■ Curating Subjects Barnaby Drabble
Curating Subjects, ed Paul O’Neill, De Appel Foundation and Open Editions, Amsterdam and London, 2007, 229pp, pb, £15.00, 978 90 73501 71 3 and 978 0 949004 16 1.
Annie Fletcher gets this book off to a bold start in an interview with Paul O’Neill, the anthology’s editor: ‘Do we really’, she asks, ‘need another book about curating?’ Unsurprisingly O’Neill responds in the affirmative, but it’s nice to see such questions asked and the stakes set high at the outset of (yet another) book of this kind. Luckily for all, Curating Subjects is an excellent addition to the growing list of publications addressing the topic of curatorial practice. Indeed, for those interested in an overview of the current questions facing critically minded exhibition makers in the English-speaking world this is the finest published in recent years. With 20 contributions squeezed into its 200-odd pages, it combines a refreshing breadth of points of view without erring into the encyclopedic territory that tripped up the well-meaning Men in Black – a Handbook of Curatorial Practice (Revolver, Frankfurt, 2004) or risking the stocking-filler brevity of the contributions to Words of Wisdom – A Curator’s Vade Mecum (Independent Curators International, NY, 2001). The book benefits from O’Neill’s attempt to steer his contributors’ focus away from their own projects and towards the question of their knowledge base and influences. This editorial decision acknowledges the popular disdain for star curators in promotional mode, while simultaneously and more importantly moving discussion on from the polarised debates about curating that such antipathy has engendered. The editor asks his authors to think laterally about curating and contribute in one of three ways: looking at underrepresented or paradigmatic projects from the past, issues that seem currently overlooked, or potential futures. The potential rigidity of such a timeline is nicely
loosened up by his method of commissioning the texts for the publication. Rather than requesting the contributions all at once, O’Neill approached the authors one after the other, first agreeing to one text and then inviting the next in response to this, thereby creating a form of rolling dialogue. This conversation begins with Søren Andreasen and Lars Bang Larsen’s text about mediation, where the two contemplate the negative and positive connotations of what it means to be a ‘middleman’. They argue against trying to address ‘curating’ ontologically, thereby exorcising a predilection that has haunted previous anthologies and made the worst of them so tiresomely pedagogical. Of course definitions are attractive and others in the book can’t help but have a go: Mark Hutchinson attempts to nail down the term with ‘the job of curation is to mediate the reception of art’, only to be outshone by his co-writer Dave Beech’s nutty but serious question: ‘Have there been any anticurators?’ Claire Doherty starts on the familiar ‘duty of care borne by the custodian of the collection’ track and then wanders into far more interesting territory when she applies this etymology to the challenges for curators of ‘context-specific international exhibitions’. But it’s Andreasen and Bang Larsen who propose the most convincing analysis in their conclusion: ‘There is no ontology of the middleman: she is a performative and exemplary agent, acquiring subjectivity in and by the act of mediation.’ With a focus on diverse practices rather than reductive definitions, the contributors can get down to the tasks that O’Neill has set for them and they do this admirably, introducing a range of interesting examples from past and present practice and accompanying these with precise commentary and analysis. Among these, Sarah Pierce looks at D.A.E. in San Sebastian/Donos tia, Orchard in New York and Fucking Good Art in Rotterdam, considering them as alternative, collective ways of working; Cléémentine Deliss remembers her visits to John Bock’s Klutterkammer and Thomas Hirschhorn’s 24h Foucault and uses them to ponder a space between education and exploration; Eva Diaz takes a case study approach to Hans Ulrich Obrist and Barbara Vanderlinden’s 1999 exhi
bition Laboratorium; while Anshuman Das Gupta and Grant Watson assemble a semi-fictional account of the ‘14th Annual Exhibition of the Indian Society of Oriental Art’, piecing together a picture of an unexpectedly cosmopolitan and experimental scene in Calcutta during the 30s. Biennial exhibitions feature heavily in the book, which avoids the tradition of indiscriminate biennale-bashing, offering instead a nuanced look at the differences in approach that separate such projects from one another. Doherty compares and discusses the Liverpool Biennial of 2004 with the 9th Istanbul Biennial a year later; O’Neill conducts an insightful and informal interview with Okwui Enwezor; and Carlos Basualdo points to some fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of biennales in his oft published but still critically astute text, ‘The Unstable Institution’. O’Neill intervenes in what is becoming a bit of a biennale appreciation society get-together, inviting Bob Nickas to crash the party with his wickedly humorous take on the issue, ‘To Be Read (Once Every Two Years)’. Reading Curating Subjects suggests that curatorial discourse, after an interesting infancy and a more difficult puberty, is now showing a promising maturity. It marks a moment when the ideas raised in the pioneering discussions of the 90s are reconsidered alongside a more recently recovered interest in exhibition practice of the laboratory years of the 60s. Experimentation, dissonance, investigation, complexity and even failure are back on the list of curatorial tools, in the full awareness of not only their potential, but also the difficulty of applying them in the current cultural climate. To do this, new lines are being drawn encouraged by a diversity of examples, as the debate about the limits of the profession of curator gives way to more generous and fruitful discussion about the potential of curating as an open, imaginative practice. ❚
BARNABYDRABBLE is a freelance curator and writer based in Züürich.
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