In the course of the development of the discourse on the curatorial praxis, a number of researchers and practitioners asserted the emergence of the “curatorial turn”. Among others, in her Cultures of the Curatorial, Beatrice von Bismarck analyses yet another turn (after, the performative turn, the educational turn, the mnemonic turn, etc.) in the humanities and in the arts that is believed to bring into sharp focus the paradigmatic changes that the dual process of creation and reception of culture has been significantly affected by in recent years. Personally, I am racked with a plethora of doubts regarding the grounds for proclaiming the reign of the above-mentioned, allegedly new paradigm; I sincerely believe that instead we are privy to a fascinating process of revealing the rules, laws, and orders of art production and distribution. Furthermore, what ensues is heightened description, critique, and problematisation of certain practices, which programmatically zoom in on the economic and social contexts of art and art-related activities. To my mind, the presence of a curator does not, however, mean that the proclaimed paradigmatic shift in the humanities and in the arts has indeed taken place. The turn is the direct product of widespread social, political, and economic changes that we have been witnessing (and participating in) since the mid-1980s in the so-called Western Europe, and since the 1990s in the post-communist countries. Additionally, the banner of the supposed “curatorial turn” is hoisted and wielded by the curators themselves as an ensign of their credibility and a tool of professional legitimization; the term provides thus a means of self-definition and gives boost to the development of the “curatorial business”. Let us carefully and cautiously consider the fact that the authors of particular volumes of essays, conference proceedings, monographs, and dissertations, are industry professionals, working in the field of curating (i.e. their interests are vested and interlocked), which in turn poses a potential double risk of further complicity and appropriation of the nascent discourse as an instrument of power, employed for self-gain, fashioned to legitimate one’s growing authority. Correspondingly, the outcome of introducing “Curatorial Studies” as part of an academic curriculum is comparable to a double-edged sword, the all-time king of ambivalence: likely to be, at best, unwieldy and, at worst, an accident waiting to happen. On the one hand, university institutionalisation is a benchmark of quality, providing academic grounding and sound official legitimization. On the other hand, this legal seal of approval – on its own a yet another marker of professionalization – diminishes the critical dimension of curatorship. Since its inception, curatorship has been informed by a foregrounded critical perspective, a novel means of thinking about exhibitions, museums, and showcasing, as pioneered by among others Harald Szeemann. In contrast, in the context of the academia, curators have been transformed into a cookie-cutter batch of producers and suppliers of knowledge (or rather know-how), being seamlessly transplanted onto the framework of the hegemonic economic system.
My critical output is undoubtedly fraught with all the above-mentioned ambivalence and tension. It is neither, for lack of a more-fitting term, “objective” nor transparent. I am a curator, actively involved in the domains of theatre and dance; I curate and programme a theatre festival and run an international arts platform project; additionally, I am working on a PhD dissertation on performing arts curatorship, which (I hope) will significantly contribute to the development of the discourse on curatorial praxis. The present paper is thus an attempt, quite a risky attempt and an uphill struggle, mind you, to self-reflexively critique my own professional praxis as well as to investigate and research the context that both underpins and determines it. To efficiently analyse curatorial praxis and simultaneously to be in synch with its diverse manifestations, I use various vantage points. However, my curatorial optics is local, rooted in a post-communist country, which is dominated (and often domineered) by a nexus of municipal and voivodeship (regional), in effect state-funded, repertory theatres. Hierarchical, with an outdated, rigidified, and mind-numbingly complex structures, they are frequently contingent upon a system of strong-arm management, the footing for which is secured by the hegemony of a one-man-army theatre director. Therefore, the emergence of freelance curators, the so-called “independent” curators, in Polish theatre and dance has led to a proliferation of both risk and opportunities. Should opportune circumstances arise, this may lead to the re-formulation of the discourse developed around performing arts and to the re-constitution of the art production model.
Seen in this context, what concerns me the most are the following questions:
- Who is a curator nowadays as a cultural producer? What is the social, political, and economic context of her work?
- How, in the case of the strong entanglement of curatorship in the socio-economic system, is it possible for the critical and subversive stance to be maintained by and within institutions?
The question regarding the definition (identity and positionality) of a present-day curator (but also of an artist, intellectual or researcher) as a cultural producer immediately spawns a host of other queries, following suit the original one: what are the models of a curator’s work and how has their role changed in cognitive capitalism that is based on the production of knowledge? Who constitutes a cultural producer? What are the conditions pertaining to her professional activities? What methods of decision-making are implemented and how do they affect the art circuit and the circulation of the arts? What does the contemporary system of art production look like? What rules and hegemonies govern it? Who is the decision-maker as far as the choice of a given artist and the publication of their works are concerned? Who includes and invites some artists to participate in the international festival circuit while others are excluded for months, seasons, and years to come? These are not solely academic questions, cocooned in theory and suspended in the vacuum of irrelevance to palpable socio-economic concerns. On the contrary, they touch upon a network of interrelations, interdependence, and connections between creators, producers, and audience, significantly influencing the shared space of contemporary theatre and dance.
