The Autodidact’s Guide to Curatorial Practice In Performance
[NOTE: This post was edited on April 11, 2014 to reflect feedback from readers. The Autodidact’s Guide to Curatorial Practice In Performance is now first, followed by an overview of thoughts On the Emergence of Performance Curator as a discrete practice and then some reflections and questions about the “Envisioning The Practice” Symposium in Montreal.]
The Autodidact’s Guide to Curatorial Practice in Performance
1. Love Your Subject
Whether you’re curating a season at a performing arts venue, an exhibition at a gallery or museum, or a festival, you need to love your subject. At the NYU panel Bill Bragin and I discovered that we shared a similar origin story. In high school we were both obsessive music nerds with big record collections who loved music and the artists who made it, with strong opinions to match. Our passion compelled us to share this thing we loved with other people and try and explain to them why they should love it too. For me theater was always running in parallel to music, later the Internet, then dance came in and eventually it all blended together into one big field of endeavor around live performance regardless of “discipline”. I do what I do for love. You should too; otherwise you’re just wasting your time and everybody else’s.
2. Consider Your Public
Who are you curating this for? Is it an existing public, are you trying to create a public, or are you hoping to create a space for a disaggregated public to find each other? What conversation are you inviting them to have? What experience are you hoping to offer them? How are you hoping to affect them, impact them, inform and/or transform them? What is the “value proposition” that you are offering to your public?
3. Consider Time, Space and Site
Where is this project located in time and space and in what sites? What are the conditions and characteristics of the site, how do they work with or against the proposed performance, what is explicit, what is implicit and what needs to be hidden or revealed? How will the public interact with the performance in space over time at a site or multiple sites? How does the construction and control of the conditions relating to time, space and site affect the public’s attention? How do you work with or against the conditions and characteristics of the site to insure the public is able to have the optimal experience as relates to the artist’s intention and your curatorial aims.
4. Follow The Artist(s)
Curating is a delicate balance of conceptualization and improvisation. On one hand, it is helpful to have a curatorial lens or framework that informs the season/exhibition/festival, on the other hand if you are curating a project with a number of artists, how do you see and hear what the artists are telling you rather than trying to force them into your pre-existing frame? IMHO the best curation involves creating places that exist in space over time where attention is focused on a specific but variably interpretable idea or set of ideas. The artists selected are not selected based on specific works but on the quality of their imagination and inquiry. The curator is merely building the best possible sandbox, in the right place, at the right time and with the right people, to create the conditions for the best possible conversations.
5. Do Your Research
If you are doing your job correctly, you are building a context for a conversation – or set of conversations – to be conducted in space over time, existing at one site or multiple sites, but ultimately existing as a unified whole. Ideally, the separate pieces exist in meaningful juxtaposition and every explicit conversation developed in relation to the project will be accompanied by an infinite number of possible implicit conversations. As a curator you are responsible for both the explicit and implicit conversations. Thus very single element of the project informs every possible conversation. Just like when creating a work for the stage, every single element – intentional or accidental – takes on meaning merely by virtue of being on the stage. So DO YOUR RESEARCH.
Consider every possible facet of the project: the history of the artists, the origins of the ideas, the creative and aesthetic lineages of the project and the work(s) presented, similar conversations in different disciplines and the information likely to be possessed by the incoming public. What can you do to insure that you are creating conditions for the best conversation possible? And now, in the 21st Century, having educated yourself as rigorously as you can, and having provided as much information as possible to public, how do you invite the public in to build the knowledge? How do you create mechanisms for every exhibition to capture knowledge that enters from unexpected people and places? How do you imagine the exhibit/season/festival as a radical experiment in non-didactic pedagogy for massively open and participatory peer learning? How do we use art, artists and the public to aggregate and accrete knowledge iteratively over time?
6. Eschew Theory
Most theory-for-theory’s sake is bullshit. You don’t “do theory” unless you’re French. Theory necessarily has to be grounded in practice – someone actually has to make something or do something for someone else to theorize about what was made or done.
It is one thing to have a theory, an entirely other thing to do theory. For instance, I have a theory that the foundational concepts of Object Oriented Programming are resonant with, and can be mapped onto, live performance – but I’m not privileging theory over practice. These two things – OOP and Live Performance – exist. The theory is that by placing them in juxtaposition we can discover meaningful correlations. Now I’m doing it.
