Nora Sternfeld and Luisa Ziaja: What comes after the show? On post-representational curating

School for Curators and Critics of Contemporary Art
Season 13
2nd Year (September 2010–May 2011)

Series of Lectures on Curatorial and Institutional Practices

Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 20.00
SCCA Project Room, Metelkova 6, Ljubljana, Slovenia


Let us start with an example: In 1968 Graciela Carnevale locked the audience of her opening inside a storefront gallery and left. Her exhibition created a situation that forced spectators to act: After an hour of growing tension a passer-by smashed a glass window allowing people to escape. Carnevale’s performance triggered the very act of leaving the gallery, of escaping from the institution. In 2007 a photograph and accompanying text of Carnevale’s ‘confinement’ action were presented at Documenta 12 in Kassel. There it also served as a reference for the art education project Seeing on the brink of chance by Claudia Hummel and Annette Krauss: An action entitled Testing Carnevale (Image 1). What happened between these two moments? And what could that mean for contemporary curating and educating?

Claudia Hummel and Annette Krauss, Testing
, documentation of an action in the
framework of the project Sehen am Rande des Zufalls
(Seeing on the brink of chance), Kassel, 2007.
Photo: © Sehen am Rande des Zufalls.

Both the critique of representation and the critique of the institution were essential parts of the avant-garde in the course of the 20th Century. These approaches were marked by the dilemma between refusing the institution, or subverting it, and being appropriated by it. This impossibility of escaping institutional logics became a ‘leitmotif’ of institutional critique that was accompanied by a reflexive turn in exhibition theory. After putting all conditions of exhibiting and representing as well as associated types of the institutional logic into question in recent years an advanced segment of the field of art and exhibitions has increasingly been raising the question of curatorial agency. Presuming that there is no external standpoint for criticism, the question ‘What is to be done?’ is being asked and undergoes a variety of deconstructive turns.

One of these turns is the transition from curating to the curatorial: Beatrice von Bismarck understands the curatorial as a cultural practice that goes well beyond the mere organizing of exhibitions and specifically has ‘its own procedure for generating, mediating for, and reflecting on experience and knowledge’. Thus the curatorial leaves the logic of representation: exhibitions are no longer sites for setting up valuable objects and representing objective values but rather spaces for curatorial action in which unusual encounters and discourses become possible, in which the unplannable seems more important than, say, precise hanging plans. Emphasizing the referential and relational dimensions of presenting art transforms exhibitions into spaces where things are ‘taking place’ rather than ‘being shown’.

In this text we would like to examine the current situation and generate a catalogue of post-representative possibilities for curatorial work. We will start by retracing the history of struggles with representation in artistic and curatorial work since the 1960s. In a second part, we will relate these strategies to specific logics of the museum with the aim of establishing new forms of agency.


I The crisis of representation

The understanding of art as a representational practice has been contested on many levels and with various approaches since the early 20th Century, however with their heavy criticism of the Greenbergian modernist discourse and its advocacy of painting and sculpture the 1960s marked a paradigm shift in both artistic and subsequently curatorial production. The traditional notion of artistic activity has been expanded into a diversity of forms ever since, comprising among others text, sound, video, installation, happening, environment, performance, encounter. In order to characterize and understand this crisis of representation we will focus on three aspects: the status of the art object, the relation to the viewer, and the relation to the institution.

Dematerialization – The status of the art object
Rather than displaying finished artworks understood as entities, the exhibition space replaced (re-) presentation by experience – an experience that was not built on artefacts but on ideas and concepts in order to escape the increasingly commodified representational mode of exhibiting. Harald Szeemann’s seminal 1969 exhibition Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form. works – concepts – processes – situations – information at Kunsthalle Basel is considered to be the first major survey of conceptual art in Europe. It gathered a generation of North American and European artists, who worked process-oriented, with new strategies of installation, environment and happening and, as Szeemann put it, ‘the artists took over the institution’ that turned from a representational space to a space of ongoing production. While some artists intervened into the physical conditions of the exhibition others transcended and dematerialized it altogether by taking it out of the given framework: Richard Long for example went on a three-day hike in the Swiss mountains. Lucy Lippard’s annotated chronology Six Years: The Dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972[2], first published in 1973, bears witness of the variety of artistic strategies that questioned, inverted, expanded or rejected all possible material, social and political parameters of art, its production, presentation and reception.

Drawing from these critical approaches the very act of exhibition making was increasingly appropriated as (collaborative) artistic practice opposing the authoritarian figure of the curator established by Harald Szeemann with the aim to address often marginalized socio-political topics. The artist collective Group Material defined the display of art as political event and developed a working method that critically juxtaposed art, information, and cultural objects in a democratic process. Referring to feminist writer Bell Hooks, Group Material employed a policy of inclusion in order not to mirror oppressive structures and conceptualized their exhibitions and projects as forums, which leads us to the second aforementioned aspect: the radically altered relation to the viewer.

