Here Be Curators

  Piere Coinde  
  Richard Hylton  
  Mark Jackson  

October 2013

There is the idea that "artist run spaces" are somehow bound to be better or worse than spaces run by civilians, and that somehow only practising artists really understand art. William Burroughs implored people to attempt cut-ups for themselves in order to really read them, potentially making every reader a writer, was he right? Is the only way to understand art to dip your genitals in paint?
Also is a curator really necessary? Sometimes I put on my CV an exhibition as "curator", sometimes "project manager." I know a curator who prefers to call herself "exhibition maker".
Are artists not just greedy little fame-hungry shitbags? Are curators megalomaniacs? What makes them all so special? Are artists still artists when they are writing cheques? Are they being creative with budgets and the funding they've received or is that illegal? Do artists become curators to make themselves look like they know what is going on outside of their crummy little studio?
What follows is a panelled debate on the function, value and ecology of the "artist run" organisation. Are such organisations quasi-autonomous amateur affairs run by arts graduates for arts graduates, or are they the ideal union of cultural practice and social enterprise?

Mark: I am the curator mainly at IMT gallery in Bethnal Green. With me is Pierre Coinde, who with Gary O'Dwyer, set up news of the world space in Deptford as a curator studio that is allowing work to be looked at in a research design process setting. We are also very lucky to have Richard Hylton who is a visiting lecturer, researcher, freelance exhibition organiser and writer of art criticism and who over last 20 years has curated numerous international and national exhibitions including the group show Imagined Communities Tampered Surface - Six Artists From Pakistan and Landscape Trauma in the Age of Scopophilia. His recent book The Nature of The Beast about cultural diversity in the visual arts sector, was published by the University of Bath and his recent article Exclusion Zone was published in Art Monthly and considers the wider significance of the recent spate of solo exhibitions involving African Americans in London.

Basically in the spirit of Sluice we'd like to approach the idea of curatorship, curatorial practice, curatordom, the curator in more of a free-form way, so it's going to be a panel discussion where we approach different ideas of what the curator might be, where the curator might get in the way of things, where the curator might help things perhaps.

So, I come from a visual art background, I moved into sound for a bit, and found I automatically became curatorial quite naturally, and so now I see curating as my practice and I kind of think I suppose there's that difficult balance between artistic production and curatorial practice where there is a blurred line, and a lot of my research, a lot of my activity is trying to work out where that line is. I was recently struck by some other approaches one of which gave rise to this whole talk which was a vitriolic a bit of bile spewed out by Waldemar Januszczak in The Guardian about artists rising up and destroying the curator, how the curator was the bad guy and was completely unhelpful to artists getting work shown. So I thought that was an interesting starting point, but also I was at a collectors lunch and there was a presentation by a collector who talked about how the curator also gets in the way of the commercial aspect of art, of selling and buying art, almost as if the curator is something you trip over as you step back to look at a price list. And how the curator, the way a curator frames work, the curator intellectualises work - getting in the way of the collector buying work. So there are two things which happened relatively recently that I think interested me in terms of the antipathy, ideas against the curator. Whereas my personal role is someone who helps to try to get projects that I'm interested in visibility. And it's as simple as that, now perhaps it might be worth asking Richard your perspective because you have curated in a diverse range of spaces and organisations.

Richard: As Mark said since the mid nineties I've worked in various institutions and local authorities and Universities, and through all of those I suppose there’s been an idea that I've been a curator of some sort, although initially in the early ninety’s the term was exhibition officer, the reason I say that is because now the role of the exhibition officer has now been enveloped by the curator. Obviously there has been a shift in the emphasis of what is a curator is in the last 20 years. The reason I was interested in being involved in this is really because I think it's difficult to capture what a curator is, in London it's very different to the dynamics off outside London. Now, how do galleries organise exhibitions, to put it quite simply I suppose the relationship nowadays - we're in an art fair that functions somewhere between the model of the commercial and public funded gallery - and I think what kind of interests me is this idea for example of in some of the most prominent or prestigious public galleries we have in London they tend to show commercially successful art. So what does that do to the role of the curator? In a sense if all the artists they are showing are of a particular level then what is the curators role? Is it to legitimatise a program that actually supports the private market? So that’s really a question for you and maybe for all of us, because I think in some regards I think the issue of curators is a smoke screen. I don't think the problem is necessarily the curators, there are many other things around the curators. In Britain you see the rise of privatisation in everything and the art world is no different, the art world has been privatised the same way as everything else. I think the role of the curator has risen during that time as well, and the notion of the rise of the curator in some way obscures some of the more continual processes of how exhibitions are organised in galleries, particularily more established galleries, for instance galleries that receive public funding, that is one of the issues and that's what I mean when I say so I think artists being presented by powerful collectors is one of the issues at play...

