Curators in Context Response           Audience               Andrew James Paterson



Throughout the Curators in Context conference, audience — concepts of audience, positions of audience — has been a necessarily recurring trope. Art cannot be completed without an audience, no matter how non-performative or abstract the particular art might be by character.


“Audience can describe any group of individuals who visit or participate in the programming of a cultural organization” (Darryl Bank, CIC Wikipedia). Yes, audience refers to a group of individuals (plural). Organizations or institutions are constantly evaluating audiences — whether they are being achieved, whether or not they are coming away from exhibitions impressed or frustrated or confused or whatever. Audiences are intended recipients of educational and/or didactic materials published and circulated by institutions, which are devoted to guaranteeing attendance or visitation by targeted and not-so-targeted audiences. “Audience” might once have been a modernist abstraction — there is the art on the wall or the floor and then there is the audience, which is faceless and, by default, uniform. That conception of audience is now a thing of a pretty distant past. Or, is it?


Presenters at the CIC conference frequently stress the plurality of audiences, which must be taken in consideration with regards to curatorial selections, to accompanying publications and promotional material, to concurrent events that the institution stages to further contextualize its exhibitions, and so on. Curators are taught and employed to assume that there are in fact several audiences with different tastes and expectations. Sometimes curators and institutions prioritize certain potential audiences with regards to specific exhibitions, while hopefully not neglecting the fact that there are strands of audiences who might well attend the exhibitions either out of habit or out of freshly piqued curiosity.


Curators of small or more regional galleries are particularly articulate about the pluralist nature of audiences. Stuart Reid states that “in the process of divining the audience, one may consider many statistical factors, but demographic profiles are not enough” (CIC, Banff). Reid is rightly warning against tendencies to assume that demographic details determine tastes and opinions — that somebody is this and that so their responses are predictably this and that. Institutions — public galleries and ARCs — have in the past been prone to falling into this sort of trap. So…how do they avoid these unspoken but not quite obsolete assumptions about audiences, without falling back into the trap of assuming some general abstract of an audience?


Reid also states that there has been an unspoken assumption that curators should not be “dumbing down” their language for the benefit of non-art audiences. Behind this sentiment is a modernist assumption of an exhibition’s autonomy. But so much of contemporary art production and exhibition is contingent on audiences to complete those equations. And galleries do need visitors. It is true that funders and other benefactors frequently request evidence of profitable visitation — that bean-counter mentality does raise its head. But the separation of art and non-art audiences is problematic enough. Does “non-art audience” refer to people who haven’t read their cultural avatars? Does it refer to people who think art (“culture” in the elevated Matthew Arnold sense of that loaded word) is frivolous and inessential? No, because one can safely assume that such people have neither the time nor inclination to go to art galleries. Or, does the phrase “non-art audiences” refer to people who just might get a lot of stimulation and pleasure from art exhibitions if they knew about them and felt that the institutions were accessible? Non-art audiences, I believe, are just as plural or pluralist as art audiences.


It is not only in relation to gallery-attendance figures that the role of a curator is vital, with regards to audiences. Curators are the link to audiences- they select, exhibit, interpret, contextualize. And they collaborate with other institutional employees- the technicians and the publicists and more. Reid states that “the curator, as a catalyst, can create avenues for personal contact between artists and audiences that may involve participation and exchange towards enhancing experiences” (Reid, CIC, Banff, 2005). The key word here is “exchange“, and not the strictly financial definition of that noun and that verb.


Among the CIC speakers, one can detect very concerted efforts among largely (but not only) the younger curators with both the sizes and the compositions of audiences. Alissa Firth-Eagland describes her curatorial enterprise Feats, might, for which she commissioned three primarily media or video artists to undertake performances, a tall part of her intention being to mix audiences that don’t seem to mix. I think there is some truth to the assumption that video and performance audiences don’t mix (despite video art’s roots in body sculpture and/or performance) and that many people who can deal with the prolonged nature of much durational performance don’t particularly relate to what they feel video art has become (not sculptural or painterly video-installation but rather single-channel video resembling either film or television). Perhaps there is some fundamental opposition between montage and mise-en-scene? But I do a think a constructive attempt to confound perceived audience expectations — to create cross-disciplinary dialogue — is admirable curatorial practice.


