Petit Cahier du Curateur

Curatorial Auteur Theory and The Best Bogus Botanical Garden

I

In 1953 François Truffaut wrote a scathing commentary on contemporary French filmmaking, without ever having directed a film of his own.[1] Ironically, three young curators are now taking a stance in one of curating’s thorniest matters, having only curated one exhibition.

Their upcoming exhibition The Best Bogus Botanical Garden (heliumcowboy, Hamburg, 23 March – 13 April 2017) aims to foreground art practices that explore the shifting relationship between humans and the natural world. More specifically, the participating artists simulate the very nature we have become disconnected from, either by manipulating organic elements in new forms, or by inventing their own materials. To further enhance the illusory character of the works of art, the exhibition is devised to be a fully immersive environment. The curators of The Best Bogus Botanical Garden will literally transform the white cube gallery space into a botanical garden, completely artificial, or bogus, in the sense that it will not contain any living organism: either its elements will be artworks, or they will be fake decor pieces. Hence, they are putting themselves on the slippery slope that is producing something creative.

II

But producing something creative is not what a curator is traditionally supposed to do. Classic descriptions of what a curator is mostly refer to its etymological origin: stemming from the Latin verb ‘curare’, a curator is literally a caretaker, usually of a collection of objects.[2] This definition has then been modified into its current commonly agreed up form in which a curator is someone who safeguards the objects, enriches the collection they belong to, contributes to art history through his research of them, and lastly, presents them to the public.[3] Arguably, it is precisely the latter task “that has most come to define the contemporary practice; one could even argue that a neologism is needed, so completely has the curator-as-Ausstellungsmacher, or exhibition-maker, departed from the traditional role of caretaking.”[4] It is also precisely in the fulfilling of this task that the curator has undertaken steps towards his own creative process. And this practice has proven to be problematic – for example artist Anton Vidokle characterized it as a “colonization of artistic practice” and a sign that “curatorial power and arrogance are out of control.”[5] It definitely destabilizes the long-established art-curator dichotomy, because it raises the question: “Is the curator creating something with artistic quality?”

III

For Vidokle, and with him many other critics (artists but also curators alike), the curator is, or believes he is. They have voiced strong concerns about the blurring of the roles in this curator-as-artist model.

The common line of argumentation states that in his move away from conventional modes of display, the curator “is preoccupied with the exhibition as a medium for expression in and of itself, supposedly dichotomised from artistic practice.”[6] Rather than being an invisible tool to show artist’s work, the exhibition becomes the Gesamtkunstwerk of the curator.[7] In other words, the main issue is that in creatively making an exhibition, the curator starts to generate meaning, which is genuinely considered to be the critical function of the artist.[8] In this sense, the discussion shifts towards a power struggle: it is perceived that “the ‘semantic ascent’ of the curator accompanies the ‘semantic descent’ of the artist and his work.”[9] The following step in this train of thought is then that the curator’s position as inventor of the exhibition overshadows the part the work of the artist plays. As curator Paul O’Neill writes, there is a “conflict between the agency of the artwork and that of the exhibition. It can be said that we are more likely to remember the curator and his/her conceptual integrity, than the participant artists, thus artwork and artist are “subsumed by the identity of the whole curatorial endeavour.”[10] In conclusion then, the artist and his work merely serve as an exemplification of the curatorial concept, the curator acting “as an overriding figure or auteur who uses artwork to illustrate his or her own theory.”[11]

IV

In fact, the comparison between the curator and the auteur has been made before.[12] Today the words ‘auteur’ and ‘director’ are often used synonymously, even though the former started out as a refinement of the latter. It was cineaste François Truffaut who, in the 1950s’ French film criticism journal Cahiers du Cinéma, sharply distinguished two types of directors.[13] The first one, and the one he opposed, was the director who merely converted scripts into visuals. This so-called “metteur-en-scène” was no more than a technician, deflecting attention from the potential inherent in the filmmaking process.[14] The auteur-director on the contrary, transcended this stereotypical way of working, aspiring to develop a deeply subjective and consistent style and theme. Even though the film was acknowledged to be the result of a collaborative effort, what was shown in the frame and how it was shown was decided upon by the mastermind auteur-director. By infusing such a personal vision in creating the film’s entire mise-en-scène, the auteur-director’s status could be elevated to that of an artist.[15]

