How does one curate in times of violence? Or rather, what is the role of the museum, the art – Space – when matters of deep concern and urgency have society in a strong hold?
I started my journey as a curator in 2001, a young journalist back then, frustrated by the recurring format of news and mainstream media. I found contemporary art through art magazines in the library of the Swedish Radio (where I worked) in my mid-twenties. I remember feeling a sense of reverence for the amazing possibilities that art seemed to hold. The openness and freshness, the yearning from artists and curators to offer whomever was ready to engage a space for thinking, dreaming, reacting, engaging. The artworld had a sense of exclusiveness around it. To say it was solely about class would be too simple. I sensed the training that was involved in understanding and working with art. Not purely academic, as it also involved a training of the senses. In understanding art and art making I was allowed to draw on sides of myself that I had previously had difficulties with, that I was even somewhat ashamed of. Sensitivity. Synesthetic tendencies (a sensory phenomena when perceptions intermingle, like hearing a colour, or seeing a sound) and magical thinking; skill sets questionable in ordinary life, but useful in analysing complex ideas relating to colour, form, physical space and relationships between objects, but also more abstract and societal subject matters such as re-reading of histories, of perspectives, of political and philosophical concepts and in finding new ways of telling all of this. And may I say that certain art (but certainly not all art) was calling for a strong and urgent need to understand and feel with other beings? Empathy. Do these qualities make us better at making art or curating art? Better at working together? I am not sure, but I am quite sure that an open mind combined with a deep and heartfelt interest in others make art exhibitions and the spaces that hold them come alive. Let us think about what this might mean.
In my early learning about curating, artists and fellow curators were my mentors in creating meaningful environments for art and artists to thrive. I used my knowledge of interviewing techniques in finding out what might be needed in the making of better infrastructure for artists and art – knowing artists were obviously as diverse as humankind as a whole, understanding that we all want to be seen, listened to, understood, and taken seriously.
But what about the audience, or rather audiences? Have I taken their experiences for granted at times? This question is more loaded, as it at times collides with the needs and visions of the artist. And not everyone is interested in art, especially contemporary art. Should we then become missionaries of contemporary art? And if we are not into conversion, then how do we at least make the spaces for art more welcoming and accessible for the novice visitor?
If artists in the 1990’s and the early 2000’s chose to shun art history and claimed that there was no need for looking back as art merged with other areas of culture such as architecture, music, dance, performance, subcultures and clubbing, the 2020’s is asking us to revisit history.
Perhaps because an art canon previously so dominated by western perspectives cannot remove itself from the histories attached to the past – the history of slavery, colonialism, patriarchal structures and class wars, wars over resources; violence. An unattractive history to build upon. And who wants to build the next narrative on grounds that less and less want to uphold? Yet, the naivety and comfortable liberalism of most parts of the cultural sector missed a vital part of making changes; without understanding the past sensitively and deeply, and the past of those that might not share your background, change becomes shallow and self-referential. It might even use art and culture in ways that for some turn out looking like the white washing of dirty historical pasts or as smart forms of strategic cultural lobbyism adding to the success and economic growth of only a few.
“Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while” Bob Dylan wrote in the year 1965, in the song “Visions of Johanna”. Since then, artists seem to have done everything they can to shake up the rooms that belong to the public through art. Still, the trends in art continue in endless cycles, moving forward in somewhat similar ways. But what about the audience? An audience that today can access almost any art online, even if on an asymmetrical scale.
In the recent exhibition The International Museum of Resistance 1978 – 2020 of Södertälje konsthall curated by Paola Zamora and me there was a shift in how the audience used the exhibition space. Instead of only coming to view the artworks and take part of the context of the exhibition and its relationship to society, groups chose to congregate in the show, and at times even demonstrate their views on ongoing political conflict with flags and signs. What had led up to a situation that made the audience feel comfortable to physically alter and use the exhibition space is these ways?
As public spaces in cities become more and more commercialized the museums and art spaces seem to offer new ways of using and engaging with public space. Museums and art spaces, a form of semi-public spaces as they sometimes require purchasing an entrance ticket, become negotiable spaces, and as such places for new identities to form. Will they participate in societies necessary changes to be made? Will they mirror these needs?
This past summer, marked in history by the ongoing pandemic of Covid-19, museums and art spaces have had to alter their approaches in terms of audience engagement, partly because large audience numbers are not safe and even forbidden, and the coziness of certain art installations where visitors are thought to sit close to one another while experiencing art, are definitely out of question in times when physical distancing is called for. As a curator I have chosen to use what I have to get closer to art making, thinking about art and rethinking the art institution – together with artists and audiences – in the ways that I am able to offer, to suggest and to alter. I have received artists, curators and art students in my home. I have interviewed some and I have given some of them time and a physical space to dwell, reflect and, to make art.
I am still unsure of the end result of this project, which goes by the name Frail Liberation. But the fragility of it is perhaps of less interest. I hope liberation, in whatever form or scale it might take, emerges.