Viktor Misiano: "If a curator is an artist, then an artist can also be a curator"
Kateryna Nosko and Valeriya Lukyanets speak with Viktor Misiano, 2017
Kateryna Nosko, Valeriya Lukyanets: It is obvious that new ways of showing art have come about as a result of transformations in art itself; this has been especially well-observed since the end of the 19th century in the Western European context. We can assume therefore that it was artists who became the first curators. To what extent is the curator an artist?
Viktor Misiano: There’s no doubt that any change in the language of art brings new ways of displaying it. Hence, it is not unexpected that it was artists who were often the active party in adjusting the manner in which art was shown. And it was like this even earlier, not only in the 19th and 20th centuries. Still, it's reasonable here to proceed from how artistic activity has been understood in particular periods, and how it is relevant to other social practices. In the modern age, the art object has gained the status of artwork, and, having asserted its aesthetic autonomy, it has adopted the privilege of this status, i.e., it has become an Artwork. The artwork itself doesn’t involve the curator: it is self-sufficient; the innermost meanings hidden within it are revealed regardless of the way in which its tangible form is represented. In this case, the matter of display reduces itself to the resolution of purely pragmatic problems: providing an accessible view, using it to decorate an interior, etc.
The figure of the curator appeared when art began to reject its own autonomy and to search for its own place in a dialogue with other practices. Or, rather, when creative work, having lost its privileged, sometimes even God-inspired status, actually turned out to be a practice, and the Artwork became a process. In turn, this also means that aesthetics have become inherent not only to artistic creative work, but to many other fields. Since the late 1960s, when theorists began to discuss and define a new economy, which is service, cognitive, and affective, people have begun to write and talk a lot about that.
And if we say that the curator is a derivative of these dynamics, then we mean a few things. Firstly, the fact that, in a situation where the artwork becomes a process, and the exhibition (especially the collective one) consequently becomes an encounter of several, sometimes multiple dynamics, in order to avoid chaos and cacophony, a party is needed by which these dynamics will be coordinated or arranged. Just as a conductor organizes the various dynamics of musicians as they perform symphonic music, and a stage director does the same with actors. Secondly, if we recognize that today aesthetics have become a component of many modern production activities, it would be strange to deny this to a practice which is so deeply involved in the artist’s activity, aiming not only to show artworks, but also to commission them, determining their thematic and visual modes.
To be more specific, the grammar of the curatorial project presupposes, for a start, what is usually called a conception – that is, a certain creative idea, preferably with good theoretical articulation. Moreover, this idea is not just the subject of the project, but also a certain principle of its functioning. In working with artworks that have become a process, the curator should plot a certain vector and principle of their establishment and mutual correlation; he or she should be someone who, in order to enthrall artists and get them interested, should have his or her own creative potential. Along with this, the task of selecting exhibitors is no less creative – nor is forming a semantic correlation of their original poetics, and correlating the whole formed ensemble with the original idea of he exhibition. Finally, the phenomenological aspect of curatorial practice is also important: the space of the exhibition, the location of artworks within it, the rhythmics of the exhibition’s development, etc. Even this brief and far-from-complete description should indicate that the product of curatorial practice is quite a complex organism, requiring imagination and creative will.
K.N., V.L.: You’ve said that a conductor organizes the various dynamics of musicians, a stage director does the same with actors, and a curator does the same with artists. In this case, the first one has a musical score, the second one has a script that can be repeated; what ‘score’ or ‘script’ does the curator have?
VM: This is a more than relevant question to ask. And the answer to it is that there is no intermediate instance between the curator’s own will and the artists.
In an exhibition, the curator implements his or her own original conception, that is, his or her score or script.
That’s why, in the modern age of the creative industries, economies of knowledge and affect, the curator becomes such an emblematic figure that provokes very keen interest among theorists.
K.N., V.L.: Are there ethical differences between the way in which the artist acts as a curator and that in which the curator acts as an artist?
VM: I think that curatorial practice is managed by unified ethical standards regardless of who is doing a project – whether a high-profile curator or an artist practicing curation. It’s true that sometimes models of bohemian or transgressive behavior are associated with artists, but such a type of creatorship tends to affect its subjectivity, and doesn’t recognize itself in the group work of forming a community.
