Views on contemporary art curating

Curators on politics

Posted by Michelle Kasprzak • Thursday, November 29. 2007
Politically-aware artists marrying their activist tendencies to their creative expressions is a well-established practice. Festivals such as Artivistic and magazines, journals and blogs such as Art Threat, the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, and Visual Resistance have sprung up in recent years to support this fusion of politics and art.

Reflecting on this naturally led me to speculate on how curators insert their political visions into the exhibitions and events that they create. One could argue that curating is an inherently political act, especially vis à vis historically established exclusionary curatorial practices, and the larger uses of culture as part of a geopolitical agenda. For this investigation, however, I was solely concerned with how curators explicitly commented on the politics of our times through their exhibitions, not the inherent politics of curating itself. What follows are a few key examples that I discovered.

In 2006, Michael Dupuis curated an online exhibition for Entitled The New Political Action, the exhibition examines the evolving sophistication of "political action". In fact, though Dupuis is speaking directly about political action becoming "conservative" and "institutionalized", one could extend that statement to address the general phenomenon of radical expressions by curators and artists being softened by conservative systems. Dupuis sees much potential in younger structures, such as the World Wide Web:
So long as the contemporary powers of "political action"� cannot infiltrate the largely decentralized structure of the worldwide web, new media holds immense potential for the advancement of the public discourse and art of a political nature. In this way, one can think of the mainstream media as the primary vehicle for contemporary "political action"� (PACs, 527s, etc.) and new media as a voice for an old style of political activism. This exhibit hopes to present and comment on such new media works in the scope of political action. The following works either embody the notion of political action/activism themselves, or address political action from an outsider's perspective.

Modern Art Notes had a great series of interviews with American curators on the subject of artists' responses to the attacks on the World Trade Center. Tyler Green interviewed MoMA curator Ann Temkin, Art Institute of Chicago contemporary art curator James Rondeau, and MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel. The interviews are excellent and well worth a read. In response to Green's question about particularly effective artworks in response to 9/11, James Rondeau offers this:
Language seems more powerful than images somehow. One of the very best, and most succinct art works pertaining to 9/11 -- I have a version of it on a T-shirt I cherish and wear -- is by the great Kay Rosen. Her work, Missing (2002), seems to consist of the word "remember" doubled and stacked vertically (like the twin towers) but the letter "b" is missing. Admonishing us to not forget, reminding us of an irrevocable, almost invisible absence, the work is so subtle, so smart, so clear, so right.

In an interview with Dr. Kim Hong-Hee on Res Artis, Hong-Hee discussed how a strategy of difference and linking contemporary art to broader global discourses can open up some of the closed, conservative structures of the art world:
...a female curator with the virtue of tolerance and moral consciousness may be able to suggest a new standard of political art to overcome the contradiction of the conventional system of art world, by applying the strategy of difference. This can be realized by means of context-oriented exhibitions which link communal, geo-political and socio-historical elements to contemporary art, escaping from the format of mainstream exhibitions featuring renowned artists, exhibitions dependent on visual effects and techniques, and alchemical exhibitions based on formalism only. It is the ground provided by biennales and alternative spaces rather than museums and galleries where political norms of art can be experimented and embodied.

And last but not least, recently at the ICA in London, a roundtable discussion entitled Political manifesto as curatorial project was presented. The discussion seemed to highlight the power of politics at the centre of curatorial drive:

From the post-WWII era to Vietnam and 'the war on terror', curators have used the political issues of the day to create relevant and provocative exhibitions. The ICA has often been at the forefront of this practice, playing host to the politically controversial Unknown Political Prisoner exhibition in 1953, offering solidarity in the early 60s to LA artists protesting against Vietnam, and most recently inviting artists' proposals for a Memorial to the Iraq War (2007). In a time which is often described as apathetic, but which has also seen some of the biggest anti-war demonstrations ever, should contemporary politics be the domain of the curator?

I believe the last question, "...should contemporary politics be the domain of the curator?" should unquestionably be answered in the affirmative. Curators are often uniquely positioned on the boundaries between conservative and radical worlds, and so their position to exact change and act as "translator" between worlds is immensely valuable. Or, as Dr. Hong-Hee put it, "a curator can raise certain issues and problems whereto an artist can react and respond thus generating a collaboration process".
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