Steve Powers, The Waterboarding Thrill Ride, 2008; installation view; photo by David B. Smith; courtesy Creative Time

Curator as Producer

Michelle White & Nato Thompson

In 1934, during Hitler’s ascendance to power, Walter Benjamin gave a lecture called “The Author as Producer,” at the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris. With urgency, Benjamin questioned the role of the author and the artist. He felt that it was their job to not just respond to what was going on from a removed observational vantage point but, as a “producer,” to engage and actively change the course of social politics. Part of being a producer is letting go of individual conceit. Revolutionary power is the autonomy of the collective idea—not the autonomy of an individual.

Curator and critic Okwui Enwezor extended this idea—the notion of the producer—to contemporary art, using it as a starting point in his 2004 lecture, “The Artist as Producer in Times of Crisis.” Artists, Enwezor says, are adapting their means of production. Not unlike avant-garde production in the early twentieth century, they are forgoing the cult of the individual artist/genius and turning towards collectivity as a strategy of resistance. On one hand, it is hard to believe that our own political climate compares to the severity of the moment of Benjamin’s lecture—when proletariat revolutions and fascism were rocking Western Europe. On the other hand, this historical link to artistic response at points of deep-felt uncertainty is compelling, especially when it is extended to the role of the curator.

In many ways, the traditional job of the contemporary curator goes against a collective model. Something of a negotiator, the task of the curator is not necessarily about provoking but about figuring out how to facilitate and contextualize the ideas of artists and works of art that often operate within the same system that is being critiqued. David Levi Strauss described the job as “a curious mixture of bureaucrat and priest.” 1

The premise of the following conversation was inspired by the challenge this idea of producer poses to the curatorial profession. If the artist can be a producer in such tumultuous times, can the curator? What does this even mean? What are the risks when a curator does assume this stance, as Nato Thompson has. Formerly of MASS MoCA and now officially “a producer” at Creative Time, Thompson considers himself an activist, and his way of working by no means follows institutional protocol.

Michelle White: To begin, do you even feel like your practice has any vestiges of the traditional perception of the curator, the surveyor peering down from the ivory tower?

Nato Thompson: I suppose in responding to this question, I need to clarify my particular vantage point. I have a job as a curator (and producer, for that matter). It says this on my business cards, and often when I speak I am referred to by my job title. Then, there is this field of artistic production that has a cultural role called curator, which has a particular history of caring for artworks in museums. And then there is this larger world of cultural production as an economy through which we all must navigate. I am convinced that not only artists but cultural producers at large must consider the economies of production that go into the manner in which their work is appreciated. As much as artists work in collectives, so too do curators who work at non-profits. These methods of production are not all that removed from each other. In fact, we must take seriously the infrastructures of resonance—the material forms of legitimation, distribution and spatial production—that we operate in, whether in a museum, magazine, alternative space, studio, graduate program, etc. I often find that the line between artist and curator can be useful and simultaneously destructive. Ultimately, my hope is that we are attempting to make meaning in the world that allows a critical perspective on power as well as producing alternative, desirous forms of resistant subjectivity.

M White: Okay, so if the line between a curator and an artist is dissolving, how do you explain what you do?

N Thompson: First, I am not interested in these annoying artist-vs.-curator debates unless they are about inequalities in pay, social capital and equity. But as to the point of what we do, I think these dichotomies are nestled in an antiquated discursive field of “art” that cannot keep pace with an emerging neoliberal paradigm of social production. We are all artists and curators. The point is where we operate in the matrix of cultural production and how we use the tools we have toward social change. So, to answer your question, the ways artists are working reflect larger shifts in the global economy. Many curators who work via a limited idea of artist as the sole source of meaning production will surely be affected by this, as the artist is their only arbiter of shifting global conditions. I also am convinced that the curatorial field can, at times, be cluttered within equities of power and thus corrupt. The ivory tower exists in the sense that the curatorial field has long been a place where taste (that is, status quo power) is enforced via curatorial expertise. The remnants of this are clearly at work today. At the same time, these traditional territories give way to new formations of capital that are enjoyable to exploit. It is possible to use these forms in an effort to legitimate much more expansive and complicated forms of cultural meaning

M White: I also think that the term cultural producer, aside from the particular conditions of our moment, is a healthier or more honest way to articulate the contemporary role of the curator. It acknowledges the complexity of the collaboration that has to happen when something like an exhibition is organized or a project is carried out, which involves, as you said, a much more complex institutional web of financial as well as physical logistics from the relationship of collectors, patrons, boards of trustees to the possibilities of display space. It is certainly beyond the simple curator/artist dichotomy. But at the same time, in working on site-specific projects or exhibitions with living artists where collaboration is essential to produce meaning, I have found myself questioning the boundaries of my involvement in the aesthetic and conceptual production. So, I wonder, are there risks in assuming this more egalitarian position as producer?

