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Report from Manufacturing Exhibitions (2)

Posted by Mikhel Proulx • Wednesday, April 18. 2012 • Category: Reviews & Resources

Manufacturing Exhibitions (2), Max and Iris Stern International Symposium 6, MARCH 30, 2012 TO MARCH 31, 2012 Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal

This year’s incarnation of the annual Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal’s Max and Iris Stern International Symposium aimed to reflect on leading issues from the last two decades of curatorial practice. For conference organizer and MAC curator François LeTourneux (and demonstrably for several of the presenters), dominant in this premise is the blurring between curating and art-making, and the adoption of historical perspectives in both practices since the 1990s. This “historiographic turn”, LeTourneux posited, has resulted largely from the archival systems and access to information made possible after the internet, and has been accompanied by the development of a self-reflexive and performative curatorial praxis. Upon this scaffold, leading contemporary curators were invited to explore the nexus between their own practices and these widespread trends.

Keynote presenter and curatorial firebrand Jens Hoffmann offered a précis of his forthcoming book “Show Time” (the title of which exposes his theatrical past). The project examines “fifty key exhibitions from the past twenty years” – a typology ranging from events for historical and site-specific reflection, to platforms for transnational exchange – each case was a group show. This canon of exhibitions evidently serves to highlight a “self-reflexive impulse” arising from the prevalent tendency in recent curatorial practice to actively consider the history of exhibition-making itself.

In thinking and talking about curatorial history, though, curators risk “creating dangerously insular meta-production” – a hazard Hoffmann attempts here to sidestep. Against a backdrop of globalization and alongside a spurt of globalized art practices, exhibitions since 1990 have become “vehicles for social, cultural and political expression... on the part of curators”. This ability to reflect on cultural contexts, Hoffmann suggested, arises from curatorial self-reflexivity: a facility for curators to look and act externally, derived from a kind of inward-looking. “Curating”, we were told, “has become a more creative medium” – at least in the form of group exhibitions – a claim that routine solo-show curator Kitty Scott was quick to challenge: “the group show has become the medium for the curator over the past two decades”, Hoffmann retorted in the question period.

The following day packed in ten presenters who shared a concern for historical outlooks in curation.

Montreal local, independent curator Vincent Bonin focused on the telling time-lag between the productions of contemporary art exhibitions, and subsequent publications, theorisations and retrospectives. For Bonin, this is evidenced most grippingly in the challenges posed by (or impossibility of) restaging work of post-studio artists like Michael Asher or Lawrence Weiner. Less the restaging of original artwork, exhibitions of such practices instead may endeavor to recapture an appreciation of the historical context of their original production.

Barbara Clausen, too, acknowledged the curator’s alchemical-like ability to rejuvenate practices brought alive from archived documents and artefacts, as she herself accomplished with Sarah Pierce’s 2010 performance FUTURE EXHIBITIONS, for which Allan Kaprow’s 1963 Push and Pull serves as both source material and mise-en-scène. Here, the staging of shows, the protocols and taxonomies of archives, and the practices of the curator become fodder for artistic production. With this, Clausen remarked on the shared affinity between curation and performance – the staging of a show and focus on the audience paramount to both methodologies.
Clausen further stressed the role of process-based modes of production, and the appropriation of previous exhibition models into display production. She reminded us that while the revival of the past used to happen over three full generations, it is now already a part of much production of contemporary performative practices (the work of Sharon Hayes is exemplary in this regard).

Extending her own invitation to address the colloquy, Kitty Scott invited Reesa Greenberg (distinguished scholar and Scott’s one-time professor in a late-1980s Montréal) to discuss her influential (and now sixteen-year-old) publication Talking About Exhibitions (Routledge). Scott posed ten questions for Greenberg, ranging from the practical aspects and working conditions of collaboration, to the feminist and theoretical challenges of the project, to its possible relations to contemporary curatorial and academic practices.
Greenberg opted for Scott to Skype her co-editors of the publication, Sandy Nairne and Bruce Ferguson, of which the crowd at the symposium was treated to a glitchy, unrehearsed recording. Greenberg’s own presentation that followed stressed the efficacy of collaboration as a productive modality, and remarked on the deep integration of theory and criticism into curation since the late ‘80s. Her pioneering work in curatorial discourse, she suggested modestly, represents an outdated model within contemporary networked-culture, and she further posited the possibility of reifying the project on the web.

