I sat down over the underused internet with David Balzer, author of Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else (Coach House Books) to discuss everything from utopia to Tumblr to salons des refuses. Balzer, an art critic and short fiction author here analyzes many of the social forces and personalities of the art-world via the increasingly cited and enacted phenomenon of curation. Curationism aptly reassesses popularity, novelty, profitability, referentiality, and influence (etc) as mystifying measures of artistic vitality; while illustrating how we, like curators, present artworks as performative pieces integral to our creative identities (whether we create such works or not).
- Brad de Roo, who once won the Grade 8 Art Award on the meekly nationalistic strength of watercoloured Gretzkys, pastel tall-ships, and baked-clay loons, is brushing up on Art.
Your book offers concisely extensive genealogies, etymologies, hermeneutics, and biographies of the ever evolving concept of curation from classical history through the Renaissance to art and culture today. Could you provide the uninitiated reader with a heuristically salient definition of curation’s aims and qualities?
The central argument of my book is that the Western curator, from Roman times to the contemporary Tumblr user, lends value to things, and thus performs this value (and this act) in a way that is hyper-conscious of an audience. The thing to which value is lent as well as the thing performed changes over time. Now, I argue, curating has turned in on itself, and the thing being curated is also the thing that curates. This defines "curationism": a circular performance of the value of the self, the corporation, the cultural institution, that cannot, in my opinion, be sustained.
You consistently cite the ‘twilight of the avant-garde’ while explaining the increasing reach of curational modes. From your description, I get the impression that, while more and more ‘artwork’ is being created, we have entered a sort of post-structural black-hole swirling with wormholes of hyper-referentiality, nostalgia porn (as you put it), obsessive collecting/documentation, and solipsistic fragmentation. Does this sort of bleak account hold true to you?
I'm obviously not the first person to suggest the death of the avant-garde, something I'm all for. It's so exciting. I acknowledge that my book might come off as bleak to some, but only in the sense that I am articulating the end of a certain way of looking at art—at not only understanding it, but also packaging it, codifying it. We are all used to this model, and that's why it might seem scary to contemplate it not being there anymore. I don't wish for the avant-garde to be rehabilitated; that's completely unnecessary and missing the point. The whole idea of the avant-garde—in the sense of it being experimental, renegade, the pulse of the young, a threat to the establishment—is antiquated and must go.
I'm jumping ahead to your next questions, but the avant-garde way of reading culture—in terms of those who oppose dominant modes also being the ones in charge of challenging and even reinventing them—has proven highly flawed. In the 1990s, the end of the avant-garde's 20th-century grand tour, we spoke of "co-opting": when grunge went mainstream, when Madonna stole voguing from the Harlem queers and turned it into one of the biggest pop songs of all time. The avant-garde quickly, arguably inherently, presented itself as a territory for pillaging, for those with money to exploit. Its insouciance is its vulnerability. This is something Warhol understood well.
Imagine digital culture really facilitating the so-called cutting-edge as always present, immediate—as available to everyone. Imagine a time in which the idea of "shocking" becomes obsolete; in which subcultures are no longer parsed into performative, codified camps; in which cultural history, even physical age, exists radically in the present and future, not as a sort of compartmentalized curio but as a real, always-alive thing. This pluralism, even confusion, would, in my opinion, be the best thing that's happened to culture in a long time. The alternative is the black hole you suggest. Regardless, we are in a time of great noise. Of course I can't predict what will happen. I can only tell you what I hope for.
Throughout Curationism you link the concept of the avant-garde with commercialism and how the avant-garde’s constant focus on innovation and technology further associates it with corporate forces. Is our current hyper mix of corporate interest, cut-throat innovation, and technological homogenization representative of an underlying anti-democratic streak? Is there a democratic aesthetic escape if rich dealers, artists, curators, and institutions continually control the means of production and reproduction? Do the attendant moves towards increasingly dematerialized expressions of art (performance, relational etc) and technology (internet, social media etc) combined with a global alienation from the origins of the objects of work (not knowing who makes things, how they are made, while politically celebrating and intimately claiming these very things) spell a sort of anti-ecological creative doom?