“[C]urators are eloquent writers, intrepid researchers, communicative art educators, adaptable interpreters, sophisticated critics, proud editors, meticulously precise archivists, imaginative producers, socially critical politicians, painstakingly tough budget planners, mobile networking people, sensitive diplomats, clever lawyers, flexible project managers and stimulating agitators” (Jaschke 2012: 149). This description of the work of a curator, posited by Beatrice Jaschke, is a fitting list (quite ironic one…) of skills indispensable to the profession (and sometimes difficult to combine); it is not, however, exhaustive. For I define the curator as first and foremost a cultural producer, equipped with specific competences and functioning in a specific social and economic system which strongly determines her actions, oftentimes reducing the curator to a product of the said system. It is no coincidence that the profession of the so-called independent curator (one who is freelance and has no permanent ties to an institution) started to develop at the turn of the 1960s and the 1970s (in performing arts about a decade later), as the model of production evolved into post-Fordism and as late capitalism shaped. Non-material work/production is grounded in generating communication, creating network-based structures of information exchange, producing knowledge. A curator functions in a system which is a network, not a hierarchy; this does not mean her power is weaker, but rather that the alignment of the directions and vectors of that power are different. Curatorial praxis is, to a substantial extent, a product of late capitalism, embodying its key rules and mechanisms and at the same time becoming a tool legitimising and perpetuating these rules and mechanisms. The position of a curator is thus ambivalent, necessitating constant vigilance and critical attention. Visual artists have long criticised the position of curators; the criticism is not unwarranted: the unclear mechanism of the redistribution of power, the lack of transparency related to the reasons why some artists are included in the exhibition circuit and others excluded from it, and finally conflicts concerning authorship (such as who is the author of an exhibition: the curator? the artist? the viewer?) lead to tensions and clashes, raising valid objections on the part of artists.
Moreover, the figure of the so-called independent curator is emblematic for the projective city – a notion proposed by Luc Boltanski and Ḕve Chiapello, which is constitutive to the definition of late capitalism. In the projective city, economy and social relations are based on establishing contact, constructing networks of relations and mediations; actions are projective and by definition have a temporal framework; even in a project spanning many years, the date of its completion is known. Accessibility and alertness are central, as is openness to new ideas or contacts, for they result in new projects. The ability to establish many relations, but at the same time to carefully select the most valuable ones; the ability to remain receptive to information and to intuit the directions of actions; unceasing commitment (stellar qualifications do not suffice; passion and full commitment is a requirement); enthusiasm; mobility – but also the ability to assert one’s autonomy and defend one’s choices; specialist knowledge in a given area, enabling one to fulfill the role of an expert and a consultant are key characteristics of a worker in a projective city.
If the basis of production in cognitive capitalism is non-material work, which consists in the production of knowledge, generating communication, forming networks and migrating, then it appears that the entire contemporary festival industry is played out along these rules.
Interestingly, as Boltanski and Chiapello write in The New Spirit of Capitalism, the discourse of the model of non-material production has all but absorbed the buzzwords of the 1968 student revolt in Europe. These buzzwords (such as imagination, creativity, pleasure) have now become the foundation of the rules of work in the cognitive capitalist system. The work of a curator, who travels from one festival to another, does appear the fulfillment of the most utopian goals – it is nothing but pleasure, the opportunity to realise one’s passions, travel, meeting new people, forming new relations, building one’s own network of connections, in a nutshell – it is a permanent holiday, is it not? It is no coincidence that it is virtually impossible to separate the private and professional life of a curator; in late capitalism, in an economy governed by reputation, the distinction between work and leisure has been obliterated. The knowledge we produce will not come into being without a free flow of information, ideas, conversation; without what we like to call creative action and what Michael Hardt calls affective labor: emotional support, passion, an exchange of inspirations, and so on. The product is so tightly enmeshed with personal competences, closely related to individual emotional potential and to one’s experience, that the terms “private” and “professional” are rendered essentially indistinguishable. Cognitive capitalism rests on the production of knowledge; the production of knowledge is intimately related to individual predispositions. In his essay “Cruel Economy of Authorship” Kuba Szreder notes that the success of a cultural producer in this system is contingent on her efficiency in navigating different contexts, proficiency at networking, adroitness at forming the right connections, discerning good ideas and curating their publication; her success therefore boils down not so much to the process of work, but to the ability to detect and publish an interesting phenomenon. As an example, the most valued curators are those who not only skillfully navigate the networks of cooperation and various connections between artists, producers and the media, but also show unusual intuition; they are the first to seek out an interesting artist, hail him or her as a new “star”, label his or her work and make it visible to the world. Here, the ability to detect new trends, phenomena, directions, is fundamental, but the ability to label or articulate, publish, distribute and promote the given phenomenon/work/artist is no less important. Conversations between curators rest on personal relations, where the key factor is not even the amount of money a curator can spend, but what she has to say about a production she has just seen, whether her passion is genuine, whether her choices, recommendations, proposals engender trust. The credibility of a curator is thus equally the product of her professional competences and personal qualities.
