In 2009, the editors of October sent a questionnaire to dozens of influential art historians, artists, architects, writers and curators around the world designed to address the seemingly straightforward question What is contemporary?. The results were subsequently published in a special issue of the journal in Fall 2009 (vol.130). These responses, while each insightful and thought-provoking in its own way, reflect the theoretical dissonance on the subject and implicate the myriad challenges the contemporary art world will face in the twenty-first century.
In the spirit of this self-reflexive mode of inquiry, the editors of Interventions would like to pose the following:Why curate now?
As Interventions is affiliated with the Master’s in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies (MODA) at Columbia, the framing of a response to this question in many ways forms a part of the impetus for this journal. We’ve addressed this question in particular to a group of young curators in an effort to incorporate the voices not from the generation who has created the current state of affairs, but rather the generation that will inherit it and determine where to go from there.
For me, right now, the decision to curate is to adopt and commit to a role that attempts to run counter to failing, calcified political, economic, and social systems. Curators (and artists) are uniquely poised to interject dissent, propose alternatives, disrupt routines and behavior patterns, and expand our current understanding of the limits of perception. While we can never fully occupy an outsider position, the discipline provides openings for radical thought and forms of expression that are beyond words and images alone, and that expand into new mediums. As organizing action, curating can also prompt interdisciplinary knowledge exchanges and foster new social connections. Finally, curating involves advocacy and support for artists, writers, and even other curators at a time when this type of labor is particularly unstable, but perhaps most needed.
Kristen Chappa is a Curatorial Associate at SculptureCenter and a freelance writer. A graduate of Columbia University’s Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program, she currently lives in Brooklyn. Chappa recently curated In Practice: You never look at me from the place from which I see you, on view at SculptureCenter from January 15 – March 19, 2012.
In a lecture on “Understanding Curatorial Practice” at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in 2007, Jens Hoffmann gave a comprehensive overview of his unique career and projects, which explore the creative forces of developing curatorial identity and question contemporary exhibition models. Hoffmann focused on a notable trend taking shape since the late 90s — the transition of independent curators to in-house institutional positions — resulting in a “new form of institutionalism brought about by the introduction of the creative curator,” one which is “more fully integrated into the staging of the exhibition.” This paradigm shift has enlivened artist/curator interactions, the critical observations of works in various realities, and the potential for curatorial practice to be more accessible in an exhibition. Trailblazers of this “new institutionalism” like Nicolas Bourriaud and Jérôme Sans, founding directors of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris; Maria Lind, Director of IASPIS in Stockholm from 2005-2007 and recently appointed director of Tensta Konsthall in Sweden; and Jens Hoffmann who moved into the Director of Exhibitions position at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 2003 and is now the Director of the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, have sparked a revolution of sorts in the development of curatorial identity, inspiring young curators like myself to curate now and for the future.
Although the tendency toward developing a sense of identity in curatorial practice still remains a contemporary problem, the push toward a new and transdisciplinary vocabulary that looks to the future of contemporary art and curatorial initiatives is a flourishing reality in many European and, to a lesser extent, American institutions. Hans Ulrich Obrist, Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programs and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery in London conceived of the project “do it,” which asked over 100 international artists to submit procedural instructions to museums, whereby the staff and/or community then (re)created the artworks. This energy and desire to reinvent artist/curator roles and the impulse to relinquish the notion of reinterpreting history mirrors Sol LeWitt’s sentiments in a letter to Eva Hesse in 1965, when she was at an apprehensive moment in her career. LeWitt states: “you are not responsible for the world—you are only responsible for your work—so DO IT. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be.” These notions of “revolution” and the burgeoning desire for a radical movement supply the motivation for modern curators to seek new possibilities for contemporary art making and curating.
Nicolas Bourriaud and Jérôme Sans conceived of the Palais de Tokyo as an “interdisciplinary kunstverien—more laboratory than museum,” which afforded them the opportunity to present exhibitions like “TRANSLATION” where selections of works by artists from The Dakis Joannou Collection were placed by the French graphic designers M/M (Paris). These types of partnerships and collaborations provide renewed critical engagement with works of art in a modern reality.
