Social Theory and Curatorial Practice

Social Theory and Curatorial Practice

by Eugenia Kisin
Spring 2017

Caring about Curating

What is a curator? From the Latin curare, which means both “to cure” and “to care for,” curators are people who make choices about how to display things—and sometimes the things called art—for others. Both “caring” and “curing” are integral to this work, as “caring” involves considerable expertise to establish what is worth caring about; the work of assemblage may also be remedial, jolting us out of previous understandings through unexpected juxtapositions. And, like all public forms of display, curatorial projects are always constrained by time, space, money, and also by murkier questions of what one can reasonably expect of an audience—how to best ensure that they also care.

In my “Social Theory and Curatorial Practice” seminar at Gallatin, I wanted my students to experiment within this role in practical and theoretical terms: assembling, displaying, and making an argument with some of the things that are important to them. Through consultations with Jenny Kijowski, Gallatin’s Educational Technologist, a final Digital Humanities assignment for the seminar was born: a digital curatorial project in which students would develop a curatorial statement, didactic label texts, and a digital gallery showcasing 4-6 digital objects—expansively delineated in the assignment as “original works (yours) or preexisting things,” to make room for students’ diverse creative practices. Predictably, the openness of the assignment resulted in a wide variety of projects and mediums: audio tracks arranged over an interactive map of Manhattan to articulate the singer’s attachments to place; hand-written dance scores paired with their interpretation in performance to ask about the circulation of ephemeral works; a series of Etsy wishlists curated to reveal different aspects of the curator’s racial and gender identity over time in relation to consumer capitalism. Over the second half of the semester, students critiqued their galleries in groups, and wrote reflections on the process.

On the technical end, Jenny trained students in NYU’s Web Publishing platform, which the majority decided to use to create their galleries. This was an important part of the process, as contemporary imaginings of the role of the curator often use the language of “digital content curation.” I wanted to integrate knowledge of this work and the technical skills it requires with a critique of why curation has gone from a somewhat arcane practice associated with the figure of a white-gloved art specialist to something that is increasingly framed as a marketable skill in the digital world; Jenny’s workshop gave students the tools to develop both their digital skills and critical language for talking about new forms of curation online.

Many students’ projects were thematically ambitious, using artworks as original sources in innovative ways. In his gallery Pluriversal Currents, Patrick Bova (Gallatin 2018) brought together work by Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to explore the meaning of “decolonial aesthetics” beyond its recent ubiquitous status in the global art world. Drawing on artists’ land- and water-based practices of decolonization, Patrick showed how this understanding and its ecological stakes sit in tension with the institutional definitions and spaces of the art world. In her project Revisited, Ana Lopes (Global Liberal Studies 2018) staged a digital rearrangement of works from a well-known 2004 exhibition at El Museo del Barrio in New York called MoMA at El Museo: Latin American and Caribbean Art from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Ana’s criticism of the 2004 exhibition hinged on what she interpreted as a decontextualization Latin American and Caribbean works, which were celebrated only in relation to a narrative of Western modernity that results, in her words, in “a social and political sterilization of their histories.” Both of these projects, and many others, used techniques of assemblage in the digital gallery to ask art historical questions that could not have been arrived at merely seeing reproductions of the works in books or exhibition catalogs.

“...their digital galleries had provoked them to re-imagine their subject...”

In their self-evaluations, students reflected on what they had learned and what they would change about their projects if time and resources permitted, and often noted that the project had opened up further questions; rather than serving as an exhaustive statement on the given theme, their digital galleries had provoked them to re-imagine their subject, and given them new perspectives on the limits and possibilities of their emerging curatorial authority: a power to care and, perhaps, to cure.