Jason St. Laurent’s paper, in which his tongue is not entirely in cheek, is devoted to the concern of increasing audience size. He describes the city-wide distribution of didactic materials advertising SAW Video’s upcoming programming, and how he’ll keep the language simple and informative for non-art venues while mixing in academic writing for more art-related venues. This seems to be effective enough, although I would argue that there are academic types who use public laundromats as well as public libraries (and also go to nightclubs). Milena Placentile, who in 2005 was St. Laurent’s upstairs neighbour in Ottawa’s Arts Court building while curating at the Ottawa Art Gallery, discusses how she would make her openings an event not to be missed with the deployment of a band bringing in a youth audience, and so on. Openings are a priority for many institutions — so much so that in many cases the openings are themselves performances of a sort. Galleries off the beaten track, such as Toronto’s Art Gallery at York University, make their openings an excursion, with a Performance Bus to transport audiences to and from the gallery, and more. For many audiences, the openings are the show. But the social aspect of art openings — the mixing and gossiping — often occurs outside the actual exhibition space. One can’t have red wine dripping onto the art, after all. I myself attend openings, take in the art, and often find myself socializing. If I decide the art is really interesting, I pledge to return to the institution at a later date and spend time there — in a non-social context.


Energetic efforts to get as many bodies into the gallery or institution, for openings and exhibition, stand in contrast to curatorial practices which separate on-site and off-site. Curators and institutions who make this separation do so with a spoken assumption that certain people will enter the gallery and certain people will not, and that specific exhibitions or performances can only be properly realized in an off-site and non-gallery environment. With regards to off-site programming, performances, events, interventions, whatever, are being directed towards what has been described as an “accidental audience” (Accidental Audience: Urban Intervention by Artists, ed. Kym Preusse, Mercer Union, 1998). Dermot Wilson, of North Bay’s WKP Kennedy Gallery, is an enthusiast of what he refers to as “displaced projects” which “draw displaced audiences. The walkers, swimmers, skiers, skateboarders, the people going about their business, tend to react positively to the works and often take ownership of the pieces by passing along information and anecdotes about the project…” (Wilson, CIC, Banff, 2005). Wilson is describing his experiences with non-art audiences who are unlikely to remain non-art audiences. However, what about walkers and swimmers and others who might not react positively to the works or performances? I believe that there are citizens who prefer that public space remain as neutral as possible. Sometimes I myself feel that way.


Montreal-based Marie Fraser is an independent curator who prefers to curate urban interventions. She is another believer in the mixing of art and non-art audiences, an advocate of opening “relational dimensions of art” (Marie Fraser, Exhibit as Platform, CIC, Toronto, 2005) Fraser believes that off-site programming can redefine curatorial roles, and thus also the respective roles of artists and audiences. She has curated and overseen several off-site exhibitions, in areas and/or neighbourhoods off the beaten art-tracks. Art exhibited in public spaces, that are visited every day by citizens, can counteract the overriding tendency for art to become Spectacle, thus reinforcing traditional artist and audience positions. The audience — whether a group of individuals or a singular individual — need not be passive.



Arts Bureaucrats A and B have returned from another stimulus session.



A: Well, B. Everybody is so concerned about those non-art audiences.


B: Exactly, A. And they’re so careful to stress that there are several non-art audiences.


A: Those who would really engage with the exhibitions if only they felt like entering the galleries.


B: Those who would interact with the exhibitions if only they were located somewhere other than in Big Bad Galleries.


A: I think sometimes people forget there is a huge component of the general population that couldn’t care less about art.


