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by Dorothee Richter And Barnaby Drabble

Curating Critique – An Introduction

“Criticality as I perceive it is precisely in the operations of recognizing limitations of one’s thought, for one does not learn something new until one unlearns something old, otherwise one is simply adding information rather than rethinking a structure.”1

The end of the Nineties saw a spate of symposia and related publications looking at independent and freelance practice in the field of curating, discourse about a growing field of practice that many of us felt had for too long remained in the dark. Since then, against the backdrop of changing working conditions for curators, the blurring of traditionally distinct roles in cultural work and an increase in the number of curatorial study-programs, curatorial practice has moved into the spotlight. Barely a week passes without an article focusing on the figure of the curator and for the most part curating is controversially described and debated as a new and powerful form of cultural authorship, an approach that can be attributed to curating’s perceived proximity to the subject-oriented ideology surrounding the idea of artistic authorship. Since we began our theoretical and practical engagement with curatorial practice we have purposefully chosen the opposite approach, avoiding the trap of talking about either art making or curating as a question of individual genius we prefer to plumb the critical possibilities of this broad and changing practice and discuss openly where these might lead us. In the process of “rethinking a structure” in the terms suggested by Irit Rogoff, we find the familiar focus on the relationship between the diverse notions of ‘artist’ and ‘curator’ giving way to a new focus on the relationship between those of ‘exhibition’ and ‘public’. In 1998 we organized the symposium Curating Degree Zero, addressing the innovative artistic and curatorial approaches of the time. The invited curators included amongst others Ute Meta Bauer, Roger Buergel, Stella Rollig, Laura Cottingham, Moritz Kueng, Olivier Kaeser, Ursula Biemann, and James Lingwood, and over three days they started a debate with us and with each other, that has continued to hold our interest to this day. Almost five years later that, together with Annette Schindler, we launched the Curating Degree Zero Archive reviving our interest in framing and debating critical curatorial practice. The archive, a collection of documentary material from hundreds of projects and exhibitions, takes the form of a touring exhibition and accompanying web-resource.2 With the archive we were interested in initiating an ongoing discussion examining exhibition making from a particular viewpoint, namely that of ‘critique’. During the tour the idea of archiving such practices has been problematised in various discussions about whether and how it might be possible to label specific practices ‘critical’ on the one hand or ‘acquiescent’ on the other. For us, it is an important prerequisite for the archive as well as for this publication that the poles of acquiescent practice and critical practice are understood as relational terms, bound to the specific historical moments at which one observes them. The borderline between ‘critical’ and its opposite is fine and always hard to pin down, as it is constantly shifting in relation to changes in the unmappable topography of our image-mediated world itself. As such, we understand the archive as a vehicle for collective and often contradictory knowledge production.

One can understand just how unresolved the definitions of this border are when we observe how advertisers recreate images of rioting youths to sell clothes, fabricated in the developing world, to their ‘first-world’ consumers. While under the title ‘culture-jamming’ critical resistance is articulated through an obverse but similar subversion of signs: the hacking of logos or the adoption and subversion of the websites of large companies or organizations like the WTO, for example. According to Roland Barthes the mythical charge attributed to images, is created through a process of first de-historicising them and then intentionally charging them with specific meanings.3 Images make politics, and we witness every day how on the one hand they are strategically used to justify claims to power, while on the other paranoid persecution scenarios based on the mistrust of images are employed to undermine it. With the disappearance of the communist system, representing on the one hand ‘threat’ and on the other ‘utopia’, and the simultaneous dissolution of the West’s great patriarchal institutions; the family, the state, the army and the church, we are left with a kind of vacuum. For the individual this offers the emancipatory possibility of no longer defining them selves in relation to ideology, state or institution, yet one result of this is the indulgence in short-term and narcissistic identification choices that ultimately have a normalizing effect. Images and image politics are in different ways the artefacts and medium of exhibitions and art projects, while at the same time they are always attached to the political discourse. With this in mind we can seek to describe projects as subversive or critical due to their chosen content, in particular when they deal with the political themes associated with feminism, urbanism, post-colonialism, anti-capitalism and social exclusion. But we have to be careful to combine any assessment of critical content with an awareness of the way such content is structured and made to mean. Thus, we are also interested in the structural transgression of the ‘white cube’ and classical exhibition formats and a consideration of how these paradigms came about. This reassessment of structure can be seen in interventionist and institutionally critical practices, as well as in new forms of mediation. In this sense it remains a central question for us how displays and settings in exhibitions manufacture, or to use Althusser’s term, “constitute”4 their visitor-subjects. Looking at it this way an exhibition or display literally produces its visitors. It has to be looked at case by case whether the visitor is empowered, placated, informed, taught, entertained or overwhelmed during this process.

