Lafayette Anticipation associate curator Anna Colin talks to artist Tyler Coburn about Ergonomic Futures, a speculative project engaged with art, design, science, anthropology and writing. In this interview, Coburn discusses the research, production process and network of collaborators of a multilayered project ultimately concerned with the futures of humankind. Anna Colin: When one comes across your museum seats Ergonomic Futures (2016—) in contemporary art exhibitions—and soon in natural history, fine art, and anthropology museums—they look… [read more »]
I’d like to preface this text by saying that it is not meant to be read as a criticism of Cat Kron’s article, “Ain’t Miscuratin’: Everyone’s a curator!” In fact I would like to congratulate Kron on a piece well written, a topic undeniably in need of more dialogue, and lastly on her ability to rouse my interest enough to get me to sit down and write this somewhat lengthy response. While I found there to be many interesting points made in her article, I was nonetheless compelled to bring to the attention of DIS readers my alternate views on some of the ideas brought up. Most importantly, I hope that my response can help to broaden our view of the role of the curator within an art and cultural context and all of the many aspects involved in the profession that are not necessarily bound to exhibition making. Of course in the spirit of dialogue, I welcome Kron to let me know, via DIS, whether she finds these comments useful, incorrect, or otherwise.
I appreciate the motivation for Kron’s essay and I agree with her conclusion that squabbling over terms and their meanings in search for institutional hierarchy is ultimately futile. However, as a recent graduate of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, (not that I’m in any way bragging, honestly that school has a lot it still ought to teach about curating in my opinion…), I have to say that the definition of art curating portrayed in this text is altogether lacking. The problem that actual art curators have with everyone going around saying that they’re curating their spice racks is that it gives the impression, which this essay only confirms, that curating is solely about arranging objects in some sort of grouping. This is simply not the case. It is one of so many aspects involved in curating. In fact, I would say that the foremost skill of a good curator is one’s impeccable ability to do and consider about 50 interlocking constituents of varying natures all at once.
Perhaps the largest and most pressing of these constituents left completely unmentioned in Kron’s essay is research. No curator does anything at all without a relative amount of extensive research (oxy-moron intended). First of all, I believe that to be a good curator, one must also be an avid and ever-growing art historian as well—which of course means even more research. The product of said research is not only an exhibition with some works in well-composed juxtaposition to one another. It is an entire body of work and can take many forms; sometimes including an exhibition, often including multiple texts, some written by the curator and others commissioned or edited by the curator, all of which is then compiled and published via the curator’s oversight. In addition to this, curators program talks, screenings and other forms of public mediation that connect the ideas within an artists work to a larger cultural context in (hopefully) unusual and interesting ways. Perhaps most importantly to me, curators must diligently oversee how all of this work, (both curatorial and artistic), will be documented, and therefore how it will continue to be represented and studied by future historians, artists, curators, patrons, and others.
In regard to Kron’s referencing Dia Chief Curator, Lynne Cook’s curatorial methodologies, (for whom, by the way, I having nothing but the utmost respect), I have several questions. Kron begins, “Outsourcing the physical labor of production to assistants, the artist as producer arguably negates the need for a curatorial presence”—lets first stop here. Is this to say that before artists had assistants, (which basically means maybe in the 1940s or ’50s at the latest), that artists were not the producers of their own work in the same way that they might be now that they may employ assistants? Is it to say that prior to artists working with assistants that the curator was somehow a stand-in for these assistants, fabricating artists’ work for them? If the resolution at the end of Kron’s essay is that we ought to eliminate institutional and literary hierarchies, then why should she assert that there can be only one producer within this scenario? In any case, the artist continues to be the producer of their own work, regardless of whether or not they employ the help of assistants; and the curator, in turn, produces research, exhibitions, texts and ultimately a collective dialogue that surrounds that work. Kron goes on to equate the dissipating need for the curator as a producer that apparently used to exist as she continues her thought, “… in much the same way that the curator attempts to carve a space for him/herself from the artist’s territory.” This is a really harsh thing to say, if I understand correctly. It seems unfair and sorely short-sighted to align this “hands off” approach to curating in a general sense to the particular practice of Lynne Cook, a woman whose work at Dia, (though she has many other projects), has long been engaged in the specific and now historical context of Minimalism. Should curating stay stiffly as it was in the past, when was to intervene in any way with a work of art or space—for there to be any dialogue between artist(s) and curator—it considered to be wrongly stepping into the artists’ “territory”? I should hope we are more open-minded by this point, particularly when so many artists are utilizing networks, applications, user-generated information, and other interactive nebulae as their medium.
As it is the case for many of the most forward-thinking contemporary artists working today, it also seems strange and old-fashioned to turn to the outdated metaphor of curators as tastemakers. This is not to say that I don’t believe it to be true to some extent, but to describe contemporary curating as “[the] practice of selecting finely crafted objects for display” is rather offensive. Practically everything is, or could be, finely crafted. Not many serious or experimental curators are looking at craft and material quality FIRST as a priority for what makes exciting and meaningful work. That’s what collectors do! The connections that Kron draws between cabinets of curiosities, collectors and museums is clear enough, and while I certainly enjoy visiting museums, and even aspire to work in one, I would have to say that if you are judging the entire scope of what curating can do by the confines of what takes place within the museum you are really missing out. Innovative curating takes place on all kinds of platforms, it is no longer exhibition-based whatsoever.
All of this is to say that it certainly does not bother me, as a curator, when people use the term lightly to refer to any number of projects unrelated to art. However, it is important to remember that were curating only about tastemaking and distinguishing works of art based solely on aesthetics and groupings, we would not need educational programs for curators, we would find far less competitiveness within the field, and we would definitely not learn nearly as much from curatorial projects as we potentially can, should we be willing to take the time to examine them.
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