Every two years, the Whitney Biennial offers the world an assessment of the state of contemporary art, but the ensuing debate often seems less about the art than the curating. The role of the curator in the art world is fast becoming the ultimate artistic stance in the same way that painting once dominated the visual arts. Now that they seem a little drastic, but the agenda of the curator has become the flash point for the definition of contemporary art. It would seem that the outcome of the global survey shows is not dependent on the art being made in the world, but on a “type of art” that the curator is using to define what art is according to his or her theoretical or political paradigm. Emerging in the art world during this period of intense focus on the curator are two young women who have been “curating without the curator,” as collaborator Tara McDowell describes her process with partner Letha Wilson. Together they have presented two shows and are currently organizing Majority Rules!, an innovative two-part show that will be exhibited at the Free Gallery in Glasgow and on the internet. Majority Rules!, perhaps their most ambitious project with over 350 participating artists, has the potential to bypass the individual will of the curator for the sweep of collective consciousness through its novel filtering procedure.
The two-part show has a democratic premise: the audience will vote for their favorite works and the top five winners will be part of a group show at the space in Glasgow. The first half of the show will run June 22nd-July 27th, 2002, where the slides of 357 international artists will be projected on the gallery walls and shown concurrently online at www.freegalley-glasgow.co.uk. There the idealism of democracy will be tested by the artists’ influence either through lobbying, ballot stuffing, or rabid self-promotion. Though, ballot-stuffing is disallowed, lobbying is expected. Majority Rules! has similar Darwinian overtones as the spate of reality television programming. That is just one of the interesting aspects of Tara and Letha’s latest curatorial experiment.
The two collaborators met three years ago working at Artists Space, where Tara was the gallery manager and Letha coordinated the Irving Sandler Artists File. Together the developed Curatorial Proposal, a seemingly simple idea for an exhibition. “We chose the first 3 people who submitted work to the Artists File on a randomly determined day and give them a group show,” Letha explained. Tara added that artists were fully informed of the nature of their inclusion—“It was pure chance.” The show was partly a response to their bleak assessment of unsolicited slide submissions to established galleries. Tara, a curatorial associate at San Francisco MoMA, elaborated on the notion: “I think Curatorial Proposal came out of the by and large across-the-board way curators deal with unsolicited submissions. The fact is that artists blindly submit their work to places such as Artists Space that have a certain cachet for launching careers with the romantic notion that they will be discovered that they will discovered and have their big break, or ‘winning the prize’. It’s about grabbing onto that first rung on the ladder to your retrospective. What is less talked about is the way these slides are barely looked at and then returned with the standard “Sorry, No” letter. By removing the curator from the process, Tara and Letha magnified the effects of chance and luck in getting shown, or even looked at.
Letha, currently an MFA student at Hunter College, saw the show as a way to express that notion. “Sometimes it is very dependent on timing or luck, maybe you were doing a show on dogs and you have dogs in your work and you send it in that week. We were interested in this idea of luck or a factor of chance in how you get shown, and aside from being good and having a curator choose you that there’s all these other factors that help choose you that there’s all these other factors that help artists get shown.” The show itself was eclectic, as could be expected, and it included transcripts of the dialogue that went into making the show and a series of talks on curatorial practice. Beyond the curatorial idea, Letha and Tara found that the artists’ were able to come together and create a compelling show, out of opportunity and the legitimacy the gallery provided to their work. Letha wondered aloud, “The audience sees a show at artists space and assumes “good”, that its good if someone chose it, what if you put some work in there that wasn’t chosen,” pointing out the way audiences defer to curatorial judgment.
After Curatorial Proposal, they put together (Your Show Here) at Mass MOCA. Through the show they questioned the authority of the curator and the museum by allowing each audience member to curate their own ‘virtual’ show of projected slides from a database of 140 iconic 20th century artists. “You can put your Picasso next to the Giacometti sculpture. Lisa Yuskavage and Bruce Nauman in the corner,” Letha said potential to create an exhibit that would probably never happen. According to the press release for the show, the audience members were invited to curate a virtual show from a computer terminal, write a statement, and give the show a title. The works would then be projected at the original scale of the art. Each exhibition would last until the next user finished curating their show. Tara and Letha feel that the show “reveals the power of images to tell vastly different stories and disclose conflicting truths, highlighting the subjectivity inherent in arranging, presenting and finally, viewing works of art.” Having the show take place at the Mass MOCA also brought a very different audience that the New York art world. Families and children curated exhibition, where Letha noted that children would curate according to sets of rules, often with humorous results.
Letha and Tara bring complimentary points of view to their projects. Letha prefers to think of herself as an artist that is using curatorial practices as a medium, not merely an artist who happens to be curating. Letha states, “The show at Mass MOCA was referred to as our piece. Tara was like “Am I an artist?” I have a problem though, my family accuses me of wanting to become a curator, but I come at this like an artist. I see it more as artwork, though it’s very hard to. It’s not something that can easily fit a category. I see it like a form of installation.” Tara works within the practice bringing her experience and knowledge of the discipline to each show.
