The arts, the critics and the rabbit holes – The necessity of unstableness

Hanna Ohtonen

The thought process behind this article was initiated by a comment from a colleague in curating, who stated that we, the students of CuMMA, are so critical towards the Finnish art field that we will quite surely meet difficulties in finding employment within it.

This statement stayed with me, as I could not wrap my head around it. What follows here, maybe predictably, is me biting the bullet and attempting to decrypt the comment through the act of criticality itself.

The extremes of curating

Last year, early on into our studies at CuMMA, the visiting professor of the course, Irit Rogoff, gave us a lecture during which she stated: “We have to stop people from curating” (1). She was referring to a notion, developed together with her colleague at Goldsmiths University, Jean-Paul Martinon, according to which, instead of just training new curators to create new exhibitions, the world would need to create a thought process around what curating is and could become (2). After the initial shock of displacement awakened by this provocative comment, I realised I was, already and in all honesty, questioning and criticising my freshly chosen career path. I was concerned about curating being a highly individualistic profession, often aimed at achieving a position among the superstar artists. I thought about my new fellow students and the communal feeling we had found with each other from the start. I thought about collaborations, contact zones and about changing the world, and in these grand thoughts I buried my plans of being a sole curator. I decided I would always be a member of something shared.

The first year of studies took our group of eight students through a mental hurricane. We started our education with an understanding that the field we had entered is big and full of questions with not that many answers. On our journey through the hard work of unlearning our previous understanding of the actions and politics of representation, we confided in each other constantly with questions about our position in the field and, more greatly, in the world. We often amused about how our studies were like therapy, ripping open and apart every thought we used to have before them. Similarly to therapy, the group became rather tight in social form, resulting in a sense of community and solidarity that we imagined would simply spread into all our activities. CuMMA in Kassel Documenta 13. Photo: Hanna Ohtonen

However, now half way through our studies, I am faced with a question about our abilities to communicate with the rest of the world, and in particular with our own professional field.

This lands me between strange polarities – between elitism and populism, being honest and being cruel, and between criticality and judgment. In order to understand this situation better, I wish to reach into what may lay in the middle of all these entangled extremes.

Academia nuts

The academic community is, I have noted, also a victim of polarities. On the one hand it is the place where worlds are taken forward and new ways of thinking are developed and tested, but on the other, this vigorous movement towards the horizon entails the possibility of a speed that separates its participants from the rest of the world and, alas, leaves the world behind, unchanged. With new theories and visions, we aim for a better future for humankind, but sometimes this divides us from the world we try to tend to, either because we start theorising within the academic community alone or because we reach for stardom within this community, for a position of being appreciated, admired and quoted. We reach for the stars but only to become one.

The art field, as well, is unarguably built around this act of reaching. My problem is not with the act as such, not even with the stars, but with the individualistic separation between the “I”s and the “we” that it automatically creates.

Unstable determination

During the first year of our studies in CuMMA, we read theories about the concept of community from such philosophers as Jean-Luc Nancy, Maurice Blanchot and Hannah Arendt. However, it would seem that in forming a community of our own or in joining pre-existing ones – of academia and the art scene – we have left behind the sense and ideology of being-in-common that these theories addressed.

Have we stepped into the elitism of the art world, creating, against all our great intentions, disclosures that leave out others? In turning to each other with our big questions, have we turned our backs to the rest of the world?

CuMMA talking. Photo: Hanna Ohtonen

Quite possibly. Though, returning, for a moment, to the original idea of us being too critical towards the art field, I have to disagree. All of us studying at CuMMA share a long history of working in this field. In exchanging our experiences and knowledge of it, we have faced urgencies that have needed closer examination; being part of the first group of students in Finland to receive an education in curating, we have felt it imperative to think about the relationships that curators work inside of – the ones between artists, institutions and their publics – and to look closely at the work that happens within these connections in the Finnish field of art.

I think at this point it is useful to look at what Irit Rogoff calls the act of “criticality”. She insists that performing this act requires us to share and live the conditions we are examining. In other words, we have to be analytical towards our own surroundings in order to create room for change. I also understand this act as one of being critical towards what we know – it seems impossible and useless to point at problems from the position of an outsider.

I am suggesting that the Finnish art field, like any condition that is in some sort of a crisis, is in need of criticality. The system of funding art, that has never properly functioned, is facing its demise, and artists as well as institutions are struggling to support and justify their practices. Questions of openness and social value are entering conversations about the economics of art, which is positioning them against the notion of art’s value as art alone. But even without a crisis, I believe art is, and should be, in a state of constant development and change. If we see art as an agency that offers alternative ways to look at and act in the world, I cannot think of it as functioning in a state of permanence. What is art that stays put, unmoved by the world around it or indeed itself? Requiring movement from art unavoidably means for everything and everyone around it to move as well – this is the greatness of art that we have to learn to live, not only preach. In questioning our field, we have to question ourselves most of all.

