drucken Bookmark and Share

by Kai van Eikels

Replacing Institution with Infrastructure: An Approach to Collective Curating

A round of curating. Whoever wants to participate gets into the first car of the Ringbahn train that departs at 9pm from Landsberger Allee, on the first Monday of every month. This information has been circulated through online platforms and email, and the fact that the radically open arrangement excludes those who cannot, or do not care to, be punctual is not the least interesting aspect of a collective undertaking named Ying Colosseum, which started in December 2015 and lasted for thirteen months. For the purpose of preparing an exhibition—not in an established gallery but in places like a supermarket car park, a Turkish Café, an abandoned swimming pool, or a heavy metal bar—the assembly had roughly seventy minutes. During this time, Berlin’s circle line covers a distance of 37km and calls at twenty-seven stations. Although the following thoughts are not specifically concerned with curating dance, they want to encourage readers to think of curating as a kind of city dance: a curatorial move rather than a protracted process, which employs (let’s say, piggybacks on) movements provided by the city. An infrastructural dance.

The areas connected by the Ringbahn (“Mitte,” the gentrified central district that hosts most of the city’s well-known art spaces, is not among them) form a characteristic periphery. If infrastructure means a relational setting that comprises technology and people,[1] this train is Berlin’s signature piece of infrastructure. The Ying Colosseum experiment offers a materialist answer to a question that is being asked, or tacitly implied, in every curating process: What does it have to do with the city? Art that goes on show “afk”[2] cannot help addressing a public, a collective that is at once local and universal. For the better or worse, its concept of the political still refers to the polis, to the people who live around here, from whatever places artists and visitors will actually come flying in. It doesn’t matter whether these “people around here” are citizens or expats, travelers or refugees, people who grew up here, who have been stranded here, or happen to be in town for a couple days, as long as one can assume that they are legitimate participants in the city life. And what better place for such an assumption than a transport line that sucks up and spits out diverse crowds! No need to fashion a symbolic-imaginary link between art event and city, as curators regularly feel compelled to do (often resulting in titles and topics that convey but their well-craftedness). The city is already there, at work as a choreographic engine in the material process of human and non-human bodies making an exhibition. Marina Vishmidt claimed that we ought to expand the institutional critique of 1960s and 1970s art into an “infrastructural critique.”[3] Replacing art institutions with infrastructure might be a step in that direction. Using available urban infrastructure and to-whom-it-may-concern online communication allows for an approach that skips institutionalization, as it were. Some people who live around here become the collective subject of curating. All that becoming needs are an initiative, a few rules that will be followed or ignored (likely the former, more on that below), and a social network powerful enough to attract visitors.

Fashioning a captivating symbolic-imaginary relation between an art event and the city where it shall take place is a task that calls for virtuous and virtuosic curatorial work: let us find a hitherto undiscovered document about the city’s cultural history connected to our topic, unearth a forgotten group or association whose name can be filled with new meaning, or juxtapose two terms, one locally specific and one broad and abstract, and see if it triggers people to feel like members of an imagined community! Ying Colosseum’s ad-hoc exhibition-making format shows little interest in these linguistic skills and their “servile virtuosity.”[4] With the train on its way, there is no time for catering to an imagination that expects to be served just the right kind of homely collectivity, the community in coming, the sufficiently singular plurality, the potentiality beyond potential… Like contact improvisation, the situation calls for instantaneous agreements on the basics. Desires to focus together on a topic of general importance or common concern, to compare personal positions and assess perspectives, to refer to theoretical contexts, may figure into the discussion and complicate the dealings, in an obstructive or productive way. But the bodies that subjectively define themselves by force of these desires are being contained in a vessel whose course is set and which will arrive, barring accidents, exactly as scheduled. Therefore, as heads wiggle on shoulders rocked by the car, gravity and velocity secretly steer the articulation of ideas, the exchange of arguments, and the consensus-finding. The setting delegates authority to the infrastructural environment that is equally exterior to all. By aligning the self-invented rules with the respect that people have for a logistical movement, the initiators cunningly exploit the infra- of infrastructure, which tends to escape (critical) attention when it functions smoothly. Once the curatorial journey has been completed, and exhibition title and location have been chosen, the same dynamic is conferred to the exhibition setup: “This information was then passed on to all earlier contributing artists via email so they could take part again, or invite someone else by forwarding the correspondence and a pdf of recommended reading for Ying. Those who confirmed by replying with a name were told simply to meet on the chosen site at 6:45pm. The show would open at 7pm.”[5]

The exhibition will thus be what people get together in such a get-together. This eliminates neither questions of competence nor power inequalities in the curating (even though one rule stated that “if the deciding party ran out of time, minority ruled”[6]). But competence, in this case, perhaps consists in an ability to explain something with a few plausible words and gestures to foreigners and friends alike, or present instantly winning visual evidence by showing photos of a site that looks cool, rather than impressing colleagues with one’s sophisticated play on a register that’s proudly shared among members of the institution. Effective curatorial talk (as in jazz musicians or dancers interacting) here requires topoi koinoi [commonplaces] in the original sense of the word. And the experiment is possible because in cities like Berlin, where art has advanced to a widespread social practice, there actually exists a general intellect of curating, a broadly accessible set of ideas, concepts, terms, arguments, and implicit values, which just needs a situation that allows for its actualization to unfold an anarchic power (a reviewer attested Ying Colosseum a “culture of anarchy comparable to the Situationists playing Pokémon Go”[7]).

