The text is a revised version of an essay published on switch, an event, project, and book that archives the first three years of an artist-led project by Triona Ryan & Harald Turek in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, Ireland. It began in 2008 as a ground up approach to showing contemporary works of moving images in a small town located in a rural context, a conversation between artists, audiences and artworks taking place outside of the big city and adapting to the rhythm of smaller places. –

Cultural production is increasingly at the forefront of how we understand the world we live in.

While 50 years ago the economic mechanisms were the main referent for our experience as members of a given society (either in terms of conformity or antagonism), it is no longer the case now. Today, criteria for economic achievement and wellbeing are no longer sufficient for a proper comprehension of phenomena such as, for instance, the ‘clash of civilisations.’

We need to re-address our referents in cultural, and I dare to say, even aesthetic terms. It is telling that multinationals and businesses re-invest their profits in cultural and artistic projects in order to create a ‘culture’ that can travel beyond national schemes and monetary value – a way of fidelization of the customer with enormous potential.

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In this context, the work of the curator, or that of the editor, acquires particular relevance since not only it produces and mediates the work of the artist/cultural producer and contextualizes it in a bigger picture, but it also generates the very conditions for its sustainability and ultimately helps to establish its social and political relevance. In time, curatorial practices first developed a ‘taking care’ trait to make sure artworks were available and accessible; then it has expanded its grasp on life in order to make art relevant, and a practical tool to understand stories and situations, not only to contemplate them.

Like artists, many curators feel they cannot leave research into and a commitment to social and political meaning outside their practice, and therefore engage with structures of production and distribution outside the specific constraints of art.

Three different concepts, I believe, are important in order to take hold of contemporary curating: participation, time and shifting (of perspective and understanding).

1 – Partecipation

As curator and director, I’m responsible for the programme of a publicly funded art institution in the UK. I used to be sceptical about the format exhibition. I thought that a book, for instance, would be a more efficient and practical tool to both spread and host knowledge. After years of arguments and experience, I’d say exhibitions can be a precious host of knowledge. But a lot depends of the way they are delivered.

An artistic event, in its ideal form, would allow the reader to make her/his own story out of the material offered. This rarely happens, and I include my artistic and curatorial work in this critique. It’s far more common to have a certain line of exposing things; alternative types of (political) information, or proposing a different narrative. In any case, exhibitions do read things differently to mainstream sensibility, inviting the viewer to read along.

However, it would be crucial not to pass on to the visitor, or reader, something we consider important as statement. It’s true we’re all here because there are things we want to say, and that we want to make it public. But to transfer knowledge to someone ‘unacknowledged’ might ultimately result in a sort of inverse propaganda.

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A public becomes a participating audience when it takes the liberty to add something to the narrative offered by the work of art, the documentary film, or the journalistic reportage. As an audience member, I would like to be able to analyse the relation between ‘what happened’ and its representation, be it a video projection in a gallery or an article in the morning paper. There is no gap between producer and audience, since each part knows something the other doesn’t know. That’s nothing new.

(Umberto Eco in 1962 based his essay on the ‘open work’ on the same argument. Jacques Rancière followed up. And so on.) What’s important is to stress that awareness is the essence of participation. An artwork, or a curatorial project has to prove, if any, one thing: there is no need to fill a gap, since the gap in knowledge is the normal condition, and not something to correct.

I wonder what is the aim of participation in art (curating and making)? Does it allow participants (artists and audiences) to read each other knowledge at the same level – in a mutually beneficial way? I admit the difficulty of putting into practice the awareness mentioned above. To reach a point in which everyone is equally ready to perform, might take more than what art and literature are capable of. It might take time, a lot of time. To get each other’s knowledge, we have to get access.

To get access, we ought to generate points to enter and participate in cultural production and discourse; find the key to enter, and possibly more than one. Passion is one key. Irit Rogoff speaks about passion as a principal means to get access. Passion for something is what unlocks the potential in the spectator and producer (artists, editors, curators, etc.) alike.

Necessity may be another key element. Less physical necessity than social necessity. The push to go beyond the values of the environment within which we grew up. The question of access cannot be separated by that of the gates, and of the gatekeepers. James Rifkin wrote an entire book on that; he gives the examples of the book as the metaphor for the gatekeeping policy: anyone can write a book (provided s/he has access to the means), but will stumble upon the first gatekeeper: the publishing house/Internet bookseller that can distribute the book. Once passed the first, there’s the second gatekeeper: the editor/marketing person. S/he might never grant access to the book, for whatever reason (economical or ideological), therefore blocking access.

If even the second level were to be passed, our author will get across a third level: the reviewer/critic (in print or online), who might never review the book, therefore denying the book to a potential audience. This is how it works, in publishing. Isolated cases of successful bloggers and works ‘discovered’ online are only confirming the rules, not (yet) subverting them.

