Taking your curatorial position: guest lecture KTH Architecture

What is your curatorial position?

How do you understand curation?

Why are you a curator?

Let’s consider what it means to take a curatorial position today – and why it’s more important than ever to be able to state and defend that position artistically, institutionally and politically.

Starting with the artistic. 

The artist 

The curator’s fundamental relationship is with the artist. It’s a relationship that must be grounded in trust, confidence and respect.

Artists create work that searches our emotions, compels our thinking, upsets power hierarchies, speaks truths both welcome and unwelcome, and recomposes light and colour and sound and movement and spatial quality in ways that expand the scope of possibility for every one of those elements. 

Artists define what’s possible – and defy what’s impossible.

And yet artists work under entirely precarious conditions. In Australia, artists are experiencing significant declines in average incomes, respect for their rights, and pathways towards sustainable careers, including education and professional development opportunities. There’s a longitudinal study that’s been done every seven years for some thirty years now by Prof David Throsby – the founding chair of NAVA – and his team at Macquarie University in Sydney. The latest study shows that the average incomes of visual artists have fallen 19% since the previous study, to well below the poverty line. It’s taking more years for artists to become established as artists, despite working more hours and across more disciplines or artforms than ever before. And in Australia, the gender pay gap is worse in the arts than in any other industry. While that industry becomes more sophisticated by the year, with a broad range of professional roles that keep coming into existence, this progression has been not been matched in any way for artists. Unlike curators, there is no ‘being an artist’ job. Worse, the precarity of the creative career is coopted into the discourse of the gig economy and the portfolio career, glamorising that precarity into the confident choice of flexibility as artists’ career prospects continue to worsen.

The curator of architecture makes an artist of the architect, but the architect remains an architect. It’s vital that, as a curator, you always keep this in mind. 

Architects have industry-recognised and highly supported career paths that set them among the more privileged professionals. Architects are trained in articulation, negotiation, the qualities of the spatial, the management of risk. Despite at least in Australia the profession not being as well respected as architects would like, the architect speaks with a privileged voice and is recognised as a professional. Artists are not.

Both at NAVA and also when I was director of Melbourne Fringe – an Australian uncurated festival – my role champions what it takes to sustain an independent artistic practice. I am not a curator; I create the frameworks within which curation can exist, including frameworks for which an uncurated festival takes a curatorial position: presenting the ecology of independent practice as a work in itself.

The role of the curator in championing the artist, in ensuring rights are respected, and in honouring the integrity of the work – it’s clear that there’s a deep ethics at play here. The curator has a highly responsible role when it comes to communicating, modulating and buffering the various risks faced by the artist. Risk is, after all, fundamental to that practice. The curator who is unwilling to accept this as a starting point is not a curator.

This is especially clear when we turn to the role of the institution. Increasingly, institutions are passing their business risks on to the artists who they exist to support, defend and champion. Contracts that ask the artist to insure against the institution’s risk, or to indemnify the institution against the consequences of the artist’s actions, are where the curator’s advocacy are needed most. In Australia, even the well-resourced and publicly owned galleries and festivals regularly engage in poor practices that only offer an artist their contract when the work is well under way, or in some cases, only after the exhibition has opened.

So what is your role as a curator?

The framework

Curators design the frameworks in which objects, experiences and ideas can cohere into a new set of provocations. The framework, however, is paramount.

A framework is a structure with a necessary openness. It’s defined by that openness to what it supports, presents, elaborates, generates and challenges.

As a curator, the frameworks you can develop are limited only by your confidence in what you can cohere.

An aesthetic premise. A research theme. A set of constrains. A library. A workshop. An archive. A think tank. A place of worship. A festival. A symposium. A campaign. An activism. A mediation. A protest. A party. A tradition. A concentration. A hospitality. An intimidation. A conversation. A makers’ market. A craft circle. An exchange. An investigation. A process. An occupation. A crime scene. A sovereignty. A newsroom. A headquarters. A bunker. A transit space. A school. A playing arena. An obstacle course. A field.

The curatorial framework is what makes a critical response possible. It can determine the scope of that critical response. It can present experimentation as research in ways that connect with practitioners working academically. It creates new spaces for the production of knowledge, while challenging our understanding of what constitutes knowledge. 

The framework is an ethics, a context, a terms of engagement. It primes the work of art for interpretation. It translates the work into the language of purpose and provocation.

Changing a curatorial framework can change a great deal more than the relationship between inert objects. When Louise Tegart, as the new director of the Ballarat Art Gallery, Australia’s oldest gallery, rehung the collection, it caused significant cultural shifts in this small regional Australian city. 