In his article, entitled “The Curatorial Function – Organising the Ex/position”, the Austrian theorist Oliver Marchart reminds us of the important difference between politics and the political. Institutionalised politics, he points out, is “dominated by consensus, mutual agreement, administrative bargaining and when push comes to shove, a mere exhibition fight between state functionary elites that have joined to form parties that are scarcely distinguishable”. Whereas the political, that which belongs to the description of the active polis or state, is described by conflict, or borrowing a term from Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe ‘antagonism’. Marchart argues that the curatorial function lies in the organizing of the public sphere with respect to an understanding of the conflict that constitutes the genuinely political. Namely a practice that entails the construction of counter-positions from which antagonisms can arise, and that an exhibition as site allows the necessary space for these arisen antagonisms to gain visibility. It is not hard to see how such strategies are at odds with the majority of institutional practice, or indeed how they are not so much institutionally critical as deinstitutionalizing in their effect. The institution and the cultural politics it represents remain a central battleground in any discussion of the possibility of critical curatorial practice. Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt’s recent writing has questioned the terms by which so-called ‘new institutionalism’5 adopts critical working methods which she sees as traditionally belonging to the artistic community. Her critique is expanded in her article ‘False Economies’ in which she broadens her focus and looks at the effects not only of the large institutions themselves, but also of the neo-liberal arts policies they implement. Taking Scotland as an example, she observes the duplicity behind the aims of attracting ‘new audiences’ for art under the banner of ‘social inclusion’, when the working conditions of the nation’s artists remains so precarious. In doing so, she questions the true agenda behind adapting audiences to a ‘lifestyle’ based on culture work and creativity, when this sector presents a clear example of deregulated labour and market exploitation.

The inversions and inconsistencies of the ‘globalising’ world are debated against the backdrop of Gilane Tawadros’ exhibition Faultlines, which she curated for the Africa Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2002. In a conversation with Sarat Maharaj, the two discuss the differences between a nation ‘developing’ and its ‘being developed’ and the role of art activity in opening up a fragmented and multiple spaces for dialogical communication at odds to the reductive and partisan nature of “communications for and on behalf of a globalised capital economy.” Marion von Osten begins her text ‘Producing Publics – Making Worlds!’ with an assessment of how the institutional frame appears structurally unaltered despite the numerous critical projects lanced against it over the past decades. She maintains that the interventions of institutional critique, the separatism of the artist run spaces movement, and the new formats demanded by feminist, postcolonial and queer exhibition practice, though hugely important for artistic discourse, appear to have had little to no effect on the institution itself. The rigidity she perceives and identifies as problematic is the art institution’s underpinning of inflexible normalizing concepts of the public. In the face of ‘no change’ she explains, it is perhaps unsurprising that a critical percentage of the mediators have begun to change sides and even in the rarefied arenas of the biennial circuit, we can find some incidences where the familiar pattern of decontextualised global displays are being abandoned in favour of new strategies of context-relevant political immediacy. Curating in this sense has become radicalized and to a certain extent mutinous and for von Osten it follows a historically definable catalogue of alternative, tactical use of the institutions by artists and by engaged counterpublics6, which has been in evidence since the early days of modernism.

Reflecting on the recurrent hostility towards the idea that the curator might be involved in the process of constituting meaning, Beatrice von Bismarck proposes a reframing of the debate in her article “Curatorial Criticality, the role of freelance curators in the field of contemporary art”, defending as appropriate the specific critical potential afforded by the curatorial procedure of creating connections. She observes how freelance practice plays fast and loose with codes and perhaps due to its lack of permanent connection to the effects of institutional normalization, appears all the more risky for it. The freelancer inhabits a hybrid role, she argues, oscillating between different positions in a practice conditioned by impermanence, performativity and transitoriness, the critical potential of which lie in its freedom to continually reformulate the constellation of operations on the one hand and positions on the other. The essay “Exhibitions as Cultural Practices of Showing – Pedagogics” by Dorothee Richter analyses exhibitions in respect to theories of power. Exhibitions and displays are seen as the staging and performance of objects and structures, that brings objects and subjects into a particular hierarchical relationship with one another and as such are to be understood as a component part of communicative processes. Seen this way, exhibitions are founded in discourse, and in turn they create it, generating, in the process, meaning. The essay maintains that these effects are based upon the pedagogical nature of showing, and carry both authoritarian and emancipatory potential.

