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by Oliver Marchart

The Curatorial Function – Organizing The Ex/Position

The idea of Public Art, of art in a public space or in the public interest, has thrived over the past two decades. Art has departed its accustomed place in art institutions and movedinto the open. Not just outdoors in nature, which Land Art had done long before, or in the exterior spaces of architecture, in order to furnish facades or urban space, but into theopen space of the political public sphere. That public sphere has more to do with the freedom to act politically, or of political action, than with the fresh air of ‘open nature’ or thespace of urban traffic under the ‘open sky’. In other words, art practices have emerged, for which it is more important to be connected to political practices than to art institutionsthemselves. That, in turn, necessarily has effects on our concept of the public sphere and on our concept of the institution as well. We are faced with the question ‘what is it, aboutPublic Art, that is public?’ Indeed, ‘what is political about political art?’ While thousands of catalogue texts shed light on individual projects from theoretical perspectives as well, this fundamental question is only rarely raised and almost never answered adequately. The situation is almost sadder when it comes to answering the question (when it’s asked at all) ofthe curator’s task in such cases of the production of political art. The roles of ‘curator’ and ‘artist’ often become blurred in this kind of praxis in particular. If we begin not withthe individual, empirical individual but with the function that is fulfilled by certain activities, we may come closer to an answer. In the following text I would like above all to raisethe question of the curatorial function. And, to get right to the answer, I would like to defend the following thesis: the curatorial function lies in the organization of the public sphere.

That answer is trivial only if we believe that an exhibition or an exhibition space is already a ‘public sphere’ simply because it is accessible to the ‘public’. Universal access is, however,only a minimal criterion, and even that often goes unfulfilled. Our normal use of the term public sphere frequently blinds us to its true meaning. For example, the mass media areconsidered ‘public spheres’, even though hardly any normal people have access to them, apart from letters to the editor and call-in shows. And even exhibiting institutions rarelyfulfil this criterion, unless one understands a space for which anyone may pay an entrance fee to be a public sphere, to say nothing of ‘invisible’ exclusions, qua social distinction, forexample. In fact, the discussion lacks the sufficient criterion with which the public sphere in the true sense can be described. For it is not accessibility alone that turns a space intoa public sphere. It is not the fact that that one is admitted into a collection or an exhibition after paying a small fee, or even for free. A lot of people can stand around in aroom and stare at the walls without a public sphere resulting from that alone. A public sphere results if and only if a debate breaks out among those standing around. A debate is not adiscourse ‘free of domination’ and guided by reason that aims at an ultimate consensus, as Habermas describes it; rather, a debate takes place in the medium of conflict. Only at themoment when a conflict breaks out does the public sphere emerge, with the breakdown of the consensus that is otherwise always silently presumed. The essential criterion for a public sphere that can be considered a true political sphere, and not just a simulation of a public sphere, is thus conflict or, to borrow a term from Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe,antagonism.1

If therefore the curatorial function consists in the organization of a public sphere, then one might conclude that it too must consist in organization of a conflict or antagonism. But to do so would be to let oneself in for the first problem; for antagonism in the strict sense is something that cannot be ‘organized’ at all. The antagonism that ultimately generates a public sphere can break out anywhere at any time, but it cannot simply be organized; a look at ‘politics’ proves that. Politics isby no means the best terrain for conflict. On the contrary, institutionalized politics is generally dominated by consensus, mutual agreement, administrative bargaining, and, when push comes to shove, a mere exhibition fight between statefunctionary elites that have joined to form parties that are scarcely distinguishable. Politics consists of well-coordinated,sedimented, institutionalized rituals that are not normally shaken by any conflict, precisely because (pseudo) conflict is itself a fixed and predictable element of this ritual. And yet, unforeseen by anyone, a real conflict can suddenly break out. Revolutions are the most obvious example, but the emergence of new political players, like the revolt of 1968,the social movements of the 1970s and 1980s, or today’s anti-globalisation movement, can provoke a conflict. In reality, therefore, conflict is neither a privilege of a single social system, like that of politics, nor can it be narrowed down to one system. Antagonism, as a feature of the political (and not simply of politics) and hence of the public, can emergein any social system or field, even in the field of art, which then becomes political and ‘opens up’.2 It is, however, impossible to ‘organize’ the antagonism as such if it is precisely the antagonism that cuts short every institution and hence ‘organization’. That leaves us with two possibilities: either we abandon the thesis that the function of curating consists inorganizing the public or we cling to it because we nevertheless consider it necessary. In that case, however, the first thing one has to recognize is that the organization of the publicsphere is an impossible task.