K.N., V.L.: You’ve pointed out the importance of the semantic correlation of artists within one project. In this regard, I would like to recall what Yuriy Leiderman mentioned about his work with you in a project which took place “at one godforsaken French provincial art center. Only three artists participated there: Dmytro Hutov, Anatoliy Osmolovskyi and me.” I have a few questions here. The first one concerns your decision to bring these three artists together. What determined your curatorial choice in this case? And how intense was your participation in the process?
VM: In fact, it was Tours, not such a godforsaken place – a city with a centuries-old history and a famous university, the student society of which actually organized our exhibition. Also, the Contemporary Art Center that patronized the exhibition was quite in the foreground in France in those years. The exhibition was held in 1993 in the Gothic chapel which, as befits a church, had wonderful acoustics. I gave carte blanche to all three artist-participants of the project, specifying only one thing: the work had to include sound effects. The idea boiled down to the following: each of the creators would naturally aim for the most complete and impressive self-realization, but at the same time they would have to realize that next to each of them, there would be two other exhibitors who would be driven by the same intentions. The natural desire to avoid cacophony that followed therefrom (in this case, also in the direct sense of the word, taking into account the acoustic nature of the exhibition) would make the participants think up a flexible project that would be able to coexist with other works without any conflict, and even harmoniously. The exhibition was called Trio Acustico, and in that program was represented to the full extent my curatorial interests of the mid-1990s. That was a transitional time, a time when everyone was inspired by the idea of designing new commonalities: both of a new artistic community and of the wider one, a new post-Soviet society. In that exhibition, the idea of dialogue, of acceptance of the other, of co-creation, was not only a subject, but also a principle laid down in the very basis of the project. The criterion by which I invited those three artists was very simple: they were three creators with completely polar positions that were not reducible to each other, which made the realization of the idea of a orced dialogue with the other – that was important to me in that project – particularly intriguing. It was also important that all three were remarkable artists and had their own strong positions.
K.N., V.L.: What does a curator’s involvement in a project mean to you? What is your strategy in working with artists?
VM: During the almost thirty years of my practice, I’ve had to change the type of my curatorial work several times. The curatorial methodology which I’ve just described (in the story of Trio Acustico), I defined back then in the 1990s as that of a ‘curator-moderator’: in that case, the role of the curator was to provoke some interaction between artists, to initiate some process which the curator could later on no longer fully control, and could just partially direct, moderating the dialogue of the participants involved in it. In the 1990s, there were other analogous methodologies on the international scene as well, and the term ‘performative curator’, introduced by Alex Farquharson, became its most well-established description. Back then, I described the methodology in great detail in my text The Hamburg Project: Farewell to the Discipline, as well as in a number of other texts in which I defended the idea that curators and artists were connected by friendship, that the true goal of any project was the formation of a community.
Later, in the 2000s, as well as in the current decade, I turned to a more conventional methodology, that is, to the creation of sometimes quite large-scale thematic and spectacular exhibitions, inviting artists whom I didn’t have to know personally. And still, I tend to believe that everything I formulated in the 1990s reflected the innermost essence of curating, its ethics and mission.
K.N., V.L.: Indeed, the favorable experience which some artists recall of working with a curator is not just connected to their professional relationship. And if we are talking about ‘friendship’ or ‘love’ (Pascal Gielen) between the curator and the artist, to what extent is a detached view then possible for the former, judging from your experience?
VM: Rilke said that ‘the highest task of a bond between two people is that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other’. Friendship is defined by sociologists as a serial type of relationship, that is, friendly relations presuppose not only meetings, but partings as well. In other words, in spite of high affectivity, neither love nor friendship implies a complete identification of one subject with the other. On the contrary, intimacy with the other helps one to better understand one’s difference, and from this, to better understand one’s self. There is further the fact that the subject is not some kind of an integral whole: we open up to the other because we already have a place for them. That’s the inner and positive dialectics of affect. To be more specific, it’s much easier and more efficient for curators to work with artists with whom they have already collaborated, whose strengths and weaknesses they know well.
