A job with unclear profile, goal and future

21 November 2012

FLORIAN MALZACHER about the role of the curator of international independent theatre

Among the professions that are rather close to art or even right within it, but that are not artistic themselves – not directly artistic themselves – the curator has the youngest and most unclear profile. In the visual arts, where he became a star within a short time, he is standing in the midst of a controversy that is essentially driven by himself. In the field of dance, theatre and performance however, he is still rare and, above all, mostly unheeded. Which is all the more surprising since he has long played an influential role in independent performing arts, defining and organizing art, discourses, formats and finances.

Terminology as scarce commodity
The last twenty five years, or so, have seen the strong development of a dance that explores the concept of choreography much further than ballet or even Tanztheater have dared, and a theatre that refuses to be defined by the borders of drama, of conventional divisions between performance and audience, of the imposed limitations of the genre. This independent and experimental international scene finds itself (together with its audiences) till today mostly outside of the fixed structures and relatively fixed aesthetics of the repertory city theatres, which are mostly active only within the limits of their own countries and languages. Just as unclear as the borders of this genre, are many of the profiles of the jobs it has created or adapted: What does a dramaturge do without a drama, an art critic without a catalogue of criteria, a dancer without dance, a theatre director without a text that should be staged? The performing arts curator does not even have an outdated model of reference at his disposal: the terminology and job description has been borrowed from the visual arts, as their particular way of dealing with formats, with art and artists, and with economies and audiences, suddenly seemed to a certain degree transferable.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, a good part of the independent theatre landscape had changed considerably: radically new aestheticisms, and later also new working structures and hierarchies within ensembles, collectives, and companies came into existence along with new or newly defined theatre houses such as Mickery in Amsterdam, Kaaitheater in Brussels, de Single in Antwerp, Hebbel-Theater in Berlin, TAT (Theater am Turm) in Frankfurt, Teatergarasjen in Bergen, Ménagerie de verre in Paris and many more. Additionally, festivals like Eurokaz in Zagreb, Inteatro in Polverigi, Festival d’Automne in Paris and later KunstenfestivalDesArts in Brussels, as well as the professional network IETM, offered new possibilities for a dense international exchange. Above all, the concept of the Belgium kunstencentra like Vooruit in Gent or Stuk in Leuven (which, with their open, mostly interdisciplinary approaches, replaced conventional ensemble theatres and paved the way for many of today’s scene-heroes and re-classified audiences) has spilled over into neighbouring countries and made it possible to reinvent theatre as an institution.

With them arrived a new, often charismatically filled professional profile: that of the programme maker (who, depending on the institution, would be officially called artistic director, Intendant, dramaturge, manager, producer). As the name already shows, the accent was on taking a grip on things, on making. A generation of men of action defined the course of events – and even if their attitude seems occasionally patriarchal from today’s point of view, the scene was actually less male-biased than the society and the city theatres around it. This generation of founders, which at the same time redefined and imported the model of the dramaturge, established some remarkably efficient and stabile structures and publics: it was a time of invention and discovery, which has had obvious repercussions into the present day. Professional profiles were created and changed – including that of the artist.

This foundation work was largely completed by the mid-1990s at the latest (at least in the West), not least because financial resources were becoming more scarce. What followed was a generation of former assistants, of critical apprentices so to say, and with them a period of continuity, but also of differentiation, reflection, and well-tailored networks, of development and re-questioning new formats – labs and residencies, summer academies, parcours, thematic mini-festivals, emerging artist platforms… The difficulty of the plains replaces that of the mountains, the struggle over quality criteria and discourses replaces the often socio-cultural founding-impetus to let very different cultures coexist equally.

The picture is still dominated by transition models, but the strong specialization of the arts (exemplified by the visual arts), the subsequent specialization of the programme makers and dramaturges, and a generally altered professional world – which also here increasingly relies on free, independent, as well as cheaper labour – along with increasingly differentiated audiences, again require a different professional profile: the curator is a symptom of these changes in art, as well as in society and the market. His working fields are theatre forms that often cannot be realized within the established structures; artistic handwritings that always require different approaches; a scene that is more and more internationalized and disparate; the communication of often not easy aestheticisms; transmission and contextualization. Last but not least, the curator is the link between art and the public.

