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Profession: curator

The profession of curator has become one of key importance to the visual arts over  recent decades. It has also influenced the shape of contemporary performing arts in Europe, especially for performance organized outside of the structures of repertory theatres and choreography centres. The appearance and the growing importance of the curator seem emblematic when we look at the aesthetic and cultural transformations of the world of theatre and dance over the last two decades. It is the curator who makes the key decisions that later influence the shape of contemporary performing arts (particularly the so-called independent productions that are created outside of the institutionalised system) as well as the exchange of artists (with most attention being paid to international cooperation). At the same time, the growing importance of festivals, or “festivalisation” of the world of theatre and dance along with the development of production houses and independent interdisciplinary centres, the emergence of international platforms and connections, labs and non-academic research centres together demonstrate that we are witnessing a major transformation of the way theatre functions within a society and, consequently, a transformation of the status of the artist and the viewer.

However, it must be noted, that the growing significance of a curator in the world of theatre and dance is not only a result of the evolution of the aesthetics within those two fields of art (the performative turn in the world of performing arts, the return of interest in “keeping it real”, auto-thematic strategies), but also stems from the models of economy (cognitive capitalism), politics (late phase of capitalism) and culture, which are shaping Europe in the first decades of the 21st century.

The Choice and the Power

The main job of a curator is to make a choice. It is a position of great responsibility and one whose criteria cannot be clearly defined. The curator decides which artists to put in the programme of a festival or venue (theatre or centre) and which artists will be denied access to it. He decides, therefore, who will join the “circulation” – the small group of artists that will be watched, commented upon, written about and invited to other festivals and who will be left outside of this fortunate group. How important those decisions are for the artists’ career is clearly visible in the international context, where the “circulation of artists” is driven mainly by curator selected festival programmes.  Florian Malzacher, curator and dramaturge, sums it up simply, “In the end it’s clear: it’s about choice, it’s about defining who is allowed to be part of it, who is allowed to produce and present, and who is allowed to earn money”[1]. It is impossible to reach and support all artists, but those who are not given the chance to present their work (or worse: who are denied this possibility) are excluded from the most prestigious and profitable circulation. Who is to be held responsible, if not the curators?

The lack of clarity in the process of choosing the artists, and the still undefined role of the curator in the world of art remain problematic especially to the artists. Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué describes this situation with great insight: “my knowledge about curators comes from my role as an artist and the artist/curator relationship. As for what happens before or after, it seems to me that artists do not attempt to understand how these aspects function – as if it is not our concern.” He also writes about his inability to answer basic questions that concern the mechanics of the world that he himself is a part of. How do curators gather money to fund their projects? And what are they forced to offer in exchange? On what basis do the sponsors and donors agree to organise certain artistic events? On what level do they find common ground in negotiating the terms of agreements? How do the curators account for the money spent on the projects, what do they have to prove to their sponsors, what documents do they have to present? What stands behind the strategic decisions of this particular region or that particular subject matter as the main theme in a given moment? Why do artists who were so popular and were invited everywhere one day become obsolete the next? What plays the bigger role in this system: politics, ideology, culture, propaganda, marketing strategies or everything at once? Who has more power and more ability to influence the decisions: donors or curators? Mroué continues as follows: “It seems to me that curators stand on shaky ground, caught between power and art. (…) the only thing I can say now is that I am ignorant about at least two-thirds of the subject. What I do know is that the artist should know, and need to learn more, be implicated and responsible, and leave this pretentious ignorance behind.”[2]

Context

However, understanding the curator is not only about recognizing the quest for power and connections. What is possibly of even greater importance is understanding that the phenomena of the curator provokes us to look at the performing arts from a different perspective. What is most relevant are the questions that arise about the context and the recipient: Why, where, what for and for whom is a piece of art created?

This questioning of the role of the curator has not appeared to offer critical responses to performances, but rather to understand the conditions they are presented in, their production, as well as the social, economic and political context they are created in. Last but not least, it is an important process to assess the institutions responsible for the existing working conditions, which influence the aesthetic choices. The discussion about theatre and dance is moving from independent magazines to festivals and performing art centres. Critical analysis needs to make space for debates and negotiations about the experience of the audience, the way the frames of a performance are constructed and deconstructed as well as the context of the event, as opposed to previous discussions that focused on aesthetics such as illusion, narration and the level of fidelity to reality.

The presence of a curators discourse opens up the perspective of a critique of institutions and mechanisms that govern theatre and dance in Europe. It also provides us with the possibility to rethink those structures and propose new solutions. A critical approach towards the existing practice demands that the artists, dramatists, curators, researchers and all people involved in creating the system of theatre production become more self-aware. All fields of art are facing this phenomena, including institutional and repertory theatres. The discussions provoked by the curators’ project may inspire them to change the way they perceive their mission and their programme. In Poland, we are now witnessing the meeting of two ways of thinking about theatre, two systems of production: a repertory approach and the curators’ approach. Where will this situation take us?

Marta Keil

 

[1] Florian Malzacher, Cause & Result, “Frakcija”, nr 55 “Curating Performing Arts”, wyd. Centre for Drama Art & Academy of Drama Art, Zagrzeb, Chorwacja, p. 14

[2] Rabih Mroué, “At Least One-third of the Subject”, “Frakcija”, Curating Performing Arts, 55; p. 88, Centre for Drama Art & Academy of Drama Art, Zagreb, Croatia