Generally speaking, the individuality of the curator, his or her professional capital, presupposes, in particular, this well-established system of personal and creative relationships with particular artists
Inviting one or another curator to work on a project, an institution always takes into account this resource: the curator is valuable not only for his or her intellectual position or original exhibitional style, but also for the artists who are behind them, whom the curator can potentially bring to the project.
K.N., V.L.: In the Ukrainian context, some artists working on solo projects say they themselves take on the role of curator, because, in their opinion, no one will formulate their utterance better. What does it mean to ‘be a curator’ in this case? Or is it, rather, a terminological issue here?
VM: I absolutely agree that the artist can perfectly well cope with a solo exhibition project. And not only with a solo one, but with a group one as well. Because if we say that the curator is an artist, this presupposes that the artist can also be a curator. If I explain the emergence of curating by the fact that today art rejects autonomy and the artwork rejects its former self-sufficiency, and that artistic activity begins to search for its place in a dialogue with other practices, then all this argumentation also works to justify the artist’s right to curate. And I may say that several times I had to withdraw from curating artists’ solo projects when it was obvious to me that those projects were fully-fledged, and that I had nothing to do there.
However, I would only mention that by no means all of the artistic poetics found today are assumed to enter curating. For example, the creative work of artist-activists, artists who focus on the formation of communities, on social and media interactions, etc. – the creative work of such artists is, actually, already in an area that mainly coincides with that occupied by curators. It is no coincidence that Joseph Kosuth, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Maurizio Cattelan, Tobias Rehberger, Andrzej Zmijewski, and many others became the creators of wonderful exhibition projects. But at the same time, there are other poetic manners, more subjective, more formal, those related to screen culture, which are less likely to lead to curatorial activities.
K.N., V.L.:Speaking of the modern world of art, which involves different agents, the key role remains with the artist. Nevertheless, there are problems associated with the instrumentalization of art: acts of censorship appear. It is obvious that the curator must be able to balance the opposing sides of the process, or to take sides. How do you manage to balance?
VM: Now that I call the curator a mediator or a moderator, I proceed a priori from his or her mediatory mission, which – and that’s just where you are absolutely right – is not limited only to the coordination of artists’ intentions within the exhibition project. The curator – an independent curator – is between the participating artists and the institution holding a project. In fact, all three parties are interested in the success of the project, which implies their mutual aspiration for understanding and solidarity. And still, each of them has its own vision of success, and these may not coincide, which, in turn, presents an ongoing risk of conflict. Being objective, in this conflict, it is not only the position of the institution which can be vulnerable (for example, when it really censors an overly-radical work of an artist), but also that of the artist, whose requirements may not be completely reasonable. I think there is no perfect, professionally-faultless recipe for resolving these conflicts. Because in trying to solve them, curators act not in the artistic and aesthetic space, but in the social space, and therefore, they use not so much their professional resources, as their purely personal, human ones. They can defuse a conflict by resorting to reasoning, rational arguments, principled stands – or to slyness, manipulations, empty promises, etc. It’s difficult to say in advance what might be ethically objectionable and what might be justified. But the main guiding motivation here is, of course, a project and its creative usefulness, of which every curator is the guarantor. However, if we agree that the ultimate goal of the curatorial project is not just a spectacular exhibition, but also the creation of a community, in the creation of which are involved not only academic knowledge and managerial procedures, but also the affect of friendship, it is inevitable that the usefulness of the project will be evaluated both aesthetically and ethically.
In other words, the curator does not necessarily have to stand up for the artist, but if he or she violates the ethics of friendship while resolving a conflict, it will be his or her professional failure.
K.N., V.L.: Could you please talk about cases where you had to act as the ‘lawyer’ of an artist?