We have to acknowledge that everything we know is in constant flux. Irit Rogoff suggests that

“Criticality — is precisely in the operations of recognising the limitations of one’s thought, for one does not learn something new until one unlearns something old, otherwise one is simply adding information rather than rethinking a structure.”(3)

Equally, CuMMA professor Nora Sternfeld regularly reminds us of the fact that once we think we know something, we have lost our grasp of it. These are the two most important pieces of information I personally have learned within the last year. With them in mind, I have to keep looking in the mirror and asking questions – the age-old theory from Socrates, that wisdom is acknowledgeing the fact that we know nothing, sits surprisingly well with what I have learned so far about curating.

The house of mirrors

Thinking about curating, or working within the field of art in general, as a process of self-criticality, brings me back to my claim that we at CuMMA may have fallen into an elitist position of building walls around ourselves. Though constant self-reflection is needed to realistically trace one’s own steps and spot possible problems, in order to consider others, one should really leave the self to less attention. Quite possibly, our feeling of unstableness and need for endless questions have led us to being too absorbed in ourselves. Trying to find some firm ground to stand on, we have ended up staring at our feet. For some of us, it would also seem that we are staring into the distant future, and our feet, moving in high speed exhilaration, end up creating a cloud of dust through which we can hardly see the rest of the world.

The paradox of this elitism that we seem to have stumbled into is that, while studying and thinking of methods of non-discrimination, we have positioned ourselves outside of too much; in looking for a critical distance, we have stepped too far back and lost the consequential connection with the rest of the world. This, I feel, is a general problem in academia – the theories do not always meet the everyday. It is not an easy association to face, but an important one to consider.

Un-easy listening

What would it mean then, in reality, to consider others to be, or to work, in common? I would suggest a very simple solution that is nevertheless not so easily put to practice: the act of listening. In CuMMA, as in most of the art world, we are all in a real hurry to make ourselves heard. There is always something extremely important that “I” or “we” need to bring forward. If we spent a little less time in trying to get our say and a little more in listening to others, there would be more of a possibility for achieving real communication – at least I would imagine that unlearning never happens to the sound of one’s own voice. For listening to be transformative, the communication around it has to be an active process of everyone participating. It is not enough to allow space and time for others to get their say; rather, the conversation has to be constantly reciprocal.

If we think of “listening” as acknowledging the existence, nature and opinions of others, it could also be thought of as a process of sharing a moment or a space with someone, as well as a tool for curating.

I believe that the difficulty of true listening, or communication in general, lies in the fear of losing oneself to the possible alteration that another might bring forth with her / his differing views. To communicate often means to contest one’s own reality, and this can be terrifying. It is a process that falls into the same category as change – it means standing on unstable ground, letting go of balance and leaping into unknown versions of the world, of oneself. This may also be the true reason for someone to be concerned about criticality towards a field that is close to one’s heart.

Art theorist Grant Kester suggests: “It is possible to define oneself through solidarity with others while at the same recognising the contingent nature of this identification.”(4) Maybe change through communication does not render the former self inexistent – could it be that while standing on the edge of a rabbit hole, it is the balancing act itself that keeps us rooted?

The acts of listening and communication are built on re-negotiations as well as on constant processes of change. Much like the ideologies in academia and the arts, they are spaces for creating the contemporary. I conclude that in relating to one another, in communicating and in solidarity may lay the answers to rendering academia and the art world non-elitist. In them the theories of fighting discrimination turn into practice, and for this reason, if for nothing else, we at CuMMA should find ways of keeping them at the centre of our practice.

This is the satire of an academic education – it sometimes takes us via intricate roads just to arrive at simplicity. Though some of us need this kind of scenic route, we should pay attention to our surroundings in order to not get lost or stumble over our own feet. Most importantly, I think, we should get used to the unstableness of communication and criticality and accept it as the space we share with each other.

(1) Irit Rogoff, “The Expanding Field”, CuMMA Discourse Series # 1, August 29, 2012.
(2) Jean-Paul Martinon, A Philosophy of Curating, I.B. Taurus & Co Ltd, 2013. Introduction by Jean-Paul Martinon and Irit Rogoff.
(3) Irit Rogoff, “What is a Theorist?” KEIN.ORG, 2006.
(4) Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces – Community + Communication in Modern Art, University of California Press, 2004.

Hanna Ohtonen is a free-lance writer and student in CuMMA. CuMMA (Curating, Managing and Mediating Art) is a two-year, transdisciplinary Master’s degree programme of Aalto University, Helsinki, on contemporary art and its publics. It provides a structure for reflection and acting, learning and organizing in art institutions and the public sphere.