Involvement – The relation to the viewer
In contrast to the modernist contemplative mode of reception the viewer is not only directly addressed and challenged to react but in a much earlier state of a project invited to become an intrinsic, defining part of it. This radical turn from instruction to participation characterizes a new notion of the viewer that Suzana Milevska termed a ‘paradigm shift from objects to subjects’[3]. For their multipart project Democracy conceived for the Dia Art Foundation in New York in 1988, Group Material organized a social platform preceding and accompanying collaboratively produced exhibitions in the form of roundtable discussions and town meetings to ‘undo the notion of expertise, to replace the singularity of the proscenium with the multiplicity of the audience’[4]. In the same series Martha Rosler realized If You Lived Here …: The City in Art, Theory, and Social Activism, a discursive, site-specific research and exhibition project in 1989, dealing with the pressing topic of homelessness in New York City. Rosler opened up the institution for a six-month process involving a wide range of actors with various backgrounds thus transforming the art space into a social space. If You Lived Here … is considered as a groundbreaking point of reference for collective and participatory work in the art and exhibition context. Different from many later approaches that French author and curator Nicolas Bourriaud called Relational Aesthetics[5] and that have been criticized for their undifferentiated and sometimes depoliticizing notion of relations, Rosler’s collaborative project provoked situations that also put its own framework and context to test. It didn’t shy away from formulating an inherent critique of the Dia as hosting institution that had triggered gentrification processes in the area. Accordingly the relation to the institution is the third aspect to shed light on here.

Critique – The relation to the institution
The first generation of Institutional Critique intervened into the specific protocols of production, presentation and reception of visual art in the late 1960s and 70s – employing methods of historical research, investigation and context analysis and thus, time and again, imagining a possible outside of the institution. Since the 1990s, however, critical approaches are much more aware of their own involvement and complicity in the social, economic and political structures of the field of art. This second generation of institutional critique pointed its examinations at the increasing relevance and impact of private corporations in a highly differentiated institutional landscape. Taking into account that the art historical canonization of institutional critique contradicts its initial intentions, recent approaches try to actualize institutional critique as an analytical tool, as a method of self-reflection and as instituting practice that aims at social change.


II Post-representational curating

After this brief historical overview we now propose the ‘post-representational’ as a concept of intervention into classical curatorial tasks. This implies a revision of the role of history and research, of organizing, creating a public and education. This will be done from three agency-oriented perspectives: Performing the Archive, Curating as Organizing and Turning to the Educational, which together open up a yet unfinished catalogue of criteria for post-representative curating.

Performing the archive
New Museology has conceptualized the museum as a space of violence, economy, discipline, and police, among others. And artistic practices of Institutional Critique as well as scientific studies have analyzed the specific logics of collecting. Let us have a look at the history of the museum and of its depot as an archive[6] and see how a critical, performative approach could be developed: The archive and its methodology, function and ideological underpinnings have been scrutinized in recent years from different perspectives and by a range of disciplines involved in museums and exhibitions. It has become a contested space where the notion of history, historicization, canonization, legitimized actors and objects as well as possible counter-histories are disputed and negotiated. Thus artists, activists and curators have not only challenged the concept of the archive but have actively employed its methods in a performative way in order to establish practices of counter-historicization. Against this background we firstly think curating as actualizing: as a way to relate to history from a strictly contemporary perspective. One early example for practices of counter-historicization is the information service by Ute Meta Bauer, Tine Geissler und Sandra Hastenteufel at Documenta 9 in 1994 that used archival methods to reclaim feminist histories in the exhibition context. Here, the archive is understood as a discourse that intervenes in the hegemonic canon of knowledge. Often these practices are based on collaborative research and knowledge exchange, which leads us to a second condition of post-representative curating: an understanding of curating as enabling processes of collaborative knowledge production with an unexpected outcome.

Curating as organizing
A post-representational approach understands curating as a way of being active. In Outside in the Teaching Machine[7] the postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak reads Foucault with Derrida and makes us understand that ‘savoir/pouvoir’ – the two French words for knowledge and power – are not only powerful nouns, but also verbs. ‘Savoir’ means knowing and ‘pouvoir’ being able to. Like in ‘savoir vivre’, Spivak connects the two verbs, and it is exactly in this sense that she re-reads Foucault’s ‘savoir-pouvoir’ as ‘being able to do something’. While in reflexive museology the ‘exhibitionary complex’ has been theorized along the lines of power and knowledge, we suggest with Spivak to think exhibitions as spaces of agency with curators who are able to do and to change something.

