Tuesday 4 December 2012

essay | Text 02

By Kent Chan

Information, as a body of knowledges and ideas, is synonymous to the 'internet' landscape. Its volume and accessibility provides a readymade resource for curators to mine. Appropriating sets of knowledge as a basis for exhibitions is commonplace, often adopted as a predefined strategy. The Internet and its 'raw materials', in its organization and contents, can also be readily assimilated into an exhibition. (6 Modules)
Taking a step back, the thought experiment would appear to invite questioning. One can’t help but wonder if the experiment was rigged from the start, whereby its introduction had inevitably conditioned our own encounter with the curatorial. Whether it was the participants that were examining the different propositions or the propositions becoming an examination of the participants.

But beyond the initial suspicion, it is tempting to want to agree with the proposition. In that it seems already a given fact, albeit one built upon a generalized point of view.
While the Internet is indeed made up of amongst other things, information, it is not to say that information is necessarily the Internet. There is a degree of generalization and assumption in the wording of the proposition, but what it does point to, is that information acquisition in the everyday is very often derived via the use of the Internet. And that the Internet has grown to condition the way we process different sets of information. To view the two as interchangeable as proposed by the proposition would entail the need to adopt particular frameworks in our perspectives.

The Internet and conceptual art practices

In the context of art and/or exhibition making, one would likely look to conceptual art practices as providing such a framework. In drawing the links between the Internet and conceptual art practices, Boris Groys writes:

Today, contemporary networks of communication like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter offer global populations the possibility of presenting their photos, videos and texts juxtaposed in ways that cannot be distinguished from those of many post-conceptualist artworks. The visual grammar of a website is not too different from the grammar of an installation space. Through the Internet, conceptual art today has become a mass cultural practice.[i]

Groys in pointing out the visual grammar of the Internet draws attention to the fact that the way we encounter the Internet is through representation, by way of a graphic user interface (GUI). The Internet itself is a vast network of information and data. Hence, whenever we access the Internet, what we encounter is not only information, but through the visual interface also the very ordering of information – an ontological overlap. The Internet not only allows us to access information, it enables us to encounter Information. Encountering not just the information as content, but also information as form, similar to conceptual art practice.

Just as how websites order different sets of knowledge, curating too involves the organization of objects each embodying its own unique set of knowledge. Thus, a vis-à-vis transposition that is increasingly commonplace with the proliferation of the Internet within the everyday and curatorial practice.

A curatorial consciousness

Within the same article Groys suggests, drawing reference to Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic discourse, the expansion of the Internet and its functions has simultaneously created platforms that allowed a wide expanse of the public to participate in the creation of aesthetic experiences and to engage in aesthetic judgment.

As this phenomenon continue to grow, we also find the popularization of the term curating in non-traditional art historical context that correlates with an increasing “aesthetic self-consciousness” as mentioned by Groys:

We become aware of our own existence, our own subjectivity, when we are endangered by another subjectivity—through struggle, in conflict, in the situation of existential risk taking that could lead to death. Now, analogously, we can speak of an “aesthetic self-consciousness” that emerges, not when we look at a world populated by others, but when we begin to reflect upon our own exposure to the gaze of others. Artistic, poetic, rhetorical practice is none other than self-presentation to the gaze of the other, presupposing danger, conflict and risk of failure.[ii]

I would like to also draw attention to Jacque Ranciere’s concept of the aesthetic regime. In place of modernism, the aesthetic regime is what Ranciere has come to define the art historical period beginning in the 19th century stretching on to this day. It is important to note that the extent of Ranciere’s aesthetic regime far extends beyond the domain of artistic development, but extends to the broader social and political changes, reconstituting the distribution of the sensible. A key component to Ranciere’s theory is the identification of aesthetics and political as belonging to the same field rather than autonomous of each other.

Over the course of the Curating Lab programme, my group had coined the term, “curatorial consciousness”, which we grown to use loosely amongst ourselves. The term draws much from both Groys and Ranciere in describing an awareness of the aesthetic ordering of things. While Groys talks of an aesthetic self-consciousness, a curatorial consciousness denotes the awareness of the aesthetic relationships that permeates between aspects of contemporary society. Echoing Ranciere, the aesthetics overlaps with the political in that the ordering is determinant upon the systemic links that constitutes the basis of urban societies.