The American Model is to do stuff first, theorize after; or if you have a theory, do something to prove or disprove it, but don’t spend all your time debating abstractions and constructing elaborate hermeneutics only to “lose the name of action.” Mind you – contemplation is an action, but contemplation and reflection are still different than theorizing.
7. Contextualize Through Documentation, Discourse, Debate
Create structures for discourse that not only convey the frame of the exhibit/season/festival, but also provide opportunities for dissent, debate and opposing viewpoints. Ideally the contextualization begins well in advance of the “performance event” itself and persists after. It is not a matter of merely making a catalogue; it is about building integrated cross-platform conversations that iterate and accrete over time. Human history if a tragedy of bad knowledge management, don’t make it worse. Help grow the accumulated wisdom of society.
A good curator resists didacticism, resists echo chambers; resists the tendency towards the inward-facing, hermetic, self-reinforcing discourse so common to the arts. A great curator invites the public into a profound conversation and creates the possibility for transformative experiences.
8. Be A Responsible Producer
Even if you are fortunate enough to have someone else handle the details of the logistics and implementation, the ultimate success of the project rests with you. Learn how to make a budget and work within it, learn about the realities of cultural production in performance, the challenges of making art with human beings that get hungry, thirsty, hot, cold or tired, who need money to pay their rent and buy food. Be aware that budget choices affect artistic outcomes, be transparent about the funding situation and provide artists with the information and knowledge necessary to make responsible decisions. Work towards mutually beneficial outcomes. It is always preferable to do less better than to do more poorly. Build realistic timelines, hire enough staff, consider the entire experience and build team cohesion. Performance is a human-based art form, so even if you aren’t or can’t or don’t feel obligated to be one, at least act like a decent human being.
9. Be A Good Host
Every performance is a social experience, regardless of discipline, regardless of platform. Make your guests feel welcome, provide space for them to mingle, pay attention to the energy in the room, help support the conversation. If the guest of honor (the artist, the performance) is socially awkward (difficult to parse, offensive, challenging, complicated, obscure, in a foreign language, coming from a different culture, etc.) do your best to prepare the other guests ahead of time with information, context and guidelines for appropriate behavior. Give them the tools to meet the work on its own terms, but don’t condescend to the guests or the artist. Be humble, be patient, be compassionate, be insightful, answer questions, encourage people to talk to strangers and give them prompts when needed. If your guests don’t “get it” – it is your fault. Don’t blame them or condescend, figure out what you did wrong and try and do it better next time.
10. Always Be Growing
A season/exhibition/festival is never complete; it is never finished and is always existing in relationship to what has come before and what will come after. A true curator views curatorial practice in the same way – always existing in relationship to what has come before and what will come after – and thus as a life practice. If you’re really going to curate performance, then the artist comes before the institution, the human beings before the objects; the public before the patrons.
Performance is not created on a canvas, pottery wheel, in a factory, photo studio or turpentine-smelling garrets; it is not an abstraction; it is embodied, real, deeply experiential and infinitely complex. It is not experienced in isolation, even when it is experienced by an individual, alone; it is always in conversation with the long arc of time moving in both directions, it is always resonating with the echoes of voices past and future, redolent with traces of sensual experiences remembered and anticipated.
If you are a true curator of performance, then you are a curator of memory, you are the creator of transtemporal spaces and fields of deep intersubjecivity; you must defy space and time. You are the diviner and the augur, the caretaker of enchantment, an interlocutor of the endless conversation, the interrogator of received truths. If this is not your life practice, if you are not committed to always growing as a person and working for the continuing collective growth of human society, then you are merely a shopkeeper, no matter how luxurious your goods.
