Comments on a few conversations at The Critical Edge of Curating – Guggenheim 11/4/11

Comments on a few conversations at The Critical Edge of Curating – Guggenheim 11/4/11

Time was a recurring theme at the ICI/Guggenheim co-organized program, ‘The Critical Edge of Curating.’ The increasingly popular term futurity may be useful to help draw into focus some of the program’s conversations. It is, for example, the name of a University of Rochester hosted site that has featured international university research in the sciences since 2009 [1]. It is also the focus of an upcoming art history lecture series co-hosted by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam [2]. “Futurize your Heritage” was part of the title of a seminar led by Shelley Bernstein, head of technology at the Brooklyn Museum, at a conference in Italy in 2010 [3]. These contexts can serve to highlight the already familiar shift in what, initially spearheaded by the global north, is considered a resource these days, namely, knowledge and creativity. In addition, futurity is also the key term in definitions of sustainability, where current thinking about material resources has its home.

At the Guggenheim, Bernstein was one of 15 participants, who were organized into 5 consecutively staged, improvisational conversation clusters (interspersed with audience Q&As) that were set up and, about 4 hours later, summed up by the organizers, Nancy Spector (Guggenheim) and Kate Fowle (ICI). The critical edge (or avant-garde) metaphor is clearly beholden to modernism’s key activity of patricide, apparent in the constant, nagging question what is next, post or even alter, playfully complicated by the first panel’s self-imposed name change from “End Results” to “No End in Sight.”

When Bernstein calls to “futurize your heritage”, she asks to instrumentalize cultural intangibles that contain knowledges and forms of creativity. At the Guggenheim, Bernstein was one of three presenters who, assigned to different panels and each in their own way, cut across quarters and expectations. Bernstein’s initial constituency is the Brooklyn Museum and its existing audiences. She presented her task in an equanimous way as that of using technology to broaden usership. With that, valuation, interpretation and curation are no longer questions of expertise, but of access, motivation and initiative. Tagging and facilitation become central terms. No longer does the museum one-sidedly civilize anarchic potential, but the citizenry is invited, maybe even edged on to endanger the museum in return. Neither systemic change nor genuine celebration can occur without risk. (Attending the Brooklyn Museum ‘First Saturday’ event the day after the program, even the materiality of art objects was heightened when sweat steamed up from the Beaux-Arts Court turned dance floor.) Bernstein’s futurity is reciprocal. She called it “not a binary”. (Later in the afternoon, Rodrigo Moura brought up Antropofagia again, which suddenly appears to be a software-less, purely bottom-up precursor to social media.)

Christine Thome of Ashkal Alwan, Beirut, emphatically debunked the term Activism as a comfortable fiction that implies choice as well as the possibility of change. Rather, she described herself as someone falling into curatorial activities, expressing a preference for the term commissaire. That translates well into ‘stewardship’, a term recently explored by Roberto Bedoya.[4] What it brings into the conversation is the ability to listen to and attempt to support a variety of positions in much subtler ways than the inclination to leverage art for social redemption (represented by Nato Thompson and Anton Vidokle) may be able to fathom. Thus, her constituency is not defined by binaries either, and a way to extend it is, as she called it, to seek out fissures. Thus, she replaces the metaphor of linear time represented by the activist dichotomy of now/then, in conjunction with the neat divide of us/them, with that of parched and cracked material. Neither a clear-cut enemy nor an improved future state are envisioned, but a potentially dangerous challenge emerging within a multitudinous, meandering now. Recurring here is the theme of risk, elucidated with moving compassion and sharp awareness of complexity.