When I was director of Craft Victoria – a craft and design organisation with a gallery, shop and public program, – I had a minority of board members who questioned whether we needed to employ a curator at all, and later they demoted the role and its title. It startled me how little understanding and indeed confidence there was (this is well over a decade ago) in the role of the public institution. Was it a question of intellectual intimidation? Or was there something else at play: an anxiety towards the political dimensions of rigour and criticality?

The framework is a premise, a thesis, perhaps a tentative hypothesis, but it also has a political dimension: it takes a position.

The political

There is no such thing as a politically neutral position. Any time you see one claimed, or perhaps instead the claim that ‘this isn’t political’, this is your cue to expose their position of privilege. 

All over the world, we’re seeing social and cultural frameworks actively collapsed by political operators who are deeply insecure about the loss of that privilege.

In Australia, the prime minister describes model citizens as “Quiet Australians” who aren’t “complaining about their rights”. He speaks of their desire to see “politics off the front pages”, and when pressed in a media conference on a complex matter, he dismisses the question as part of the “Canberra bubble” that doesn’t matter to everyday citizens.

The political agenda that the prime minister would prefer wasn’t scrutinised includes: dismissing First Nations sovereignty, a Voice to Parliament and the Uluru Statement from the Heart; rolling back gender equality reforms; treating asylum seekers with cruelty; building the biggest coal mine in the world; taking no action on the climate emergency; using religious freedoms legislation to undermine workers’ rights for LGBTQIA* people; and ending the progressive taxation system so that funding public health, education, welfare, arts and culture will be near impossible in the future without radical reform.

Each of these matters are recognisable here in Sweden and in many other countries in the world.

Each of these matters are the preoccupations of scientists, academics and artists. 

Each of these practitioners are finding their expertise increasingly publicly challenged. It’s become commonplace for Australian government ministers to take funding away from peer-assessed academic or arts programs so that they can get a media story out of ridiculing the name of the project. The NSW state government has ended artist peer review altogether, instead appointing ten “artform boards” of the minister’s choosing to make funding recommendations.

The role of the curator is to propose frameworks that cohere the work of diverse practitioners into public experiences.

The role of civic institutions such as universities and the media in engaging the public, and particularly in engaging the disengaged, is becoming increasingly difficult. Incongruously, the more the news and social media landscape complexities, the easier it is for politicians to dumb down their public messages while ramping up agendas that reinforce privileged positions. They are discovering what artists, journalists and academics have always known: there’s never been a mainstream media, a general public. There has only ever been cultural complexity, multiple languages, diverse perspectives. 

The work you curate is part of an interconnected set of cultural experiences that, together, reinforce or challenge political norms.

This is the context in which we work.

Sovereignty, in which newly appointed director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art Max Delany handed over the entire space and its institutional resources to First Nations curator Paola Balla, was an exhibition that enacted that never-ceded sovereignty through artistic and cultural practice. As well as institutional practice: the gallery recognising that, every time its offers artists a space to show new work, it is complicit in the erasure of tens of thousands of years of culture on whose country it stands. 

Ok Democracy, We Need to Talk, curated by Adam Porter and presented at Campbelltown Arts Centre on the outskirts of Sydney ahead of this year’s federal election campaign, asserted the authority of the artist as civic actor, offering ways to both engage with and critique democracy.

How Institutions Think, a platform for presented at the long-troubled construction site of LUMA Arles back in 2016, questioned the inert political position of the cultural institution, seeking instead more active ways to recognise the practices and the values that they normalise, appropriate and promote. 

A Government of Artists, the theme for the 2020 Next Wave Festival in Melbourne, has invited artists from all over Australia to form a government. They describe their organisational values as “championing hospitality, embracing rigour, listening hard and advocating”.

Ahmet Ögüt’s Silent University began in 2012 as “a solidarity based knowledge exchange platform by displaced people and forced migrants” and has been at Tensta Konsthall since 2013. Its aim is to “challenge the idea of silence as a passive state”.

Today is Our Tomorrow, presented in Helsinki last week, was a festival presented by curatorial agency PUBLICS and held in an underground music venue, intersecting music, discussions, installations and interventions to explore “other versions of the present already being lived”.

1989-2019: The Politics of Space in the New Berlin (at der Neuer Berliner Kunstverein until 13 October), maps and visualises the privatisation of Berlin real estate, among other projects that seek to understand Berlin’s cultural and political transformation since the fall of the Wall.

