Swiss artist Nicole Bachmann’s recent performance, Personare, at London’s Tenderpixel, was performed by three different people — none of whom were the artist — and was choreographed by Patricia Langa. As the performance consisted of a twenty minute dance with vocal interventions, this felt significant. What exactly was the role of the artist?
Over the past fifty years performance art has shifted from being a fledgling artistic practice grounded in the immediacy of the live body, to an increasingly popular medium of contemporary art, engaging large numbers of performers, high production values and rising audience numbers. In accordance, the tradition from the late 1960s and early 1970s for artists such as Marina Abramović, Vito Acconci, Gina Pane and Chris Burden to privilege the use of their own body in their works, is waning. Artists are increasingly recruiting performers to undertake performances on their behalf, a tendency art historian Claire Bishop calls “delegated performance” (Bishop 2012: 91).
These strategies of delegation make artistic production similar to curating or directing — where the artist takes on an organisational stance, rather than a performative one. At a technical level what the artist does is no different from what the curator does; she may initiate projects, recruit, instruct and support performers, facilitate rehearsals and performances, collaborate with institutions, and choose, arrange and rearrange materials, costumes, props and sets, etc. As she is never involved in enacting her ideas, she becomes a figure of support and aesthetic and conceptual judgement (much like a curator), whilst retaining individual authorship and ownership of the work. To use managerial language — the performance has been “outsourced,” making the difference between the artist and curator, arguably, non-existent. It is the focus of this essay to explore the relationship between the artist and curator within “delegated performance,” and, if there is a difference, to identify what it is.
Writer and academic John Roberts, in his essay The Curator as Producer: Aesthetic Reason, Nonaesthetic Reason, and Infinite Ideation (J.Roberts, Manifesta Journal 10, 2010) argues that technological and cultural shifts in the 20th century have transformed the functions of the artist and curator, causing the two roles to converge. Following Benjamin’s Author as Producer (1934) he states that the “advanced technical content of new reproductive technologies,” especially digitisation, have equalised image production, shifting the position of the artist from independent ‘creator’ to that of “technician” or “conceptual manager”. Concurrently, the status of the curator has exploded since the 1990s, evolving from “discreet scholarly editor and mediator of an artist’s work” to “active collaborator with the artist or artists” (Roberts 2010: 52).
One of the many examples that illustrate the growing similarity between the roles of the artist and curator is artist Cally Spooner’s episodic work On False Tears and Outsourcing (2015, ongoing), a project that the artist started in Vleeshal Markt, Middelburg, the Netherlands, in 2015. Spooner was inspired by the scene in Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel Madame Bovary, when Emma Bovary’s lover signs his farewell letter to her with a drop of water, to explore the production (and outsourcing) of affect. At Vleeshal she organised a Stanislavski training course for financiers, who learnt to produce real tears, on demand; at the Foundation Lafayette in Paris in 2015-16 she instigated a cooperatively owned, and administratively built pop song, and at the New Museum, New York in 2016, she worked with a movie director, rugby players and a group of self organised dancers to create a durational performance that followed the logic of a “stand-up scrum”—a daily meeting used in collaborative, responsive practices such as software development. At no point in the project did Spooner perform, rather she took on a managerial position, outsourcing as many artistic decisions as possible to paid choreographers, performers and/or participants. By making delegation the work’s subject and its method of execution, she was able to examine, as well as demonstrate, the “dynamics of using or being used as a human resource” (New Museum website).
In this sense, Spooner deliberately adopted aspects of curatorial and organisational work. Authorship is thus complicated, with the project being developed cooperatively by a range of different agents. Spooner credits the performers and the choreographers, (and indeed chooses a collective model of ownership for the pop song) however exhibits the project as an artwork by her alone. Claire Bishop in her 2012 essay Delegated Performance: Outsourcing Authenticity (C.Bishop, October 140, Spring 2012) compares this model of authorship to dance and theatre, concluding that: “contemporary art increasingly exists in a sphere of collaboration akin to that of theatre and dance, even while it retains art’s valorisation of individual authorship” (Bishop 2012: 105). As Bishop states, while performance art is growing in scale and ambition, requiring growing numbers of cast and crew, the art world continues to believe in the myth of the individual genius. This means that for post-conceptual art, in which the fabrication or presentation of the work is increasingly undertaken by hired labourers, the idea or concept of a work is the only indicator of artistic authorship. What is the difference then, between a curator inviting artists to contribute to a self-initiated project and an artist recruiting performers?