B: But… is that because they don’t have daily encounters with art, or because art is so separated from life, and all of those leftist Situationist Immediatist truisms? Or what?


A: I think that institutions sometimes forget that their audiences are largely, if not primarily, art-audiences.


B: I’m not so sure about that one, A. Look at some of the regional centres like Tom Thomson or Hamilton Artists Inc.


A: Yes, they’re caught between a need to have some national and international programming, and some responsibility … .


B: Accountability.


A: Okay, B. Accountability to their audiences, or communities.


B: Artistic communities consisting of artists living and working in the region.


A: Well…this is all contingent on the nature or the wording or whatever of institutional mandates. If this gallery’s mandate is to serve artists living and working within an immediate geographical radius, then one can’t stray too far from home without ruffling a few feathers.


B: Yes, those conundrums will never disappear. I’m such a fan of intelligent mixed curation.


A: Contextualizing national and international artists among local artists and vice versa.


B: Yes, of course. But it’s interesting that this notion of local responsibility — this need for artists to see themselves in the mirror — isn’t just in the smaller centres.


A: François Dion talks about the lack of such performativity with Montreal artists…how the big institutions there are not responding to a need for a Montreal profile.


B: Well, with an international city…and Montreal certainly is one…not just tourists are visiting the city with the intention of seeing some good resident-artists.


A: Yes, institutions can get caught between being a local service organization and needing to exhibit big stars who aren’t really familiar to local audiences.


B: But artists like to see other artists they’ve read or heard about…whose images they’ve seen reproduced. They want to see those images on the wall…in the gallery.


A: And why not? Kitty Scott makes the same point when she wonders just why there hasn’t been a Canadian Biennial for more than two decades. Why not mix Canadian artists who have international cache with Canadian artists who could or should? Why not have a high-profile national event?


B: And this would be for both art and non-art audiences, A. I mean, why not?


A: I guess logistics.


B: Or are we caught again in another dead end between local, national, and international?


A: Local is a place. People have to go to places.


B: Unless the art is all on line?


A: Oh, B, don’t go there. That opens up a can of worms.


B: Only one can of worms, A?


A: Well, let’s see. Size, scale … .


B: Aura, Walter Benjamin. We are now living in an age of mechanical reproductions of mechanical reproductions of mechanical reproductions and so on.


A: And so on indeed. But art is never anti-social, B. Even at its most abstract.


B: Even at its most traditionally majestic?


A: Yes. Audiences are never just passive spectators.


B: Yes and no, A. But you’re right. The role of the audience must be considered at least as much as the size and the composition of the audiences.



The roles and role-expectations of audiences have indeed shifted considerably over the last forty-plus years. Curatorial practice has shifted along with the very definitions of the word “curator” and the emergence of its sub-verbs and practice-related nouns. These shifts could never have happened without the emergence of relatively new or newly defined disciplines (video, performance, installation), which demanded fresh approaches to both curating and experiencing. Video and performance were either durational or specifically time-based in ways not specific to traditional or “static” art practices (although all art involves temporal commitment). Ironically enough, video art segmented into video projection and/or installation, which tended to freeze time in a manner not unlike sculpture or even painting. But now there are exhibitions — there are artists and curators collaborating on exhibitions — in which temporality is a ghost in space and that space itself is site-specific (whether in or outside an institution or gallery). The space is where audiences are expected to spend time, rather than in front of the work on the wall or even the floor. With what Nicolas Bourriaud has characterized as “relational aesthetics”, the material essence of the work lies in the audience’s engagement and participation with the work.


