drucken Bookmark and Share

by Helmut Draxler

Crisis as form. Curating and the logic of Mediation.[1]

The rapid increase and expansion of curatorial practices since the late 1980s could easily be understood as the manifestation of three distinct moments of crisis. The first crisis would concern the institutions of the bourgeois art establishment, which have struggled ever since to find adequate responses both to the challenges of contemporary, particularly neoorpost-avant-gardist art and to the requirements of the expanding art business. Independent curators stepped in to take on the tasks which the custodians of the classical museumswere no longer able to undertake. They became the tracker dogs and "head-hunters" of a scene in which they soaked up a wide variety of assertive gestures derived from art, theory,and politics in order to legitimise their advanced status in terms of knowledge, coolness, and jargon. The institutions appeared slow and sedate by comparison. Today, theyincreasingly attempt to integrate the model of independent curating into their administrative and representative operational processes.

The second crisis would refer to the relationship between artists and curators. Traditionally there had been a clear division of roles between productive artists and selective curators/custodians, who would engage in critical reflection and mediation. But already the first independent curators were faced with the criticism that their actual intention was to be "grand artists" who used other artists as their material. Since the 1980s, however, a reverse tendency can be observed in the increasing number of curatorial projects conducted byartists. Today, many of the most interesting art projects are essentially curatorial projects. What appears to happen is a kind of continuous exchange between artists and curators inwhich the specific roles are not abandoned but constantly being readjusted to each other.

The same observations also serve to demonstrate the third manifestation of crisis, namely the crisis of artistic production itself. It is evidence of the fact that since the 1960s it has become almost impossible to maintain the high standards of originality and innovation typical of the modern period. An element of reflexivity, with regards to both history and media,has become an integral aspect of art practices, which are increasingly based on processing existing materials in analogy to the cut and paste principles of digital modes of production.In that sense curators act like DJs in that they cultivate "secondary" modes of production such as selecting, emphasising, and above all recycling, even when they appear simply tocreate space for "original" productions. Perhaps these "secondary" modes of production have become so interesting for many artists that curating, not unlike critical practice, seemsto have become the actual mode of artistic expression.

How can we understand the connections between these three crises? It is already not an easy question to decide whether we are dealing with various facets of a single crisis or with arange of different but overlapping crisis phenomena, and whether the role of curating should be regarded as a solution or as a symptom of the respective crises. And then the question ariseswhether the notion of crisis is at all appropriate to describe the specific nature of this process of transformation. The answers to such questions depend both on the underlyingassumptions that inform the diagnosis of the present historical moment and on the implied models of historical differentiation and dynamics which form an essential part of anyreflection on the process character of the modern era.

The essence of curating can therefore only be grasped on the basis of specific assumptions regarding its social, cultural, and economic contexts. How these contexts are interpreted willalso determine the answer to the question whether the processes of transformation and the role of curatorial practices in them are seen as progressive or as problematic changes. Inother words, does curating represent new ways of approaching the critique of institutions and overcoming traditional images of the role of artists as well as traditional notions ofproduction, or does it stand for typical manifestations of new, culturalised economies in which a culture of the secondary and of mediation merges seamlessly with the processes ofvalue creation and the logic of social fragmentation that are typical of "progressive" capitalism?

What seems to be characteristic is the fact that casting the issue in terms of an either/or between emancipation and co-optation apparently fails to grasp the particular constellation of curating. What is progressive could at the same time be exactly the root of the problem, for example when the criticalmoment in curating is presented as a motor for change that no longer butts heads with "fossilised" structures but rather is readily absorbedinto them. Or when the moment of selection in curating can no longer be distinguished from the dominant patterns of selection andexclusion. Such effects have been extensively described in the context of the globalisation of the exhibition business and the"immaterialisation" of neoliberal working conditions and requirements of subjectivity. These are therefore not merely the symptoms ofa dissolution of institutions, identities, and notions of the artwork giving way to new modes of articulation in the name of curating.It is rather a multi-layered transformation from rigid to flexible institutions, from the immediate subject position of the artist to thatof the mediator, from original creation to secondary production.