Methodological research of, to use the term championed by among others Beatrice von Bismarck and Irit Rogoff, “the curatorial” (Beatrice von Bismarck, 2012), which in turn encompasses the profession of a curator itself as well as curatorial praxis, enables one to lay bare the normative matrix governing contemporary art production and distribution and to look closely at the interrelated mechanisms of selection, presentation, and evaluation that accompany art praxis. Such research indisputably corroborates the fact that the presence and visibility of artists (their existence on the art circuit) is not solely the sum total of their talent, luck, and serendipity but it is dependent on the decisions on the part of the powers that be, namely, on those that are responsible for the shaping of the circulation of the arts and for the building of audience-artist relations. In short, cultural producers worldwide.
The process in question is by no means transparent. It is painfully lacking in clearly defined rules and non-contestable, “objective” criteria. To considerable degree, the work of a curator is based on affect (the affective), personal (aesthetic) choices, and personalized competences, making it highly dependent on the individuality of the particular people tasked with a curatorial job as well as on their personal commitment and predisposition. This widespread and somehow signature phenomenon seems to be the consequence (some would argue one of the repercussions) of the development of contemporary art: one simply cannot evaluate art (or the arts for that matter) on the basis of any existing, or even better, “objective” criteria; works by contemporary artists defy all proscription – they openly flout conventions, rules, and regulations, as if offloading the reception and value judgement onto the audiences, equipped in turn with their individual competences and intuition. However, there is a middleperson between them, an intermediary known as a curator, who – in this context – appears to be an instructor, providing both the artists and the audience with some guidelines regarding the process at hand. She seems to be a teacher lecturing on the unteachable process and an interpreter of the untranslatable, who is responsible for providing the contextual framework that is often conducive to opening new and pluralized avenues of art reception. At other times, the said contextual framework may narrow down reception to one singularity. Does it mean that the art, which value never could be measured and always depended on one’s choice, is thus easily subjected to curatorial praxis? If art is “curated”, does it mean that to a certain degree the rules of art have been democratized or, rather the contrary, privatized?
I am convinced that conscious and reflexive analysis of the network of interrelatedness that creates, sustains, enwraps, and surrounds the art production system serves as the basis of critical thinking about contemporary theatre and dance. Equally, the analysis makes for a fitting starting point (or a point of departure) for all critical artists and critically-minded practitioners of art. The question we all should be asking ourselves at present is as follows: how, in the world governed by an almost alliance between the rampant capitalist economic model and art production, can we hold critical positions? How can we maintain a stance that is antithetical to the prevalent system? In what way can we not just think outside of the box but abandon the framework we have been dealt without committing social suicide and bringing our further work to a standstill? Finally, how not to be lulled into a false sense of security that writing a critical paper is all it takes?
What seems most apposite to the discussion is the case of Nie-boska. Szczątki, a play that was to have been directed by Oliver Frljić, rehearsed and duly prepared in the October and November of 2013 at the Old Theatre (Teatr Stary) in Cracow, Poland. The play, as it was conceptualised by Frljić, was never performed on stage. Nor was it seen by any audience. However, what it managed to do is spark a lot of controversy and generate a heated debate in the Polish theatre milieu, dividing it radically, causing a lot of personal affray, and, in general, wreaking havoc on the theatre circuit. Although the play and its unfortunate ramifications engendered a lot of considerable (and understandable) frustration as well as filled its creators with a sense of doom and failure, I consider Nie-boska. Szczątki (The Un-divine. Remains), unstaged as it was, to be paradoxically and puzzlingly triumphant. It is worth mentioning here, however, that my take on the complex issue is the product of extensive if external research: I had access to archival materials, to opinions expressed by both sides of the divide, and also to records of long conversations with the play’s creators.