Hou Hanru provocatively opened his talk with the remark that the French Commissaire means both curator and police. Hanru charted the increase in the major exhibition of ‘non-Western artists’ in the ‘West’ alongside influence of non-Western biennials that challenge dominant curatorial structures (offering the Havana and Istanbul Biennials as exemplary models). This is, Hanru argued, not just a prevalent recognition of new geographic horizons, but a means to rethink Western exhibition models. He posited a political turning point in which the biennial becomes an alternative cultural site – alternative to the banal, market-driven vision of art fair and museum paradigms. His is a call to engage specifically in public and participatory programs, for which his own 10th Istanbul Biennial (2007) may serve as example for such curatorial innovation. Its public and context-specific agenda included Dream House, (a show that never closed its doors to the public) and Nightcomers, a three-month endeavour that saw video projections reach peripheral neighborhoods of Istanbul. Hanru further advocated for sustainable social engagement (versus the punch-and-run tendency of biennials), as is the case with Rem Koolhaas’ Time Museum of Guangdong – the architecture of which is woven into residential condominiums in the neighborhood of Huangbian.

Florence Derieux, in line with Hoffmann, charted an historical turn in which the exhibition as its own subject is taken up in the now-normative role of the curator-as-author. This “exhibition-making as an artform in its own right”, Derieux offered, was aroused by Documenta 5 and more generally by Harold Szeemann’s evolution of the practice in the late ‘50s and ‘60s.
In sharing the same space of cultural production, though, artists and curators become intertwined in a relationship coloured by competition. Here, the category of the professional curator is inherently in conflict with that of the artist. Such conflation of artistic and curatorial roles may very well elicit innovative exhibition models, but clearly risks undermining the value of artists.

“Why must everything be so clean? Why must the white-cube persist?”, implored Dieter Roelstraete. His presentation, a call for “Retour au désordre”, proffered the virtuous capacities of risk, adventure, danger, experimentation, and transgression in exhibition-making. Rehashing his recently-published essay ‘In Defense of Making a Mess’ (orig. Unordnung, bitte in Monopol Magazin), Roelstraete pleaded for disorder in exhibitions – “to become messy again”. He decried a widespread lack of risk-taking in contemporary art, and at the same time conjured various traditions in art history that rely on risk. “Art’s partial roots are in refuse”: this is, Roelstraete affirmed, one reason why we’ll miss Mike Kelley so much. Now, instead of risk, we have the memory of risk – a restaging of it that assumes risk-taking is a thing of the past. “The past is easier to keep clean and tidy than the present”, he reminds us. Under this shadow, and conceivably in the light of an archive-fetishistic and commodity-driven market, much of contemporary art proscribes sterile curatorial practices akin to the privatized risk-management of art fairs. “Well-ordered shows”, Roelstraete asserted, “are easy” and “taking risks is, well, risky”.

‘it is uncertain what is mediating and what is being mediated’
In the concluding presentation of the symposium, art-historian Lars Bang Larsen and artist Søren Andreasen performed their Four Micro-Lectures on Mediation. Evidently borne from coffeehouse-conversations on dark Copenhagen afternoons, this sometimes-cryptic diatribe contemplated roles of the mediator in four social strata: Economy, Sound Production, the Culture Industry, and Curation:

1. Economy
In which mediation is a principle of commodity exchange, and the mediator professes a marked licence to enter the marketplace, to regulate and speculate, and thus to create a ‘super-market’.

2. Culture Industry
In which the mediator may be writ large in leading portrayals of lawyers by Hollywood men, traversing the fields of entertainment, economy and law (this insight was coupled with an automated slideshow of George Clooney and Matthew McConaughey). Here, the performative role of the middleman levels differences for others on his own professional terms. He is useful, though as Bang Larsen reminds us, “usefulness is a characteristic of the idiot”.

3. Sound Production
In which Phil Spector’s invention of the synthetic echo reverberation delimits access to the source of things. This focus on the membrane of mediation calls into question the role of the mediator in asking: “what happens to the echo when it is deliberately produced?”

And finally,
4. Curating
Wherein mediating is exposed as relativizing, and the mediator’s role is seen as the authoritative creation of new communities via the commoditization of cultural artefacts (à la Adorno). They offered: “when curators are no longer custodians of eternity, they must reflect on their own institution’s legitimacy”.



Collectively, the muster of curatorial notables shared concerns for historiographic sensitivity and the necessity for self-reflexivity. Such concerns were writ large in propositions by each participant: in the curatorial naval-gazing espoused with pied-piper-like certitude by Hoffmann, and, divergently, in the cautionary evocations of moments when artistic agency is assumed by curatorial authorities (by Derieux, Bonin and the Danish duo). The speakers offered compelling instances of past artworks and practices mitigated and reified in Lazarus-like display forms, as in Clausen‘s historical contextualization projects, and Scott’s active, participatory methodology. Progressive imperatives were pressed in Hanru’s models for new forms of cultural engagement, and in Roelstraete’s charismatic plea for experimentation and mess.

Manufacturing Exhibitions (2) fully engaged with, as Hoffmann warned against in his opening, “talking about talking about ourselves.” Called into question were the working modes of (and between) the curator-as-artist and the curator-as-manager. The symposium served to concretize contemporary curatorial practice in light of historical precedents, and to position its discourse in time for next year’s conference theme – abstraction.




Image of Img Søren Andreasen and Lars Bang Larsen by Mark Lanctôt.

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