Curating as Autobiography (2002)

A presentation to the Ontario Association of Art Galleries, January 30, 2002.

Curating as Autobiography

This is one of those rare days that curators talk about their practice, as rare as the time that we put towards research and writing, the subject of our discussion. As curators know, we make virtue of this lack, curating being a type of activity that is evident in a practice where we must read its theory in action. We use the act of curating itself as a form of research and writing, not the latter as an activity that is adjunct to and separate from a display of works of art, or secondary, in terms of research, to a text that takes that set of objects to be its illustration.     
I intend to use a genre of writing, autobiography, to discuss the issue at hand today. By autobiography I mean that I want to discuss the question through a short history of my own practice as a curator—but only as episodes in that history prove examples to the operation of writing and researching in curatorial practice itself.

I never wanted to be a curator. At some point I planned to be an art historian, but as I found this discipline, at least in how it was then taught, to be too conservative, I deviated from its constricting paths to the liberating domain of my earlier interest in contemporary art and criticism. I became a writer. Not a literary writer, but a more specialized writer of the usually deprecated sort—a writer on art: Writing was a way for me to think about art. I was not interested in what things mean, but rather in how they mean, in how meaning is produced through structural effects. Through its own narrative construction, writing had to uncover something of that process. How or even what something means (aside from iconographic studies) was not considered in art history at the time I was a student; rather it concentrated on evident or discovered similarities (notions of sources and influences) and not on differences, on the study of specificities. Art history, then, is no research or writing model for curating, since curating is about finding the relation between disparate, not similar, things.

After about eight years writing, in 1985 I became curator of contemporary Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario where I saw curating as a way of continuing writing, living as an independent writer being too insecure and unrewarded an activity. I had a hard time reconciling the notion that I was no longer a writer and that I was a curator. Initially, I was not particularly interested in working with the collection; I considered it to be one of my duties. My interest primarily was in exhibitions and publications—the traditional site of curatorial research; and I saw my role there to document the origins and development of the contemporary Toronto art community, say from about 1968 on, through monographic exhibitions, publications and acquisitions for the collection. Surprisingly, there was little emphasis on Toronto of this period in the collection. Eventually, though, I began to realize the perhaps supreme value of the collection in this pursuit—but not merely as a repository of objects, rather as something that could take shape as a language.

Objects in an installation are like words in a sentence: each word has its own meaning, but together they express a sense that each did not possess individually. Yet a curator never has a complete vocabulary, so to speak, ready-made for use. Absences in the collection are like pathological lapses in language: so that some collections might be analyzed on the basis of language disorders, each collection displaying a particular symptomology: perhaps MOCCA manifesting the contiguity disorder of aphasia, or the AGO the counterpart similarity disorder. Or it could be reversed. [General laughter] I’m just joking here. A curator necessarily works with the limited objects and images in a situated collection, in other words, with what is at hand—with what has been bequeathed by the judiciousness of his or her predecessors. We know that “judiciousness,” unfortunately, is not always the case—at least it seems that every arriving curator expresses his or her misgivings about their inheritance, so we usually work afresh with a collection of things that is potential with meaning, out of which we work narratives that are meaningful to us as curators. Through acquisition we add more works to fill in these narratives and to make them more obvious in the collection—at least while we maintain it.

I believe that this is the fundamental curatorial act and an original form of research in itself. Any curatorial tenure that is not so directed, that is not individually motivated and originally driven, but that tries to be more consensual or representative in its acquisitions and installations, I think is misguided. The difference curating displays from other forms of research is that this is accomplished solely through the presentation of objects and images, not by a descriptive or analytical text. No didactic wall panels, no catalogue text necessarily accompany this demonstration, although they may do so supplementarily.
(An aside: this understanding of curating could only be articulated on the basis of a changing social context for curating. Previous to my hiring at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the model curator was a trained art historian, and therefore the model for curating was art historical research. With the hiring of my generation in museums, the model curator originated from the art community, whether as writer or independent curator, and the model for research began to affiliate itself with different forms of artistic pursuit; for example, I look upon Andy Warhol as a curatorial model.)

