Curator As A Collaborator: A Marxist Inspired Reading of Contemporary Curation

Introduction

This article is primarily concerned with the production of knowledge in curatorial projects and creating a definition of the curator as a collaborator, filtered through the notion of alienation in Marxist philosophy. In his famous “Manuscripts of 1844”, German philosopher Karl Marx theorises the concept of alienation as the separation of labour from the worker, and also as the separation of the products of labour from the worker (Marx and Engels, 1964). In this article, we will aim to present a critical perspective on curatorial ethics, and define curating as a form of collaborating and engaging the artists with the audience to create a mutually beneficial experience. We will focus on the role of the curator as a creator and collaborator in relation to ever-changing dynamics of the contemporary world. This piece will also explore some of the methodologies curators apply in collaborative projects; from project structures to the level of critical and professional engagement with multiple parties, teams and the audience. We will review some examples of contemporary curatorial projects such as “fig-1” and “fig-2”, and “Coalesce” to establish a better understanding of the notion of collaboration according to the concept of alienation.

Within this article, we will also argue that curating has become much more than simply caring for or displaying artworks, and explore how contemporary curation came to signify something entirely different than its historical origin which was about caring for a collection. In the beginning chapters, we will investigate the role and responsibilities of the curator and look at how contemporary curation has evolved over the years. We will discuss the ways today’s curators are reaching beyond the walls of museums and institutions. In addition, we will look at the changes curatorship has been through, and how the term curator has been challenged and renegotiated through collaborative projects. We will examine the role of the curator as it has been analysed by theorists, including Paul O’Neill, Maria Lind and Mark Hutchinson who have been extensively quoted throughout this article. For example, curator Mark Hutchinson argues that the contemporary curator must become a collaborator by creating a “dialogical relationship with the artists” (O’Neill, 2007). Whereas, curator Maria Lind explains how the term collaboration is often confused with cooperation (Billing, Lind and Nilsson, 2007). Towards the end, this article will expand upon Hutchinson’s ideas on contemporary capitalism and the curator’s responsibilities within the capitalist systems. We will conclude by alluding, again, to Hutchinson to emphasise an egalitarian curatorial ethics in the production of knowledge.

Curator as a Creative

This part of the article will look at the information exchange between the curator and the number of teams and individual minds that create holistic experiences for the audience. Departing from our understanding of the role of the curator as a collaborator, we will argue that curators need to connect with the artists, other curators, and community groups involved in their projects. We will suggest, besides holding organisational skills, curators have to be communicative and naturally collaborative. The following paragraphs will look at the curator as a multi-tasker, a creative and a communicator.

Artist and curator Carolee Thea very broadly characterises the contemporary curator as someone who translates artists’ works and provides a context for public understanding. She adds that curators are those, who create using other artists’ work as their raw material (Thea, Micchelli, and Obrist, 2010). In Thea’s definition, the curator creates a context to showcase the art in its best light to engage the audience and cultural communities actively with the arts and ideas. As a result of this, curators often carry an immense responsibility as they are the designers of a perceptive and cognitive experience. According to Thea, curators need to work with their raw material to devise this experience, akin to artists. It is this creative sensitivity makes the experience more significant and engaging.

Curator Sune Nordgren highlights the creative aspect of curating by stating that without the creative process the curator’s role would be reduced to that of a mere “assistant”, who follows the artist around and carry out their instructions (Hiller and Martin, 2003). He accepts the fact that artists have their visions and ideas they wish to express through exhibiting works. However, the curator tries to create something new while taking every factor into consideration such as budget and gallery space. Both Thea and Nordgren mentioning the creative nature of curating help us further emphasise the curator’s expansive role as a creative.

Curator Paul O’Neill also points out to an inevitable merging of the role of the artist with the role of curator by stating that many artists are currently trying to expand their practice into the field of curating (O’Neill, 2012). According to O’Neill, curating thematic group exhibitions is now an accepted model of artistic production. Described as creatives and organisers in these paragraphs, curators also need to develop their entrepreneurial and interpersonal skills as well as deepen their familiarity with the wider range of contemporary media, science, politics, sociology, aesthetics and philosophy in general to become multi-taskers in various fields.

Curating, whether institutional or independent, is inherently a multi-tasking job which requires carrying numerous responsibilities for different teams to achieve a unified goal, building multiple relationships along the way. This intended exchange of skills, knowledge and ideas is commonly called working together as a group. What, then, makes working together any different than a collaboration? The following section of the article will try to create a definition of collaboration built upon to the concept of Marxist alienation.

