Curating: Practice Becoming Common Discourse

Paul O’Neill

In Jorge Luis Borges’ short story Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote (1939), the writer Pierre Menard’s has written a 20th century version of Cervantes’ 17th century novel. In Borges’ text, the later manifestation of Don Quixote has accumulated cultural value in part due to the author’s contemporary understanding of the original. Menard’s recognition of the relevance of Don Quixote in the now, is made apparent by his ability to read legibly with both hindsight and epistemic support from two centuries of literature, exhibiting an historical reflexivity that could only be arrived at through the passage of time. These attributes rendered Menard’s text distinct from Cervantes’ identical words from an earlier time, because of and in spite of a calculable “common discourse”: a communal know-how, a meta-language, and a universal understanding that Borges shares with us the readers.

Cervantes’ Don Quixote is in dialogue with himself, whereas Menard’s Don Quixote is in dialogue with Cervantes’ as well as what time has given to him. The work + the world = the work. Via Borges’ text, Menard becomes part of a shared discourse around authorship – a discourse made all the more possible by Menard’s already self-reflexive relationship with the original authored text. The moment Borges performs as the reader of Menard’s meta-practice, he translates form into discourse and in turn generates his own discursive practice. Borges transforms himself into the figure of the author through an appropriation of the figure of the translator. By translating existing (textual) practice into discourse he produces a common domain of reference for the three texts of Cervantes, Menard and Borges. Borges’ text arrives as a ready-made co-production and an active producer of a common discourse around authorship and cultural value, where his own embedded practice is actively becoming part of a discourse around authorship.

Borges unpacks the writing of Cervantes and Menard. Their sentence(s): “…truth, whose mother is history, who is the rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, example and lesson to the present, and warning to the future” are equivalent; literally word for word, but Menard’s version wins Borges over because of its greater understanding of historical truth. Menard has grasped history “not as that which took place, but what we think took place” - a concept perhaps unavailable to Cervantes. It may appear that it is Menard who is equipped with such knowledge, but it is Borges who is actually producing it.

Menard represents the nomadic cultivated subject, a foreigner, a traveller through time in search of knowledge, but it is Borges who operates within the superstructure of a cultural economy as the intermediary agent, bringing forms of representation into the field of discursive enquiry that are derived from and given context by a common connectivity with other like-forms. Borges conjures a world through which we can read him, by using that which has already been read. His is a discursive model of writing, which is almost hermetic, but always only nearly.

Over less than ten pages, Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote tells us everything we need to know about Borges, without Borges giving us too much about Cervantes and Menard. Borges’ text is acting out the practice of discourse, even though he is using a little trickery along the way. Text is actively within the process of becoming discourse – a discourse around authorship where Cervantes, history and Menard have parts to play. Borges’ “text as practice” wills itself into this discourse. Don Quixote is no longer the impractical idealist who champions hopeless causes.

Likewise, if we are to consider the nature of our recent forms of practice as curation, it is always-already attempting to become curatorial discourse. Curating is not just about exhibitions now, with terms such as performative, self-reflexive, or discursive constituting and contributing to this will to become discourse. Curating wants to be transparent, visible, and self-critical. This has not always been the case. Harald Szeemann as the “exhibition-maker”, Jean-Hubert Martin as the imperial “anthropologist”, Jan Höet as the “abstract expressionist”, but the “curator as…” moment has surely transpired.

Curating is no longer about being somebody else; it is about being a curator, not as it is understood in practice, but in discourse. Curating as the participation in the selection, co-production, display and/or dissemination of art is made apparent by a perceptible framing device. This visible, subjective, (curator) system of mediation uses the existence of “commonality” and “connectivity” as two of its central thematics - common to the general idea of curating as exhibitionism in whatever form it takes, and connected to the actuality of those other exhibitions that have taken forms under the banner of curatorial practice, which have already been through the process of translation into discourse.

Biennials will look to the other biennials as much as each biennial will endeavour to be different. Documenta 11 will be considered whilst reflecting upon the success or failure of the curation of Documenta 12. Art Fairs will evidently attempt to critique themselves through accompanying talks programmes. Art magazines will assume you have been to see what you are reading about. The exhibitionary conditions may shift and change, local issues will differ, but each new large-scale group show will consider itself as part of a common discourse around curation. This is why the Biennial model of curation works, for nomadic curators, artists and viewers alike. We feel that we are part of something. We go there; we experience; we return home; we read about it, and someone has written our holiday report. We are part of the “common discourse”.