Contemporary curators are also becoming increasingly involved with the growth and trajectory of their own practice. In a 2011 conference panel titled “Extending Infrastructures, Part I: Platforms and Networks,” Maria Lind discussed the formation of several curatorial projects she initiated at institutions for whom she has worked . She emphasized modes of international collaboration and exchange that seek to “tease out an artist’s potential” amidst institutional idiosyncrasies. Lind’s commitment to generating new ideas is rooted in developing new strategies for running public/private institutions including: encouraging precise discussions with tighter groups of people; recognizing the present urgency for increased change; realizing that the presentation of a project sometimes means exploring it in stages; and allowing there to be a space for failure as an essential component to a projects value potential.
As Director for the IASPIS, a government funded artist networking agency in Stockholm in 2005, Lind developed “Taking the Matter into Common Hands”, a project with artists Johanna Billing and Lars Nilsson. The project began as an intensive network of discussions on collaborative processes in contemporary art, creating a space for enhanced exchange, which sought to change artist’s working conditions and bring awareness to the role of the artist in creative industries. In outlining this discourse, Lind and her colleagues reintroduced a collaborative residency model that encourages curator/artist relationships for the development and reformation of “artist’s own institutions.”
For Jens Hoffman, whose background is in theater rather than art history, there is a vested interest in the staging of the experience in curatorial practice, which he distinguishes as a method of cultivating one’s own identity in curatorial practice. Hoffmann’s curatorial identity is revealed in his most recent undertaking as co-curator with Adriano Pedrosa of the 12th International Istanbul Biennial. A flurry of adjectives, from “reinvigorating” to “challenging”, were used to describe Hoffmann and Pedrosa’s curatorial endeavors — to eliminate location as a primary focus of the theme of a biennial and dissolve cornerstones of nostalgic relevancy seen in previous iterations — in an attempt to create new cross-sections of the biennial format. In a review of the biennial for Modern Painters, Coline Milliard stated, “the glaring absence of overarching themes has the strength of a manifesto,” which Obrist addresses as a transdisciplinary device that is “aggressive rather than introverted; screaming rather than reticent; collective rather than individual.”
Hoffmann and Pedrosa compounded their curatorial approach to the biennial around five “Untitled” works by Cuban American artist Félix Gonzáles-Torres. These works inspired the true embodiment of the Istanbul Biennial, which was meant to take a step outside of the traditional biennial format and in Gonzáles-Torres’ own words, reflect the sentiments that “meaning is always shifting in time and place.” The curators forfeited the grandiose themes and sprawling sites for a compact biennial developed around a single artist’s oeuvre, sparking what may look to be a very promising future for diverse curatorial visions that continue to change biennial, art fair and other institutional frameworks.
Even though the common denominator amongst these international curators is their transition from independent practices to curatorial/directorial positions within an institution at one or several points in their careers, their unique approaches to expanding curatorial practice has set groundbreaking tracks for modern curating. Young curators working solo or collectively are lured by the persistent urge for change and new direction. For example, Cleopatra’s, a gallery run by four women employed concurrently by various galleries and museums, develops exhibitions and programming to further connections between individual studios, institutions and galleries. Amy Smith-Stewart, who held a curatorial position at P.S.1 in New York before venturing on as an independent curator, has on the other hand adopted the concept of the roving gallery. She describes this trend of curating and exhibiting as “totally antithetical to the model,” revealing that she is “more interested in the discovery of art — not only going to see art, but going to find art.” These modes of altering the perceptions of traditional curatorial practice reinforce the tendencies of modern curators to soften the division between creative curatorial approaches and institutional systems.
I have been a curator for the Savannah College of Art and Design for five years and most recently developed a solo exhibition comprised of works by South African and Los Angeles-based artist Liza Lou. The series of works shown in “Let the Light In” marks a pivotal transition in Lou’s trajectory, marked by a distinctly minimalist-inspired shift in her beaded structures and arrangements. Although, widely known for her iconic, intricately beaded interiors like Kitchen from 1991-96 or Back Yard from 1996, which are stylistically Pop affiliated, her newest works emphasize a principal focus on the material driving the concept of the work, rather than the concept being derivative of a specific place or space. Lou recontextualizes our everyday reference to common objects like rope, frames and barricades by altering our perceptions of assumed materials and in so doing, reveals the expanded potentiality of the objects and assemblages to be read universally. Artists like Lou are the arbiters of exceptional change and play a significant role in the transformation, growth and development achieved in contemporary curatorial practice. In essence, artists inspire a range of developed ideas as well as the concepts that are still percolating in the minds of curators.
