Claire Tancons — Curating

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Claire Tancons

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.


  1. 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). 

  2. Tony Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” New Formations, no. 4 (Spring 1988): 73–102. 

  3. 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

  4. 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.  

  5. “All the World’s Futures,” 56th International Art Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia 2015, curated by Okwui Enwezor (May 9–November 22, 2015). 

  6. 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. 

  7. Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” 73. 

  8. 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. 

See Also

Participation — Claire Tancons

Installation — David Levine

Performativity — Judith Butler

Chief Dalcour and the Serenity Peace Birds in “Public Practice: An Anti-Violence Community Ceremony,” curated by Delaney Martin and Claire Tancons for New Orleans Airlift, October 25, 2014. Photo: Josh Brasted.

Historical interpreters from Freetown Living History Museum, as part of Allison Smith’s 2008 project The Donkey, The Jackass, and The Mule, with the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo: Allison Smith and Michelle Pemberton.

Marlon Griffith, No Black in the Union Jack under Gia Wolff, Canopy, in “Up Hill Down Hall: An Indoor Carnival,” curated by Claire Tancons for the BMW Tate Live Series, Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, 2014. Photo: Oliver Cowling. © Tate 2014.

Paul Chan, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, 2007. Photo: Frank Aymami. Courtesy of Creative Time.

Andrea Fraser, Projection, 2008. Still from a 2-channel HD video projection installation. © Andrea Fraser. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler.

David Levine, Bystanders, 2015. Installation view, Gallery TPW, Toronto. Performer: William Ellis. Photo: Guntar Kravis.

VALIE EXPORT, TAPP und TASTKINO (Tap and touch cinema), 1968. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Bildrecht, Vienna. Photo © Werner Schulz.

My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade), Broke People’s Baroque Peoples’ Theater, 2010. Courtesy of Alexandro Segade.

Richard Maxwell, Neutral Hero, 2012. The Kitchen, New York. From left: Janet Coleman, Bob Feldman, Lakpa Bhutia, Andie Springer, Jean Ann Garrish. Photo © Paula Court.

Miguel Gutierrez and Tarek Halaby in Gutierrez's Last Meadow, 2009. Dance Theater Workshop, New York, September 2009. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Mac Wellman, Muazzez, 2014. Performer: Steve Mellor. Chocolate Factory Theater, Queens, New York (a co-presentation with PS 122). Photo: Brian Rogers.

Janine Antoni, Yours Truly, 2010. Ink on paper, 5 7/8 x 8 1/2”. © Janine Antoni. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Yvonne Rainer, score for “Trio B: Running,” from The Mind Is a Muscle, 1966–68. Graphite and ink on paper, 8 5/16 x 7 5/16". The Getty Research Institute. © Yvonne Rainer.

Susan Leigh Foster, The Ballerina’s Phallic Pointe, 2011, a performed lecture in the series Susan Foster! Susan Foster! Three Performed Lectures, produced by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and performed at the Philadelphia Live Arts Studio, 2011. Photo: Jorge Cousineau.

Opening performance of the exhibition “Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing,” Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2008. Brown improvises movements across a large piece of paper on the Medtronic Gallery floor, holding charcoal and pastel between her fingers and toes, drawing extemporarily. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Allora & Calzadilla, Sediments Sentiments (Figures of Speech), 2007. Mixed-media installation with live performance and pre-recorded sound track, dimensions variable. © Allora & Calzadilla. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Martha Rosler, Meta-Monumental Garage Sale, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Lucinda Childs, Pastime (1963), 2012, performed by Childs at Danspace as part of Platform 2012: "Judson Now." Photo © Ian Douglas.

Siobhan Davies and Helka Kaski, Manual, 2013. Photo © Alan Dimmick. Courtesy of Glasgow Life.

“Performance Now,” curated by RoseLee Goldberg. Installation view, Kraków Theatrical Reminiscences, Poland, 2014. Photo: Michal Ramus. Courtesy of Independent Curators International (ICI).

Steve Paxton, Intravenous Lecture (1970), 2012. Performed by Stephen Petronio with Nicholas Sciscione. Part of Platform 2012: “Judson Now,” curated by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Installation view, “Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham—Robert Raschenberg,” curated by Darsie Alexander at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2011. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Chief Dalcour and the Serenity Peace Birds in “Public Practice: An Anti-Violence Community Ceremony,” curated by Delaney Martin and Claire Tancons for New Orleans Airlift, October 25, 2014. Photo: Josh Brasted.