Mark: From that there is a difference obviously between - as you say, institutions - and some of the more experimental or smaller spaces. And there's also that aspect of the curator as a mediator, as a go-between between the artist and the organisation, and in an institution obviously the curator is bound up or institutionalised in that process, like you say, which is bound up with the marketplace, then the curator is there to do a very definitive job, whereas with a space like yours Pierre it's probably completely different I imagine, it might be interesting to hear that point of view.

Pierre: When we set up The Centre of Attention [and also now at our Deptford space, news of the world] in 1999 we wanted to avoid being defined as a gallery or as curators and we called it an artist/gallery/curator-shaft so that we were looking at all aspects of production from the production, presentation, distribution, consumption and heritagisation of work, and in that sense I think that what has happened in the last 40 years or so is you have had artists invading what was traditionally the curator's space in how they actually manage their own distribution of work in the setting of installations for example, and how they present the work - you also have collectors which I suppose are keen to exhibit their collection so from another angle they are coming in to the curator's space, so the curator is getting a hard time, being the person "in the way". I think the way that we saw the issue, in the sense that we are emergent in that field, as "where do you position yourself in that field", and this could vary according to the particular project or to the particular objective that you have for an artist or for a work or for a space. And you might for one project act very much as a traditional curator installing work and in other projects, work with a wider remit. So we thought that if we said "we are a gallery" or "we are a curator" it would actually immediately make it easier for people to actually read the exhibition and distinguish the artist's input into the exhibition and that of the curator. Whereas as you have said previously there is the collaborative aspect of things, and also what we actually like to bring to the fore are the less collaborative aspects of it, where the curator can be in competition somehow with the artist or where the artist can be in competition with the institution where the work is being shown. How can we actually work with the material of the exhibition to probe aspects of it instead of taking them for granted? So, we did a show called On Demand which was a group show with five artists but the idea was that the audience member would call us (the curator) and say "I want to see this work" and we would come to their house holding that particular work, so taking the work out of the gallery space without the paraphernalia that it normally comes with. This was the avowed position, but obviously what we're also bringing as well is the curator himself, who becomes visible rather than a pretend neutral figure in the exhibition. We were putting the audience in that position where with the curator at your door (who becomes "the visitor"), you were forced to decide what to do with the work, do you engage the curator in a discussion is it something a little bit Jehovah witness visit which you would rather keep short? Works in the exhibition included Oreet Ashery's which was a performance to be enacted by us and the audience, Markus Vater also had a performance where he was coming with us and staging the performance at the person's home, Ben Morieson's was a video work where we simply inserted the DVD into the television, Eileen Perrier's were photographs. What interested us - rather than create a cosy relationship between the artist and the viewer with the curator facilitating the exhibition - was to try to make it awkward and slightly uncomfortable for everybody. Because I think a lot more interesting things can come from an uncomfortable position rather than a sort of cosy one.

Mark: And that brings up a very important question particularly in terms of contemporary curating which is the visibility of the curatorial process and the curator themselves. Because the curator has traditionally been more of an unknown component in the project, how much have they contributed, how involved are they in the final work? How much they might want to pretend to be invisible - they might not sign the press release for example, they might not make obvious decisions about the work, but they are an insidious presence. There is a lot of curatorial methodology, curatorial strategies just behind closed doors, stuff happens at the back end of the gallery, it's not always at the front; why do we choose to work with these artists or stage the shows? And that brings it back to you Richard because you used to run unit 2 gallery - part of the London Met University and obviously a gallery which is part of a university institution has a very specific remit in how you curate that space and how much of you as a curator has been visible in that process or how much is the institution curating the project.

