Curator as author as curator

While on leave from my program at the University of Toronto, I’m taking a course at the Node Center called the International Curator Program. Enjoying it very much. The first assignment in our first module (Key Moments in the History of Curating):

Choose an exhibition from your country (either birth or residence) that you consider expresses the notion of curator-as-author in the spirit of Szeemann.

Harald Szeemann’s Live in Your Head (1969) and Documenta 5 (1972) have come to exemplify curation as authorship. That’s when a curator treats their exhibition as a composite language of things and words and images in which to express a sensibility or chase an argument. To think about the curator as author, I chose three authors who’ve curated – specifically, a show at MOCA Toronto that moved and provoked me when I happened on it.

Age of You
Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Toronto
September 5, 2019 – January 5, 2020

1. The concept

Age of You, curated by Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Shumon Basar, was a didactic exhibition, developing an argument about the fate of the self in the age of social media. The self has been made “extreme,” they proposed, by the connectivity and instantaneity of our new media environment, and this deracinated self only feels real when packaging itself for consumption by a crowd.

Whatever delight the curators might have felt at this astonishingly creative media moment was eclipsed by their sense that it’s controlled out of view by forces bent on quantifying our every experience and harvesting the data generated for profit. “Guess what this century’s most valuable resource is,” they ask. “It’s you – and all of your online behaviours, enriched data sets and millions of meta-data points.”

In this process, a large part of you is extracted from you, and now exists everywhere and nowhere, independently of your five senses. Are you really built for so much change so quickly? And what if individuality is in fact morphing into something else?

The exhibition, with work by seventy artists, designers, filmmakers, photographers, performers, and composers from around the world, was really a single sustained essay. The curators’ text described the situation, the artworks exemplified and critiqued it. Every artwork was subsumed, as several reviewers noted, to an overriding curatorial intent.

I assented to the exhibition’s thesis. I was impressed by how deftly it used works of art to advance an argument about culture. And I was disquieted by the submission of individual works to an overriding curatorial vision. The show was a translation into museum language of the curators’ forthcoming book, The Extreme Self, which I’m keen to read – and doubt I’ll have the same issues with. Am I more forgiving of top-down control when I see it in a book than when I meet it in an museum? Why?

Installation view, Age of You, MOCA Toronto. Photo: Tom Arban Photography, Inc. Source: Pin-Up.

2. The curator as author

(a) Book

The exhibition was maybe the most bookish I’ve ever seen. It consisted mostly of text and images interspersed on rec­tangular panels. Black text on white ground evoked printed pages – pages large enough to warrant the regard you usually give a painting. Hung from the ceiling to create ad hoc walls, the panels suggested a book that had exploded into architecture. Arrows marked a path through the chambers and passageways, implying a single correct reading order.

Installation view, Age of You, MOCA Toronto. Photo: Tom Arban Photography, Inc. Source: Pin-Up.

The design seemed to me a spatial translation of the act of immersing yourself in a book – a sort of immersion the show said is fast becoming impossible. Others found it more like scrolling through an Instagram feed. As a chimaera of different genres – printed page, hung painting, online feed – this show about the costs of the attention economy was aware of, and often witty about, how it deployed your attention.

(b) Writer

The show asked for more careful reading than wall text or a curatorial essay typically does. The text was intensely writerly, moving through degrees of irony, multiple standpoints, and shades of ambiguity to establish a fragmented, multiple, postmodern narrative voice. Strangely, reviewers I’m sure are more internet-savvy than I am – alert to tonal nuances of acronyms and emoticons – took all the statements at face value, and saw a more dogmatic, monolithic show than I did.

Text: Basar/Coupland/Obrist. Image: Peter Saville by Yoso Mouri, 2016.
From The Extreme Self (forthcoming). Source:

(c) Author function

The leveling treatment of text and image nicely mimicked the samey-sameness of social media and subsumed the various materials to a single vision you could call authorial. There was more top-down command than Harald Szeemann maybe ever exercised. In other ways, though, the exhibition disclosed the author to be what Michel Foucault calls an “author function.” The corporate (three-in-one) authorship, the narrative voice with its multiple standpoints and shifting ambiguous tones, dispersed authorship broadly, cast it everywhere and nowhere – much as social media, as the curators argue, disperses the extreme self.

Whatever concerns I had about the exhibition’s overbearing unity, the subtlety with which it mimicked, undermined, and sardonically WTF’d, in its form, method and materials, its terrifying invisible omnipresent subject, was a thing to behold.

The image up top: Installation view, Satoshi Fujiwara, Crowd Landscape. Photo by Tom Arban Photography, Inc. Though I’ve de-emphasized them here, the exhibition also had works that were less flat page, more rounded object.