The Surrealists liked to proclaim that everyone who dreams is a poet, and Joseph Beuys that everyone who creates is an artist. So much for the utopian days of aesthetic egalitarianism; maybe the best we can say today is that everyone who compiles is a curator. We curate our favourite photographs, songs and restaurants, or use numerous websites and applications to do it for us. Although ‘curating’ promises a new kind of agency, it might deliver little more than a heightened level of administration, as cultural interests are packaged as ‘curated’ consumption. Often enough this packaging is algorithmically automatic: ‘If you like that, you’ll love this.’ Such ‘curating’ suits a postindustrial economy in which our main task, when it is not to serve, is to consume. And when we curate songs or restaurants, or Spotify or Eater do it for us, what do we actually produce? As ‘cognitive labourers’, we manipulate information, which is to say we curate the given, and this compiling often presumes a good amount of compliance. Who among us considers what is signed over when we click ‘I agree’?
This problem is not taken up by the Swiss art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in his brief account of his formation as an Ausstellungsmacher, and it is no more than touched on by the Canadian art critic David Balzer in his breezy book about ‘how curating took over the art world – and everything else’. But both do point out how far we have come from the original avatars of the term (whose root is cura or ‘care’): the curatores, the civil servants who oversaw public works like the aqueducts in ancient Rome, and the curatus, the priest who attended to private matters like the soul in the medieval period. They also include, as any potted history of curating must, the arrangers of Renaissance Wunderkammern (the cabinets of curiosities whose objects pertain more to natural history than to art history), the keepers of royal collections of art, the décorateurs of paintings in the salons of the 18th century, and the organisers of such museums as the Louvre after the royal collections were nationalised.
Several of the scholars who founded the modern discipline of art history, such as Alois Riegl, were also important curators (Riegl oversaw the textile collections at the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna in the late 19th century). Closer to our time, however, a divide opened up between the university and the museum, as some academics were attracted to theory while most curators stuck to connoisseurship. This divide was less marked between academics and curators who worked on premodern periods – the Renaissance expert Michael Baxandall, for example, was greatly respected in both worlds – and some curators of 20th-century art are much admired in the academy (the Museum of Modern Art in New York has had a string of such figures, from William Rubin to John Elderfield to Leah Dickerman). Today the more telling split is between modern and contemporary fields (the latter has no exact birthdate – 1970, 1980, 1989), but this is a schism less between the university and the museum than between scholarly curators and flashy exhibition-makers. This split first developed as the modern art museum was penetrated by the culture industry, and then deepened as the contemporary art world expanded into the global business of biennials and fairs; with the first phenomenon came a demand for on-site entertainment, with the second a need for far-flung attractions. Little wonder that spectacle came to rule the day.
Obrist evinces this split between curator and impresario in his account of his own lineage. He picks out Henry Cole, the entrepreneur of the Great Exhibition in 1851, who erected the iron and glass Crystal Palace in Hyde Park not far from where Obrist currently works in the Serpentine Galleries. He also cites Sergei Diaghilev, the animator of the Ballets Russes, as a pioneer of the ‘modern form of Gesamtkunstwerk’. Of course leaders of early 20th-century movements like Futurism and Dada were showmen too: Marinetti published his ‘Founding Manifesto of Futurism’ on the front page of Le Figaro in 1909, and Tristan Tzara was a relentless promoter of Dada events. The avant-garde, mass media and scandal have often gone together; the difference today is that the proportions are way out of whack.
At the same time Obrist pays homage to serious curators who were not primarily provocateurs: the German Alexander Dorner, who directed the Hanover Museum from 1925 until he was ousted by the Nazis in 1937, commissioned avant-garde artists to design radical exhibition schemes; the Dutch Willem Sandberg, a member of the Resistance, who as curator and director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam between 1945 and 1962, championed experimental artists as they groped for a way forward after the Second World War; and the American Walter Hopps, who, with his staging of a landmark Duchamp retrospective in Pasadena in 1963, sparked a rethinking of Dada for an entire generation of Pop, Minimalist and conceptual artists in the United States. Obrist reserves his highest praise, though, for his immediate godfathers: the Swede Pontus Hultén, who, as head of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, organised the first Warhol retrospective in 1968 and went on to be the founding director of both the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; the Swiss Harald Szeemann, who advanced Post-Minimalist art involving unexpected materials and methods with his legendary exhibition Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form in Berne in 1969; and the German Kasper König, who pioneered the display of site-specific sculpture with an exhibition in Münster in 1977 (he has restaged this Skulptur Projekte every decade since). That Obrist singles out these three is telling, for they can be seen as transitional figures between the old school of modernist curators like Dorner and Sandberg and the new breed of spectacular exhibition-makers today. Szeemann actually preferred the label Ausstellungsmacher, and Obrist calls König a ‘cultural impresario’ as if there were nothing problematic about the job description.