Circumventing curatorial speak as far as possible, still the Ying initiators strive for precision where they formulate the rules. One could call this an infrastructural-choreographic attitude towards language. Instead of producing discourse (i.e., speech that tries to engage individual subjects, persuading them to congregate into a collective shape as laid out by promising depictions), wording is concerned with constructing an “active form,”[8] an organizational template that operates on the physical level. The well-scaled degree of formalization—which makes participation easy and fun while employing the psychological weight of heavy machinery, precise timetables, and the ingenious engineering behind them—activates the practical, material collectivity of everyday life. Curating is just a slightly extraordinary context given to this everyday city dance. And the collective design of the event that ensues from such a curatorial ride bears the imprint of a decision that is at once the most vulgar, low-key decision in an urban existence and, every time anew, an avowal of crowd materiality over imagined community: to take the train.

Of course, swapping the meeting room of an art space for an urban transport network does not disengage one entirely from the institutional. The relation between infrastructure and institution has always been complicated, and the public situation encountered on a train, for all its potential to surprise—and annoy—us with chance communication, displays regulatory state power that the bodies have internalized (if not always in the way the government wants them to). However, Ming’s approach manages to instrumentalize the self-control imposed by what everybody knows is appropriate train behavior, in favor of a self-organized transient collective that lets its members be more and less disciplined than proper citizens. In some cases, this more-and-less leaves the collective with ideological uncertainties: Is the heavy metal bar that was agreed on as the next site for exhibiting also a meeting place for the right-wing scene? Who should have known, or made sure, in advance? The absence of an individual or collective sovereign in the curatorial move means that the exhibition cannot be a safe event. Participants will need to make up their minds as to whether they prefer the dangers posed by publicly accessible infrastructure or the dangers of institutional closure. To be given an opportunity for thinking about this—in a society, including the art world, that by default has always already opted for the institutional—can hardly be underestimated in its political value.

Rather than an empty gesture towards an “open future,” Ying Colosseum hands down to the afterworld a small excessive part. The curating outlasted one year by one month, just as the Ringbahn needs ten minutes more than the full hour to complete its circle. Happily finite, materialist in practice and attitude, this arrangement does not seek to transfer a messianic agency from the charismatic individual curator to the collective, or outdo the one by the power of the many. It just proposes a good idea for loosely doing things together, applicable to curating dance no less than to the visual arts (a mostly institutional distinction, these days). This idea may be copied, altered, translated into more refined or still rougher approaches. Curating on trains won’t save the world. But it may very well help to make better art shows.


Kai van Eikels is a researcher currently working at Ruhr-Universität Bochum. In their work, they combine philosophy, theater, and performance studies. Their research topics include collectivity and politics of participation; art and labor; synchronization, time, and matter; queer cuteness; infrastructure and performance. Among their publications are Die Kunst des Kollektiven. Performance zwischen Theater, Politik und Sozio-Ökonomie (2013); Art works – Ästhetik des Postfordismus (collectively written with Netzwerk Kunst + Arbeit, 2015); Synchronisieren. Ein Essay zur Materialität des Kollektiven (2020). Articles, in German and English, can be found on https://rub.academia.edu/KaivanEikels and https://kunstdeskollektiven.wordpress.com.


[1] For people as infrastructure, see AbdouMaliq Simone, “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg,” Public Culture 16, no. 3 (2004): 407–429.

[2] Legacy Russell has proposed “afk (away from keyboard)” as a more adequate replacement for “in real life” or “offline,” since being online is obviously a crucial part of our real lives and the communication devices we carry are almost never offline. See Legacy Russell, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (London: Verso, 2020), 12.

[3] Marina Vishmidt, “Between not Everything and not Nothing: Cuts towards Infrastructural Critique,” in The Former West: Art and the Contemporary after 1989, eds. Maria Hlavajova and Simon Sheik (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017), 265–268: 265.

[4] See Paolo Virno, “Virtuosity and Revolution: The Political Theory of Exodus,” in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, eds. Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: UP Minnesota, 1996), 189–212.

[5] Penny Rafferty, “A Culture of Anarchy Comes to a Close with Ying Colosseum,” AQNB, January 5, 2017, https://www.aqnb.com/2017/01/05/a-culture-of-anarchy-comes-to-a-close-with-ying-colosseum-by-penny-rafferty.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Moritz Gramming, “Ying Colosseum im Blackland,” https://kubaparis.com/ying-colloseum-im-blackland (text has been removed).

[8] Keller Easterling uses Bruno Latour’s term “active form” in her reflection on infrastructure power to designate a technical-social device that, while it may have been designed as a solution for a specific problem, has a disposition exceeding that function. See Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (London: Verso, 2014), 14–22.

Go back

Issue 55

Curating Dance : Decolonizing Dance