The distributed list of speaker bios showed Weng Choy Lee, who is teaching at SAIC as a visiting lecturer this fall, as the only independent panelist of the day. Characterizing himself as a writer more than a curator and visibly disinterested in responding to a somewhat flatly framed prompt about the responsibility to be inclusive (this panel was titled “Transnational Currents”,) it seemed that he adopted the present assembly as a momentary constituency, playing on techniques of radical pedagogy when he deftly undermined his presenter authority by at least twice dedicating his time on stage to Chus Martinez’ preceding presentation, calling out Tom Finkelpearl to retell a joke about the relation of theory and practice, and altogether creating a brief instance at which stage and auditorium as much as the present moment and the previous day’s internal conversations panelists had conducted melted into each other. In that, he briefly showed up and rattled strictures and conventions this program was set within. In their introductory words, the conveners had presented the improvisational format as a welcome risk. Weng Choy Lee took them up on it.

What grouped these three presenters in my mind was their denial of an Enlightenment inflected economics (and, in fact, pedagogy) of expertise, assessment, planning, implementation and evaluation, devised to safely carry an existing polity into its next stages. Instead, they opted to leverage technology, materiality and performativity, through acts of stewardship that induce more or less risky, heightened states of attention open to immanent reading, similar to the acts of combat Deleuze conjures up in his essay “To Have Done with Judgment”[5], a text in which he contests the power to organize to infinity embedded in the doctrine of judgment, which has emerged from monotheism, equally embodied in church, state, knowledge and culture. It is not surprising that in that group, Bernstein seems like she should be closest related to the Enlightenment rhetoric, given that her medium has arisen from it. The banter on her panel  (on “Authorship, Audience, Agency”‘, with Chus Martinez and Ralph Rugoff) around her being an outcast in the group hints that that perception is in fact wrong.

In my perception the supporting cast to the above, Chus Martinez may just be a paradigm shifter – pushing existing language far enough to attend to something outside of its comfort zone, but not so far that she loses her footing in the established imagination. Her opening volley was fast. By the time I adjusted to her tempo, she stated, “we are all taking for granted that we are all living in the same time and space,” characterizing it as a radical notion to challenge this assumption. She next tackled the theme of artistic research – woefully absent from the rest of the afternoon – framing it as the introduction of fiction into research, while also exploring the possibility to define agency as a methodology. (Here I would have loved to bring in Deleuze, replacing agency with combat, connecting combat with performativity, to then talk about critique as a mode in which artistic methodologies are worked out. But that’s a different piece.) Lastly, she denied the possibility of audience participation, instead setting forth a desire to protect the mysteriousness of audiences. On the first panel of the day, Ute Meta Bauer had urged that “we have to get away from managing art and culture,” seeking room for play and time for exploration. By challenging linearity, measurability and accountability, Martinez closes out long standing ‘judgmental’ conventions of art history that have shaped art institutions. Instead of proposing what’s next, she seems to almost want to shut a door, allowing those who have already opened new ones to start with a bunch of wiped down slates and the option (though not a promise) that someone has their back.

That plays well into another under-realized theme of the day, the reiterated notion of ‘artist led curators’, brought to a point by Ralph Rugoff in his characterization of a curator as a virus in need of a live host. Stepping this up even further, Nancy Spector proposed “art institutions have to have artists involved at a high administrative level,” citing Gilberto Gil as an example. Of course this is music to the ears of this artist, sometimes curator, and cultural management prof.

Improved attention to practice, acknowledgement of complexity, organizational fluidity, and cultural, social and environmental stewardship all are in part incumbent on shifts in how time is conceptualized. To date it is almost always imagined in conjunction with external legitimating entities, from the invention of the past governed by ancestry and tradition to the invention of a future under the direction of posterity, the conjunction of both culminating in monotheistic economies that make it easier to exclude many of those present. That makes the current prevalence of ‘futurity’ worrisome, as it is likely just the flip side of tradition – unless it can be reframed as part of a pragmatic continuum, which I think Bernstein is attempting to do.

As could be said about the installation of Cattelan’s retrospective that served as the occasion for the program, coming to think of it.

(Nov. 24, 2011)

Adelheid Mers

[3]International conference – Surfing and walking: museums and the 2.0 challenges, Turin, 2nd October 2010,
[5] Gilles Deleuze, To Have Done with Judgment, in: “Essays Clinical and Critical”, London, 1998

Artist, professor [Arts Administration and Policy] at SAIC.

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