Consequently the curatorial function, the organization of the public sphere, consists in organizing the impossible. ‘Curating’, in the sense of producing a real public sphere in the fieldof art, means organizing the impossible. This assertion can be understood in a variety of ways. One variant is that a truly political sphere cannot be produced in the field of art. The reasons is not simply that antagonism cannot, on principle, be organized but also that an antagonism always oversteps boundaries between social fields. A conflict that breaks out inthe art world alone will revolve exclusively around artistic questions. But the resulting public sphere would ultimately be only a public sphere of art, for example, a specialist publicsphere of art criticism that would move entirely within the parameters of the art and would interest no one else. Thus it would not even satisfy the minimal criterion of universal accessibility, which knows no boundaries between fields.

The other, more optimal variant, which does not however preclude the first, would be the following: the impossible element that is organized by the curatorial function is the politicalelement. Politics, in the sense of a genuine realization of the political, is always a praxis that aims at the impossible; namely, at whatever the hegemonic discourse defines in a givensituation as impossible. Curatorial praxis that becomes, or wants to become, political praxis must therefore set the same challenges as political practice.

Not in the sense of institutionalized politics but in the sense of emancipatory counterpolitics, which of course always insists on the necessity of the supposedly impossible; that is, of what hasbeen declared impossible by the hegemonic formation.3 In the construction of this counter, in the construction of a counterhegemony, lies the true potential for antagonism. In other words,an antagonism can never be compelled by organization, but is possible to construct a counterposition to the dominant position from which an antagonism can then arise. To be a little more specific, from the perspective of a political art praxis, this has consequences not only for our understanding of the curatorial function but also for the function of exhibitions and artinstitutions. But, let’s stick to the question of organization for another moment. What would, from a political perspective, correspond precisely to the model for the figure of ‘thecurator’ or to the curatorial function? One answer can be found in the work of Antonio Gramsci, the original inventor or developer of hegemony theory. The figure of the ‘curator’ in thefield of art corresponds precisely to the figure that Gramsci called the ‘organic intellectual’. Organic intellectuals give ‘homogeneity and an awareness’ to a hegemonic function. Gramscidescribes it by reference to the hegemonic rise of the bourgeoisie: “the capitalist entrepreneur creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, theorganizers of a new culture, of a new legal system, etc.”4 All these organic intellectuals are thus not intellectuals in the traditional sense, that is, lots of little Sartres sitting in the café, butrather essentially organizers of hegemony. They organize the hegemony of the bourgeoisie; they represent the cement in the hegemonic bloc, whereas the ‘traditional intellectuals’, Gramsci’sopposed term, have largely lost this function and thus imagine themselves to be ‘freely floating’ and non-partisan.

