Saturday 4 August 2012

Journal | Of Authors and Agency in the Museum/Exhibition

By Kenneth Tay

Perhaps it's because I come with the prejudices of being a student of literature, but I think that even as we continue to speak of curatorship as a kind of authorship (I think first mentioned by Ahmad) we need to examine what is meant by the figure of the "author", as well as what are some of its implications for the 'reading' of any (museum) exhibition.

For the convenience of this piece, I'd like to maintain that a curator is or can be an artist insofar as the curated exhibition can be thought of an artwork - a bricolage amalgamated from a selected series of art-works and objects. It is in this sense that I speak of "curator", "artist" and "author" all in one same breath.

Almost predictably, I refer to Barthes' seminal essay "The Death of the Author" (1967) as a starting point for a problematization of the "author" figure. In Barthes' case,

[t]he author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual (emphasis mine)

To that, Barthes speaks of the "Author" as a particular and traditional author that has been normalized perhaps due to certain theological inflections (i.e. the "Author" as the god-creator of his text/work). That is to say that the meaning of the art-work or text resides alone in the 'intention' of its creator and that any reading or interpretation is merely a retrieval and recovery of this meaning: "To give the text an Author is to impose a limit on the text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing" (Barthes). In short, the Author's intention is the only possible line of reading - the alpha and omega of our hermeneutics.

Against the figure of the "Author", I think it prudent for us to remember that the curator should not be seen as a kind of god-creator of his/her exhibition. On this note, I am also certain that in no way was Ahmad trying to suggest this either when he mentioned that curatorship is a form of authorship - well, not this Author-ship anyway.

Even as we continue to read the curator's statement(s) or the captions for the selected works in a particular exhibition, we are not bound to the 'intention' of the curator in our reading/engagement with the exhibition-as-artwork. In other words, the curator-author does not or should not tyrannize our interpretation of his/her exhibition into a single line of thought favored and preselected by him/her.

That being the case, we would be foolish to think of ourselves as free autonomous agents in the space of the museum or exhibition either. The curator does in fact manipulate and limit the possible pathways/vectors of our interpretation through factors as varied as the dramaturgy of the exhibition and the choice of object/works presented. In our role as readers, viewers and recipients of the curator's exhibition-as-artwork, we are never completely free. In short, our hermeneutic horizon has been foreclosed or circumscribed as such by the conscientious selection and deliberation on the part of the curator-author. The curator may not be a coercive "Author" but s/he is not politically innocent either in his/her mobilization of our thoughts. As reading subjects in the museum or exhibition, we are also subjected to the antics of the curator-author (eg. system of representation). In that sense, the idea that we are coming into the space of the museum or the exhibition as an autonomous subject able to hold the 'world' in an anthology of objects and images in front of us is a fantasy we need to be aware of, and that of our 'agency' as reader/viewer be problematized.We can no longer speak of agency purely in the simple formulation of whether we readers or viewers possess it or not, but that this 'agency' always operate in degrees and in shades of grey.

Returning to Barthes' frequently-cited statement "the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author", we ought to remain vigilant to the fact that this birth is not one necessarily free of symbolic chains and that the death of the Author in the museum gives way to the curator-author who, though no longer overdetermines, nonetheless continues to yield a considerable (determining) force on our hearts and heads.

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