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by Nadim Samman

Errant Curating

“I have no doubt about one thing, however, if we do not travel toward each other, we will eradicate each other.”  
Vilém Flusser

Andrei Kuzkhin, Tree, Paradise Bay, 2017. photo courtesy Antarctic Biennale

But we are not just people. We are animals, plants and microbes too. Our “world of habit” has for too long proposed a we that represses ecology, locating non-human others beyond the pale of home. But this habit, this abode, “is becoming uninhabitable.”[1] Its walls are perforated—bearing news/gifts/threats from beyond. What news?  Waking dreams: a knocking at the door, for want of its own home; a breach in the firewall and a listener on the phone. There are termites in the floorboards and cockroaches in the cupboards. Insurgency. They are coming for us. They are already here. It also approaches: the oceans’ rising hunger for land, from Manhattan to the Maldives. It has already happened, the Larsen C ice-shelf afloat in the Weddell Sea.[2] A plague of jellyfish in the Mediterranean, stinging bathers’ toes; a leaking reactor, seeding global tides. In academic philosophy, the (meta)physical “great outdoors, the absolute outside” invading the Cartesian hearth.[3] Compounding the overturning of habit which Flusser associated with the “telematic” age, we find it impossible to ignore the undermining of habitats—a refugee crisis and a sixth mass extinction.[4] Art’s habitual residence? —the museum. The curator’s habitual task, until the 1960s?—“hanging and placing” work on walls.[5] Today, the aesthetico-political shibboleth of a “big, beautiful wall” only bolsters Szeemann’s demand that we abandon this task.[6]

Antarctica: piercing light across a bay of icebergs, whipped into shape by wind and sea. A rocky shoreline, soon becoming steep, upwards on one side approaching a lookout. On the far side of this ridge, a channel ringed by hulking glacial cliffs that fracture like Carrara marble at the water’s edge. Above them, rising into the clouds and out of sight, ice upon ice; eons of snow. Here, today—taking up less than one square meter of the continent’s 14 billion—is a live cocoa tree that has travelled all the way from the Ecuadorian rainforest. Set within a life support system (a glass greenhouse whose interior climate reproduces equatorial conditions), its verdant leaves cast a surreal tint over the polar scene. This tree has wandered far from home. So has the artist who planted it.[7]

Paul Rosero Contreras, Arriba! , Paradise Bay, Antarctica, 2017. photo courtesy the artist

Under the aegis of the 1st Antarctic Biennale, so has the institution of the biennale itself—and, most obviously, the curatorial mandate.[8]

In light of the above, the following question presents itself: How has the site of the exhibition wandered so far from its historical locus—the home of the muses? In attempting to answer, let us offer some notes toward a theory of the curatorial agent as monster, pirate, author-ity, and pilot—by appealing to her environmental engagements. Let us consider wandering as curatorial method—exhibition-making in an errant mode, beyond galleries, indeed, beyond cities. This curating traverses the globe, from domestic settings to geographical extremes—reconfiguring spatial, jurisdictional, identity, and narrative values through its (sometimes uninvited) presence(s); rescoring environments.


According to a prominent member of the strategic studies community, contemporary society is undergoing “a fundamental transformation by which functional infrastructure tells us more about how the world works than physical borders.”[9] And yet, this infrastructure also clouds our vision. It is disorientating, insofar as it advances epistemological equivalence, apparently disclosing a lack of privileged vantage points from which to survey an intellectual/cultural scene. Under this hyperlinked condition, one site gives way to another—both physically and conceptually. But at least part of the “post-truth” lie—and the seizure of sovereignty that it enacts—stems from the less than visible characteristics of infrastructure itself. As the task of disclosure grows more urgent, mines, cables, server farms, and security systems are beginning to feature in exhibitions.[10] The expanded sovereignty of today’s curating is obtained in the vector itself. That is to say, exhibiting the world consists in the function—“working the world”: operating at least some of the control protocols of spaceship infrastructure.

My use of the term spaceship infrastructure proceeds from a reflection on the emerging wave of geopolitical theory, which sets out to ‘map’ the technical integration of the globe in order to comment on the contemporary condition(s) of sovereignty. In the detail and methodological basis of their diagnoses, writings by figures from opposing ends of the ideological spectrum (such as Parag Khanna and Benjamin Bratton) dovetail in inviting the conclusion that Buckminster Fuller’s book, Spaceship Earth, was less a manual and more prolegomena to any future one. Keeping the latter’s spaceship earth dyad in the frame, we may suggest that both thinkers’ reflections are turned towards the spaceship. The ship, as anyone who has spent an extended period at sea is likely to reflect, is a totally designed environment—one whose architecture scores, in the manner of choreography, life onboard.[11] Herewith, Khanna’s explication of living within: “There is no undesignated space [even] the skies are cluttered with airplanes, satellites, and increasingly drones, layered with CO2 emissions and pollution, and permeated by radar and telecommunications.”[12] Bratton similarly speaks from the interior. His model “does not put technology ‘inside’ a ‘society,’ but sees a technological totality as the armature of the social itself.”[13] We “dwell within” an “accidental megastructure […] a new architecture” that “divide[s] up the world into sovereign spaces.”[14] This megastructure incorporates “infrastructure at the continental level, pervasive computing at the urban scale, and ambient interfaces at the perceptual scale,” amongst other things.[15] For Bratton (though reflected in Khanna’s comments on the sky), maps of horizontal space (planar geography) “can’t account for all the overlapping layers that create a thickened vertical jurisdictional complexity.”[16]