Richard: I used to run the space for 5 years, it was opposite the Whitechapel gallery so it was a great location and a nice space, set up by the fine art department there. One of the things about running a space like that within a university and being its curator was the internal pressure created by members of staff and peoples involvement was partly predicated on what they could get out of it. But what I actually wanted to do was use the space to organise shows where I could give solo shows to artists, solo shows to artists from outside London, as well as inside London, to offer an opportunity to show in London. To develop a program which showed emerging artists alongside more established artists, so we had a programme that was all jumbled up. Giving artists the opportunity to show work was our main concern. The issues of working in an institution like that where you have an academic agenda – was the balancing of different faculties, balancing fine art shows with things like the design facilities. For me it was really about trying to ... It wasn't really explicit what kind of art was being shown, it was really about trying to bring different artists into a coherent program, who might have different positions in the art world.

Mark: That political aspect relating to university lecturers wanting to have shows is quite interesting because the curator in that situation is a political entity, he has to deal with the politics of the institution.

Richard: Yes that is what I wanted to say, the curator, the relationship between the curator and the artist, there is a power structure to it, it depends on who has more power, in terms of if you are working with artists who are very successful that is going to do you the world of good as a curator as opposed to perhaps working with a less well known artist. That is a process by which a lot of the art world functions. If you curate a group show full of well known artists that is going to open up doors for you in terms of who comes to the show, who it gives you access to and it looks good on your CV. In London there are thousands and thousands of artists looking for shows, looking for exposure. In a sense, as a gallery you know you have lot of artists to choose from, as a curator you realise that and you form the identity of your gallery from the artists you select. But there is a power relationship there in terms of the role of the curator, it's not all about the curator being all powerful, sometimes it's the artist who is in the powerful position and that's not necessarily a negative thing. It's part of the process that doesn't necessarily get talked about, it has a lot to do with power relationships, at the end of the day people are trying to manage their careers and raise their profile, so there are all these dynamics.

Mark: There's always going to be some sort of a network whether it's the artist you're working with over a period of time or how you get from one show to the next, and I suppose there's a mystification of that process for a lot of people, for audiences and for other artists, how do they work out who they are showing? And I sometimes find myself looking through invites to the next show or hearing about shows and thinking to myself “oh that's the narrative of the exhibition space. And each space is going to have its own narrative."

Mark: When you're making the curator explicit or rather the curatorial process explicit, how do people react to that, how do artists react to that and how do audiences react to that?

Pierre: I think one of the advantages of the curator is that he's often the first member of the audience to see the work and he or she will have seen this work in the studio environment. Victoria Miro says the most interesting part of her job is the studio visit, and to be fair I think it is, because that is where you get to talk to the artist, you get to see the work as it develops, understand the motivation etc. In our current space called news of the world in Deptford this is what we've tried to do. Us calling it "a curator studio" in effect is saying we are not really providing "exhibition conditions" in terms of ways of looking at the work, but we're trying to get you closer to how the curator himself might actually see the work. One exhibition last year was called The Intensive Care which bought 12 artists together and each day during the gallery opening there would be the work as well as one of the artists on site so that if the audience member wanted to actually discuss the work they didn't have to rely on the curator's press release or just their own experience of the work: they could actually talk to the artist. Now obviously this is a proposition. As a visitor you take it how you want, you can engage or you can decide not to. In practice, not many visitors would actually be interested in talking to the artist, perhaps feeling intimidated, but we were interested in creating that possibility and allowing you to make that decision.

Mark: Would it be fair to say that the majority... let's say 20 to 30 years ago the primary sight of exchange of contemporary art was the art gallery then it morphed into being the public private view and now would it be fair to say the primary site of exchange is social media, the Internet? I'm sure more people see exhibitions via stills or marketing images on facebook rather than actually coming to the space itself. If we could talk perhaps about the build-up to the show, you mention studio visits as part of possibly the most exciting part of the curatorial process which is generally hidden from the final proposition, at IMT gallery we work with artists at least a year in advance so there is that slow collaboration before the final public appearance of the work and I don't think that is particularly well known. The curator is more than someone who put objects in space, but is someone who is bound up in the development of a project - from the private autonomy of the studio practice to a public space, a mediator to the audience.

