Curators in Context Response         Post-Conference        Andrew James Paterson



One brutally cold Wednesday afternoon in late December when the admission to the Art Gallery of Ontario was free of charge, writer and curmudgeon Patrick Anderson was giving the contemporary Canadian works the once-over, when he unexpectedly bumped into his old colleagues A and B. These two cultural pundits or former bureaucrats (Patrick had never been sure exactly what this odd couple did with their lives.) had just concluded attending a conference with the unwieldy title of “Curators in Context. This sprawling event had taken place in two stages — the first in Banff during the preceding summer and then the second up at York University, in Toronto. Or, Patrick remembered, “out there” at York. Wasn‘t that the Art Gallery at York University‘s promotional slogan?


Patrick exchanged pleasantries with the odd couple. He himself hadn’t been up to much of anything for some time, so he listened to their tales of the Curators in Context conference. Patrick, like so many individuals without careers of their own, adored gossip.


However, after the gossip had exhausted itself, both Patrick Anderson and the odd couple were struck by a brief artistic statement by the prominent Canadian icon Michael Snow, situated on the gallery wall by the entrance to the AGO’s Michael Snow room.


“I am interested in making a present situation for the spectator” (Michael Snow, AGO statement)


All three observers agreed that this sounded not unlike Nicolas Bourriaud’s credo of “relational art” or “relational aesthetics”, which, not by coincidence, was the term most bandied about by the curators and panellists at the conference that A and B had just attended. Patrick smiled as A and B both vehemently declared themselves to be relational-aestheticized out. What was that definition again? Patrick remembered reading Bourriaud’s manifesto not too long after the beginning of the twenty-first century. He flashed back to reading about “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space” (Nicolas Bourriaud, “Relational Aesthetics”, les presses du reel (accent?), 1998, p. 14). Yes, Patrick recalled. Bourriaud’s little opus was initially published in the late twentieth century but not translated into English until 2002.


Well, Snow’s statement did certainly remind all three gallery visitors of Bourriaud’s ruminations, but neither Patrick nor the two conference-survivors could apply the “relational aesthetics” tag to Michael Snow’s oeuvre as Snow’s constructions and projections, although demanding active as opposed to passive viewers, did not create particular social spaces within the institution. However, all three observers found themselves abandoning Snow and dropping in on his neighbours and contemporaries General Idea, to whom the concept of social space within the institution did seem more than slightly applicable. Yes, General Idea. Once again ahead of their time. And, on that note, Patrick Anderson excused himself from the two conference survivors and from the institution itself, and left his old friends to their own devices.


A and B attempted to put a date on Patrick Anderson’s most recent exhibition within reasonable memory, and then scratched their heads with regards to the subject of “relational art” or “relational aesthetics”. They agreed that there were in fact many large and small exhibitions within large and small galleries that possessed the capability of becoming Temporary Autonomous Zones within heavily regulated institutions. They agreed that not only a Liam Gillick or a Rirkrit Tiravanija or a Felix Gonzalez-Torres but also a General Idea or a Michael Snow or a Turner or Malevich or Giacometti or Any Halfway Interesting Artist might easily become the site of an interchange between gallery patrons or viewers. And this interchange was highly unlikely to be the sort of volatile encounter that would disturb other viewers, but it could nevertheless become a memorable event in the viewing histories of those involved as well as stimulate new readings of the monumental works on the wall or the floor or the screen or the whatever. Then A and B decided to relocate to a nearby favourite Chinese restaurant and continue their post-conference discussion.




A: Well, B, another conference and another show?


B: I guess a show in the broadest sense of that wretched noun. A lot of PowerPoint, if that’s what we’re referring to.


A: Well, yes. If curators are going to talk about their practices, if not their methodologies, then we need to see those visuals.


B: Yes. See Example 1. See Example 1 on site. In its context. But what we see is not all we get. We don’t see the entire context and neither do they.


A: Meaning?


B: Oh come on, A. Even independent curators working theoretically outside of institutions are still dealing with institutions. There are mechanisms behind every public presentation, even those in which the curators or the producers or … .


A: The entrepreneurs?


B: Yes, in many cases. The entrepreneurs claim reflexivity. They claim to integrate the process of curation — all of its mechanics — into the exhibition.


