards Institutional Therapy
The curator of an art-bureaucratic complex is similar to Little Tramp, a worker whose conveyor belt speed and rhythm of gestures is controlled by the Excel table and personal time manager. Unless the curator accommodates a partial adjustment of the speed of the conveyor belt agreed upon within the framework of bargaining by (non-existent) curators' unions, no other option remains than to seek a more radical change.
Nina Möntmann, in a text relating to new institutionalism, characterises critical institutions as “institutions that have internalized the institutional critique that was formulated by artists in the 1970s and 90s and developed an auto-critique that is put forward by curators in the first place. Curators no longer just invited critical artists, but were themselves changing institutional structures, their hierarchies, and functions.”11 Has this above-mentioned internalisation of the institutional critique taken place, and if so, how intensive has it been? As Charles Esche states: “it didn’t actually produce anything stable and lasting as ‘new institutions.’”12
A negative response today will undoubtedly cause controversy, but it is relatively clearly demonstrable that the institutional revolution has not happened. And it could not happen, because new institutionalism overlooked the neuralgic instance – the turn of the institutional critique inward – to the vertical and horizontal relations within the institution.
In art itself critique was directed merely and exclusively to those relations that were immediately existing and present, as declared by Andrea Fraser in Artist's Statement, 1992: “The point is not to interpret those relations, as they exist elsewhere; the point is to change them.” Earlier in the same text Fraser asserts: “in the last resort non one can be slain in absentia or in effigie”13. It is not possible to change the relations within an institution from somewhere outside, in another institution, or in the future. It must occur directly upon the territory of the institution in question, and in the present. This is Fraser's lesson from psychoanalysis, from Freud's text Dynamics of Transference, in which the theory of transfer is presented. Transfer is one of the constitutive psychoanalytical process during which the unconscious desires of the subject under analysis in relation to external objects repeat during analytical sessions, and are eventually transferred to the analyst. And it is only thanks to transfer that they can be articulated and the analysed subject can hear them.
Transfers of another kind occur within the institutional critique. The curator transfers his or her desire for an ideal institution onto a work of art, which he or she then presents to the public within the institution. However, this desire relates to the institution of the gallery or museum in which the curator works, or wishes to work.
A movement that has succeeded in internalising the critical view of the is “Institutional Therapy”, which became renowned primarily thanks to the Clinique de la Borde, established by the French psychiatrist Jean Oury in 1953. The fundamental formula for radical transformation proposed by institutional therapy (IT) starts out from a statement of a dual alienation to which the pensioner is exposed. The first alienation is caused by the illness that tears the patient out of the world of “common sense”, and the second is caused by hierarchical, authoritarian and socially pathological relations, which characterise classical psychiatric institutions. How could the patient be cured by an institution in which the relations are “pathological”? Therefore, according to Tosquelles, Oury, Guattari and other proponents of IT, it is first of all necessary to cure the relations within the institution, so that in parallel therewith, genuine therapeutic care can be provided to pensioners. Guattari broadened the investigation of the symptoms of pathological relations to wider social groups and their problematic contexts, naming it Schizoanalysis.
Industrialisation, bureaucratisation, capitalisation, the robotisation of relations between actors of the art-bureaucratic complex that takes place within the framework of social petrification and the delocalisation of know-how places new challenges before curators and institutions. If curators wish to preserve the relationship between the goal of the artistic institution and how it is attained (art-bureaucratic methods), if the institution is to maintain the cathartic potential of a museum and gallery in relation to the public (multitudes) within the conditions of late capitalism and not widen further the schism between art and bureaucracy, it must undergo institutional therapy.
The first area of therapy shall be time. It is necessary to turn our attention to the Excel dictatorship, the biopolitical consequences of the personal time manager, the endured time of things occurring one after another without co-ordination (indeterminacy). To consider what schedules (inhuman, rational, instinctive) should enter our contemplation of the future.
It shall be necessary to participate actively in the re-creation of the status of those who “have time”; to return to genuinely speculative temporal concepts; and last but not least to resolve the question of what curators will do in their free time in future, if the content of their work is to create poetry.
1 The delocalisation referred to here relates primarily to relocation within the framework of Eastern and Western Europe.
2 Hito Steyrl, „Is Museum a Factory?", e-flux Journal #07, June 2009.
3 See e.g. the shopping centres in Manufaktura Lodz, Vaňkovka Brno, Shopping Place Bratislava, etc.
4 In the circulative exchanges designating and designated, exhibitions in connection with the movement of speculative realism and accelerationism adhere to the aesthetic and arrangement of shopping malls of near future.
5 In the period following the second industrial revolution clearly separated from the steam engine by the discovery of electricity and the introduction of assembly lines.
6 Rosalind Krauss, Grids, October, Vol. 9 (Summer, 1979), pp. 50-64.
7 Michel de Certeau, L’invention du quotidien. Vol. 1, Arts de faire, 1980.
8 David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Melville House, 2015), p. 41.
9 Ibid., p. 40.
10 Ibid, p. 165.
11 The Rise and Fall of New Institutionalism, Perspectives on a Possible Future Nina Möntmann, 08/2007, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0407/moentmann/en
12 Lucie Kolb, Gabriel Fuckinger, We Were learning by doing, Interview with Charles Esche, On Curating, Issue 21 / December 2013, p. 27, http://www.on-curating.org/files/oc/dateiverwaltung/issue21/PDF_to_Download/ONCURATING_Issue21_A4.pdf
13 Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: The Writings of Andrea Fraser, ed. Alexander Alberro, Cambridge, MA,: MIT, 2007, p. 3.