Such changes cannot, however, be understood in terms of one-dimensional motion sequences; they imply shifts within the "systems" ofrelationships in which the individual and the institution, the mediated and the unmediated, the primary and the secondary are alwaysalready interrelated. These dualistic terms are interdependent, and none of them can be subsumed into its opposite. The crucial questionconcerns the assessment of the factual shifts from one pole to the other that take place within the field of curating and how theyimpact the bourgeois system of checks and balances, i.e. the separation of powers that manifests, for example, in the distribution ofsubject positions between artists, custodians, and critics in an arrangement of mutually related articulations designed to ensure thebourgeois preservation of values. Is the increase in practices of mediation a gain in the sense of progressively overcoming bourgeois society or is it rather a regressive loss of differentiation and institutionalstructure? Is it simply a further differentiation of possible subject positions, which allows for a wide range of social and culturalactions, no longer restrained by dominant patterns of identity, or is it a systematic loss of differentiation, which ultimately leads to aco-existence of uncontrollable assertions of value, existing without hierarchies but failing to generate any value or create anypublic? And what is the function of the notion of crisis as an interpretive paradigm?

The term "crisis" doubtlessly denotes first of all an imaginary perception of reality which limits the wide variety of possibleperceptions and furnishes the diagnosis of the present moment with historical significance, but it also a denotes horizon of meaningfor one's actions, which can then be regarded as an attempt to "overcome" the present crisis. It is particularly within a mode of thought influenced by the critique of culture and the philosophy of history that the crisis is seen as an unmistakable sign ofchanges to come. Within a theory of modernity, however, it would rather tend to indicate the normal state of permanent change in the modern era, for example in the sense of Joseph Schumpeter's "creative destruction." Without necessarily subscribing to such euphemisms one can certainly agree with Reinhart Koselleck's diagnosis that the crisis has become permanent since the 18th century, that bourgeois society has never been able to close itself so as to form a new model of sovereignty but rather constituted itself as permanently in crisis. It is by definition never sufficiently democratic, egalitarian, solidary, or liberal enough, and it is always incultural, psychological, and social decline, at least within the crisis imagination of its agents. This provides a good explanation for the function of crisis rhetoric in the attempt to establish new practices, particularly in the field of mediation. Their increase in all aspects of society is related to the fact that they are always oriented towards ideals, with the intention to remedy any failure to reachthem, and it is precisely this failure which is being experienced as crisis. The unintentional, functional, and unconscious aspects of one's own actions tend to be disregarded: By acting in the name of an ideal purpose that bestows legitimacy, their actual achievement of symbolisation — the "reality of ideality" in their specific methods and practices with which they inscribe themselves within the field of culture — is overlooked.

It is therefore unavoidable to address that which is unmediated within the process of mediation, in other words, in the case of curating, to address not the ideal purpose, not the imaginary self-fashioning, but that which is actually being symbolised. The imaginary dimension of curating always relates to a position of selection and thus to the impliednotion that the world is available for such acts of selection The significance of these acts of selecting and making available islegitimised by the claim to unmediated truth of the selected content. The personal proximity to the unmediated position (such as the position of artist or activist) is supposed to justify this claim in the sense that it communicates the claim to a public which lacks suchimmediacy. Even though significant achievements are no doubt possible in this regard, the act of mediation per se cannot succeedas a matter of principle. Its aim is not actually to remedy the problem, to overcome the crisis, but ultimately to define the various positions in the first place through acts of attribution and de-attribution. Mediation does not mediate between positions of the unmediated and positions of lack as if they already existed, it rather sharpens these distinctions and thus contributes to the reproduction and dissemination of a constellation of positions that are ultimately irreconcilable and can be related to each other only in the notion of crisis. That is the symbolisation which they achieve.

The increase in curating in no way abolishes the difference in positions, but it does achieve specific re-adjustments of their relativeimportance. For example, as the curatorial act of selection becomes less underwritten by institutions and less embedded in a system ofchecks and balances designed to ensure the bourgeois preservation of values, each of these acts tends to become a positioning or assertion ofits own to rival the artistic claims. It reveals a situation in which it is no longer the curatorial that is dependent on the artistic, but rather theartistic that is dependent on the curatorial. While in the classical institutional system the high value of the unmediated had been based on aquasi-objective selection, in today's individualised situation the act of selection also implies a concrete relationship of hierarchy and thus dependence. It is the root of the specific conflicts between artists and curators revolving around the power to define the unmediated. In other words, the specific methods and practices of curating are by no means innocent procedures in the service of their cause; they are replete withhighly ideological assumptions, claims, and justifications, and as such they always already contribute to the definition of the relationships tothe other positions. The question of dealing with the symbolical structure of its own "cause" therefore remains central to any curatorial practice. It is a question of reflecting and negotiating the position of selecting and the availability of world, the specific acts of attribution and de-attribution as well as the idealisation of relationships of proximity and the "realisation" of relationships of distance.