Curator as a Collaborator

These paragraphs will discuss the difference between working together and collaborating. Curator and writer Maria Lind argues that collaboration is an open-ended concept, an umbrella term for various working methods which include more than two participants (Billing, Lind and Nilsson, 2007). She emphasises the word “cooperation” which is often used to describe the nature of collaboration. Cooperation suggests an equally mutual benefit gained through working together. For the sake of clarity in this essay, however, the word collaboration will be used interchangeably with cooperation.

Collaborating in arts and curating diminishes the hierarchical systems of creating and constraining specialised knowledge. In more traditional and historical forms of curating, the curator is regarded as the master of a trade. In a more contemporary sense, Mark Hutchinson suggests that acknowledging the curator as a master of selection and display is also a common tendency (O’Neill, 2007). Collaborating with others undermines the practice of monopolising skills and knowledge. In collaborations, the knowledge is not only produced organically and filtered through the minds involved, but it is also carried around and distributed evenly. This article will focus on sharing as the quintessential quality of any form of artistic and curatorial collaboration.

Curators and artists contribute tremendously to the production of knowledge and culture. Their methods, however, could be criticised from the perspective of the Marxist philosophy. It is appropriate to approach knowledge as a form of a commodity as it certainly creates a value of its own. In mechanistic models of production, every worker contributes to a small part of the process, only bit by bit. Although the result is achieved via working together as a group, the level of active engagement within this group remains questionably low. In this model of production, every contributor completes only a fraction of the whole job. Marx suggests that they eventually become alienated to their own products (Marx and Engels, 1964). In other words, they do not have a holistic view of their creation nor their labour. What do they, then, gain from their experience? This section of the essay will suggest that collaborative curating should aim to focus on how everyone contributing in a project internalise the entire process. This collaborative process should help transform the tradition of mechanistic production methods into organic ones and aim for mutual gain.

Interestingly, Hutchinson points out to a recent ontological shift in contemporary capitalism. He argues that the link between the commodity and its image is turned on its head. In other words, the product is now superseded by its own image, for example, brands, names, and designers. He mentions that companies like Nike, for instance, no longer hold the means of production as they all utilise various forms of outsourcing. These companies do not produce physical products anymore. What they sell, however, is an image, a promise, a status, or an idea. In contemporary capitalism, the focus has shifted from production of things to production of ideas. How, then, should curators position themselves inside these bubbles which oscillate between academia, institutionalism, idea-driven capitalism, and its divisions? Hutchinson sees “independence” from all of these structures as a viable solution. He argues, however, that it is not possible to be independent as an individual curator. He writes “If dependence is about the relationship one has with others, then so is independence. Independence must be a collaborative project” (O’Neill, 2007). He adds that the curation that is “sure of itself” actually lacks the self-awareness to be critical of its own systems and agencies. A non-critical curator then goes on to regurgitate and perpetuate the established norms within cultural capitalism. The field of curation should be undoubtedly self-aware and critical. In this context, according to Hutchinson, curators have to enter into a “mutual and dialogical relationship with the artists” (O’Neill, 2007). This particular relationship constitutes the core of the notion “curator as a collaborator” we try to postulate.

Collaboration in contemporary curation should be, therefore, analysed not through the visible form and the practical methods but the contributing groups’ level of engagement and the ways knowledge is disseminated within these groups, and also outside of them. Collaborating is an issue of depth and breadth. It is not about getting a large number of parties involved but about what these parties each gain, and whether or not this benefit is equally nourishing to all. Curating, as a job role, as mentioned above, naturally requires working together with groups of people. It is, however, insufficient to claim that the curator is always a collaborator as a result of merely liaising with different teams. Collaboration is a curatorial vision and ethical integrity. A collaborative practice aims to create knowledge out of an equal engagement and seeks to distribute this knowledge within the culture fairly. The critical attitude is to promote engagement and to steer away from the Marxist estrangement. From the beginning stages of a curatorial project to its reception by the public, collaborative models should preserve this vision and aim for deeper engagement. In this respect, collaborating becomes an ethical responsibility of the curator.

Curation is becoming less and less of a specialised profession as the egalitarian models of collaboration open the doors to a wider discussion about the production of contemporary culture. The ideas discussed in this section recognise the curator as a vital element in today’s society. The contemporary curators are not only great communicators, organisers, multi-taskers and co-creators but they are also morally responsible for equally distributing the knowledge they help create.

Collaborative Time and Space

Continuing on the Marxist inspired reading of the production of knowledge, this part of our article will focus on the space in which the culture is created and look at how the nature of a certain space helps equally distribute the knowledge. In this instant, we will focus on autonomous, pop-up platforms as an alternative to institutionalised art spheres.

