Curating The New
I’m not exactly sure why, but I have followed the last two annual Valletta 2018’s Curatorial School sessions with a sense of intrigue that has come with a side of ‘I don’t particularly belong there’. Not this year. Having really found my deep love for writing, freed my own inner artist and followed my curiosity into curation, I really felt like this would be the perfect hub for my expansion right now. And how right I was.
Wanting to embrace the opportunity in its entirety, I volunteered to help with the running of the Curatorial School, fulfilling the fun role of curator curation, a.k.a meeting the curators at their hotel each morning and shepherding them via a van to the Old University Campus where the sessions were held over the week. I have volunteered for quite a few events now and can honestly say that this is one of the best ways to deeply experience things, meet infinitely interesting people and generally experiment with and test drive roles / working relationships that you would not usually have contact with.
First things first. Curatorial School? In its third year, Valletta 2018’s Curatorial School is a weeklong dive into an aspect of art curatorship, this year the theme, trigger, call it what you will was “Curating The New”, a subject that led to many discussions about definitions of old and new, overviews of how emergent ways of thinking are being reflected by art institutions and endless tangents about things in between.
The curators under my curation were a diverse, fun group of human beings who brought a lot of stimulation, interesting (at times rather unusual) case studies from their own experience, great conversations and a real love for what they do that made their sessions infinitely more alive and compelling. Here’s an overview of snippets of each curator’s lectures that particularly captured my imagination.
Michaela Crimmin. I greatly enjoyed the stories and anecdotes from the experience of commissioning artwork for Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth as part of her lecture about Commissioning in the Public Domain. Michaela took us through her adventures with public calls, the uncertainties and last minute dramas that crop up along the way, the highs and lows of public opinion and the press and the many hats a curator must don at points in time. Through her work with Culture + Conflict which she referred to during her second lecture, Michaela spoke about the power of contemporary art as a response to international conflict. Favourite quotes:
“Humanity is not a completed project”
“One of the most important things for a curator is to be an archivist”.
Suzanne Wallinga. Bringing a completely different perspective to the other curators’, Suzanne spoke about her experience with Art Rotterdam, the biggest art fair in the Netherlands including Intersections, a more experimental space within the fair where emerging artists or non-profit organisations are given access to the footfall that the art fair generates. Questions raised included the role of art fairs and the benefits and issues around the participation of not-for-profit organisations in said art fairs. Suzanne also facilitated a two-part workshop about Curating New Productions based on her experience as co-founder of A Tale of a Tub, a not-for-profit organisation that runs from a former bath house in Rotterdam and that supports the development of contemporary art.
Some of the visiting curators. From left, Maren Richter (partly hidden), Antje Weitzel, Naddim Samman and Sebastian Cichocki. Photo credit: Valletta 2018 & Inigo Taylor.
Maren Richter. A later addition to the party, Austrian Maren hosted a workshop around the theme of De-colonising and Un-learning in Urban Landscapes that was held in Valletta. I was impressed by the knowledge of the Maltese psyche that she has managed to gather in her so far very limited time here. My favourite quote of hers from this week,
“certain issues need a deep bodily experience”.
Her workshop led to many discussions about how ideas about re-experiencing, forgetting and re-reading can relate to Valletta and help us interact with it in a more present manner.
Yuko Hasegawa. This Japanese curator led us through some of her beautifully planned and executed projects with a humble matter-of-factness that belied their grandeur. I loved the no-corners-cut approach to the circular 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa which combines a Japanese sense for flawless aesthetics and planning for the long term with a true democratic, inclusive approach to making a museum for the people rather than a structure that the audience needs to adapt to. She spoke at length about the idea of a museum being a memory archive where the present is legitimised and a laboratorium, a place for experiments that yield feedback that constantly transforms ways of doing. Also check out her beautiful Inujima House Project where Yuko was asked to use art to activate a sleepy island with an ageing population through art and Bunny Smash: Ways to Touch the World (“because I love bunnies”) a design/ contemporary art overlap exploration that challenges the status quo through giving form.
Nadim Samman. Nadim illustrated a very independent side of curation, speaking about Treasures of Lima: A Buried Exhibition a project that included art by the likes of Marina Abramovic and Ed Ruscha that would never see the light of day, a wild, uninhabited island that takes 3-4 days to sail to, buried treasure and the use of mystery and intrigue to raise a quarter of a million dollars to set up a shark research programme around the island. Another of his adventurous, curiosity-engaging projects, Nadim took us through the plans for the Antarctica Biennale (a biennale at the end of the world, without an audience) and animatedly described the process of putting together Rare Earth (from concept to research to commissioning to publishing a book as well as first world, art curation problems such as the blanket and soft seat breaks needed for the naked model sitting in Roger Hiorns’ piece, the fun to be had from indoor flames and the inherent sense of not knowing that is part and parcel of working with big artists). Ever the pragmatist (who studied philosophy) Nadim’s feedback to the presentations we made at his and Yuko’s workshop about Curating in a Maltese Context tended to include “so what’s your first step in making this happen?”.
Marina Abramovic on participating in Treasures of Lima. As Nadim Samman put it, “offer artists and patrons something they have never been offered before”.
