Curating Doubt: Curators Are Caught between a Rock of Narcissism and a Hard Place of Critical Paralysis

Article excerpt

If the term 'curator' has been around for as long as there were bodies of objects and bodies of knowledge to preserve and perpetuate, its more active derivative 'curating' is a neologism so recent that dictionaries have not yet caught up. Curators continue to exist and perform the task of curating, yet judging by the recurring and often circular discussions about the nature of curating, the identity of the 'artist-curator', the role of the independent curator, and the politics of 'self-reflexive' curating, all exist in a state of ongoing perennial uncertainty, in which fundamental questions are rehearsed, mantra-like: where does the distinction lie between artist and curator?

Can we still distinguish artwork and curatorial production in a meaningful way? How do powerful art institutions police and control what gets seen? And how do artists and curators (independent, 'co-dependent' or otherwise) negotiate the hierarchies and divisions of power implicit in these distinctions or, as some would argue, their elimination? But if 'self-reflexivity' has become a common term to describe the continuous questioning of all these traditional demarcations in recent practice, it suggests less a radical confrontation with the imposition of curatorial and artistic orthodoxy than the institutionalisation of self-consciousness on the part of those who find themselves in the position 'to curate': for self-reflexivity, read 'self-awareness', 'self-doubt'.

The expanding, hypertrophied uncertainty that accumulates in current discourse on curating is a phenomenon peculiar to the present moment, in the sense that the constant navel-gazing on the part of curators into the terminological black hole that is 'contemporary curating' tends to produce more discussion about its undecidability and fluidity, rather than precipitating any serious theoretical crisis or professional rupture. As Paul O'Neill ironically observed (see AM291) '[we] are becoming so self-reflexive that exhibitions often end up as nothing more or less than art exhibitions curated by curators curating curators, curating artists, curating artworks, curating exhibitions.'

What drives the expansion of this self-reflexive anxiety? By its nature, and as O'Neill's endlessly recursive Russian doll of curatorial-artistic repositioning suggests, it is not the preserve of professional or institutional curators as such, but has become a sort of critical reflex among those artists and curators for whom the traditional division of artist and curator appears suspect.

Such recursive critical manoeuvres can be found in an exhibition such as Liam Gillick's recent 'Edgar Schmitz', at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts. As the exhibition programme puts it, the exhibition was conceived by the artist 'in response to an invitation by the Institute of Contemporary Arts to create the display for the exhibition "KIOSK" [a travelling archive of art publishing projects]. Gillick extended this invitation in turn by asking Londonbased German artist Edgar Schmitz to collaborate with him on the creation of this project.' Gillick's recent work is exemplary in its exploration of the demarcation between orthodox definitions of the artist and curator, the work and everything else, as well as the institution's limitations and how this regulates what can be seen. As Gillick put it back in 2001 at a Baltic debate held at the University of Newcastle, what interests him are the pursuit of a 'subcuratorial activity' and the moments of 'expansion and compression' between the positions of artists and curator: 'When is the moment curatorial position expands into the broader field and when is the moment that the artistic one expands and vice versa, that is, where do they compress?'

The interrogation of the lines of demarcation, of professional identity and self-identification and of institutional and critical boundaries, have since become common currency for the 'self-reflexive' in art and curating. …