Interestingly, these considerations are published in a book. For James Rifkin the metaphor doesn’t really work. What about exhibition curating then? Is it a gatekeeper or a point of access? An opportunity or a limitation? I wonder, in the case of curators and curating, which role can harness passion to push that gate. And which one harnesses necessity.

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2 – Time

Delaying or anticipating the act of decoding information can lead to the re-appropriation of aspects daily life. Acting and being implicated through art in a non-synchronized way is an act of critical engagement rather than a cognitive act. For instance, reading an old daily broadsheet can actually give you a chill, whether out of fear or excitement, about how history – as the historicization of facts and opinions through mainstream media outputs – is an ongoing construct. I partake in this process only if I decide to seize some distance and use this ‘gap’ to constantly undermine and reconstruct its proceedings.

Here, curating and curators can be highly effective in proposing narratives that embrace this time-space distance and seriously consider an artistic reading of reality – the here and now seen tangentially. Indeed this puts what has been said, done or thought into a wider perspective, which in turn allows space for ‘lateral thinking’. This extra layer of thought ultimately informs and gives insight into what to do next, rather than what was done before. In treating the reality of the world as a series of constructed events, I reinvent my daily reality. I read any landscape, fact or situation as though it were an artwork.

To show an image that does not reveal its content but refers to another time, something else outside the picture; and to not show an image at all in the actual time of the viewer’s engagement can both be wealth in terms of curatorial practice. It is important to open up the possibility of seeing something different in what is told, not claiming to tell, ‘what is all about,’ but rather proposing a selection of reading possibilities. To read life in non-real time is not a matter of fabricating (the present), documenting (the past) or imagining (the future) but simply about embracing one among the many possibilities of awareness; being aware is the essence of participation – see first section above.

I reiterate here that we start to get closer to the core of our reality not when we represent it (or absorb its representation) but when we consider it as a possibility among many others and not as a given, irreversible fact. Only when I engage with the possibility of something can I try to change what is important (for me). It is a matter of connecting what I already know with what I do not know, placing the new (old) in time-sequence with other knowledge. If we, as interested public, accept the opportunity to ‘develop’ this or that topic in time, as part of our own story, we activate a sort of witness process, and we become audience(s).

By accepting the relativity of time, I embrace the idea that life is not so much about who I am now, but who I will become – it is projected towards the future rather than an agency of the past.It is a question about how I choose to think of myself; by extension, how artists and audiences think of themselves while producing, engaging or fruiting of an art exhibition. Nobody possesses time, neither can one dispose of it; s/he can only inhabit it wholly. In this moment, while you read these words, I am your time. We are never really able to remove ourselves from within it. Today’s reality becomes not a fact to be understood but rather an effect to be produced, in which you and me are embedded.

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3 – Shifting (of perspective; thus, understanding)

Let’s consider finally the role of the curator/editor as a service-provider in the cultural industry, and open the discussion about its potential, its benefits and also its contradictions. As an artist, one embraces the challenge to engage with communities, however physical or incorporeal; present, past or future, using a variety of media, venues and methodologies. As a curator, one is engaged in creating and taking care of the situations originated to determine and allow the artists’ work – realising a project interdependent on audience, artists, work and medium. This turns out to be an exhibition, festival, symposium or other ‘platforms’ where audiences have actually a complex control over the content. Curators, artists and producers’ perspectives will be tested, subverted and used ‘against them’.

The viewer, reader or listener owns the capacity to consider what it is that they are intended to see, read or hear and in which way is intended to be experienced. I subscribe to this. I’m sceptical about curatorial projects (including my own) where I tend to see the authorial position excluding the antagonistic space, or the possibility of shifting perspectives; where the content and the way of experiencing it is dictated, either by the artist, the curator, the set-up, the interpretation material or other.

Curatorial agency not only has to raise questions but also inhabit the problem and being skilled in problem-definition. One effective method to achieve this is to decentralise a field of inquiry, shifting ideas across multiple borders – physical and metaphorical. In my experience, a fruitful approach is to expand the existing boundaries of art by introducing another system, say science, law, or mass media. These channels are a site for artists and curators to push boundaries beyond comfort zones and commit to new ideas making them readable, accessible, distributed and diffused. It is also important to discuss the intention of these ideas, and forms of contamination, to the audiences.

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The bottom line is that both curators and artists, who want to effectively work with an audience rather than for one, would be in a more relevant position if they pursue collaboration with other systems of a given society, rather than expecting the ad-hoc opportunity while working within the art world. Reciprocal influences are not foreseeable and will depend, crucially, upon a significant reception by the audience.