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Some questions, some answers. Interview with Barnaby Drabble


10 April 2006

Some questions, some answers. Interview with Barnaby Drabble

“Projects by a number of well-known ‘star curators’ aren’t critically interesting, but that the revered ‘few’ appeared to be too frequently asked to ‘represent’ freelance practice as a whole, and with it curatorial experimentalism.”

Jacob Fabricius: How has Curating Degree Zero developed since the seminar in 1998?

Barnaby Drabble: In 1997, Dorothee Richter and I first met to discuss the idea of organising a symposium we were joined by our mutual interest in what we described then as ‘a multitude of new curatorial ideas and experiments’ which appeared to be growing in visibility in the field of contemporary art. The symposium, which we called Curating Degree Zero after Roland Barthes’ text Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, can be seen as part of a broader, concerted effort by curatorial practitioners in the late 1990’s to address two related concerns. Firstly to identify exhibition making as a cultural practice in its own right, and in doing so begin the job of creating a critical vocabulary around the way exhibitions are made. Secondly to pay attention to the important developments exemplified by the work of a growing number of freelance and artist-curators, whose practice seemed so at odds to the ritualised and formulaic exhibition strategies favoured by most institutional curators at that time.

We were by no means alone in our aims at this time, but we were, like others, responding to a real lack of critical discourse about curating and a corresponding dearth of published material. Ute Meta Bauer had, in some way laid down the tracks at the beginning of the decade with her symposium and ensuing publication: A New Spirit in Curating?, which she organised at the Künstlerhaus, Stuttgart in1992. In preparing our symposium we departed from a similar point of questioning, to that which Ute expressed at the Stuttgart meeting:

“As we know, art is a system, and reception, presentation and sale are part of this, not just the work alone. It is important to me to indicate the various factors that lead to our perceiving something as art.”

That part of a curator’s job might be to effect transparency around the meaning-making role of ‘exhibition’ itself appeared to us a key problematic for discussion at that time. It was one that was also being debated intelligently elsewhere: in Switzerland at the Shedhalle, Zürich and Sous-Sol, Geneva, who co-published Hors Sol. Reflexionen zur Ausstellungspraxis/ Reflexions sur la pratique de l’exposition in 1997, in London in the same year, with Anna Harding’s guest-editorship of Art and Design Magazine No 52, entitled Curating the Contemporary Art Museum and Beyond, and in Helsinki at the symposium Stopping the Process?, which was organised by NIFCA in 1998.

So, the publication of the book Curating Degree Zero in 1999 was an addition to an area of discourse which, within the period of a couple of years had rapidly gained in importance. In the ensuing 5 years we were to see an exponential rise in the number of conferences and publications devoted to curating, and in the proportion of those which dealt with freelance and so-called ‘independent’ curating.

Projects by a number of well-known ‘star curators’ aren’t critically interesting, but that the revered ‘few’ appeared to be too frequently asked to ‘represent’ freelance practice as a whole, and with it curatorial experimentalism.

In 2002, Dorothee and I came together again to co-curate an exhibition in Germany. We found ourselves once again in conversation about curated projects we had seen or heard about. Amongst the examples we found the most interesting were lesser known freelance curators working on quite specific critical projects, artists whose structures acted as support structures for other artists’ work, and collectives whose practice centred on creating spaces for mediation, discussion and debate. At the time I recognised that an overview of these practices, even in the simple form of a conversation with Dorothee, acted as a salve to the almost obsessive debate around the work of a few, well-known ‘star curators’ at that time. That is not to say that projects by a number of these figures aren’t critically interesting, but that the revered ‘few’ appeared to be too frequently asked to ‘represent’ freelance practice as a whole, and with it curatorial experimentalism.

At that meeting we decided to think again about how best to bring people together to discuss what we had begun to term ‘critical curating’. As much for financial reasons as for practical ones we decided to build and tour an archive of material about these curatorial experiments that so interested us, and use this as a backdrop for localised discussions about what the terms ‘critical’ and ‘experimental’ might mean in relation to making exhibitions. From the outset we were keen to stress that the archive was not a canon or a survey, but rather a representation of a loose network, which grew as we toured. Like a snowball, the archive has rolled around Europe since its launch in 2003, absorbing new examples of practice along the way. We tend to outsource curatorial control, inviting people to propose new participants as we travel, and thus, much like our initial conversation, we add to the scale and scope of the overview, while being careful to maintain the selection’s usefulness.