And finally, here’s a radically abbreviated reading list of a small handful of informative texts on dance, theater and performance that have almost nothing to do with curating as a practice unto itself:
Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance, Sally Banes
The Tail of The Dragon: New Dance, 1976-1982, Marcia Siegel
Apollo’s Angels: A History Of Ballet, Jennifer Homans
The Empty Space, Peter Brook
The Presence of the Actor, Joseph Chaikin
Great Reckonings in Small Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theater, Bert O. States
Certain Fragments, Tim Etchells
39 Microlectures: In Proximity of Performance, Matthew Ghoulish
Postdramatic Theatre, Hans-Thies Lehman
Out Of Character, edited by Mark Russell
Towards a Poor Theater, Jerzy Grotowski
Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Lester Bangs
How Music Works, David Byrne
No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”, Kyle Gann
Performance Art: From Futurism To The Present, RoseLee Goldberg
The Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Ranciere
Artificial Hells, Claire Bishop
Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics, Shannon Jackson
The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt
Aesthetics and Politics, Theodor Adorno
The Field of Cultural Production, Pierre Bourdieu
Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Culture and Value, Ludwig Wittgenstein
On Curatorial Practice in Performance
Several weeks ago I got an email soliciting thoughts and readings from Marissa Perel who had been invited to assist the Pew Foundation for Arts and Heritage with research related to curating performance. Then just over a week ago I was fortunate enough to join my colleagues Claudia Norman and Bill Bragin on a Panel on Curatorial Practice for students in the Arts Administration Masters program at NYU. It was a lively and spirited discussion about a topic that has become increasingly chic and au courant yet not so deeply interrogated.
I have always had – and continue to have – considerable reservations about the use of the word “curator” in relationship to performance. I’m pretty sure the first “performance curator” was Eric Bogosian when he founded the dance series at The Kitchen. Since it was primarily a video art and new music venue at the time and the scene was much more truly cross-disciplinary, it seems to make sense. But I don’t recall hearing it too much until the past 8 years or so. The notion of the “performance curator” seems to have emerged from the museum/visual art world and has been adopted by the performing arts sector in what seems like a power struggle. In fact, I heard a rumor that RoseLee Goldberg and Klaus Biesenbach cooked up the whole scheme up one night in 2005 sharing an eight ball with Marina Abramovic in Glenn Lowry’s suite atop MoMA.
However, Bill Bragin said at the NYU panel that he was called a music curator when he worked at Symphony Space in 2000 – and that he had a producer who actually handled the infinitude of logistical and production challenges that usually come with presenting live performance. Which sounds pretty great. And pretty rare.
It is this lack of clarity (or agreement) around what a “performance curator” actually does, how the curator’s work is defined and recompensed, and how the economic and cultural capital of the institution enforces (or fails to support) the curator’s cultural authority, that makes this such a pressing issue, and one that often leaves me banging my head against the wall in frustration.
The more familiar I become with the curator’s role as it is defined in a visual arts context, the more concerned I become. My experience has taught me that most visual arts curators working in performance have little or no knowledge of the historical and theoretical lineages of dance and theater that inform contemporary performance making, nor do they have any real, practical, working knowledge of the craft, artistic practices or methods of cultural production in performance.
If “curating performance” is, by definition, the selection and arrangement of performed art works, or the development of systems by which performed art works are chosen, and the subsequent “construction of environments” (physical or psychological) to experience those works of art in space and over time, the curator is by definition making aesthetic judgments about those works of art. At the same time, the curator is attempting to focus attendees’ attention in certain ways, or provide space for them to choose their own focus where “art” may be found wherever their attention may alight.
It seems problematic, then, to begin a discussion of curatorial practice without having a substantial discussion about aesthetics and confronting the very real and meaningful differences in aesthetic bias between curators emerging from visual art backgrounds and curators emerging from performing arts practices.
If performed art – and this includes works coming from or referencing the practices of theater, dance and music – is to be evaluated, and selected for inclusion in an exhibit, a season, a festival, etc. – why is it being selected, what are the criteria, what knowledge ought a curator to possess to truly earn the authority conveyed by an institution? How transparent ought a curator to be regarding their own knowledge and aesthetic biases?
Time and again we are confronted with the privileging of “looking at objects” as the defining characteristic of the aesthetic experience. A recent article in The New York Times quotes MoMA’s new consulting curator Darby English as saying, “Art history is a way of actively caring for the objects of our culture,” and the article goes on to say that “… he resists small talk in favor of ruminating on his “looking practice,” as he refers to his career.”
