13 December 2012

STEFANIE WENNER on curating, narration and cultural identity

Curare is a poison extracted from plants and used by South American Indians for hunting. It paralyses the muscle system of an animal struck by an arrow dipped in curare and ultimately leads to respiratory standstill. Claude Lévi-Strauss gave a de-tailed description of the effects of the poison and the practices of the hunt that he observed on site. Cura rei familialis is the Latin household, curare is Latin for arrange, care for, attend to.

Curators are not contemporaries. In the old official version of the museums, curators were considered to be those who had to look after the cultural heritage. They decided what is to be taken over into the canon of culture and collected symbolic capital to strengthen the (national) identities. The discussion of heritage and bequeathal are closely related to these cultural institutions, which are legally and not least biological-ly conceived. Art is created, but not always as art. Artists create art, are creatively or productively active; their product does not always belong to them. For an admission fee, art is made accessible to the contemporaries of institutions, not necessarily those of the art. The production of a cultural canon is legitimate. Anyone who is em-ployed as a curator has as a rule been informed by the institution whose tradition he or she then forms. Thus one guarantees the continuation of tradition, produces a nar-rative that remains permanent. In ethnological as well as historical or all possible pe-ripheral museum, exhibitions tell a story, produce history as a past that founds identi-ty: in the homeland museums, in national galleries, in the museums of private do-nors. Choreographers deal with script, theatres with stories, all of us with narrative. Boris Groys describes the swing from art-producing curators – who through the clas-sification of ritual objects of so-called primitive cultures created art in European mu-seums – to artists who through exhibitions in museums made mundane objects into art. “In this way the exhibition’s role in the symbolic economy has changed. Sacred objects were once devalued to produce art; today, in contrast, profane objects are valorised to become art.” (Groys, Boris. “On Curatorship” (orig.: “The Curator as Icono-clast”), in: Art Power, Cambridge, Mass., London, 2008, p. 43.) One has to be against the sciences of life, because they produce added value, stabilise ideas of relationship and guarantee the heritage. Fluctuation is good, conceptions are per-haps moveable bodies. The approach to found material is something other than the creation of a new narrative.

Almost exactly forty years ago Harald Szeemann founded the “Agentur für geistige Gastarbeit”, which he understood as a counter-concept and answer to the practice of curators as guardians of the cultural heritage. He maintained he was introducing to the field of fine art what had long been standard practice in the theatre: directors in-vited guest directors and went on visiting travels with their own works. Travel as an antidote to the production of a binding canon. The institution of the theatre, despite its machinery, thereby remained more flexible than the museum, said Szeemann. Heret-ically, one might assert that the repertoire of a travelling circus, as the director’s thea-tre had already become in Szeemann’s time, hands down a canon. The transfer of this system to the field of fine art, however, is intended to serve to make the condi-tions more flexible. In thematic exhibitions of fine art the curator has since then as-sumed the function of an iconoclast, because he does not allow pictures to speak for themselves. The succession that is set up for visitors to the exhibition by the curator tells a story that goes beyond the individual picture or the individual work. In the pro-cess, in the context of fine art, curators have acquired something approaching artist status. One could also say that they are storytellers and produce a narrative and after the death of the author they are the protagonists of a stroke of genius who turn mes-sengers and carers – that is the helpers of Kafka or Walser – into pop stars who, like biology does, create added value, who in place of national economists are able to pass on the stock of national identity.
Meschac Gaba, born in Benin and living in Amsterdam, refers to this practice of the creation of cultural added value. As an artist he has been working for several years at his Museum of Contemporary African Art. Part of this museum includes banknotes with his own portrait on them. All the curators who have shown rooms from the mu-seum were also immortalised on poster-sized banknotes of their respective national currency. In Gaba’s work – according to the Fridericianum Museum in Kassel, which showed a large exhibition of the Museum of Contemporary African Art – money plays the role of the intercultural, a metaphor for exchange. In his work curators become the heroes of exchange, idols who lend iconic power to money, the universal equiva-lent.