Curatorial Authorship is, taking these considerations into account, a vector through various layers of jurisdiction, engaging each of their respective designations (or scores), and (re)interpreting them in turn. What Bratton terms the “design horizons” of each layer must be probed for unintended affordances—pieces of open source code, latent architectural possibilities. In some cases, layers may be totally redesigned. Beyond a purely material frame, we observe that “jurisdictional” accommodates the soft specificities of site identified by Miwon Kwon, namely “cultural debates, a theoretical concept […] a historical condition, even particular formations of desire.”[17] In light of all this, today’s wandering curatorial enterprise—which we may term a total species of exhibition design—incorporates acts of renovation, rescoring/(re)interpretation, renegotiation, and even re-desiring, in its (sovereign) operations.

Rather than arranging objects on the walls of a gallery or museum, the first task of this layered curating concerns selecting what jurisdictions are to be put on display in a given project. The subsequent task of (critical) exhibition design consists in staging their relation to one another (drawing out their points of connection) as a complex, and altering arrangements within each—arguing the case (installation). In this process of rearranging, we have recourse to existing choreographies supplied by artists, and the option of commissioning new works/levers. But we may not always need to deploy ‘art’ in our operation—or, at least, deploy it correctly. Moreover, in pursuit of real disclosure, the ‘making visible’ proper to the concept of the exhibit, we may find ourselves wandering beyond museums, galleries, and perhaps cities. We may even leave, at least to a cursory view, exhibition audiences behind. But, in fact, it is in this errant mode that the author/ship of curating actually steers towards them.

We errant curators ‘leave’ our walled cities (our green-zones) for geographical extremes not to escape, but to make the contemporary hearth more visible—spaceship infrastructure is always already everywhere, as far as we are concerned. If a curator wanders towards a place like Antarctica, it is because all putative elsewheres are already coming for us. In wandering, our procedure consists in toggling between (geographic or political) distance and functional proximity—an exemplary making visible of the latter. This mode of display (re)maps the audience’s position in relation to ‘distant’ locales, for the purpose of tracing the former’s impact on them (ecologically, for instance). Conversely, it illuminates the sway such spaces hold over one’s immediate situation. This curatorial vector exhibits the condition of operative inseparability which binds seemingly heterogeneous economic, social, ecological, identitarian, and geographic domains. Rather than exclusive focus on “states and their divisions” (the demarcation of borders, which, we maintain, need not be interpreted solely in a geopolitical sense, but which may circumscribe multifarious jurisdictions), we aim to deliver the exhibition as complex para-state and/or parasite. Rather than instituting visual and informational opacity, and spatial inaccessibility, within our projects in order to disenfranchise the audience, we do so in order to lay bare otherwise obscure mandates for authorship. We leave, in order to return (the audience’s space to them). We take in order to give.[18] And so off we wander:

Vector (I): A Buried Exhibition

A 500-kilometer hard sail from the sweltering Costa Rican port of Golfito, Isla del Coco juts up from the Pacific deep. There is no way to fly in, and you cannot visit without a government permit. Covering just nine of the ocean’s 64 million square miles, its shallows are an important spawning ground for coral, a cornucopia of fish species, and legions of predators. At any given moment, the island is circled by hundreds of sharks. Above the water line, cliffs—broken only by waterfalls—support a seething, virgin, jungle.

Perhaps the only place in the world where treasure-hunting is explicitly illegal, stories of what is buried in Coco’s interior have developed into myth, inspiring novels and genre fantasies for more than a century. The best known concerns the so-called Treasure of Lima. In 1820, with the army of José de San Martín approaching, Peru's viceroy José de la Serna entrusted the treasury of the city's cathedral to a British sea trader named Captain William Thompson. Instead of remaining in the harbor as instructed, Thompson and his men slit the throats of the viceroy's men and sailed to Coco. They were later apprehended, and all of the crew bar the captain and his first mate were hanged. The lucky two were spared after promising to guide their captors to the rich hoard.[19] After arriving on Coco, the pair ran off into the trees, never to be found. Several treasure-hunting expeditions would later be mounted on the basis of claims by a man named Keating, who was said to have befriended Thompson on his deathbed in Newfoundland and received a map to the hoard in thanks. Robert Louis Stevenson read about one such (failed) expedition in a San Francisco newspaper before writing Treasure Island, and some argue that the map he drew of his ‘fictional’ isle closely resembles numerous treasure charts of Coco.