Time and again the visual arts bias reduces the complexity of perception to the facility of looking, erasing the skill, craft and training demanded to create complex works of embodied ephemeral art in favor of the merely aestheticized and intellectualized. Curators of performance must have intimate knowledge of the practice of making performance and its related artifacts (sound sculpture, for instance) before being invested with the cultural authority to curate it. And it is impossible to have a substantial discussion on curating without first having a rigorous and unvarnished debate about the art itself.
On the other hand, few of the “performance curators” originating from performing arts institutions (those who were formerly known as “artistic directors” or “presenters” or “programmers”) have the critical writing practices, theoretical grounding or intellectual inclinations to take on the task of “curating” in the sense of how that role is performed in the visual arts world. This is something I first discussed, at some length, in my essay Curatorial Practice and Cultural Production (October 21. 2012).
But many of those artistic directors have an incredible gut instinct for finding and nurturing artists with compelling voices, not to mention years of lived experience seeing new work, watching the work develop, and a deep familiarity with the Herculean logistical, psychological and financial efforts it takes to bring a performance project from commission to fruition.
The problem is additionally compounded by the frequent blurring of lines between for-profit and not-for-profit environments in the performing arts. Can a curator be called a curator in good faith if he or she is also an arts manager who is economically dependent on income from sales of the work in question? Is this conflating a gallerist with a curator, and does it even matter? Can one even be a curator in a for-profit context or will the potential incentive of the profit motive necessarily undermine the trustworthiness of the curator’s aesthetic judgement?
Given these concerns, and on the occasion of the upcoming “Envisioning The Practice” symposium in Montreal, I thought I’d share (or reiterate in some cases) my thoughts on curating performance. And since I can’t be in attendance, since I’m occasionally taken seriously as both a critic and curator, and more importantly since I’m self-taught, I will also propose an Autodidact’s Guide to Curatorial Practice in Performance.
I was very much looking forward to attending the Montreal symposium, having been originally invited by Jane and Davida long ago to respond to Beatrice von Bismarck’s keynote. Unfortunately family commitments arose that made it impossible for me to attend, so I remain in NYC. And though, to be honest, I’m a kick-ass and inspiring speaker, I’m sure Ms. Hussie-Taylor will adequately fill my shoes while offering unique insights based on her many, many years of experience and her stature in the field.
Having previously published Michele Steinwald’s “Noticing The Feedback“, (the paper she will be presenting in Montreal) and being the first person to publicly advocate for Travis Chamberlain to be given the title of curator at the New Museum (hell, the first advocate for Travis as curator/producer going back to Schoolhouse Roxx at PS122 in 2004!) and generally familiar with most of the American attendees, I was hopeful that we could finally have, out of town, the conversations we never have here in NYC. But since I pretty much know what my fellow New Yorkers have to say on curating, I’m more disappointed that I won’t get to hear from, or talk to, curators and academics from other parts of America and the world.
There are many presentations/conversations I wish I could attend and I hope they will be archived and made available online for future reference. Almost all of the presentations look compelling, here is an annotated list of just a few of the presentations I would liked to have attended:
“Curatorial Practices as Counter-Spaces: Expansion of a field” Elisa Ricci (Germany, Italy)
I can’t decide whether this will be inspiring or maddening, partially because what she proposes is very promising, partly because the very notion of “re-think[ing] the relationship of artist and curator as a dialogical space for the development of formats with an ethical regard for the fair sharing of responsibility and power” requires a massive interrogation of the economic and social structures that reinforce curatorial cultural authority, which seems daunting and unlikely. But I’m rooting for her!
“The Public Program as a Performative Curatorial Act: audience engagement, experimental pedagogy and performance in self-initiated art institutions in the Middle East and North Africa” Valerio Del Baglivo (Italy)
I love this topic. Love it. Too bad Jaamil won’t be there to chime in.
“Performing Arts Curating in South Africa: Context and possibilities in Ronstrum Roulette festival” Ofonime Inyang (South Africa)
This sounds fascinating and opens the door to really complicated – and complicating – questions about the impact of post-colonial thought and Western European aesthetic biases on curatorial practice in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Curator and dramaturge – A case-study of Festival/Tokyo” Masahiko Yokobori (Germany, Japan)
I love this topic. I wish I could be there to hear this.
