Friday 26 September 2014

journal | The Task(s) of the Curator*

by Luca Lum
NUS Museum

Left: Briefs for NUS Museum’s programme for 2015, Concrete Island; right: Brainstorming passwords for the Concrete Island reader
*The title refers to Walter Benjamin's seminal essay "The Task of the Translator"

I'm part of the team working on NUS Museum's year-long programme for 2015, Concrete Island. Unlike the other two industry immersions at NAC and the CCA where the participants are involved with programmes that have already been charted out, those of us at the NUS Museum are dealing with the something in its burgeoning stages. I feel really fortunate to being able to contribute to the conceptual foundations of the project.

During the immersion at NUS Museum I gained insights into the following:
  1. a style of programming that is always in dialogue with the museum's specific history and collection, yet wide-ranging in its scope of exploration
  2. how creating ways for open and continual dialogue enable small kernels of thought, gestures, and procedures which build up to a full exhibition
  3. what a curator is and what curation entails
            Concrete Island is named after the novel by J.G. Ballard. Ballard’s novel is a re-writing of Robinson Crusoe for the post-industrial age, the age of hyperspeed, where isolation and being nowhere occurs within civilisation, generated primarily by constant mobility. Set in London, the plot of the text involves architect Robert Maitland getting into a traffic accident and becoming trapped on a man-made island -- a kind of urban wasteland -- between Westway and the M4 Motorway. The title, Concrete Island, accords with Singapore as both a concrete jungle and island. It forms a loose frame for the works we’re exhibiting by Debbie Ding (visual artist), Tan Pin Pin (film-maker), and Lilian Chee (architect). Concrete Island is thus a vehicle that mobilises thinking about space and time, trajectory and speed -- where we've come from, where we are, and where we're going. It’s meant as a kind of counter-point to SG50, the island-wide programme scheduled to celebrate Singapore’s 50 years as a nation-state. I see Concrete Island as an iteration of the Museum’s cartographical investigation of place through the histories of colonial sites in the past year with Erika Tan’s Come Cannibalise Us Why Don’t You and Charles Lim’s In Search of Raffles’ Light, but with an interest in a much broader stretch of time and a more overt interest in the present and future of place.

            Our team's task is to lay the foundation for the reader accompanying Concrete Island, first by generating a list of passwords, a concept derived from Jean Baudrillard. Passwords are key terms that form points of entry and departure into the programme. It will be used as prompts for short texts we are commissioning from writers (academics, artists, etc). To some extent our own immersion feels like these passwords: we're accumulating nodes of experience and concepts that we keep circling back to over the course of the immersion which we feed into other trajectories, such as our exhibition at the end of Curating Lab.

Left: Reading up on Pulau Saigon for Debbie Ding’s project; right: a list of archaeological artefacts found at the site of Pulau Saigon from Jennifer Barry’s text
          We also began research on three of the sub-programmes. I’m working on Debbie Ding’s upcoming project, The Library of Pulau Saigon, which has to do with an island that used to reside in the middle of the Singapore river lost to development. Our team spent the second week researching at NLB where I dug up some texts that dealt directly with Pulau Saigon, and then broadened my research to texts in fields related to her work — archaeology, psycho-geography, cartography, philosophy of waste, etc.

            By now the team has accumulated so much material we needed a way to chart and share what we each found relevant to keep the flow of ideas going. We started a private Facebook group and a group tumblr, which form maps of visuals and ideas. None of us are keeping exclusively to the artist we chose to research on, but are feeding the relationships we see between the three projects.

Our tumblr site:
            Our work doesn’t end at NUS Museum; we also took time out to help out with the installation of Charles Lim’s Safe Sea — a library of books relating to the sea — at the National Museum Singapore as part of Singapore’s Heritage Fest , which provided an insight into the practical concerns around setting up an installation as well as being present in looking at an iteration of Lim’s much larger body of work that had to do with Singapore’s history to the sea. Charles’ project is in some ways the opposite — or more accurately, a close cousin —of Concrete Island: it's a negative image of Singapore from its watery perimeters, the flows that come and go and shape its boundaries. It also struck me that a curator has to be aware of existing ideas in circulation, as no exhibit is conceived or received in a vacuum but in the context of things already floating in the metaphorical ether…(or sea)

Left: Installation of Safe Sea in progress; right: paraphernalia found in the library of books
I'm compelled by the similarities between the curator and the translator. According to the OED, the word "translator" can mean several things:

1a. One who translates or renders from one language into another; the author of a translation.
1b. One who renders a painting by engraving, or the like: cf. translation n.
1c. Computing. A program that translates from one (esp. programming) language into another.

2. One who transforms, changes, or alters; spec. a cobbler who renovates old shoes.

3. One who transfers or transports. (Obscure)

4a. An automatic repeater in long-distance telegraphy. Cf.
4b. A relay set or station which receives television signals and retransmits them without demodulating them.

            The task of the curator is much like the task of the translator in the combined definitions and applications on the term listed above. The curator, like the translator, tries to mobilise a thing — an idea, or an artwork — from one co-ordinate to another, from an artist's personal oeuvre to the context of the exhibition and new sets of relations with other works. In doing so, the act of translation enacts transformations. 
Like the telegraphers or station operators of definition 4, curators are also sending signals from afar, from a perspective of knowledge. But unlike these telegraphers and station operators, curators know that the signals will undergo some form of attenuation and entropy, that sort of scattering is to be expected and can even be productive. Curators are transporters, creating in-roads of access and departures from the source, much like Baudrillard's passwords, for people to arrive at and depart from — nodes of material that work like some kind of weather vane where ideas, nebulous and unfixable, momentarily curl around to direct our attentions somewhere. Curation, like translation, is also an act that is never complete, but always in the midst of transition and flux. The end of an exhibition is only a still weather vane; sometime elsewhere, the breeze will blow again.

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