Curating as environ-mentalism
‘to find a frame, a timing or a situation within which suggestions of others can be realized’ tom plischke (1)
1. In this text I would like to focus on a particular form of curatorship: a practice that grew out of (and in opposition to) the ‘new’ style of programming of the 1980’s institutions. An attitude in thinking about curating in which the role of the programmer and the role of the artist start to intertwine. I’d like to talk about a curatorship that tries to redefine the boundaries put up by the institutions that were built for the production modes and logic of a generation of autonomous artists, a rethinking of the role of the institution by introducing the notions of vulnerability, risk and imperfection into the programming idiom, and a translation of the ‘relational esthetics’ of the visual arts towards a more ecological phrasing of the time and space shared by the performers, ‘spectactors’, public members and the resisting (art)objects they encounter.
An important experience for me in my role of spectator, and a starting point for this ramble through the focus points of my memory, was the 10 day performance event BDC/Tom Plischke and Friends organized in 2001 in the temporary site of the Beursschouwburg in Brussels (which was at that point being renovated): the BSBbis. Talking to then dance programmer Carine Meulders, it became clear to me that this project already introduced a lot of elements that in the next 10 years would become important tools in rethinking the performance arts notions of curatorship and the role of the artist/curator, but also the re-creation of the institution by introducing derogatory practices within its territory (another use of space, time, and the distinction between performers and audience members), and another way of thinking the social body of participants of the environment created by (but not limited to) the programmed events.
Practically BDC/Tom Plischke & Friends started as the idea to show two of the BDC performances (Affects and (Re)SORT), while at the same time creating a completely new environment of parallel performances, workshops, discourse sessions, concerts , films and informal encounters. Collaborators to this projects were artists like Marten Spangberg, Hygiene Heute, Alice Chauchat, Davis Freeman, Lilia Mestre. There was a theoretical programme with workshops organized by Jeroen Peeters and Steven De Belder with contributions from Gerald Siegmund, Jan Ritsema, Stefanie Wenner, Kattrin Deufert etc… The project ran for 10 days, 24 hours a day, and invited both artists and audience members to share the space not only for the performances and workshops, but also to spend the time in-between together, even spending the night at the venue, maximalizing the potential of the unexpected, of the informal encounter, of experiencing the changing atmosphere of the space-at-work/at-leisure.
An important factor in this project was the fact that it was set up initially without a definite space in mind: the regular Beursschouwburg was at that time in reconstruction, and the working of the theatre had not yet found another location, nor was it clear if another theatre space was exactly what the artistic team needed at that point. In that sense the project that was being developed in an important degree also changed the thinking about the institution-in-transition, and the project location BSBbis (in a relatively un heimlich part of Brussels)also became the temporary location for the adventurous working of the Beursschouwburg in the years before their move back to the renovated theatre in the centre. Two timings in this sense were developing simultaneously: the creation of the project, and the search for a location, and both logics became intertwined on the crossroads of the need for mobility and flexibility of the programme and its realization.
What was important in the realization of this project was the coming together of different social bodies: the first 24h group of 60 artists, opening up to a wider group of participants for the workshops and discourse sessions and folding open to the ‘regular’ public around performance time. Interesting in the thinking about the role of the curator in this case was the fact that Tom Plischke himself spent a lot of the most ‘public’ moments together with Kattrin Deufert in a reenactment of Andy Warhol’s Sleep in bed in the café, preferring the nightly hours for experiencing the ‘other’ space of the BSB bis, another kind of performativity only visible to the night watcher or another sleepless soul. The traditional ‘visibility’ of the curator (as we know it from the classical view on curatorship in the visual arts, where the curation, in itself an artistic gesture, is signed and recognized) was broken up in the working of the project, by the curator giving up his central function, only shaping the timing and the situation of the event, but not the content frame that had to be filled. In other words: the curation was not so much about creating an agenda for discussion but in negotiating the format of the agenda in the first place.
