The Way We Share: Transparency in Curatorial Practice

alpen-mt-blanc_1_ (from Mountain Tour series) by Kim Asendorf (via Notes on a New Nature)
Kim Asendorf, “alpen-mt-blanc_1_” from “Mountain Tour” series (via Notes on a New Nature)

Editor’s note: This is the twelfth in a series of commissioned essays for The World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium on Saturday, March 9, 2013.

We’ve heard the argument that everyone’s a curator online by means of blogging and reblogging, but what about the professional curators who are responsible for producing major physical exhibitions — how are they using social platforms? The ability to publicly explore new theories, archive research, and participate in creative communities, has signaled a new era of openness and transparency in curatorial practice. One example is the research blog that accompanied Paola Antonelli’s Talk to Me exhibition in 2011 at the Museum of Modern Art. The site, stunningly bold and rigorous in its approach, chronicled projects to research, readings, and inspirational ideas for exhibition design. By providing visitors with a backstage tour, Antonelli and her team aimed to shed an honest light on curatorial process, revealing over a year’s worth of research that lead to the exhibition.

The concept of Talk to Me, examining communication between people and objects, was well suited for an ongoing, collaborative journal open to the public. In other cases, curators have used social networks as a lab to test ideas. Three years ago, curator Nicholas O’Brien started looking at contemporary digital artists’ fascination with nature and noticed they were using techniques similar to those of modern landscape painters. Once he made the connection, he saw relevant works everywhere. He gathered various media, put a name to the research — Notes on a New Nature — and uploaded his findings to Tumblr. The project’s voice began to emerge.

Gusti Fink, “SKY.PLANE.GIRL” (via Notes on a New Nature)

“At the beginning, I knew I wanted to explore the relationship between technology and nature, but I didn’t know which aspects would be worth further research. I used Tumblr because it let me be broad-minded, and as eclectic as I needed to be (with images, texts, video), in order to eventually narrow down my process into a more focused curatorial voice,” says O’Brien. The research he gathered on the blog inspired an essay and three exhibitions (A Small Forest at Kunsthalle New in Chicago, Notes on a New Nature at 319 Scholes in New York, and the upcoming Notes on a New Nature: Place, Myth, and Memory at Arti et Amicitiae in Amsterdam) featuring artists he’d discover along the way. In preparation for translating research from the blog to the physical galleries, he experimented with visual relationships that revealed connections he hadn’t discovered when the works were disparate. “I started using Tumblr in this way,” he says, “where I was trying to think about rhythms and patterns — pairs, triplets, or quartets, almost in the sense of a visual score, which eventually became a guiding principle for how I approached the research. It became an exploration of finding works that would go together.”

Susan Hiller, Jesus in a slice of toast, 2012. Screensaver
Susan Hiller, “Jesus in a slice of toast” (screensaver) (2012) (via Collect the WWWorld: The Artist as Archivist in the Internet Age)

The concept of creatively bringing together and archiving cultural material online is a key premise of curator Domenico Quaranta’s exhibition Collect the WWWorld: The Artist as Archivist in the Internet Agewhich has been exhibited at Spazio Contemporanea in Italy, House for Electronic Arts Basel in Switzerland, 319 Scholes in New York, and continues to develop on Tumblr. Since many of the artists he works with use Tumblr, and in some cases their blog is the project, he decided to integrate his research with the platform. As time went on, some of the posts spread rapidly across the web, but that didn’t necessarily mean those pieces would be brought into a physical exhibition. “Of course I pay attention to the audience’s reaction, but I don’t think the viral success of a specific artwork should influence its inclusion in the IRL exhibition (or its exclusion from it). The online environment is very different from the gallery context, and the work itself may change a lot from the online presentation to the exhibition in, let’s say, Basel, Switzerland.”

Jon Rafman, Georg Baselitz Waiting Room, 2013. Shown in “Interiors”, The Headquarters, Zurich, February 2, 2013.
Jon Rafman, “Georg Baselitz Waiting Room” (2013) (via Collect the WWWorld: The Artist as Archivist in the Internet Age)

As Collect the WWWorld develops and travels the globe, Quaranta has become more embedded in the Tumblr community, gaining inspiration from works appearing in his dashboard. “In the beginning, the rhythm of publication followed the inconsistent flow of my research, and the content was mainly retrieved from outside of Tumblr. Now it’s one of my primary sources, even though I still go fishing outside the pond.” His loyalty to the site was established when he discovered that some of his favorite blogs were run by artists who didn’t seem to exist outside of Tumblr — usually students who effectively mixed performance with an obsession for pornography, glitches, hypnotic animated GIFs, or Photoshop effects. “Some of these artists became a consistent presence in my daily life. I was sad when arielrebelshauntedgrafenbergspot stopped actively posting, but at least lickycat is still there.”

Tracking down and following artists on Tumblr can be a complex task, since it’s common for users to reblog without attributing authorship or providing much metadata, which pushes curatorial precepts out the window. In those cases, the goal shifts away from identifying an individual and more toward describing how that voice fits within a larger ecosystem. The research component of a curator’s practice online has sociological elements, moving far beyond aesthetics. Art online is activated by context and subsists on the network, rarely succeeding when removed from its environment. Quaranta recently began a related online curatorial project called Share Your Sorrow, which is designed to address strategies for social preservation by crowdsourcing the archive of an artist who disappeared from the web after high activity between 2007 and 2009. Two years prior to his disappearance, the artist, Kevin Bewersdorf, wrote: “I would drop my laptop off a cliff without hesitation. The seeds of my data are already safely spread across the web.”

Sunset by Aurélien Arbet (via Notes on a New Nature)
Aurélien Arbet, “Sunset” (via Notes on a New Nature)

The act of laying bare one’s research as it unfolds is increasingly relevant in contemporary culture, but it removes something curators have come to expect from exhibitions: the addictive anxiety and feeling of release surrounding a major reveal. After months or years of privately composing thoughts and works, the research culminates in a public presentation. These long-term investments and extended lines of inquiry produce a trail of failures, small successes, false starts, and complications, which can be tempting to deny (to the public, but also to oneself). That’s the paradox of failure: while the human impulse is to evade it, the only way to improve is to learn from our experiences and the experiences of others. We share as a way to understand, but even more importantly, we share in order to move the conversation forward.

Hyperallergic would like to thank Pernod Absinthe for their support of the World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium essay series.

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