Well-known mid-career curator, Adam Szymczyk who has been the Director and Chief Curator of the Kunsthalle Basel since 2003 says he prefers to, “invite artists who bring their ideas into the Kunsthalle” where he helps them “develop and materialize those ideas.” “It’s an experiment because you do not know what the outcome will be,” he says, matching a flood of sentiments expressed in the practice and writing of the other curators mentioned here. Whether employed at a large museum, a university, gallery, residency or kunsthalle, curators are at the ready, feeling the sense of urgency and desire for growth, vivacity and significant change in curatorial discourse. These innovators inspire the impetus for a movement of “new institutionalism” and provide provocative answers as to why it is exciting and potentially revolutionary to curate now.
Erin Dziedzic is a Curator at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
 Bennett Simpson, “Public Relations: An Interview with Nicolas Bourriaud,” Artforum (April 2001).
 Coline Milliard, “Review: 12th Istanbul Biennial,” Modern Painters (December 2011/January 2012), 97. Hans Ulrich Obrist “Manifestos for the Future,” e-flux journal #12 (January 2010).
 Coline Milliard, “The Istanbul Biennial’s Curators Explain This Year’s Theme: Felix Gonzalez-Torres,” ARTINFO, Dec. 9, 2011. http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/38637/the-istanbul-biennials-curators-explain-this-years-theme-felix-gonzalez-torres/. In an interview with Coline Milliard for ARTINFO Adriano Pedrosa describes this quote he and Jens Hoffmann read as something very close to their project.
 Alex Williams, “You Never Know Where Her Gallery Will Pop Up Next,” The New York Times (May 13, 2010), E2.
 Ginanne Brownell, “Superstar Among Curators,” The New York Times, (June 13, 2011). http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/14/arts/14iht-rartadam14.html?pagewanted=all
Thomas J. Lax:
For the last four years, I have worked as a curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem. As a result, I draw my experience from working at a particular—and what over the last three decades some have accused as being a ruined—kind of contemporary art institution. Museums are conceived of and mandated to complete a set of tasks involving posterity: preserving, conserving and maintaining works of art from both the erosions of material decay and ideological obsolescence. Working from this vantage point, the inflection of “the now” is constellated both forwards and backwards. As someone who has been trained to care deeply and specifically for objects, I have an incredible respect for the communities of artists, patrons, curators and engaged publics before me who have served as the guardians of cultural history and memory. Yet despite—and maybe in fact because of—my interest in understanding art as simultaneously a relic, a refraction of contemporary life and a canary-in-a-coal-mine for the future, I am equally fascinated by the difficulties and sometimes vanities involved in attempting to maintain a permanent collection.
The interventions of postcolonial theorists have taught us that the lives of anonymous people are unrecoverable in the service of historical truth or de jure justice—a condition I think we can apply more broadly since anonymity only expands despite history’s attempt at telescopic vision. More germane to exhibition practice, the attention to and display of work by certain artists in the United States—artists of color and artists with marginalized gender identities, for example—has historically received comparatively less opportunity to be exhibited and continues to receive less critical nuance than work whose cultural logics and symbols are more widely legible to those in positions of interpretive power. Rather than simply lament this historical condition however, I would like to put pressure on the role of the museum as an arbiter between the past, present and future by conceding that this negotiation can only and will always be a reflection of “the contemporary,” even as it works at the service of that which has come before and that which is yet to come. So, what of the contemporary? And how is curating contemporary art in fact a reflection of the contemporary more broadly?
