“Curate” is on everyone’s lips these days, including lips that don’t know what the word means. People hurry about curating the breakfast, their pets, their sex lives (well…) without giving much thought to how overuse is sapping the term of any meaning. In the art world itself, curating has also been examined, more reliably, but with varying results. The best introduction to curating, and to some facets of contemporary art, comes from a simultaneously unexpected and natural direction; internet videos. The Art Assignment, produced by PBS Digital Studios, is providing a welcome primer to general audiences. Independent curator Sarah Urist Green, formerly with the Indianapolis Museum of Art, summarizes the term and its history well. In general The Art Assignment has done a good job. It introduces the participatory element of art in a more mature manner than painting along with Bob Ross, and the results are often more beautiful.
Anyone can curate. Curating well is a tougher proposition. Toughest of all is to add something new to the curatorial repertoire and do so with any credibility and endurance, which brings us to Hans Ulrich Obrist, the best-known of current curatorial trendsetters. Obrist has helped to define a new path in curatorial practice, one that seeks less to define and/or explicate ideas than to create an environment in which ideas can grow. He’s not the first to do this, but, as the most consistent practitioner, his history is worth a look. His new book, Ways of Curating (Faber & Faber), is slightly deceptively titled: this is a half-history, half-memoir of his growth as a curator, and the colleagues and predecessors who helped shape this curatorial path. Obrist had a collaborator, if that’s the right term, on Ways of Curating, which is only appropriate and within Obrist’s deeply collaborative curatorial practice. Asad Raza, who is credited on the title page but not the cover, occupies a suitably vague unnamed position, neither editor nor co-author nor secretary, but, I must assume, incorporating elements of all three. Assumptions should always be kept on hand when reading about Obrist’s curatorial approach, but you should hold those assumptions lightly. Many of them will turn out to be wrong. Raza has worked with Obrist on exhibitions as an “art producer,” a supportive role that is as flexible as the artist and exhibition need it to be. It’s only appropriate that he occupy a similarly undefined role here. The book is written in largely clear, understated prose. I wonder if he dictated part or all of the first draft; it has such directness and concision. Such writing does one very welcome thing: it eliminates art world jargon. Too often art writing consists of thick clods of specialty prose, designed for and written by curators and critics, but hermetic and frustrating to everyone else. Obrist’s exceptions are few and only mildly irritating: when he lists elements of the Utopia Station installation at the 2003 Venice Biennale, the term “part-objects” trips up the eyeballs but, as it’s the only confusing word in the paragraph, no great harm is done. The whole book is written with a deceptive casualness, and reads much more easily than one would expect. Ways of Curating is a good book; it is two-thirds of a very good book. What is missing is what Obrist has removed from his curatorial practice: the focus of an educator. We are left to draw our own conclusions, or struggle with their absence, exactly as he would wish it to be. I wish there was more, that missing third, but that would require a different author, reaching different conclusions, and a different way of curating. What comes to me some time after reading it is the impression that Obrist wrote much about curators and artists, but very little about art. For that side of the coin, one should go to Obrist’s long series of interviews with artists, in which he lets them speak of their work.
Art historian John Armstrong and pop philosopher Alain de Botton have their theories about curating as well, spelled out in their book, Art as Therapy (Phaidon). The title is wonderfully concise, placing it firmly within de Botton’s series of self-help books (How Proust can change your Life, The Architecture of Happiness). Instead of museum curators focussing on the forces of history and art history that have shaped the world for centuries and more, Messrs. Armstong and de Botton think museums should instead be devoted to helping us solve our personal problems. Learning is set aside for a lot of self-centered sentiment, all of it generic and only marginally relevant. Amazingly enough, the National Gallery, London, and the Stedeljik Museum in Amsterdam allowed galleries to be temporarily re-labelled to conform to this vision, with very mixed results. I read the book from cover to cover, at times holding it at arms length while shouting obscenities. It’s 351 pages of narcissistic twaddle, one of the worst art books in recent memory, and saved from utter damnation solely because the authors insist on writing intelligibly. Had they gone the art world jargon route, a few more people might have been seduced by polysyllables into believing there’s something there. Curating is the marshaling and selecting of ideas. Specifics can speak volumes, open up the world to us; Armstrong and de Botton would replace it with the wishy-washiest of consolations, a “There, there,” and a pat on the back.
But suppose you are a well-adjusted individual, not seeking counseling from the art around you. Olafur Eliasson comes to your rescue with Your Guide, advising you to bounce randomly around the galleries like an asteroid, or play mild games with your friends (You will need to bring a friend). Eliasson inverts the role of curator; instead of building connections from one artwork to another, he plots ways to guide the viewer to combat ennui, creating a descant to the exhibition’s melody. Like Obrist, Eliasson seems to feel that traditional exhibitions require something to complement or augment them, or at worst assuage boredom in a playful fashion. This guide is applicable anywhere, not just in an art context; I can think of so many occasions that would be improved with a little distracting counterpoint. Eliasson appears in every category, looking slightly professorial, to explain each concept. What could be a gently Dada-esque interruption, a Yoko Ono piece performed by bored or curious visitors, becomes a bit dull itself, a game to supplement either poor curating or a mind unable to focus on its surroundings. It’s fun, but fun on a fairly simple level, and runs contrary to most of the reasons people find themselves in art shows in the first place. Eliasson brings this welcome sense of play from the app world to the art world with limited but only somewhat worthwhile results. The reason for this intervention? From the description of the app: “A daily flood of images tends to dull our senses; in a museum, we often take just a few seconds to contemplate a work of art. Olafur Eliasson attempts to counteract such perceptual desensitization.” An admirable goal, and one that has been of concern to the art world, exemplified by Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972). The description continues: “Eliasson encourages users to take in their environments – whether in a museum or in everyday life – in new ways. We are called upon to experience encounters with art in unfamiliar and fundamentally different ways. While a typical exhibition guide supplies viewers with information and answers to anticipated queries, Eliasson poses problems and invites visitors to trust their own senses.” Okay, good intentions, if frustrating to a curator or museum director who rather hopes that visitors will look at the art. The key is in a phrase from the description, “habitual patterns of vision.” This links us to Benjamin and Berger, noting that constant exposure blunts experiential impact. We are flooded with images until they no longer contain their original context or any context at all, becoming just visual white noise. In a museum, we risk falling into museum habits, and march through like so many culture zombies. Eliasson does not, as Armstrong and de Botton do, offer a new paradigm for viewing art, but rather a palate cleanser, a temporary break that can reopen eyes dulled from repetition. Though it’s hardly an essential, and would prove annoying to some, the app reminds us that there is always room for play, and good reason at times for breaking out of habit.