Introduction: The Demands of Representation and the Ends of Curating (1992)


I wrote this in 1992 as the introduction to a proposed book of my curating texts.

Introduction: The Demands of Representation and the Ends of Curating

Curating is not a term that can be generally applied and thus defined. Curatorial acts are specific to their milieu and correspond to its moment of development. What can be said of value curatorially for one place may be inapplicable elsewhere. Thus, what is written here applies to the condition of art curating must address in this place (Toronto and Canada). The necessary conditions of its address, however, may engage a discourse that has wider relevance, and the terms it elaborates may be applicable to a renewed discussion of curating.

            The conditions curating addresses here, that perhaps distinguishes it from elsewhere, implicate it in questions of an historical nature. Curating institutes an historical address. Not that curating chooses a dual function, both curatorial and historical, but the lack of an already established historical discourse here imposes this problem upon it. There is no need lamenting either the lack of history or the unequal rate of development—or command of attention—of different national art communities. The problem of history—or its lack—opens the way for curating to investigate what the authority of its acts might be. Allied to a historical function, curatorial acts more clearly reveal themselves in their constitutive basis. The lack of a history here, then, gives us the advantage in asking pertinent questions about curating that other historical developments elsewhere have obviated. Not that these questions could have been asked at another time in another place; no more may they be asked now in those places. These questions, nonetheless, are enacted through curating, whose practice enables us here in the situation of writing to examine its implications/consequences.

            The moment our milieu shares with others, however, is unavoidably marked by the effects of certain discourses called postmodernist and poststructuralist. Whatever historical lag, it must confront the level of these discourses. One of the consequences of these discourses, at least in the English-speaking art world, has been to put the very notion of history in doubt. The unspoken constructs of history are seen to legitimate the authority of representations. Thus, any renewal of the question of history for curating must acknowledge this politicized debate of who has the right to speak for others: the very issue of representation. Yet curating may sidestep completely the issue of representation by denying it adequacy or relevance, by denying the relevance of adequacy to the curatorial act that answers to another demand. With representation goes consensus, which may no longer be the goal of the curatorial act or historical discourse.

            The other poststructuralist (or pragmatist) challenge to a curating that attempts to found a history is exactly anti-foundational. The very attempt at foundation, of grounding a history, is untimely given that the concept itself is undermined. Having missed our modernist moment and act of foundation, what are we to do in a postmodernist world with its anti-foundational bias? Does it mean that we will permanently lack a history?  Before others were postmodernist they had their modernist moment. We went from pre-modernism to postmodernism without an intervening modernism and its foundation of history. Will we thus permanently fall behind others in recognition without this history to our advantage? Our problem: how to be foundational in a postmodernist world.

            The solution will come full circle to the question of the authority of representation. What authorizes curating's constitutive acts will bring a history into being along with it.

            If the (re)appropriation of origins is a modernist phenomena, postmodernism, nonetheless, has been accompanied in art by a return to national histories (no more, perhaps, than strategic manoeuverings in the market place). In that appropriation for the two differs—in modernism foundational; in postmodernism antifoundational (the copy of a copy without origin)—our dilemma, in having neither origin nor copy, is what we can appropriate for ourselves. Given the irony of appropriation, in definition lending itself to two philosophically opposing and contested tendencies (and thus perhaps bound to the self-same model), perhaps another way has to be found. Foundations—for us—may be constitutive of origins that shift in time according to differing narrative series that may be complementary or contestable. Authority will be maintained by the power of persuasion of these narratives that will themselves be affected by time, as much as they are effected in time.

            In realizing an historical function for itself, curating must answer to the two problems of consensus and foundation. The representational act of curating rests on them. At least that is if we consider curating to be representational. The practice of curating tells us otherwise.