In a recent e-flux interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Julian Assange described this temporal triangle in our digitized moment. He says, “With digital archives, with these digital repositories of our intellectual record, control over the present allows one to perform an absolutely untraceable removal of the past. More than ever before, the past can be made to completely, utterly, and irrevocably disappear in an undetectable way.” Framing our moment within processes of archive-building, Assange describes a crisis in knowledge production and preservation due to a lack of digital provenance—which for him indexes a larger crisis of democracy. While the notorious spokesperson, editor-in-chief and founder of WikiLeaks sets his sights on the political practices and social relations at the level of the fourth estate, art production and presentation fit squarely within this information paradigm shift. For example, Kalup Linzy, whose retrospective If it Don’t Fit I organized in 2009, works between video, performance and drawing, yet often uses non-museum and gallery spaces to exhibit his work. Linzy creates and embodies multiple characters as he draws on the history of pop culture (American cinema, soap operas, R&B) and various vernacular and counter-cultures, testing the capacities of these various mediums for cultural mediation. Like his Dadaist and Conceptual predecessors, Linzy mobilizes alternative avenues to proliferate his practice, including his YouTube channel; ABC television; Cynthia Rowley runway shows; jazz and gay bars; and mass e-mails sent to a list of four hundred plus present and former collaborators, fans and idols. If Warhol’s extensive practice tested celebrity as an autonomous medium, Linzy takes the next logical step: in a culture in which celebrity has become widely accessible through self-advertising platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, Linzy takes on these media through which horizontalized celebrity circulates, fashioning his undisclosed recipients as participants in his ever-expanding media-centered practice.
So what does a museum—hardly outfitted to prioritize the DIY-meets-high-society engine Linzy has built for himself—do with such an artist? How can one record, capture and preserve the mechanisms and means of this kind of engagement from the vantage point of four white or black walls; a library of catalogues and brochures; an annexed storage space reserved for works in the permanent collection; and several dozen shelves worth of administrative files? Our colleagues at the Library of Congress have begun collecting Tweets—a reconfiguration of what constitutes a “public” message as well as the responsibility of a “public” archive. Closer to the world of contemporary art, museums have brought performance practices, long considered at odds with the tasks of the museum, within the confines of the collectible and the displayable. Documentary photographs, video footage, remnants and re-performance have been successfully reified as works of art on their own. But what of new forms of social interaction: forms that as Assange decries, are escaping posterity’s grasp in the world beyond contemporary art?
The show I organized with Linzy included a selection of twenty-two videos, on view for four months in our gallery devoted to the medium, with clips accessible on the web. It also included a suite of drawings made by one of the artist’s avatars, a public performance during the exhibition run and an album timed to be released in conjunction with the exhibition and available on a USB fashioned in the shape of a hot-pink bubblegum wrapper to mimic the title and theme of the artist’s song, Chewing Gum (2008). Continuing to take curatorial cues from the artist’s practice, I will refer to Linzy’s work to consider the question of what it means to curate in the contemporary moment. Linzy’s characters, especially in his early work, often communicate over large, hand-held landline telephones. In his soap-opera-inspired Da Young and da Mess (2005), Taiwan Braswell, prodigal gay son who aspires to become a professional singer speaks to Psychic Lanita on the phone to seek her advice about how to respond to his boyfriend’s marriage proposal. After some instructing and prodding from Lanita—“I need more soul”—Taiwan exclaims: Please tell me!” “I see it, I see it, I see it, I see it,” Lanita responds. “What do you see?!” Taiwan replies. “—-“ Lanita intones. She remains silent as the screen fades to black.
Linzy’s artistic attention works through his uncanny sense of timing. Serialized soap operas, first produced in the United States on the radio in the 1920s and a medium the artist grew up listening to with his grandmother in their Florida home, have long been a narrative motor of the artist’s work. True to his prescient sense of time, Linzy’s appearance on General Hospital aired within weeks of when it was announced that the ABC television staples All My Children and One Life To Live would move to the artist’s longtime mode of circulation: the web. Contemporary museum practice, like artistic process and social technologies, moves forwards and backwards. At times, it behaves at its most obsolete in its embrace of innovative technologies. At others, like Linzy’s practice, it can be its most anticipatory through its use of seemingly outmoded tools and forms of behavior.
Thomas J. Lax is Exhibition Coordinator and Program Associate at the Studio Museum in Harlem.