Arena, presented by Rita McBride for the opening of the Bauhaus Museum in Dessau to commemorate Bauhaus Centenary, is both a structure and public program. The structure, a demountable theatre and stage and open framework, performs its own institutional critique by reconfiguring the possibilities for public engagement that were unfortunately not offered by the institution itself on this occasion. A broader concern, in relation to yesterday’s discussion, is the question of how you curate for processes and methodologies as opposed to the deification of the object, which is the great risk of attempting to negotiate the Bauhaus legacy today.

Each of these platforms is making a lot of curatorial manœuvres and performances and actions. 

There are also curatorial frameworks that focus on the nature of artistic practice, on the rigour of disciplinary engagement, on experimentation, on the experiential aspects of art, and on first glance they may not seem to have a political dimension. However, as soon as we start to ask on whose country and on whose labour and on whose dollar they’re being presented, we start to understand what’s at stake.

Co-option, colonisation and interpretation 

Acknowledging that we work within a political context sounds straightforward, but how often do we take that context seriously enough to see through its consequences?

I am a queer woman with disability from a migrant family whose first language is not English. In identifying publicly, I perform that complexity, that diversity, while at the same time, acknowledging that my own voice is not marginalised in the way that other voices are among the communities that I’ve just referenced. I’m an employer, I am a worker in non-precarious employment, and I am an advocate with a national profile. All of that means that I have a significant responsibility to the voices, the work and the ideas that pay my salary. The full consideration of the context of my labour is a constant.

I’m also working on country whose sovereignty was never ceded. This means that every act of curation is an act of colonisation – an overwriting of values – especially when working in the public space. It’s heartening to see that discussion being overtaken by one about Indigenisation: not the pragmatically futile act of replacing colonialist institutions, but the constructive act of transforming them via Indigenous leadership. 

When developing a curatorial framework, it’s vital that you expose your own work to the same rigour you’d expect of its critical response. 

Whose work are you showing? Why? What values do those choices assert? What risks are you taking? What is your institution offering you by way of support? Have you respected First Nations protocols? What are the unspoken constraints on your work? Do they come from politeness? Are political realities impolite? What would happen if you were to be impolite?

The curatorial position 

What is your curatorial position?

On what basis, and via what frameworks, will you create spaces that expand the civic conversation?

Over the years I’ve had a number of different positions around the work I do and why I do it. 

At NAVA I lead policy, advocacy and action for a contemporary arts sector that’s ambitious and fair. So that artistic courage ignites Australian culture. 

The curators I’ve mentored have worked across a range of fields beyond contemporary arts, architecture and design and including experimental practice, sound, light, literature and text.

When Hélène and I co-curated Architecture+Philosophy, we were conscious of it being a feminist project. We sought speakers who could span the disciplines with rigour, as well as practitioners who were thinking or writing spatially. We were very aware of the institutional hostilities that existed around us and we were both prepared and unprepared for the abuse that we received. It seems so long ago now and when I compare it to the daily experience of online abuse faced by feminists today, I’m both chastened and emboldened in my choices and in my responses.

So. What is your curatorial position?

Is anyone prepared to make a brief statement?

Perhaps it’s something that’s best developed tentatively, discursively?

Perhaps it’s that kind of question that can stay with you, that can go on engaging and challenging you as you experience the various permutations of your practice over the years. Times where you’re bound to draw on one another – your colleagues, here in this room – in ways you can’t quite yet imagine. Hopefully of course this is already happening. 

Three pieces of advice.

Engage in an ongoing critique of new work, exhibitions, spaces. Perhaps via a writing practice. Perhaps through salons, crits or reading groups.

Engage with news media and train yourself in the language of political currency. Don’t mistake the banal for the risky and the risky for the banal. Understand the risks of disengagement. Don’t presume that something is unworthy of your attention because it’s being dealt with in a crass way by the media. Ask yourself whose interests are served by what’s there – and what isn’t. 

And finally, open yourself constantly to the kind of critique that requires you to establish, articulate and defend your curatorial position. This is your personal ethics. This is your source of strength. That you can be determined, equally that you can be vulnerable to change, as you draw on the values you’re strengthening every time they find new expression. 

Take a position. Watch it change over time, position and reposition it culturally and politically, reflect critically on that change, but first and foremost: take a position.

 

 

Guest lecture presented on 25 September at KTH (Stockholm) for the Concepts, Theories, Experimental Practices course.

HEADER IMAGE: Blackboard. Photograph by Esther Anatolitis.