unitednationsplaza The Building, Berlin, 2008-2009.
Photo : courtesy of e-flux

Curating the School

Véronique Hudon
The past two decades have borne witness to the emergence of numerous curatorial forms that borrow the school format. These projects place art firmly in the social and community arena, shedding new light on art practice and its impact on our lives. Midway between artistic and curatorial creation, these collective structures redefine hierarchies and roles in the art world.

The term “curatorial” designates a field of practice driven by the reflexive and critical dimension of an exhibition or institution. The curatorial unfolds in the cultural universe by bringing together the social and the political. Through their performative dimension, some curatorial projects resemble what art historian Estelle Zhong Mengual calls “art in common.”1 1 - Estelle Zhong Mengual, L’art en commun: Réinventer les formes du collectif en contexte démocratique (Dijon: Les presses du réel, Œuvres en société, 2019); Baptiste Morizot and Estelle Zhong Mengual, Esthétique de la rencontre: L’énigme de l’art contemporain (Paris: Seuil, L’ordre philosophique, 2018) (our translation). Coproduction is at the heart of these participative works in which the “collective form” constitutes a long-term process realized collaboratively with the artist (or artists) and volunteers. For Zhong Mengual, the variety of approaches taken by the artists in such projects open art up to “all social practices imaginable as material for artistic creation.”2 2 - Zhong Mengual, L’art en commun, 52 (our translation).The aesthetic quality specific to “art in common” materializes in the relationships between artists and participants rather than through the medium of a visual object produced by an artist.

installation views, Berlin, 2006-2007.
Photos : courtesy of e-flux

Like “art in common,” curatorial projects evolve through relational forms centred on exchange, dialogue, and encounter. Curators endeavour to rethink not only the aesthetic experience but also the presentational contexts of artworks and the knowledge related to them. In their book Curating and the Educational Turn, curator and theoretician Paul O’Neill and researcher Mick Wilson underline the importance of educational models in emerging curatorial practices since the mid-1990s.3 3 - Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson, eds., Curating and the Educational Turn (Amsterdam and London: De Apple and Open Editions, 2010), 16. Paul O’Neill, The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012). Along these lines, the curatorial fosters alternative pedagogical forms in direct connection with the art project. The project framework facilitates a process that promotes the production of knowledge — from conceptualization through production to reception. Throughout its trajectory, the project generates its own forms of knowledge, which emerge from collective research.

These educational processes are brought to light by turning activities usually considered to be peripheral to a work or exhibition — conferences, discussions, conversations, publications, forums, workshops — into the central focus of the project. Curatorial projects of this kind may unfold within art establishments, take on the form of a school, be a series of conversations or a shared practice, and so on. Their forms, like their intervention sites, are multiple. Accordingly, they evolve over time and in the form of experimental research, a context enabled by reinvesting in structures such as schools.

These projects create and reinforce the community dimension of the art world by forging opportunities for exchange on knowledge that they also create. This is the case in artist Tania Bruguera’s Cátedra Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art School, 2002 — 09), which is based on a local arts community in Havana, Cuba. Taking the form of a popular art school with a program oriented toward engaged social and political practices, Bruguera’s school is mobile, taking place principally in her residence, in a professor’s home, or in parks; the time and duration of the activities and workshops also vary, but they take place every day and respect a strict framework. The lessons, which are open and free of charge, may resemble a class, a public discussion, a workshop, or an exhibition. Every week, a guest presents a workshop: Spanish artist Dora García, for example, proposed an intervention on rumours and how they are disseminated in the public realm, and Canadian artist Stan Douglas offered training in video editing. The workshops should lead the participants to create a fully fledged artwork. During the semester, a curator is invited to organize an exhibition with the participants. The primary goal of this exercise is not a short-term public exhibition, but collective learning.

Cátedra Arte de Conducta, performance view,
La Havane, 2002-2009.
Photo : courtesy of Estudio Bruguera 

Central to the project is the idea that these educational and artistic activities are tools for social emancipation. In the project description, Bruguera states that her goal is “the creation of a pedagogical model that makes up for the lack of civic discussion spaces on the function of art in present Cuban society and promotes new generations of artists and intellectuals. This work offers a political discourse stemming from art and promotes the exploration of relationships between art and context.”4 4 - “Cátedra Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art School): Statement,” artist’s website, accessible online. Above all, the school project aims to offer alternative training to young Cuban artists in order to nurture engaged artistic practices. Considered both institution and public artwork, while eschewing the valorization of a work’s autonomy disconnected from its functionality, the project presupposes the utility of art in social life. The school format allows Bruguera to organize a project based on collective engagement and the development of an art community.

