Aug 20 2012

Curating Lab 2012

by Ho Rui An

Curating Lab 2012 curatorial-intensive and workshop participants, with facilitators Patrick Flores (second from left) and Heman Chong (fourth from right), and presenter Pauline J. Yao (far left). Courtesy NUS Museum, Singapore.

While curators have been around for the longest time, the emergence of the curatorial as a subject of contemporary art discourse is a relatively recent phenomenon. It remains a contested notion, with the agency of the curator-as-author still open for debate. Such questions form the key points of inquiry for Curating Lab 2012, a curatorial-intensive and internship program organized by NUS Museum in partnership with Singapore’s National Arts Council. The program includes the recently held six-day workshop, an upcoming field trip to Bandung, Indonesia and longer-term internships with NUS Museum, Singapore Art Museum and art gallery Future Perfect.

The workshop, which ran from July 30 to August 6, marked the beginning of a six-month-long process for the 16 aspiring curators selected for the program. Facilitated by art historian and co-curator of the Position Papers section of the 2008 Gwangju Biennale, Patrick Flores and Singaporean artist-curator Heman Chong, it consisted of lectures and tutorials, field trips to art spaces within Singapore (including the soon-to-be-opened Gillman Barracks) and a curatorial roundtable. Besides Flores and Chong, other speakers included Cosmin Costinas, executive director of Para/Site art space in Hong Kong and Pauline J. Yao, independent curator and co-founder of Arrow Factory in Beijing.

Para/Site art space director Cosmin Costinas (standing far left) leading the discussion at the first workshop. Courtesy NUS Museum, Singapore.

Flores opened the workshop with a lecture that pitted the authorial capacities of the curator against the specificities of the curated object. Under the title “The Sudden Vicinity of Things,” after a passage from Foucault’s The Order of Things (1966), Flores considered the figure of the curator from an anthropological perspective, reflecting on the “multiple singularities” and “radical particularities” of objects, and the “shock” that ensues when certain objects are placed together within specific spectatorial regimes. The presentation aptly led to a discussion on how one curates objects of trauma by examining “Photographs from S-21:1975–1979,” the 1997 exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which featured a collection of black-and-white photographs of Cambodian prisoners incarcerated during the Pol Pot dictatorship.

Compared to Flores, Costinas took a more historical approach, walking the participants through an abbreviated history of curating as viewed through various editions of Documenta. As a preamble, he introduced the provocative thesis of Hitler being the first ever curator with his notorious 1937 exhibition of so-called “degenerate art,” thus foregrounding the politics of visibility that the curatorial gesture is inevitably entrenched in. Costinas then facilitated a workshop in which the participants brainstormed ideas for a new, imaginary biennial in the Indian state of Kerala (no relation to the upcoming Kochi-Muziris Biennale in December).

Yao’s presentation examined the post-Warholian notion of artistic labor in contemporary art, in the process drawing from her experience running Arrow Factory, an independent arts space located in a small hutong alley in Beijing. Under Yao’s direction, participants were later asked to conceive of their own independent art space, considering factors such as location and programming within the given limitation of a SGD 50,000 annual budget.

Wrapping up the week was Chong’s presentation, in which he looked back at the various projects he has undertaken in his practice as an artist-curator. The principal notion examined was that of curator as collaborator, with Chong highlighting the negotiations he had to perform in the construction of each curatorial situation. Some of the projects he used as examples included the 2009 edition of Curating Lab, which featured the exhibition “Curating Lab: 100 Objects (Remixed),” his 2011 solo exhibition “Calendars” and Positions (2006), a collection of responses by various artists in Singapore to a question posed by Chong: What is your position as an artist? The text resulting from Positions can be downloaded from the artist’s website.

(From left) Heman Chong, Pauline Yao and Cosmin Costinas, during the roundtable discussion at Curating Lab, 2012. Courtesy NUS Museum, Singapore.

The highlight of the program was the curatorial roundtable, in which Chong, Costinas and Yao were panelists. Given that all three of them can be said to maintain curatorial practices alternative to institutional norms, much of the discussion naturally centered on notions of independence. Costinas’ experiences with Para/Site were of particular relevance given how the organization has managed to maintain its identity as an “alternative” space despite having a formal institutional structure that necessitates the change of directorship every few years. “Taiping Tianguo: A History of Possible Encounters,” its current exhibition featuring the work of Ai Weiwei, “Frog King” Kwok Mang-ho, Tehching Hsieh and Martin Wong also became a point of discussion as Costinas reflected on what it meant for an alternative space like Para/Site to stage such encounters with the contemporary art canon. Meanwhile, for Yao, operating a space that offers no more than the area of a storefront for exhibition means that she has had to constantly negotiate with an artistic paradigm in Beijing driven largely by spectacle and overproduction, with the 798 Art Zone being a case in point. Questions on curatorial practice were even more complex for Chong who occupies the dual identity of artist and curator, and as such is faced with the classic conundrum: Where does the curatorial end and where does the art begin?

Much ground was covered within the span of the roundtable, though there remained a nagging sense that there was a need for slightly more diversity within the panel. Perhaps the addition of an institutional figure, for one, would have helped to throw the idea of independence into greater relief. The somewhat excessive number of anecdotes exchanged could have also given way to more propositions on the future of curating.

Yet, given that Curating Lab is really only in its initial stages, perhaps there are already more than enough ideas circulating within this buzzing, close-knit community of curators-to-be. For evidence, just check out the discussions on the event’s official blog. And while you are at it, don’t forget to also join the conversation on Twitter by following the #curatinglab2012 hashtag.