In Retrospect: Presenting Events (1987)

"In Retrospect: Presenting Events," Parachute, no. 46 (March-May 1987), pp. 11-13.

In Retrospect: Presenting Events


Philosophy misses an advantage enjoyed by the other sciences. It cannot like them rest the existence of its objects on the natural admissions of consciousness, nor can it assume that its method of cognition, either for starting or for continuing, is one already accepted…. But with the rise of this thinking study of things, it soon becomes evident that thought will be satisfied with nothing short of showing the necessity of its facts, of demonstrating the existence of its objects, as well as their nature and qualities. Our original acquaintance with them is thus discovered to be inadequate. We can assume nothing, and assert nothing dogmatically; nor can we accept the assertions and assumptions of others. And yet we must make a beginning: and a beginning, as primary and underived, makes an assumption, or rather is an assumption. It seems as if it were impossible to make a beginning at all.

A few years ago, when a critic and not yet a curator in an institution, I wrote in a lecture: “It is necessary to develop a theory adequate to a community of interest; it is time for a theory of locality which is our place here in Canada. Necessarily this must become a history. It seems that it is theory that must force a history as well as the conditions for it: it is a beginning, not a record. Starting from a theory, and not history, theory must prove this history—the necessity of its facts, theory’s conjecture of a concrete reality.  (But how to demonstrate this ‘concrete’ ‘reality’?)”

This last question was more an aside to myself, posing the issues of what was both concrete and that reality, and how one writes, or, in this case, starts a history—a history that is there but not recorded. It is not as if we have had no history; of course there have been events here in this place. But if we look around we do not see this recent history in physical evidence, and in writing we find only a few, provisional interpretations. For a curator, the basis for re-interpretation of artistic events must be made on the order of objects (or “events”) and not documentation; but these objects are missing. What are the problems facing curating? The problem, but also the potential, as I, a Canadian curator, see it is: How do we represent a history of objects and events that were not presented in their own time? That were not presented in their own time: that is the problem, which now becomes an issue of re-presentation before representation. Obviously, they were presented in some form, whether in a commercial gallery or artist-run space, or some context-dependent situation, but they were not institutionally re-presented, and therefore grounded within something that could be sustained over time, i.e., in a collection. (This is a specific problem for curators within public collecting institutions, but the problems of presentation apply to any exhibition centre representing some of the recent history of contemporary art.) We have to set a context for contemporary Canadian art by making a history for it. But we have to do this, as writers and curators, in our own time without that history in evidence. For a curator, what may be in evidence is a lack: the“objects” are not there. This problem may be the failure of institutions to be responsible to their own time. They cannot be blamed alone: our own generational blindness may be operating here. But it is a situation that could continue forever, unless we demand a history, and take the chance of a history. That history is not natural: it may first have to be imposed in order to be contested, refuted, overturned, developed, displaced, corrected, adjusted, etc. It is everything that a piece of criticism is, in fact, except that it can take concrete form. That concrete form is the task of the Canadian curator.

(NOTE: This history is not authoritarian—the imposition of a single point of view over others. It takes place in a here and now, representing a then and there, but it is only one enunciation beside other, diverse or potential enunications. Since these are enunciations and not explanations, however, they follow a certain dynamic that is coupled to the demonstrative force of a set of objects and events.)


A recognition of the heteromorphous nature of language games is a first step in that direction [of “an idea and practice of justice that is not linked to that of consensus”]. This obviously implies a renunciation of terror, which assumes that they are isomorphic and tries to make them so. The second step is the principle that any consensus on the rules defining a game and the “moves” playable within it must be local, in other words, agreed on by its present players and subject to eventual cancellation.  The orientation then favors a multiplicity of finite meta-arguments, by which I mean argumentation that concerns metaprescriptives and is limited in space and time.

Because of the problems faced in trying to construct some type of history of recent Canadian contemporary art, I was put into the position of a curator. As a writer, I might not have been around to witness the “original” events, the first presentations of objects or an event (I put “original” in quotation marks since that status is put into question by the temporal dislocations that this critical, curatorial work entails); or it simply may have been before my time. This is not necessarily a problem and is, indeed, the condition of most writers who are not just reviewing art. But since a reliable history was lacking, we needed the objects before us to construct an adequate one in writing. Where were the objects then, and where are they now? In order to write I first had to present the history I wished to write about—a history of objects that were not in appearance, or that had not even appeared institutionally. These were the objects themselves in some sort of provisional configuration. The writing could not be secondary to the art because at that point there was only conjecture on my part: the objects were not there. The writing made the objects appear, and only through their appearance, by establishing their own nature, could the writing become descriptive, reflecting an historical reality. (That term “historical,” therefore, is fluid.) So the chain of events in writing was: first, prescriptive; second, performative; and, third, descriptive. That is, “prescriptive”: the history that is imposed in the conjecture that is to be proved; “performative”: the enunciation of the writing which enacts the objects in making them appear (it has the character of an event); “descriptive”: what is usually the first part of an analysis, but which here has somewhat the character of proof; it comes after the objects have appeared in a certain configuration.