Invited to the Old Theatre by its director Jan Klata, Oliver Frljić was to have directed an intertextual play revolving around and alluding to Zygmunt Krasiński’s 1833 Nie-boska komedia (The Un-divine Comedy), one of the key dramas of Polish Romanticism. Formerly, the play was adapted on stage in 1965 by legendary Polish theatre director Konrad Swinarski. Commissioned to provide his own directorial interpretation, Frljić opted to go back in time and use as his point of departure archival materials and memories of Swinarski’s play so as to later on, in the course of his play, focus on the issues of anti-Semitism, both indispensable to the understanding of the original text (Krasiński’s drama is frequently inherently anit-Semitic) and crucial in the context of the staging of the play by Swinarski in the Cracow of the mid-1960s. Frljić’s method of choice was to be an enabler of discussions with and between the ensemble that would touch upon the most burning and controversial socio-cultural issues. This instigated workflow of ideas was supposed to trigger prolonged improvisation, problematizing select topics and revealing the political intrinsic to them. During the course of the play, the ensemble’s on-stage heated debates were to be continued by audience members in the stalls and elsewhere, showing them in their full intensity the most antagonizing problems tackled by the play dug up by the director. The responsibility that the ensemble felt was huge as the director deprived them of the opportunity of “hiding” behind their role. By getting rid of the typical hierarchical power structure, he in consequence offloaded some of the responsibility for the play onto them. Starting on the first day of their rehearsal schedule, all ensemble members were given leeway so as to further continuation of their involvement in the play. In fact, some of them opted out.
In the meantime, after the events of November 11, 2013 (for a couple of years the Independence Day in Poland has been notorious for the escalation of right-wing bellicosity) the Old Theatre in Cracow became the centre of tension (and unwanted, ill-disposed attention): right-wing media activists, including journalists and frustrated artists not affiliated with the Old Theatre, orchestrated a series of absurd pickets and protests during plays as well as published a number of libellous newspaper articles in the conservative “Gazeta Polska” weekly. Purposefully containing half-truths and leaked information, the articles included reviews of as-yet-unpremiered plays. To make matters worse, the ensemble members received anonymous threats. On the one hand, Jan Klata, the director of the Old Theatre, adamantly supported the institution, and openly showed his displeasure at the arrested development of Nie-boska. Szczątki, on the other hand. Eventually, on the 26th of November, against the wishes of the creators of the play and masked by the pretence of providing the ensemble with requisite protection, Klata officially suspended the rehearsals.
Regardless of the practicality of his idea or of the result of the expected confrontation of Nie-boska. Szczątki with the audience (we were denied an opportunity to evaluate the play on our own), Frljić, alongside his associates (Agnieszka Jakimiak, Joanna Wichowska, and Goran Injac) managed to do something else, perhaps something even more important: to trigger a uniquely widespread, well-informed, and inclusive debate on the institution of theatre, on the arrangement of the power structures within it, on how individual responsibilities are assigned, and – finally – on the potentiality of the radical critical stance to be practiced in an institutionalized setting, as posited by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney in The Undercommons. Fugitive Planning and Black Study. (2013), their jointly written volume of essays. The critics postulate rescission of current rules and regulations, abdication of directorial authority, encouragement of risk-taking, introduction of artistic exploration and experimentation governed by the concept of equally assigned responsibility, and – most importantly – self-interrogation on the way to positioning oneself as an entity posing a fundamental problem to the very institution one is attempting to revolutionalise. A subversive theatre director, such as Frljić, who decides to play against the rules of institutionalized engagement, by abandoning his hierarchical position, violates the basic principles keeping the said institution, i.e. theatre, in check.
The Old Theatre behaved just like the authors of The Undercommons predicted: the presence of Frljić was construed as menace to the institutionalized hierarchy on the part of a trickster. For that reason alone, the play was called off before its premiere, clouded by impropriety, mutual accusations, and gross misunderstanding. As a result, instead of the play there emerged records and transcripts of diverse discussions on the subject, including a well-researched and informative series of materials in the “Didaskalia” periodical, in which the play’s dramaturges (Agnieszka Jakimiak and Joanna Wichowska) attempted to reconstruct the methods at work and the creative process that took place, while stage designer Anna-Maria Karczmarska described the rationale behind her scenography. A transcript of an extensive multilateral meeting at the Theatre Institute that included all the parties involved (only Jan Klata was absent) was also published. In addition, Agnieszka Jakimiak (Jakimiak, 2014) wrote an in-depth critical text, making a conscious effort to attempt thorough institutional critique with regard to public/state-funded theatre in Poland.
