This paper stems from an urge to question the role of the 21st century curator and her/his responsibility as the historiographer of the present. There is a sense of responsibility in the figure of the curator as exhibitions operate in the public sphere which Jurgen Habermas defines as, “a realm… open to all citizens” (Habermas, Lennox and Lennox 1974, 49). There is also the unsaid responsibility to articulate contemporariness for the public. The curator becomes a figure that maps the different discourses now and suggests pointers for the future. The curator’s investigation of current contemporary practices can be compared to a process of nephelococcygia —finding shapes in clouds. The curator positioned as a nephelococcygiac, seeks and foresees patterns in the myriad of artistic practices today.
I’d have to be really quick
to describe clouds
because in a second
they become another
However, if we apply this metaphor as poet Wisława Szymborska evokes, it is a very difficult enterprise as clouds perpetually transform, or as curator Joao Ribas concludes in his essay what to do with the contemporary?: ‘The question that remains is what will we do with all this obscurity of the present that lies before us, or is perhaps already behind us.’ (Ribas 2013, 108). Similar to the historian, the curator seeks to create order out of chaos. Or, perhaps, curating stands closer to the process of historiography. Based on topics, themes and concepts, the historiographer explores ways in which history can be written into a narrative that stands for critical judgment.
Due to the nature of contemporariness, without precious hindsight, the curator is challenged, as s/he must draw together threads that are fleeting. The curator becomes caught in a logic of acceleration, the pressures of the attention economy and ambient uncertainty. The mapping of contemporariness could become easily based on ‘buzz’ and conjecture rather than knowledge. Is the curator then a speculative historiographer?
Philosopher Michel Feher describes how the age of neo-liberalism has produced speculative selves rather than possessive. Mimicking the financial market, we invest in our different qualities as if they were assets to attain self-esteem and recognition: ‘Secondly, the desiring individuals that liberal anthropology envisioned as constantly moving between want and fulfilment give way to vulnerable persons who are exposed to self-loathing yet in search of self-esteem’. (Feher 2014) This pervasive vulnerability creates a longing to stop oscillating and to observe.
In his seminal essay Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern, philosopher of Art and Science, Bruno Latour, discusses how we situate ourselves in an era not only of financial, cultural and ideological speculation but one where critique itself has become speculative: ‘There is no sure ground even for criticism. Isn’t this what criticism intended to say: that there is no sure ground anywhere?’ (Latour 2004, 230) Latour later on cites the example of a Hollywood film advertisement proclaiming, ‘Everything is suspect . . . Everyone is for sale . . . And nothing is what it seems.’ (Latour 2004, 230)
The metaphor of nephelococcygia allows the curator to reflect on her/his role in managing the now, the responsibility to grasp emerging forms while at the same time questioning the impulse to create meaning faced with a reality characterised by uncertainty.
The rise of the curator also comes at a new time of malaise, a context of morphing global conflicts, economic and ecological crisis, digital flux and self-doubt. Curation includes artworks and objects, allowing the non-human to speak. These objects’ voice anchors and counters human doubt. The agency of the non-human in exhibitions can be seen in the practice of artists such as Pierre Huyghe and Benedict Drew.
For his retrospective (Pompidou Centre, Paris, 2013-2014) Huyghe presented artworks that lived and evolved within the exhibition space. When discussing the exhibition the artist stated that he ‘wants to exhibit someone to something’ (Huyghe qtd. in Michalska, 2013), rather than the contrary. His featured artwork L’Expédition scintillante, Acte 2 (Light Box) is an imaginary scene prefiguring the artist’s expedition to the Antarctic three years later. The work consists of a light box split in two. Smoke comes out of the lower surface while the shifting coloured lights of the upper surface spotlight the fog, the smoke is materialised for one second, then it becomes another colour and eventually dissolves into the air.
This artwork pushes the performance of materials towards the point where things begin to find their shape not through the artist’s deliberate intention but through non-rational conditions such as the associative power of material agency, alchemy, gravity and accident. While in Huyghe’s exhibition the vitality present corresponds especially to a vegetable, animal and mineral force, the ‘non-human’ power that emanates from Benedict Drew’s exhibition Heads May Roll (Matt’s gallery, London, 2014) stems from a technological materiality.
Heads May Roll left a strong impression of entering a world beyond human presence where screens, sand, monitors and sculptural blobs communicate with each other, notably through a play of light and electrical wiring; the objects seem to transfer their own being from one medium to the next. The cord plugged into a shapeless sculptural form looks like an injection that sucks in the life of the object and transfers it directly onto the screen. All the while a spotlight is cast on a monstrous form playing the drum and then shed onto the TV, hiding under the table projecting images of throbbing hands with fluorescent colours. The eye is directed and conducted by the sound, light and moving objects disrupting the usual viewing habits of the visitor.
Instead of a progressive reading from one artwork to the next, the curation allows the viewer to penetrate a network where ‘things’ communicate.
At one point the word ‘exhaustion’ appears on the larger screen. In the surrounding installation the meaning of the word resonates. The LED screens with the non-stop flickering images, endless cables, and enigmatic beeping machines echo our own condition of exhaustion due to the visual overstimulation of an everyday populated by screens, advertising, and other stimuli. It also triggers the awareness of the materiality of a so-called “wireless world” where all these virtual platforms and devices exist thanks to endless cords and plugs that allow life to be exhausted – drawn out from one device to the next.
Instead of presenting the artist’s work in a continuum progressively in each given room, Drew disturbs and disconnects the viewer from the expected to situate her/him in the actual tissue of our technological surrounding.
In an age of presentism, uncertainty and speculation the role of curation is to map contemporary trends but more importantly to let objects speak. Through the curation of artworks in a specific time and space, the exhibition format literally renders material new concepts, emerging threads of knowledge speaking louder than an argumentative essay. The curatorial format is clearly more than the expression of thought, it carries the affective power of the non human.
Oona Doyle is a curator and editor based in Paris. Graduated with an MFA in Curating from Goldsmiths College (2014), she now works for Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery. Previously she has worked for Tate Modern (Sigmar Polke exhibition and Eastern European acquisitions), Gagosian, New York, Gagosian Paris and FIAC. Co-founder of Plateau, an interdisciplinary publication for rising artists and writers distributed in Paris, New York, Brussels and London. Her interests include: Material Agency, modern and contemporary art from Eastern Europe, Feminism, politics and poetry and The New Aesthetic.
Feher, F (2014) ‘Lecture Series – The Age of Appreciation: Six Lectures on the Neoliberal Condition’ [online] Available at http://roundtable.kein.org/node/1574 (Accessed 16thof April 2015).
Habermas, J., Lennox, S. and Lennox, F. (1974) ‘The public sphere: An encyclopedia article (1964)’, New German Critique, (3), pp. 49-55.
Latour, B. (2004) ‘Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern’, Critical inquiry, 30 (2), pp. 225–248.
Michalska, J. (2013) ‘Pierre Huyghe creates a buzz in Paris’ [online] Available at http://old.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Pierre-Huyghe-creates-a-buzz-in-Paris/30305 (Accessed 1st of April 2015).
Ribas, J. (2013) ‘What to do with the contemporary’. Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating, Mousse publishing, Milan.
Szymborska, W. and Trzeciak, J. (2001) Miracle fair, 1st ed, Norton, New York.