Considering the relationship between art and anthropology has led me to consider my own interest in museums and the ways in which curating has become part of my practice. There are a variety of examples of artists working as curators, either in the more traditional curatorial role of devising projects with other artists, or through producing frameworks for artists to work within. Alongside these artist-curator practices, there are also artists appropriating museum strategies and techniques to produce museum-like installations outside the institution, as well as artists working inside the museum directly with their collections.
In her essay for Taxi Gallery, Becky Shaw defined curation as a word that has evolved to describe a number of different practices, including “the role of the person who looks after a collection of artworks, the person who decides which objects sit next to each other in an exhibition, the person who works closely with the artist to develop a new project, to the person who displays their colleagues’ or friends’ work in an empty warehouse.”
She categorised these various positions as ‘curator’, ‘artist-curator’, and ‘artist using curatorial activities’ and interviewed a different person from each of the categories in order to investigate whether the practices differ significantly from one another. Although these three positions may appear similar, they can deliver different social outcomes, including making the networks and relationships within cultural production explicitly visible to the audience.
Artists choosing to curate are often interested in the reception and distribution of artworks, as well as the production aspects of artistic practice. Artists working within museum networks are also afforded greater visibility. (Stearn, p37) However, these practices could also be seen to “jeopardise the [artist’s] external position which might previously have been seen as a prerequisite for the utopian imagination.” (Stearn, p38)
Ricardo Basbaum’s term of ‘etc-artists’ discusses artists that question the nature of their role through additional activities such as writing and curating: “When artists curate, they cannot avoid mixing their artistic investigations with the proposed curatorial project… The event can have a chance to become clearly embedded in a network of proximate knots… which the field of art has managed to comprehend in terms of its economy and circulation.”
These examples are indicative of the ‘usership’ described by Stephen Wright, which opens up the ‘expert culture’ of curatorship to more scrutiny and questioning. However, this critique of curatorial authority has resulted in an uncertainty within museum practice: “[Museums have begun to] doubt their authority, concerned that their vision of the past/present might be wrong and that it ought not shape the future so heavily. Rather than being the gatekeepers of culture they have become nervous of imposing any views whatsoever.”
Miranda Stearn suggests a more positive reading, that current practice “reflects the convergence of challenging artist practice with revisionist, self-reflective trends emerging within museums, and an awareness that by inviting artists to take on the role of curator, they can be enlisted as enablers, facilitators or partners in this process…” (Stearn, p38) These practices also allow museums to co-opt challenges to their authority and utilise artists to further promote their services. (Stearn, p43)
Shaw was particularly interested in understanding the power structures implicit in more traditional curatorial hierarchies, and whether the artist-curator role was ‘successful’ in disrupting these top-down relationships. Implicit in this idea was the notion of equality, which she identified as a work in progress that didn’t necessarily equate to “sameness”, but suggested a respect and trust of each other’s skills and ideas. Despite this, Shaw noted that the ‘curator’ always “[remained] the broker of visibility”
This (lack of) visibility is evident in Stearn’s description of Hans Haake’s interventions in the 1970s, where Haake was banned from exhibiting in galleries in New York and Germany due to his politically motivated works. (Stearn, p38) However, as museums became more open to artist interventions into museum collections, artists were afforded greater freedoms and in 1996 Haake was invited back into the museum to respond to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. He did this by producing ‘Viewing Matters: Upstairs’, a series of collection storage racks which Haake relocated to the main galleries.
Alongside the racks Haake exhibited works from the collection which he grouped in the categories: Artists, Reception, Work/Power, Alone/Together/Against Each Other, and Seeing. All works were chosen without regard for time period, value, or historical importance, in order to disrupt traditional museum conventions. In addition, Haake didn’t provide any written explanation for his choices, allowing his audience to consider their own definitions of the work. (Stearn, p39) “This active mode of viewing, originating in the unusual juxtapositions and lack of written interpretation, impacts upon viewers’ experience of the selected objects but also potentially stays with them in their future museum interactions” (Stearn, p44)
Miranda Stearn, Museological Review no. 17 – Museum Utopias Conference Issue, January 2013 pp. 36-47