Curatorial development in Scotland

Reflections on Jan Verwoert workshop

In skilfully mediating shared and opposing concerns throughout the day Jan set the agenda, supported by a little magic and substantial pastoral care.

Sharing a table invites everyone to bring something to the table.  Without formal introductions and no initial sweep of asking everyone to summarize themselves in a few words, is it safe to assume that the reasons for being there will emerge during the course of discussion? I was keen not to presuppose what each of our relative positions might be, to dissolve explanations as to how we arrived here and to function in real time.As we questioned the common or principle values we associate to curatorial work, we also set about naming what the obstacles and patterns of resistance might be; soon discovering a predisposition to the institutional language of the proposal, the report, the funding request, the evaluation.  Slippage between clear motivations to support artistic integrity, define social value or interpret transparency as a means of mediation between producer and audience; and the omnipresent culture of accountability.

When we tire of obstacles and barriers asserting themselves more strongly, we can shift our values or terms of reference accordingly, but eventually we may have to shift the barrier completely from our direct view.  Institutional burnout from institutional logic.  Equally tiresome barriers and obstacles come into focus from the lack of a fixed physical location or a budget at your disposal, or general dissatisfaction with the complex segues of project-based work rhythms so familiar to artists.  In our contemporary high performance culture we are likely to move in and out of different positions in the ongoing trajectory of a career – shifting the focus of our negotiations rather than giving up on negotiating entirely.

If we can assume differences in institutional and independent practice, we can also assume their similarities.  Do curators working in institutions develop their work inspite or because of the institution? Could the evaluated ethics and summoned energies necessary to maintain a functioning freelance career ever amount to the position of ‘outsider’? When an institution’s policy is to promote an autonomous/automated authorship, the curator has to assert their visibility through actions outside of the production of that institutional work.  In the artworld, like any other business, to assert your visibility is to assert your viability.

In the course of developing any creative practice a common necessity is the need for self-reflection.  But without a community structure for this act, is there a danger of reflective disfunctionality?  Another hermetically-sealed system of implosion?

The contemporary tendency of institutions to summon participation from predefined constituents of interest – target audiences – can create an expectation of access to a “radical epiphany” through art, following a logic of instant gratification that is out of step with our real experiences of the “displaced reception” that flows between ideas, emotions, learning and encounters in our lives or in productive working methods.  Building a relationship takes time.  As curators we call into question our own position in initiating social encounters as part of our working practices. Cultural experience functions in this world of constant ruptures between private and public space alongside the perpetual re-presentation or re-appropriation of historical truths. As curators, as artists, as critics, as people, our souls, thoughts and ethics need constant nourishment in order to collaborate with anyone else.

Jan asserts that the curator’s work exists on a threshold, a space shared by artists, public, critics, institutions. Beautifully and absurdly illustrated in an excerpt from Marguerite Duras’ 1972 film Nathalie Granger is the analogy of the salesman, like the curator whose livelihood is derived from the ability to second-guess the desires of another.  The notion that it might be necessary to assert ones own mandate of assumed knowledge about the desires of others leads to the difficulty of alluding to “secret knowledge” where value judgements are made on the premise of “rarified experience”, easily in conflict with the reality of what the other might actually want, or might already have.Valuing the absurd in curatorial practice seems to be an essential survival tool on the Swiss Army Knife of curatorial skills, alongside constantly updating ones seduction techniques. If the critic’s position is rooted in a linguistic origin to discern criterion within a crisis, the curator’s endeavour can still be rooted in the act of caring. Not caring for managers managing management or evaluators evaluating evaluation, but caring for the maintenance of the threshold, and the terms of reference asserted to define this as an active and responsive space.

Reflecting back on our initial free-formed roundtable discussion after Jan’s presentation later in the afternoon, it appeared that the flow  of conversation could have been conjured into a preordained argument illustrated by his selection of iconography. In associative tight riffs between philosophy, art history, the Enlightment, sociology, Bob Dylan, a Catholic Education and pizza ovens, forms had evolved to give shape to slippery subjects. Circular loops of thought but not a circular conversation.

The “dynamic contradictions” that emerged from this productive discussion needn’t be fixed into an immediate synopsis.  I’d rather perfect the illusion of casually “misinterpreting the brief” than master the performance of a magic trick.

Kirsteen Macdonald is the organiser of Framework

All quotations taken from my notes on Jan Verwoert’s presentation.  With thanks to all the participants in the discussion, to Cove Park for hosting the event and to Kate for the photos.