A: The warts and even the mistakes.


B: Oh yes, A. You can only have your cake and eat it up to a certain point, and then it just becomes more curation, more show, more spectacle.


A: Hmmmmm.


B: Oh, I’m not so cynical here. There’s actually quite the range of curators at this little conference. We have younger and older specimens of curator, we have some working within institutions, and we have some working against institutions…


A: We have some working against while working inside institutions.


B:  Yes. What would curation be without subterfuge? And we have these hybrid artist/curators.


A: Yes, of course. Then we have those who go back and forth, and those who seem to cross a line.


B: And become curators rather than artists, and alienate their “communities”.


A: Do we mean “communities” as a synonym for “audiences” here, B? Considering all the current debates about curatorial courses at universities which claim to teach curation independently of a hands-on social situation, so many of these especially younger curators are not just concerned but even obsessed with audiences.


B: I agree. And I like how some of the younger curators think in terms of mixing up different audiences for different disciplines. And if anybody still thinks that’s a bean-counter mentality, then too bad.


A: This rejection of the audience as some impersonal abstraction is at least as old as Warhol and pop art.


B: Or General Idea. “If it doesn’t sell, then it’s not art.“


A: Yes. Back in 1980, all the lefties thought that quote was so Reaganite or Thatcherite. I did at first, myself. But then I realized that Felix was dishing all those diehard modernists who never get out of their studios.


B: If it doesn’t enter into play, then how can it be art? Yes, how could one argue with that? The Instant Coffee maxim — be social or get lost — is a descendant of GI’s infamous dictum.


A: I used to loathe the Instant Coffee tag line. It brought out the latent — hell, the blatant, modernist in me.


B: But…back to curation and curators. They’ve always either worked for institutions for which audiences must be counted and then evaluated, or worked independently with audience still being necessary or else why have an exhibition.


A: Curation is then a performative art form?


B: Well, A, some of our conference presenters do speak in such terminologies. Performative, if not performance art.


A: Or” relational art?”


B: Yes, that term does tend to get bandied about. I knew we’d be encountering it sooner or later.


The terms “relational art” and “relational aesthetics” had been in vogue for some time now by the time of the CIC conference. Not only had these terms become buzzwords for the practices of many high-profile international art stars, they had become variants of a brand name for what its proponents considered an art movement. “Relational art” had also by this point in time been criticized, notably by Claire Bishop in “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics” (October, Fall 2004, No. 110, pp.51-79). Bishop argues that, since relational art is intended to produce human relationships, this intention begs the question of what sorts of human relationships might actually result from a particular exhibition or performance. She refutes Bourriaud’s suggestion that the relations set up by relational aesthetics are intrinsically democratic, “since they rest too comfortably within an ideal of subjectivity as a whole and of community as immanent togetherness” (Bishop, p.67).


I think Bishop makes a good, if obvious, point here. It surely cannot be news to anybody who has observed either artists’ networks or neighbourhood politics that “communities” or “audiences” or even “markets” are often anything but homogenous — they are fragmented or at loggerheads. If an art exhibition seriously intends to engage audiences — to allow them agency in a manner that classical white-wall exhibitions never have — then the curator as well as the host institution must consider the likelihood of contradictory responses to the exhibition. Homogenous readings or responses cannot be guaranteed since there is no such animal as a homogenous audience or “community”.


Relational art, or relational aesthetic, as a model for curation? Curation beyond or outside of a modernist model that sees (or doesn’t see) the audience as anything other than an indistinguishable other? Relational aesthetics has loosely been defined as setting up a situation or an equation and then encouraging an audience or a public to complete or define the situation or equation. When adapted by curators, this does seem like a progression from the omnipotent star curator for whom participating artists are mere pawns in the game. Relational curating aesthetics does indeed give the impression of being a constructive attempt to make art systems (and not only off-gallery sites) audience-friendly and not inhibiting in the manner that many art as well as non-art galleries consider institutions to be.  But audiences, whether on-or-off-site, are not a homogenous entity and what might seem attractive to some will be repellent or just plain ugly to others.