This is a huge, daunting question. I can't answer it fully. I will say I don't think there's necessarily a proportional move towards dematerialized art as the internet dematerializes... some things. Corporate interest facilitates many cultural enterprises, and one of the points of my book is that it always has, and that the art world for many reasons seems to blanch at acknowledging this, and that this has probably made things worse. In her great book Artificial Hells Claire Bishop cites philosopher Jacques Ranciere in terms of acknowledging that perhaps a return to aesthetics vis-a-vis the social or political is what is needed. Does socially and politically engaged work really always have to exist outside material, "spectacle," to be vital? These are things I find fascinating, in terms of imagining how cultural-value inflation might be addressed and even corrected. Certainly the art world could not have, yet perhaps should have, predicted the dangerous precedent set by the readymade and by dematerialization, in which banal or ostensibly nonexistent things became fetishized and thus unprecedentedly expensive (and indeed spectacular) despite, or rather because of, their origins in avant-garde-cum-philosophical conviction. If you wanted to, you could make direct connections here to the subprime mortgage crisis.
I couldn’t help but notice how much certain art exhibitions, pieces, titles, and tropes within Curationism sound like descriptions of our current digital world, especially in light of the resurgent themes of apocalypse and disaster which seem to dominate a lot of current culture narratives (recession, global warming, animal extinction, renewed ancient wars) etc. Names or concepts like ‘Utopia Station’; ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’; ‘the Lobby Gallery’; ‘art islands’; ‘artificial wonderland’; and ‘Xanadu mansions’ sound like they could be Borgesian stories about the age of the Internet. What potential does digital technology, from the internet to the internet of things, offer for art-making, art-presenting, art-critiquing? What kinds of work would need to go into getting better values out of such technology? Could the internet be a radical salon des refuses rather than an overflowing cabinet of censured curiosities?
The internet could be so many things that it isn't, to the point where it seems almost silly or antiquated to talk about what the internet actually is or could be. It is clear we are underusing the internet, just as we underuse our brains, our libraries, our museums. We have always underused storehouses of knowledge, often after battling for access to them. I would add that all of the names you cite are of course utopian, and that an idea central to my book is that curators are utopian thinkers. Like architects (who are in many senses their allies), curators are in charge of materializing and performing ideas; they are ambassadors for "projects." Of course history teaches us that utopia inevitably curdles into dystopia; the only earnest utopian thinkers are totalitarians. Although, as you say, we live in a time obsessed with dystopian narratives like The Hunger Games, our understanding of dystopia is fairly limited. There are a lot of dystopias in existence that are fascinating. The internet, with its frivolity, under- (and over-!)use and corporate policing, is one of them. It is full of possibility and extremely dangerous at the same time.
In the later third of your book you speak of curatorial studies in the context of university education, comparing them to creative writing degrees and MFAs, which are often seen as expensively ineffective means of honing a vocation. Is your book a sort of corrective to a pedagogical standard? Should Curationism be taught in schools alongside other evolutionary accounts of art criticism?
Haha, well, uh, it would be great for sales. Actually one of the points of my section on curatorial-studies programs (and contemporary humanities departments in general) is that the pedagogical standard is institutional critique. Like the curator, corporation and contemporary gallery or museum, academia does not shun structural criticism but rather invites it, as a way of remystifying by demystifying, of making themselves seem available to audiences/clients and ultimately of reifying their cultural capital. There are many more renegade or corrective texts than mine that have been taught in universities for decades. And yet here we are, with humanities academe in its current crisis.
