Art as Curating ≠ Curating as Art
Jens Hoffmann & Julieta Aranda
Jens Hoffmann: I am entering this conversation from the position of the curator—a curator who has often been accused of taking a very authorial and creative position in the creation of exhibitions. I am emphasizing words like “author” and “creation” on purpose to express my place in this conversation, and my overall standpoint in the realization of exhibitions. I am not an art historian—the traditional background of a curator—nor did I study curating. Rather, I consider myself an exhibition-maker in the tradition of Harald Szeemann and Hans Ulrich Obrist, both of whom have had to deal with similar critiques in regard to their creative approaches when organizing exhibitions. The group show is our medium, but none of us has ever done anything to a work of art that was not appropriate or forced artists into a context they did not want to participate in. Criticism usually comes from the outside—never from the artists we collaborate with—and skepticism is particularly strong in the United States. I recently had a conversation with a young writer and curator who said he did not want to be progressive in his work as a curator but focus his energy on curating large-scale monographic shows of established artists. I thought that was very telling about the role of the curator in an institutional setting. I see my own trajectory, which grows out of Szeemann’s practice, as forming temporary alliances with artists to produce grand narratives that are bigger than the sum of their parts: exhibitions with an epic dimension, if you will, which reconnect to my formative years as a theater director. My points of reference are Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht and filmmakers of postwar France and Italy. Jean-Pierre Melville and Michelangelo Antonioni are especially important influences in their authorial approach to filmmaking. In the field of contemporary curating, I think that Okwui Enwezor is the most gifted, but I am also a big fan of the curatorial work of Ydessa Hendeles. She has been a big influence on me, perhaps more so than any of the other people mentioned here. Her way of making exhibitions is certainly on the border of artmaking. What I like about her is that she brings very personal elements to her exhibitions—emotional, almost romantic—and she is very interested in the staging of her shows. She is the best installer of exhibitions that I know. Her shows are more than perfect, if you ask me.
Julieta Aranda: Since you entered this conversation as a curator, I should state my position too and say that I am entering it as an artist. Yet, I am an artist that has often been mistaken for a curator, since I frequently create participatory projects. In the beginning, it was quite frustrating to constantly encounter skepticism for my work, but over time I came to realize that there is a place in which the lines between what constitutes artistic practice and what constitutes curatorial practice can be blurred. I would like to use this conversation to try to define this blurred space—this intersection—and how it can be productive on both sides of the blur. I am very curious as to how you understand the relationship between artist/curator—the important differences and the place in which these roles are perhaps even complementary.
J Hoffmann: What you say is interesting, as there is a history of what you describe as a “blurred space” of intersection. Just think about people like Seth Siegelaub, for example, or more recently Matthew Higgs—an artist as much as a curator. Then there are artists who curated exhibitions, at times even run art spaces. This “blurred space” has a long history. I have learned a lot from watching artists curate. Most recently, I invited Paul McCarthy to curate a show at the Wattis Institute in San Francisco, where I am now the director. It was a terrific experience: seeing him select the pieces, seeing him install work in very different ways as compared to a curator. Artists have a different approach to curating—one that is less conformist and often more creative and unpredictable. There have been fantastic shows curated by artists that I always mention as some of my favorite exhibitions: The Play of the Unmentionable (curated by Joseph Kosuth), Americana (Group Material), Mining the Museum (Fred Wilson) or before that, in the late 1950s, This is Tomorrow (Independent Group) and many more. All of them influenced me enormously, probably more than exhibitions curated by what we would call “proper” curators. I have always considered myself a proper curator, though even that has been disputed at times. People have said I am so creative that my work really borders on artmaking, but these kinds of comments miss the point as they overlook what my work actually says about curatorial practice. Someone who is important for me here is Liam Gillick, with whom I’ve had fantastic discussions about exhibition-making and the roles of artists and curators. I remember him saying once that he thought that it was curators who changed art in the 1990s, not so much artists. I am not sure if that is right—he probably went a bit too far—but it was an interesting point to consider and speaks to the importance of curators in the field of art today.
J Aranda: Sometimes I wonder if there is really a need to keep roles so strictly separated or if curating is an entrenched practice merely because of tradition. I would be very curious to know what you consider to be the difference between artist-curated shows and curator-curated shows. In my case, I think more and more about the possibility of an extremely flexible approach in which it would be possible to articulate polysemic positions that can be either artworks or exhibitions. Somehow the idea of exploring the intersecting space between both practices seems more interesting to me than it is to delineate the boundaries of each. A good example is Obrist’s DO IT exhibitions, which I find incredibly successful as artworks.