In their influential article “From Museum Curator to Exhibition Auteur” Nathalie Heinich and Michael Pollak wrote of a transition they witnessed in curatorial practice, “an evolution from a professional position which is institutionally and collectively defined in terms of its post (for our purposes, the curator) to the progressive autonomization of function (the exhibition curator), itself capable of authorizing a more independent and personalized position which is that of the auteur.”[16] They then traced the analogies between the auteur-director and the exhibition curator.[17] After asserting the validity of the comparison between exhibition making and cinema in terms of scope and production, they formulated three conditions for a curator to achieve the role of an auteur, which encapsulate the key characteristics of the auteur-director. Firstly, the curator needs to have a specific thematic, “a unit of personal preoccupations.”[18] With intrinsic conviction, he needs to decide and select which ideas he want to convey. Secondly, he has to have a certain stylistic appraisal of the works, which is mostly expressed through installation choices. The final condition is that the public perceives the exhibition as a whole, and not just as a transparent medium. The personal take on what and how works are shown in the frame of a gallery space, thus becomes the auteur-curator’s equivalent of the auteur-director’s mise-en-scène.

This understanding of the auteur-curator was further promulgated by curator Jens Hoffmann. In the preface of the first issue of The Exhibitionist, a journal dedicated to exhibition making practices which Hoffmann co-founded in 2010, he stated that the magazine was in fact precisely inspired by the arduous cultural criticism and the belief in the auteur of the Cahiers du Cinéma. Moreover, Hoffmann sees the curator as the auteur-director’s counterpart, considering their work as that of Foucauldian authors, as “an act of choosing from a number of possibilities, an imposition of order within a field of multiple (and multiplying) artistic concerns.”[19] Just like the auteur-director, “a curator’s role is precisely to limit, exclude, and create meaning using existing signs, codes, and materials.”[20] His take on curatorial practice aligns with the ideas of Heinich and Pollak, emphasizing the importance of selection (or the theme) and creative design (the style). Hoffmann is also known for putting this theory into practice: in his attempt to diversify the traditional typologies of exhibition making, he has staged imaginative exhibitions that that testify of his own vision, such as the associative display of Camera of Wonders (KADIST, October 2015 – July 2016) or the innovative sci-fi/race/contemporary art world of Alien Nation (ICA London, 2006). Telling about Hoffmann’s curatorial projects is perhaps that his background originally was in theatre, having had extensive experience with dramaturgy and stage-setting – not unlike the godfather of auteur-curators, Harald Szeemann.[21]

Szeemann started a cabaret with some friends when he was 18, exactly during the emergence of the auteur cinema, and later on decided to run it solo: “I was doing everything by myself – a one-man style of theater [sic] that reflected my ambition to realize a Gesamtkunstwerk.”[22] This strive would afterwards manifest itself in his practice as “Ausstellungsmacher”[23]: in legendary exhibitions such as Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (Kunsthalle Bern, 1969), Documenta V (Kassel, 1972) or Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk (Kunsthaus Zürich, 1983) Szeemann pioneered “the romantic conception of the curator as inspired partner of the artist, a creative actor who generates original ideas and structures through which art enters public consciousness.”[24] It is commonly agreed upon that, for better or worse[25], Szeemann transformed the idea of curating, making it no longer a scholarly practice, but an “individually authored activity.”[26]

V

It is certainly not the aim of the curators of The Best Bogus Botanical Garden to inscribe themselves in a direct lineage starting with Harald Szeemann.[27] However, they are aware that, for this exhibition, they are embedded in the critical theory of curating surrounding it. They would have to acknowledge that they meet Heinich and Pollak’s conditions: they have chosen artistic simulations of the nature humans have disconnected from as their distinct thematic, they have chosen artworks within this concept, and they have devised a coherent stylistic approach to the mode in which the art will be displayed, a botanical garden. Because the exhibition has not opened yet, they cannot confirm their meeting of the third condition, the reception of the public, but they predict visitors will grasp the curatorial project in its entirety. Furthermore, they concur with Hoffmann’s interpretation of curating, influenced by Szeemann, as a meaning producing activity through personal selection and they are in the same way interested in playing with new modes of display and unhinging the artist/curator dichotomy. In sum, The Best Bogus Botanical Garden could be considered as an auteur-curators’ exhibition project.