Treasure of Lima: A Buried Exhibition (2014) involved burying an ensemble of commissioned works by 39 prominent artists at a secret location on Coco, with the permission of the Costa Rican National Park authority. The nature of the works themselves would be kept secret. They were housed in a bespoke capsule by architects Aranda/Lasch which looked nothing like a wooden treasure chest of old.[20] Its exterior was polished stainless steel, in the form of a truncated tetrahedron that opened (like an oyster) to reveal a sphere. This oversized ‘pearl’ comprised a vacuum-sealed glass vessel that would normally be used to protect underwater cameras, housing a series of aluminum boxes containing works on paper, small sculptures, LPs, and video and sound files stored on a hard drive. Upon arrival at Coco, the chest was floated to shore on a raft, before being man-hauled inland, where it was eventually interred at a suitable location. Immediately after, the GPS coordinates of the site were logged. Upon returning to Berlin, the only extant copy of the coordinates were turned over to the Dutch artist Constant Dullaart. Working with a leading IT security consultant, who would remain anonymous, and following strict data-protection protocols, he oversaw their eventual encryption to the highest possible specification. The resulting cipher, over 2,000 characters long, was then given a physical form—3D-printed as a steel cylinder.[21] This was then placed in a second, unburied, version of the chest, which was then auctioned at a New York evening sale. Purchased for $185,000, the anonymous buyer took possession of an all but ‘unreadable’ map (no de-encryption key supplied), to a collection or ‘exhibition’ of works hidden on an island that cannot be visited without a permit, where digging for treasure is explicitly illegal. The project’s commissioning organization, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, in collaboration with Costa Rican partners, used the funds to initiate a research and conservation project for the sharks that inhabit the island’s surrounding waters.[22]

More than a physical incursion, Treasure of Lima: A Buried Exhibition effected a re-scoring/re-arrangement of the narrative/historical, legal, economic, and biological coordinates of Coco—one that, simultaneously, exhibited this complex.

Clearly, the project’s title was borrowed from the original Treasure of Lima. This doubling was calculated to effect a productive misfiling within the historical archive, whereby—in addition to being the first buried treasure on the island for two centuries—the smuggled content would expand the definition of ‘treasure’ encountered in the course of future researches into Coco’s history. In particular, this move was ventured to impact narratives concerning ownership, exploitation, misappropriation, and colonialism. Hijacking the maritime dimensions of Central American history (in its pirate element), the project set these topics into relief, dramatizing modes of value and methods of identification in the present, and speaking to the topic of non-financial (biological) worth.[23]

The project further strove to exhibit the regulatory and enforcement framework by which Coco’s natural ‘treasures’ are secured, on ecological grounds; also, to rescore interest in this system through the act of putting it on display. By negotiating permission to bury our exhibition—what real pirate would do that?—we acknowledged extant regulatory/ jurisdictional safeguards. However, by design, the endeavor instituted a possible threat to their enforcement: the intervention, publicized worldwide, certainly aroused interest in the chest’s potential recovery. If anyone views the works contained within it, at some future date, this access will indicate a failure to enforce protection statutes, or their abolition entirely.[24] Curating as inoculation.

In economic terms, the project financially resourced a shark research and conservation scheme. This new project, itself, aimed to produce a resource of scientific information that could inform future biological management and regulation. Convening experts to draft an outline for this scheme was, it should be noted, a component of the curatorial enterprise.[25] In light of rampant poaching in the national park’s waters, the ‘exhibition’ sought to diagnose the impact of ecological piracy and, additionally, palliative agendas—directly approaching the cure promised in the word curatorial.

Effecting a layered/vertical dramaturgy, the various ‘burials’ involved in the project manifested a translocational situation of author-ship. Beginning with the statement of buried artworks (announced as a practical fact involving mud and shovels), the project further entombed the GPS coordinates of the chest within the virtual crypt(ography) of Constant Dullaart’s Map (2014). While denying the gathered artworks a chance to speak for themselves, burying them beneath visual and narrative mediations, the exhibition’s ‘making visible’ abandoned the apparent antecedence of art documentation.[26] Considering the symbiotic relationship between Map and Chest, in terms of both symbolism and functionality, as well as their relation to the 38 artworks contained within the latter, Treasure of Lima: A Buried Exhibition’s ‘venue’ was not identified with any one-layer site but, rather, an entire complex spanning geographical distances and functional proximities.[27]

Extending even into the space of the art market, inscribing the actions of the collector within the exhibitionary proposition, the project further contained an implicit question regarding the exchange value of the works deployed in the project: Whoever bought Map has a better chance of recovering the buried Chest than most, but this neither guarantees practical nor legal possession. Indeed, the buyer took receipt of Map without a key to unlock its sophisticated encryption. In addition, there is the issue of gaining access to the island. Given that digging for treasure is banned, this might involve breaking the law. Notwithstanding these challenges, purchasing the map does not necessarily underwrite ownership of the buried artworks, even if they are eventually recovered. Legally speaking, only the physical Map was sold at auction. In this respect, the potential ownership of the buried artworks is, itself, buried beneath a set of challenges. This leaves the buyer with a performative score that they are free to interpret—or rather, display/make visible within the field of the exhibition. They will have acquired some of the means by which to recover an amazing art collection; but what matters most to them? They will either put Map to use in an attempt to recover the works buried on Coco or enact a relation to both the superposition of art in the project and the value of restricting human access to the island. The latter is a relation of trust.[28] Herein, a (re)scoring of desire: ascertaining the GPS coordinates might allow one to drop a pin on a map of Coco, to thrust a spade into the soil and ultimately to observe the contents of the chest, but in this process something will be lost: once opened, Map is just a map; the exhibition, just the things in the box buried on Coco. Once opened, the curatorial operation is complete/over.

The aforementioned trust is of a piece with a general outlook that recognizes no operative separation between nature, culture, and humanity. What appeared to be an island separated from other lands is just one part of a larger system. Rather than there being a yawning gap between the sharks of Coco and metropolitan modernity, there is only interconnection and engagement. We cannot avoid affecting these creatures, either by focused exploitation or laissez-faire fallout. As the curatorial rubric of the project makes plain—we must, today, critically appraise the design of relationships that span oceans and continents. We must curate them.