Ain Gordon and David Gordon, The Family Business, premiered 1993. Performers: David Gordon, Ain Gordon, Valda Setterfield. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein. Courtesy of the photographer and Pick Up Performance Co(s).

Hotel Modern, Kamp, 2005. Photo: Herman Helle.

Janine Antoni, Anna Halprin, and Stephen Petronio, Rope Dance, 2015. Photo © Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy of the artists and The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

Sarah Michelson, Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer, 2012 Whitney Biennial, February 26, 2012. Photo © Paula Court. Performers: Eleanor Hullihan and Nicole Mannarino.

Ralph Lemon, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?, 2009. Archival print from original film. © Ralph Lemon.

Pope.L, The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 street (Whitney version), 2001. © Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. Photo: Lydia Grey.

Iannis Xenakis, Terretektorh, Distribution of Musicians, 1965. Collection famille Xenakis. Courtesy of the Iannis Xenakis Archives. © Iannis Xenakis.

Lisa Bielawa, Chance Encounter, premiered 2007. Co-conceived with Susan Narucki. Photo: Corey Brennan, 2010, Rome.

Claudia La Rocco, 173-177 [or, Facebook Is Inescapable], 2013. Headlands Center for the Arts. Courtesy of José Carlos Teixeira.

Pina Bausch and the Tanztheater Wuppertal, Palermo, Palermo, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1991. Photo: Maarten Vanden Abeele.

Tomás Saraceno, Observatory, Air-Port-City, 2008. In “Psycho Buildings: Artists Take on Architecture,” curated by Ralph Rugoff, Hayward Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Christian Marclay, Chalkboard, 2010, paint and chalk, 210 x 1,045 inches. Installation view, “Christian Marclay: Festival,” 2010, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Collection of the artist; courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Christian Marclay.

Steven Schick at the “Peacock” in the Paul Dresher Ensemble Production of Schick Machine, 2009, by Paul Dresher, Steven Schick, and Rinde Eckert. Mondavi Center, UC Davis, Davis, CA. Photo: Cheung Chi Wai.

Ralph Lemon in An All Day Event: The End, part of Platform 2012: “Parallels.” Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Installation view, “Allison Smith: Rudiments of Fife & Drum,” The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT. Photo: Chad Kleitsch. Courtesy of The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Meredith Monk, Shards (1969–73), 2012. Part of Platform 2012: “Judson Now,” curated by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Berlin, Bonanza, 2006. A documentary project focusing on Bonanza, Colorado, population 7. © Berlin. berlinberlin.be.

Gob Squad, Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good), 2007. Photo © David Baltzer / bildbuehne.de / Agentur Zenit Berlin.

Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Hole in Space, 1980. On screens in front of Lincoln Center and The Broadway department store in Los Angeles, passersby could see and talk to their counterparts on the opposite coast, and many “reunions” were quickly set up, in this early example of video conferencing. Courtesy of the Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Galloway Archives.

Hans Haacke, News, 1969/2005. Installation view, “State of the Union,” Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2005. © Hans Haacke / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Pauline Oliveros, circa 1967. Courtesy of the CCM Archive, Mills College, Oakland, CA.

The Builders Association, Elements of Oz, 2015. Photo: Gennadi Novash. Courtesy of Peak Performances @ Montclair State University.

Ain Gordon, A Disaster Begins, 2009. Veanne Cox. Here Arts Center, New York. Photo: Jason Gardner. Courtesy of the photographer and Pick Up Performance Co(s).

The Wooster Group, BRACE UP!, 1991. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. Anna Köhler (on monitor) and Willem Dafoe. Photo © Mary Gearhart.

Joanna Haigood and Charles Trapolin, The Monkey and the Devil, performance installation, 2011. Performers: Matthew Wickett, Sean Grimm, Jodi Lomask. Photo: Walter Kitundu.

Jarbas Lopes, Demolition Now, in “SPRING,” curated by Claire Tancons for the 7th Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju, 2008. Photo: Akiko Ota.

Lisa Bielawa, Crissy Broadcast (part of Airfield Broadcasts), San Francisco, 2013. Photo: James Block.

Erwin Wurm, One Minute Sculpture, 1997/2005. © Erwin Wurm. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981. Photo: Peter Hujar. The Peter Hujar Archive. Courtesy of Pace MacGill and Fraenkel Galleries.