To date the archive has been displayed in Basel, Geneva, Bremen, Linz, Bristol, Lueneburg and Birmingham, this year it will tour Bristol, Birmingham, Sunderland and London. It will be in Berlin in September and Edinburgh in October, and there are plans for it to visit Italy, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe in the coming couple of years. The more the archive tours, the more popular the website has become, in particular the continually updated bibliography, which has to date been downloaded by several thousand visitors, no doubt hungry as we were, to find out where and by whom material is being published.

The artists versus curator power-debate appears misguided if it does not involve the question of audience: exhibitions do not occur in a vacuum, and art-production is not discrete from other forms of cultural production.

JF: What characteristics and/or differences have you come across or strikes you the most – in your research and archival practise – between freelance curators, artist-curators, new-media curators and curatorial collaborations?

BD: One of my findings in the process of the research and work on the archive is that practices that can be gathered under the term ‘curating’ are as diverse as those that can be broadly described as ‘art’. The fact that some of the people whose practice is documented in the archive would never describe themselves as curators, does not detract from the fact that their work, as artists, activists, or cultural producers at times finds its expression through the medium of exhibition or event, where curatorial issues come to the fore. With this in mind, the differences between the practices of those whose work might be comfortably gauged within the terms freelance, new-media, collaborative or artist-curator are marked. These differences challenge exactly these attempts at classification, with similarities in theme, form, agenda and strategy existing between practitioners in all these fields. On the other hand clear differences are visible between projects that might at first appear to originate from similar practices. The archive is an attempt to foreground precisely this multitude of subjective, all but unclassifiable approaches, without attempting to reduce them to generic characteristics.

JF: The theme, concept or framing exhibition text usually lies in the hands of the curator. What is your take on the power relation between artist and curator and the question of responsibility? Has it changed since you first began your research and archive? If so, what were the changes and why do you think they took place?

BD: To my mind the terms of exhibition not only ‘lie in the hands of’ the curator, they are his/her agency and as such denote particular responsibilities, both to the artists they work with and to their publics. It is impossible to discuss the power relation between artists and curators without considering what this responsibility denotes under particular social, cultural and economic circumstances. In this way the artists versus curator power-debate appears misguided if it does not involve the question of audience: exhibitions do not occur in a vacuum, and art-production is not discrete from other forms of cultural production.

Art-historically it has become common to step back thirty or forty years in the European context to an imagined paradigmatic relationship, where artists as object producers fulfilled a nominally ‘primary’ role, and curators, as selectors and displayers of these objects a secondary one. In this model ‘the public’ are imagined as a homogenous site of passive consumption, who are allowed into the picture once the first two stages of production are complete. This is a vertically arranged model, with each layer well sealed within particular prescriptive roles. In this system the artist is denied the power to work at the site of reception of their work, and is symbolically rewarded with autonomy from real-world concerns. Similarly the curator is expected to sustain a myth of curatorial objectivity, and to suppress the importance of their own function in favour of the fetishisation of the objects on display, and the guarantee of ‘quality’. What such a model makes apparent is that both artists and curators have historically traded privileges for power, negotiating working arrangements that for the most part sit within institutional, market and state requirements. The last fifteen years in Europe have seen massive deregulation in the field of the arts, a growth in ‘creative industries’ in general and a visible shift in the logic behind the state’s funding of the arts. Nevertheless, the vast majority of contemporary art exhibitions still mirror the power-relations described by this rigid model: they serve the orthodoxies of the institution, the market and the state.

Of course, this paradigm never existed in such a universal way as the model might suggest, and throughout the 20th century there were artists and curators bending or breaking out of these strict roles, seeing exhibition as an experimental, socially active site and doing so with the support and involvement of specific publics. Our archive with its focus on ‘experimental’ and ‘critical’ curating is intended as a mapping exercise of the successors of many of these avant-garde projects, so crucial to, but frequently marginalised in, 20th Century art history. Naturally, with the removal of the paradigmatic restraints, comes the need for a wholesale renegotiation of power-relations. When curators choose to openly author exhibitions they step into the domain traditionally awarded to the artist, and as such must exercise caution to avoid simply reconfiguring the old hierarchy with themselves at the top. The so-called ‘star-curators’ who fail to see the regressive nature of their own self-promotion should be criticised for their opportunism, which appears particularly misplaced when the contemporary artists they work with are exploring alternative and progressive attitudes to authorship. Likewise when the artist assumes the role of curator, they assume not only the right to be involved with the reception of their work, but also a correspondent responsibility to other artists involved and to their audiences. In our mind artists who curate are not automatically ‘critical and experimental’ purely by dint of their decision to cross from one discipline to another. In fact the above reference to over-enthusiastic authoring is relevant here too, as are critical issues about romanticising supposedly ‘intuitive’ approaches to curating, which might be seen as connoisseurship under another name. The final power-relation, which needs renegotiating, is that of the artist and curator to their audiences, as the removal of the paradigmatic restraints affects them too and the perpetuation of production for an imagined ‘general public’ is no longer satisfactory. Critical projects necessarily have to re-imagine their contract with specific, identifiable publics and consider also how the audience’s responsibility is defined within the chosen terms of display.