Vector (II):
A Wandering Biennale

In March 2017, an international group of 65 artists, scientists, architects, and philosophers left the port of Ushuaia, Argentina – bound for the Antarctic Circle onboard the Akademik Sergei Vavilov (part of the Russian Institute of Oceanography’s scientific research fleet). The voyage covered approximately 2,000 nautical miles, and made landfall at twelve sites in the Antarctic archipelago over a period of two weeks before returning via Cape Horn.[29] At each location, installations, sculptures, exhibitions, and performances were realized. Mobility, site-specificity, and ecological compatibility were key touchstones. Nothing was left behind, and no audience was present—notwithstanding the participants themselves, and Antarctica’s native species. Actions included a landscape photography exhibition for penguins (they didn’t seem to get much out of it) and an underwater installation for whales.[30]

Alexis Anastasiou, Hopeless Utopia, Lemaire Channel, 2017. photo courtesy Antarctic Biennale

In addition to land and sea interventions, the Vavilov served as a floating studio, photo lab, exhibition, performance, and conference facility. Onboard activities included fifteen symposia, incorporating alternative histories of South Polar enterprise, and a daily screening program featuring commissioned videos.[31] Throughout, our discussions focused on the question, “What potential does the Antarctic Imaginary hold?,” and on future cross-disciplinary collaborations.[32]

According to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, the southern continent is reserved for peaceful scientific inquiry. Owned by no individual or nation (with sovereign claims suspended), Antarctica’s legal-institutional framework is arguably the most successful example of international cooperation in modern history. Given that the system emerged at the height of the Cold War, this fact is doubly impressive. Moreover, it was initiated by a group of scientists, rather than politicians. The exclusive right that the treaty accords scientific enterprise, incorporating a proscription against the exploitation of natural resources, is justly celebrated as a model for global conservation initiatives. However, in a deeper sense, the treaty can be viewed as much more than this: as a foundational document for a new form of universal community. Indeed, the treaty system suggests an incipient supranational identity based on cooperation and a sophisticated regard for ecology whose relevance transcends whatever takes place on the continent. It was this implication that we—the artist Alexander Ponomarev and myself, founders of the 1st Antarctic Biennale—believed must be made more proximate, for those persons who do not work with (or in) the region.

Even before the commissioning of individual artworks, the establishment of the Antarctic Biennale was ventured as an assertion of Antarctica’s status as a potent cultural paradigm. Our operation proceeded according to the idea that Antarctica affords an imaginary that is most prescient yet underexplored: following the USSR’s collapse, the figure of the New Soviet Man was consigned to the scrapheap. Almost immediately, the American political philosopher Francis Fukuyama proposed liberal democracy as the “final model” for the “coherent and directional” development of civil organization; the history (of competing formats) had ended, he argued, and the Liberal-democratic subject was the “Last Man” standing.[33] Today, this is a wholly discredited idea. Foregrounding the (otherwise) repressed cultural dimensions of Antarctica through the proposition of a festival, our action issued from the hypothesis that Antarctic Man is a plausible world-historical successor. Beyond abstract formulation, this political subject outstrips (in legal principle) the paradigm of the nation state. This subject also incorporates a holistic view of the planet as a complex—unified—system. Furthermore, with regard to an anthropological frame, it is a worthy hypothesis: more than a century after man (men) first set foot there, Antarctica sustains a population of 1,162 throughout the sunless winter and 4,000 in the summer months. Given the time that has elapsed and the amount of human activity, why not speak culture (beyond official mission structures) peculiar to Antarctica? Perhaps, therefore, we should view it as the last terrestrial new world. Might not activities in Antarctica amount to a whole new set of customs, architectures, and attitudes, of relevance beyond the bases? Exploring this idea, our biennale was ventured as a (post)nation-building initiative—a manifestly cultural festival of and in Antarctica.

Proceeding according to this outlook, the biennale’s pre-expedition communications maintained that Antarctica is underexploited. Not in a physical sense, but as field of visual and conceptual inquiry. The Antarctic Imaginary belongs to everyone and yet, we claimed (on public stages in Italy, the USA, Sweden, Spain, Argentina, and Russia), control over the regime of images issuing from this region is centralized.[34] For the most part, mimetic production is supplied by documentary photographers and filmmakers ‘embedded’ within national-scientific brigades, or else adhering to hegemonic interpretive frames. Thusly, what passes for Antarctic ‘cultural’ activity assumes a subordinate role to the ‘useful’ research being carried out on bases, or the keynote messages issuing from them—via official media relations. Within this structural condition, there is little place for non-debentured, heterogeneous representations of the Antarctic Imaginary—no bottom up.[35] And we are all too aware of the limits of embedded reportage…

Under these conditions, the contours of Antarctic Man lack clarity, and are only being discovered in a haphazard manner. If we are to realize Antarctica’s potential for those who cannot go, then cultural workers must seize the means of South Polar (image) production. In our view, it is only through intensified (and truly independent) engagement with Antarctica that we may discover—through aesthetic experimentation—its otherwise inaccessible intellectual, social, and political topography. It is this landscape that offers the most promising ground for harvesting radical images. Given the lack of an extant academic project addressing Antarctic Art History, the creation of a biennale assumes the character of a demand that this be undertaken.[36]