Whether the stolen term ‘curator’ is the most suitable here for this job or not is currently a popular point of dispute and, above all, polemics. However, there is more at stake than personal gain in distinction to programme makers, who might not feel appreciated enough. And the difficulty of naming and defining this new job is just symptomatic for a genre in which terminology is a scarce commodity anyway and which does not even have a reasonably good name itself: Experimental theatre? Free theatre? All biased or misleading. Time-based art? Live art? At least attempts at defining the genres within different borders. Devised theatre, that is, a theatre that must evolve again and again from scratch? New theatre – after all these years? Postdramatic theatre? At least one successful, marketable keyword. But how does the kind of dance that has been so influential in recent years, but is also still looking for a suitable name, fit in here: conceptual dance?

As a clandestine romantic, one might consider the missing slate to be a subversive gain – an elitist thinking in niches, but out of defensive resignation rather than self-confidence. In fact, the lack of terminology indicates above all a lack of articulation, a lack of communication not limited to advertising, a lack of more than purely intra-disciplinary discourse in the performing arts, which remain amazingly speechless in this respect. Thus it again signals the necessity of curatorial work, which – as can be seen in the visual arts, where catalogues, for example, are an integral part of almost all exhibitions – consists to a large extent of verbalization, communication, and discussion. As a part of the central task to create contexts.

Concrete contexts
Contexts. Links between artists, artworks, audiences, cultures, social and political realities, parallel worlds, discourses, institutions. It is not by chance that the curator in the visual arts sphere emerged at a time when artworks often no longer functioned without a context, refused to function without a context. When they on the contrary began to define themselves precisely through their contexts, when they began to search or even create them, and to critically question the institutions that surrounded them. When the idea of an auratic artwork and auratic author disappeared and was replaced by art that was no longer understandable without relations. Additionally, the amount of information about and from our world and the complexity of art has risen exponentially – as has the amount of art produced. The curator was both a cause and a result of this development.

Thus, the frequently expressed wish of artists in the fields of dance and theatre (and quite logically much more seldom in the visual arts) that their work be presented unexplained and un-contextualised, standing alone, without a framework, moves along the thin line between justified fear of reduction, simplification and domestication on the one side, and the misjudgement of the ways their work functions on the other. The muteness of the genre extends to all those who participate in it.

Thus, good curatorial work would consist not in damaging the autonomous art work in its autonomy, but on the contrary, in reinforcing it, yet without considering it untouchable, too weak, needy of protection. How near should the framework get to the artwork, how closely should one be juxtaposed to the other, how charged should the surrounding be: these are central points of discussion between artists and curators in exhibition art – but they are just as valid when making programmes for a festival or a theatre house. Contexts can offer artworks a proper reception – but they can also incapacitate them.

And yet, theatre and dance performances are not paintings, transportable artefacts, or even clearly defined installations. Few exhibitions have the complexity and unpredictability of a festival. As a social form of art, theatre will always have a different attitude towards pragmatism and compromise, will need more time and space, and therefore stay inferior to other genres regarding agility. In an age of speed and spacelessness that might be a market flaw, just as it was an advantage in other times. But however cumbersome and relatively small the possibilities of contextualization may be within a festival or a season condensed to knots, they can also be very effective. The fact of not-being-able-to-control is a challenge that must be faced in a productive way, since not-wanting-to-control in this case only produces boredom.

So what can one see if one attends, on one evening, two clearly juxtaposed performances? How does it change one work retrospectively and the other in advance? (At least an exhibition curator rarely has the possibility of steering the order of reception so precisely.) What influence does it exert on the reception if a leitmotif or a theme is offered as the focus? What reference points can be given for an artwork – perhaps also historically, at least on paper or video? What contexts of experience are created for the spectators already by the very choice of space, the point of time, the graphic design, the advertising strategies? Is it possible not only to scatter theoretical postulates like parsley over the programme, but also actually mix them in?

These are only some arbitrary examples of how contexts and focuses can be created – if so through the elaboration of smaller sections or agglomerations/knots in the programme as a whole. After all, biennials and museums are usually no adroit ships as well – and yet they play increasingly often with their temporal axis, with the idea of the performative, the social. The fact that the figure of the exhibition maker – primarily and almost synonymous with the new type of curator, for example Harald Szeemann – became so important in the 1970s is due not least to the fact that the exhibition increasingly became a happening itself, sided or permeated by accompanying events, occasionally changing, understanding itself within time. Szeemann compared his work quite early with that of a theatre director. In the 1990s, art was frequently adopting the definition of the exhibition framework and discovering itself as a social space: Nicolas Bourriaud has termed it “relational aesthetics” and Maria Lind speaks of “performative curating”. It is hardly possible to penetrate more deeply into the neglected core business of the theatre.