The artist-curator Gavin Wade’s ongoing collaboration with the architect Celine Condorelli under the title Support Structure can be seen as exemplary of these changing qualities, reinventing itself both physically and conceptually in response to different sites and briefs, in response to which they offered a form of support. For the exhibition I am a Curator, Wade and Condorelli provided flexible exhibition architecture elements that played out a parasitic relationship to the institutional architecture itself. Wade explains that their intention was for it to operate as a tool to critique the ideas involved with exhibition making including the production of art, while at the same time ‘supporting’ and at times ‘leading’ the activities of the exhibitions visitors. Inherent within their understanding of support is their interest in the fact that though often ‘taken for granted’ structures are never neutral, but rather programmable and as such ideological. The exhibition itself, conceived and produced by the artist Per Hüttner, sought to interrogate issues of access and elitism in the art-world and to test the rigidity of the roles of producer, mediator and audience in relation to exhibitions. Hüttner chose to explore the idea of empowering the gallery’s public in a remarkably literal sense: by inviting them to take a day to curate an exhibition. With the help of a team of art-handlers a broad variety of members of the public curated thirty-six exhibitions in the same number of days. Like Wade and Condorelli, Hüttner approached the project with an interest in experimenting with parameters and playing with roles.

Sarah Cook and Beryl Graham are also engaged in seeking formats for the support and development of experimental and critical practice. Their format matches their focus and in an interview they talk about CRUMB, the Internet resource they established in 1999 with the aim of helping curators ‘exhibit’ new media art. The challenges and possibilities for curators raised by developments in new media art serve also to illuminate the problem of inflexible institutional structures. Cook and Graham argue that where the art itself challenges traditional terms of display and even proposes new systems of making knowledge, curatorial practices must be given the room to manoeuvre. Complex, uncertain and impossible to generalize about, new media art appears indefinable and indeed unwilling to capitulate to definition. In the light of this, CRUMB focuses on forums, debates, interviews and the sharing of experience. In conversation with Paul O’Neill, Maria Lind talks about her programming at the Munich Kunstverein between 2001 and 2004. She also reflects on the formulaic nature of most ‘mainstream’ curating and how, with her work at the Kunstverein, she tried to explore alternative formats in which contemporary art-production is developed collectively and discussed, as well as being
‘shown’. The two return to the idea that the artworld is suffering from amnesia regarding the long and diverse history of curatorial experimentation.7 Lind maintains that although the approach she favours is far from new, it is common that curators interested in experimental formats find themselves having to ‘reinvent the wheel’. Relating to a number of such programs in recent years in Europe, she notes how difficult it is to sustain them for long enough for their effect to be substantiated; the ‘duration’ of such projects being of paramount importance if they are to avoid falling foul of precisely the amnesia that undermines their reception. To explain the short-lived nature of many of these projects, she maintains that traditional publics for contemporary art are often unprepared for the different experiences such formats open up, and that art-criticism at present ‘doesn’t do its job’ in mediating such approaches sensibly. Ute Meta Bauer also discusses the problem of what she sees as the mass media’s reductive and outmoded coverage of art’s concerns and possibilities in her interview with Marius Babias. Talking about her experiences of curating the 3rd berlin biennale, she links this perceived ‘dumbing down’ with a more general analysis of neo-liberal expectations of curatorial work; a climate that limits its criteria for judgment on the extent to which a project satisfies the thirst for ‘new publics’ and ‘provide’ for the media. She describes a state of affairs in which ambitious large exhibitions are increasingly held to ransom by the importance of the media, both to the reception of the project and to the concerns of their sponsors. In such a situation, Bauer maintains, exhibitions must take high risks to avoid simply providing the visual equivalent to ‘easy listening’.

In both Sarat Maharaj’s essay on the documenta process and Walter Grasskamp’s prehistory of the ‘white cube’, both authors throw light upon the complex interplay between convention and change that has resulted in the exhibition forms we witness today. Perhaps in response to the overbearing coverage of documenta XI as ‘the global documenta’, Maharaj marks exhibition’s 50th anniversary by pointing out how, from its outset in 1955, the exhibition project was always connected to ‘elsewhere’, albeit at times in unexpected ways. Grasskamp carefully reconsiders the nature of ‘hanging’ works, focusing less on the works themselves and more on the wall behind them. By carefully presenting the evolution of the white exhibition wall, he extends the analysis introduced in Brian O’Doherty’s texts of the 70s.8 We are asked to consider not only the specifics of the white wall that has come to be standard in spaces for presenting art, but also its context and the qualities it shares with the domestic, industrial and functional spaces of our everyday lives. In their short article “Words from an Exhibition” Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack circle around the issue of interpretation, from the outset asking themselves the question of how best to write about an exhibition. They are struck by the fact that any attempt to represent curated experiences in the form of words results in a loss of complexity, due to the singularity of the perspective presented. They seek a textual form parallel to their curatorial concerns, one that might continue to offer ‘not only the excitement but also the opportunity for an opening, and potentially even the derailment or tattering of what had been thought previously’. They present us with four theses, which they encourage us to view as pictures in an exhibition. An exhibition it would seem, from our singular perspective at least, that understands itself as simultaneously a form of action, a gesture9 and a reflection on its own mediality. In keeping with the focus of this reader their final thesis reminds us that radical exhibitions are determined not purely by their ideas and forms, but intrinsically by their publics.

