Sunday 2 December 2012

essay | Some Notes on a 'Curatorial Community'

By Kenneth Tay
#1. It is common practice that artists collaborate with other artists to create ideas and artworks. Increasingly, such approaches are deployed between artists and curators. The exhibition produced out of such contexts can sometimes be regarded as artworks. It is not uncommon for artists to be curators, and curators to be artists. Explore the notions of a ‘curatorial community’. (6 Modules)

Collaborative practices between artists are nothing new, however tempting it is to fetishize the Internet as the great enabler today. In fact, there is a tendency to invoke a continuum between contemporary collaborative practices and modernist art collectives (such as the Dadaists or the Surrealists). But as Nikos Papastergiadis notes, the “precursors of contemporary forms of collaborations were incomplete or partial manifestations, insofar as they failed to develop the organizational potential” necessary to radically position collectivization as a vital and primary artistic solution (160). Today, supercharged by the global imperative of speed and with the Internet as its apotheosis, collaborations between artists are coming thick and fast.

At the risk of invoking a cliché here, globalization has ‘shrunk’ temporal and spatial distances not without the help of new information technologies. This has led to increased encounters and confluences between communities spread out across the world and consequently, that of networks between artists to be formed at an encouraging frequency. For that reason, dialogues between artists have frequently gone beyond the provincial, the local, or the parochially defined. Rather than the usual romanticized myth of the artist as a heroic figure critiquing the immediate community s/he is embedded in, contemporary collaborative practices have witnessed artists from (ostensibly) disparate communities coming together, at least momentarily, to engage in a common cause or interest. To paraphrase the curator Okwui Enwezor here, collaborative practices today are much more project-based than permanent alliances established between different artists (Papastergiadis 165). The implication here is that the flexibility of membership in contemporary collaborations has privileged a ‘blitzkrieg’ effect that the modernists could never quite pull off. But more importantly, Enwezor’s observation recalls what Gayatri Spivak terms as “strategic essentialism”. Spivak’s term is particularly useful here since it suggests that groups with different views or political ends can nevertheless band together in order to rally for a common and provisional ground forward, through a “strategic use of essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest” (205). In other words, collaborations on a short term basis have allowed today’s artists to take progressive steps forward, and often in quick successions, rather than remaining static in the obstinate insistence of irreducible differences between one another.

This comes hardly as a surprise, given how much of twentieth-century critical discourses have often attacked the cult of the individual as perpetuated by the bourgeois ideals of liberal humanism -- which, it needs to be said, has not left us entirely just yet (Barry 30-35). The ‘collaborative turn’ in contemporary art is very much a late descendent of this movement, with the emphasis on the collective spearheading the critique of globalization and its discontents. If the typical account of globalization presupposes a homogenization, it has only conveniently masked over the fault-lines that global capitalism has created and maintained [1]. That is to say, the homogenizing effect of globalization has only exacerbated the need to assert differences, or in fact radical differences, and further complicated by the capitalist injunction to ‘be yourself’. In other words, globalization is much more devastating when it encourages a recourse to irreducible (local) differences. To remain adamant of one’s individuality against the backdrop of global homogenization is to fall right into the chasms. Therefore, collaborations between artists today must be seen as an attempt not to liquidate local differences, but to strategically navigate between differences and common political motivations, and to mount an attack against a global order that insists perversely on the dichotomy between the global and the local, between pure homogeneity and absolute differences.     

Another reason behind the political efficacy of today’s collaborative practices among artists has been the de-specialization of artistic disciplines and professions [2]. From the artist-curator to the interdisciplinary artist, it is becoming increasingly rare to find artists today who are merely involved in one project, or a singular medium for the matter. Although it is unclear and certainly debatable whether this has necessarily led to ‘lesser’ art being produced, the political implications of de-specialization are much less so. In his criticism of modernism’s avant-garde practices, Jürgen Habermas argued that the distance between “expert cultures and the general public has increased. What the cultural sphere gains through specialized treatment and reflection [as per the modernists] does not automatically come into possession of everyday practice without more ado” (45, italics in original). I should probably add that this is not an attempt to rehash or recapitulate the infamous Habermas-Lyotard debate over the role of art in the post/modern. Having said that, it is worthwhile here to pursue Habermas’ criticism since it does suggest that de-specialization affords a resistance against hermetic practices amongst artists further exacerbated by an appetite for theoretical complications and neologisms. For that reason, de-specialization should be greeted as a welcomed movement since it keeps artists and their practices much closer to the ground instead of flying off on solipsistic flights of the tangential imagination. If esoteric specialization on the part of individual artists had often closed off the doors for potential collaborations, de-specialization encourages a fluidity that consequently favours collaborative practices. Put crudely, de-specialization provides greater access and involvement. Here, I would like to suggest that it is perhaps much more useful to understand individuals working under the aegis of de-specialization today as ‘cultural producers’. It should be noted of course that de-specialization does not end solely as a deterritorialization of an artistic discipline; but rather, it also involves a reterritorialization or reconfiguration that avoids the impasses or deadlocks of disciplined constipation. In this sense, artistic or technical disciplines are deterritorialized and reterritorialized into a more general notion of cultural (co)production. Before one speaks of a ‘curatorial community’ then, it is important to recognize the solidarity that potentially emerges the minute one sees him or herself first as a fellow cultural producer motivated by a common cause of proffering the best of what has been thought or said.