The curatorial can today be regarded only as an artistic, social, and political problem, not as a solution for any crisis. The crisis isprecisely the problem of curating and of any form of mediation. It is not that institutions, identities, and forms of production are objectively in crisis, it is rather that thecrisis provides the interpretive model in which institutions, identities, and forms of production appear amenable to a description in which ouractivities of mediation assume their meaning and significance. However, since curating as a specific form of mediation can manifest onlywithin the three positions of the unmediated, mediation, and lack, its meaning and significance quickly appear of relatively minor importancesince it is precisely within such a constellation that the crisis is not overcome but rather energised in the first place as an irreconcilabletension between the "fullness" of the unmediated and the lack on the part of the audience. But it is exactly this ambivalence of curating that could also be seen as an opportunity to express the cultural logic in which the currently dominant forms of subjectivity are articulated. The attraction of curating is first and foremost based on the fact that it allows individual social agents to satisfy several conditions of subjectivity simultaneously, whether they are economic or cultural, emancipatory or co-opting.

Similarly it becomes possible to assume privileged positions without bearing full responsibility for them because such responsibility has essentially been delegated to the position of the unmediated, and even qualifying de-attributions are possible without visible consequences since they are undertaken with the good intention to overcome the inequalities that result from them. In other words, if curating wishes to do justice to its emancipatory claims, it can only regard itself as a field of conflict. It would be wrong to drive out this ambivalence since it is a manifestation of the specific conditions of today's culture. The contribution of curating would consist in an attempt to realise this fact withits own "body" by transforming the ambivalence into an (ambivalent) exhibition practice. It would require an understanding of exhibitionsnot as a space of mediation between artists and audience but as a specific medium within such a field of conflict in which not only theimaginary and symbolical aspects of curating itself remain visible but in which also the crisis as form can be opened up to debate in its various artistic, theoretical, and political dimensions.


Helmut Draxler, art and cultural theorist, occasional inde- pendent curator, resides in Berlin and works as professor of aesthetic theory at the Merz Akademie college of design in Stuttgart. Publications:gefährliche substanzen: Zum Verhältnis von Kritik und Kunst, Berlin, 2007; die gewalt des Zu-sammenhangs: raum, referenz und repräsentation bei Fareed armaly, Berlin, 2007; as editor: Sabeth Buchmann, Helmut Draxler, Stephan Geene, ed., Film, avantgarde, Biopolitik, Vienna, 2008;Helmut Draxler, ed., shandyismus: autorschaft als genre, Stuttgart, 2007.


The term "mediation" (German: Vermittlung) is used here not in the prevalent narrow sense of a specific process aimed at the reconciliation of disputes between parties (as in family mediation, business mediation etc.) but in the wider sense indicating the intervention of a third party to facilitate interaction, communication, and ultimately a shared understanding between two parties. In the present context of "art mediation" (German: Kunstvermittlung), it indicates an understanding of curating as an intervention designed to facilitate and potentially improve interaction/communication/understanding between artist and audience. [Translator's note].

Go back

Issue 13

Institution as medium. Curating as institutional critique? Part 2

The second part of the publication for the symposium, Institution as Medium. Curating as Institutional Critique?, organised by the Kunsthalle Fridericianum and the Zurich Postgraduate Programme in Curating (Institute for Cultural Studies, Department of Cultural Analysis, Zurich University of the Arts), deals with notion of art-mediation and addressing publics in the realm of institutional critique. The question remains: how can a practice that intends to radically show the conditionality of art, its financial entanglements, and its function as a means of distinction, be related to institutions and curators’ activities therein? Is this not a contradiction in terms? The aim of the symposium was to explore these contradictions, as well as the possibilities and limitations of critical curatorial practice.

Contributions by Giovanni Carmine, Maja Ciric, Neil Cummings, Helmut Draxler, Beryl Graham, Damian Jurt, Hassan Khan, Marysia Lewandowska, Isin Onol, Dorothee Richter and Yael Eylat Van-Essen. Edited by Dorothee Richter and Rein Wolfs.

by Dorothee Richter and Rein Wolfs

by Dorothee Richter

by Giovanni Carmine and Hassan Khan

by Damian Jurt

by Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings

by Maja Ciric and Isin Onol