Renate Buschmann. Speaking about re-staging historical art exhibitions, Renate took us through three very different approaches to re-staging illustrated by three real-life examples, When Attitudes Become Form, Living with Pop and Between. Holding a strong time component, re-staging can be compared to a theatrical exhibition, a re-enactment performed with the intention to provoke empathy and understanding. Her fascinating second lecture dealt with aspects of her work at the imai – the Intermedia Arts Institute foundation, an institution dedicated to curating and preserving media art and dealing with issues such as how to transcend the issues of obsolete storage media, the inherent materiality of video artwork and distribution royalties. “We have to abandon this idea of an everlasting artwork. Artworks continue to change their shape, their experience, their appearance and we have to face this fact.”
Fumihiko Sumitomo. Fumihiko beautifully illustrated the process of putting together Arts Maebashi, an art institution with a uniquely democratic approach. From pre-opening artistic residences aimed at finding out the exact needs of artists to many pop-up projects that asked questions like “What is a museum?”, “How do we view work?” Who is our audience?” Arts Maebashi literally built itself around those who would make use of it. I greatly enjoyed this quote from their leaflet, “As a society, we fulfil important roles as supporters of artists with amazing abilities to manifest and express the workings of those sensations we cannot see.” Fumihiko ended his first lecture with,
“I have no conclusion but I would like to discuss with you the future of a museum in a consumer / information society. What is public? How does art engage with society?”.
Antje Weitzel. Antje’s Monday lecture was about Curating at the Intersections Between Art, Politics and Society. Using examples from the second Berliner Herbstsalon, Antje spoke about the challenges of working within a fluid political system that can completely change during the course of the project, necessitating complete redefinition of its foundations. During the course of preparations for the 2015 edition dedicated the the situation of refugees in Berlin, Merkel opened Germany’s borders, rendering the existing focus obsolete. “You never know if the real issues you deal with are going to still be there in the end. You need to include enough time to review. Take into account that world is completely in flux. A curator needs to stay open-minded, flexible, able to adjust vision to reality and be self reflective.”
Some of the students attending the Curatorial School. A mix of Maltese and foreigners in a diverse set of art-related fields. Bottom right, Raphael Vella. Photo credit: Valletta 2018 & Inigo Taylor.
Sebastian Cichocki. Sporting a general commitment to the depth of things, Polish Sebastian brought perhaps the most unusual approaches to the week of lectures. Frequently referring to terms such as Conceptual Edifices, The Coefficient of Art and Reciprocal Readymades from Stephen Wright’s Lexicon of Usership (a book that very satisfyingly names and concisely explains many previously vague concepts and ideas floating around in my head), Sebastian provided us with many possible points of departure for further thought and debate. My personal favourite rabbit hole dive invitation came from his idea that relationships between curators and artists do not always end in artworks (“You do things together; you travel together, you write things together. You do not want this very sensitive relationship to be caught in something closed. You dream of something more open. You’re asked to create a critical essay and instead you say, no I know you too well, let’s create a novel, let’s travel together.”), leading me to the question of how to capture these relationships, these loose narratives that are ethereal, non-material and might never directly lead to physical works but are very much art in themselves.
With the week over, what remains?
Aside from a long list of publications, ideas and projects to delve into, this week has left me with some very welcome thoughts, feelings and outcomes.
The first and perhaps the most obvious is the interaction with a greatly inspiring group of humans for whom art is not simply a set of objects to admire but a way of interacting with and understanding life better. I love this extract of Stephen Wright’s Lexicon,
“To speak of ‘coefficients of art’ is to suggest that art is not a set of objects or events, distinct from the larger set of objects and events that are not art, but rather a degree of intensity liable to be present in any number of things – indeed, in any number of symbolic configurations, activities or passivities. Could it be that art is no longer (or perhaps never was) a minority practice, but rather something practiced by a majority, appearing with varying coefficients in different contexts?”.
Lectures come and go but hopefully the connections will remain and continue to yield richness.
A sense of the status of some of the movements within the art world. Useology, questions about what makes a museum, more democratic practices in art and getting rid of conceptual edifices, various strands of artistic activism, new possibilities for patronage and ways of structuring projects, the importance of documentation and archiving that seems to have achieved near equivalence to the artworks themselves. Diverse as they all are, I am left with a feeling of hope about the transformational effect they are cumulatively having.
A vastly enriched understanding of the work of an art curator along with endless expansion for my own practice both online and off. The combination of lectures and hands-on workshops were complementary and allowed for some degree of participation from everyone in the conversation. I would have loved more space for guided interaction but a week-long course comes with rather restrictive time-limits. I’m hoping that we can generate and enjoy some good post-event communication.
Endless thanks to everyone who has had a hand in creating this fabulous event including of course Artistic Director Raphael Vella, the lovely curators, Valletta2018 and Old University Campus staff, volunteers and the diverse collection of students attending. It’s been an absolute pleasure. As Nadim Samman put it,
“working with art can take you to new places with the artists as explorers who chart their own courses”.
I’m enjoying where this current tack is heading.