Moreover, following James Clifford and Mary Louise Pratt, exhibitions can be understood as shared social spaces where different agents come together and act. This concept of the contact zone is based on contingency and processuality: It is a space of negotiation in which the meaning of words and things is not fixed but always open to discussion. Representation is replaced by process: Rather than dealing with objective values and valuable objects curating entails agency, unexpected encounters, and discursive examinations. However, in collaborative discussions asymmetric relations between participants have to be taken into account. Thus, as Clifford points out, the aim should not a ‘give-and-take that could lead to a final meeting of minds, a coming together that would erase the discrepancies, the ongoing power imbalances of contact relations.’[8] Accordingly, post-representational curating creates spaces for negotiation, openly addressing contradictions within seemingly symmetrical relations. This also may involve conflict as Clifford speaks of the contact zone as a conflict zone. And Oliver Marchart, who understands curating as the organic intellectual task of organizing, defines the curatorial function as ‘the organization of conflict’ taking into account that antagonism cannot be organized.[9] Hence the curatorial function consists in taking a position that transcends the mere logic of the institution. Both references show that critical curating as agency does not only become processual but is potentially conflictual.

Turning to the Educational
In the inaugural issue of e-flux journal, Irit Rogoff, under the title ‘Turning’[10], calls attention to the recent ‘educational turn in curating’, thereby naming important shifts in the understanding of both practices: Curating no longer means the mere mounting of exhibitions; education no longer means the transmission of existing values. Thus we are dealing with a turn in two arenas, the curatorial and the educational. Rogoff does not simply connect the two, curating and educating – which would be a rather traditional enterprise, as the modern museum since the French Revolution conceived itself as an educational institution. Traditionally, in addition to collecting, preserving, and researching, the tasks of representing and mediating were understood precisely as the educational tasks of the museum. Moreover, the educational aspect of the museum – we owe these ideas to the reflexive turn of the New Museology – has first and foremost been a technique of power, aimed at absorbing and internalizing bourgeois values. But Rogoff’s point is a different one: In the ‘educational turn’ education is not about handing down existing national and bourgeois values, as Tony Bennett would have it, nor about the reproduction of legitimized knowledge, but about exploring possibilities of an alternative and emancipatory production of knowledge that resists, supplements, thwarts, undercuts, or challenges powerful canons.


III Questions

We would like to conclude this rough sketch of approaches to post-representational curating with several questions that in our view could take it a step further:

Who is acting? – One characteristic of the post-representational is the redistribution of agency. Referring to Gabriele Brandstetter’s post-dramatic thoughts on the ‘grey zones’ of the participation of the viewer[11] post-representational curating would imply the organization of such grey zones that make action possible – where something can happen. But who is acting? Actions could be triggered by objects and artworks in interplay with a variety of different agents such as activists, artists, theorists and curators. What is the time of the curatorial? – If we think the post-representational as processualization time plays an important role. The classical curatorial discourse is about creating space – but how can we think curating as a creation of critical time? Where do we want to go by overcoming representation? – Processualization and transformation of institutions appear to be progressive strategies. But the fact that process and transformation are essential governmental techniques of neoliberal capitalism has to be taken into account as well. Therefore a critical post-representational practice of curating should be defined as a practice that challenges what can be seen, said, and done by taking a position of solidarity with what is outside of the institution, with actual social debates, fights and movements.

Video of the lecture (

[1] Currently we work together with the curator Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez and the political theorist Oliver Marchart on processes and strategies in art and politics after representation under the title What comes after the Show? . The lecture at SCCA−Ljubljana marked a starting point for our engagement with this topic.

[2] Lucy Lippard, Six Years. The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, Berkeley/Los Angeles 1973.

[3] Suzana Milevska, ‘Participatory Art. A Paradigm Shift from Objects to Subjects’, Springerin, No. 2/2006.

[4] Doug Ashford, ‘Group Material: Abstraction as the Onset of the Real’, transversal, 09/2010, (03/30/2012).

[5] Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon, 2002.

[6] We owe these thoughts to our colleague Martina Griesser-Stermscheg and her historical and theoretical work on the museum depot.

[7] Gayatri Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine, London, 1993, p. 34.

[8] James Clifford, Routes. Travel and translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Cambridge, Mass./London 1997, p. 193.

[9] Oliver Marchart, ‘The Curatorial Function, Organizing the Ex/position’, Curating Critique (eds. Dorothee Richter, Barnaby Drabble), Frankfurt am Main, 2007, pp. 164–170.

[10] Irit Rogoff, ‘Turning’, e-flux Journal, 2008, (03/30/2012).

[11] Gabriele Brandstetter, ‘Figurationen der Unschärfe. Der (Un)beteiligte Betrachter’, Texte zur Kunst, 58/2005.