Ways of curating


Following on from our OCA SW day with Michele Whiting, I bought the recommended Hans Ulrich Obrist book “Ways of curating”.  What struck me before I started reading it and after having heard Michele Whiting’s talk and subsequent discussion at our SW meeting, was that many things are being ‘curated’: magazines, radio presentations, digital files, food, experiences …   not just exhibitions which was the concept I started with, so I went to the Cambridge online dictionary to see how ‘curation’ is currently being used:

“curation noun [ U ]

UK /kjʊəˈreɪ.ʃən/ US /kjʊˈreɪ.ʃən/

the selection and care of objects to be shown in a museum or to formpart of a collection of art, an exhibition,, etc.:

the curation of archaeologicalartefacts

the selection of films, performers, events, etc. to be included in a festival:

his curation of the 2016 Meltdown festival

the selection of something such as documents, music, or internetcontent to be included as part of a list or collection or on a website:

digital content curation”
So would I be justified in substituting “curate” for ‘select’ ? I suppose I could if what I am selecting will be part of a collection or an event?  Can I curate a shopping list? A ‘reliable restaurant’ list?

From this gem of a book which has short, dedicated chapters, I have made some notes which appealed to me at the time of reading.  I will draw my random thoughts together in a conclusion.

Curating, Exhibitions and the Gesamtkunstwerk.

P. 23: We make aesthetic choices in the everyday: where to eat, what to wear or do.

P. 24: “Today we are awash in cheaply produced objects to a degree that would have been difficult to imagine a century ago.  The result has been a shift in the ratio of the importance between making new objects and choosing from what is already there.”

This is particularly so in photography where, as Erik Kessells demonstrated with his mountain of photos printed in one day at the Rencontres d’Arles 2013, we produce billions of images on a daily basis with all the image capturing technology available today.

“for artists like French artist Dominique Gonzales-Foster, exhibitions are a way to resist the pressure towards an ever more uniform experience of of time and space by keeping the visitor in the art moment a little longer ”

P. 25: to curate ” comes from the latin  curare meaning cultivating, growing, pruning and trying to help people and their shared contexts to thrive.”

When we consider that today, the functions of a curator  involve preserving the heritage of a nation in order to tell its story; collecting new work to add to the national legacy ; contributing to a body of academic  research into the artworks of the period; and displaying and exhibiting work.

Obrist argues that a new word is needed for a curator since the original meaning has so diverged from its current usage a curator as exhibition maker rather than caretaker.

P.28:  In the salon style exhibitions which had images very close to one another, artists started to make their pictures stand out by giving it a different, perhaps more lavish  frame.  The emergence of the white cube and a reduced number of images on the walls gave rise to the single piece on a wall to itself.  As I was going through London recently, I looked at the wall-to-wall skyscrapers and wondered how, apart from giving a distinctive shape like The Shark, The Gherkin, or The Cheese grater, buildings could make themselves be noticed.  I took a few images which reminded me of the framing on an over-crowded wall:


Outside Tate Modern .jpg


P. 31: Curator Harald Szeemann, writing about the 1983 exhibition ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ that “the space presented different ‘worlds inside the world’ like a Russian matryoshka doll, … (its intention was) to create a self-contained world”  in which one object would relate to another and so on.

P. 32: “The very idea of an exhibition is that we live in a world with each other, in which it is possible to make arrangements, associations, connections and wordless gestures, and, through this mise en scène, to speak.”   This speaks to me of our OCA SW Osmosis exhibition greatly because we have come together as a group and our work develops as a direct result of the communication between us and it speaks to me of the bond that we have created amongst us.  Yet it is all different in terms of expression, subject, background and origins.

P. 33: “Artists and their works must not be used to illustrate a curatorial proposal or premise to which they are subordinated.  Instead, exhibitions are best generated through  conversations and collaborations with artists, whose input could steer the process from the beginning. … Today, exhibitions are marked by a collaboration between multiple curators.”

“As artists themselves have moved beyond the simple production of art objects, and towards assembling or arranging installations that galvanise an entire exhibition space, their activity has in many cases become more consonant with the older idea of the curator as someone who arranges objects into a display. … this has “given rise to an impression that curators are competing with artists for primacy in the production of meaning or aesthetic value.  Some theorists argue that curators are now secularised artists in all but name… My belief is that curators follow artists, not the other way round.””Curating changes with the change in art”

P. 34: “That said, the role of the exhibition-maker is one sometimes played by creative artists themselves.”  = the artist-curator.

