Curating after the Global: Roadmaps for the Present

Curating after the Global: Roadmaps for the Present
by Paul O’Neill, Simon Sheikh, Lucy Steeds, Mick Wilson, Editors

The MIT Press, Cambridge, UK, 2019
544 pp., illus., 60 col. Trade, $39.95
ISBN: 9780262537902.

Reviewed by
Edith Doove
March 2021

Published in 2019 the hefty volume of Curating after the Global: Roadmaps for the Present has been sitting on my desk for most of 2020 I must admit. I had requested it for review as it seemed to be a timely response on the current state of curating, and I was curious to read what the same editors that also brought us The Curatorial Conundrum (2016) or What Institutions Think (2017) had compiled as a possible answer. Based on a conference with the same title in 2017 at Luma Arles in France one could say that the publication was already relatively late. It was however also bitterly overtaken by last year’s event that I don’t even have to name, which the editors could never have prevented and that was nevertheless global as well. I imagine that the team is already preparing the next itinerary as a response to the current crisis in which culture and exhibitions are largely branded as “non-essential” and that saw me personally develop a new way of curating an exhibition abroad by using WhatsApp as a tool. The time of monsters, as indicated by Simon Sheikh quoting Zizek in his introduction to Curating after the Global, has indeed arrived.

But also without that current crisis, that actually might be seen as part and parcel of the monstrous situation it describes, Curating after the Global already has more than enough on its plate. It responds to the phenomena of a globalized (art) world of which contemporary art with its now almost countless international biennials and art fairs can no doubt be seen as one of the drivers. Curating after the Global tries to formulate an answer to this ongoing conundrum by addressing it in three sections: Diagnoses of the Current Conjuncture, Exhibition Histories, and Institutional Re-Positioning. Of these sections the first one is a rather top heavy, predominantly political analysis, whereas the second section tries to offer hope by discussing projects that refuse “to engage with the global as driven by capitalist marketing, finance and data management” (p.227). The third section evolves mainly around “Instituent Solidarities toward the End of Western-Centric Globalism” as Paul O’Neill calls his introduction.

Although for a large part certainly fascinating and informative, I find this volume at the same time troublesome. This might be a personal issue. Having started by own curatorial career in 1987 by ‘just’ making exhibitions and eventually getting interested in them as a form of research, I observed with suspicious eyes the development of ‘the curatorial’ and especially the seemingly endless stream of publications that surrounded it. At times this let to interesting insights, but as Yaiza Hernandez Velazquez suggests in her contribution “a philosophy of ‘the curatorial’ is at risk of turning into philosophy minus the confrontation with philosophy’s problematic history, that is to say, of turning into pseudo-philosophy” (p.260). It speaks in the editors favour that the volume brings together various contributors that at times questions the notion of “after the global” and putting it back into context. Although I am certainly far from averse to a theoretical approach of curating and thus not one of those that urges curators to stick to the craft as Hernandez Velazquez describes it, I do feel that at times the elephant in the room is more than overlooked. Curating and the curatorial these days are certainly not exclusively about art as the terminology has been inflated to include practically any organizing activity. The lack of art per se and the caring for art, seems however at the heart of the problem. When Paul O’Neill in his Postscript writes about exhibitions as being a form of escape for art to just being art, I slightly despair and probably many artists with me. Might this volume than be proof of a final deficit of the curatorial? Or at least of how it is currently being practised? Despite the fact that there’s much talk about care, collaboration and attention for the other in the various contributions, the volume still seems to miss the point.

More than once the feeling arises that much of what is here being described as ‘Roadmaps for the Present’ comes down to reinventing the wheel which might have been avoided by a closer observation of what is being developed by artists and curators that continue their craft without the burden of the curatorial blowing in their neck all the time. The global indeed often reigns at cost of the local or the small. Quite symbolically maybe this is also the case for the publication itself. At first sight it is beautifully designed, with extensive colour pages dedicated to the installation ‘Slow Rolls and Monopoles’ by Emmanuelle Lainé shown at Luma Arles during the conference in 2017. At times the contributions lack however images, especially if they describe art works or practices. Ironically it is exactly design or more specifically ‘design thinking’ where Prem Krishnamurthy and Emily Smith take refuge to in order to develop a new curatorial methodology, which they call Responsive Curating, much of which seems actually to be the daily practice for the average professional curator. Despite all the care that managing editor Gerrie van Noord talks about in her ‘final word’ and that she no doubt puts into her work, the footnotes must have escaped this care since they are printed in such a light silver grey that they have become as good as unreadable. Since especially in her section they take up most of the page this becomes problematic. Skipping the footnotes might be exactly the point where things go wrong.

Having gone through most of the contributions in detail and having read many with interest, it seems that despite all good intentions nothing much seems to have changed since The Curatorial Conundrum except for how the world functions these days. Maybe it’s finally time for a radical overhaul of the curatorial as the one and only ‘Road for the Present’?