What these 10 days also produced were the blurry boundaries between ‘performance’ and ‘daily life’, between social rituals and performative work, between production time and performance time, reevaluating the value of the moment, of the difference between ‘full’ and ’empty’ time.
As Tom Plische said himself: ‘I think that every collaboration has its time and that you learn throughout the collaboration to discover its mechanics.'(1) He was talking about BDC in this quote and not specifically about the BDC-event, but as a reference point in understanding the mechanics of the kind of curatorship that would be developed more intensely in the years to come it is an important one. The curatorship not only being about bringing together works of art, creating different resonances and echoes, rethinking one work through the other, thinking about differences and repetitions, but also about creating openings and weaknesses in the curating, allowing vulnerability and ’empty moments’ to be fully part of the experience. The importance of this stance on curatorship is that it takes a clear distance from the power and control strategies of the regular performing arts field, allowing risk to enter into the project set-up, and putting into question not only the authorship of the artist/curator, but also the market value of the artistic product.
Again Tom Plischke: ‘The utopia probably doesn’t consist of creating a temporary community or communitas. Rather it shows that if we gather for a performance, every momentary created element is part of the social or communicative system that we set up together. If you look at it from the point of view of Luhmann’s system theory you know that there are only these momentary elements and not also something like an overall system. The possibility of failure, vulnerability, is there when you no longer know when you will lose your ground. That is what is important to me: to introduce the conviction that the system for which the public pays and that in fact is created by the performers and the public together, at the same time is not there at all.'(1)
The BSB bis event had a follow-up in the arts centre Vooruit in Ghent in 2002: b-visible, a 72 hours event, curated by Tom Plischke, Kattrin Deufert and Jeroen Peeters. This time the project had the theoretical content-focus of queerness and visibility, and also in this case the project inspired a different kind of working and curating within the institution: the ‘intensification’ of performance events, transdisciplinary programming and parcours work, folding open the building and showing it in different states of living and working, became one of the driving forces of the artistic programming team of Vooruit in the years to come.
2. Curating as institutional prosthesis and critique
To understand this kind of curating and even the ‘institutionalization’ of these forms of curatorship, we have to take a look at the scene as it was at that point. As you could read in the interviews with Hilde Teuchies and Hannah Hurtzig elsewhere in this issue, the 1980’s had produced arts centres and later on as well subsidized work spaces for artistic production and research, but with a new gulf of artists entering the scene, with the need of rethinking the disciplinary boundaries, and the cry for a more ‘holistic’ thinking about arts practice and discourse development, these institutions proved not always to be the ideal spaces for rethinking production parameters and disciplinary boundaries. A lot of these spaces by the beginning of the new millennium had found their specific ways of cyclic programmation, working with yearly program books and subscriptions. For the new generations of artists that no longer (wanted to ) fit the institutional agenda’s, it was important to find new formats of working. On the other hand, also another generation of programmers wanted to find a way of breaking open the institutional formatting to once again free the space for the artists. It is in that middle field, in this open space, that the programmer and the artist/curator found each other: in the want of the programmer to challenge the ways of the system, and in the need of the artist to escape the programming logic of the subsidiary system (first you get a residency in a workspace, then you get (not) picked up by one of the bigger arts centers, etc…). The need to break out of this production logic produced a kind of solidarity movement within the artist community to translated itself into different artist initiatives, that all in their own ways, tried to break open the logic of the arts scene market. An example of this is ‘Praticable’, an initiative created in 2005 by Alice Chauchat, Frédéric de Carlo, Frédéric Gies, Isabelle Schad and Odile Seitz, as an answer to programmer’s demands. The ‘open collective’ share no more than body practices, out of which each member can create his/her own work, in collaboration or not with other Praticable (2) members. But the interesting part is that whenever one of them is programmed, they program one of their colleagues as a 20 minute opening programme to their own show. The curatorial aspect here has nothing to do with content, nor with a specific kind of esthetics, but everything with reclaiming the fundaments of the production mechanisms of the performance scene.