But not only the maintenance of the hegemonic bloc but also a counterhegemonic effort demands the labor of organized intellectuals. Gramsci, one of the cofounders of the ItalianCommunist Party, saw this as the true path for the proletariat to dissolve the bourgeoisie: not by storming the Winter Palace just once but through protracted and arduous building up, thearduous organization of a counterhegemony in everyday life. The point is to develop a ‘new stratum of intellectuals’: “The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist ineloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organizer, ‘permanent persuader’ and not just asimple orator.”5 Therein lies the real distinction from the figure of the traditional intellectual and hence of the traditional curator. The figure of the ‘curator’ as curator is traditionalin Gramsci’s sense; it has survived itself. And that affects not only the empirical social group but also its true function, Gramsci himself spoke of the ‘intellectual function’: boththe classical sense of curating as the cura (care) for the collection and the modern, post-Szeemannian sense of the individual genius curator in the art world are ‘traditional’ and not ‘organic’ activities. As organic intellectuals, by contrast, the curator’s true standpoint is in contexts outside the field of art. They are active organizing in social and political contexts beyond the art institution, and they connect them to the field of art. That means that the curatorial function is essentially collective. Organizing is a collective activity. One cannot establish a political counterstandpoint, a counterhegemony, on one’s own;that is the illusion of the traditional (great) intellectual. However, organization can only be part of a broader collective political project. Even if the emancipatory element may be moremodest today than in Gramsci’s day, it will never be a solely individual effort but always a collective one. In short, an ‘organic intellectual’ rarely, indeed never, appears alone. Andthat is the case, however much it might seem to contradict common sense at first glance, the curatorial subject, the subject of the curatorial function, is not an individual but rather a collective. Curating is a collective activity.

Of course, in the end it is still an open question as to which master, that is, which hegemonic formation, organic intellectuals serve. It is by no means always necessary that they serveemancipatory politics. The curatorial function can also serve the hegemonic formation of post-Fordism. For example, Beatrice von Bismarck notes in reference to Yann Moulier Boutang that today’s curatorial practice is closely related to the tasks of efficient management. The curatorial tasks of organization and communication are roughly comparable “to those of bookor music publishers, of content managers or archivists, and hence of professions that, as ‘increasingly intellectualized abstract work’, correspond to the definition of immaterialwork.”6 In the organizational forms of material work, the ‘the curator’, as an organic intellectual, becomes a post-Fordist Ich-AG [literally, ‘Me, Inc’, a subsidized one-personcorporation under German law. Trans.]. But the ‘curatorial’ organization of a political public sphere differs fundamentally from the organization of one’s own economic exploitation. What is the difference? In a word, and at risk of making a lame pun: it is not about ex-ploitation but rather about ex-position. That means that when it is organizing a political sphere the curatorial function is not primarily a function of the economy of the field of art, which is in turn part of the general economy. A forum in the political sense should not be confused with a bazaar in the economic sense. Although the two can overlap in reality, they should be strictly distinguished in terms of their function. The political function of a publicsphere is absolutely at cross-purposes both with the institutional function of museums or galleries (as ideological apparatuses of the state) and with the economic function of theart world as a marketplace for commodities (so-called works of art) and services (of creative individuals). The only place in this dilemma where the curatorial function, while not directly producing the political sphere, at least appears to make it easier, challenge it, or even make it possible, can only be the exhibition. But not in the traditional understanding of whathappens in a normal exhibition space. An exhibition in the usual sense, that is, artistic works or actions within the local or institutional framework of the art field, is never in itselfa public sphere. Even an action in urban space is not in itself Public Art in the political sense. For an exhibition to become a public sphere, something must be added: aposition.

Jérôme Sans seized on one part of this political aspect of the exhibition when he distinguished between ‘exhibition’ and ‘ex/position’. According to Sans, the French word ex/positionalludes to the aspect of the ex-position as a positioning and commitment: “An exhibition is a place for debate, not just a public display. The French word for it, exposition, connotestaking a position, a theoretical position; it is a mutual commitment on the part of all those participating in it.”7 As a practice of exposition, the curatorial function is a form oftaking a position, of consciously taking up a position. But of course not just any position will do, not even a purely theoretical one, as San suggests; it must be an antagonistic position coupled with political and collective praxes. From this perspective, the inflationary use of the term ‘artistic position’ observed recently is almost an improper use and atthe very least a depoliticization of the word ‘position’. This is particularly true when ‘position’ is used to describe the work of artists who most certainly do not take up aposition. One doesn’t simply have a political position; it has to be taken up. What the art field understands as a ‘position’, by contrast, is the difference between particular artists’ names, now ossified into mere labels or trademarks, and other artists’ names, equally ossified into labels or trademarks. The logic is differential because the point is to distinguishsomething from other ‘positions’ in the field of art. It is not ‘equivalential’, as antagonistic logic is. That is to say, it is not at all about joining a political chain of equivalence: a coalition, a collective, a movement, a counter hegemonic effort that constructs its equivalence only as an external antagonism.8 At the moment of antagonism, the competitive struggle for differential ‘positions’ disappears and makes room for the solidarity among all who unite against a common enemy.