J Hoffmann: I think you have a point there in regard to the separation of curating and artmaking. It has a lot to do with tradition, habit and the historical development of art and museums. Do not forget that until recently, curators were mostly art historians. The majority of curators today still are art historians, but you also have a new kind of curator that follows the model of someone like Szeemann, for example, and works very closely with artists. I think Obrist played a big role in this development as well, and you already mentioned DO IT, one of the most interesting shows in recent history in terms of its innovative qualities. I am not sure, however, if it would be innovative with regard to the history of art. That is why I would always vote for a separation of these practices—artmaking and curating. Curating is not really an artistic practice. At best, it can be called a creative practice. Also, most of the time, the boundaries between these practices are being crossed more by artists than curators. I have not found one curator yet that considers her or himself an artist. If they do, they cease to be curators. Perhaps all of this will not matter much in the future, but one needs a different set of skills to make shows than to make art. Artists I’ve worked with are always surprised about the amount of work they have to do as a curator, apart from the selection of artworks. All the administrational elements are really shocking to them!
J Aranda: Something that is odd to me is to see how the crossing of boundaries changes modes of working for both artists and curators. Of course, there is a long tradition of curators coming from art history, and the same long tradition of rational, well-thought-out survey exhibitions to illustrate art-historical topics. It is very good to see that linear mode interrupted by a more intuitive approach to curatorial practice, which complicates the relationships between works or that articulates a point altogether different from what could be said by historical analysis. However, I also notice that there have been more and more artists that are making use of investigative methodologies common to an art historical approach. This can be interesting ground for productive confusion, and thus it makes me wonder why you think that the moment a curator might consider him/herself as an artist, they would not be a curator.
J Hoffmann: Of course artists have heavily influenced curators, not only through the work that they make when they curate but, more often, simply through their own artwork. Look at how much influence the practice of institutional critique and conceptual art have had on curators over the last forty years. It is interesting that you would call new ideas in the field of curating more “intuitive.” I disagree with that, but I think what you mean is that they can be, perhaps, more personal. It is difficult to generalize. People still tend to look at new forms of exhibition-making as one movement—as one overall idea—even though the efforts of most curators that fall into this category can be quite different in their methodology and, in many cases, do not even relate to one another. But to answer your question, if a curator considers his or her work to be art, then he or she is not a curator anymore simply because exhibition-making, as I understand it, is not an artistic practice. It is still about some form of scholarship, even if it is very creative and personalized. But you are right in that it is becoming harder and harder to define.
J Aranda: I think I should clarify. When I say “intuitive,” I don’t mean misinformed, but I also don’t mean strictly personal. What I find fascinating about the curatorial approach that we are discussing is that it is not following the logic of art history as we know it but is also not using work to serve a personal logic. In some way, it seems to be structured around relations of complicity, where all the parts involved remain active as the statement is articulated. That doesn’t talk to me only about exhibition-making but also about artmaking and about how these two things are becoming inextricably tied at a certain level.
J Hoffmann: Yes, I understood that you did not mean “misinformed,” but I would be careful with the use of the word “intuitive” in the context of curating. I think what you mean is nonacademic—idea-based. Looking at my own work, I think I am intuitive to some degree but perhaps less when it comes to making an exhibition and more when it comes to an initial response to artworks that I analyze intellectually. I understand your ideas of the blurring of these boundaries, and they make a lot of sense; it is just a very particular discourse that I am personally not so fond of. In some funny way, I sometimes think I am a conservative curator: I like objects, I like to work in gallery spaces, I like all the details associated with exhibitions. The things I fundamentally reject are common forms of exhibitions and the categorization of exhibition genres, and that alone calls everything into question.
J Aranda: The way in which you describe your relationship to curating is often with regard to the group-show format. I am curious as to how you see the one-to-one relationship between a curator and an artist. For example, I know that you often work with Tino Sehgal. How does your process change in such a case, if at all?