Pierre: Some curators will approach artists and say "this is the show I'm doing do you have any works for that?" And then as an artist you might actually find yourself tailoring your work around themes that aren't really what your work is about, but you're interested in participating so there is always that pressure. I think what we try to do, working from project to project is to keep the curatorial concept as open as it can be, so for example our recent "Intensive Care" exhibition where an artist would be there with their work tells you about the functioning of the exhibition but it doesn't actually say anything about the work itself. An important role for the curator is not too define and therefore enclose the work into some sort of perimeter but to provide a platform for the work to operate on its own terms. That obviously would be limited to what else is in the show but I think thematic exhibitions are usually quite unappealing. As artists under The Centre of Attention banner, we created our first works by curating group exhibitions and then in a very "no-no" way, once we'd installed the exhibition we felt like there was something missing, and so as the curator your choice could be well I'll actually get an artist to do exactly what I want, but we thought actually let's not do that, let's create what we think of as 'Space-filler' which would often be like a sculpture. From a curator's angle it's not an artwork but visually it was something that the space needed. And these Spacefillers became a series of work stemming from our curating practice. Within the exhibition, we started to be more and more present as a curator. I think the debate is whether the work is the art, is the work the exhibition, does the exhibition create the work, as in you know make the work alive, the public completing the work? I think it is very clear that what the market buys is works of art, and to an extent the market doesn't buy exhibitions. I think that were exhibitions works of art they would be bought in their entirety. There is some fetishism around the idea of the exhibition as a work but I think this is a very marginal activity.

Richard I don't have a problem with thematic shows, I think thematic shows can be very good, they can direct a audience to a particular thing whether it be humour or history. It's a starting point, I don't think it's necessarily a way of closing down the work, because you can have a piece of work in that is very specific about very specific ideas which is defined by the exhibition organisers, but it's only a starting point. I have created thematic shows, obviously they're there to be criticised in terms of what is there and what is not. I think it's a way of engaging with an audience.

Richard:I think the problem comes with predictable selection, and that comes back to the role of the curator in terms of looking beyond for example London, looking beyond established artists. But I do think that thematic shows can be good because I think it's a way to present, engage with certain ways of making work, in how work might be read.

Mark: That's one way the curator may be incredibly important, the curator is somebody who might have access to things that are not readily known. Maybe there are artists that don't shout quite so loudly so the curator might be able to bring the artist visibility. But on the theme of audience engagement perhaps it's a good time to ask if anyone has any questions.

Pierre: I think you would also get that "agenda" issue with shows curated by curators. For any exhibition you have to read it like a crime scene almost. Trying to understand the 'opportunities' which is linked to the space, then the 'means'; what are the works in the exhibition, and the 'motivation' which is why, what is driving the curator, what is driving the artists in being part of this? So you would analyse it exactly like a murder scene.

Pierre: We did the reverse a few years ago when we did a show called The Curators in New York, on the premise that when you as a curator create a show, almost inevitably you have a "message" for the audience. This "message" might actually get distorted by the work we select for the exhibition, so we thought to make the curator-viewer relationship more direct by just having the curators in the exhibition space without any artists, as middle-men that may transform what the message is. That's actually a show where artists visiting were getting very angry about.

Mark: I remember working in just a quick technical capacity on a show in a university many many years ago, on the curating course and everyone on the course curated one artist, there were seven curator's and one artist with one piece of work, and this was a surprise for me at that point, how that could actually function. It revealed to me that curating can be a process bought with the single vision, the curator as the gatekeeper of a vision whereas in this instance there were so many curators trying to make out how to construct this project better - in the end they became the performance piece of work that the artist made and the artist became in a sense the curator. And that demonstrated to me in the early stages of me being involved in curatorial practice, how messy the whole process is. Basically what I'm saying is my choice of becoming a curator or changing my title from artist to curator was to allow that disappearance - that shift in where the work ends up. The authorship is still in flux. s