|the centre of attention|
issue 02/2004, Astrid Mania: Teams &
|or back to the library||
Teams and Conflicts
How many curators can one exhibition accommodate? Thirty. This at least is the figure suggested by Los Angeles-based artist Morgan Fisher-as a statement on the curatorial future of Documenta-in the project that Jens Hoffmann curated as a forum for such discussion <www.e-flux.com/projects/next_doc/>. The answer supplied by Ute Meta Bauer, artistic director of this year's berlin biennale, is five 'hubs'. In this adroit semantic maneuver Bauer manages to come up with a new descriptive term for a symptom that can be diagnosed with increasing frequency today: the fragmenting of the curator into multiple personalities, each of whom-with varying degrees of autonomy-realize either the vision of the 'dominant personality' or implement their own agenda. What was once an occasional occurrence seems recently to have become de rigeur for any major art event of relevance, at least since the last Documenta but particularly after last year's Venice Biennale: curating as a team, or for those who hear too many echoes of capitalist enterprise in that term, as a collective.
That said, obviously no sizable exhibition-least of all an interdisciplinary one-can be accomplished without a diverse crew of specialists. New however, is that both structure and the delegation of responsibility have changed considerably, and that today the 'chief curator' is more prepared to hand over authority, to dismantle hierarchies. The image of a solo fighter wearing boxing gloves-celebrated by the media as embodied by Jan Hoet during his 1992 Documenta-has been displaced by that of the jovially smiling captain as he enters the arena with his team.
The abdication of the übercurator à la Harald Szeeman parallels the withdrawal of a company's patriarch for good reason. Recent curatorial management sometimes looks as if it is following the counsel of various business consultants: the ready handing over of responsibility by Francesco Bonami during the 2003 Venice Biennale seems to adhere to a vade mecum for lean management. At the same time, recent discussions on the globalization of the art world and its impact on curatorial teams are laced with postmodern resignation to the impossibility of maintaining an overview in today's highly complex world. The idea of a fragmented world is no longer reflected solely in the selection of a list of exhibited artists, but is now-belatedly-also reflected in an interrogation of the role and responsibility of curators. In an era of postcolonial discourse the endeavor to fathom the art of the world from a eurocentric position has become untenable. Those who do not delegate or work in a team risk being seen as clinging to a position of patriarchal or matriarchal authority, or perhaps simply to be biting off more than they can chew in the face of information overload.
Bonami recently stated in US art magazine 'Artforum'that the blockbuster show was no longer a coherent exhibition, but a plurality of visions that is best dealt with by embracing its own diversity. His attitude is clearly exemplified in the practice of locating a number of independently curated projects under an umbrella exhibition. In contrast to the large-scale curatorial projects of the 20th century in which Bonami sees an almost Christian attitude-by which he means a disposition aiming for both moral and cultural conquest of the world-he favors a pagan approach: in analogy to Greek tragedy, his ideal exhibition 'addresses the clash of irreconcilable elements'.
But one question persists. Where did those 'different curatorial time zones' that the visitor to Bonami's project in Venice was supposed to meander through-and that resulted in the cacaphonic discontinuum of the Arsenale-actually lead? Did they not simply vault antiquity to land in the midst of Chaos itself? If the collaboratively curated 'grand show' now claims to be an apposite representation of the world-here by means of plurality and fragmentation-it is potentially as megalomaniac an approach as the idea of a solo curator that he might stroll the 'plateau of humankind'. Against this backdrop the modesty of the berlin biennale's policy to restrict itself to conceptual and geographic boundaries from the outset is reassuring.
Young curators schooled in one of many recently established curatorial programs will no doubt continue this trend towards teamwork. Curatorial courses often favor working in a group not only on ideological grounds, but on account of practical considerations and limitations on resources. However the collaborative development of an exhibition has a long tradition. Before the emergence of the freelance curator in their contemporary guise, the artists of the Salons and after them, artist groups and movements organized their own exhibitions collectively.
This practice of self-organization is of course very close to the contemporary concept of an independent curator who manages both the entire infrastructure and the conceptual framework of an exhibition on their own initiative. Moreover, many curators were trained as visual artists themselves and have not followed a 'classical' career path by studying art history before working as an intern in a museum. Internships are both hard to come by and modestly rewarded opportunities, after all. Learning-by-doing is the alternative, and the establishment of artist-run-spaces or other independent exhibition initiatives offers a platform to practice from. Such enterprises are often operated collaboratively, as was the case with Group Material (1979-1996), a fluctuating artists' collective that developed its own exhibitions in a 'painfully democratic' way.
When it comes to curatorial teams however, things seem to be different. Either, as in the case of the last Documenta, a team of curators extrapolates from the idea of a main organizer, or you are presented with the relatively autonomous work of independent curators whose projects merge into a larger, loose structure. All of the Manifestas have been developed with varying degrees of collectivity, and this year's Whitney Biennale will also be the result of joint efforts. In 1996 when Lars Nittve conceived the exhibition 'NowHere' for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art he invited six curators to share his workload, among them Ute Meta Bauer, who also demonstrated her collaborative credentials as a team member during the last Documenta. The artistic director of the current berlin biennale likes to work collectively, favoring-in her own words-a clear division of responsibilities. 'Artistic direction'-the term with which she describes her role-reflects an all-encompassing concept of teamwork and is closely related to the collective character of film or theater productions. The notion of a flexible, task-oriented pooling of resources is apparent in the development of her biennale hubs with, among others, the artist Regina Möller, the film theorist Mark Nash, the filmmaker Hito Steyerl and pro qm's Jesko Fezer and Axel J. Wieder.
Here we see the emergence of a new phenomenon: because it is often the task of a primary curator to create a team, his or her main task does not necessarily involve the selection of artists in a classical sense. Instead, their first choices are made about curatorial colleagues who are today subject to similar selection criteria and procedures as once only artists were. Indeed, Ute Meta Bauer 'curated' her team long before she announced her artists' list. Is it perhaps therefore merely a logical progression that Pierre Coinde and Gary O'Dwyer make away with the art altogether and exhibit 'the curators' at artist:network in New York?
The 'super curator' has been replaced by the team player. Beyond pragmatic advantages, curatorial teams offer a strategy to manage the multiplicity of contemporary art, to acknowledge its differences, to integrate specialists where necessary and-if desired-to obtain the largest possible degree of diversity within an exhibition. Perhaps the increasing importance attributed to those who claim they have an overview of the rising flood of information is best brought down to earth by distributing their potential power among their peers. If this leads to the creation of more job opportunities for independent curators bring them on.