In Belgium, these curatorial initiatives rarely thrive outside of the institutional framework. More often than not we could speak about a curatorial redistribution of the institutional: the artist/curator claims his/her position within an (or more) arts house(s), and than re-distributes the means his position produces with a larger number of networked artists and thinkers. It is a way of working that is sustained by for example a workspace like nadine(3) in Brussels, who ‘lends’ its house and (part of its)budget for six months to an artist/curator that will in these months open up his working to other artists, opening up for public moments every now and then and to varying groups of interested, participating or involved ‘spectactors’.
Talking to artists these last years, the remark that always comes back is that they want to ‘escape’ the institutional logic that renders them passive, that makes them wait in the row to be ‘picked up’, be ‘chosen’, to go through all the predescribed steps to become a recognized artist. Not only do a lot of them no longer aspire to this notion of ‘the artist’, since they are involved in rewriting the rules for artistic authorship in complex ways of collaborative and/or communal practice that defy the programming system, but they also want to get rid of the frustrating passivity they find themselves in when confronted with the ways of the subsidiary system. Not in the least since this system seems to be crumbling down a bit more every year.
In that sense the curatorial position regains its good old etymology of hospitality, of ‘taking care’ of the networked community. But on the other hand it also creates a new paradigm for the re-distributer, the artist/curator who is at the same time claiming his vulnerability by offering an empty frame for working by sending out an (open) invitation to the scene, and defending his position as the creator of this frame as an art work in itself. It would bring us too far to analyze all the different possible models of re-distribution here, or to define the criteria for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ positioning between the institution and the independent field. But it is certain that in every one of these projects the boundaries are put into question again, in the best cases producing a sense of renewal within the institution, as well as in the artistic and curatorial practices of all the participants.
3. What we see happening in the performance scene is thus a transition from curating the artists, over curating the art works (as it happened in the two Klapstuk festivals for contemporary dance, curated by Jerôme Bel in 2003 and 2005, and claimed by him as his ‘art work’ in a newspaper interview)to the curation of a space, of a social body, shared by artists, audience members, and ‘art objects’. A space in negotiation and transition, under constant threat of on the one hand folding into itself or on the other opening up to the spectacular, the easy-to-consume festivalitis of the arts. It is a space that demands time and attention for a sense of belonging (beit critical or engaged, active or passive) to grow, that bridges the all-too-easily claimed positions of the artist, programmer, spectator or critic. An extraordinary example of this kind of curating was achieved by André Lepecki in his two In-Transit festivals in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. Although in this case his curatorship had a clear discourse stamp – colored by (neo)post-colonial performance themes, and in that sense certainly was more than an empty box for gathering and exchange – his creation within the quite heavily institutional frame of the peculiar architecture of the Haus of an open house for discussion ( opening up out of the Lab sessions (the first year assisted by Brian Massumi and Erin Manning, the second year self-organized), interacting through the public discussions, entering into the fabric of the bar discussions) was a beautiful example of how even within the institution the rules can be bent in such a way as to produce a subtly different common ground to work on. Artists and theoreticians, lab students and critics sharing the same space for a prolonged period of time, for discussions, concerts, parties, eating in the garden, and working, broke the frame of the ‘festival’ as consumerist high-point of the cultural year, and produced a quite different, vulnerable working space that didn’t fall into the trap of easily created critical oppositions. Instead what appeared was a generous atmosphere for engaged thinking and working, always bumping into the prickly theme of the festival’s programmation: the resistance of the object. Understood out of the postcolonial context the festival referred to and the distinctly non-Western attendance of the artist and theoreticians, this thinking frame was in itself challenging enough not to have to refrain to the well-known strategies of ‘interesting’ discussion, which are mainly quoting and opposition.
In-Transit was an example of an ‘environmentalist’ approach to curation, a careful ecological balancing exercise between given elements, the creation of a frame for the formation of a social body in constant transformation, and the channels for the inspiration and flow of knowledge to find its way to the different sub-groups of interests participating in the festival.
