Sunday, February 2, 2014

I am a Curator - 10 years later

by Per Hüttner

Background and Introduction
In 2003 I was commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery in London to create a project that developed the experimental exhibition practice that I had been engaged in during the preceding years. The outcome was I am a Curator (IAAC), a complex project that offered a different interface for the audience both to interact with artwork and exhibition. The project was a collective effort in every sense of the word and involved a large number of creators. At least 150 individuals contributed in different ways to the project. During the six weeks that it was open to the public, IAAC offered 30 individuals and groups the opportunity to investigate the work of 57 artists and if they so wished to, create a presentation or exhibition at the end of the day. Together we ensured that the project could sustain and develop its core problematics in a dynamic way.

IAAC had a distinct structure, yet lacked a clearly formulated hypothesis. This meant that countless interesting and inspiring issues surfaced while we were working in the gallery. Many issues have only become clear during the following decade of reflection. This text explores central issues that the project provoked at the time and describes how IAAC has played an important role in challenging (and changing) our outlook on artwork and exhibitions.

This text is based on notes and discussions in conjunction with an event that commemorated the ten-years anniversary of IAAC that took place at David Roberts Art Foundation in London on October 29, 2013.


Contextualizing - Performance’s Influence on Exhibitions
In order to understand IAAC and its impact on exhibition-making it is important to understand its art-historical context and especially how it draws from performance art. With the birth of performance in the 1960s, a profound shift in how exhibitions operate started taking place. Artists and curators alike realised that exhibitions do not have to remain static, which means that many artists, curators and critics have investigated how exhibitions can change over time. This change in outlook has ­­allowed art to function according to a logic that is closer to life - where each day offers an infinite set of opportunities for surprise and change.
In particular,three problematics were not present in exhibitions before the development of performance art:

    1.    What happens if we open the exhibition to change throughout its duration?
    2.    What happens to our conception of artwork when it remains unfinished until the end of the exhibition?
    3.    What happens when the visitor sees, or even becomes a part of the artistic research/production process?

It is also important to underline that virtually all of the 57 artists in IAAC were unknown to the UK audience at the time. It allowed everyone involved in the project to focus on the artwork rather than the names and permitted IAAC to develop a strategy that puts the focus back on the artwork and on the question of how different artwork interact with each other within an exhibition. This is fundamentally different from the emphasis on the “brand name” and artists’ personality, private life or biography that is central to the art market. 

Three Core Problematics of IAAC
IAAC was created with the above considerations in mind. Still, the project took the discussions one step further. The project did so by introducing ceaseless research and change in the gallery. Every day was different because members of the audience had the possibility to select and research artwork for a full day according to their own wishes. This opened a space for reflection on three new problems:

    1.    What happens if expectations of the visitor are not met? The visitor to IAAC did not know which artwork(s) would be on display when he or she arrived at the gallery. This became particularly clear if they came to see an artwork by a friend, or by an artist that they liked, simply because the work might not be on display. In other words, the exhibition became a “blind date.” Interestingly, expectation is something that neuroscience has studied in great detail in recent years. Researchers have made much progress in showing that there is an important congruity between what is “expected” and what is “experienced.” The brain is no longer considered a receiver of a surrounding reality, rather it projects what is expected and responds to its violations. To make a gross oversimplification, the brain expects that everything will stay the same and focuses on finding where this prediction is not fulfilled (See further Stephen Whitmarsh’s text below).

    2.    Can the knowledge that is produced become more individualized? IAAC proposed that the exhibition is not a site for exchange where the artist and curator have knowledge that the visitor lacks. Instead it focused on how the interconnection between creators and audience can be enhanced and encouraged. IAAC argued that an exhibition is a site where the knowledge of visitor and creators interact, rub up against each other – sometimes in unison and sometimes in opposite directions. The project also aspired to prove that with this outlook on art, the outcome of the interaction between audience and exhibition creates more space for individuality. It allows room for more variation - replacing universal readings. So in the end, what is drawn from the exhibition (both on the side of the audience and creator) remains coloured by expectation, previous knowledge and a sea of personal histories and backgrounds that might come into play.