In our time this line of exhibition-makers has split in two. Curators like Okwui Enwezor, who heads the Venice Biennale this year, and Lynne Cooke, senior curator at the National Gallery in Washington, continue to produce ambitious theme shows à la Szeemann and König. But a problem had already emerged in the 1990s: as some artists began to act as curators, rooting in storage rooms and exposing objects that museums would prefer not to exhibit, some curators began to behave like artists, juxtaposing works as if they were just so much aesthetic material to manipulate. Obrist shies away from this tendency: ‘I don’t believe in the creativity of the curator,’ he writes. Yet whatever his critics say, Obrist doesn’t fit the category of flashy exhibition-makers either. The standout figure here is Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator at large at MoMA, who is more likely to appear in the celebrity pages than in art magazines (he has arranged mostly vacuous retrospectives for crossover stars like Marina Abramović and Björk). Life-styling of this sort is depressing: such ‘curationism’ has little relation to scholarship, let alone to criticism (both are decidedly uncool), and little of the sense of service to patrimony or public that still motivates some curators in Europe. At the beginning of the practice known as ‘institutional critique’, Robert Smithson insisted that the artist must understand the apparatus he or she is ‘threaded through’ in order to challenge, if not to change, its operations. Today many artists are only too happy to be so threaded, and many curators only too eager to do the threading. Szeemann and König came up against a rigid system that they worked to free up; the new breed of exhibition-makers appears content not only to inhabit that loosened system, but to be the ‘agents’ (as they like to say) of its exploitation by the fashion, music and entertainment industries.
Obrist is earnest in his commitment to his artists; he describes his first encounters with the Swiss duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss, the French Christian Boltanski and the German Gerhard Richter as conversion experiences. And though he looks all of his 47 years, his energy has not flagged: a recent profile in the New Yorker counted roughly two thousand trips, 2400 hours of taped conversations and two hundred catalogues over the last twenty years (he has assistants, but still). Obrist arranged his first exhibition in a tiny kitchen while he was a student at St Gallen, and apparently he hasn’t cooked, or slept, much ever since; most of his life is spent on the road, seeking out collaborators and dreaming up exhibitions as if there were no tomorrow. Indeed the present – the sense of presence – is foremost in his sights. Obrist reports an epiphanic conversation with Matthew Barney in January 2000 about ‘a new hunger among artists for live experience’, and like his curatorial colleagues in ‘relational aesthetics’, Nicolas Bourriaud, head of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and Daniel Birnbaum, director of the Moderna Museet, he is devoted to ‘time-based’ art, especially performances and installations staged by artists of his generation like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster – apparently more formal work is too slow.
For Obrist curating involves not only extensive collaboration but also ‘infinite conversation’. In 2006, with another ‘mentor’, Rem Koolhaas, he launched the Serpentine Marathon, a ‘24-hour polyphonic knowledge festival where all kinds of disciplines meet’, and he has adapted this strategy of accumulation to other forms too, with compilations of ‘manifestos for the 21st century’, instructions for artworks to be made by others, as well as hundreds of interviews. This is not for everyone (for Sartre hell is other people; for me other people talking non-stop is a worse place), and certainly not enough attention is given to the quality of the discourse, or of the ‘community’ effected. For Obrist the doing is all.