J Hoffmann: I think that the group show is the exhibition format in which curators can be the most creative. Here she or he can bring in their vision in regard to artists, artworks, themes, etc., and tie all the elements together following one larger concept. I have looked extensively at this particular exhibition format and worked—especially in earlier exhibitions—on conceptualizing the process of making an exhibition. Today, my exhibitions continue to contain a self-reflexive element, but that is only one of many concerns. I am much more interested in the idea of staging exhibitions as an overall creative and artistic environment that the audience can immerse themselves in on a number of levels. When a curator is working with an artist on a solo exhibition, the one-to-one relationship is always different and entirely dependent upon who one works with. But usually, when working on a solo show—and I have to say that all the ones I have done are not survey exhibitions but project-based solo exhibitions—I try to look very carefully at the artist’s work and then try to find a format for the exhibition that is based on a particular element of the artist’s practice. It is a long process, and it is one of the most interesting things for me: the challenge of how to find the most adequate form of exhibition for a particular type of work. Artmaking has changed so radically over the last century; yet, we still use display strategies—exhibition formats that have been with us even longer. I am trying to challenge this by looking at the artwork, by talking to the artist, in order to find the best possible format for a solo presentation. But now we are talking too much about exhibition-making from the curator’s point of view. Tell me more about your thoughts in this respect. How do you start thinking about curating an exhibition, for example? How is that related to your work as an artist? Are there very strong connections, or is it more of a fluid form of exchange between the two?
J Aranda: I understand your affinity for the group show. The format is interesting to me as an artist because it allows one to see how work functions in a certain context. Why I ask about your role when working one-on-one with an artist is because I used to think about curators in the classical, art-historical sense—as the keepers of the record—those in charge of making sense of the world around them, much like the function of one in charge of continuity in filmmaking. However, when I think about what I call “intuitive” curators, things shift. When I mentioned before relations of complicity, it is because I have come to realize that this becomes a very strong and important component of the working process—at least in my case—much more so than the directives and guidelines of art history.
As to your questions, I don’t think I have ever curated an exhibition. What happens is that some of the projects that I have worked on with Anton Vidokle tend to be confused with curated exhibitions. I believe this is because we were using a participatory model so that the content would come from people that were complicit with a certain idea, while we could focus on the structure. These projects are completely related to our preoccupation with the notion of circulation and its aesthetic potential. In the case of our video rental store, this became the idea of making a structure that would complicate the terms of access and display of film and video work, while trying to lay the groundwork for the creation of an open archive. And in the case of Pawnshop, we tried to focus on the moment in which value is generated within the processes of exchange and circulation of artwork. Obviously, we were relying greatly on the participation of all the people that have taken part in these projects, but I really don’t consider this approach curatorial, nor do I consider these projects to be curated exhibitions. I would be open to say that they sit in a gray zone of confusion where disciplines intersect, and maybe this is why I am interested in talking to you about this in detail.
J Hoffmann: I would not consider the video rental project or Pawnshop an exhibition or an artwork. The first was a platform for the dissemination of works by other artists for which you invited many curators to select videos; the second was a structure that would offer artists an opportunity to expose and circulate their work within the particular circumstances of a pawnshop, where pieces were reduced to their commodity value. You do not ever say that these were artworks or exhibitions. You always refer to them as projects.
J Aranda: In the case of the video rental project, the work does function as a platform. To me this doesn’t take anything away from the understanding of it as an artwork, as I believe that the status of what is and what is not an artwork is not related to formal qualities. As you know, there are many other artists that are working with archival models and exploring the restructuring of certain situations by way of other works. I think that at this point, we can say that an artwork can take the form of a structure, especially in the case of this work, which was chiefly concerned with the aesthetic potential of circulation more than with its own content. With Pawnshop, again the idea was not to offer visibility to other artists but to explore the structure within which value is constructed, which needed the participation of others in order to function. I think that it is possible to make work that contains work by other artists but is independent in meaning from the work that comprises it. I understand that it can be tricky to analyze such projects, but I also think that this model of production makes things interesting. Maybe this is why I am now more interested in complicating the boundaries between disciplines—not because I am interested in becoming a curator or because I think that curators should define their role in a more or less ambiguous way—but because I think that the potential of this constantly shifting ground is turning the field that we share into something incredibly interesting, far more interesting than anything else going on right now.
J Hoffmann: I understand exactly where you are coming from, and it makes perfect sense. I am intrigued by your desire to create the new and to form alternative ideas of all of these practices. I see that what you do is a clear continuation of works that I would also connect to some artists involved with so-called relational aesthetics, but expanding the idea of outside participation and widening the idea of an exhibition as an artistic medium. It is interesting to me that I needed you to elaborate on it further in order to be able to fully understand your intentions. I am not sure if the overall idea was really apparent to everyone who followed these projects. I have also always thought of The Next Documenta Should be Curated by an Artist as an exhibition and not so much as a book, and I think that was also not clear to many people. For me, curating is always about widening the understanding and formats of exhibitions and never so much about doing the same for art. That is the artist’s job!