I love the description of the seemingly farcical situation in 2006 when Jean-Luc Goddard curated a show on the history of film at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.  The exhibition curation broke all the rules: it sent out a disclaimer saying that it was not suitable for all audiences and that children were not allowed in the last room; the title of the exhibition kept changing; he fired the curator working with him; he refused to allow a press release; the final show was never final as it kept changing throughout its duration: there were cables lying around and other installation elements kept changing so that the show always looked unfinished; visitors entered through pleated & heavy plastic curtains. “It was chaosmotic” to use Felix Guattari’s word for an experience of osmosis in an environment of constant change ”

P. 35: The show was an imaginary space of past and present coming together, as an exhibition should be.”

Courbet, Manet and Whistler

P. 36:”Between 1759 and 1781, Denis Diderot had published a set of newsletters reviewing each of the salon exhibitions.  These writings marked the beginning of the understanding of exhibitions as publicly received events whose contents could be assessed in terms of newness, originality and vitality.”   By the 19th C, Baudelaire and Zola were assessing the importance of the salons in terms of the painters they saw there.

P.  42: The museum in antiquity was a place consecrated to the muses.

P. 52: An exhibition maker produces meaning in an exhibition.

P. 55: 1994: The man who inspired Obrist dies and “with him a way of making connections.”

P. 57: “producing exhibitions represents the current crop of a curator’s practice, while writing books is equivalent to preserving the harvest of the past. … Conversations, meanwhile, are obviously archival, but they are also a form of creating fertile soil for future projects.  For this reason I began to ask everyone I interviewed a very future-oriented question: what is your unrealised project, your dream?”

Obrist interviewed Eric Hobsbawm who saw history as “a protest against forgetting”  But recollection is a zone of contact between past, present and future.  Memory is not a simple record of events but a dynamic process that always transforms what it dredges up from its depths, and the conversation has become my way to investigate such a process.”

P. 58: “Curating, after all, produces ephemeral constellations with their own limited career span.  there is relatively little literature on exhibitions, and there is also an extraordinary amnesia about exhibition history.

“Most of curatorial history is oral history; it’s very much a story that can only be told because it’s not yet been written.”

Night trains and other rituals

P. 76:  Speaking to Cy Twombly in 1989, Obrist realised that the link between art and poetry   was something the 20th C avant gardens had in common: yet in the late 20th & early 21st Cs don’t have that (except in our OCA SW exhibition!!)

P. 124: Cedric Price would often about the concept of the exhibition as a learning system with a potentially complex and dynamic series of of feedback loops that can be brought into other contexts, and that eventually can have an impact on political circles

P. 129: Biennials can form a bridge between the local and the global.  By definition, a bridge has two ends, and as Huang Long Ping points out:’Normally we think a person should have only one standpoint, but when you become a bridge you have to have two.’

P. 143:  “Exhibitions, I have noted, always plant seeds.  Maybe in five or ten years a young artist will emerge whose talents were triggered by that show.”

P. 154: The curator has to bridge gaps and build bridges between artists, the public, institutions and other types of communities.”

P. 171:  We are already starting to witness visionary acts of digital curating, and curating will surely change as a generation native to digital tools begins to develop new formats.”

Conclusions and reflections drawn from the reading:

  1. We need to find a new word for curating / curator because the concept has changed  and it encompasses different modalities than it did in the Paris Salons, for example, to see what was new and original.  Today we curate for an exhibition or event rather than to preserve an aspect of our  cultural heritage.  Curators select work which they feel needs to be brought to the awareness of a wider public and not just for the sake of marking a new phase in our social history.
  2. Artists do not just create work, they see how the individual pieces of their work relate to one another in an installation and so become artist-curators.
  3. By bringing together disparate practitioners for an exhibition, a curator becomes a membrane through which artists connect with one another, learn from one another, see the world through different eyes.  Together, they all speak to their audiences.
  4. Exhibitions may have multiple curators so whose voice do we hear?  Does this make the voice of the artists come out louder?  Will anyone else break all curatorially respected practices like Jean-Luc Goddard did?  Did he or his exhibition inspire artists / curators after him?
  5. Where will digital tools take the practice in the future?
  6. Exhibitions can inspire artists of the future.
  7. Biennials can bridge cultural divides in which those exhibiting have to be aware of the standpoints of different artists and see where / if their practices meet.
  8. I like the idea that poetry and art need to connect more than they do at the moment.
  9. There is no written history of curatorial practice.
  10. In an exhibition, the curator/s bring the past and present together.
  11. In an exhibition, who is more prominent in creating meaning or aesthetic value the artist or the curator?
  12. How does the curator ensure that the viewer stays with the artwork a little longer?
  13. Obrist speaks from very much a theoretical standpoint and does not get into details of exhibition practices.  For example, do curators make maquette of the hang before they actually see the work in situ?