What made that this festival didn’t get trapped in the festivalitis context, (unlike for example the Trance festival organized by HAU a couple of years ago), was its attitude, its openness instituted by the curatorial organization of space and time, by the distribution of proximity and accessibility of the different participants groups, by the care for the food, the library, the focusses of attention. In that way the difference between working and watching, between practicing theory and performance, between participants and audience members was minimalized, without giving up on the challenge, the invitation for positioning yourself within the given parameters. Here, as in the BDC example, the space for the arts was stretched out into the surrounding park, the cafetaria, the hall ways and the metro back to the hotel.
4.In short, if I speak in this text about an understanding of curatorship in the performing arts, I speak about a very specific understanding of curatorship: a shared curatorship, putting into question the authorial roles and introducing new potentials for exchange and sharing of (artistic) material, a curatorship that extends the invitation to rethink the ecology of the arts system from within, without introducing definite new ideological standpoints or stubborn critical certainties. A curatorship not so much as a statement but as a redistribution of power that makes us rethink the fabric of our social bodies and belonging. A curating of the now, in the moment of its unfolding.
I like the definition Nigel Thrift gives of a rethinking of a political attitude in his ‘Non-Representational Theory’: ‘a potentiality that is brought into being only as it acts or exists in the interstices of interaction’.
If this is so, the whole idea of curating is no longer based on fixed points in space, performances in venues. The real curating is the non-curated part of the interstices, of the places in-between, of the potential of the situation for changing one’s attitude, one’s mind or one’s sense of belonging. The curatorial practice in that sense opens up cracks in the system in the space, where things can happen that were not programmed nor foreseeable. Encounters between people, between people and objects, architecture, history, thoughts and ideas roaming the space that can be picked up by anyone, rephrased and relaunched in another conversation, left as a trace for someone else to pick up, etcetera. The environmentalism is about allowing for that to happen.
In a space like that, the role of the curator and the artist become interchangeable, as does the role of the spectator. Since the curatorial attitude is one of creating a space in which anyone could feel empowered to start creating or changing it by their input, the spectator is confronted with a serious challenge here, albeit possibly in the guise of a somewhat obscure invitation. It is an invitation to allows them to get affected by the circumstances, to actively open up to this potential change, not necessarily by actively getting out there, but by opening up their perspectives on what might happen. It is this oscillating promise that creates the space and the social body within it. This kind of unspoken promise that something is going on, connecting all elements within the given parameters, rendering palpable the intuition that any kind of change happening within it also creates a change in the whole of the constellation.
The radical change in the position of the spectator, is one of attitude, is precisely that he leaves behind his position and starts looking for a connection, that he inscribes himself in the bigger story that is being written, not so much for him, but with him. Although this might sound as a bit of an ideal situation, with the right set-up of time and space, allowing for gaps and interstices, and (very importantly) including the whole organizational team in adapting and communicating this attitude, it has proven itself to be possible.
At that point the curatorial politics are no longer superficially provoking an (un)wanted interactive dynamic between spectators and performers, but about allowing them to rethink their role in the whole. Whatever is being said or done in that space is no longer an abstract message sent out to an abstract receiver, but becomes a piece of constantly changing information, that passes through every individual present in a personal, although non-autobiographical, way. It is for him to pick it up or leave it stranding, to make a choice or give over to the flow, to be critical, enthusiastic, a glitch in the circulation, or a conductor or the environmental energy. But he will know that whatever position he chooses to take on will in some way change the outlook of the constellation.
Elke Van Campenhout
(1) Translation of fragment out of ‘De belofte van ‘het” (The promise of ‘it’): Tom Plischke in interview with Rudi Laermans , Carine Meulders and Kattrin Deufert, in relation to the performance BDC/Tom Plischke and Friends in BSB bis, 2001. Complete text can be found in the anthology of Rudi Laermans on www.sarma.be