Claire Tancons is a curator and art historian whose many collaborations include the currently traveling exhibition “EN MAS’: Carnival, Junkanoo and Performance Art of the Caribbean” (with Krista Thompson).
As a word that emanates from the idea of caring, curating has evolved into an all-encompassing, catchall term that accounts for a wide variety of activities that can be as artistically careless (as in booth curating, which emulates commercial art fair displays) as they are socially carefree: despite museums’ claims to the contrary, many “curated” community-outreach initiatives only highlight the disconnect between institution and neighborhood, and the museum’s own role in the gentrification driving out those very communities. Curator is an occupation that continues to oscillate between aspirational pursuit within the moneyed class (today’s Sheikhs replacing yesterday’s bourgeois) and standardless profession (with little or nothing in the way of written guidelines about how independent curators should be remunerated or credited). The curator has evolved from object caretaker to exhibition maker with the rise of the independent curator, starting with Harald Szeemann. Indeed, paying direct homage to Szeemann, Jens Hoffmann calls himself an exhibition maker, while Germano Celant might be called an exhibition remaker.1 Still, curating continues to be tied to the museum context and what Tony Bennett called the exhibitionary complex (a genealogy of the making of the Western museum as the dominant art institution).2
Despite its social turn (Claire Bishop) and educational turn (Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson) and “whatever” turn (as mockingly suggested by Lars Bang Larsen),3 despite its extended geographic territories (with strong petrodollar-supported Russian and Middle Eastern expansions) and even virtual manifestations, curatorial practice remains essentially exhibition driven and museum bound. It more generally takes place within a gallery space, formal or ad hoc, and even within the expanded biennial field, it exists within the four walls of a physical space but for a few exceptions.4 A case in point was the Arena designed by David Adjaye for the 56th Venice Biennial curated by Okwui Enwezor. A black box inside a white cube featuring scheduled performances and framed as the beating heart of “All the World’s Futures,” it seemed to epitomize just how difficult it is to come out of the box and break away from the enclosure of the proscenium stage and the gallery space, here conflated into one—a case of matryoshka doll exhibition design, of the same within the same.5
An alternative genealogy of curating would understand exhibition making as primarily about displaying publicly, as opposed to enclosing within walled spaces. That genealogy would take the increasing production of performance into account, not as a trend but as a redress. It would also de facto experiment with other curatorial models based on both prior and parallel exhibitionary histories. One prior history harks back to the traditional itinerant fair in Europe and North America until the nineteenth century. A parallel history looks to the processional traditions in West Africa around the same period. Processions developed as a regal display of wealth in the Kingdom of Dahomey (the present-day Benin Republic) over the course of the eighteenth century, culminated in the mid-nineteenth century, and collapsed in the late nineteenth century with French colonization.6 (The rise and fall of this tradition followed a course akin to that of museum and international exhibitions in princely European cabinets at the same time.) These so-called coutumes or fêtes des richesses were in effect a living cabinet of curiosities, occurring annually as well as for exceptional circumstances (the funeral ritual of a King), exhibiting European gifts, local artifacts, vodun ritual instruments, slaves, and the kingdom’s subjects.
Placing Bennett’s exhibitionary genealogy in counterpoint, I assert that indeed, “works of art had previously wandered through the streets of Europe like the Ships of Fools in Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation.”7 I further suggest that what was lost and is currently making a return—consider the recent wealth of artworks as processions and exhibitions on and as processions—can pave the way to other curatorial models.8 As they seek to bypass Euro-American cultural hegemony even as they attempt to restore a social link, might these practices constitute a form of countercurating? Is this not a strategy by which antispectacular spectacles (e.g., carnivals) are (off)staged? As a form of cross-cultural curating, it uses performance-based curatorial methodology to accommodate different cultural sensoriums or perceptual regimes. As a form of contractual curating, it follows a process by which a collective cultural situation is negotiated among artists, curators, and viewer-participants.
However they may be called and defined, I have drawn these other curatorial models and their experimental practices from the creative commons of the Americas and its African, European, Asian, and Middle Eastern diasporas whose festival traditions and street celebrations are social movements at the center of public life and civil society. I have further applied curatorial methodologies that emulate social clubs, mutual-aid societies, and communal workshops as found in New Orleans and London, Trinidad and New York. Finally, I am employing exhibitionary strategies that may take the form of speeches, marches, parades, processions, demonstrations, and other occupations. Curating, then, becomes a daily activity, a seasonal festival or a circumstantial celebration that contributes to the transmission of cultural memory, enables intercultural communication, and cultivates the transformative powers of public expression.
See “When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes,” curated by Hoffmann (CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, San Francisco, 2012), and “When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969 / Venice 2013,” curated by Celant (Ca’ Corner della Regina, Venice, 2013). ↩
Tony Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” New Formations, no. 4 (Spring 1988): 73–102. ↩
Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents,” _Artforum 44 (February 2006): 178–83; Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson, Curating and the Educational Turn (London: Open Editions; Amsterdam: De Appel, 2010); Lars Bang Larsen, “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” Mousse, no. 35 (October 2012), http://moussemagazine.it/articolo.mm?id=879. ↩
For example, Prospect.1, with Dan Cameron as artistic director and myself as associate curator (various venues, New Orleans, November 2008–January 2009). The first edition of an international exhibition of contemporary art in post-Katrina New Orleans, Prospect.1 exploded urban and institutional boundaries by expanding far beyond the downtown arts district and local museum institutions to include, most notably, various open-air and closed-door venues in the Lower Ninth Ward. ↩
“All the World’s Futures,” 56th International Art Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia 2015, curated by Okwui Enwezor (May 9–November 22, 2015). ↩
Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, “La Fête des Coutumes au Dahomey: historique et essai d’interprétation,” in Annales. Economies, Sociétés, Civilisations, vol. 19, no. 4 (1964): 696–716. ↩
Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” 73. ↩
The latter include “On Procession,” curated by Rebecca Uchill (Indianapolis Museum of Art, 2008), which included a procession curated by the artist Fritz Haeg; “Carried Away: Procession in Art,” curated by Nanda Janssen (Arnhem Museum of Modern Art, 2008), which included a processional display as part of the 10th Sonsbeek festival; and “Parades and Processions: Here Comes Everybody” (Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art, London, 2009). The former include my own projects SPRING, in the 7th Gwangju Biennale (2008); A Walk into the Night, in CAPE 09; ANARKREW, in the 7th Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art (2013); and Up Hill Down Hall: An Indoor Carnival, BMW Tate Live Series, 2014. Upcoming processional projects include Tide by Side, an opening ceremony for Faena Forum Miami Beach, and etcetera, a public processional performance as civic ritual for Printemps de Septembre, both slated for Fall 2016. ↩