A form of dialogue, in its different shapes, sizes, and guises, has been ceaselessly attempted since the moment the Polish art circuit was first infiltrated by the curatorial model and which then began to clash with the entrenched system of public repertory theatres (be they municipal, voivodeship or state-funded). We suffer from the privation of a breath of fresh air: we are thus in desperate need of airing the ruling theatre system. Analogously, we require more breathing space: space for interdisciplinary projects, sites for dance events, sufficient symbolic and physical room for up-and-coming artists. On the other hand, project-driven existence as well as curatorial models are emblematic of the post-1989 neoliberal paradigm that rules supreme in Poland, having brought on all of its signature consequences: precarity, instability, unpredictability, self-exploitation, and the like. Still, I consider the moment of the historical merger of the two systems, of their head-on collision as a fascinating rite of passage, a threshold leading up to a space of potentially radical critique, providing in turn a means of re-formulating the paradigms operating at the core of both socio-economic systems.
Characteristically of the critical approach that the authors of The Undercommons advocate, out of two viable means of maintaining a critical stance on all institutional forms (the first one involves a full-on frontal assault on the emanations of the neoliberal system while the second one focuses on intellectual critique of the system from the inside through widely available and accepted means: articles, discussions, interviews, etc.), Moten and Harney choose a third option: constant, radical changes within the institution, entailing permanent if varied problematisation and interrogation of existing (power) structures with a view to their reforming. What seems self-explanatory and obvious ceases to be so; the institutional framework ought to be contested and conceptualized anew. It is sobering, however, to read in The Undercommons that remaining critical and self-reflexive within an institution and with recourse to cut-and-dried modes of expression/resistance poses a risk of complicity and the legitimization of institutions. As observed by Moten and Harney, being a critical academic involves augmenting and endorsing the framework disseminated by institutions. If we relate their insightful train of thought to the case study of the Old Theatre, then we may notice that somehow, by agreeing to “finish” Nie-boska. Szczątki in Frljić’s stead, Monika Strzępka and Paweł Demirski, have found themselves caught between Scylla and Charybdis. Undoubtedly, the forthcoming play will be intriguing and important while its creators will critically, scathingly, and mockingly allude to the disturbing events that took place a few months ago in the Old Theatre. However, the duo’s work also significantly contributes to the proliferation of the status quo, one way or another allowing both the internalization of their own resistance and the institutionalization of the critical stance to occur and take effect. Perhaps even to take its toll.
Seen in the context of the disassembling (Frljić) and subsequent pacification (Demirski, Strzępka) of the critical potential inherent in Nie-boska. Szczątki, one begins to doubt whether even imagining not just an artist but also a curator as a veritable trouble-maker, as a trickster, as a rabble-rouser is justified. To what extent is it possible to transgress one’s affectivity that the profession of a curator is informed by so at to enable the real critique of institutions to firmly take root? Perhaps, what is at stake is one’s self-reflexive criticism, the ceaseless problematisation and interrogation of one’s curatorship, as in The Curators’ Piece, when bombarded with fundamental and tricky questions, one does not perform any evasive manoeuvres but confesses one’s hesitance, self-doubt, and dilemmas by simply stating publicly: “I don’t know”, “I’m trying”, “I’m thinking”, “I’m searching”, “I am not sure”. In consequence, clearly outside of one’s comfort zone, one is susceptible to rejection not only on the part of the audience but of the institution one is employed by as well. After all, what may potentially be the solution here is abandoning the tried and failed language of power and embracing the little tried language of dialogue – even if by doing so we risk not just merely shattering our dreams but smashing our heads against yet another surprisingly concrete utopia.
translated by Bartosz Wójcik
Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, The new spirit od capitalism, London/New York 2005
Michael Hardt, Affective Labor, boundary 2/1999, p. 89-100, Duke University Press
Agnieszka Jakimiak, Ta dziwna instytucja zwana spektaklem (That Strange Insitution We Call a Play), “Didaskalia” 119/2014
Beatrice Jeschke, Curating. A profession in transition, in Maria Hussakowska (ed.), “Talking about Exhibition”, Kraków 2012
Marysia Lewandowska, Laurel Ptak (eds.), Undoing Property?, Berlin 2013
Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons. Fugitive Planning and Black Study, 2013
Irit Rogoff and Beatrice von Bismarck, Curating/Curatorial, in Beatrice von Bismarck, Jörn Scaafaff, Thomas Weski, eds., Cultures of the Curatorial, Berlin 2012
text was written for the conference „The Public Commons and the Undercommons of Art, Education and Labor”, An International Conference hosted by the MA program Choreography and Performance (Gießen) 29.05.2014 – 01.06.2014