Tara is distinctly aware of the shift in focus from the art to the curator. She says, “Curatorial practice has become so professionalized recently that it’s as if the method of curating is as much on display and being critiqued as the work itself. It used to be that the curator was a much more shadowy figure. With the emergence of institutional critique the curator was exposed, rightly, as someone making choices about what we saw and how it was presented. Now we have celebrity curators who aren’t about to remain in the shadows.” She couldn’t be more right, as the Times recently ran a Sunday Magazine feature on the curator of Documenta and proposed he might follow up Documenta by running for General Secretary of the U.N. While sounding almost ridiculous, the article suggests the great power and recognition wielded by contemporary curators on an international stage. Tara sees the negative in the curator overshadowing the art, but it is a fact that must be acknowledged. She notes that putting the curator aside would be regressive. She argues that each curator brings a taste and style that is identifiable in a way that pluralist art cannot, and the best curators are ones who listen and can synch well with the artists to create meaningful shows.
Majority Rules!, their third collaboration, creates an interesting paradox that is indicative of the problematic role of the curator as a necessary arbiter of taste. The show has 357 artists, and because of the open submission process there is a vast range in the quality of the work. The sheer quantity of images will put anyone to task to find the top five in the lot, but the challenge is compounded by having to recognize a kernel of greatness in a single slide. While there will not be any intervention on Letha and Tara’s end, they have already succeeded in making their curatorial point by stepping aside and letting the audience see what it is like to have to curate a show; one without any discernable agenda. It’s not an open call for art about a specific theme, so the audience has nothing to go on except their own vague suppositions about quality and originality. It begs the old question “What is the art?”
The show came about while Letha was studying in Glasgow, a city that she extols for its open atmosphere and willingness to embrace new, experimental spaces and shows. “It’s a lot more accessible. You have a show like this and get attention, you don’t have to be a name gallery to get a write up in Timeout Glasgow,” she said, adding “It’s more relaxed; the social structure is not so set in stone.” A flyer from the then just relaunched Free Gallery requesting curatorial proposals came across her desk. She sent in a proposal, and the show evolved from there.
Free gallery, run by Robb Mitchell, is “a funky space,” according to Letha. “They have massage classes in there so sometimes while the gallery is closed. It’s very artists run.” The gallery seems typical of the support for arts in Europe, and indicative of the de-emphasis of profit, allowing for interesting experiments to develop. Assembling the show with Robb’s help presented many logistical problems, such as how to show the slides with a visible number to vote for. Letha devised a scheme where she punched a hole in the slide mount and placed a transparent film with a number over the hole to allow for easy voting (only one artist declined to have their slide punched). Tara and Letha also had to scan all the slides and create a unique website to present the images online. The task became much more daunting than originally planned and consumed a great deal of their time. According to Letha, artists are already including the 1st part of Majority Rules! on their resumes, since each part is a separate exhibition.
Tara was amazed at the influx of artists. She states “I think what has surprised me is this kind of giddy sense of community; it’s as if we’ve harnessed this amazingly diverse swath of artists unintentionally. The return of just some e-mails and fliers, not much of a PR effort. I have no idea how people in China and Mexico, for example, found out about it, but it’s great.” The growth of the show has Letha considering adjustments to the voting format in the second half exhibition schedule. “We are going to do the ballot where you vote for your top five choices, but I said people can write in votes. We might make a category for honorable mentions, I know I’d vote for more than five,” but she adds jokingly “The only thing I’m worried about is an 80 way tie. You’d have to have a run off. The winners of the show will present new logistical problems depending on the scale of their art, which may force Tara and Letha to make adjustments to the 2nd part of the exhibition.
For Tara and Letha, now on opposite coasts, the distance is irrelevant, as they have been doing their collaborations from different cities since (Your Show Here). In fact, Letha was in Glasgow for part of the time they worked on the show. Their kind of curatorial practice seems important and necessary, which is why it is good that they will be continuing to curate projects at Free Gallery indefinitely. They also want to bring (You Show Here) to other institutions in New York and beyond. Tara notes rightly that “What happens is that theme or group shows are so panned that curators mount one-person shows instead. They’re safer and almost always received better. That is a problem because we still crave an assessment of the state of things and these days it seems we mainly get that from biennials (dozens across the globe now), most of which suffer identity crises.” There is a predictable pattern to curating these days, and that should be cause for alarm. The experimental nature of Tara and Letha’s curatorial approach offers the possibility of something unique occurring that might make audiences see through the agendas.
Back to the Whitney Biennial for a moment and the collective shrug that New Yorkers share in the weeks after the opening. Tara observed that “Another trend in curating seems to be what I’ll call the ‘Reactionary Syndrome’ Case in point is the Whitney Biennial. In recent history it has reinvented itself each time by attempting to correct the shortcomings of the previous episode. Somber, sterile, and boring shows turn into shoulder-shrugging, devil-may-care youth extravaganza. You can probably predict what the next biennial will be what this one is not. This happens because everyone is always so hard on the current rendition, so that it crawls back into its hole and tries to fix itself. I truly admire curators that take on this task. I certainly don’t think I could get it right.”
It is a difficult task to take the pulse of the art world, as Tara points out. The need for assessment, “What is contemporary art?”, has become so important and difficult that it has made he curator and obvious figure or in the case of the Whitney, a favored target. Curators’ attempts at defining art, through certain agendas, often seem exclusionary or limited to certain kinds of art making. This comes at the expense of the art itself, which often tries very hard to remain unclassifiable; to bedevil curators and institutions that seek to put everything in a box. What Tara and Letha bring is an attempt at making the role of the curator less about defining art, but experimenting with what a show is, how it is put together, and who is doing it. They ask the audience to stop accepting the judgment of the curator or institution in favor of active engagement, literally and conceptually, depending on their show. This approach seems truer to contemporary art than having über-curators tell us just exactly what art is.