Performing the Curatorial

June 2013

Performing the Curatorial: Within and Beyond Art, Maria Lind (ed.), reviewed by Aileen Burns and Johan Lundh. Sternberg Press, Tensta Konsthall, and ArtMonitor/University of Gothenburg, 2012, 162 pp., Paperback, ISBN 978-1-934105-89-4.

It appears that curatorial mediation is both omnipresent and under-theorized nowadays, especially when it comes to considering its methodologies outside of art. Framed within the context of University of Gothenburg’s new research area of heritage studies, Maria Lind organized three public seminars in 2010 and 2011, resulting in the anthology Performing the Curatorial. In this book, Lind brings together contributions by Doug Ashford, Beatrice von Bismarck, Boris Buden, Clémentine Deliss, Helmut Draxler, Eungie Joo and Marion von Osten on the question how the mediating function of the curator has developed into ‘the curatorial’. In her introduction, Lind writes that ‘the term “curating” is used as the technical modality of making art go public’, and later proposes that, ‘one of the questions of the research project is whether “the curatorial” is something else, something that can operate beyond the field of art, and whether it has other significant features’ (Lind 2012: 9).

The research project was initiated by the University with the idea that Lind would both look at cultural heritage of curating and at the curation of cultural heritage in order to understand new and developing cultural phenomena and methodologies and their role in understanding historical cultural events and artifacts. Together with around 70 other people, we attended the final seminar held in a small, black box theatre at the University in Gothenburg that was carefully staged by artist Luca Frei (who also designed the book). Most of the attendees were curators, educators and artists involved with curatorial practice. The audience was an assortment of self-reflexive contributors to a young field, which is in the process of solidifying into an academic discipline, and the resulting book speaks primarily to colleagues in the field.

Performing the Curatorial is a culmination of a thoroughly curatorial exercise orchestrated by Lind, the components of which can be understood as expressions of the very methodologies that are theorized in its pages. [sentence removed because it is discussed below. Okay.] Having heard Lind speak on a number of occasions, we are acutely aware of the theorizing that she has developed around curating, and in particular, her emphasis on mediation. Lind’s most basic proposition is that curating makes art go public. From this tenet, she asserts that performing the curatorial extends beyond the seemingly simple task of making art public through the layered processes of framing, post-production and montage, highlighting the temporal qualities of curating, and arguing for its potential to create friction and produce new ideas.

Two essays in Performing the Curatorial are particularly useful in describing and positioning the kinds of mediation curators undertake. In ‘Towards the Heterosphere: Curator as Translator’, cultural critic and writer Boris Buden draws heavily on Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Task of the Translator’ (1923), unpacking the perception of the curator as middleman. On the one hand, the supplementary and indirect location of the curator might be understood as an inhibitor of immediate or true relations between the art object and an audience. However, Buden contends that, like that of the translator, the role of the curator has undergone a significant shift in social and cultural value, and involves the rewriting of historical texts and the filtering of what is communicated. It is in this transformational action that Buden finds the authorial voice of the curator. From this perspective, the curator is simultaneously understood as a potential barricade and a builder of bridges.

Cultural critic Helmut Draxler observes that mediation is currently ubiquitous. Unlike pre-modern times, however, when mediation was revered, mediation today (as a legacy of modernity) is generally considered with more ambivalence, associated as it is with negotiation and compromise. Draxler argues that mediation of art, the curatorial, does not to occupy a permanent position between the viewer and the art object (the immediate), and argues that: ‘A theory of mediation must therefore address first and foremost how the formation between the immediate, mediation and the public functions’ (Draxler 2012: 96). Rather than a straight line between art and the public, he suggests a triangular arrangement that positions mediation as one function within a system which also holds in balance the art object, the public, and the possibility for them to interact either directly or through a mediated course. In Buden’s translational model, the filter of the curator or translator stands immediately between the work and its audience, whereas for Draxler the curator’s mediating force is less obtrusive and can facilitate or accommodate a relationship of direct engagement.

Lind’s proposition that curatorial practice is a methodology applicable beyond the job of the curator is demonstrated by curatorial work done by people who do not self-identify as curators and by practitioners outside the sphere of art. Artist Doug Ashford’s writing on the curatorial aspects of the renowned art collective Group Material and the expansive curatorial projects of artist Marion von Osten are the key examples in the book. Curator and publisher Clémentine Deliss, a well-respected curator of contemporary art with a background in sociology is positioned as an example of someone working curatorially outside of the field of art. Deliss is presently the director of the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt am Main where she has been reimagining how an ethnographic museum could function in the twenty-first century. However, as an example of working curatorially beyond the art system, the link to art remains quite strong. The challenge remains to identify and elaborate on the relationships between curatorial practice in art and related methodologies being used in other contexts such as education, publishing or filmmaking.

Performing the Curatorial productively sparks conversation about ‘the curatorial’ and carries relevance beyond the specific views and projects outlined in its pages. In this way, Lind fulfills her own definition of the curatorial, inspired by political philosopher Chantal Mouffe’s (Mouffe 2000: 9) notion of the ‘political’, to produce ‘a more viral presence consisting of signification processes and relationships between objections, people, places, ideas and so forth, that strives to create friction and push new ideas’ (Lind 2012: 20). In an age of curated music festivals, fashion blogs, and an ever-growing number of courses in curating contemporary art, Performing the Curatorial stands out as a serious and considered collection of essays that helps us to understand what it means to work curatorially, mostly within the field of art but with a consciousness of the growing popularity of the term and methodologies more broadly.


Mouffe, Chantal see for example “Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism”, Political Science Series 72, Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna, No. 72, 2000 [Please note that Maria doesn’t give a specific Mouffe text as source material but that this essay gets at the central idea that democracy is a confrontational sphere in which pluralism and confrontation should be acknowledged]