Many of the presenters at Curators in Context did indeed refer to what has become labelled “relational art” (“a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social content, rather than an independent or private space. [Bourriaud, p.113]. He describes relational aesthetics as an aesthetic theory in which “artworks are judged based upon the inter-human relations which they represent, produce, or prompt“) [Ibid. p.112]. Is curation itself an example of relational art practice or relational aesthetic? Performance artist/curator Paul Couillard describes his artistic practice as one in which he “creates situations”. He notes that the British curator Matthew Higgs used the identical terminology at the 2004 “InFest Conference in Vancouver to describe his curatorial practice. This was on a panel titled “Metamorphosis: The Artist as Curator“. There, Couillard argued, “the notion of a practice — be it artistic or curatorial — based on the creation of situations points to the growing attention on the relationships among art, artist and audience that are fore grounded in theories such as relational aesthetics”. Here, curatorial work is about setting up situations in both time and space. Yes, and then what?


Dermot Wilson prefers to curate or programme outside of the gallery. Referencing histories of site-specific art installation and performance (the Russian Constructivists and the Situationist International figure prominently in Wilson’s paper), he argues for a merging of art and life that is impossible within the confines of galleries and corporate institutions. Of all the curators speaking at the Curators in Context conference, Wilson seems to feel the most acute need to avoid the presentation of any more spectacles, which suck the life out of art by creating the classical separation between life and art. The recent site-specific work Wilson highlights just might, he posits, be replacing what has been known as “public art”, which may be outside of gallery spaces but which overwhelmingly carries with it the baggage of bureaucracies and numerous restrictive strings. Wilson, parallel to some of the younger curators (Placentile, St. Laurent) strives to achieve a mixing of art and non-art audiences, and he obviously considers large audience numbers to be a priority. But, of course, non-art audiences are hardly a homogenous entity. What might be an amusing or provocative encounter with the unexpected for some members of “the public” might be an irritating obstruction for others. I often find myself experiencing contradictory responses to public or off-site art displays or performances. Sometimes I like public space to be as neutral as possible, so that I can traverse that space while remaining mentally focused on either work-related conundrums or private emotions. Sometimes, in contrast, I enjoy being shocked by what is occurring in a space which is at least as much the artist’s or performer’s as it is mine.


The site-specific art detailed by Wilson (and also Tagny Duff and Marie Fraser) is overwhelmingly performative and ephemeral. So, is there in face a rigidly entrenched dichotomy between what is possible within free public spaces and private (or state-funded) spaces? I think that not only are there art lovers and aficionados who appreciate spending time in space with traditional art forms, but that there are members of the general non-art public who would prefer to witness art objects that somebody spent time and money to make.


And then there are curators — some not veterans — for whom the institution or the museum is a challenge. Museums are by nature historical, but histories of course have been constructed by those in power positions to do the constructing. Among the presenters at “Curators in Context, the team of Jeff Thomas and Anna Hudson particularly stood out with their commitment to de-and-re-constructing the collection. Thomas and Hudson and other curators committed to addressing the roles and (dys) functions of the collection are literally inverting the traditional role of the curator as the keeper of the collection. They enjoy playing games with history and linearity, making insertions or interventions without being too didactic about it. Thomas and Hudson’s strategy is one of curatorial presence, not absence. And they are equally concerned with who comes inside as well as what is displayed inside. Many people who have felt alienated by museums and art systems have been so at least partially because they have not seen themselves mirrored or reflected. Being able to vary the collection on display is vital to shifting the perception of museums and galleries among art and non-art audiences who have felt inhibited by and alienated from these institutions. However, with many institutions there is conflict between the need to preserve and augment collections and the need to bring in audiences. This latter need can privilege exhibitions that are “new” or exotic; it can privilege safely predictable touring shows; or it can mesh with an opportunity to exhibit works that have been gathering dust in the vaults but which are now of timely resonance and relevance.




Career Bureaucrats A and B have meanwhile finished their dinner and appetizers but they are still discussing the various curatorial presenters and their attitudes regarding audience(s).



A: I’m still struck, B, as to how it’s not only the younger curators who seem to feel a need to fill up those galleries.


B: Or those off-site locations. This mindset is, to a certain degree, particular to disciplines.


A: Hmmmm… I like it when curators get specific about their strategies here. Like Alissa Firth-Eagland talks about mixing up the video audience with the performance audience, who don’t seem to mix that frequently.