How does this relate to my practice?

I have curated several exhibitions, the most recent of which were the OCA SW exhibitions of 2017 and 2018.

In the recent (2018) OCA South West exhibition, one other student wished to co-curate so we have been having Skype meetings to collate our ideas and suggest alternatives.

In both 2017 and 2018 exhibitions, I asked each artist exhibiting to send me measurements and photos of their work as well as how they would like their work to be hung.  I then made a maquette to a scale of 1:20 of the exhibition space and the images so that I could see how the work could hang together in this order of priority: a) colour; b) size; c) subject.  As the exhibition is cross-discipline, I tried to present a mix of disciplines rather than putting all the photographs together, all the textiles together etc.

In 2017 we had 3 distinct spaces and several tutors .  I was conscious of not putting all the tutors’ work together or prioritising one person’s work over another.  Fortunately two distinct themes emerged in the work submitted: the human condition and Nature so having two rooms to house each theme was a treat.  The third room was dedicated to a work which required a lot of space and had a lot of equipment so it was handy to have it all together.

In 2018, we have one very cavernous space and a smaller space best suited to a film projection which e have so that’s that problem sorted.Once I had seen the space, I was afraid that we would have problems filling it.  Fortunately, the exhibitors kept coming and we now have 61 pieces and each piece has its own space.  We also have very large as well as very small pieces.  having the maquette has been very useful in deciding ahead of the hanging what goes where.

I was very concerned about how I was going to reconcile the title of the exhibition which had been chosen as a result of our exercise in drawing up a manifesto for our group, the expression  of the presentation of the disparate pieces of work and the publicity material which had been done by an extremely talented student:

Osmosis poster.jpg

Having found the definition of Osmosis, (the process of gradual or unconscious assimilation of ideas, knowledge, etc.) and having recently visited the Anni Albers exhibition where the walls were made of hessian which seemed to link the spaces together,  I suddenly had an image of the membrane which simultaneously separates and connects those ideas / knowledge, so I decided that I would  create a screen on either side of which will be arranged 2 pieces from 2 different learning pathways: the first screen will have poetry and photography on either side; the second will separate/connect sculptural photography and painting, while the third one which is actually a complete piece in itself, has history of art on one side and textiles on the other.

Would I use a digital curation piece of software to create a virtual maquette and would that be easier to manage than a physical one?  How would I present the virtual exhibition to a visual audience?  How would I get the feedback I need?  How would visitors interact physically in the virtual space with the exhibits?

We have a digital presence in our 2018 exhibition in a piece which is digitally projected onto a wall.  The projector is set close to the floor so that people, in passing across it will momentarily interrupt that projection and become part of the work itself.

The ideas which are reflected in my personal exhibition in July 2019 contain some of these ideas.  I have not co-curated it but have drawn my ideas from the many exhibitions I have visited.  My main aim is to provide as wide an experience of my project as possible  for the viewers so it will comprise an installation, sound and photography, and will be split up over 3 spaces.  More of this later.




Obrist, H.U. 2015. Ways of Curating. Penguin Books.


4 thoughts on “Ways of curating

  1. I enjoyed the ways in which you mingled your own thoughts and practices with the reading. It creates rich content Anna.
    I was surprised to read there is no written history of curation, especially as there are now MA courses in this.


    1. Obrist’s contention in 2015 when he wrote the book was that it was a purely oral history. His conversations with various artists and curators starts recording that oral history, which may appear as an ad hoc record of the status quo. I am reading Artrage! (2016) at the moment which marks the start of the curatorial revolution in the UK as a reaction against the exclusive establishment in art galleries scenarios which had presented a very one-sided form of curation. I am really enjoying looking back through very recent history of the evolution of curation. I think that this is where my strength lies, more so than in photography per se. I think a latin bug has infiltrated my thinking :))


      1. Is it going to be an MA in Curation then – there seem to be plenty on offer around the country.
        ps I’ve noticed the latin bug, it’s very infectious you know ……


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