VM: Among the conflicts that have fallen upon my professional life, the most famous one, which has become overgrown with various myths, was fuelled by the collisions of the Stockholm project Interpol in 1996. I will not tell this story in detail; it has a rather complicated narrative and its culmination, as is known, happened on the exhibition opening day, when Oleh Kulyk, playing then the role of a dog, bit members of the respectable audience, and Alexander Brener destroyed the work of the participant from China, Wenda Gu. I described the course and conception of this project in quite some detail in my text Interpol. The Apology of Defeat, which is not hard to find on the Web. Answering your question, yes, in this text, as well as in my other utterances, I have justified the artists who provoked the scandal, although, paradoxically, I myself was far from being fascinated by their actions, and saw an ethically-vulnerable, seamy side to them. My arguments in their favour proceeded right from the logic of the project, which implied a multistage cooperative work, during which the artists delegated to each other the right to utterances of the utmost sincerity and radicalness. Neither was I then nor am I now a supporter of transgressive gestures, but I am ready to admit that these are also a form of communication and dialogue.
K.N., V.L.: Returning to the more conventional methodology that you mentioned previously, please tell me which criteria you follow when choosing artists’ works?
VM: Having withdrawn from procedural projects, naturally, I’ve gotten new opportunities – to involve artists without the need to have already been personally acquainted with them, to include ready-made works in projects, etc. However, the main criterion for me in forming an exhibition is not some autonomous formal qualities of the artworks, but the life-forms put behind them. Previously, I kind of created life-forms with my performative projects that developed in time, and now I’m exploring and describing them as if from the outside.
Hence the themes of my last projects – Impossible Community, the cycle The Human Condition, etc. All of them, in one form or another, work with anthropological and social problems, look for possibilities of human compatibility, and try to determine the outer limits and internal dialectics of what we define as human.
K.N., V.L.: In what forms can the curatorial project exist today? For example, I often happen to hear artists saying that the purpose of their artistic practice is to create a book, which they would then conceive of as their curatorial project.
VM: I must say that, recently, I’ve become interested in turning the exposition of the exhibition into a self-contained show, in giving it some enhanced image integrity, and even preciosity. It’s no coincidence that my latest series of projects begins with an exhibition which I made within the last Venice Biennale, giving it the program name Ornamentalism (2015). It didn’t just thematize the creative work of the artists working with the phenomenon of ornament (of course, not literally, but metaphorically), but it itself was organized as an ornamental show. As for my next exhibition, Elective Affinities, many people have noted that although it represents the creative work of ten participants, it looks like a solo show of one artist, or even like his or her own single installation. And I think that this turn is not only my whim, but also something that comes from the wider moment, intrinsic to many responsive curators and artists. I cannot yet give a programmatic explanation of these dynamics. But I suppose that in this turn of curating to giving the exhibition some programmatic homogeneity, the turn of modern creating to ontological problematics is observed; at these exhibitions, an individual creator’s utterance dissolves in the extra-personal picture of the exposition – into its ornament.
K.N., V.L.: And finally, I have a few questions that will somehow change the direction of our conversation. During a lecture in 2015 in Kharkiv, within the Curatorial Intensive, you said that you were a happy curator because all the projects that you had conceived had been realized. Have you changed your opinion on this issue since then? And could you please say, having many years of experience in curating, what your acquaintances and work with artists mean to you?
VM: I certainly cannot complain about my life. The greater part of what I conceived has been easily accomplished. Or rather, otherwise, I rarely began attempt to realize the projects I myself conceived, and those few attempts I did make turned out to be failures. Usually, I receive offers, and only then start to think of a project; but if there are no offers, I don’t suffer as a result of this. I enthusiastically go in for theoretical writing, and continue the fascinating routine of editing Art Magazine. I think this is the right approach.
There is nothing more pitiful than ‘the curator seeking an commission’: shifty eyes and fussy trajectories on opening days, fawning over officials and oligarchs, a morbid envy of fellow curators’ success, etc.
And I have seen international fellow curators with an unshakable reputation in this state, as it looked from the outside…
As for your second question, I may say that often, my acquaintances who are not involved in the artistic world ask me for what I love modern art, and I reply with a joke, saying that I love not art, but people involved in it. And I must say that it is really so. It’s no coincidence that I gladly go in for academic studies when there’s the opportunity: I’m not interested much in exhibition-making as such. The only reason I agree each time when I receive an offer is for the sake of the prospect of creative communication with artists. I may say that it is they who give me the best advice and ideas. The artists participating in a project are its full-fledged co-creators...
Translated by Julia Didokha (VERBацiя)
Edited by Joe Plommer