Some Questions on Curating as (Public) Interface to the Art Market

Joasia Krysa
The paper explores the expanded concept of public interface by establishing a link to the field of curating, in particular curating in the context of technological systems (or what commonly is referred to as ‘online curating’) and the context of the art market. The suggestion is that curatorial and technological apparatuses combine to reveal detail on the art market and its inextricable link to capitalist logic that is ever more adapting itself to the demands of the immaterial economy. The paper speculates on how the curator can be understood as an interface between the public and the art market and indeed the broader immaterial economy that lies behind it. Perhaps this has always been the case, but the significance is that new paradoxical models of curating exist for online contexts that both affirm and contest its logic.

“In an art world dominated by the curatorial” – states Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the chief curator of the forthcoming Documenta 13 – “to act without a pre-defined curatorial plan offers a possibility to both repeat the network of connectivity of the digital age, while also reflecting on its shortcomings and implications from a critical viewpoint.”

Further responding to the currency for thinking about the term ‘curatorial’, Irit Rogoff calls this “the possibility of framing those exhibition-making activities through [a] series of principles and possibilities”. Paul O’Neil argues that the changed emphasis upon the framing and mediation of art, rather than its production “not only indicated a response to changes in art praxis during the late 1960s, but also created a new degree of visibility for the individual agency involved in the framing of these practices i.e. the curator.” He further states that “the term curator as ‘a form of creative production’ already began to be applied to a few independent practitioners in the 1960s working beyond institutional posts”. These changes can be partly linked to an expanding art market, in which ‘internationally networked service providers’ offer their skills to a diversified and globalised exhibition market, often ending up presenting their curatorial concept as artistic product, and partly to an increasing demand for art-mediation on the part of artists in a system that places economic value on contemporary art production (O’Neill; Funken, 23).

The proliferation of curating (and curators) from the 1980s and 1990s onwards offers more diverse descriptions, including freelance curators or independent curators working outside of institutions, operating in multiple roles and developing idiosyncratic methodologies for curating. In discussing this, it might be useful to rehearse some basic definitions and refer to a definition of curating that relates it back to its genealogy in the term ‘caring’. In a more traditional understanding of curating, this refers to caring for ‘objects’ or ‘collections’, in relation to curating in the context of technological systems it might also refer to caring for social ‘interaction’ and ‘cooperation’, indeed caring about the efficiency of the system through the interface of curating. Such expanded understanding of curating emphasises that the figure of curator is part of a wider field of cultural production and the wider economy.

The online environment is also dominated by the curatorial in much the same way albeit in new forms, but it can be argued that curating, and to some extent the practice, is different not least in the way it has entered the everyday and broken its specialisation. With the pervasive use of popular technologies, such as the social web and networking platforms, users have assumed roles of curators of their own lived experience. Even technology developers now liberally use the term, for instance in referring to the selection of ‘Apps’ for an iPhone as ‘curating’ them. Wikis, list servs, existing social networking sites all become platforms for curating; tagging and blogging becomes curating, in addition to the proliferation of curatorial software and custom-build curatorial platforms. By curatorial platforms, I don’t mean online sites where material is simply displayed in virtual exhibitions, what I refer to is a more complex socio-technical system that facilitates curatorial process with various degrees of participation and interaction of multiple human (the public at large) and non-human agents (software, network); that stand in for curator, and that automate and distribute other elements of the curatorial processes. In this way, the various agents of the network are involved in a system of curating.

As with ‘immaterial workers’, examined at length by Lazzarato and others, curatorial workers increasingly engage with information technologies, work across communication networks and increasingly operate outside of the usual structures of art institutions, i.e. within society at large and with practices that involve participation (136). In this scenario, the curator becomes more akin to the figure of the manager, or in Lazzarato’s terms, ‘facilitator’, and is central to the new forms of participatory management. The curator is concerned with facilitating and organising a productive process that is now extended to involve the willing public as ‘active participants’, and thereby to involve their subjectivity directly in the curatorial process. In addition, Marina Vishmidt identifies the figure of the ‘artist/curator – amateur’. The amateur reflects a potentially ideal model of engagement “beyond measure” by being semi-autonomous from institutions and the dominant economy, and semi-independent from “external validation beyond a network of like-minded enthusiasts”. To Vishmidt, the amateur