B: Well, A, first of all she’s talking about a single-channel video-art audience and not a gallery audience for whom video means installation. At least, it seems so. I think there are different senses of time and space here and that is central to why gallery audiences tend to shun video screenings — because they’re theatrical and they have starting times. It’s like they’re film.


A: I think you’re right to a certain extent here. But Firth-Eagland addresses this conundrum by engaging media-artists to do performance. This is, admittedly a relatively small but, I think, significant example of creative curation across disciplines. It can bring both particular disciplines and specific artists to different audiences.


B: Yes, this is good. Some of the curators at what are problematically known as regional galleries or centres — Jurakic and Reid for example — talk about their responsibilities to local communities. They seem to feel this responsibility more than curators in larger urban centres.


A: Yes, this comes down to definitions of curators’ responsibilities. I doubt that anybody today would deny that part of a curator’s job involves not only contextualizing the exhibitions but also getting this contextualizing out to potentially interested audiences, in addition to audiences already in the gallery’s e-mail address book Although, I do agree with Milena Placentile’s reservations about that dreadful early nineties word — outreach.


B: Yes, it is one of those truly patronizing words. It’s hegemonic and bean-counter all in two syllables.


A: There were galleries — both artist-run and public — that used to be obsessed with outreach. And it affected their programming. They would make exhibition choices on the basis of which submissions could bring this or that targeted audience into the gallery.


B: This mindset assumes homogenous audiences or communities. It is beyond condescending. But there can be fine lines between giving audiences what you think they want and challenging audience expectations. Throwing in a few good old-fashioned curve balls. Finding a satisfactory balance between creating idiosyncratic programming and fulfilling community responsibilities, or even quotas.


A: Oh yes. These are the challenges of both the artist-run and public galleries.


B: So how does one acknowledge a plurality of audiences without falling into that timeless modernist trap of assuming a faceless impersonal audience?


A: By acknowledging pluralities in curation or programming?


B: Maybe. But what exactly is the difference between assuming some abstract and uncharacterized audience and assuming that, since there is no such thing as a homogenous audience, therefore the crowd comprising that audience or community is ultimately just a bunch of individuals.


A: Not unlike the original faceless modernist audience?


B: Exactly, A.


A: But even well before the twenty-first century there has been recognition by curators and their institutions that the audience must be participants in the exhibitions. Audiences must enter into some form of interactive relationship with the selected art or else the exhibition is reactionary et cetera.


B: In theory, I hear you. However, in practice I’m not so convinced. As you are all too aware, I refuse to use the definite article in front of the word “community”. I reject the idea that any individual or any self-appointed cabal of individuals has the right to define who belongs and who doesn’t belong to a community.


A: Yes, B. I have heard you explain this strategy on more than several occasions.


B But I am also painfully aware that this refusal might be mistaken for Thatcherism — that infamous quote about there being no such thing as society et cetera.


A: You’re worried that, since there’s no such thing as the audience or the public, therefore there are only individuals?


B: Yes, A, this has crossed my mind. It has occurred to me that the difference between social curation and classical or modernist exhibition is not really much of a difference at all. Some audiences get it, some audience members are in on the joke or the concept, and many others are not. I think that’s how the art world works, A.



The two observers became silent. Neither of them were in a mood to banter or argue further about art worlds or art systems or art vocabularies. They had listened to numerous presentations and attended some intense exchanges and now what was there left to say? Institutional critique had long been absorbed by the institutions themselves? Well, of course. Artist-run centres were now becoming more and more like public galleries? Well, of course. Exhibitions were all too frequently resembling sets for theatrical or cinematic productions, or even reality-television programmes? Well, yes and no. It did seem that, for many institutions and their curators, exhibition formats had reached some sort of cul-de-sac. How could a gallery present an anti-exhibition that still constituted an exhibition? Well, since it was in a gallery space (and maybe even on the white walls), then by definition it was an exhibition. It was still official and legitimate as long as somebody was either in charge or appeared to be in charge. And who might be that somebody? Well, of course, the curator. What exactly has been done to this or that gallery? Well, let’s read the curator’s explanation. Let’s go on the curatorial tour. Let’s get with the programme. Let’s call it a night.