However, if the analogy of the auteur-director and curator works, then this would in extremis also mean that the curator’s status is elevated to that of an artist. And this is absolutely not the intention of the curators of The Best Bogus Botanical Garden; they very explicitly do not think of themselves as artists by creating the botanical environment. Heinich and Pollak do not really address this issue, and Hoffmann does not believe the position of auteur-curator equals being an artist, but he also does not think it is the point of the approach.[28]

Nevertheless, there is a helpful way to think of the artistic role of the auteur-curator, and it starts with art historian and critic Terry Smith’s comment that “a mistake in logic is being made when “acting like x” is (mis)understood as “being x,” in the sense of “being the same as x.”[29] Curators are not artists the moment they operate in a personal, creative way. As art historian and critic Claire Bishop recognizes the “impossibility of a “pure“ and uninflected presentation of art”[30], should the employment of the curator’s subjectivity and following creative power not be embraced? Also curator Isobal Harbison questions this: “How can we still presume that most exhibitions are, and should be, underpinned by objective logic when curators, as much as any of us, are guided by their own deeply personal responses to work?”[31] To call up the curator as an auteur then, does not seem to mean to colonize artistic practice, but simply to acknowledge the particular position of the curator trying to render visible deeply personal opinions inspired by and concerning the artworks in an exhibition’s framework, preferably whilst working closely with artists.[32]

Essentially, the curators of The Best Bogus Botanical Garden wish to do the same as the collective Giulia & Joe: “the role we attempt to define is that of the curator who functions more artistically, but who fundamentally still performs as a curator.”[33] This means that the curators are conscious of possible criticism such as that which has been described earlier in this essay, but that they nevertheless firmly believe that their idiosyncratic approach as auteur-curators will instigate thought-provoking conversations about contemporary curatorial practices and will enable a unique engagement with the works of art.

 

Notes

[1] MYERS-SZUPINSKA, “Some Folds in the Auteur Theory of Curating”

[2] OBRIST, Ways of Curating, p.22-35, “What Is a Curator?”

[3] Ibidem, p.25; HEINICH and POLLACK, “From Museum Curator to Exhibition Auteur”, p.233
Due to the limited scope of this essay, unfortunately, it is not possible to refine these definitions in accordance with contemporary practices whereby a curator does not necessarily have to work with a collection, nor with physical objects, and that there are many other (often administrative and networking) tasks involved with curating.

[4] OBRIST, Ways of Curating, p.25

[5] VIDOKLE, “Art Without Artists?”

[6] GIULIA & JOE, “Curator as Artist as Curator”

[7] OBRIST, Ways of Curating, p.32

[8] VIDOKLE, “Art Without Artists?”

[9] HUBER, “Artist as Curators – Curators as Artists?”. See also OBRIST, Ways of Curating, p.33

[10] Paul O’Neill, cited in: GIULIA & JOE, “Curator as Artist as Curator”

[11] OBRIST, Ways of Curating, p.32

[12] In this essay, the French “auteur” will be used consistently, as to be clear it is the original French typology that is being referred to.

[13] “Author Theory”; HOFFMANN, “Overture”; HEINICH and POLLAK, “From Museum Curator to Exhibition Auteur”

[14] “Author Theory”

[15] “Author Theory”, “Mise-en-scène”; MOURA, “Mise-en-scène”; HEINICH and POLLAK, “From Museum Curator to Exhibition Auteur”. The idea of the auteur was later picked up by film critic Andrew Sarris, who elaborated on it in his “Author Theory” in the United States.

[16] HEINICH and POLLAK, “From Museum Curator to Exhibition Auteur”, p.246

[17] As the title of their article suggests, they are mainly focused on the role of the curator working in an institution, rather than an independent curator.

[18] HEINICH and POLLAK, “From Museum Curator to Exhibition Auteur”, p.243

[19] HOFFMANN, “Overture”, p.4.

[20] Ibidem

[21] VON HANTELMANN, “The Curatorial Paradigm”, p.6

[22] OBRIST, A brief history of curating, p.81. See also VON HANTELMANN, “The Curatorial Paradigm”, p.6

[23] OBRIST, A brief history of curating, p.80

[24] “The Show That Made Harald Szeemann a Star”

[25] Szeemann’s curatorial practice has been subject to severe criticism from the outset, with for instance artist Daniel Buren commenting that: ““[…] he became the master-artist who forced all the artworks into artificial categories and degraded them to postage stamps or mere illustrations of his particular story.” See DAVIDTS and BUREN, “Teaching Without Teaching”, p.220

[26] VON HANTELMANN, “The Curatorial Paradigm”, p.6

[27] Although one of the curators does have a background in theatre, ironically.