N Thompson: I completely agree with you (which is refreshing). Of course, the complication is not exactly the project as it appears to the audience but the supposed behind-the-scenes positions within a matrix of social capital—that is to say, authorship. I don‘t mean to demean this either. It truly is important for artists within the current structure of the discourse of art to gain credit for their project as the author. Collectors don‘t collect ambiguous social formations. Art history rarely writes about complex phenomena emerging from organized collectivity. Nope. Everyone wants a name, and that is how the game is played.

So, simultaneous with a critique of these forms, we must also be aware of the specific needs of everyone involved. This is where the risks you mention come from. It might be helpful to think through models from other fields of cultural production, such as architecture, theater, dance, film, activism, non-profits, family and so on. In a film, there are multiple roles that go into a project, and all of them are critical. No one is under the perception that a film comes from a single individual, but at the same time, certain talents do gain credit for their contributions. Directors, producers, unit production managers, gaffers, grips, set designers, etc. Additionally, such models might assist in the legal confusions that arise from a project when things go south. When artists back out. When money runs out. When certain personalities jump ship. These setbacks might be on shaky ground when looking at the history of the individual producer.

M White: But how do you, the curator/producer, fit into this ideal system when you manage projects that are not just artist-driven but those that follow more traditional models, like thematic group shows? On one hand, we could understand this conversation as a postmodern rehash of the death of the author, the artist and, now, maybe the curator, but if an exhibition works like an essay, you are still essentially proposing a theory. The production, therefore, aside from the logistical chorography of the parts that collaboratively make a show happen behind the curtain, is also about your very individual process. You choose the work, make decisions about how certain pieces will have a critical conversation, figure out how to organize ideas that emerge in the studio, talk to artists, look.

Walter Hopps once said that he saw himself as a conductor. Despite all of the people playing instruments and his recognition of their participation, he was still creating the symphony by doing whet he felt was his job, to have the most “broad and sensitive an understanding of an artist’s work.” 2 I don‘t mean to sound as if I am protecting curatorial ego, but within this more complex system of making meaning, how do you figure out how to take responsibility for the ideas you set forth, or are you proposing that the idea also has to emerge from some sort of collective voice?

N Thompson: There are creative aspects that come from juxtaposing certain works or putting projects in dialogue with each other, so of course that is one of the pleasurable parts of curating. I like to think of it in the same manner as the eighteenth-century utopian Charles Fourier suggested the day’s work should be composed: the languorous meal. A project can be a broad organization of various emotional and nutritional desires. Delicious.

I wouldn’t propose the death of the curator or author per se. I just think that the roles shift from project to project. In group shows, the curatorial voice is clearly much more pronounced than in single-artist projects, but in both cases, there are multiple voices and forms of participation. It isn’t death so much as a large-scale project with different roles. I guess that isn’t as dramatic as those French continental philosophy folks would like.

M White: One of your exhibitions that I admire quite a bit is The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere because you so beautifully managed a very overt political premise, your argument, while creating a space that let the work stand on its own. Looking at the show as a concrete example, can you use it to explain how you apply your curatorial philosophy as a critical strategy to produce a group exhibition? What types of decisions did you have to make to facilitate that balance between a strong curatorial thesis and the integrity of works on display?

N Thompson: Well, The Interventionists was a special type of show in so much as it demonstrated a manner of working. It was a group show that came out of a particular public-intervention sensibility that was operating in large part with the antiglobalization movement. Interventionist practices (I should mention that the show was initially titled Tactical Engagement, inspired by the idea of tactical media) were all over the place. They were the more politically edgy portion of supposed relational aesthetics. They had teeth.

Invitation to THE EROTICISM OF PEDAGOGY, performances by Ryan Gander & Bedwyr Williams, Liam Gillick & Tirdad Zolgadhr and Adam Pendleton & Frances Stark; musical interludes by Vert (Adam Butler); held in conjunction with Hey Hey Glossolalia: Exhibiting the Voice, a series of free events in New York, 2008; courtesy Creative Time

I also was interested in legitimating a certain form of political practice that I felt was deeply underrepresented in American arts institutions. I am very aware that as a curator at an institution, every project is an effort to legitimate forms of cultural production. Showing that political practice can be both visual, joyous and complex was an important gesture in terms of being a lobbyist on behalf of a deeply political art community.

