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31 Jul 2018 / by Ben Vickers

The Curatorial Role: 'Participate, Don't Dominate'

A large robotic sculpture of a scorpion made out of black metal sits in a desert landscape under a bright blue sky.

A moving, fire-breathing scorpion sculpture at the Burning Man event in Nevada. Photo by radcliffe_photos. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

‘How has the curatorial role expanded today?’ Ben Vickers, Chief Technology Officer at Serpentine Galleries, London, contributes his insights below.

The internet and information technology have given rise to parallel art worlds that do not play by the rules of the dominant-art-world industrial complex. DIY maker culture is booming, more than 246 million pieces of art have been submitted to DeviantArt, the Nordic LARP scene is growing exponentially, and people at Burning Man are building industrial-scale kinetic works like this fire-breathing robot scorpion. All of this indicates the decentralisation of authority in the art world: traditional institutions and curators are no longer seen as purveyors of contemporary culture.

Monochrome photograph of a group of people dressed in old-fashioned clothing in a room with a black and white checkered floor.

A LARP in Helsinki. Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

To understand what's happening, consider how artists have embraced and been absorbed by digital culture:

  • New services, platforms, and technologies allow individuals and collectives to command the production, distribution, and promotion of their work to reach broader audiences than ever before.
  • Many artists consider the display of work in a gallery not as its primary site of experience, but as a single point in a network of many possible spaces and modes of display.
  • Artists now utilise personal branding as a tool for fluid production, building audiences larger than those they might find through individual, long-standing institutions.
  • Work made now with a networked perspective is usually contingent on situation and context, rather than on style, content, message, or school.
  • Many artists recognise the banality of the Internet in our everyday lives.

Meanwhile, traditional institutions and curators don't seem to be embracing this networked perspective in the same way. In recognising that something is amiss, many of these institutions have begun to zone in on the mantra of 'digital', as if carving out a 'digital space' or 'digital department' will save them from irrelevance or somehow reclaim their legitimacy. Often this is addressed by singling out artists and artworks as medium-specific, as if the 'digital' is somehow a contemporary equivalent to painting as a genre. But this isn’t true, and it misses the fundamentals of what’s actually at play.

A group of people in an empty room with wooden walls and a dirt floor. Around half of the people are lying on the ground. One of the standing people is pouring liquid onto the people on the ground from a green gasoline tank.

A LARP in Helsinki. Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen. CC BY-NC 2.0

Why are many long-established institutions and curators reluctant to embrace these cultural shifts? Here are a few of my observations:

  • Institutions remain extremely risk averse. They’re slow to change, struggle to adapt, and ineffective when it comes to innovation.
  • They're hierarchical. Their top-down organisational structure stifles the ability to connect, collaborate, create agency, and empathise with horizontal networks and communities.
  • Culturally, they strive for perfection and originality. They don't recognise that failure and iterative processes are effective mechanisms for self-improvement.
  • They love the centralisation of authorship. Exhibitions, notions of genius, and individualised artistic production have a tendency to claim originality under singular authorship rather than acknowledge creation as part of a larger collaborative effort.

For institutions and the traditional art world to engage with these parallel art worlds and remain generative in the face of colossal change will require profound and radical experimentation that challenges our basic assumptions about art, exhibition-making, and curatorship. For this to be a positive change benefitting the greatest number of people, it is critical to go forward with a mantra of 'participate, don't dominate'.

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Ben Vickers is a curator, writer, explorer, technologist, and luddite. He is CTO at the Serpentine Galleries in London and an initiator of the open-source monastic order unMonastery.

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