We read each practice-run, each curatorial moment as one potential part of a common discourse around art and its curation. Meanwhile, curation still has yet to find its agreed equivalence in language, in dialect and in discourse. It is in a constant state of willing to become discourse. At this moment in time, this “becoming discourse” remains preoccupied by what curating could never become, rather than what actually is be-coming curatorial practice. Curating remains in flux, in perpetuity, in a constant state of becoming as long as “curating as practice” is continuously willing a flexible “common discourse” into being. Curators are not midwives, stylists, djs, middlemen, meta-artists, and the like. They can be, but these attributes are not necessary. Curators are authors, but the issue is what kind of author they wish to become through the translating of practice into discourse. If the nineties curator was about practice, about doing, about producing, about creating, collaborating, and curating; the more recent forms of curating to emerge are about the manifesto-writing, about being the politician, the talker, the publicist, the conversationist, the speaker, the translator, the activist. The exhibition itself replaced by the event with the exhibition “catalogue” being usurped by the exhibition “Reader”, by the exhibition “Platform”, or the accompanying “anthology of writings”. Meanwhile, exhibitions as practice is being replaced by exhibiting discourse.

Curating has less to do with embedded power structures within the art world than it has to do with inherited cultural significance (and capital), where practice has been prioritised over discourse within a globalised culture industry as a whole, but practice is dependent on being translated back into discourse in order to facilitate more equivalent practice, thus enabling the maintenance of the given superstructure. As Benjamin Buchloh described in 1989:

The curator observes his/ her operation within the institutional apparatus of art: most prominently the procedure of abstraction and centralisation that seems to be an inescapable consequence of the work’s entry into the superstructure apparatus, its transformation from practice to discourse. That almost seems to have become the curator’s primary role: to function as an agent who offers exposure and potential prominence – in exchange for obtaining a moment of actual practice that is about to be transformed into myth/ superstructure.

The “rise of the curator as creator” as Bruce Altshuler has called it, has also gathered momentum since the late eighties with the ever-increasing number of global biennials providing what Julia Bryan-Wilson claims to be prestigious “launching pads for the curatorial star system” in “the age of curatorial studies”, in which the “institutional basis of art is taken as a given, and the marketing and packaging of contemporary art has become a specialized focus of inquiry for thousands of students”. If the nineties were all about shifting boundaries, professionalisation and the settling down period of curatorial practice that could keep up with accelerations in the global art exhibition-making market, then curating since the late nineties onwards have began the processes of translating these productions into something we can recognise as having a common discursive grounding.

Beatrice von Bismarck proposed that one of the bi-products of the ubiquitous position of the curator within an ever-expanding cultural entertainment industry is that: “Professionalisation and differentiation within the art world have turned ‘curating’ into a hierarchically structured job description covering a wide range of activities”. Bismarck goes on to claim that the advent of so called “independent curating” results from the structural consequences of an expanding art market, where “internationally net-worked service providers” offer their skills to a diverse exhibition market, but often end up as presenting their curatorial concept as artistic product. She continues to argue that curating as an activity has become distinct from its understanding as a job title:

Of the tasks originally associated with the fixed institutional post, curating takes only that of presentation. With the aim of creating an audience for artistic and cultural materials and techniques, of making them visible, the exhibition becomes the key presentation medium. In contrast to the curator’s other duties, curating itself frees the curator from the invisibility of the job, giving him/her an otherwise uncommon degree of freedom […] and a prestige not unlike that enjoyed by artists.

Even within Bismarck’s intelligent essay, the curator is becoming an artist, becoming somebody else and maybe this is how we now understand curating; as a becoming activity in discourse if not in practice. Discourse provides a level of prestige that practice necessitates. It is not practice that produces and supports prestige, but its translation into a “common discourse” around what has been done already and what it is becoming rather than what it may already be. The publishing industry around curating provides a now common format that is adhered to by many recent books on the subject. At varying degrees of excess, publications such as Stopping the Process, 1998; Curating Degree Zero, 1999; Curating in the 21st Century, 2000, The Producers: Contemporary Curators in Conversation (Series: 1-5), 2000-2002, Words of Wisdom: A Curator's Vade Mecum, 2001 and MIB - Men in Black: Handbook of Curatorial Practice, 2004, have placed emphasis on primary interviews, statements and self-presentations by curators, as they attempt to define and map out a common field of discourse, but too much of this discursive space is now given over to slight, insubstantial, and personalised responses by curators on the subject of their own rarefied practice. The same could be said of a parallel international curatorial symposiac circuit.

In this context, curators often behave like Pierre Menard in Borges short story, looking to produce themselves into discourse whilst mimicking it, but there is no Borges at hand to question its efficacy. There is little of the self-translation that a Borges may provide, even if his account may be only in a meta-critical phase. Borges may be the curator as meta-critic, but he is always the writer as writer. Bring on Borges, the curator as curator.