Curators in Context Response Practice Andrew James Paterson
The word “practice” recurs throughout the CIC conferences primarily as a noun, even though this noun derives from the verb practice. This noun has long been associated with professions or the professional classes — one thinks of doctors or lawyers having practices. Having a practice also connotes having a career — he or she can sustain themselves by means of their practice. Do educators have a practice? Do musicians? How about actors? The word seems to imply a methodology denied to jobbers assumed to be lacking vision. Those with practices are driven — they have missions and agendas. Practices are particular and they are not general.
It is within the last forty to fifty years that the noun “practice” has become commonplace in reference to artists and curators. (Did Michelangelo have a “practice”?) The noun “practice” has itself become hyphenated, as it is associated with specific, often material, practices. This or that artist has an object-based practice; this or that artist has an installation-practice. Ironically, many artists now are not tied down or particularly associated with specific materials and or disciplines. Many artists use painting, sculpture, or video, for instance, as an exhibition component without positioning themselves as practitioners of the medium or materials being utilized.
The idea of a curator having a practice is also a relatively recent phenomenon. Of course, this movement is contingent with a shift in the public perception of curators from hermetic custodians to public figures whose recognizable names are highlighted in the promotional material for their exhibitions and who are often considered to be the real authors or auteur. The idea of a curator having a practice in addition to a job (do librarians have practices?) has become prevalent along with the raised profile of individual curators — the stars of the profession with their idiosyncratic practices and subsequent auteur statuses.
Melanie O’Brian of
Artspeak, in her presentation “Art
Speaking: Towards an Understanding of the Language of Curating“,
suggests that the increased prominence of the curator in art exhibition
discourse has created a need to reinterpret and redescribe the
artistic professions. “Finding a language to discuss a visual practice
a reinterpretation of art into text, something that is also
taught.” (O’Brian, CIC,
If the curator is indeed a filter through which the art and the accompanying ideas become disseminated, then the curator is the go-between or negotiator between the artist(s), the institution, the audience(s), and more. So, if artists do indeed have practices, then it would seem that curators also have practices. But do all curators? What about those who work for an institution that keeps them on a tight leash with regards to quotas and quorums and other responsibilities? What about curators who might technically enjoy an arm’s length relationship from their board of directors and their executive directors, but who nevertheless work under strained conditions? Do artists who sit on boards of ARCs and take on some curatorial responsibilities or assignments have curatorial practices?
If one has an aesthetic, therefore one has a practice. True or false?
Curation must be a practice, or else there wouldn’t be university courses in Curating. A practice invokes methodologies, involving ways of doing things and ways of not doing things. It involves both the mechanics of the profession and also the vision thing. It involves dialogue and cooperation between the practical and the model. Curation ideally involves ethics — responsibilities to all involved as well as to oneself. A practice is a discipline, and curation has become that, and not only according to university curricula.
It is interesting to note
another word somewhat bandied about
at the CIC conferences, and that word is “laboratory”. Melanie O’Brian
describes how “museums and large public galleries are now supporting
A laboratory implies a site where experimentation is not only encouraged but also expected — it implies the presence of scientists and other exploratory professionals. Does a scientist have a practice? I would definitely say yes. A scientist has a mission, an experimental purpose, an alchemical mind. Scientists are in many ways not unlike editors — editors not only of text but also pictures and music. A scientist’s job is to find what is present and then expose it — to put it on display, to prove its existence, and to contextualize his or her discovery. The wonderful world of science has of course often been accused of lacking ethics, as have curators.
In her paper “Towards
More Ethical Curatorial
Practices“, Anne-Marie Ninacs examines curatorial practices and
In that paper, Ninacs notes the gradual evolution of curator from
keeper of a
collection to being an instigator or catalyst for exhibition and she
an at least twenty-year gap between this evolution in Europe and in
Rosemary Donegan questions
the idea of a post-disciplinary
curatorial practice, in reference to the brief for the Thematic
(re)Placing Curating AGYU conference of December 2005. In this
contemporary art is described as being a possibly post-disciplinary
environment, as reflected by its evolution “beyond its visual and
object-based underpinnings to embrace experiential , kinaesthetic,
conceptual, relationist, and activist concerns” (Rosemary Donegan,
conference orientation brief, Toronto, 2005). It may well be true that
exhibitions are post-disciplinary, in that what is on display is not
identified as restricted to particular disciplines or materials.
Donegan questions the idea of a post-disciplinary practice, because
has never been defined as a discipline, positing that “Disciplines are actually
formal academic divisions of knowledge, which
are defined and debated through their methodologies. However, I would
that curating in its many contemporary forms is actually a
or multidisciplinary series of practices. It brings together history,
variety of visual media, popular culture, audiences, education …”
So if curation involves a series of disciplines, then how indeed can it be considered a singular practice? Donegan comments on how little of the writing she has encountered about curators and curating refers to methodology and/or methodologies. “One of the only places that I found the title “Methodology” was an article I actually wrote, which was published in Naming a Practice.” A basic curatorial methodology does not yet exist, at least on paper and/or verbally. Donegan argues that “it would be cross-disciplinary or multidisciplinary. It is a complex practice of ideas, observation, and synthesis based on visual imagery and visual actions. It is really a multiplicity of practices that one works through, with, and around.” (Donegan, 2005).