The way the term ‘artistic position’ is used in the field of art follows the logic of the market, not the logic of politics. Artists’ names are understood as labels in the marketplace for art.The term ‘position’ is merely a euphemism for this trademark logic. That is what makes it so disagreeable. No one would ever be so pretentious as to describe the corporate identitiesof Wienerwald9 or Burger King as ‘positions’, as ‘fast-food positions’, say. Political concepts are used loosely in the field of art, not least because they can be converted into the capital of radicalchic. But political praxis is not a question of mere self-description, that is, whether a particular artistic or curatorial praxis calls itselfpolitical or acts as if it were, but rather one of genuine function. This political function of art, I have argued, consists in the paradoxicalattempt to organize a public space. More specifically, it consists in marking a counterposition as an element of a broader attempt to produce a counterhegemony. Only as an ex/position does an exhibition become a public sphere. As such, it then automatically counteracts the logic of the institution. As an ex/position, an exhibition necessarily has a deinstitutionalizing effect, because the true task of institutionsconsists in the suppressing or at least domestication of conflicts, which are supposed to be accommodated to regulated processes andprocedures. The publicness of antagonism always has something disruptive in relation to the logic of the institution and the dominant ideology: it interrupts regulated processes, responsibilities, and hierarchies. The forms of action that have been demanded by the institution underpost-Fordist conditions: like teamwork, creativity, and ‘participatory management’ are dissolved and they reaggregate to form newsolidarities both inside and outside the institution. Indeed, every genuine antagonism breaches the walls of the institution. Dropping themetaphors from the world of construction, one might say: the exhibition (ex/position) leads to an opening of the institution. That is to say, the ex/position, which is nothing other than the breach in the walls of the institution, leads into the open space of the public sphere. As ex/position it is a positioning: taking a position. As ex/position it leads out of the institutions of art and the field of art, and into political praxis. The curatorial function, understood as the organization of a public sphere, thus consists not least in the political opening of theinstitution of which it appears to be part.

Translated from the German by Steven Lindberg


Since 2006 Oliver Marchart is Professor at the Universtiy of Luzern, 2001-2002 he was Scientific Advisor and Head of the Education Project of documenta 11. He lectured at different universities (University of Vienna, University of Innsbruck, Art Academies, Essex Summer School, University of Basel). Fellowships: Research Fellow at the Centre for Theoretical Studies, University of Essex (1995); Junior Fellow at the International Research Center for Cultural Studies in Vienna (1997-1998); Fellow at the Columbia University Institute at Reid Hall and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris (2005). His research areas are political theory, discourse analysis, poststructuralism and art theory. Recent selected publications: Neu beginnen. Hannah Arendt, die Revolution und die Globalisierung (Vienna 2005), Techno- Kolonialimus. Theorie und imaginäre Kartographie von Kulturund Medien (Vienna 2004), Forthcoming publications: Post- foundational Political Thought (Edinburgh) and Ästhetik des Öffentlichen. Eine politische Theorie künstlerischer Praxis (Vienna).



