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Contemporary art curating news and views from Michelle Kasprzak and team

Open Source Curating

Posted by Michelle Kasprzak • Saturday, October 20. 2007 • Category: Musings

I've noted of late that the term "open source" gets bandied about quite a bit, not just in technology-related industries, but also increasingly in the art world. To be sure, some systems in the art world, including curatorial processes, are very open and transparent. Is it stretching it a bit, however, to relate this transparency and receptivity in the art world to the "open source" movement, a crusade mostly associated with software that you can download for free and possibly manipulate before sharing your evolution of the product with others?

Open source (appropriately, as defined by Wikipedia) "...is a set of principles and practices that promote access to the design and production of goods and knowledge. The term is most commonly applied to the source code of software that is available to the general public with relaxed or non-existent intellectual property restrictions. This allows users to create software content through incremental individual effort or through collaboration."

OK, so that's our basic definition. The Wikipedia article goes on to state: "The open source model of operation can be extended to open source culture in decision making, which allows concurrent input of different agendas, approaches and priorities, in contrast with more centralized models of development [...] ." If we agree with this, that does seem to answer our question about the use of the term - it can be applied as a model to nearly anything. What, then, have been the interesting examples of late that cause me to go trawling on Wikipedia for definitions of open source? Let's look at them one by one:


(Ed: Throughout all the examples below, the italicised sections are my emphasis)

The Do It With Others (DIWO) e-Mail-Art exhibition was initiated by Furtherfield. DIWO "...aims to highlight the already thriving imaginations of those who use social networks and digital networks on the Internet as a form of distribution. Just like Mail Art, E-Mail-Art bridges the divide between artists and non artists to share a freely accessible form of distribution.

The Mail Art projects of the 60s, 70s and 80s demonstrated Fluxus artists’ common disregard for the distinctions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art and a disdain for what they saw as the elitist gate-keeping of the ‘high’ art world. They often took the form of themed, ‘open calls’, in which all submissions were exhibited and catalogued. Mail Art has always been a useful way to bypass curatorial restrictions for those who wish to create active and imaginative exchange on their own terms."

This E-Mail-Art exhibition, intends to follow the spirit of past Mail Art endeavours by asking those submitting their works to open themselves to a shared dialogue as part of the process and medium on the NetBehaviour mail list, as a playful platform for experimentation together at the same time. The theme of this E-Mail-Art project is Do It With Others (DIWO)."

Shortly before hearing about DIWO, I came across Multimediale, a four-day multimedia arts festival that brought together artists from the Washington, DC region centered around the theme: CAPTURING THE CAPITAL! This very thoughtful post by Niels Van Tomme was the entire inspiration for this post on "open source curating", so I'll quote it at length:

Multimediale has been established in a quite unique way. Being the curator would normally mean being the author of the event, but it means something more specific in this case. I came to curating through film studies and art theory. My film background is essential to my approach on curatorial practice; primarily through the process of exhibition making itself that is, for me, (in many ways) similar to filmmaking. There are theories developed around this issue, but I’d prefer not to go deeper in them (they have been explored elsewhere). Organizing exhibitions and video screenings in a traditional way where you as a curator select artworks in correspondence to a certain theoretical frame, then structure and contextualize them according to the context of the exhibition space, left me at times unsatisfied. As if the job was only half done. It felt as if there was a whole blank area of possibilities that was being neglected. That’s why I’ve always been attracted to the dynamics of filmmaking as a model for exhibition making: a non-hierarchical relationship between curator and artists in which they work collaboratively. I wanted to explore that model while working on Multimediale, the curator as catalyst and collaborator. We initiated Randall Packer’s exhibition text ‘Capturing The Capital!’ as a starting point to think about a new exhibition. I researched the themes present in that initial text and deconstructed them, selected the artists and started working together. Washington DC and its politics triggered the context around which everybody was working, the project developing from a kind of necessity, urgency and immediacy to capture the capital. The process has a strong resemblance with the philosophy of the open source movement. The kind of strategy where you initiate certain ideas collaboratively and everyone starts working with them. That’s the way the artists have developed their pieces and that’s the way that I have structured the exhibition and the events surrounding it. There is a very close connection between everything. The exhibition expands the idea of simply being an exhibition by a curator, and is one of common authorship and changing dynamics (under the supervision of a curator).


Last but certainly not least, I would like to refer to the KURATOR software application. "KURATOR is an open source software application designed as an online curatorial system and a platform for curating source code. The project is experimental in that it merges the process of programming with curating to challenge the role of the curator in the process of selection, contextualisation, presentation and dissemination of online artworks, by emphasising not the aesthetical or functional properties but the source code itself". In an article by Marina Vishmidt, she notes that KURATOR draws on an "...affinity between code art and curatorial praxis" and that "...the software tries to redevelop curating as a generative experiment in social relations, within and against an art world that is only beginning to bypass the genteel stultification of curator as the golden alibi of art markets and aesthete-at-large. KURATOR posits "software curating" as a way to distribute curatorial process over networks of people, including artists and others, and finally outwards from the special domain of an individual. It further combats the reification of taste by partially automating many of the traditional metiers that distinguish the curator - selectivity being one."

As someone intimately familiar with the processes of collaborative curating, I don't find these examples particularly threatening to my modus operandi, but perhaps more classically trained curators (and artists) would feel differently. Are we in the midst of a seismic shift in thinking across disciplinary boundaries, or is this just another trend-of-the-moment? I have a feeling it is part of a general ebb and flow, and that there is no replacing the individual expert, nor the "wisdom of the crowd" - it might be that the wisdom of the crowd is simply finally getting its due.

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  1. Actually I find that in most cases in the art world, not much is "open and transparent" and it becomes more arcane the higher up you go.
    I like the post by Niels Van Tomme, who makes some points that I agree with in terms of successful projects I've been involved with, with a few caveats:

    1] film making is never non-hierarchical. the director is always god, just some gods are more dictatorial than others.

    2] the tyranny of the brief, or theme: to practice a true "open" kind of curation means to walk the knife edge between having some key element to hold the whole together, and allowing each contributor the freedom to explore the meaning and take it in the direction that woks for them. In this way it's unlike software which in the end depends on if those "zeroes and ones" allows it to work. With art, there are no real mechanistic boundaries and things "working" or not is somewhat subjective.

    3] Lastly the idea of the "classically trained" curator is a myth put out by conservative institutions and people. There is no "classical" training course for curating contemporary art - its not something you can learn or teach in school. by definition schools can only teach canons whereas contemporary curators have to be a good few steps ahead of the canon to be able to see and anticipate the meaning of "contemporary" in any given time. This is one reason so many "alternative" shows are so exciting, and why so many institutional and "wannabee" shows are so boring - and look so alike.

    aaaaaaaaaaah, enough
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