In his book Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay in the Geography of Anger, the an-thropologist Arjun Appadurai speaks of vertebral and cellular systems. Vertebral are the old nation states, which like dinosaurs are attempting to defend their survival in the time of global capital, which is organised cellularly. In this connection, art and culture receive the task of a defensive lie: “The virtually complete loss of even the fiction of a national economy, which had some evidence for its existence in the eras of strong socialist states and central planning, now leaves the cultural field as the main one in which fantasies of purity, authenticity, borders, and security can be en-acted.” (Appadurai, Arjun. Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay in the Geography of Anger, Durham, NC, 2006, pp. 22-23.) So-called Passport Shows are increasing not only in fine art but also in theatre showcases, shop windows for nations, which present themselves as such. Curators travel between these showcases and operate an import-export business. Concepts such as nation and regionality, which are politi-cally discussed and called into question, are thereby re-staged and preserved in the framework of culture. Slavoj Zizek’s anecdote in his book on the crisis of capitalism In Defence of Lost Causes about ethnologists who went into the jungle in search of a horrific war dance with death masks of mud and wood fits in with this. They had heard that in the depths of the jungle there was a tribe of aborigines who practised something like that. When they got there, they explained with hand and foot gestures what they were looking for, in order to be presented with such a dance the next day. As researchers they felt they had been confirmed and returned home. Some years later, researchers returned to this tribe and found that the dance had been performed for the ethnologists as an act of hospitality. So what they had seen was not an an-cient ritual but a hastily improvised performance according to their own wishes. “In their discussions with the first group of explorers, the aborigines somehow guessed what the strangers wanted and quickly, in the night following their arrival, invented it especially for them, to satisfy their demand.” (Zizek, Slavoj. “Caught in Another’s Dream in Bosnia”, in: Why Bosnia? Stony Creek, Conn. 1993, p. 7. (In Defense of Lost Causes, London, 2009). When curators in the theatre or of festivals consider themes, they do it – we do it – certainly in constant analysis of the artistic practice we know and hopefully in the effort to establish a space in which this practice can con-tinue to develop. Nevertheless, this work is subject to the pull of the ethnological pro-ject mentioned, which as a result of expectation of particular content ultimately pro-duced what it expected. Curators are literally, as I already mentioned, guardians. Ac-cording to civil law, however, a curator is a legally employed overseer for a person who is not present. Perhaps it is also the task of curators to provide a space for those who have no voice, no place to speak, no space to show themselves, to perform. This would then be a legitimate consequence of civil law. Caring for the cultural herit-age is incumbent upon the curators of museums, who administer a collection or set up an exhibition. A curatorship is a supervising committee. In many places the classi-cal position of the dramaturge in the theatre has been replaced by curators. What does it mean if one attempts to transfer Harald Szeemann’s approach from fine art back to the theatre? If post-dramatic theatre does not repeat the narrative of the bourgeois but – sometimes explicitly in an anti-narrative way – concerns itself with forms and content, have thematically active curators in the theatre now taken over the role of inventing a framework action and nevertheless tell a story? The position of the curator in the theatre is thus in danger of restoratively founding an identity.

Post-dramatic theatre, performance at the theatre, is however with just as much justi-fication an image production machine as is film or fine art. Curators would then per-haps nevertheless have, as Groys says, the task of acting as iconoclasts. Not in the sense of permanent doubting and questioning of the visual nature of the image or the theatricality of theatre or the performativeness of performance, but in the sense of a performative setting and analysis of the artifice of the theatre, which for performance art is perhaps just as good or bad a space as the white cube for art. Perhaps. Per-haps, however, it is precisely a question of maintaining something like subjectivity beyond the classical narrative structure, something like the possibility, still to make objections and take responsibility against an over-powerful and ostensibly complex system, against determinism, also against that of the cultural pessimists. Curators as time travellers between post- and pre-, between the future and the past, curating the present, so avant-garde nevertheless. Bringing the system to a standstill, for one moment making it discernible. Shooting an arrow, as if dipped in curare. If it is the task of philosophy to conceptualise its time, as Hegel still said, perhaps it might be the task of the theatre, and thus the responsibility of curators, to bring deceleration onto the stage and so to make our time, facets of our present, discernible. To be poi-son against the commercialisation through materialisms of diverse origins. Not simply forming the canon out of the past, creating a new tradition. Using the theatre to pro-duce a discourse space that establishes no narrative in the classical sense but which opens an echo-chamber and launches an analysis of the present. Curators thereby inevitably come into competition with artists, who have always maintained this very role for themselves. Or does the arrow fired by the curators not even hit the system, but paralyses artistic practice, as my unnamed friend, who co-wrote this text, be-lieves and informed me in discussion? Contemporaneity is then more of a problem than an advantage, and curators should be dressed in nurses’ caps when they take their place in the caring professions of the cultural industry, which perhaps precisely in the theatre fears the revolutionary potential of art and nevertheless only wants to hear the old stories. The paralysing poison of curare then fails in its effect. And thus I maintain rather the production of resonance and the establishment of spaces for exchange, which have no paralysing effect but in the best case may have inspira-tional power. Generating proliferating cells, not malignant cells, fields from which perhaps an effect spreads and which – modestly – attempt an analysis of the status quo.

The text was first published in tanzheft 2, November 2009