To return, let’s lend weight to these words “fundamental” and “act,” as when I said “I believe that this is the fundamental curatorial act and an original form of research in itself”—because I believe that curating is a critical and historical act of foundation. Now this understanding eventually merged when I became a curator with what I recognized as a problem my critical writing had addressed in the early 1980s, before I was a curator. As I saw it, the problem for writing was how to start a history of Canadian art when it was not evident before us, appearing in collections, and thus would always be in perpetual arrears in any narrative (re)construction. That is, writing is dependent on objects, on their pre-existence in collections. In research, writing comes after curating, and is dependent on it. I began to address this problem “theoretically” in a 1988 article “In Retrospect: Presenting Events,” whose title proposed my solution to the problem, while I began practically to manifest it in the exhibitions Ian Carr-Harris, 1971-1977 (1988) and Around Wavelength, my contribution to the 1994 Michael Snow project. (Rather than surveys, both these exhibitions took narrow slices of early work, Carr-Harris from 1971-77 and Snow from 1967-69 to address this problem.) Through performative acts of re-presentational events, foundations are put in place, which, if successful, become historical. Research in curating must partake in acts that are not representational, as historical statements are, but that can only be pursued retrospectively through a delayed presentation of objects. Historians cannot accomplish this, because they cannot manipulate objects and images: curators can. By “retrospective,” obviously I do not subscribe to its traditional curatorial definition: retrospectivity is a re-staged event, the re-staging of which is a theoretical tool that inscribes the event from another present—our own.
For that early article, “In Retrospect: Presenting Events,” I used an epigram by Nietzsche that somewhat expresses this process: “There is no way of telling what yet may become part of history. Perhaps the past is still essentially undiscovered! So many retrospective forces are still needed!” Here is another, which I did not use, by the German Romantic critic and aesthetician Friedrich Schlegel: “The historian is a prophet in reverse.” (I’d like to change that: the curator is a prophet in reverse. I feel I can say this in the safety of speaking to curators here.) Such statements propose history, and I take curatorial statements to function similarly, as an active function, not passive recording. While the curator is invisible in the presentations that comprise installations, nonetheless, these installations are authored statements. Here is were difficulties arise, that is, difficulties for other people. What authority has the curator to make these statements, they ask?

In that era—still talking about the late eighties and early nineties—in that era of the critique of representation, the backlash against the appropriation of voice, and the contesting of canonicity, how could one as a curator even think of making any sort of judgement, historical or otherwise, through a curatorial statement? I tried to resolve this seemingly no-win situation for curating in the 1992 article “Thinking Through Curating.” Without going into the detail of that argument, I suggested moving the grounds of the argument from the demands of representation that came from outside curating to the prescriptive declarations operating within curating. As I have been reiterating, history is not of the past, but of the future. “It is proper to prescriptives,” writes Lyotard, “not to make commensurate their discourse with a reality, since the ‘reality’ they speak of is still to be.”

Now, one of the consequences of the prescriptive is to rethink the relationship between sender and receiver, curator and viewer, in essence to change the pole of response from demand—the demand that things, history or an artist be represented in a particular way—change the pole of response from demand to obligation, obligation on the part not of the curator but of the viewer. This shift affects the role of any curatorial research and writing because obligation now requires that the viewer/receiver complete the judgement and participate in the historical construction. To quote myself from that article:

A curatorial arrangement of objects is a nascent narrative.  Prescriptives take place in narratives. Curating proposes narratives in which these prescriptives are situated. While the ends of curating are prescriptive, the ensuing statements are not final. They are provisional. As curators, we expect others to link onto these provisional statements: critics to criticize, curators to propose other statements, a public to take up the value expressed in the prescriptive as its own. Unfortunately, that chain usually is broken right from the first curatorial enunciation. Obligation lies in linking onto the chain. This linking, however, is often refused in disallowing the curatorial statement as the opening of a dialogue that demands response, instead returning curating to a position of authority and abstractly contesting its power and not actual practice.
    A provisional statement is proposed and it is proposed within and as a configuration of objects. That statement is not necessarily authoritative at that moment, dogmatically standing outside the works with its a priori view inscribed into the presentation. Nor is the statement essentially and inherently present within the authenticity of the works naturally given to empirical view and ordering. The statement will become part of the universe to which it refers—objects configuring a history—in time, that is, in the future that the prescriptive act brings about. It does not synthesize (or authorize) what is on view when it takes place as this display, but if its provisional statement is successful, it will become part of the series of statements synthesized in the future: statements consisting of future displays, commentaries and histories. A proposal is carried on in the future as part of history if it is accepted by linking on. Another linking may be a rejection or a counter-proposal, in which case the first statement may not live on in the documents we call the institutional display of art or in another’s history.