I recently interviewed the music critic Carl Wilson. Certain elements of his empathizing critical project seem to resonate with an attitude of even-handednes that grounds your book. Carl said: ‘I guess part of the point is that there is no such thing as a "right" assessment in pop culture, or even in culture generally - that our diversity of perceptions is a good thing, and that respecting each other's affections is more productive than attacking them”. Do you relate to the critical stances he suggests?
I love Carl's book, have been influenced by it and think it's important, particularly as a meditation on what taste is. The movement it has become associated with, however, "Poptimism," is not my favourite. I find it curationist actually, as it replaces the cultural teams we were on in the 90s with a very performative and pretentiously cultivated view of popular music, in which it appears as if everything is OK to like for the indie-affiliated music listener, when it fact only certain things are, and then herd mentality and old avant-garde understandings of trend-setting sets in. (Beyoncé's surprise album drop last December typified this for me.) I think Carl's book is kinder and more open than mine. But I wanted to tell a specific story about a main paradigm in the art world. I could have written a book about curators who are doing great work, but that wasn't what I wanted to do.
While describing the proliferation of the phenomenon of curation into our day to day private (if this once very publicized term is even still accurate?) lives - from Soundcloud playlists to Twitter to fashion to weddings to bookstore blog interviews, you write: ‘Gathering things, connecting them, sharing them with others in a way that positions one as a taste-making host: sounds like fun doesn’t it?’ Do you think a drive to curate is an impulse of human nature or, perhaps, just a difficult to avoid byproduct of cultural creation? In other words, how deterministic is curation?
Curating has definitely allowed a lot more people than ever before to feel creative. That's not a bad thing. It can be empowering—after all, I argue that curating is the impartation and performance of value, and if the thing at its centre is you, well, it makes you feel great. But feeling creative is not being creative. Curating clothes, parties, social circles... the bourgeoisie has always done this. A hyper-awareness of curating leads to problems: first, to an over-valuing and over-thinking of these gestures (such as the new social network Ello, which snottily prompts you to separate your contacts into "friends" and "noise"—aren't they often both?); second to a distraction away from the thing being curated, which is should be the real subject of interest. Curating now so often takes the place of engagement. In a way curationism (not curating) is the ultimate gambit of the person who wants to be famous for being famous.
You requested to shadow a curator in action while writing this book, but were turned down. If you were given carte blanche pre-approval what collections, exhibitions, biennials, and museums would you have view in curation?
It would have been so eye-opening to go behind-the-scenes at any major art-world event. I mean, I'd have to pick the big ones, Venice and Documenta: being a fly on the wall there as they devise and set up and micromanage their team would just be the most fascinating thing, maybe because it would be the most boring thing. I have worked for or know people who work for large cultural institutions in Toronto, but to spend a few months at the MoMA in New York, and witness how that machine is driven, would also have been a needful exposure to that on the largest scale. What I'm particularly interested in of course is how audience, or rather a notion of audience, would inform everything they do.
Lastly, you conclude Curationism, with an evocation of ‘stillness’ and ‘quiet contemplation’ as essential modes for your personal understanding of art. Positively echoing my previous question, are there places where these modes of experience can be reliably found (collections, museums etc)? Do any curators, paradoxically, achieve such tranquil constructions?
Fantastic curatorial work is being done all over the place, all over the world. It does get covered in major art magazines but often it is not the curators who are the focus; it is the art, the artists, the exhibition, etc. Non–star curators have hard jobs; these are the majority of curators. They have delicate and frustrating relationships with the bureaucratic institutions for whom they work; they work under oppressively small budgets; many are underpaid; they have little time to devote to professional development inside office hours and so are constantly working and liasing. Putting an exhibition together is tough. The curator should be there for the art and ideas, because it is not a glamorous job. I'm not saying they shouldn't get credit, but when the curator becomes the main focus, and furthermore when a curatorial mode becomes the focus of art-making, actual things and actual concepts get pushed aside—the very things that facilitate curation in the first place. The best curators create that context of stillness in an exhibition, letting the art, in all its multiplicities, mysteries and even confusions, speak for itself.
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