These were the conceptual and temporal convolutions I had to perform as a writer. The situation still is not really that much different for a curator. The difference? Now as a curator I have the concrete means to perform this strategy: the power to make objects appear. It is still a question of creating“prescriptive narratives” which are the fictions that of necessity become history. (What we are or what we become is reflected and engendered in that “of necessity.”) While these narratives might be created by a particular “authority,” they must also have the force of a demonstration. That power therefore goes beyond authority: it is not only prescriptive—it has to become performative too; in enacting, it produces its own proof as history. Beyond the question of power, representation is an active force.

(NOTE: The exhibition From Object to Reference (1983) was one, concrete outcome of the problems outlined above, the positive counterpart to the negative critique expressed in the article“Colony, Commodity and Copyright: Reference and Self-reference in Canadian Art,” Vanguard 12: 5/6 (June 1983).  Similar problems were encountered in “Staging Language, Presenting Events, Representing History: Ian Carr-Harris, September 1973,” Vanguard 12:9 (November 1983). This 1973 exhibition, which was “reviewed” ten years later, is symptomatic of the problem I am discussing: it appeared and disappeared without being recorded and appraised, or reappraised later on the basis of its original appearance. Problems of another order were rehearsed in the opening paragraph of that article: “Ian Carr-Harris’ exhibition in 1973 may pass as historical in the transition of Canadian sculpture from formal self-referentiality to reference outside itself. It certainly has to be recovered as an event. That recovery is appropriate since history and event were so much the subject and presentation of that work. To recover that event is to treat this article as a re-view, as if no critical hindsight had been gained since. Through this critical experiment, a formal division disturbs the continuity of themes before and after this cut into a career, and even the proximity of the artist’s name to this work. This cut into a continuity gives the work an undue presence while at the same time denying that presence: it too is split.”)


There is no way of telling what yet may become part of history. Perhaps the past is still essentially undiscovered! So many retroactive forces are still needed!

It is not so much a question of how museums represent art today, the art of the “now,” but how they represent a past—the past of contemporary art. Not that that past is not representable: it is a past that was not represented in its time, so that, hence, it cannot be a past for us. So there are very practical issues and difficult questions, questions beyond and yet including representation and power: the issues of changing history; of changing the nature of a collection and thereby changing the nature of art, or what is thought as art; because it is, I think, collections that are the potential agents for that change. The permanent collection is not there solely as evidence of a secure process of evaluation and the validity of a certain history.

We have to set a context for contemporary art not by reconstituting its history, but by constituting it, in order to make it a history for us. So it is not simply a matter of presenting objects (presentation is never simple), but of presenting events, giving a group of objects somewhat of the character of an event, but doing that retrospectively. Let’s be clear: by “retrospective” I do not mean by means of retrospectives; those will not provide a critical or substantive history. Let’s give more critical force by calling it retroactive: it is an act that has the effect of changing the past for us. A presentational gap opens in this return of objects and events, which is representation. This seeming contradiction of presenting events in retrospect opens all the issues that provide a logic of presentation. And they are of a complexity that may make the museum the privileged site for their investigation. (One example: The notion of presenting events in retrospect would allow permanent collections to accommodate a record of the temporary exhibition as a basic concept of presentation.)

The lack of a history has forced us to these circumstances, which is also our privilege for it allows us to create our history: insofar as history constitutes us, we can reconstitute it as an event. It has been the absence of concrete evidence, something that we could take as assumed, almost as our historical consciousness, that has been the problem. We have an advantage, however, in that we cannot assume this history as natural. When these artworks return through this staging, they are now insecure in their identities. It is an insecurity that binds work and writing, art and curatorial presentation. It is an insecurity that is active and thought. In all the representation it entails, it is the presence of art.

(NOTE: The possibility of writing (not merely recording) a history is more than an investigation of the logical transformations within the specific field of Canadian art. That we can attempt a history perhaps is a result of conditions being right for it. Or rather, that I attempt a history and others attempt other histories is possible because a cultural “system” has coalesced to the degree that it can express a system of value as well. The fact that we have tools for seeing culture as a whole leads us to value that cultural construction we have been part of.)