To conclude on power-relations and issues of responsibility, we believe that regardless who undertakes them curatorial processes are key in the construction of meaning for contemporary art, and we would observe that despite an art historical privileging of discrete objects, the point of the ‘reception’ of art (and here I refer again to Barthes) has always been as important a site of ‘production’ as the studio. This point of view and the archive we are building might be seen as an attempt to promote the curator over and above the artist, but this is not the case. It is an effort to focus on the question of the engineering of the social spaces we call exhibitions, an activity that is, as we have tried to explain above, the joint responsibility of artists, curators and their publics.

JF: How far do curators take concepts today (too far or not far enough)?

BD: The question relates a little to the observations above about avoiding generic statements about curating, so predictably I have at first to answer with another question: Which curators and which concepts are you talking about? To answer this question at all sensibly one has to look at specific examples and attempt a critical assessment of particular projects or practices, in particular contexts. One might take a recent exhibition at Studio Voltaire in London entitled ‘Tonight’, curated by Paul O’Neill as an example. For the show he invited a long list artists to exhibit work that reflected the experiences of a single night, setting up a particular premise through which the exhibition might be both produced and read. The concept and title ‘tonight’ introduced a restricted timeframe for production, a very specific time of day as subject matter and for the viewer a proposed window within which to frame the off-cuts of practice, the fringes of work. It was a really interesting exhibition, and to my mind by far the most satisfying contributions were from the artists who made fresh responses to the concept, explored the idea of a single night and conspired with the curator on his experiment. However, the exhibition was broad in scope and many artists contributed work that appeared unrelated to the concept, perhaps even defiantly refusing the frame proposed by O’Neill. This poses questions. Had the curator been more aggressive in his selection he might have achieved a more defined experience for the viewer by focusing on the works that dealt with his proposed concept: maybe he did not take the concept far enough? But on the other hand, one could question why some of the artists agreed to inclusion but refused to play ball: maybe the curator took the concept too far? What is illustrated by this example is the specifics of the functioning of concept in the relationship between curators and artists on the one hand, and exhibitions and audiences on the other. Clearly the question of the suitability of particular curatorial concepts has to be related to the artistic strategies they encompass or co-produce. Concept-exhibitions where existing works are chosen by a curator to illustrate a ‘theme’, take the risk of providing exhibition visitors with didactic experiences, which iron out the complexity and ambiguity of the contemporary art they claim to ‘show’, reducing the works within them to visual or experiential leit-motifs in a singular or didactic master-narrative. Inversely, some concept exhibitions, which stress openness, collaboration and communication in their production risk appearing to the public as the overly opaque or slight results of a potentially interesting, but poorly interpreted working process.

JF: Could you tell me about your new project – curating critique?

BD: We are currently co-editing a reader on the topic of critical and experimental approaches to curating entitled Curating Critique. The book will be a mix of new critical and theoretical texts, from various authors, with some interviews and project descriptions. Our aim is to address to what extent existing curatorial strategies are able to accommodate changes in contemporary art and ask what new forms of practice are emerging between and beyond traditionally defined ‘art world’ roles. As the title suggests, the publication raises critical questions about the current state of curating, about the increase in popularity of mega-exhibitions and the resultant emergence of ‘star-curators’, about the possibilities and impossibilities of independent or extra-institutional practice, about the questions surrounding the teaching of curating in art academies and the effects of de-professionalisation associated with the figure of the artist-curator. Equally its contents look at how exhibitions themselves can be seen as sites or tools for critique, questioning ideas such as autonomy, engagement and context in an era increasingly marked by trans-cultural curating, neo-liberal cultural policy, a growing critique of globalisation, and changing attitudes to concepts of ‘public space’. The Reader has been commissioned by Edinburgh College of Art, and will be published by Revolver Verlag in October 2005.

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