According to curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, the best term to describe his job might be “junction-maker.” With his exhibitions at the Serpentine Galleries in London, where he is artistic director, he wants to create connections “between not only objects, but also people,” he told a packed room this past Friday at the Armory Show in New York.
In his talk, titled “Exhibition Making in the 21st Century,” Obrist offered a far-reaching vision of the role of curators, today and in the future. The keynote of a larger curatorial summit, the address was both urgent (one of his favorite words), as he discussed “exacerbating inequality,” and inscrutable, as he enthusiastically proposed “an architecture which enables people to think the unthinkable,” an idea he attributed to the English architect Cedric Price. It was, in other words, a typically endearing performance for him.
To curate, Obrist explained, is to preserve. “I think curating involves a daily protest against forgetting,” he said, arguing that using the newest technologies available to make exhibitions is essential to that process. He talked at length about artificial intelligence, noting that artists are grappling with its uses and drawbacks.
“We need new experiments in art and technology,” Obrist said. For the Serpentine, he has embraced the potential of digital exhibitions. An app by Ian Cheng, a digital commission from the Serpentine, will live on the museum’s website forever, and Obrist pointed out that, with shows hosted online, one never has the sad experience of deinstalling a project. (The Serpentine’s current Ian Cheng and Sondra Perry shows, which are installed physically in London, are also rather technology-centric, utilizing an artificial nervous system, blue screens, 3-D avatars, open source software, and more.) “Exhibitions have a limited lifespan,” he said, “[but] digital exhibits don’t end.”
Obrist’s speech was followed by a panel called “Collapsing Structures,” which focused on art institutions’ obligation to take political and social stands. Moderated by El Museo del Barrio’s executive director, Patrick Charpenel, the panel—which included the Swiss Institute’s director, Simon Castets; curator Michy Marxuach; artist Carlos Motta; and the Queens Museum’s former executive director, Laura Raicovich—offered ways of subverting historically oppressive systems.
Raicovich, the first to speak, recounted the events that led up to her resignation from the Queens Museum earlier this year. She began by stating that she wants to “challenge the idea that museums have some kind of neutrality,” which is often used “to reject different viewpoints.”
Ultimately, Raicovich believes that art institutions must act on their purported values and interests. “Part of what I wanted to say today was about the values that cultural institutions espouse and how they talk very specifically about engaging with many different cultures,” Raicovich said. And yet, she continued, “we’re not actually doing and working the way that we say that our values are in the world.” Her term at the Queens Museum was a stand against that, she said. Marxuach echoed Raicovich’s message, adding that we should all “put forward hard questions” to institutions and their boards.
One artist who’s taken that to heart is Motta, who discussed a project that began in 2011 titled “Gender Talents”—an online archive of video portraits of trans and intersex activists. The project is international and ongoing, but Motta spoke specifically about his work in Guatemala, where he collaborated with Red Multicultural de Mujeres Trans de Guatemala, a grassroots organization in Guatemala City that was founded by and for transgender women, to create video portraits of members of the group.
With these portraits, Motta hoped to create discussion around the organization’s work, which is centered on racial justice and the empowerment of trans women. In one instance, Motta screened the videos exclusively for various NGO groups (selected by the women he collaborated with) and an audience of 300 trans women, including women of indigenous descent. “There was a certain kind of piercing of that institutional framework,” Motta said, since the artist and members of the organization he worked with decided to prioritize the interests of individuals traditionally excluded from the Biennial de Arte Paiz, where the piece first debuted.
What did the panel’s title mean, anyway? Castets said that he’s been thinking a lot lately about what it means to collapse a structure, since he’s been preparing to reopen the Swiss Institute, long a resident of SoHo in Manhattan, in the East Village. “It is our responsibility to contribute to our neighborhood in a thoughtful way,” he said, and added that he plans to do this by working with community organizations. There’s “another idea of collapsing, meaning to bring things together,” he said.
“Collapsing,” Castets said, “doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation.”