Involvements – A short introduction to curating between entanglement and solidarity

Nora Sternfeld

In the past few years, the term “curator” has been booming. Organizing things within the cultural arena is increasingly being called “curating.” But what does it really mean? Curating is both a theoretical and practical activity that creates something for the public by using visual and discursive means. Curators research, conceptualize, produce, negotiate, plan, design, write, organize and initiate processes. This can take place in museums, exhibition halls, in the media and public spaces, through the presentation of artworks and/or historical objects, material from archives, everyday objects, or interventions and other forms of communication. It requires the development of spatial and performative modes of design, and involves the use of texts, films, sound installations, multimedia, interactive or participative forms of mediation.

Beatrice von Bismarck describes curating as a process of bringing together previously unconnected things, people, spaces and discourses. (1) In this way, curators operate within time and space in order to place something in a specific relation or order, to publish, gather, show, tell, facilitate or render it a topic of negotiation. The activity described here is one that is embedded in both the powerful narratives of the nation – if we think about the birth of the modern museum as an institution that represents the national state – and neoliberal consumer logic of commodification and precarization – if we think about the contemporary museums, art spaces and biennials as deeply embedded in the economization of culture – , and at the same time it provides input for discourses of critique and agency. This means that, through their praxis, to a certain extent curators are necessarily involved in power relations.

For a very long time, there was no doubt that exhibitions which produced identity were based on themes that were their “own” (the nation, the “West” or the “North”) or those of “others,” (the rest, the “exotic other” or the “marginalized community”). They upheld national boundaries, displayed valuable objects and objective values. Despite this, especially in the museums, these issues were not mentioned at all. First and foremost, the modern art museum was an actor that kept its own subjectivity shielded from view. It used seemingly neutral “white cubes” to create a discourse in which the museum and its curators took the role of “custodians and facilitators.” These self-evident premises on which the museum was based – its purported neutrality and objectivity, distinctions with far-reaching consequences, powerful modes of display, and the largely bourgeois, western, patriarchal and national gestures of demonstration – were indeed called into question, and thus began the demise of the timeless claim to truth and the universal validity of museal knowledge. (2)

Within the exhibition field this is why there is evermore talk of a crisis of representation. Since the 1960’s representation has been confronted with increasing scepticism in the art field (especially in institutional critique), in theory (especially in New Museology as well as in Cultural Studies, postcolonial and poststructuralist theories) and in activism (especially in the new post-identitarian social movements). Representational critique became an important engine for conceptual artistic practices, curatorial approaches and activist reclamations. Let us think for example of all the artistic strategies of processualisation, dematerialisation and institutional critique, all of which are opposed to the representational mode. In the meantime, this discussion appears to have arrived in the larger museums as well. How did it come to this?

After representation itself had been critically and artistically put into question and following waves of politicization of art throughout the twentieth century – the Russian avant-garde constructivists in the 1920’s (3) or Latin American political conceptualism in the late 1960’s and 1970’s (4) to name just two – the museums and institutions in the so-called West were also explicitly and directly criticized again in the 1990’s, when the theoretical approaches within critical museology and artistic practices related to institutional critique (5) addressed the institutions themselves.

From that moment onward, the “objectivity” and “neutrality” of museums and exhibitions were put into question, and their political and economic entanglements were revealed. Here artists and theoreticians analyzed the institutions as ideological state apparatuses, as factors within the art market, as catalysts in economizing culture and education. (6) Following this so-called “reflexive turn,” an increasingly transdisciplinary and transnational curatorial praxis began to develop, which took critique into consideration and consequently developed forms of agency. A post-representational curating is not any more based on the representation of scenes, fields, nations, tendencies or discourses. Emphasizing the referential and relational dimensions of curating, it turns the museum into a public space where things are “taking place” rather than “being shown”. The concept of exhibiting, as it had been understood, was thus reinterpreted and expanded through experimentation.

By no means should we forget or detract from the legitimization of the numerous radical reclamations and struggles around representation that took on the all-mighty knowledge of the institution with feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonial critique. The crisis of representation should rather be understood as having grown out of these struggles around representation. They not only called attention to and criticized the rampant exclusions from the seemingly objective canon of “art” and “history,” they also clearly show that Western institutions and white visual regimes lay claim to being universal: by instating “others” as the exception they rendered their own position of interest and standpoint invisible (the same function as the white cube).

This powerful knowledge production, which renders itself the universal subject and makes others appear as objects of knowledge, is what postcolonial theory calls “epistemic violence.” These anticolonial, feminist and antiracist struggles formed the basis for the critique of representation in art and theory, as it was their political organizing and tenacious demands that forced the institutions of knowledge production to engage in self-reflection and self-critique. They laid bare the powerful interests behind perspectives that keep their own position invisible and at the same time claim it as the norm.

A post-representational approach cannot simply leave behind the history of these struggles against and for representation. It could however raise the question of how a process-based, post-representational curatorial praxis – in so far that it is understood as taking public and intellectual action – could and should articulate its place as being in solidarity with existing social struggles. Here, Oliver Marchart speaks of exhibitions as “ex-positions” – in terms of taking on a position and a stance. He understands the curator’s function as organizing public spheres and, in this sense, it is also collective, political and based on solidarity, “a praxis that aims at the impossible,” which we can see as “at whatever the hegemonic discourse defines in a given situation as impossible.” (7) In this way, the constant involvement of curators is not only perceived through the lens of their entanglements, but also through another lens: the conscious involvement (8) in public debates in solidarity with existing social struggles.

(1) Cf. the newspaper article “Traumjob Kurator. Stell die Verbindung her”, in Der Tagesspiegel, 14.07.2011,
(2) Cf. Douglas Crimp,On the Museum’s Ruins, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1993, and Mary Anne Staniszewski, The Power of Display. A History of Exhibition – Installations at the Museum of Modern Art, London-Cambridge 1998.
(3) Cf. El Lissitzky, “Element and Invention”, in Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers, El Lissitzky: Life. Letters. Texts, p. 349–351, especially p. 350: “Every form is the petrified snapshot of a process. Therefore, work is a station in evolution and not its petrified aim.”
(4) Cf. Graciela Carnevale and the militant investigations of Colectivo Situaciones in Buenos Aires, ; or Cecilia Vicuña, El Vaso de Leche, Bogotá l979 in Chile: “‘Precarious’ works as an act of political and cultural resistance: ‘Politically, they stand for socialism, magically they help the liberation struggle, and aesthetically they are as beautiful as they can be to comfort the soul and give strength’.”
(5) Cf. Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum, New York 1995, Carol Duncan, Civilizing Rituals Inside Public Art Museums, London/New York 1996, Peter Vergo, The New Museology, 1989, Alexander Alberro & Blake Stimson, Institutional Critique, 2009, Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” in Artforum, Vol. 44, Nr. 1, 2005, p. 278–283.
(6) Cf. Hans Haacke, Maria Eichhorn, Andrea Fraser, Marion von Osten, Group Material etc.
(7) Oliver Marchart, “The Curatorial Function. Organising the Ex/position,” in Barnaby Drabble, Dorothee Richter (Hg.), Curating Critique, Institute for Curatorship and Education Edinburgh, Frankfurt a. M. 2007, pp. 164-179, here p. 166.
(8) The concept of “involved curating” was developed thanks to numerous conversations I had with Katharina Morawek, director, artistic and executive team, Shedhalle Zurich.

Nora Sternfeld works as the professor of CuMMA master program at Aalto University.