“The Curatorial Conversation: Articulating modes of Practice” with Bertie Ferdman, Norman Frisch, Tom Sellar
Yes, please do.
“Pseudo-, Anti-, and Total Dance: On curating an experimental dance series”
by Olive McKeon and another member of SALTA dance collective (USA)
“On the Sustainability of Knowledge Transmission in the Curatorial Field:
A choral attempt (Rehearsing Collectivity: Choreography beyond Dance)”
by Elena Basteri, Emanuele Guidi, Elisa Ricci (Germany & Italy)
Human history is the tragedy of inadequate knowledge management. Let’s fix that, shall we?
“Reflections on Equity in Curatorial Discourse and Dance Presenting” by Naomi Jackson (USA)
“Precarious Prestige” by Marta Keil (Poland)
Marta says, “In post-socialist countries the financial crisis of the late phase of capitalism encounters the system of organisation and production of theatre and dance inherited from the communist system. In this context the curatorial enters into a relation/fusion/fight with the system of repertory theatre and its aesthetic, social and economical consequences.”
Yeah, right? Since cultural production in Western Europe, USA and Canada is still firmly rooted in the 20th century and elitist neoliberal late capitalism to boot, maybe she’ll help us figure out how to change the system.
“Performing Patina: Curating the material traces of live events” by Abigail Sebaly (USA)
Culturebot’s been interested in this for awhile. In fact we were curated into a group show at Exit Art in April 2012 where we did a durational installation/exhibit called Ephemeral Objects exploring performance and its residue/artifacts.
“How To Be When We See: Social codes, spatial domestication, and the performance of viewing” by Sky Fairchild-Waller & Cara Spooner (Canada)
Vidience? Really? Oh, Geez. What about Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening? What about Janet Cardiff? What about the public/attendee’s often powerful kinesthetic responses to Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton or Petronio? Watch this, read this and this.
“Curation as a Form of Artistic Practice: Context as a new work through UK based Forest Fringe” by Deborah Pearson (UK)
I love this and agree very much. As a practice it needs to be defined and criteria established. Though it is unlikely that the existing aesthetic biases and cultural authority of today’s crop of practicing curators will be rigorously interrogated. There is as little appetite for critical discourse on curation as an art form as there is for critical discourse on performance itself.
Every time I’m in front of graduate students, and most recently at the NYU Panel, I ask someone to take up the task of analyzing the season programs at the major contemporary art centers in NYC and nationally and critiquing the work of each curator. I think it would be enlightening and helpful to see which seasons are cookie-cutter (Young Jean Lee, Elevator Repair Service, Miguel Gutierrez, again?) and which are truly different. And see how we can deduce a curator’s personality and biases from reading/interpreting his or her program.
“The City, the Community, the Contemporaneity. ‘Malta – the Idiom’ as a proposal
for a programme strategy of a festival of applied ideas” by Katarzyna Tórz (Poland)
Very interesting. Really thoughtful. Would be fascinating to introduce this into an American conversation on creative place-making. Also the role of the festival in urban strategies. Would be great to loop in Nick Stuccio (Philly Live Arts), Ron Berry (Fusebox Festival) and Angela Mattox (TBA Festival/PICA).
“Community Curating as Community Work: Practices in creating and curating performances in the indigenous peoples communities of the Cordillera Mountain Ranges using a community organizing perspective” by Roselle Pineda (Phillipines)
Wow. This sounds fascinating. Wish I could get Susie Ibarra in on this.
“New Patrons: a new methodology for performing arts curation” by Julie Rodeyns (Belgium)
“The protocol challenges the current organization of the professional art world by giving citizens an active role as initiators of an artistic project, instead of regarding them as passive, end-product ‘consumers’ and by re-interpreting the curator’s role as first and foremost ‘mediator’*.”
I love this.
“Call for New Ways of Curating Performing Arts” by Jonna Strandberg (Finland)
Go Finland! I am all for adopting the curatorial practices of the country that gave the world Accordion Wrestling!!!
“Le Théâtre de la Mémoire Olfactive/Theater of the Olfactory Memory” de/by Natalie B (en français/ in French)
One of the best live art experiences I ever had was Lois Weaver’s On The Scent.