[28] In a talk about the first issue of “The Exhibitionist”, Hoffmann replied to the question whether the auteur-curator becomes an artist: “You could think that and you could argue like that I think, but it’s not something that I would emphasize or would be really interested in thinking about. I feel like if you make that analogy between the curator being an artist or the exhibition becoming an artwork, then you take a lot of the potential away that this type of way of working curatorially could actually have on exhibition practice. (…) That’s I don’t think really the point.” See “Jens Hoffmann and Larry Rinder discuss The Exhibitionist and the “auteur theory” of curating”

[29] SMITH, Thinking Contemporary Curating, p.136

[30] BISHOP, “What Is a Curator?”

[31] HARBISON, “The Art of Curating”

[32] This opens up the possibility to consider the curator and the artist as more egalitarian producers of meaning with collaborative authorship. The convergence of both practices has been advocated by many artists, curators and critics. See for example: FOTIADI, “The Canon of the Author”; JURAKIC, “Navigating the Curator-as-Artist Divide”; NOACK, “Curator as Artist?”; SMITH, Thinking Contemporary Curating; WHITE, “The Curator as Producer”

[33] GIULIA & JOE, “Curator as Artist as Curator”; they coined the term “the curator as artist as curator” to describe this specific role, because they see similarities between this curatorial approach and that of the artist-as-curator. However interesting, it fell out of the scope of this essay to discuss.

 

Bibliography

“Author Theory”, Film and Media Studies at St Gregorys, 16 November 2010, http://filmandmedialevel3.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/auteur-theory-detailed.html

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DAVIDTS, Wouter and BUREN, Daniel, “Teaching Without Teaching”, in: O’NEILL, Patrick and WILSON, Mick, Curating and the Educational Turn, Open Editions/de Appel, 2010, p.217-229

DURHAM, Scott, “Michel Foucault”, in: COSTELLO, Diarmuid and VICKERY, Jonathan, Art: Key Contemporary Thinkers, Berg Publishers, Oxford, 2007, p.172-175

FOTIADI, Eva, “The Canon of the Author. On Individual and Shared Authorship in Exhibition Curating”, 2013, https://arthistoriography.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/fotiadi.pdf

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GROYS, Boris, “Entering the Flow: the Museum between the Archive and the Gesamtkunstwerk”, e-flux, December 2013, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/50/59974/entering-the-flow-museum-between-archive-and-gesamtkunstwerk/

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HEINICH, Nathalie and POLLAK, Michael, “From Museum Curator to Exhibition Auteur”, in: GREENBERG, Reesa, FERGUSON, Bruce, and NAIRNE, Sandy, Thinking About Exhibitions, Routledge, New York, 1996, p. 231- 250

HOFFMANN, Jens, “Overture”, The Exhibitionist, no. 1, January 2010, p. 3-4

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“Jens Hoffmann and Larry Rinder discuss The Exhibitionist and the “auteur theory” of curating”, KADIST, January 2011, https://vimeo.com/32393093

JURAKIC, Ivan, “Navigating the Curator-As-Artist Divide”, Curators in Context, 2005, http://curatorsincontext.ca/en/talk.php?id=17

LEVI STRAUSS, David, “The Bias of the World: Curating After Szeemann & Hopps”, The Brooklyn Rail, 8 December 2006, http://www.brooklynrail.org/2006/12/art/the-bias-of-the-world

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OBRIST, Hans Ulrich, “The Art of Curation”, The Guardian, 23 March 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/mar/23/hans-ulrich-obrist-art-curator

OBRIST, Hans Ulrich, A Brief History of Curating, JRP Ringier Kunstverlag AG, 2014, p. 80-101

OBRIST, Hans Ulrich, Ways of Curating, Penguin Books, 2014, p.22-35

“The Show that Made Harald Szeemann a Star”, Phaidon, 2013, http://uk.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2013/february/08/the-show-that-made-harald-szeemann-a-star/

SMITH, Terry, Thinking Contemporary Curating, Independent Curators International, New York, 2012, p. 101-141

VIDOKLE, Anton, “Art Without Artists”, e-flux, no.16, May 2010, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/16/61285/art-without-artists/

VON HANTELMANN, Dorothea, “The Curatorial Paradigm”, The Exhibitionist, no.4, 2011, p.6-13

“What Is a Curator?”, The Art Assignment, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMZVUtUhNwo

WHITE, Michelle and THOMPSON, Nato, “The Curator as Producer”, Art Lies, issue 59, 2008 http://www.art-lies.org/article.php?id=1659&issue=59&s=1

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