Whirligig: Curatorial Practice in an Accelerated Age, a two-part exhibition with five curators, took place at Gallery 44, Toronto, September 9 – October 23, 1999. In this two-part presentation, I chose first Bruce LaBruce and then David Rasmus.
Curating is both an act and a process. I often think of curating—the act—as writing a sentence. The curator chooses objects or images as if they were words and strings them together in a context where they convey a meaning that the objects or images did not possess individually. Working with a collection—whereby one takes a pre-existent set of objects or images and places them within the informing context of a museum, but without the guiding assistance of an articulated thesis, title, or catalogue essay—helped me, when I was a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, to understand this function of communication.
Curating is also a process that follows more devious circuits. Since leaving the collecting institution of the Art Gallery of Ontario, I have not had occasion to be guided by such objective needs as, for example, instituting histories. This is to say that institutional contexts inform curatorial practice, just as historical moments dictate what needs curatorially to be done. A curator is not free to do anything. For several years now at The Power Plant, curating for me has reflected a more subjective path. Its end product in presentation is the result, not of any imposed thesis, but of an intuitive hunch, a wager that certain objects or images belong together. Curating is a process, then, of understanding how this is so. This belonging together extends beyond an art context to the field of images our culture produces. Situating images from art within this wider world draws upon our individual, yet shared, histories, which makes curating, in part, an autobiographical act.
Which brings me to Whirligig. I don’t believe this exercise necessarily has anything to do with curating. Certainly it has nothing to do with my practice as a curator, before or now. I resisted participating for a long time because I thought the parameters of Whirligig constrained curatorial practice, but, in the end, I decided to take it up as a challenge. As a challenge to me, but also to Gallery 44.
To challenge the rules of the game may make me a bad player, but the rules here, rather, seem to be in formation, and my decision to respond to the context of the exhibition as a whole, and not just to the preceding sets of choices, is only one more move.
Admittedly, I had an idea of what I wanted to do before I saw my collaborators’ contributions. But I can’t really believe that any of us have followed the rules, as we think they were set, to the letter of the law, and I don’t want to rationalize my selection in relation to what came before it, although it would be easy to do so.
Since I don’t personally believe that choosing the work of one artist explicitly in the manner intended by Gallery 44 is a curatorial act, I have responded to the larger context of presentation. In this exercise, Gallery 44 has attempted to bring diverse curatorial practices together; yet, as an institution, it immediately separates and specializes itself by being medium specific, by fetishizing, so to speak, a particular artistic product and practice. A corollary to this separation is a condition that it shares with other galleries in their semi-protected environments: the false illusion that political or socio-critical statements can effectively be made there, when works of such persuasion are exhibited.
By showing the work of Bruce LaBruce, I want to bring into the gallery some of the conditions by which photography functions—the uses towards which it is put, and the ways that it is disseminated and received. Most people probably believe that a photograph does not exist until it is published in a magazine. At least, this is the way most people receive photography. So why not exhibit the magazine?
Bruce LaBruce operates outside neat distinctions between media as well as between art and the rest of culture. He is a filmmaker, writer, columnist, and general critical provocateur. In the situation here, he has parlayed his reputation as gay underground porn moviemaker into an invitation to produce photo spreads for a porn magazine. At times, he parodies the porn format, introducing the means of making as well as narrative into a magazine format that gets right to the point without delay. At other times, the separation is not so clear. This is also a strategy.