Artist Anton Vidokle describes his project unitednationsplaza (2006 — 07) as an “exhibition as school.”5 5 - Anton Vidokle, “Exhibition to School: unitednationsplaza,” in O’Neill and Wilson, Curating and the Educational Turn, 149. Created in collaboration with Boris Groys, Martha Rosler, Liam Gillick, Walid Raad, Jalal Toufic, Nikolaus Hirsch, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, and Tirdad Zolghadr, this project draws on the work of a group of theoreticians and artists. Originally created in Berlin (2006 — 07) and re-created twice,6 6 - The other two iterations were presented in the form of a series of seminars titled Night School at the New Museum, New York (2008 — 10), and in Mexico City at Casa Refugio (2008), a civic association protecting writers who have been the victims of injustice. The project was specifically adapted to each context, in association with the local community, which was invited to collaborate or participate. unitednationsplaza takes its name from the street, United Nations Plaza, on which the school was originally located. The structure of the temporary school is very simple: a series of free and informal seminars, conferences, classes, film projections, and performances. The seminars — which distort the traditional university format, taking on experimental or inordinately long forms or the format of conference-performances — forgo the frameworks and postures usually adopted by universities and art schools. In this way, the pedagogical methods set aside the imperative of productivity and authoritarian relationships in favour of free exchange and the possibility of failure.

unitednationsplaza, whose website7 7 - unitednationsplaza archive, accessible online. archives all related activities, presented several films and performances at the Martha Rosler Library and produced a film titled A Crime Against Art (2007), based on an unconventional conference held in Madrid. Artist Liam Gillick noted the following about the project: “A melding of artistic work and collective outreach, an accounting for a participant’s position and an uneven sense of involvement or obligation marked these projects as important moments in the development of our understanding of who possesses critical authority, and of how the structures of artistic validation are developed, checked and driven forward.”8 8 - Liam Gillick, “Educational Turn Part One,” in O’Neill and Wilson, Curating and the Educational Turn, 167. Unlike art institutions, this project seeks to demonstrate how educational structures can emerge from artistic practices. In this sense, it’s a question of broadening the scope of art’s action by investing in the educational dimension.

Although each project belongs to a specific socio-cultural context, Cátedra Arte de Conducta and unitednationsplaza both elaborate self-organized educational initiatives driven by art theory and practice and based on the principle of collective becoming.

Both projects are akin to what philosopher Gerald Raunig calls “instituent practices,” which consist in instituting oneself rather than recognizing oneself within a set of existing protocols, or in subverting these protocols to satisfy one’s own demands. In this regard, Vidokle states, “Importantly, unitednationsplaza functioned very much as an artwork in its own setting: an art project that did not need anyone to display it or promote and bring audiences to it — it did all that for itself.”9 9 - Anton Vidokle, in O’Neill and Wilson, Curating and the Educational Turn, 155. In this way, instituent practices offer both projects alternative and independent institutional models. Similarly, O’Neill and Wilson highlight how some such initiatives offer a form of resistance to the way artistic knowledge is currently disseminated and distributed: “We aim to resist the tendency to privilege (and police) the boundaries between the internal organisation of the work of art — as enacted by the artist, producer or author and techniques concerned — and its external organisation, through different modes of distribution, reproduction and/or dissemination.”10 10 - O’Neill and Wilson, Curating and the Educational Turn, 19. These projects imply that the bounds of artistic action go beyond the mere production of an artwork and that the framework encompasses the parameters that determine its visibility and diffusion. These practices rely on collective “action” in the artistic, social, and political spheres. Bruguera speaks of a “structure for living” to describe a project as a school or journal, for example.

These curatorial practices could be described as much as a “social turn”11 11 - Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso Books, 2012). as an “educational turn,” as art historian Claire Bishop does. For Bishop, the social turn is driven by collective and collaborative forms. These collective practices resist the notion of the individualistic artist usually associated with the art market, but do not completely escape it: often, such initiatives are linked to a particular artist or curator, as is the case in Cátedra Arte de Conducta and unitednationsplaza. Concerned with the structural implications of art, these practices focus on discursive forms that not only critique but also propose alternative configurations. Far from presenting the project as a unilateral and consensual proposal, the idea is, instead, to expose the research process. By using enunciative forms and embodied practices, these experimental educational initiatives value orality, experience sharing, conversation, conferences, and correspondence as informal contexts for reflecting together. The importance of discursive forms also encompasses the performative dimension inherent to these projects. Emerging through a long process of exchange, they are open to the intersubjectivity of the collaborators, facilitators, and participants — roles which themselves may be redefined in the course of a project.

Such collective research processes are often based on the desire for art to be more engaged in social and political life. Its collective, educational, and social dimensions allow us to imagine other means of experiencing art. Significantly, the etymological root of “curatorial,” curator, curare, means “taking care.” These instituent practices on the fringes of dominant institutional forms act in the public realm; through their malleability, they become structures that can be adapted to varying contexts and frameworks. The agency of these practices means that they can infiltrate, and thus transform, different fields. This collective “action” is essential for the project to take place and ensures that art is embodied in this “doing together.”

Cátedra Arte de Conducta, installation view, La Havane, 2002-2009.
Photo : courtesy of Estudio Bruguera 

Translated from the French by Louise Ashcroft

Anton Vidokle, Tania Bruguera, Véronique Hudon
Anton Vidokle, Tania Bruguera, Véronique Hudon
Anton Vidokle, Tania Bruguera, Véronique Hudon
Anton Vidokle, Tania Bruguera, Véronique Hudon
This article also appears in the issue 104 - Collectives

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