The Curator is Present: An extract from David Balzer’s ‘Curationism’


  • to select, organize, and look after the items in (a collection or exhibition).
  • to select, organize, and present (online content, merchandise, information, etc.), typically using professional or expert knowledge.

The word curate has become increasingly abstracted from its original meaning; the curator is no longer simply a ‘connoisseur of contemporary culture’, instead, lunch is curated, as are social media accounts and shops. In a world of near-totalising curation, what happens to the curators 1.0? David Bakzer seeks to determine just that. In this extract from ‘Curationism’, Balzer looks at how the social turn in art repositioned gallery audiences and in forging curatable art, forged a curatable world.

It follows that, from about the mid-1990s, most prominent artists didn’t just want a curator as advocate, but needed one to initiate, realise and in many cases give meaning to their work. ‘Curator art’, along with ‘biennial art’, became the last genre of the avant-garde, a sometimes unwitting, decadent parody or commentary on its one-hundred-year trajectory. Reactionary works pushed against coded forms of looking and consumption presumably upheld by museums, galleries and art events, but in many cases existed only by virtue of these entities. Installation-oriented, ‘curatable’ art became favoured even in more traditional media. Photographers, for instance, became photographic artists; Christian Boltanski, Wolfgang Tillmans, Jeff Wall and others became popular for producing images with sculptural, site-specific elements.


Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room

As a result, most star curators began to groom a stable of iconoclastic artists with ties to performance and audience engagement, advantageous professional alliances that boosted the institution-affiliated curator’s authenticity. The most famous current example of this is perhaps Marina Abramovic´ and Klaus Biesenbach, who curated Abramovic´’s 2010 retrospective at MoMA, setting a new precedent for the institutionalisation of performance art. (The exhibition consisted of conspicuously attractive  performers, some naked, re-enacting Abramovic´’s performance works from the past, while Abramovic´ marina_abramovic_the_artist_is_present_2010_2performed a new work, The Artist Is Present, for which crowds of people lined up for the chance to sit across from her in a sort of durational staring contest.) Abramovic´ and Biesenbach remain close friends. In early 2014, before the premiere of artist Matthew Barney’s new film, River of Fundament, Abramovic´ was whisked away from the media by Biesenbach, who reminded her they were late and needed to find their seats, telling reporters that their questions to Abramovic´ about actor Shia LaBeouf’s latest performance-art project, plainly influenced by her work, were a waste of time. ‘What if he invented the wheel tomorrow?’ Biesenbach asked the reporters. ‘The wheel is invented. She did it, right? And we all know it.’

In her 2012 book, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, critic Claire Bishop cleverly describes this 1990s social turn in art through the marked shift in vocabulary it effected: ‘the artist is conceived less as an individual producer of discrete objects than as a collaborator and producer of situations; the work of art as a finite, portable, commodifiable product is reconceived as an ongoing or long-term project with an unclear beginning and end; while the audience, previously conceived as a “viewer” or “beholder,” is now repositioned as a  co-producer  or  participant.’ The irony of the statement as regards audience-courting contemporary museums or galleries is obvious. With its new branding initiatives and marketing outreach, the cultural institution wants all of these things too. In particular, the cultural institution wants, like participatory art, a lack of a finite relationship with its audience. Go to an exhibition, then take in a screening, eat at the café, shop at the gift shop and bring a pamphlet home with you to consider your next outing. Through audio and smartphone guides, touch screens and videos, and play spaces for kids, in addition to traditional didactic panels, the cultural institution wants your experience to be thoroughly interactive, satisfying from an investment standpoint (i.e., you felt you got your money’s worth) and, like participatory art, everywhere and ongoing.

Bishop’s statement is also useful in terms of its implications for a discussion of the ways in which museums court audiences through avant-garde practices, although Bishop, while critical of participatory art, maintains faith in its radical potential. She is emphatic in contrasting her understanding of participatory art – which still, especially in non-Western tino-tatecontexts, can occur well outside the commodifying purview of cultural institutions –  with  the  aforementioned  ‘relational  aesthetics,’ a coinage from curator-writer Nicolas Bourriaud, whose eponymous book (published  in  French  in  1998, in  English  in  2002)  made, in Bishop’s words, ‘discursive and dialogic projects more amenable to  museums
and  galleries.’  This is putting it mildly.  The relational-aesthetics movement is likely the first example of a curator naming a movement in contemporary art and, given the curator’s significant role in unintentionally dismantling the avant-garde, will likely be the last. Bourriaud’s  book  might also  have  doubled  as  a  rule  book  for  the  new  museum: no avant-garde movement has become so rapidly institutionalised. The fact that most artists associated with relational aesthetics, like Rirkrit Tiravanija and Carsten Höller, are among the most successful and powerful artists working today, and that, despite the apparent difficulty of their work, have managed to become affiliated  with  the  most  prestigious  international  collections and private collectors, speaks volumes about the institutional and curatorial drivers of this movement.

