Curation Philosophies Come Together: Many Ideas Under One Roof

In preparation for the May 24 Research Lab A Sensorium of Cinematic Apparatuses, the students of the UvA MA seminar Curating the Moving Image reflect in their blog posts on a particular aspect of the themes in the required theoretical readings or on the development of the curated EYE on Art evening.

Curation Histories, Curation Philosophies
By Moorea Hall-Aquitania

DSCN1074Video Still from They Come to Us Without a Word Joan Jonas, 2015.
Photo by Moorea Hall-Aquitania

This week’s discussion theme was “Curation Histories, Curation Philosophies,” a broad category for which we read work by Philip-Alain Michaud, Sebastian Lopez, Maria Lind, and Laura U. Marks. As a relative newcomer to the field of curating, I was most drawn to Marks’ 2004 article for The Moving Image, “The Ethical Presenter: Or How to Have Good Arguments Over Dinner.” In it, she speaks simply and clearly of the various curating philosophies that she herself has encountered in her practice, breaking down approaches from her teachers and colleagues in order to propose an idea of “ethical” presentation of media.

Marks’ curating model is the “dinner-party,” in which the curator prepares a “series of courses with subtle attention to sequencing” and invites guests with “care to provide conversation partners for the works.” Then one lets the party happen, without trying to control it. This seems quite a reasonable approach to curating for wide audiences (although the “invitation” aspect hints at exclusivity), since the majority of the curator’s control remains in the planning stages no matter what. Her approach, she says, comes from a mixture of those of her peers—there is a “work-driven” mentality, in which works are given frames and left to breath rather than being stuffed into an “idea-driven” mold, and an “argument-driven” approach, which may be a sub-category of the idea or theme, but attempts to give the works more room and also helps to justify an “ethical” curator’s choices.

All of these approaches are of course very simplified philosophies, but they do help the newcomer to orient themselves in a field ripe with possibilities and contradictions. My conclusion from Marks and much of our other reading is that everyone must develop their own methods, but being familiar with those of your predecessors and peers can only help. I found it beneficial to look at two examples I know of curating visual media, both in the context of a biennial, which is an excellent place to find many curators coming together (just as in our current course of study) and attempting to construct a coherent spectacle.

The Biennale of Sydney is on now, and one of its venues is Cockatoo Island, a former convict settlement and shipyard that “offers a space for artists to explore how we perceive reality in our increasingly digitized era.” Within this venue, Chinese artist Ming Wong has the work Windows on the World part 2 (2014), a multi-screen video installation that focuses on the concept of “future” in Chinese modernity by contrasting science fiction films with 20th century Cantonese opera. Obviously Wong’s work was picked to fit into this “argument” or “theme” and has ideas of its own—so does one get privileged? Does the meaning of his work morph based on the space it is presented in? It is interesting to note that the work was made two years ago and has been exhibited in other venues, likely with differing themes. How much does the “idea” of the space influence the choosing and presenting of artists and work and where is the curator’s hand visible?

I have not personally visited Cockatoo Island, although Wong’s work and the venue’s focus certainly caught my eye for this week’s themes—I did, however, see another media-heavy installation at the Venice Biennale last summer in the US Pavilion in the Giardini, where Joan Jonas had the show “They Come to Us Without a Word.” The theme of the 56th Venice Biennale was “All the World’s Futures,” but the head curator Okwui Enwezor added that he preferred to subdivide this overarching “theme” into three different “filters.” The three were “Liveness: On Epic Duration,” “Garden of Disorder,” and “Capital: A Live Reading” and Enwezor explained his decision by saying: “from a formal and curatorial standpoint, that’s what the filters stand for: not to impose a standardized narrative within the biennale, but look at the tectonic plates of the shape of the exhibition, through voices, through instruments, though visuals, through pre-visual categories and weave them together to look at something that hopefully could be comprehensible and enjoyable.” This approach was critiqued by my classmates as being a bit of a cop-out from committing to a theme, but I do think that it is better to play a few conceptual and organizational “games” than to adhere too rigidly to a single idea. Jonas’ work was part of the Garden of Disorder. In each of the four rooms of the Pavilion there were two video projections—one presenting the main motif of the room and the other the ghost narrative, “a continuous thread running through the exhibition spaces.” I thought that Jonas’ quiet and dreamy work felt far more natural under this “filter” than the grand theme of all the worlds futures.

I chose the biennale as an example of curation philosophies because it is one of the most visibly curated events in the art world. And while it is directed by a head curator, there are countless other curators and perspectives at work, attempting to translate their ideas within a large and diverse structure with often conflicting motivations. I hope that our class, in putting together our evening at the eye, can combine the ideas of multiple (albeit very young) curators into a cohesive and entertaining event.

Further reading

Marks, Laura U. “The Ethical Presenter: Or How to Have Good Arguments over Dinner.” The Moving Image 4:1 (2004): 35–47.

Lind, Maria, “Performing the Curatorial: An Introduction.” In Maria Lind, ed., Performing the Curatorial: Within and Beyond Art. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012. 9-20.

Michaud, Philippe-Alain. “The Movement of Images.” In Le Mouvement des images/The Movement of Images. Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2006. 15-30.

Lopez, Sebastian, “Video Exposures: Between Television and the Exhibition Space.” A Short History of Dutch Video Art. Rotterdam: NAI Publishers, 2005. 7-24.

Richter, Dorothee, “Artists and Curators as Authors – Competitors, Collaborators, or Teamworkers?” In On Curating, Issue 19, June 2013.

Reynolds, Ann, main catalogue essay in Joan Jonas: They Come to Us Without a Word. New York: Gregory R. Miller & Co. 2015.



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