If one were to take recourse to the etymology of the word ‘curate’, it would lead us down the path of ‘caring’. Would this solidarity between fellow cultural producers encapsulate precisely this compassion? Instead of disciplined insularity, a curatorial community is one that encourages a dialogical engagement with one another’s thoughts and works. This is not to suggest that everyone rubs and lubes up the right way in the naive sense - i.e. “oh everything is so wonderful here!” On the contrary, a curatorial community is one where members would not hesitate to go all the way in their criticisms of one another. I am not invoking a tough love policy, but I do believe that honest criticism is the most basic courtesy that goes a long way for a curatorial community -- if the emphasis should be placed on care and compassion. It may also be said that members of a curatorial community function as interlocutors or catalysts for one another. In that sense, I would like to think of the curatorial community as one that is constantly in the backdrop of collaborative practices today: While the latter may be orientated around short term projects and goals, it is the former’s continued emphasis on compassion that precedes and exceeds every iteration of the latter. After all, it has to be readily admitted that even within the strategic essentialism that characterizes contemporary collaborations, there is always going to be a group or voice that dominates. It would therefore be disingenuous to pretend that there would not be any asymmetry within the collaborative. But this would not justify a call to abandon the project; rather, it only means that members must care enough not only for one another’s common interests, but also care enough to know when to leave or to concede to one another that their collective dream might well be over. This, I claim, would be the ‘spirit’ of the curatorial community which comes back to an engagement with the cult of the individual, or the myth of the individual talent/genius, that is still working in tandem with globalization today to devastating effects. Within the curatorial community then is a mixture of artists, curators, critics, etc. who fundamentally look at themselves as co-producers of meanings -- and perhaps much more importantly, co-producers of a culture where care extends beyond the respective objects/objectives and onto one another.    

To conclude, I would just to draw attention also to the way the word ‘curate’ has been thrown around to cover anything from the custodianship of museums and galleries down to cafes claiming to serve only ‘curated coffees’. The latter case is much more than a marketing strategy based on its alliterative effect; in fact, it suggests that the word ‘curate’ has become the word par excellence to describe a thoughtful selection or an exercise in good taste against the cultural white noise that we are flooded with in today’s highly-mediatized society. First though, consider what critic JJ Charlesworth observes of the recent fascination with curating:

This increase in attention is not merely the product of a more acute sensitivity to the appointment of people to powerful positions within art’s institutions, although that does have something to do with it, especially with the unprecedented expansions of venues for the presentation of contemporary art that has characterized the last ten years, a trend particularly evident in the growth of international biennial exhibitions. More significant, however, is the attention paid to the character of the curatorial endeavour itself, as something not innocent or neutral, but loaded ideologically, epistemologically and institutionally, and in which a consideration of such implications are explicitly rehearsed by curators themselves. (92) 

History (and even etymology itself) has shown that the meaning of a word is bound to change over time, subjected to local parole. It would therefore be rather silly to hold on obstinately to an immutable meaning of the word ‘curate’. Having said that, it still seems necessary, to me, that a curatorial community must in the first place care, and care enough, about the semantics of the word ‘curate’ itself, least the word becomes yet another signifier so defused of meaning as to find itself signifying everything and nothing all at once. According to Charlesworth, the word ‘curating’ is “a neologism so recent that dictionaries have not yet caught up” (91). While I am not about to suggest that a curatorial community play the role of a zealous ‘thought police’ guarding over its sacred word, it does seem to me only logical to propose that the first order of the day for any curatorial community is to care about the very word that defines the identity of the community -- i.e. to pay attention not only to how the word is being used, abused, and stretched out so far as to disappear beyond the vanishing point of its hermeneutic horizon. For that reason, ‘curating’ is the first object that a curatorial community necessarily must be a custodian over. Obviously, the difference between authority and custodianship must be maintained here. While it may be the curatorial community’s prerogative to guard against a potential atrophy of the word itself, there must be, at the same time, this insistence of maintaining the yet-to-be-determined future of the word ‘curate’ itself. This is, I think, the bare minimum, the ground zero, of curating.


Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, 3rd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009. Print.

Charlesworth, JJ. "Curating Doubt" Issues in Curating Contemporary Art and Performance. Ed. Michele Sedgwick and Judith Rugg. Bristol: Intellect, 2007. Print. 91-99.

Habermas, Jurgen. "Modernity: An Unfinished Project" Habermas and the Unfinished Project of Modernity: Critical Essays on the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Ed. Maurizio Passerin d'Entreves and Seyla Benhabib. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997. Print. 38-55.

Hall, Stuart. "The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity" Culture, Globalization, and the World-System. Ed. Anthony D. King. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. Print. 19-40. 

Papastergiadis, Nikos. Cosmopolitanism and Culture. Cambridge: Polity, 2012. Print.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Methuen, 1987. Print.

[1] As Stuart Hall notes, globalization always involves both homogenization and the creation of new differences; it engenders a “double movement” that is both “local and global at the same moment” (27).
[2] In this, I am also suggesting that every artistic production or collaboration is inescapably a political gesture insofar as it is always already an active intervention. Or to put it more succinctly, it is the “active and partisan nature of presentation” (Charlesworth 92). 

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