CANOPY, PARASOL, AWNING - OR HOW TO WORK TOGETHER AS ARTIST AND CURATOR
Canopy, parasol, awning – or how to work together as artist and curator by Andreas Siqueland (visual artist) and Anne Szefer Karlsen (curator and director of Hordaland Art Centre)was originally published in Billedkunst 03/09.
What do you call something that is mounted firmly on the wall in order to provide shelter against sun and rain? This was of the first thing we asked ourselves as we arrived at the somewhat dilapidated hotel Grand Central where we would find shelter during our stay in Rotterdam where we attended the three day symposium, "The Curators" at Witte de With. We had both forgotten what this architectural feature is called, we were lost for words and struggled a long time to remember what it used to be called. Canopy, parasol, umbrella? No – perhaps a curator? Or rather: the curatorial! If it is true that the curatorial is related to the institution and is extendable in relation to it, then the parable may not be so silly. In any case, it is the curator's task to guard and protect works of art. The problem is knowing how far the facility can be stretched without overshadowing the work of art.
This year's first issue of Billedkunst discussed the curator's role and presence on the art scene in three different articles. A feature common to all the articles was an expressed distrust between artists and curators. For instance in curator Geir Haraldseth's remark that he uses works to illustrate his exhibitions, and that the artist is never free or autonomous. Moreover, he says that the "curator is a power broker and that this power is enhanced when the curator is institutionalized." This statement is countered in artist Hans Thorsen's lengthy lamentation on the position of power enjoyed by curated exhibitions. Artist and curator Åse Løvgren thinks that the sceptics are mainly found among the older guard, but that is perhaps not correct, either. All of these opinions instilled in us a scepticism about the bleak picture that was painted. And so we decided to take a trip abroad to learn more about what it really means to be a curator.
"The Curators" was made up of the cream of the world's curatorial staff, and it was easier to count those who were not there, than those who were there. The place was crammed with celebrities, and panel discussions, similar in format to those on television, were frequent, with enticing titles like: "Does the exhibition have a future?", "Is the curator by definition a political animal?" and "Radical-chic curating: Curatorial practice vs. curatorial fashion?" All these issues were formulated by the Witte de With's own curators and was a confirmation of the well-known curatorial trap where an exhibition (here: symposium) with an overall theme merely uses the works of art (here: the external curators) to illustrate the curator's point. We thought the panel discussion "Is curating always a collective activity?" would present new ideas about the relationship between artist and curator. Unfortunately, that was not to be, as it focussed exclusively on the role of the curator.
We shall therefore try to put into words what was left unspoken. In contrast to the reactionary attitudes expressed in Billedkunst 1/09, we would like to explore new attitudes to collaboration. For we cannot, as Irit Rogoff, Professor of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths College, says, withdraw from the discussion – "We cannot extract ourselves from the thing that we talk about". Thus we submit to her idea that we are all implicated in our field, and in our own lives. In the Norwegian debate about the artist's view of the curator, the artist almost exclusively assumes the role of victim, and the curator rarely expresses his views about the artist in public. You change things by taking part. We want to be active participants and would like to describe a possible scenario where our roles blend and mix without disclaimers. This is not about resistance, but an active involvement where time and again you betray the establisment from within the system, in order to generate new forms of collaboration. During an exhibition we become part of a common "we", and are able to collect fragments from the past in order to build a new history together.
How can a common voice be created; how is it possible to be both subject and community at the same time? We believe we are closing in on a solution as we focus on the relationship between curator and art, not the relationship between curator and artist. The curator must be passionately involved, so as to understand the work as if it were his own. Thus the relationship between subject and object can be dissolved. The artist's passion for his work must be adopted, and to achieve this the curator must engage in close collaboration with the artist. This must be done through sustained cooperation and interaction, also involving others, not just the artist and the curator. Art is the object of our discussion, and this process must allow for conflict, so that the discussion can give rise to a new "we", a new communal subject.