So if curation involves a multiplicity of practices, all working in constant dialogue and never from any rigidly fixed position, then why might one talk about practice in the singular? Why would somebody have a practice and somebody else not have one? Is this a matter of either having an aesthetic or else being a hack?
Bureaucrats A and B have decided that fresh air is a priority.
A: I don’t know, B.
B: You don’t know what, A?
A: Well…it seems obvious that curation has to involve a multiplicity of practices, as curation itself is interdisciplinary.
B: Hmmm….Tentatively agreed.
A: Well…it is. So why are so many people anxious to refer to a practice? Not many, but one singular practice.
B: Because the sub practices — the sub methodologies — all add up to overall practice?
A: But do they? I mean, let’s see now. There is the practice of selection, of contextualization, or installation…
B: Of playing give-and-take with artists who themselves arguably can’t be restricted to one overall practice.
A: Exactly. I find myself thinking that practice is preferable as a verb, B. One practices something. One doesn’t have a practice.
B: Except one does, A. People with reputations have practices.
A: But... if one looks closer at those curators who are renowned for a particular mode or methodology of practice, one will see different varieties of practice.
B: Oh, for sure. But people still describe an occupation or a vocation or whatever as a “practice”.
A: But a singular practice, a grand narrative practice, implies a singular methodology and a rigid ideology.
B: That’s like how some people misunderstand the idea of auteur. They think of sameness or uniformity. But... let’s look at how the word “auteur” at least once upon a time was used in film criticism.
A: A director could work in this form or genre, and then this form or genre, and so on and so on.
B: And it would still always end up as the same movie.
A: Because their obsessions and fetishes and whatever would always be recognizable.
B: Of course. And there are curators whose touch is always identifiable.
A: But they still deploy different practices to get there.
B: If you say so, A. Hey, guess who I ran into the other night at the AGO? At the Surreal Thing thing?
A: I haven’t the faintest idea. Who?
B: Andrew James Paterson.
A: Oh, I think I know who that is. Video artist, performance artist, writer, musician, curator.
B: Editor. We went to high
school together. So we chatted for
a while. And he was thinking of going away somewhere random for a
getting out of
A: Why not?
B: Well, he’s done okay for himself here. I mean, he has a practice. Right? And Andrew looked at me and then shook his head and said “Yes, I guess so.”
A: Well, I guess his response begs questions as to whatever a practice might entail. Maybe he didn’t want to tell you about having a second source of income. Or maybe he thinks his practice would benefit from relocation?
B: Maybe yes and maybe no.
Does the idea of a practice — a singular practice — sound strangely modernist given the multidisciplinary nature of contemporary exhibition? Paul Couillard, in his abstract for “Curating as Art Making”, positions himself as an artist (a performance artist) who has taken on curation and states that he is one of many artists who also curate. This initiation came of out of his and others’ backgrounds in artist-run centres and culture, as both members of programming committees and administrators. Couillard observes that many individuals move back and forth between art-making and curating as if they are separate disciplines, but his “own experience, however, has led me to take on these two roles as inseparable elements of a hybrid or interdisciplinary practice, that of the artist/curator” (Couillard, abstract, Toronto, 2005). Couillard’s modus operandi, unlike those who make a point of changing their hats in relation to their activities, seems the same for both his art-making and his curating. As an artist, his initial response is that he creates “situations”. He adds that “a curatorial project, like most performative work, sets up a situation of inter-relationships in time and space” (Couillard, abstract). While he is acutely aware of the potential for conflict between the artist-as-author and the curator-as-artist, he is comfortable describing his artistic and curatorial philosophies as being unified in a personal inter-disciplinary practice. So “practice” for Couillard seems to be post disciplinary, since it is not restricted to specific activities and his approach, if not the methodology, is equally applicable to different personal activities, and he therefore considers artist/curator to be a hybrid practice. It is notable that Couillard is an independent curator (and an unaffiliated artist) who works both off and on-site and at arm’s length from institutions and the founder of FADO Performance Inc. (which some might claim to be his own institution).
Art Gallery of York
University curator Philip Monk counters
those who maintain that “curation” or “curating “ or for that matter
have never been officially or properly defined. Monk puts forth an
rather good definition of committed curation, which he insists has been
definition from the get-go (but is not about preservation and
collections and/or archives). Monk’s definition of curating (and
“responding — in and through the invention of our own discipline _ to
what artists propose. When has the role of curator ever been fixed?”
The December 2005
So, how can transformation of a particular curator’s practice take place from any other point of view than that of him or her self? Or is it now the curator’s duty to rise above being just a curator — to metamorphose into a hybrid artist-curator or curator-artist (and I believe the two are different). How can curators be repositioned or transformed or displaced (let alone replaced) when, despite Philip Monk’s very good description of curatorial practice and (possibly) methodology, the word “curator” itself is subject to some wildly contradictory and oppositional definitions? Can a curator be a servant as well as a visionary? Functions are elements of a practice. Are disciplines practices or are they not? Rosemary Donegan expressed curiosity about reading individual curators’ methodologies — their lists of things to do as they go about their jobs. Does she mean lists of functions, or something far broader and greater? I believe the lists would match or coincide up to a certain point — checklists tend to do this. However, many of the other curatorial notes would branch out into some wild and even rhizomatic directions. That’s because individual practices tend to be all over the map, whether or not the practitioners actually refer to their activities as “practices”.