Following Up: “The Curators’ Piece” at PS 122’s COIL Festival

Photo by Monica Santos Herberg

Photo by Monica Santos Herberg

Editor’s Note: Responses to given shows have a short shelf-life. This is a response to a show that we didn’t originally intend to publish a response to, in fact. Originally, I intended to write an article about it myself. In the end, I shelved the article, but at a specific request from the hosting festival, I did in fact send a critic to respond. For what it’s worth, it took some five drafts and three conversations with Agnès to lead to the following. Which I’m publishing at this late date because after all that, interested parties should have the chance to join the conversation. –Jeremy M. Barker

The Curators’ Piece (A Trial Against Art), a show at this year’s COIL Festival in New York, opens with a poem read in the darkness, which sets out its thesis. “Art” it states “has failed to be an exception.” “It has failed to save the world.”

The piece is co-created by Tea Tupajic and Petra Zanki, and the basic premise, as the title implies, is a trial. It is performed by the curators of six different festivals, and as it tours to each festival the respective curator is put “on trial” for the choices and intentions behind their programming. The interrogations are punctuated by statements from each of the curators as to their own thoughts on the power and efficacy of art, and the show ends with each of them in turn answering a series of questions about their beliefs and methodologies. At COIL it was Vallejo Gantner, artistic director of PS122 and of the festival, who was on the stand.

The piece has the potential to be powerful. It sets up an interrogation of the decision makers, and holds them accountable for the work that is being shown, and therefore being funded and made, before the audience of their own festival. It also points to the rise of the “curator” within performance, and to a larger trend towards a visual arts-style frame of discourse for the performing arts. It asks big, weighty questions, but circles around them without ever quite landing, substituting grand statements and easy rhetoric for any real interrogation or debate.

One of the flaws in reasoning that undermines the piece is the implication that art can be separated from the cultural, historical and economic realities within which it is created. The opening poem informs the audience: “Culture is the rule and art is the exception,” but the piece is being staged as a part of APAP, a performance marketplace, where presenters from across the world come to see new work and shop for the shows that will fill their theaters or festivals. The discrepancy between the economic realities of the situation and the romanticism of the opening statement could be an interesting starting point for a “trial of art.” But that opening statement is never called into question. The fact that the piece never acknowledges its own relationship to the material under discussion, or to its own position as both a trial and the thing being tried, points to the simplicity of its reasoning and the limits of its ability to engage with the subject it proposes.

It’s hard to discuss the content of the piece because the way it was framed left the defendant little room for meaningful expression. Vallejo Gantner came across as a businessman first and foremost, more concerned with finding funds than with art. This was partly because the other five curators work in Europe, and within the European state-funding structures which allow for a greater freedom from accountability to the market. But in part it was because of the binary that the piece set up. The rhetoric of the opening poem is couched in a quasi-religious nineteenth century romanticism, which sets up “art” as an exception to “culture,” and implies that the intention, or responsibility of art is salvation: “The accusation is that it has failed to save the world.” Unless the performers challenged the logic that the show sets up, they had no choice but to fall into one of the two categories it prescribed. No one challenged the logic, and Vallejo Gantner, in stressing the economic realities of his role, unavoidably aligned himself with the ‘rule’ rather than the “exception,” with “culture” and all the negative connotations this piece assigned to it, rather than with “art.”

The piece opened up interesting questions: The frustration watching it was that it used language so imprecisely that it failed to even scratch the surface of the answers, or arguments, those questions might lead to. Though the point of the piece was to hold the curators accountable for the decisions that they made and the work that they showed, they were never actually made to answer in anything other than feel-good phrases. At the end of the piece each curator takes a turn sitting in a spotlight, while the voice that read the poem asks them questions like “What do you look for in art?” Almost all the curators came back with the same replies: “Brave art,” or “Art that has the possibility of failure.” What is “brave art”? Is it the same for Florian Malzacher as for Vallejo Gantner? Is it the same in an American context as a Norwegian or Estonian one? Without any interrogation or explanation, “brave art” could mean so many things it is meaningless, a phrase that functions to affirm the position of the speaker without committing to anything at all. A piece that puts art on trial, with the historical baggage that entails, has a responsibility to use language with precision.

The opening poem makes reference to a very specific context, intoning the names “Srebrenica, Mostar, Sarajevo,” cities in Bosnia-Herzegovina that were under siege during the ’92-’93 war, where so many lives were lost, and so many art works, books, and architecture destroyed. (Tea Tupajic, one of the directors, was born in Sarajevo in 1984.) It also asks questions that are frighteningly relevant to the current moment. In the final section of the piece each curator is asked in turn if they would die for art. In the last few months artists in Northern Mali have been targeted and murdered, thousands have fled south. In Kabul, a girls’ shelter that offers music education (some of whose residents will soon play at Carnegie Hall as part of the national orchestra), has been told by the government to replace its music classes with religious education. Dying for art is not a metaphor. But in this piece, lacking a clear context, the question feels melodramatic and has no real meaning. “Would you die for art?” What art? When, where? What is at stake? Art in general? A piece of art? This is not a yes/no answer kind of question, and framing it as such makes both the question and answer meaningless.

American Realness, another APAP festival, has a clear mission and a coherence to the programming which is entirely compatible with a recognition of the context of that work. In Ben Pryor’s open letter to Alastair Macaulay, the New York Times dance critic, (published in the festival zine and on Culturebot), he identifies the mission behind his festival: “I felt an urgent need to call attention to the rigorous experimental work I was experiencing in NYC that was somehow being overlooked by performing arts professionals around the world.” He goes on to identify “American” not as limited to American curators, but as “work […] informed by its creation via an American context and US systems of support – meaning different American institutions have invested in the work and American dollars have enabled the works creation.”

The “American” in “American Realness” is not nationalism, but is a recognition of certain local, cultural pressures that have given rise to a kind of work that is being made here, now, at the intersection of this particular time and place. Having a strong curatorial vision and a motivating idealism behind the work being programmed is entirely compatible with a pragmatism about the economic and social realities of “culture.” Ben Pryor’s is a curatorial vision that is grounded in an understanding of culture and creates a space for art within that.

During The Curators’ Piece, Vallejo was asked if he was jealous of American Realness. He replied that he was, that American Realness had identified something that he had missed. The other curators tried to push him to define a vision for COIL Festival, but beyond “contemporary performance” he gave no real answer. In this sense the piece was doubly disappointing. The structure of the piece made it difficult for any interesting discussion to take place, but even inside the narrow window of topics available, Vallejo Gantner seemed to either refuse to articulate, or to lack, a vision for PS122 and Coil.

I don’t know if art can “save the world,” to use the rhetoric of The Curators’ Piece. But if this is the aim, any power it has comes from its place inside historical, economic and social realities. How can a curator, a festival, a piece of art, speak to, or even change, (let alone save), the world without an acknowledgement of their own place within that world? It is this knowledge that makes American Realness so effective as a festival, and which COIL and The Curators’ Piece both, in their own ways, lack.

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