In addition to the inspiration supplied by Antarctica’s supranational administration, we deemed creating an independent platform from which to engage with the continent’s environment and science as timely. We will not see ourselves as one until we can view the biosphere, which encompasses our civilization as much as it does icebergs, as an integrated unit. Statistical proof of climate change and picturesque photographs of glaciers and penguins can only be so effective in altering the global public’s self-image. The world requires a new regime of interdisciplinary image making from below, and the overdetermined outcomes of government-run residencies are not enough. Bringing together artists, scientists, and thinkers, the 1st Antarctic Biennale was established not just to cultivate artists’ engagements with a space reserved for ‘science’, but to widen the scope of what is considered cultural while subjecting techno-scientific (post)sovereignty to a gentle challenge. This is to say, the biennale was as much about making visible (exhibiting) an image of a new cultural institution as a series of art objects.

With a limited on-site audience—indeed, with only participants present—the biennale departed from standard models of perennial exhibition-making and viewing. As such, it was the calculated performance of a leap beyond the luxury ghetto of what passes for the contemporary art world. Doesn’t the very term ring sweaty when mentioned in the same breath as the Ross Ice Shelf? In fact, the Venice Biennale—the world’s oldest and most prestigious of art festivals—takes place amid entirely constructed terrain, where there are more stone carvings of flowers than real ones. Against the pageant supplied by this model biennale, Antarctica is a place that does not forgive hubris easily; a place where people sometimes eat their boots to avoid starving (and where sometimes expecting ice is too much).[37] “This is a biennale ‘upside down,’” said my collaborator. “Instead of the usual national pavilions—the icy inaccessibility of the Antarctic continent. Instead of pompous apartments and hotel rooms—ascetic cabins. Instead of chaotic wanderings, through receptions and tourist filled streets—a dialogue with Big Nature, and an explosion of consciousness facilitated through the dialogues with scientists, futurists, and technological visionaries.” As we conceived it, the Antarctic Biennale platform floated an image of succession from the hothouse of subterranean commercial dealing, spectacle, and social climbing that envelops the art of our times. The question of whether one can, or must, live up to an image remains open, however.

The 1st Antarctic Biennale was, both literally and metaphorically, a vehicle for facilitating independent cultural production in the South Polar Region. It was a mechanism for expanding the Antarctic Imaginary through aesthetic exploration and interdisciplinary encounters pursuing culture in a sense not limited to art. The theme for the edition borrowed Captain Nemo’s motto from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: “Mobilis in Mobile,” meaning “moving amidst mobility.” Traversing the Southern Ocean, passing through the Bransfield Strait, between craggy peaks and glaciers, down through the Lemaire Channel, and into the Antarctic Circle, it was an expedition as festival. But the movements to which the motto referred also encompassed a trajectory through shifting currents in climate science, changes in ice-sheet cover, geophysical dynamism, and biological upheaval. Lastly, the title embraced a movement—or vector—cutting across developments within various disciplinary spheres.

Vector III: A New Art History for North Korea

North Korea’s official art is a problem. It is a problem because it is a national project, born of a state whose modern cultural performance is wedded to a failed experiment in total design. It is a problem because, today, its internationalist ideological posture appears hopelessly—indeed, aggressively—provincial.[38] It is a problem because it proposes final solutions to wanting (and to having) that have been overturned by the courts of everyday life. It is a filter bubble, and it is post-truth. But the problem character of North Korea’s official art does not stop there: underpinning its depictions of missile arrays, fully satisfied youth, abundance, and daddy worship, it has a bad case of performance anxiety. Furthermore, it is structured around a political demand for assent whose rhetorical certitude and grand self-designations are so much mansplaining.

What does North Korea need? Certainly, none of the above. This said, if it must have a ‘national art’ then how might such an agenda perform better? This question guided my collaboration with the US-based Korean artist Mina Cheon, for Umma: Mass Games—Motherly Love North Korea. The project’s first re-imagining of (North) Korean art was pursued through her assuming an ideologically charged alter-ego, contrived as a replacement for Kim-Jong-Un’s man-boy-father principle: Umma (Korean for mommy)—erstwhile paragon of patience, understanding, good sense, and unconditional love. Appearing in various guises, Umma’s ‘attributes’ included scholar, state-artist, dissident dreamer, victor, and martyr. An outsize hypothetical underpinned the host of painterly and photographic ‘self’ depictions installed at a New York gallery—namely, the only experiment in benevolent (yet total) dictatorship yet to be attempted in the modern period: motherly rule.[39] However, in addition to conventionally occupying a white cube, the Umma project involved programming a media channel within North Korea.

Our plan stemmed from discussions concerning the historical formation of the ‘unofficial’ art scene in the Soviet Union, in the 1970s. In particular, we were inspired by the importance that smuggled foreign publications (such as Flash Art) and embassy culture programs held for budding non-conformist artists.[40]  Given that North Korea (the last purely authoritarian socialist state) possesses no documented unofficial art scene, we reasoned that if one does not exist then it must be created. We were aware that cultural materials are frequently smuggled into the country on USB flash drives, but that the organizations that select the content are not engaged with art. Normal payloads typically include international news, K-Pop, film, and television programs.[41] We decided that this underground cultural channel needed curating. The result was the first explicit re-articulation of the (contemporary) artistic imaginary addressed directly to North Korean viewers, delivered to them.