This lack of linkages, I think is the fundamental problem facing curating in Canada. Curators are doing their work, but as for others . . .  [Laughter from the panel] The failure—don’t laugh so loud Joyce—[general laughter]—the failure of the art magazines of this country to understand their relationship to institutional curating, I believe, is one of their prime faults. I’m speaking both as a writer who contributed to periodicals in the past under that obligation and as a curator who needs some sort of continuing response to my exhibitions in the magazines.

At about this time, in 1994, I left the Art Gallery of Ontario to work at the Power Plant. Some observers initially were puzzled by my shift in curatorial allegiance, as evidenced by my first exhibition there, Beauty #2 (an exhibition of young Toronto artists), which obviously was a strategic gesture on my part—but I believe institutional contexts determine curatorial practice, and the Power Plant was not the place to pursue the instituting acts I used the AGO for.

If the nature of my Toronto exhibitions changed—from the monographic exhibition to the sequence of group exhibitions on Toronto art: Beauty #2, Rococo Tattoo, Picturing the Toronto Art Community: The Queen Street Years and recently Substitute City—so did the theory. Or rather, it became something other than would be called theory, as the expression of another form of research and writing that is more submerged, almost semi-conscious—although consciously assumed. I characterize this shift in my practice, which some may find peculiar coming from my theoretical background, as one from objectivity to subjectivity, which permitted the pursuit of a more intuitive approach to forming exhibitions. The development of this series of exhibitions was not progressive, stemming from one another as the answers to set questions. Rather, it was organic: each exhibition grew out of an intuitive hunch, and then developed through a form of thinking I believe peculiar to curating: why do a group of dissimilar objects belong together, and what story can you tell through their sequenced grouping?

None of these Canadian exhibitions set a new direction for research that I would call autobiographical in its methodology. My exhibition The American Trip played this role. This exhibition about America’s fascination with the outlaw, outcast and the margins of society which prove, in panic, to be the boy or girl next door was also an exhibition about the rejection of family and the re-formation of community (recasting America’s original settlement), which I began to recognize—I think, during installation and therefore after publication—was a metaphor for the creation of and the attraction to avant-garde or underground art communities. In other words, my attraction to these images reflected my own history of passage to the so-called avant-garde and underground, which was played out first, at a distance, as a relation to images and then through participation. Out of this realization came a continuation in American Playhouse: The Theatre of Self-Presentation and more significantly Picturing the Toronto Art Community: The Queen Street Years. Picturing the Toronto Art Community was an exhibition about the formation of the Toronto art community in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but it was not an exhibition necessarily about “art works”—here’s where it was partly misunderstood. Rather, it was concerned with how certain images circulated and functioned within the community—these were all photographically based, all portraits of sorts, but which might have their origins in art magazines, magazine gossip columns, posters, advertising, studio portraiture for various purposes, as well as art works, videos, film etc.—and how these images of theatrical self-presentation played a self-consciously ironic role in the formation of community.
In both these exhibitions I necessarily was a subject of sorts, through the process of curatorial research, rehearsing a self-analysis through an archaeology of the image. The photographic image, whether an art work or not, was the research means, conducted through those that emerged from or around Warhol’s Factory, for instance, or Toronto’s art scene. But research meant as well re-thinking the art work, the function of museum collections, and the role of curating. I realize I was doing what Roland Barthes counselled: “change the object itself, engender a new object.” To change the object itself would mean changing the traditional relationship of curator to art work by redirecting attention to wider forms of collectible cultural material.
My article “Trash as a Cultural System,” which preceded these two complementary exhibitions which were exhibited together, was a means to announce these changes for curating as I saw the possibility of it modelling itself on certain artists’ activity of the past. Over thirty years ago, the critic and art historian Leo Steinberg proposed that Robert Rauschenberg’s combine paintings from the 1950s initiated what he called the post-Modernist “flatbed picture plane.” This procedural torque, by which “the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes,” obliged a consequential “shift from nature to culture” in the forms of content. In other words, the painting was no longer a window which opened onto the world but a tabletop on which to arrange pre-given cultural material. This shift from the perceptual to the cultural, furthered by the glamourous camp theatricality of Andy Warhol and Jack Smith I suggested, is now an organizing principle applicable to exhibitions and collections. I suggested that curators would institute a type of theatrical curating, of collective autobiographical source through the manipulation of narrative sequences of images, a type of intellectual montage that breaks down the hierarchy of art works and so-called non-art images by combining both in the narrative of museum exhibitions and collections. This was theory to my practice in Picturing the Toronto Art Community. None of this can be proven other than through the persuasive power of the event of curating. Curating—more power to it. Curating: more power to it. [Laughter and applause.]