But what is that audience’s participation and/or engagement? How exactly do audiences participate in these exhibitions and function as completing halves of equations initiated by artists or curators or curator/artists or whom/whatever? Bourriaud sees exhibitions as sets — film sets or theatrical sets needing decoding or interpreting by the viewer. “The work does not (offer) itself as a spatial whole that can be scanned by the eye, but as a time span to be crossed, sequence by sequence, similar to a still short-movie in which the viewer has to evolve by himself.” (Nicolas Bourriaud, “Un art de realisateurs“, Art Press, No.147, May 1990. The exhibition, Courts-metranges, was put on for the 1990 Venice Biennial, Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, p.78). These are director’s exhibitions, but neither autocratic film director nor deep-focus cinematographer is going to be determining sequence. It is up to the audience to be the explorer, the animator, perhaps even the docent. Both Bourriaud and CIC presenter Anthony Kiendl state that the exhibition has become a set (Kiendl cites reality television), but who are the actors and what kind of actors are they? If there are no stars, then does this make the audience extras?  Or, if there are stars —or at least actors — then why are some audience members players and some extras, background action?


I have done film and television extra work, and I remember very little of the job involving background action. I remember the times I cursed myself for only bringing along one book in order to kill time and avoid getting stuck in boring conversations with other extras who had delusions of having acting careers. Extras spend a great deal of their time in spatial and temporal limbo and, when they are not killing time, they are being instructed to do actions not of their own volition. An extra is perhaps midway between artist and audience   they’re not really artists and they’re not really audience or spectators. It did occur to me once that being an extra was a great source-material for writing bad film or television scripts namely by stealing the plot of the movie that you are servicing by being nothing more than background action. But that would mean that extras only have agency when they stop acting like extras.


In her essay “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, Claire Bishop describes the aesthetic of Bourriaud and Palais de Tokyo as being a laboratory. This is another word — one with scientific origins — which is often bandied about in relation to curatorial and artistic practices of the 1990s and into the twenty-first century. If curators are research scientists, then what are artists (Chemicals? Atoms?). If artists are also research-scientists, then what are audiences? Willing guinea pigs? Laboratory assistants? Surely not patients? Bishop asks “If relational art produces human relations, then the next logical question to ask is what type of relations are being produced, for whom, and why” (Claire Bishop, Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, October 110, p.65, 2004). Bishop sees Bourriaud’s conception of relational aesthetics being intrinsically democratic as flawed, as his equations depend on a unified subjectivity that does not exist when one begins to interact with crowds or audiences of extremely different individuals.


Here we must deal with that loaded word “community”, and its various contradictory and even antagonistic usages. I feel many people in the art world, as well as in sociological circles, interchangeably deploy “community” and “scene”. A scene has its dissonances but tends to be unified in its coalescence around particular sites and events. A community is not harmonious — it is fragile, acrimonious, or simply prone to division. Communities are not unlike audiences — they consist of specific individuals and groups and even scenes and should never be assumed to be some unified entity. So…how does one critique falsely unified concepts of community or audience without falling back into the modernist trap of refusing to visualize or characterize its members in order to avoid privileging some audience or community members over others? 


It is important to remember that, whether inside or outside an art gallery or institution, the boundaries between art and non-art audiences are not always clear cut. Sometimes they can actually become quite blurry. How would one classify people who regularly attend exhibitions and who have strong preferences or tastes but don’t elaborate on these except by referring to gut feelings or impulses? How would one classify individuals who know what they like but who are not coming from any art-historical or educational background? I don’t think these are particularly unusual individuals. The term “art audience” implies those in the know — surely there are people who can enjoy (or not enjoy) without being “in the know”? Or does the term “non-art audience” refer to those who never go to art or cultural institutions and who might happen across a piece of public or off-site art, and who may become engaged with that art? And then what about art audiences who take issue with curatorial choices, on varying grounds. This curator is being facetious   is not being responsive to “the community”    is privileging the international over the local. Audience can refer to artists as well as non-artists and those boundaries are often not fixed. Audiences are often, if not always, absolutely necessary to complete an exhibition’s curatorial equation. But not all audience members answer in unison. So how does one critique unspoken and sometimes even spoken assumptions about harmonious audiences and communities without falling into that long-discredited modernist trap?