It is entirely by chance that this collection of essays, conversations and interviews is published ten years after the two of us first shared thoughts on the urgency of opening up the debate about this changing field of practice, and five since the launch of our archiving project, which continues to tour and expand as we write. However, it is no coincidence that, as curators ourselves, we continue, in the spirit of these earlier initiatives, to support the need for a culture of critique in relation to exhibition-practice; as much in the hope of ‘recognising the limitations of one’s own thought’10 as of developing strategies together for moving beyond these. The title Curating Critique, does its best to represent the double-agency that this activity demands. The reader presents a cross-section of the voices that populate the ongoing debate about, on the one hand, how and in what terms curating functions as a critical cultural practice, and on the other, what methodologies and histories exist with which we can critically analyse curatorial work today.


Barnaby Drabble is a curator and writer based in Zurich. Previously curated exhibitions include Ein Zweites Leben (Stadtgalerie, Bern, Autumn 2007), co-curating Nothing to Declare (Oberschwaben, Contemporary Art Triennial, Spring 2008), I almost feel like doing it again… (Zurich, 2004), New Visions of the Sea (National Maritime Museum, London, 2000-2003) and Burning Love (London, 2000). He works in long-term collaboration; with Dorothee Richter: Curating Degree Zero Symposium (Bremen, 1998) and Curating Degree Zero Archive (touring since 2003); with Hinrich Sachs as Drabble+Sachs The City that never Sleeps (Umea, 2004-2005), Geneva Unplugged (Geneva, 2003), and Trademark Guerrilla (Swiss Expo, 2002). He completed his PhD research at the Edinburgh College of Art, and between 2000 and 2007 has taught and lectured on the topics of curating, contemporary art and cultural criticism at colleges and art-centres worldwide. In 2005, together with Dorothee Richter he established the Postgraduate Program in Curating at the School of Art and Design in Zurich. Today he is a lecturer at ECAV in Sierre


Dorothee Richter, art historian and curator; Director of Studies for the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, ICS, at the ZHDK Zurich and publisher of On-Curating.org; prior to thatArtistic Director of the Künstlerhaus Bremen; symposia on questions of contemporary art with the following publications: Curating Degree Zero – an international symposium of curators(with B.Drabble); Dialoge und Debatten – on feminist positions in contemporary art; Im (Be_)Griff des Bildes (with Katrin Heinz and Sigrid Adorf); Die Visualität der Theorie vs. zur Theorie des Visuellen (with Nina Möntmann); Re-Visionen des Displays, (with Sigrid Schade and Jennifer Johns); Institution as Medium. Curating as Institutional Critique?, Kassel (with Rein Wolfs), teaching: University of Bremen, Ecole des Beaux Arts, Geneva, Merz-Akademie Stuttgart; University Lüneburg, Zurich University of Arts. Initiator (with B. Drabble) Curating Degree Zero Archive, archive, travelling exhibition and website on curatorial practice, www.curatingdegreezero.org. Other editions: Curating Critique(with B. Drabble) editor of the web journal On-Curating.org.



1 Irit Rogoff “What is a Theorist?” in Katharyna Sykora et al (eds.) Was ist ein Künstler?, Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag 2004

2 Information available online: www.curating degreezero.org

3 Roland Barthes Mythologies, Paris: Editions de Seuil 1957

4 Louis Althusser “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation”, originally published in the French language in Paris, La  Pensée  1970  

5 Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt “Harnessing the means of production” in Jonas Ekeberg (ed.) New Institutionalism, Verksted no.1, Oslo: Office for Contemporary Art Norway 2003

6 After Michael Warner Publics and Counterpublics, New York 2002

7 Mary Anne Staniszewski first referred to the level of indifference to curatorial histories as ‘amnesia’ in her influential study The Power of Display: a history of exhibition installations  at the Museum of Modern Art, Cambridge/Mass.: MIT Press 1998

8 Brian O’Doherty “Inside the White Cube – Notes on the Gallery Space”. Originally published in Artforum, 1976

9 In reference to Giorgio Agamben’s use of the term in “Notes on Gesture” (1992) in Giorgio Agamben, Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (eds.) Means Without End: Notes on Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2000

10 Irit Rogoff “What is a Theorist?”


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