So this attention towards an arch, towards a dramaturgy of programming, is also an attempt at recovering lost terrain for theatre as a form of art. A course of events, a change of tempo, a change of intensity, a change of viewpoint. Even if barely any spectator can follow such dramaturgies in their entirety, they are nevertheless perceptible. One can walk through a festival as through a landscape. Some things are accidental, others are obvious. To linger or to go on, to grasp things intuitively or turn them over intellectually. The phantom of the über-curator, boldly creating his own piece out of other people’s artworks, is not to be feared in the performative domain anyway. On the contrary, there is rather a lack of courage for imparting meaning at all – and not least because of modesty, but out of fear from the task.

Local context plays a role here more than in other arts; even the rather small audience that is interested in advanced forms of theatre is far less informed about the actual art field as a whole than its counterparts in the visual arts, film or music: it travels less and its artworks are more difficult to access, respectively not reproducible in catalogues. As a rule (except for a few big cities), it is a single venue or a single festival that alone defines the horizon of the audience (as well as that of the local professional critics). The terrain of its judgement is paradoxically demarcated by the curator himself – only the art that he is showing actually exists. Thus, international artworks are forcedly localized and placed into relation with that which is familiar. The state of the art is different in each town.

Criteria and compromises
Whether locally or internationally, in the end it’s clear: it’s all about choice, about defining who is allowed to be a part of it, allowed to produce and present, allowed to earn money. Programme makers have a function in the art market and however much their opinions may differ, together they delineate the limited field. Who they don’t see, who they refuse to see, has – at least internationally – almost no chance of being seen. At the same time, never before has so much art been produced, so many artists emerged. While the budgets shrink, more and more schools, masters programs, university departments are being founded and producing more and more artists, mostly without considering what this overproduction may produce in itself. In terms of market, of quality, but also with regards to the personal situations of the former students, who are often not needed, not wanted and (not seldom) simply not good enough to survive in the highly competitive market. The task of organising this field, the task of playing the bad guy has been delegated: curating means excluding and this excluding has existential consequences for artists.

So what are the criteria for such a selection? Yes, of course: good art, bad art. What we consider as such. Defined by education, experience, taste. By opinion. By the discourses we believe in. They are difficult to name, these criteria, and they consist of various aspects. It obviously is a thin line indeed between dogmatism and arbitrariness. It defines itself through a clear style, a recognisable handwriting perhaps, through coherency of the programme, through a dramaturgy of procedure, through relationships. Through stringency. Of course it’s true: just as most city theatres put together their program out of all kinds of art for all kinds of audiences, thus also most international festivals and venues are just as well marked by a difficult to discern mixture of conviction and pragmatism.

The arguments for keeping it somewhat broader are numerous, and all programme makers are schooled in them: not excluding any segment of the public, creating contexts, placing more audacious pieces aside next to more popular ones, visitor numbers, ticket sales, tolerance towards other artistic approaches, financial difficulties and more. Indeed, it doesn’t help anyone if a curator wants to prove with his programme primarily his own courage – eventually at the cost of the artists. To establish and maintain a festival, to bind an audience, to win allies, and thus to create a framework also for artworks that are more consequential, more audacious, and more cumbersome is important. Especially since free spaces for art are becoming fewer and fewer, since the struggle of all programme makers for the survival of their programmes is becoming tougher and tougher.

And yet, what is the use of maintaining that which should actually be maintained if it is no longer visible? If it is no longer legible, what is the necessary and compellable in the midst of the pragmatic? The model of the curator is also a counter-model of the cultural manager, who values many things, who stakes off a broad field of creativity and artistic activities, whose aim is, after all, socio-cultural. Curatorial work also means deciding clearly for oneself what is good and what is bad. And knowing why.