“embodies the indiscernibility of life and work, a desideratum for capital that would incorporate ‘whatever’ moment of existence as potentially creative of value. On the other hand, the amateur precisely marks the split between life and work as he/she spurns the profits of specialisation, preferring to keep their field of amateur virtuosity apart from financial gain or professional legitimacy.” (52)

From the earlier description of curating, it can be argued that curators have always acted as interface (between the public and art market or art world), so what is different in relation to online curating? In the case of online platforms, both the technological system (software) along with the curator and the public becomes the interface; a ‘distributed interface’ one might say. What is also significantly different is that the whole network participates in these processes, and the specialised role of artist, curator and public becomes indistinct. Rather than simply operate as an interface for artists to become validated as part of the art world, curating can also be understood as a mechanism for the public to produce. In this way, the ‘interfacing’ with the art market and system of value-making is made more overt.

There are a number of historical precedents for this kind of thinking in the field of online curating, or what has been variably termed computer aided or computer assisted curating, automated curating, or what I have previously referred to as ‘distributed curating’ and ‘software curating’ (Krysa). In brief, a number of key examples include: Eva Grubinger’s CAC – Computer Aided Curating (1993-1995); the collaborative project Runme.org (2003), Tagallery by CONT3XT.NET (2007), Rui Guerra’s unDEAF (2007), to name only few. I have discussed these projects in detail elsewhere but what these examples of curatorial platforms have in common is that they demonstrate how technical systems stand in for work of the curator, automating some of the curatorial processes and redistributing others multiple human and non-human agents across the network. Although not an example of online curating per se, Christophe Bruno’s recent project ArtWar(e) (2010) offers an interesting insight into the workings of art market and the way that curators sustain it. His ArtWar(e) is an online platform for what Bruno calls “computer assisted curating” – making reference to the history of curating and technology (mentioned above). It uses marketing theory and methods drawn from the mathematical concept of ‘hype cycles’, allowing for speculation on art market trends and questioning the role of curators in the process.

In recognition of the ways in which information and data are traded and the ways in which participation has become a necessary part of the production of value, new models of online curating make the relations between curating and the art market more overt and in tune with contemporary informational capitalism. In such ways, curating is inextricably linked with the interests of the art market and the divergent economies that underpin it, but once understood can also be reimagined in alternative and critical terms. The figure of the curator becomes central to this, as the paradigmatic contemporary worker, and operates in a suitable position to attest and contest the logic of the art market.

Works cited:

Christov-Bakargiev, Carolyn. dOCUMENTA (13) Press Release. Berlin. 29 October 2010. <http://www.documenta.de>.

Bruno, Christophe. Artwar(e). 2010. <http://www.artwar-e.biz>.

CONT3XT.NET. TAGallery/EXHIBITION 2007. <http://del.icio.us/TAGallery/>.

Grubinger, Eva and Kaulmann, Thomas. C@C – Computer Aided Curating. 1993-1995. <http://www.aec.at/en/archives/festival_archive/festival_catalogs/festival_artikel.asp?iProjectID=8638>; <http://www.evagrubinger.com/>.

Guerra, Rui. unDEAF. 2007. <http://undeaf.v2.nl/>.

Krysa, Joasia (ed.). Curating Immateriality: The Work of the Curator in the Age of Network Systems, DATA Browser vol. 3, New York: Autonomedia, 2006. Print.

Krysa, Joasia. “Experiments in (Social) Software Curating: reprogramming curatorial practice for networks”. Vague Terrain. CONT3XT.NET (ed.). Journal. Issue 11, 2008. Print.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. “Immaterial Labour”. Radical Thought in Italy. Hardt, Michael and Virno, Paolo (eds.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996: 132-146. Print.

O’Neill, Paul. “Curatorial Network List”. Posting. 21, 23 October 2007. <http://www.curatorial.net/pipermail/curatorial/2007-October/000142.html>.

Runme. 2003. <http://www.runme.org>.

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