A performance that explores some of these complexities is Romany Dear and Melanie Forbes Solo Variations (2015) — a (~10 minute) work performed by a changing group of dancers including Dear and Forbes. Starting with a single dancer on stage who states “This is a solo performance” before beginning to dance, the work builds as successive dancers enter, repeat the sentence and commence with their own choreographed movements. Whilst Solo Variations couldn’t be considered “delegated performance” as Dear and Forbes perform in the work themselves, the work speaks about many of the problems of collective authorship within the visual arts. How should credit be attributed within projects involving multiple agents — artist, performer, curator, etc.,— especially when each agent contributes artistically to the piece?
Some curators, in attempting to (more) accurately describe their contribution towards contemporary performance, have decided to scrap the title of curator altogether. Curators such as Susan Gibb (If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution, Amsterdam), are referring to themselves as producers, evoking the director/producer relationship found in film. In a conversation with fellow curator Nato Thompson, curator Michelle White argues that this is necessary, as the artist/curator relationship has evolved beyond that of creator and caretaker:
The term cultural producer…acknowledges the complexity of the collaboration that has to happen when something like an exhibition is organized or a project is carried out, which involves…a much more complex institutional web of financial as well as physical logistics from the relationship of collectors, patrons, boards of trustees to the possibilities of display space (M. White and N.Thompson, Art Lies, Fall 2008).
White’s conception of the curator as cultural producer applies to particular situations like “delegated performance,” when the work or exhibition is site-specific, or when “collaboration is essential to produce meaning” (White 2008). She argues that it puts the curator on more equal footing with the artist; acknowledging the extent of their collaboration in producing the work, and the complex position they occupy in negotiating its context.
As egalitarian as this new title sounds, White is not proposing that the artist and curator (or producer) are co-authors, but rather that they work together to co-produce artworks of the artist’s devising. So while the curator may conceive of and develop exhibition and extra-gallery projects, and is, arguably, the author of the exhibition, they do not originate artworks (though they may influence or set in motion their production). Here lies the essential difference between the artist and curator. To revisit the example of Spooner’s On False Tears and Outsourcing, the artist’s contribution may mirror a curator’s tasks and responsibilities, but is ultimately authorial, and therefore artistic, and not curatorial. Should curators conceptualise performances and circumvent artists entirely, they would be authors. However would that also make them artists and not curators?
 Bishop defines “delegated performance” as: “the act of hiring nonprofessionals or specialists in other fields to undertake the job of being present and performing at a particular time and a particular place on behalf of the artist, and following his or her instructions” (Bishop 2012: 91).
 Gibb described herself as supporting production on Alex Martinis Roe’s 2014-17 project To Become Two
Kirsty White (London, 1989) is an independent curator based in London. She completed her MFA Curating with distinction at Goldsmiths, University of London in 2017 and is currently curating at the Swiss Church in London, having founded the contemporary art programme and commissioning platform Being and Appearing in 2016. She graduated with a first class degree in Fine Art from Curtin University, Australia was an invited scholar at École Nationale Supérieure des beaux-arts de Paris in 2009-10, studying under the professorship of Wernher Bouwens. Kirsty previously worked as Exhibitions Officer for the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Assistant Curator for The Illusion of Life by Dan Colen and Mostly West: Franz West and Artist Collaborations at Inverleith House, Edinburgh. Her most recent projects include: VOICE IMAGES by Louisa Fairclough and Richard Glover, Biblioclasm by Edwin Pickstone and The dream follows the mouth (of the one who interprets it) by Leonor Serrano Rivas (all Swiss Church in London) as well as Systems of Displaying Matter by Eva Fàbregas and Rachel Pimm at Enclave, London.
Featured image: Cally Spooner, On False Tears and Outsourcing (2015). Exhibition view. Courtesy the artist and Vleeshal, Middelburg.