But a good programme does not consist simply or necessarily only of good performances. On the one side, the decision in favour of co-productions and against merely shopped guest performances is immensely important in terms of cultural policy. But it is also a decision for risk, the results imponderable; the right decisions can lead to a bad festival if one reads it only with respect to its results rather than its endeavours. On the other side, it is about creating internal relationships – even if a festival does not give itself a thematic red thread. Whether a programme is well thought out depends on the combination of different formats, aestheticisms and arguments within a nevertheless very clearly outlined profile. But it also depends on the supposedly more pragmatic, but often no less dramaturgical considerations, which can play a considerable role in the beauty of a programme: for it can indeed happen that a performance is simply too long for a particular slot. Or too short. Or needs a different sort of stage. That it is the wrong genre. Thematically or aesthetically too similar to another show. Or too different. And yet, if it is worth it, one will probably find a solution. And yes, one must also fill in the slots: young, entertaining, political, conceptual, new, established… But there is also this: as soon as one stumbles across a piece that one wants to present by all means, one will quickly forget about this basic structure. If one is left with some spare money, of course.

Moreover, the local question belongs to the list of possible criteria: what possibilities are there for changing or influencing the scene of a town in terms of infrastructure – but also for presenting it, for giving it visibility and capacity for confrontation and growth. Every curator will say: one must primarily think in terms of quality. And yet, consciously or not, he will measure with a double standard. There is a thin line here as well: without local and also sustainable effects, an internationally oriented theatre house or festival will largely remain without impact and without backing in hard times. And vice versa: even the finest motives can soon turn into provinciality and lack of significance beyond the region.

While artistic work survives through consistency and the greatest possible resistance to compromise, a festival programme, a seasonal programme, even a small parcours, will always carry compromise within it like a birthmark. It is also for this reason that the curator is not an artist. This discrepancy is essential and often painfully indelible. Not only because curators are often too ready for concessions. And not only because artists rarely make good curators: their view is always either to narrow (since they are guided by their own aesthetic intransigence) or too broad (since they are guided by social and solidary thoughts and feelings).

There is no reason why compromise should be romanticized with heroic pathos of action (“The show must go on”). But it will always remain a subject of conflict – especially where the art itself is existential, radical, ready to take risks. The quest of the absolute will bump against the necessity of presenting a turnkey product in the end. All the new modules of processual work, all those labs and residencies, are merely vents that eventually miss the real problem: it is not about not being willing to finish, being able to finish. It is that “finished” should be defined differently for each project.

What market?
As a programme maker, one relegates a part of the constraints one is unable to absorb himself to the artists. So, where is the limit? How long should one fight, when should one give up? How long is it good to preserve something, even if reduced, and when is it better to withdraw consequently? What is hasty obedience to politics and money? And what is litigant quixotism?

The market of independent theatre, and eventually theatre as such, is a well-cushioned one, mostly regulated through public money and foundations. In recent times, more and more sponsors have come into play, but in Europe their role is still mostly too limited to have an influence on the programme that would be worth mentioning: the fact that the Dublin Fringe Festival recently – since the emergence of a vodka producer as its main sponsor – changed its name into Absolut Fringe is still an unusual case, perhaps heralding the future. Mostly the market is too small, the audience too marginal, the profit too limited, and the genre not sexy enough for big time investors. Also the volatile medium is rather unsuitable for the free art market: a performance cannot be bought and hung on a wall; it cannot be collected and doesn’t gain value; it does not even impart a special status. That is why the artists of performance art (to be distinguished from the performing arts) have since the 1970s taken much care, together with their galleries, to ensure that the supposedly ephemeral aspect of their work should not be to their financial disadvantage – and have elevated video or photo documentation to the status of artefacts. A live art is performance art only for the brief moment before the immaterial work has clotted into an object. Theatre and dance makers, however, have almost no access to this kind of free market, to that form of old age insurance. Which at least has the advantage that a curator (or art critic) cannot profit from the artworks of those artists whom he is promoting – we are spared this part of potential corruption.

On the other hand, many a visual artist will cast a look of envy to the subvention market of dance and theatre, since it seems to offer protection against the at times hysterical capitalism of the free art market. But the 80s are long gone: the subventions, anyway sinking, are increasingly spent on the maintenance of institutions that are weighty in real estate and personnel, and little is left for the slim independent scene. Whereas Western European countries can mostly still nibble at the achievements from the previous years, countries that could not knot an infrastructural security network are mostly left to the direct mercy of economy with its ups and downs.