“fig-1” and “fig-2”

Independent curator and co-founder of “fig-1” Mark Francis states that back in early 2000’s, although there was no shortage of arts, the London art scene lacked a certain energy. He mentions that the vast majority of the exhibitions in the city was usually taking place within the museums and other institutions. This was when he came up with the idea of organising a series of weekly exhibitions in an abandoned Soho warehouse which is recently demolished as part of the cross-rail project (Wroe 2015).  His aim was to condense the magnitude of the cultural activity in London inside a small, experimental art space. There would be no commercial pressures, and the shows were meant to be purely experimental, with no determined physical outcome in mind. He felt that there was limited freedom with the bigger shows and artists and curators needed a better platform to experiment. He invited artists from all stages in their careers to test out ideas they would not otherwise have the opportunity to present in museums and galleries. The egalitarian spirit of this project meant that everyone could access the space without an invitation and a familiarity of the art world. He recollects the day Kate Moss and Alexander McQueen showed up and mixed in with the crowd of students and artists (Art Fund, 2015). Francis also encouraged established artists to create alongside up-and-coming talent. “fig-1” operated outside of the early 21st century conventions of dissemination of knowledge. It adopted a collaborative mode of production and distribution of knowledge via innovative and engaging processes.  As a curatorial methodology, bringing together creatives from different stages in their practices also highlights this attitude of sharing one’s experiences and skills.

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Anish Kapoor’s exhibition at “fig-1” (2000)

The London-based Turkish curator Fatos Ustek is mostly known for her 2015 project “fig-2”, which acted as a revival of the exhibiting structure of “fig-1”. She adopted the pop-up exhibition style demonstrated in “fig-1” by organising fifty solo exhibitions for fifty consecutive weeks at ICA in London, a space which was originally conceived as a hub where artists, writers and scientists could discuss ideas outside the Royal Academy. Ustek’s project displayed a non-stop turnover of exhibitions and collaborations. “fig-2” is seen as a hotbed for creative experimentation which promoted risk-taking. “fig-2” has become a playground for ideas in a city like London, where there is a rigid categorisation of art wrapped around its big institutions. Ustek is not a stranger to rapid experimental processes; she had once curated an exhibition at an artist-run space in Istanbul, which showed five artists each evening for fifteen minutes (Wroe 2015).

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Kathryn Elkin’s exhibition at “fig-2”, video; “The Elephants in the Room”(2015) and an evolving live vocal performance; “Mud”(2015)

“fig-2” was too experimental in its nature and programmed only a few weeks in advance to maintain spontaneity.  “fig-2” opened every Monday from 6-8pm throughout 2015 at ICA. The format used “change” as a constant with fifty successive exhibitions on a weekly basis. “fig-2”, however, this time, aimed to offer a more multi-disciplinary platform than its predecessor. The rapid change of the styles and ideas demonstrated in each and every exhibit became a catalyst to cultivate and built upon more ideas around this uncertainty and a state of intended incompleteness. This was an inevitable result of putting dancers, architects, artists, writers, and designers in one creative space. The project certainly kept London contemporary art scene on its toes as art lovers awaited a fresh change every week. Ever since then, the pop-up space has become an integral part of the art contemporary art world. This type of collaboration undoubtedly cross-pollinates various disciplines of art, science, and literature. Many art spaces adopted the curatorial model of “fig-1” and “fig-2”. One notable example is the annual programming of the North East contemporary art institution Baltic 39. Baltic 39’s six weeks long “Figure” series offer exhibition opportunities for artists working across all media to test works and ideas, or to develop works in progress within a public context. Each selected artist, group or duo get a week to exhibit; they are, at the same time, actively encouraged to collaborate and create out of their comfort zone.

“Coalesce: The Remix”

“Coalesce: The Remix
” was a collaborative curatorial project envisioned by the curator and writer Paul O’Neill in 2005. This project consisted of a four-week “take over” an art space in London to realise weekly exhibitions ranging from interventions, public meetings and lectures, publications, and nightclub events with video screenings and DJ sets. O’Neill describes Coalesce as an on-going “exhibitionary” project, a living and transformative cross-disciplinary platform bringing together painting, video, and text work in migration (O’Neill, 2005). The aim for the artists to co-habit with one other, overlapping and interweaving in the gallery space to feed off of each other, eventually fusing into a bigger whole. In the very basic sense of the word “coalesce” the artists and the audience are expected to grow together.

Every week, the “space” was curated by a different curator or a collective group, responding to the past instalments, and building upon the knowledge previously produced. For example, the third week was curated Dave Beech, and Mark Hutchinson, who is quoted earlier in this essay. Two curators worked together to initiate a special issue of the journal “The First Condition”. They invited the audience as well as all artists who involved in the project to contribute to the journal. All contributions were encouraged to directly respond to the concerns, ideas and the discourse arising from the Coalesce project in real time. The journal was entirely text-based and as well as being printed out as a photocopied booklet; the audience-created content was also published on the journal’s website.