Cheon created a series of ten video lectures covering international modern and contemporary art, which she delivered in character—as a North Korean scholar who has made it to the South. The Art History Lessons by Professor Kim (2017) invoked children’s TV show formats while delivering commentary with titles including Art & Life; Art & Food; Art, Money & Power; Abstract Art & Dreams; Feminism; Social Justice; Remix & Appropriation; Art & Technology; Art & Silence; and Art & Environment. The breadth of foci amounted to a complete alternative to the official art history promulgated in the DPRK. Beginning with an excursus on Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), the founding act of artistic appropriation, Umma/Professor Kim appropriated her audience. Not least, by rhetorically addressing them in the manner of (her) children. In a wider frame, the project endeavored to expropriate a cultural imaginary. For, Cheon worked with underground networks, including activist groups of North Korean defectors, to smuggle hundreds of USB drives containing Professor Kim’s lectures into the hermit kingdom. The drives were smuggled into the North overland, via the border with China, and also sent by balloons from South Korea. The artist was subsequently told that the Art History Lessons are also also being copied and shared within North Korean defector communities, in South Korea, as they find them accessible and interesting.

Arguably, the first such artistic ‘re-programming’ engagement with the state to date, this project attempted to alter the course of North Korean art history. There is a very real chance that these lectures will be the first time, ever, that North Korean viewers encounter the stake of late modern, conceptual, and contemporary art—including post-socialist critical oeuvres such as Ai Weiwei’s. What if persons who watch the videos are inspired to begin their own art practice? What if the birth of contemporary (unofficial) art in North Korea begins with this project? The true scope of the exhibition strategy is such—total embrace, to the point of penetrating North Korea’s ideological space in order to seed it with visions that may lead to the birth of really new artistic phenomena. Cheon would force Kim Il Jun to bear her artistic children. North Korea’s official art has a problem: In a parallel universe, a fictional scholar teaches its epigones how to become real conceptual artists.


All three case studies exemplify curatorial operations as lines of flight, leaving behind museums and ‘art spaces’ in order to reframe them. As a case study in errant curatorial author-ity, Treasure of Lima indicates how a contemporary exhibition may be an inter-site-specific performance. This mode of action is a sovereign wandering through spaceship infrastructure; and a wondering with it, along a trajectory running through the layered condition(s) of placehood. We errant curators ‘leave’ our walled cities (our green-zones) for geographical extremes not to escape, but to make the contemporary hearth more visible. Spaceship infrastructure is always already everywhere, as far as we are concerned. Just like Isla del Coco, Antarctica is far from accessible to most of us. And yet, this geographical end of the world figures centrally in global conversations concerning climate change, underpinning claims about the end of the world as we know it, and the constitution of truly shared political space. As such, through this combination of physical remoteness and inscription within an international imaginary, it encapsulates a key condition that must be re-exhibited. North Korea might seem politically inaccessible, but curating need not always abide by official institutional channels. Errant curating discovers its fullest potential in the places where it is least expected.

This is a significantly altered version of an essay previously published in
A Year Without a Winter, ed. Dehlia Hannah (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).


Nadim Samman read Philosophy at University College London before receiving his PhD from the Courtauld Institute of Art. He was Co-Director of Import Projects e.V. in Berlin from 2012 to 2019 and, concurrently, Curator at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna (2013-2015). He curated the 4th Marrakech Biennale (with Carson Chan) in 2012, and the 5th Moscow Biennale for Young Art in 2015. He founded and co-curated the 1st Antarctic Biennale (2017) and the Antarctic Pavilion (Venice, 2015-). In 2014, Foreign Policy Magazine named him among the “100 Leading Global Thinkers.” Widely published, in 2019 he was the First Prize recipient of the International Award for Art Criticism (IAAC). He is currently Curator at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin.



[1] Vilem Flusser, The Freedom of the Migrant: Objections to Nationalism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press,  2003), 39.

[2] Douglas Fox, “The Larsen C Ice Shelf Collapse Is Just the Beginning—Antarctica Is Melting,” National Geographic (July 2017), http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/07/antarctica-sea-level-rise-climate-change/.

[3] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012), 7.

[4] See Damian Carrington, “Earth’s sixth mass extinction event under way, scientists warn,” The Guardian, July 10, 2017, accessed August 2, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/10/earths-sixth-mass-extinction-event-already-underway-scientists-warn.

[5] Harald Szeemann quoted in Carolee Thea, Foci: Interviews with Ten International Curators, New York: Apex Art Curatorial Program, 2001), 17.

[6] Tracy Jan, “Trump’s ‘big, beautiful wall’ will require him to take big swaths of other people’s land,” The Washington Post, March 21, 2017, accessed January 27, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/03/21/trumps-big-beautiful-wall-will-require-him-to-take-big-swaths-of-other-peoples-land/?utm_term=.5826ce7b252e.

[7] The work, titled Arriba! (2017), is by Paul Rosero Contreras. It was conceived as a kind of tropical time capsule, referencing the fact that, 50 million years ago, Antarctica itself had a wholly different climate. Fossils of tropical flora have been discovered in the region where the work was installed.