Surely there is an individual market value in theatre as well, surely it is important, of course, at which festival or in which venue one can be seen. But the demand regulates the price only to a certain degree, and the system of salaries remains comparably limited. Thus, the pressure of the market can only climb so high – but it does not diminish for the artists, who have mostly precarious existences, and not just when they are beginning their careers. In the eyes of many artists, the curator, the programme maker, the director is – despite all amiability – part of a system of humiliation, which remains obscure, since its criteria are insufficiently reflected both by the curators and by the artists. Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard once wrote to his publisher Siegfried Unseld that the main problem was that each publisher had many authors, but each author had only one publisher. A theatre maker may have more than one producer – yet the unequal relationship of dependence, both economic and psychological, remains similar.

But obviously the programme makers are not independent either. The money that they distribute, or maybe invest, is obtained from their employers, mostly political ones (who again have it via taxes from the people). They are rarely subjected to direct thematic pressure as for making specific programmes, at least in the West; politics and the public usually no longer exert their influence with regard to a specific type of art and a specific discourse – barely anyone wants to be denounced as a conservative ignorant. The course is rather already set before the appointment or through the appointment of the artistic direction, then the discussion is usually reduced to economic factors, cost-effectiveness, sustainability and capacity utilization rather than to themes and aestheticisms. Since festivals and theatre houses are never cost efficient, they should at least be profitable on the other side: through urban marketing, image, tourism, number of overnight stays… And yet, engaging in an argument of indirect returns via Richard Florida’s rhetoric of the “creative class” is dangerous for art institutions – on the one hand, the reduction of art to numbers can hardly be reversed, and on the other hand, economic arguments are often just pretextual, behind them stands the same old doubt as to the necessity of contemporary art, whose value has drastically sunken with the disappearance of the once mocked Bildungsbürger from politics.

Programme makers are indeed responsible for the money that they have been entrusted with. Contractually, they are usually answerable to their public funders (at least indirectly, through politically appointed supervisory boards). And morally? To the artists? The art? The audience? The dilemma is intensified through the fact that there is, unlike in the world of museums, only seldom any difference between a director and a curator – and freelance curators with independence and autonomy are even more rare. Thus, the political pressure of numbers is exerted directly on the person that creates the programme – mixed loyalties are unavoidable. The model of the curator is therefore decisively not that of a director; he is supposed to be responsible primarily to artists, art, specific discourses and specific aestheticisms. Rather indeed an imaginary (perhaps naïve) figure than a reality. A construct, at least.

The Starbucks coffee of art
But perhaps the problem lies not so much in the fact that there is inequality, that there is injustice, that there is always a hidden agenda behind the association of curators and artists, or that their relationship is always also an economic one. Perhaps the problem resides much more in the fact that it is precisely the theatre, that large machine for reflecting the world and oneself, that lacks sufficient reflection on the mechanisms to which we, the programme makers, curators, artistic directors, are exposed, mechanisms that we, however, also use and sometimes generate by ourselves. That we tend to console ourselves quickly with the belief that without us it would all be even worse, that we are still taking the best out of a situation that is becoming worse.

We are products of what Slavoj Žižek has termed “cultural capitalism”: we drink the Starbucks coffee of art and we are happy that a part of our money protects the rainforest (for example: conceptual dance, young artists, research). It is a pseudo-proper action, since eventually it primarily protects the system whose spikes we believe to be filing down. It is the same system in which we first produce the defects and then we try to alleviate them. We want power that should not be recognizable as such.

Thus, barely anything that the profession of the curator in the performing arts consists of is new in itself. And yet, it is important to see how the professional image differs from other genres, as well as from the programme maker of the founders’ generation. From that of the production dramaturge. From that of the intendant, the artistic director, the manager. The independent performing arts, these arts in a niche without a proper name, need articulation, contextualization, discourses, and publicity in order to be able to take their deserved place among the contemporary arts. The curator is one of the symptoms of a change. Seen that way, it is indeed a gain in distinction. But less so for the ones who call themselves curators than for an art form that should be finally recognized as more than an exotic accessory to city theatres and repertory companies.

This text is a revised version of a text published in Frakcija #55 “Curating Perfoming Arts” (Eds. Florian Malzacher, Tea Tupajic & Petra Zanki, autumn 2010).
The translation is based on the translation by Marina Miladinov.