This "we" is more than just a curator and an artist. In other words, we can no longer consider curatorial work as a dichotomy. "The collapsing of the distance between the exterior and the interior must be reproduced again and again," as Rogoff says. "We" are, in other words, at any given time sitting on a terrace – a physical space between inside and outside – where the awning above us can be operated either from inside or outside, depending on how it is mounted. In this "we", we also discover the essence of art mediation. Here the audience is not viewed as a quantifiable and passive group of people but as participants, just as the artist or the curator are participants, too.
Today, conflict has become the norm, but even when a conflict happens far away, no one can remain unmoved. We believe the art scene is neither a battle field nor a transaction, but a collective and private meeting where various interests are discussed. The rhetoric about art has been borrowed from the military field; revolution, avant garde, goals, strategy, and later the economic field; power, project, method. A new language must therefore be created across the established discourse in order to embrace the production of knowledge which curator and artist actually develop in unison, and not in opposition to each other. This means that the curatorial is creating ideology, but we must be aware of the pitfalls of utopian hunting grounds.
The curator must possess a certain authority in relation to the public and his institution in order to perform his function, while the artist must have such authority in relation to his work. However, the curator and the artist should suppress the issue of authority when dealing with each other, so as to foster such mutual respect and understanding as is necessary for innovation and renewal. Therefore, both artist and curator are tasked with using the institution to change art through the curatorial.
One of the participants at the symposium who attracted most interest was Jan Hoet, a charismatic elderly gentleman from Belgium who was remembered for having mediated a Bruce Neumann video by jumping up and down next to the work. Hoet's passion for art is a good example of curatorial involvement. He believes that artists should focus on artistic production and what they want to convey through their work, not on exhibitions. The curator's role is to place the artist within society, at least one at each factory – according to Hoet. The only purpose of art is that of puncturing hierarchies and creating new relationships within an established system. In Hoet's utopian model, the curator must be available in the institution's cafe at any given time – or on the terrace under an awning – available for discussions with the public.
The question is how much sunshine you want to be exposed to. Or how much room the curatorial should take up. After all, it is obvious that everyone on the terrace has different opinions about this. And so it is high time we examined new ways in which curators and artists can collaborate. A fundamental part of the curator's job is to participate in the implementation of an exhibition, so as to create harmony between what the curator wants to highlight and what the artist would like to achieve with his work. Artists want to organize and mediate their art in the best possible way, and as for the curator, he is dependent on the work of art in order to create significant contexts. Their concern for the curatorial unites them.
We must do battle with the idea that a curated exhibition should be a purely thematic exhibition. Works should be given a non-hierarchical co-presence, where all constituent parts work in harmony. Just like in a choir, all voices should be heard at the same time. This common voice must not be a theme, but it could be an attitude, a discussion, or an assertion. It's all about the curator moving away from having his own agenda to having a perspective. The curator cannot gain an understanding of the work by reading about it, he must also possess intuition. According to Beatrix Ruf, director and curator of the Kunsthalle Zurich, the task is one of making allowance for freedom so that things can happen. We must dare to let art work on its own, and trust a piece of art's ability to mediate itself. Irit Rogoff believes that in the curatorial we must move away from what's ethical, as ethics is bound by rules, and move towards a place where theory and practice meet and remain uncomfortable. This becomes evident as you actively participate, whether as an artist or as a curator, and reach a position where you can influence the art scene. Experience creates and shapes one's position. By participating in biennials you may try to direct your criticism at the curatorial frameworks. As a curator, you can examine the curatorial by moving from being independent to being employed by an institution. And together, you might, for example, write an article in Billedkunst. In this way you can alter your point of view, become less sceptical, and find that you are in an unexpected place. Before we proceed, we will sit down on the terrace, pull out the awning just so much and enjoy both view and insight: An exhibition is not a conclusion.
Translated by Egil Fredheim