Curatorial development in Scotland

Some thoughts from workshop with Jan Verwoert

Jan started off the session by asking us to what we consider as value, and recurrent obstacles in our practice. Through the course of the discussion, I found that a lot of concepts – authority, authorship, transparency, value, etc – were raised yet addressed in different contexts and to various ends. It made me recognise the range of positions and backgrounds of the people at the table, different understandings of where and how curating occurs, and the value of a communicative platform such as this, to consider the linkages between different practices through these broad concepts.

Jan’s question made me reflect on why I continue to pursue my practice, and what – external or self-imposed – issues that have hindered me. Recurrent obstacles are difficult to pinpoint, because so many sprout up in my mind. Sometimes it is self-doubt coupled with a fear of doing something which I haven’t done before. Sometimes it is the burden of the labour involved and how that takes its toil. Sometimes it is the process itself that I have chosen which requires the response of other people and when those responses are not forthcoming, the project can fall apart. I think another recurrent obstacle is the feeling that creeps up now and then, of not knowing where I am heading towards. The value, for me, is something I have to constantly return to, in initiating or developing art or curatorial projects – because they help me go through a process of making myself intelligible, especially in this age where uncertainty and values seem to falter. I think it also gives me the space where an emotional or instinctive response is legitimate, and becomes a starting point for me to understand myself, in relation to situations I find myself confronted with.

Among the participants, some of the responses to value included the moment at which interpretation occurs and the discussion and inter-relationships manifested. A common refrain was the issue of the relationship between value and use, and the connection between the term “usefulness” and its relationship with productivity, utility and expectations of efficiency and speed at which work is done. The discussion of recurrent obstacles included the structures of the art world and institutions, such as routines and assymetries of power, and questions of authority.

In particular, I found the discussion on the workings of collaborative practice and how transparency functioned, of interest. There was some discussion on the issue of compromise with collaborative practice, and the value of collaboration to open the space for discussion and lead to something stronger. I see this as telling of the process, trials and benefits of a democratic process – of communication and negotiation that could be sufferingly laborious yet productive because of the stronger ties and inter-relationships that are formed. The question of transparency was brought up, as a means to explain one’s decisions to funders and the institutional authorities. For me, I see transparency as a means to address the tension between one’s authorship and perceived authority. Jan brought up the possibility of bringing in external intervention – “the granny” – someone or something that does not fit in within the logic of the structure, as a way out of the impasse. Although the curator might be the one who chooses that particular intervention, and subjectivity cannot be fully eliminated, it can help to displace authority to reconsider the situation at hand.

Jan’s presentation – on the complexities that curators face, from possessing a mandate from the public, defining what value is, to inhabiting a discomfiting position of middleperson – provoked me to think not just about issues that recur within curating but also on a larger level about how individuals could respond to structures that somewhat constrain them. In particular, the issue of speaking and/versus doing, and the notion of exposing the contradictions within the system that one indubitably lives within. The presentation made me think of how we have the space to negotiate and lay out the fallacies and contradictions of the system, as a means of responding the desires imposed on our. It also made apparent the different positions one could take with regards to how we choose to inhabit or search (perhaps in a futile manner) with-out these structures. The idea of speaking and raising of the conditions of a crisis resonates with me, because I think that speaking is an outcome of thought and a decision to articulate what does not cohere or does not seem right. At the same time, I also think about the distinctions between speech and an act, and wonder if speech is more easily valorised and theorised, whereas the act, or even attempt, to search and find a way out of the crisis would satisfy the search or desire to venture into undefined terrain.

Magdalen Chua is Curator of studio 41, a space for contemporary curating and art in Glasgow