Central to this idea of a curatorial consciousness is the issue of autonomy, in that the autonomy involved in the making of objects and/or aesthetic choices are often deferred in lieu of the relationships that are implicated by the decisions. Again, here we can identify the lineage to conceptual art practices, in particular the relationships between the artist and the institution. We can trace the developments from the institutional critique of the 60s to its current evolution, whereupon the relationship of the artist agent and the institution at times take the form of convenient bedfellows.

Institution and autonomy

While he was president, Bill Clinton once asked his staffs to name an aspect of their lives that the government does not play a role in. The staffs were unable to name any examples, which was his way of illustrating how almost every aspect of our lives is in part institutionalized by the state. This is especially true within the context of Singapore, where its lack of size means a heightened proximity between the institution and individuals.

This is particularly evident when working with my assigned group, who amongst the members include an architect turned urbanist, arts administrator, arts researcher, magazine writer/editor, a literature major and myself whose background is in film and media, there is a tendency to find overlaps amongst our respective fields. While some are uncovered in part due to our want for finding them, some overlaps are more obvious, such as those between the areas of urban planning and the arts administration.

While working on our exhibition, titled, “A History of Curating in Singapore”, at nearly every turn we would find the state playing an important role in the development of curating in Singapore, whether directly or indirectly. Particularly proliferation of curating in recent years, which is very much attributed to government related policies and initiatives. Curating Lab being the most immediate and explicit example, but in truth, the connection goes far beyond that.

The envisioning of the city by the government through its various master plans over the decades has had a direct impact upon the conditions that had enabled developments of the city and artistic practices. The development of museums within the city and its arts developmental policies are clear examples of the government effecting change. This has resulted in the group often seeing the state as a form of meta-curator enacting its conception of the city that parallels the practice of contemporary curating.

Needless to say, the effecting of political and economical aims are at the crux of these master plans, but at the same time there are also undoubtedly aesthetic ramifications. Returning to the idea of a curatorial consciousness, there is a significant degree of aesthetic ordering involved in these policies and master plans. From the allocation of space for artistic activities to the way in which culture and artistic practice is defined, and tolerated within the public sphere. Here, the word ordering is particularly important as the ordering is two-fold, one of which is the aesthetic and the other political, as defined by the state’s top-down approach and the systematic trickling down and execution of its plans through its various agencies. So while these state plans are contrasted with curating, the distinction lies in their intended result; exhibition making and curating is at best speculative, while government policies enact actual change.

Drawing on an example from the group, one of the common threads that emerge has been the dichotomy between the artist and curator. Partly due to the role that we assume for the Curating Lab programme – the curator, the dichotomy is reinforced and often carefully toed. While the group takes no issue with the exhibition as a meta-artwork, we are however keenly aware of the difference between the kind of gestures performed by an artist from those of a curator, and the implications that could be read. The process of negotiations between artist and curator is paramount in retaining both parties’ autonomy.

The physical and the embodied

Returning to the proposition, a possible criticism of it is that it does not take into account the importance of the physicality of objects or information that is embodied. For one, the usage of the Internet itself obscures the physical nature of the apparatus by which we access it. As noted by Groys:

The standard internet user is, as a rule, concentrated on the computer screen and overlooks the corporate hardware of the internet—all those monitors, terminals and cables that inscribe it into contemporary industrial civilization. That is why the Internet has conjured for some the dreamlike notions of immaterial work and the general intellect within a post-Fordist condition. But these are software notions. The reality of the Internet is its hardware.[iii]

The physical historicity of objects is further lost amidst the Internet. The Internet, for all its expanded capabilities, is unable to manifest objects that are defined by their physical attribute and replicate the way they relate to space on the Internet. The information on the Internet does not age as how artifacts do. They become dated, outdated, but they do not age.

Similarly, what is interesting in the proposition is that the premise that it communicate, has to be embodied by the participants over the course of the programme. The proposition questions itself through its execution.


The Internet however ubiquitous in our everyday lives does not constitute the lived world. While it may seem like a plausible methodology for certain forms of exhibition, as a curatorial framework there remain limitations in its applicability for the full spectrum of exhibition making.

After all, a fair amount of the world’s information does not exist or would not exist on the Internet as they do in reality. Much of the activities in the world are still enacted physically, particularly outside the developed world, and a vast amount of information is exchanged and derived through these physical contact and interactions.

To ignore the physical realities of the world in favor of the digital is not merely a choice, but also in itself a matter of politics.

[i] Introduction – Global Conceptualism Revisited, e-flux journal, 2011, Boris Groys
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Ibid

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