[8] The expedition of the First International Antarctic Biennale, held under the patronage of UNESCO, left the shores of Tierra del Fuego on March 16, 2017, and concluded with a ceremonial reception in honor of the Biennale participants at the Faena Museum in Buenos Aires on March 29. Its Commissioner was artist Alexander Ponomarev, and its Co-Curator Nadim Samman. See: www.antarcticpavilion.com.

[9] Parag Khanna, Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization (New York: Random House, 2016), xvi-xvii. He continues: “The true map of the world should feature non just states but megacities, highways, pipelines, Internet cables, and other symbols of our emerging global network civilization.”

[10] From attention to the geology of media in the art of Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, to the mapping of transatlantic cables in the productions of Trevor Paglen and Lance Wakeling; from the labor conditions at Google scanning facilities, in a project by Andrew Norman Wilson, to Simon Denny’s physicalization of the PowerPoint-ideology of the PRISM surveillance enterprise.

[11] The work of artist-architect Alex Schweder, whose practice is self-defined as “performance architecture” is preeminently concerned with this condition.

[12] Khanna, Connectography, 15.

[13] Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Boston: MIT Press, 2016), xvii.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 3-4.

[16] Ibid., 4.

[17] Miwon Kwon, "One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity," October 80 (Spring 1997), p. 93

[18] Sometimes we display complete author-ity over objects (such as artworks), subjecting them to iconoclastic conceptual appropriation. Done without a critical conception of (dis)play, this move is rightly abjured. However, when we are endeavoring to disclose how certain spaces, and the objects within them, are already appropriated, travesty is unavoidable.

[19] The original treasure consisted of precious metals, stones, and artifacts requisitioned by the Spanish from their Central and South American dominions, including 113 gold religious statues, one of which was a life-sized Virgin Mary; 200 chests of jewels; 273 swords with jeweled hilts; 1,000 diamonds; numerous solid gold crowns; 150 chalices; and hundreds of gold and silver bars. Its value today is reckoned at £160 million. See http://www.businessinsider.com/british-explorer-closes-in-on-legendary-treasure-of-lima-2012-8#ixzz30OkhILxR, accessed July 30, 2014.

[20] Rather than attempting to conform to an archaic cliché, its look recalled the product design of market-leading personal computing hardware. While by no means illustrative, its hygienic surfaces and acute angles intentionally suggest a kind of oversized digital data-storage device.

[21] Map is both a sculpture—a unique physical object whose form has been determined by the artist—and a tool or set of instructions for disclosing an elsewhere. On the one hand, its cylindrical form serves to recall antique maps or scrolls—an explicit reference to Coco’s maritime history—while staging its unreadable script as a digital-era successor to the idiosyncratic markings inscribed on the pirate charts of legend. On the other, this form is also a feature of the encryption system. Without any indication of where the code begins or ends, it is exponentially harder to crack. Yet this design as resistance is contradicted by Map’s utility for the would-be code breaker, which allows the sculpture to be used as a rolling printing plate—enabling the physical transfer of data to paper by way of ink. With Map, our project’s dramatization of the interconnection between the physical and the informatic is in focus. These considerations raise the following questions—must Map be used, rather than contemplated, in order for it to achieve the status of an artwork? Or, rather, does it only remain an artwork if its functional indeterminacy is maintained?

[22] The Costa Rican partners were La Fundación Amigos de la Isla del Coco and Misión Tiburón.

[23] It declared the island a National Park in 1978, and UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1997. The Seamounts Marine Management Area—the aquatic reserve created in 2011 that surrounds the island—is larger than the Yellowstone National Park and second only to the Galápagos National Park in terms of marine protected areas in the Eastern Tropical Pacific.

[24] Under such circumstances, the recovery of the buried exhibition (trash?) will mark an assault on something of greater value.

[25] As a communication and consultation exercise to develop the “Pelagic Research & Conservation Project for Isla del Coco,” TBA21-Academy convened a symposium at UCLA Ideas Campus on August 11, 2014. The symposium also highlighted shark conservation initiatives in the Eastern Pacific and was accompanied by a dive expedition around Catalina Island. For more information, see https://www.tba21.org/#item--los_angeles--580.

[26] The project took inspiration from Boris Groys’ insight that, today, art documentation enjoys a status approaching near equivalence with artworks. In light of this, and a recent assessment that broadcast media practice was a vital dimension of historic Land Art, our project was an attempt to exhibit this condition, and to explore its potential.

[27] These comments shed some light on how surveillance—observation—relates to our new figure. Following Snowden, it would seem that only enclosure within a cryptographic strongbox allows for paradoxical identification—to be one thing and another simultaneously. On a political level, personal data protection helps us to maintain a translocational identity that amounts to freedom itself. When we are observed and measured as one thing or another by an external gaze, our paradoxical potential—to be both outlaws and good citizens, for instance—is dead in the water. We are collected, put on file—some butterflies pinned, others broken on a wheel.

[28] Trust relinquishes control of immediate benefits—in this case, the collector considers proximity to the buried art objects or the island itself phenomena whose quantification does not necessarily indicate the quality of the relationship: they trust that geographic distance, and seeming lack of access to the art objects, is made up for in functional proximity by moral/ecological quality.

[29] Anchors dropped at the bays of Neko, Paradise, and Orne; Cuverville Island, the Errera Channel, the Lemaire Channel, Pleneau Island, Petermann Island, the Penola Strait, Deception Island, and elsewhere. At each of these locations, artists temporarily installed works, or engaged in performances.