I am doing something very similar in an exhibition titled Experimental Geography, where one of the major goals is to create space for projects that exist in disciplines best understood through visual culture and urbanism. It is a way of shaping a discourse (that of art) that might have effects in the larger cultural infrastructure. That is a strange curatorial role, but I do think we can act as one who positions projects within a power-dominated discursive field. There are so many conservative and market-dominated forces shaping the world we work in that we must consistently find creative and aggressive methods for resisting them.

M White: So, essentially, your decisions about who and what you show are based on your desire to deliberately confront systems of production and exchange in the art world, like market trends? Using an example from Experimental Geography, will you explain how a work of art that you position within an institutional context can effectively question this landscape?

Sharon Hayes, Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time for Love, 2007; performance; photo by Andrea Geyer; courtesy the artist and Creative Time

N Thompson: That is one aspect of many, but it is certainly on my mind at all times. It is just an awareness of how the dynamics of power within a discourse are disproportionately shaping it. In terms of Experimental Geography, for example, when pairing the work of Center for Urban Pedagogy, Multiplicity, Trevor Paglen, Spurse, Lize Mogel and AREA magazine, we see that there are many tools available to us in interpreting phenomena in public space. The skill sets of art history pale in comparison to the texts of folks like Ruthy Gilmore, Neil Smith and David Harvey (urban geography). It isn‘t that the work is legible from only one perspective but that certain perspectives provide a richer appreciation of the questions raised. When you maneuver across discourses like this, you are able to imply a sort of possibility for institutions as well. That is, if we can successfully navigate across the discourse of art, then we can additionally produce institutions that can broaden their missions.

M White: Is it simply a cross-disciplinary approach?

N Thompson: I’m interested in how capital shapes culture. It is useful shorthand for getting a sense for why things are happening the way they are. But in terms of the notion of the interdisciplinary, I am primarily moved by content. I like to follow where the ideas are, and, well, ideas happen all over the place.

M White: So the politic of the idea of the curator as producer is not necessarily in the selection process but in the cultivation of things and people that essentially bust open the white box and get ideas out on the table that aren’t stuck in cynical critical arguments that often stay put in the art world?

N Thompson: Oh, I wouldn‘t say that. The politics of a curator as producer are vast and varied. I guess I am uncomfortable with any notion of a politic of such a thing. There are, however, overarching political formations that inform this relationship, such as the production of culture and ideas. There are many ways to do this. It is just that institutions and discourses move very slowly, and most of the time, they are quite out of touch with the changes that are happening around them. As culture becomes a major factor in the production of global capital, these institutions find themselves extremely disconnected from such phenomena and find their language stilted and antiquated. It really isn’t a question of curator and producer so much as collective forms to produce ideas in the world.

M White: To conclude, let’s go back to your very Joseph Beuys-inspired statement that “we are all artists and curators.” I am suspicious. Clearly, as you mention, the approach to any type of project or exhibition is different, and in many ways collaboration conflates a clear division of labor. Yet, if you are also producing ideas in the world alongside the artist, how is context established? That is to say, how can you even make meaning without a form of legitimization? If you totally strip your position of authority, doesn’t it give the upper hand to the same economic or capitalist forces dependent on the market that you stand against?

N Thompson: Well, of course that is the case. The trick is to contextualize a few things. One is a position in the matrix of power one resides in. Not to be absolutely Marxist about it, but surely a for-profit meaning generator has a particular politics endemic to it. But then again, so do non-profits, in a position where a board oversees the production of meaning. Everything is positioned within a matrix of power, but knowing where surely informs reading the politics behind their meaning production. There is also the power of the ideas themselves. They produce their own legitimation and will often sidestep the curator/artist dichotomy.

1. David Levi Strauss, “The Bias of the World: Curating After Szeemann & Hopps,” Brooklyn Rail (December 2006), http://www.brooklynrail.org/2006/12/art/the-bias-of-the-world and in Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating, edited by Steven Rand and Heather Kouris (Apex Art, 2007) and Apex Art. See page 45.
2. Interview with Walter Hopps, Hans Ulrich Obrist Interviews Volume I, Thomas Boutoux, ed., (Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2003), 416.

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