Wu Tsang with Alexandro Segade, Mishima in Mexico, 2012. Color HD video, 14:32 minutes. Courtesy of the artists, Clifton Benevento (New York), Michael Benevento (Los Angeles), and Isabella Bortolozzi (Berlin).

Young Jean Lee, Untitled Feminist Show, 2012. Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, 2012. Hilary Clark, Regina Rocke, and Katy Pyle. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Romeo Castellucci, On the Concept of the Face Regarding the Son of God, 2010. Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, 2013. Photo: Kevin Monko.

Jérôme Bel, Le dernier spectacle (The last performance), 1998. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos.

Troubleyn / Jan Fabre, Mount Olympus, 2015. Performance lasts 24 hours. Photo © Wonge Bergmann for Troubleyn / Jan Fabre.

Siobhan Davies Studios, Roof Studio, London. Photo: Peter Cook.

Emily Roysdon, Sense and Sense (a project with MPA), Sergels torg, Stockholm, Sweden, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

David Lang’s home studio. Photo © Jorge Colombo.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1964 (replica of 1913 original). Wheel and painted wood. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of the Galleria Schwarz d’Arte, Milan, 1964. © Succession Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2016.

Historical interpreters from Freetown Living History Museum, as part of Allison Smith’s 2008 project The Donkey, The Jackass, and The Mule, with the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo: Allison Smith and Michelle Pemberton.

Rimini Protokoll, Situation Rooms, 2013. Photo © Ruhrtriennale / Jörg Baumann.

Jeanine Oleson and Ellen Lesperance, We Like New York and New York Likes Us, 2004. A “wry look back” at Joseph Beuys’s performance with a coyote, I Like America and America Likes Me, René Block Gallery, New York, 1974. Courtesy of the artists.

Christine Hill, Volksboutique Organizational Ventures, 2001. Mixed-media installation, Kunstverein Wolfsburg, Germany. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, 1989. Performance. Performance documentation: Kelly & Massa Photography. Courtesy of the artist. © Andrea Fraser.

Theaster Gates, Dorchester Projects, Chicago, 2012. © Theaster Gates. Photo © Sara Pooley. Courtesy of White Cube.

John Cage, two pages from 4'33" (original version, in proportional notation), 1952/1953. Ink on paper, 11 x 8 1/2" each sheet. Acquired by The Museum of Modern Art through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis. © 1993 Henmar Press Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission of C. F. Peters Corporation. Photo © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

Yoko Ono, Painting For The Wind, summer 1961. First published in Yoko Ono: Grapefruit (Tokyo: Wunternaum Press, July 4, 1964). © Yoko Ono.

Rosemary Lee, Square Dances, 2011, commissioned by Dance Umbrella. Square Dances took place in four central London squares throughout a day, with different casts in each: 10 children in Woburn Square, 100 women in Gordon Square, 35 men in Brunswick Gardens, 25 dance students in Queen Square. Each performance involved bells, ranging from a huge church bell that struck every minute; to a handmade musical instrument using bells within its barrel structure, created and composed by Terry Mann; to tiny hand bells for the dancers. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

Joanna Haigood and Wayne Campbell, Ghost Architecture, 2004. An aerial dance installation centering on the architectural and social history of the site. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.

Ann Hamilton, the event of a thread, 2012–13. Park Avenue Armory, New York. Curated by Kristy Edmunds. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Robert Wilson and Marina Abramović, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, premiered 2011. Park Avenue Armory, New York, 2013. Foreground: Willem Dafoe. Photo: Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory.

Richard Maxwell, Neutral Hero, 2012. The Kitchen, New York. From left: Janet Coleman, Bob Feldman, Lakpa Bhutia, Andie Springer, Jean Ann Garrish. Photo © Paula Court.

Ann Liv Young, The Bagwell in Me, 2008. Photo: Scott Newman, Revel in New York.

Xavier Le Roy, “Retrospective,” 2012–. Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, 2012. Photo: Lluís Bover. © Fundació Antoni Tàpies.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981. Photo: Peter Hujar. The Peter Hujar Archive. Courtesy of Pace MacGill and Fraenkel Galleries.

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Rimini Protokoll, 100% Yogyakarta, 2015. Teater Garasi, Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia. © Goethe-Institut Indonesien / KDIP Viscom.

Bebe Miller Company, A History, 2012. Angie Hauser and Darrell Jones. Photo: Michael Mazzola.