[30] In total, over twenty artistic projects were carried out, including performances, installations, exhibitions, and sound-art experiments by artists present including Alexis Anastasiou (BR); Yto Barrada (MA); Julius von Bismarck (DE); Julian Charrière (FR/CH); Paul Rosero Contreras (EC); Gustav Duesing (DE); Zhang Enli (CN); Joaquin Fargas (AR); Sho Hasegawa (JP); Yasuaki Igarashi (JP); Katya Kovaleva (RU); Andrey Kuzkin (RU); Juliana Cerqueira Leite (US/BR); Alexander Ponomarev (RU); Shama Rahman (UK); Abdullah Al Saadi (UAE); Lou Sheppard (CA). A manifestation of the Aerocene project by Tomás Saraceno (AR) also took place. For further information about onboard projects, including video program, see http://antarcticbiennale.art/wp/category/expedition.

[31] The symposia series was entitled Antarctic Biennale Vision Club, convened by Nadim Samman and coordinated by Sofia Gavrilova. This was the main platform for Interdisciplinary Participants, who were: Elizabeth Barry (USA); Adrian Dannatt (UK); Barbara Imhof (AT); Wakana Kono (JP); Carlo Rizzo (IT); Alexander Sekatskii (RU), Jean de Pomereu (FR); Susmita Mohanty (IN); Hector Monsalve (AR); Miguel Petchkovsky (AG); Sergey Pisarev (RU); Nicholas Shapiro (US); Lisen Schultz (SE). Video series included work by Adrian Balseca (EC); Yto Barrada (MA); Emmy Skensved+Grégoire Blunt (CA); Julian Charrière (FR/CH); Paul Rosero Contreras (EC); Marcel Dinahet (FR); Constant Dullaart (NE); Karin Ferrari (AT);  Etienne de France (FR); Swetlana Heger (SE); Young Hae-Chang Heavy Industries (KR); Eli Maria Lundgaard (NO), Eva and Franco Mattes (IT); Jessica Sarah Rinland (UK).

[32] Three resulting collaborations are discussed in a paper co-authored by the editor of this volume, delivered at the 2017 International Astronautical Congress. All involve artists’ engagements with the prototype Self Deployable Habitat for Extreme Environments (S.H.E.E) developed/prototyped by Liquifer Systems Group for the European Space Agency. See Dehlia Hannah (with Barbara Imhof), “Art in Extreme Environments: Reflections of Space Research from the First Antarctic Biennale,” Proceedings of the 68th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Adelaide, Australia, September 25-29, 2017. (IAC-17 E5.3.9, x37172)

[33] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man (London: Penguin, 1992), xii.

[34] Venues included Ca’ Foscari University, Venice, 2014; Royal Geographical Society’s ‘Explore’ conference, 2016; the Explorer’s Club in New York, 2016; the Polar Museum in Gränna, Sweden, 2016; the Maritime Museum, Barcelona, 2016; the New York Yacht Club, Newport, 2016; the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, 2016.

[35] Communications around the exhibition Antarctopia, at the Antarctic Pavilion in Venice, argued that lack of non-debentured reflection on Antarctic enterprise facilitates geopolitical scramble for resources. See http://www.antarcticpavilion.com/antarctopia-essays.html, accessed November 9, 2017.

[36] Antarctica is not generally communicated as a cultural space, despite the fact that it has been inhabited for more than a century. The lack of will to cultural analysis is clearly indicated by the dearth of comparative studies of artistic production since man’s first engagement. Indeed, there have been no attempts to investigate image-making practices in Antarctica across expeditions or personalities. While attention has been paid to the work of creators individually, no “Art History of Antarctica” has been written. Even excepting the will to intellectual synthesis, libraries are without anthologies of paintings or drawings made there. Given the opportunity that exists to successfully catalogue, without omission, the entire corpus of such images from at 1840 until the late 20th century, it is surprising that no one has tried. The same applied to the question of Antarctic Architectural History—a question asserted at the inaugural Antarctic Pavilion, 14th Venice Biennale of Architecture, 2015, in the exhibition Antarctopia, curated by myself and commissioned by Alexander Ponomarev. For a full statement of this argument, see http://www.uncubemagazine.com/blog/13521899, accessed November 9, 2017.

[37] In order to be wholly realized, a project by the German architect Gustav Duesing required the found condition of a below-zero air temperature within a given time. The condition was not obtained.

[38] Indeed, the DPRK’s nascent official realist art took its cues from the People’s Republic of China’s attempts at a “Great Leap Forward” by implementing Soviet-advised Five-Year Plan—right down to importing professors from the latter’s art academies to oversee the production of ideologically useful images, concurrently with turning its attention to the production of useless pig-iron and the total eradication of sparrows that would bring on a locust plague.

[39] Umma: Mass Games–Motherly Love North Korea was held at Ethan Cohen Fine Arts, New York City, October 20 - December 10, 2017. A catalogue was printed. My curatorial essay, “On the Necessity of North Korean Art,” is available here: http://nadimsamman.com/the-necessity-of-north-korean-art.

[40] Such as Ilya Kabakov. See Matthew Jesse Jackson, The Experimental Group: Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet Avant-Gardes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 281.

[41] See https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-12-03/north-korea-activists-sneak-films-music-usb-drives-regime-change/9210928, accessed June 15, 2020.


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