In a sense, my curating has always followed from my writing. Nowhere is this clearer than right at the beginning—or at least in the early 1980s when, still only a writer and not yet a curator, I turned my attention to the problem of writing a history of contemporary Canadian art. (See, for instance, the article “Colony, Commodity, and Copyright” (1983) [click to read]). The problem faced was: how to write a history that was perpetually in arrears, with contemporary art not having appeared in museum collections? How was one to write from the objects themselves if they were not there? The “solution” was found in—and as—writing. It was first proposed, as a problem, in the article “Staging Language, Presenting Events, Representing History” (1983) [click to read], then elaborated, once I was then a curator, in “In Retrospect: Presenting Events” (1987). The attempt was to regain something historical, retrospectively, as an event in the present—whether through the procedures of writing (“Staging Language...”) or through the precise recreation (re-enactment) of past exhibitions. The latter was something of an invention of mine that I accomplished through exhibitions of this type: Ian Carr-Harris (1988), Michael Snow (1994), and General Idea (2009). Let's note that this was not the application of a curatorial "idea" but a strategy evolved to deal with our circumstances here in Canada.
Eventually, I satisfied the curatorial problem, for myself at least, in “Thinking Through Curating” (1991), which contended that the historical act of curating was prescriptive, not representational. Lyotard offered the tools in his book The Differend just at the moment that the “appropriation of voice” debate was asking who has the power or authority to represent an other, to make—or even propose—a historical statement.
You could say the phrase “Curating and the National Question” sums up my concerns of those early days. Indeed, was a national history even possible for us in Canada in our belated circumstances? I worried this question, for example, in my introduction to Struggles with the Image [click here], then came to a settlement of sorts with the issue of lack (of a history) in the lecture 1993 “Local Authority.”
Curating was not always a local or national issue. When I would sit down and ask myself “What is this thing that I do?” I would wonder where, at that moment, my writing had led me. After completing my book Spirit Hunter, it became a question of where were we (curators, that is) with respect to the welcome of the other. This was examined in a wayward way in “A Way of Curating” (2005), which was also made into a scripted performance staged for video [click here to view].
Image: Ian Carr-Harris, Two Men Confirming, 1973