It is most salient for the purposes of this short study to dwell on the implications of relational aesthetics’ unmistakable institutionalisation: the 2008 show theanyspacewhatever, curated by Nancy Spector at New York’s Guggenheim Museum and featuring many big names associated with the movement since the mid-1990s, among them Maurizio Cattelan, Liam Gillick and Pierre Huyghe, in addition to Tiravanija and Höller. Yet, ‘unmistakable  institutionalisation’  seems  inept  here, for the exhibition was a bookend to the (institutional) beginning of the relational-aesthetics movement, the 1996  group show Traffic, curated by Bourriaud at the Musée d’art contemporain in Bordeaux, France. In other words, relational aesthetics was institutional from the start. Regarding Traffic, critics seemed unclear as to its purpose. Carl Freedman, in a contemporaneous review  in  the  magazine  Frieze, describes  it  as  ‘ambitiously funded’  but  ‘unhelpfully  vague,’  its  ‘primary  beneficiaries… tending  to  be  the  participating  artists  and  their  associates.’ Projects such as Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s room in which viewers  were  encouraged  to  draw  plans  of  their  childhood homes, or Tiravanija’s groupings of cardboard tables and chairs around  a  mini-bar, were  certainly  interactive, but  to  what end?  Was this art-as-therapy?  Art-as-party?  The dubious transformative import of most if not all works remained confined to the institution in which they were displayed.

anyspacewhatever250If Traffic was vague in its intentions, theanyspacewhatever seemed cynically clear. In the twelve years between the two shows, star curators like Massimiliano Gioni, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Daniel Birnbaum and Beatrix Ruf had all, to varying degrees, latched on to this movement, which, to quote the catalogue jacket copy for theanyspacewhatever, involved a group of artists who ‘claimed the exhibition as their medium.’ Instead of being threatened by these artists, who might have been seen as upstart contemporary curators, star curators stepped in as glamorous facilitators, liaising with museums and galleries, initiating tricky paperwork pertaining to insurance and liability issues around the involvement of real people in the art, collaborating on and arranging what could be complicated installs, and, of course, speaking and writing at length about the importance of such art. The final word on theanyspacewhatever remains with critic Jerry Saltz, who reviewed the show for New York magazine, emphasising his experience sleeping overnight in Höller’s Revolving Hotel Room, which was just that, a revolving hotel room installation at the Guggenheim, booked solid for the duration of the exhibition for between $259 and $799 per night. Saltz described relational aesthetics as beginning in the manner of a ‘palace coup’ but quickly attracting ‘a legion of sheeplike curators [who have] embraced it with a vengeance.’ Saltz noted that the exhibition catalogue had twenty essays written by curators, and that the exhibition, although curated by a woman, woefully included only one of the many women associated with the movement. Reading Saltz’s review more than five years later, one is struck by its percipience, by how this kind of art has come to define New York’s culture industry. Recent examples of relational aesthetics in New York include MoMA’s 2013 Rain Room and the New Museum’s 2012 Höller retrospective. In  a  city  that has emerged, in direct synchronicity with the development of relational  aesthetics, as  a  kind  of  Disney  World  for  grown- ups, this self-consciously curated, installation- and performance- oriented art reigns supreme, generating lineups to rival those for nightclubs, and providing fodder for countless social-media selfies and blog posts.


If this book sparked your interest, please check the Pluto Press website for other similar titles. If you need a gentle nudge in the right direction, we recommend:

Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture by Gregory Sholette

Art is big business, with some artists able to command huge sums of money for their works, while the vast majority are ignored or dismissed by critics. This book shows that these marginalised artists, the ‘dark matter’ of the art world, are essential to the survival of the mainstream and that they frequently organise in opposition to it.

Art in the Age of Mass Media by John A. Walker

Can fine art survive in an age of mass media? If so, in what forms and to what purpose? And can radical art still play a critical role in today’s divided world? These are the challenging questions addressed in this thoroughly revised, updated and expanded edition of Art in the Age of Mass Media, as John Walker examines the fascinating relationship between art and mass media, and the myriad interactions between high and low culture in a postmodern, culturally pluralistic world.

Anthropology, Art and Cultural Production by Maruska Svasek

This book provides an introduction to anthropological perspectives on art. Providing a critical overview of various anthropological theories of art, Svasek offers a new perspective which centres on the analysis of commoditisation, aestheticisation and object agency. She explores the process of collecting and exhibiting art works and how this relates to art’s production, distribution and consumption in an increasingly global market.

Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts by Mel Evans

Published on the fifth anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, Artwash is an intervention into the unsavoury role of the Big Oil company’s sponsorship of the arts in Britain. Based on a high profile campaign, Mel Evans targets Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP and Shell’s collaboration with institutions such as the Tate in an attempt to end the poisonous relationship forever.

Art & Outrage: Provocation, Controversy and the Visual Arts by John A. Walker

When art hits the headlines, it is usually because it has caused offence or is perceived by the media to have shock-value. Over the last fifty years many artists have been censored, vilified, accused of blasphemy and obscenity, threatened with violence, prosecuted and even imprisoned. Their work has been trashed by the media and physically attacked by the public. In Art & Outrage, John A. Walker covers the period from the late 1940s to the 1990s to provide the first detailed survey of the most prominent cases of art that has scandalised.


Curationism is available to buy here.


David Balzer has contributed to publications including The Believer, Modern Painters, ARTnews, and Capital New York, and is the author of Contrivances, a short-fiction collection. Balzer was born in Winnipeg and currently resides in Toronto, where he makes a living as a critic, editor and teacher.


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