    3.    Can an exhibition become a true laboratory and what does that mean for individual artwork? The working process at the end of the six weeks that IAAC was open to the public was fundamentally different from what it had been in the beginning of the project. The exhibition became a site for research and for learning for everyone involved in the process. The open-ended nature of exhibition making became even more underlined – allowing for more collective and individual learning.

Habit, Social Conventions and Art
IAAC brought these issues into the limelight and at the same time questioned both social conventions and unwritten rules (in life and in the art world.) We all know that there are invisible rules of conduct that make our lives together function smoothly and that we abide to these on a daily basis without even thinking. However in order to be creative and to find solutions to new problems, we need to encourage, develop and nurture counter-intuitive thinking (the reversal of the logic of how the brain works above offers an excellent example.) Or phrased differently, humanity is dependent both on adherence to rules and rule-breaking for its survival and well-being.

By breaking both the artists’ and the audience’s expectation about exhibitions, IAAC questioned some invisible and yet commonly accepted norms about the nature of art and how it is presented to its audiences. IAAC made it clear that artists and curators alike have little control over the reception of the artwork – something that was particularly unsettling for some participants in the project. –It is of the utmost importance to realize, however, that this does not mean that creators are fumbling in the dark! Quite the contrary: artists and curators have vast knowledge and experience that they draw from in their everyday practice. In fact, here we find what differentiates art from the scientific method. Where science goes from not knowing towards knowing, art deals with those aspects of life in which  there are no answers and never will be. Art helps us to accept, live with and enjoy our shared impotence in front of the great metaphysical (or existential) questions – especially since this lack of knowing is shared by all of humanity.

In other words, IAAC offered a changed interface between artwork, exhibition and audience that provoked reflections on time, collectivity and on how we live and think together. What at first glance appears to be a formal reflection on art, slowly reveals itself to be a reflection on how we, as individuals interact with life. By reflecting on expectation, knowledge and temporality in creative ways, the project invited each participant and visitor to reflect on how habit shapes his/her existence and to see how much we take for granted when we enter into a culturally defined space such as a gallery or museum. Habit never sleeps, it creeps up on us and we need to be on guard all our lives in order to find beauty and depth in the world that surrounds us and not be held hostage by yesterday’s values.

Towards Infinity
No individual artwork was ever presented in the same way twice during IAAC - they were not even stored in the same way. This constant flux rendered visible that the number of interpretations of each individual artwork remains infinite. Importantly,  infinite does not mean arbitrary. Each artwork contains and  retains a unique nature and it is these qualities that define what can be drawn from it. Our experience of the artwork and our interpretations are connected to the work’s physical properties (whether these are ephemeral or not): its size, shape, colour, duration, narrative, smell and any other characteristic that can be applicable. These qualities will in its turn interact with the vast knowledge, memories and experiences that each individual person carries in their minds and bodies. In other words: From the observation that the number of interpretations remains infinite, we cannot deduce or reduce beyond the inherent expression of the artwork. As a logical outcome of this reasoning, we can equally state that each exhibition is a collection of infinities (artworks) that make up another “larger” infinity. It is because of these dialogues between infinities that artwork and exhibitions that allow art and exhibitions to play an important role in our lives. We can never understand art, any more than we can understand our existence. Yet the art and exhibitions offer beauty and platforms for dialogues about our individual experiences of the infinite and incomprehensible.  They help us open our curiosity and become springboards for discovering aspects of life that would remain hidden if it weren’t for art.

[1] These problemetics are exposed in two important pieces that were an inspiration during the conception and production of IAAC. The first one is Chris Burden’s Bed Piece (1972), in which the artist slept in the gallery­ for 22 days without talking to anyone. The second one is Nathan Coley’s The Lamp of Sacrifice (161 Places of Worship, Birmingham, 2000), where the artist spent six weeks at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham making cardboard copies of the city’s churches. Something unexpected happened to the artist’s identity in both these projects. Paradoxically enough, it was as if the artist’s persona lost importance. They stopped being Burden and Coley and became church copiers and sleepers. Although both artists were present in the space throughout the duration the projects, there was nothing biographical about what they presented: they stopped being authors in any traditional sense. Instead they became automatons producing a new interface for the audience to mirror their own lives in the activities of the artists. The body of the artist took centre stage and at the same time the identity of the artist evaporated, opening the door to a new form of communication between artist, exhibition and audience.

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