These books by Obrist and Balzer, along with other volumes by Terry Smith and Paul O’Neill, help us to pick out three preconditions for the recent shift in exhibition-making, which should be grasped dialectically.The first was the conceptual art of the 1960s, especially as it prompted the ‘post-studio’ and ‘post-medium’ practices of the 1970s and 1980s. As Obrist says, conceptualism challenged ‘the idea of art as the production of material objects’, permitting almost anything – a statement, a snapshot, the slightest gesture – to qualify. On the one hand, this opened up the field of art, as is evident in the interdisciplinary terms that Obrist sees as essential to contemporary production – the Gesamtkunstwerk, the library, the archive, the collection, the laboratory. On the other hand, this interdisciplinarity has often come at the cost of disciplinary rigour, and the expansion of art has also meant an extension of its administration – in the sense of its market management as well as its academic study. Moreover, what art is a better match for an economy of ‘cognitive labour’ than one given over to immaterial knowledge? Obrist champions the ‘creative self’, which is the very term used by Luc Boltanski in his analysis of the ‘new spirit of capitalism’, and the Obristian motto ‘Don’t Stop’ perfectly suits the work regime that Jonathan Crary called, in a recent polemic, ‘24/7’.
Second, the shift in exhibition-making with Szeemann and König has had ambiguous consequences, which might be captured by way of a statement made by Jean-François Lyotard – ‘the exhibition is a postmodern dramaturgy’ – on the occasion of his 1985 show at the Centre Pompidou, Les Immatériaux, which Obrist regards as another landmark. (The press release suggests the flavour of the event: ‘A whirlwind of stopped paths where you will draw your own. Sites of biogenetics and visual arts, architecture and astrophysics, of music and food, of physics and clothing, a maze of linguistical machines, of habitats and photography, industry and law. Miles of invisible wiring. And our questions: reality, material, equipment, matrix of meaning, and who is the author?’) On the one hand, this ‘postmodern dramaturgy’ suggests a way in which the theme show, opened up to philosophers like Lyotard, can stage key questions of the time, as Les Immatériaux did in relation to his theses about the end of ‘master narratives’ and the rise of new knowledge protocols. On the other hand, such staging can easily slip from inquiry into showmanship. There is a further twist with Obrist, who in the end is more networker than impresario, for if we are to believe Luc Boltanski, networking is more conducive to the new spirit of capitalism than spectacle is. In a sense Obrist is a human aggregator, almost a social-media-in-person or a hive-mind of one. This is implicit not only in his hectic meeting and greeting but also in his semi-anonymous prose, which calls to mind the language of a collective Wiki-brain. For a Bildungsroman of a kind, Ways of Curating doesn’t display much personality; Obrist is rather like Warhol in this regard (certainly they share a compulsion to record), a cipher who is at once iconic and spectral.
Third, 1989 is a hinge moment for this generation of curators. Born in 1968, Obrist pins his hopes on the transformative years when he came of age, and in many ways he is a product of the cultural interchange facilitated by ‘the new Europe’. Inspired by the Martinican writer Edouard Glissant, Obrist is also taken by notions of artistic ‘creolisation’ and ‘archipelic thought’. Yet what Glissant and Obrist call a new mondialité that allows for cultural alterity others might see as a globalisation that homogenises such differences. It is both, of course, and that is what must be understood. At times Obrist is almost Panglossian about our neoliberal age; I suppose it would be hard to move as fast as he does if he weren’t powered by positive thinking.
And what about all those shows, conversations and books, with the prospect of many more to come? Obrist is exemplary but not singular in this respect, and it prompts one to wonder for what present, let alone what future, such archives are compiled. What viewer-reader, now or later, will be able to process it all? (Could it be that all this curating needs a … curator?) Obrist presents his project, especially the conversation marathons, as a ‘protest against forgetting’ (a phrase borrowed from Eric Hobsbawm, one of his many interviewees), but his avant-gardism also commits him to ceaseless innovation. One of his guiding principles is that an exhibition ‘should always invent a new rule of the game’, or at least ‘a new display feature’. And Obrist thinks in terms not of specific histories of forms, genres, mediums or even exhibitions, but of one big ‘history of the format’; the last lines in his credo concern how ‘digital curating’ will develop ‘new formats’ for ‘our future’. All this flying around, inventing rules and reformatting might indeed be a protest against forgetting; it could also be a fast track to oblivion.