“Artist/Curator – Are we talking about the same thing?” by Cathy Gordon with Ame Henderson, Heidi Strauss
I love the idea of this panel but I do see a gaping hole in the middle of it: dramaturgs, critics & criticism. Not journalist/reviewers but actual dramaturgs and/or critics who are both responsible for being conversant with larger trends in the wider field and across disciplines while being deeply knowledgeable about the practice and creation of the work itself. I find it fascinating when Cathy says, “What was similar between all four was the absence of words like “good” and “bad” as was the notion of being “liked”.”
IMHO “liking” is for Facebook. Love it, hate it, interrogate it, challenge it – but don’t “like it”. The problem – judging from my experience – it that it is extremely difficult to have meaningful discourse and learn from each other without first defining terms, creating shared vocabularies, establishing transparency and trust. And being able to say hard truths in a conscious way.
On that note, and never one to hold back, I went through the ACAQ program and would like to offer some pre-game inquiry, analysis and speculation, in absentia.
My first question is, indeed, about defining terms. It is not immediately evident to me how a group of people will collectively and collaboratively “envision the practice” without first being offered a working definition of that practice at the outset and subsequently proposing a series of inquiries and interrogations that will iterate and accumulate possible answers over time.
While I imagine that Dr. von Bismarck will offer a specific vision rooted in her work in the visual arts – and Ms. Hussie-Taylor will offer a response from her practice in both museums and dance – it is unclear whether this will be an abstract discourse on curating as a creative practice of juxtaposition and contextualization or a more practical articulation of the work of curating.
Since the work of curating is so vastly different when one is creating an exhibition in a gallery, programming an 8 month season in one venue or a 3 week festival in multiple venues and sites, for example, it seems worthwhile to clarify which practices are at work in each situation and which practices are more or less important depending on context. But maybe the unreconciled differences between curatorial theory and curatorial practice will be more rigorously addressed in Montreal than is readily apparent in the proposed program.
Considering that, and given that attendees are embarking on the task of “envisioning the practice”, I do find it curious that none of the sessions are framed as questions, but rather as a series of declarations arranged by subject. If contemporary curatorial practice is, at its essence, an invitation to conversation rather than submission to didactic instruction, why is a symposium on curatorial practice constructed didactically?
Look, for example and in contrast, at the Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley’s practicum on Valuing Labor in the Arts. Take a moment to read organizer (curator?) Shannon Jackson’s introduction to the practicum which begins with a question. The nature of the inquiry is embedded in the construction of the event, and the contextual materials have been clearly organized and publicly presented online at ArtPractical.
I think a lot about system design and user experience. I find it curious that the proposed formats for Montreal don’t seem designed to foster multivalent, collaborative, generative inquiry. Rather a series of keynote speeches and panel discussions using traditional academic presentational structures are being deployed, thus tending to reinforce the didactic, oppressive hierarchies of the institutional framework.
I am reminded of the Theaster Gates symposium I attended at The Vera List Center, where the symposium’s format failed to support the aesthetic and political concerns of the art itself, serving mostly to confirm the underlying systemic dysfunction of the institutional arts framework. The ready implementation of familiar forms of discourse seems unlikely to yield new thinking.
I hope that attendees in Montreal will find opportunities to subvert the hierarchical structures, autonomously occupy interstitial spaces and create the possibility for action, not mere speculation. I hope that imaginative people can foment creative disruption and allow for a radical reimagining of curatorial practice. Keep an eye on those crazy kids from SALTA!
I’m also curious about the absence of folks like Jay Sanders from The Whitney, Debra Singer and Matthew Lyons (The Kitchen, past and present), Marc Bamuthi Joseph from YBCA, Frank Smigiel from SFMOMA, or music curators such as Nick Hallett (The Kitchen, Issue Project Room) Judd Greenstein and William Brittelle (Ecstatic Music Festival, New Amsterdam Presents), not to mention Bill Bragin (Lincoln Center). These are some of the people who are defining the practice through their work and have relatively prominent platforms.
I’m hopeful that what transpires on the ground will be more complicated, nuanced and generative than what I can speculate from reading the program. Given the people in the room and the ideas in the air, I’m sure the water cooler chat will be fun and fascinating. What’s the hashtag, kids?