Week four, on the other hand, was designed by the collective TemporaryContemporary. They organised three, three-day long, poker games in which the curators played the role of the dealer, whereas the artists stood in for gamblers (Tempcontemp, 2005). This playful collaborative event was intended to be a re-enactment of the power systems within socialised culture production. The game forced the players to create strategies and negotiations similar to the competitive play in the art world. The gallery was transformed into a poker lounge with drinks tables and rest areas. The rest areas were provided with the written material and the documentation accumulated over the previous weeks of the project in the same space.

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“Coalesce: The Remix”, Week 4: Poker game curated by TemporaryContemporary

Following Marx’s footsteps, the inherently gestalt nature of the Coalesce project provides an excellent foundation for the organic production of knowledge and its equal distribution. As every week’s content directly built upon the pillars of the previous, the project managed to keep all individuals, past or present, engaged in an active dialogue: the very “dialogical relationship” Hutchinson was quoted stating earlier in the essay.

The difference between an improvised work and a more thoroughly structured one, Maria Lind suggests, is that the former encourages a collective ownership whereas the latter is about shared but individual experiences (Billing, Lind and Nilsson, 2007). The time element also plays a big role in developing these collaborations. All of the examples above consisted of projects aimed at accelerated change and instant creation of ideas.  How people work on a short term basis is drastically different than how they behave in slow-paced environments. The freshness of these fast-paced projects come from the element of having to spread the attention spontaneously without prioritising one thing over the other. In this sense, it can be argued that rapid collaborations contribute to the non-hierarchical and heterogeneous value models.

Conclusion

Throughout this article, we aimed to question the definition of the curator following arguments from contemporary critics. In the early stages of our thesis, we established an understanding that whether a creative, an organiser or a collaborator, the curator has an undeniably central role within the systems of knowledge production. The main body of the article examined the process of cultural production in the light of the socialist philosophy of Karl Marx. We looked at the modes of curating which enable an organic production of knowledge and its fair distribution. We suggested that the curator has an ethical responsibility to be collaborative. A widely used term, collaboration, in this context, mostly meant cooperation which provides an equally mutual gain for all parties involved.

Many reasons push people to work together and create a mutually beneficial ethic. Likewise, many modes of cultural production exist, which promote sharing and generosity as opposed to market driven approaches. For example “fig-1” aimed to provide a concentrated and fast-paced experience of arts, widely available to everyone. Whereas, “fig-2” borrowing an already existing collaborative model, created a bridge between the disciplines such as dance, theatre and visual arts. A more successful collaborative experiment, however, was envisioned by Paul O’Neill in his “Coalesce: Remix” project. In this project the cultural knowledge was created through a gestalt system, continuously building upon previous experiences and actively encouraging the audience to play a central part in this experience.

In conclusion, it is the curator’s responsibility to have an ethical approach to collaborative curating. However, collaboration on its own is not necessarily a positive and a viable method of creating. Collaboration without cooperation is merely working together for the same goal. We argue that collaboration is a part of the job definition of a curator who naturally meditates and liaises between groups; whereas cooperation is the key element in a curatorial practice which aims for a deeper engagement and is critical of its own agencies. Only through co-creating with others, producing and distributing the knowledge organically and evenly could the field of curation expand out of the contemporary individualism and the systems within cultural capitalism.


REFERENCES:

Art Fund. (2015). Interview with Mark Francis. [online] Available at: https://www.artfund.org/get-involved/art-happens/fig-2-publication/interview-with-mark-francis [Accessed 15 Apr. 2017].

Billing, J., Lind, M. and Nilsson, L. (2007). Taking the matter into common hands. 1st ed. London: Black Dog Publishing, pp.15-29.

Hiller, S. and Martin, S. (eds.) (2003) The Producers: Contemporary Curators in Conversation (B.Read). Gateshead: BALTIC.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1964). Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844. 1st ed. New York: International Publishers, pp.12-19.

O’Neill, P. (2007). Curating subjects. 1st ed. London: Open Editions, pp.54-62.

O’Neill, P. (2005). Curatorial :: Coalesce: The Remix. [online] Pauloneill.org.uk. Available at: http://www.pauloneill.org.uk/curatorial/projects/coalesce-the-remix/ [Accessed 17 Apr. 2017].

O’Neill, P. (2012) The culture of Curating and the Curating of culture(s). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Tempcontemp.co.uk. (2005). Coalesce. [online] Available at: http://www.tempcontemp.co.uk/coalesce.html [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017].

Thea, C., Micchelli, T. and Obrist, H. U. (2010) On Curating: Interviews with Ten international curators. 1st edn. New York, NY: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers.

Wroe, Nicholas. (2015). fig-2: a new art exhibition every week for 2015. [Online] Available: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/26/fig2-ica-mark-francis-fatos-ustek [Accessed: 15 Apr 2016].