1 See Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, London: Verso 1985

2 This relationship between art, conflict, and ‘public space’ is developed at greater length in the following texts, among others, by the present author “Neue Kunst nach alten Regeln? Begriffsklärungen zu ‘Kunst im Außenraum’, zu ‘Public Art’, ‘Polit-Kunst’ und ‘Kunst als Sozialdienst’” in Markus Wailand and Vitus H. Weh (eds.) Zur Sache Kunst am Bau, Vienna: Triton 1998, p. 102–109; “New Genre Public Net Art: Einige Anmerkungen zum öffentlichen Raum Internet und seiner zukünftigen Kunstgeschichte” in Hedwig Saxenhuber and Georg Schöllhammer (eds.) Ortsbezug: Konstruktion oder Prozeß, Vienna: Edition Selene 1998, p. 41-60; “Art, Space and the Public Sphere(s): Some Basic Observations on the Difficult Relation of Public Art, Urbanism and Political Theory” in Andreas Lechner and Petra Maier (eds.) Stadtmotiv, Vienna: Edition Selene 1999, p. 96-158, available online: www.eipcp.net/diskurs/d07 text/marchart_prepublic_en.html; “Zwischen Forum und Basar: Zum Paradoxon institutional-isierter Öffentlichkeit” in Forum Stadtpark (ed.) Zwischen Forum und Basar: Beschreibungen und Befragungen zur (Re-) Strukturierung des Kunstbetriebes, Vienna: Edition Selene 2000, 9-18; “Poster-Politik. Kriegsplakate und die politische Vorgeschichte der Public Art” in Otto Mittmannsgruber and Martin Strauss (eds.) PlakatKunst: Über die Verwendung eines Massenmediums durch die Kunst, Vienna: Springer 2000, p. 68-87; “Media Darkness: Reflections on Public Space, Light, and Conflict” in Tatiana Goryucheva and Eric Kluitenberg (eds.) Media / Art / Public Domain, Amsterdam: De Balie – Centre for Culture and Politics 2003, 83-97; “Der Apparat und die Öffentlichkeit: Zur medialen Differenz von ‘Politik’ und ‘dem Politischen’” in Daniel Gethmann and Markus Stauff (eds.) Politiken der Medien, Freiburg: diaphanes 2004, p. 19-34; “Hegemonie und künstlerische Praxis: Vorbemerkungen zu einer Ästhetik des Öffentlichen” in Ralph Lindner, Christiane Mennicke and Silke Wagler (eds.) Kunst im Stadtraum: Hegemonie und Öffentlichkeit, Dresden: Kunsthaus Dresden, Berlin: b_books 2004, p. 23-42; “Die Institution spricht: Kunstvermittlung als Herrschafts- und Emanzipations- technologie” in schnittpunkt, Beatrice Jaschke, Charlotte Martinz-Turek, and Nora Sternfeld (eds.) Wer spricht? Autorität und Autorschaft in Ausstellungen, Vienna: Turia + Kant 2005; Ästhetik des Öffentlichen: Eine politische Theorie künstlerischer Praxis, forthcoming from Turia + Kant in Vienna

3 It is necessary to add immediately that not every insistence on the seemingly impossible, not every counterpolitics or counterhegemonic effort is in itself emancipatory, but every emancipatory effort necessary attempts the (seemingly) impossible.

4 Antonio Gramsci “Intellectuals and Education,” trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith in An Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916–1935, David Forgacs (ed.) New York: Schocken 1988, p. 301

5 Gramsci “Intellectuals and Education”, p. 321

6 Beatrice von Bismarck “Kuratorisches Handeln” in Marion von Osten (ed.) Norm der Abweichung, Vienna: Springer 2003, p. 87

7 Jérôme Sans “Exhibition or Ex/ position?” in Carin Kuoni Words of Wisdom: A Curator’s Vade Mecum on Contemporary Art, New York: Independent Curators International 2001, p. 146

8 Laclau and Mouffe Hegemony and Socialist Strategy

9 Wienerwald is a popular Fast-food restaurant operating in Austria and Germany. (editor’s note)


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