Friday, November 11, 2011

Objects In Mirror May Be Better Than They Appear*

I went to live and work in Scotland (a nation and not a country) for six months this past year on an arts writing and curating fellowship. The food was bad, the people solid, and the best art show I saw was German. The overall experience of being on a writing/curating fellowship sounds better than it actually was; and while I do not regret my time spent in the land of lochs and moors, I would have done somethings quite differently if I could do it all again.

Looking backwards and from across the pond, the bright shining light of Framework stands out as a beacon. Devised by Glasgow-based independent curator Kirsteen Macdonald the first five Framework events came as a response to the perceived lack of international resources and networks for Scotland-based curators. While both independent and emerging curators were encouraged to apply, the majority of participants consisted primarily of emerging curators who were looking more for a sounding board to vent their frustrations. I can only hypothesize that the more established curators refused to apply or excused themselves as too busy to participate, but as a platform for networking with international guests within the scope of your national peers, I walked away with a sense that those curators in more stable positions needed to feel they were not on the same level as everyone else, or that they were also not interested in engaging with these guests out of some sort of inferiority complex.

On the other hand, an easy critique can and should be made at the definition of "international" only demarcating UK and Berlin-based writers and curators like Jan Verwoert and Maria Fusco. But let's go back to the beginning of this text where I am giving a first impression of Scotland and consequently Scotland's art scene.

Coming from Canada, I was and remain blown away by the sheer scale difference of Scotland's wee geography. With only a 45 minute train journey between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and only a three hour train between the central belt and the North East town where I was based, geography does not play a convincing factor in the vastly different attitudes and the general lack of internal dialogue. The town of Huntly where I was working and living could have stood as a microcosm of Scotland as a whole: a wee picturesque place, embedded with traditions and class structures, tolerating and attempting to build a lively and surprising contemporary art scene – producing works that rarely anyone local actually pays attention to unless a ceilidh is on the bill. The common practice is to look south and out for success and inspiration, often bringing people in for their ideas -- but at the end of my six months, I do wonder if the people of Huntly, and by extension the people of Scotland, actually care that an ongoing privileging of foreign value perspectives and systems is being placed onto their sovereignty-seeking selves?

With a population of 5 million, there are actually four sizable art schools in Scotland, and a significant proportion of alumni from The Gordon Schools in Huntly go on to attend these national art schools. I attended (in some variation) all the graduate or undergraduate exhibitions for Glasgow School of Art, Edinburgh College of Art, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, and Gray's School of Art. Mentorship on the production side is visible and lineage is respected, but of the four schools, only one showed any depth in the relatively new field of curatorial studies and arts writing. This is a problem, especially if the solution has been importing in thought rather than focusing on the local production of critical thinking. This may be a watershed moment as now under Creative Scotland's new "talent" pool, artists of all disciplines will be geared to how they fare for international consumption. Like its fine drams and rich shortbreads, goods that few born and bred Scots actually show much interest in, Scottish artists may soon be on the same ship out.

This is not a problem unique to Scotland, but Framework has magnified a contentious issue that it believes (self-consciously so) to be its own. It's true that the void of support and understanding about curatorial work is staggering, especially by its practitioners. Most curators in the field either grab onto the title or are bestowed with it, but few actually fit the definition with confidence. During Framework's finale, in lamenting on her disparate curatorial roles for an upcoming exhibition in London, a curator was asked point-blank: "What do you think a curator actually does?" and her response was only a pause and a stutter.

For the record: curating as a practice for all extensive purposes of this text translates as researching, producing, and presenting a unified and ideally critical/social/philosophical context for a single work or group of works that questions or addresses a facet of history for present-day musing. Under this definition, most curatorial work today is in fact a straight forward commissioning gig, or fund-driven project management, which has confused the role of the curator as someone with power. Most emerging curators who attended Framework were not really curators, but hustlers trying to get ahead in this profession. This assumed curatorial power is directly associated with funds rather than knowledge or ability. This is when curators simply become "gate-keepers", but note even how one-sided this argument stands. The desire to get beyond the guarded threshold takes on celestial proportions of seeking permission and desiring acceptance, which unfortunately, reveals just how elusive and unrealistic the standards of success sit in this cultural profession that is skewered by an inflated art market and where the Hirsts and Obrists make up all of 1% of the art world.

Curators have always been specialists of specific strands of knowledge, but now, according to British Art Show curators Tom Morton and Lisa le Feuvre (who were also guest facilitators for Framework), everyone can be a specialist of the everyday! The sentiment is idealistic and so it is admirable, but the execution requires some logic and an infinite breadth of knowledge that reflects the multifaceted experience of our everyday. The historical definition of a curator has progressed, and rightly so, but the integrity of curating has yet to catch up. I am not arguing for a return or even a favouring of traditions, but I do strongly question the use of this language if the meaning has so drastically shifted. In Fusco's words, we should take the time and energy to "re-caress the art object" -- be it through words or actions.

Based on final presentations given by Framework participants, it became frighteningly clear the presupposed value of calling yourself a curator has been accumulating steadily for the last three decades, but in an economic reality, the precarious state of the curator is doubly duped as the false assumption of power is a reflection of needing to have an expanded practice: that one also needs to organize, administrate, market, and fundraise independent projects in order to be a legitimate arts professional. The hyphenated artist/curator/designer/administrator works in an "expanded practice," a term Macdonald came up with that nobody seemed to question. Working in an expanded practice also became the subject matter for the workshop by Ellen Blumenstein, which was rescheduled due to exhaustion and so became the finale of this first set of Framework events. The end revealed the beginning as an expanded practice revealed itself in an unfolding of collective illness and exhaustion. Soldiering on in a burnt out state of being appeared to be the bane and survival tactic of maintaining an independent practice, and it was a glimpse of a grim future I did not want for myself.

This shroud of taking on curatorial power in an art world where the market value holds all the cards could be seen as a positive turn towards creative and intellectual value. However, like the smoke and mirrors of an absorbing and twisting Nabokov narrative we may not realize we have been spun a yarn of self-convinced fables of social grandeur that in the light of day comes off as a perverse and slightly sad fantasy. There are independent curators like Macdonald and Blumenstein who are doing good work and who are also trying to lay the foundation that they themselves need to stand on, but the more weight you put onto these foundations the faster the whole lot sinks. As a series, Framework quenched the void by facilitating intimate and thought-provoking discussions with a mixture of established practitioners, but the main critique here is that a dialogue must go two ways. I question the small group of curatorial professionals who did not bother applying, and the peers and participants who never spoke -- two seemingly different groups who in their own ways still chose to stay isolated without realizing that this dialogue exists in flux, and in their control to change.

Mix in exhaustion due to perpetual precarity, survival by hyphenation, the rise of internship exploitation, and assuming power where ever and when ever one can get it, the conclusion I come to is that being an independent curator is a fantasy profession both sought after and grossly misunderstood, and that maybe just sounds better than it will ever be. Life goes on, and so must the work, and it is only my hope that round two of Framework this winter will continue this conversation. 

*First appeared on

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