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The Curatorial Conundrum

by Paul O'Neill, Mick Wilson and Lucy Steeds, Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2016
352 pp., illus. 100 b/w. Paper, £24.95
ISBN: 9780262529105.

Reviewed by Edith Doove
Transtechnology Research
University of Plymouth


The Curatorial Conundrum is in many ways a problematic book. On the one hand it identifies the state in which the curatorial finds itself, and on the other hand it epitomises if not enhances the conundrum by posing in bold black lettering against an orangey background three desperate questions "What to Study? What to Research? What to Practice?" Put on their side and in three different fonts they stress the desperation. The back cover makes clear that these are however just sub-questions to an overarching one: "Given that curating has come to occupy a central critical, political, and practical space within the global 'contemporary', how will its unfolding futures be imagined and actualized, and what is to be done?" Either the graphic designer has done an excellent job or a terrible curatorial faux pas has been made.

In their introductory essay the editors Paul O'Neill, Mick Wilson, and Lucy Steeds identify, in a problematically dense and jargon-heavy use of language, three important developments that frame the critical essays in this volume. First, they see the rapid and global expansion of curatorial educational programs and platforms since the late 1980s and early 1990s both allowing for the publication of this volume, but also as part of the problem as a Eurocentric professionalization of practices still prevails tending to generate canonical understandings. The editors further identify a "re-setting of the tension between curating-as-display-making (the exhibitionary) and curating-as-expanded-practice (the curatorial)" over the years to a less dichotomous situation of interchange. Thirdly the editors point to an "inflated art system (…) entangled with dispersed and divergent critical fronts that contest the hegemonic construction of 'the contemporary' exclusively in terms of globalizing capital and (Eurocentric) normative 'development' narratives." In short: an over-inflation of educational programs, an increasingly blurred distinction or self-inflicted confusion between curating and the curatorial plus the hegemony of an art market in a combined effort don't allow for what the editors call 'alterity' but what also could just be called a recognition or freedom of creative thinking and practice.

Luckily many of the ensuing 22 essays from international contributors, both practitioners and theorists that try to answer the overarching question are more straightforward. Among them are some 'usual suspects' such as Hans Ulrich Obrist (on the importance of the past for future practices), Liam Gillick (on the incomplete curator) and Lucy Steeds (on the danger of canonization), but also many relatively new voices from around the globe. Many curators and artists such as Nikita Yingqian Cai (on the autonomy of art), Nancy Adajania (on the autodidact as researcher), Miguel A.Lopez (on Latin American exhibitions) or eminence grise Luis Camnitzer (on education), to name just a few, give long overdue thought provoking insights from a non-European perspective. Among the essays is a surprising amount of first person statements, discussing individual projects or experiences. Together with the somewhat arbitrary image section at the back of the book this might be due to the fact that the book is a follow up of the symposium with the same subject and largely the same contributors organised at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College in November 2014.

Overall the project is both praiseworthy and problematic for both identifying the conundrum and trying to find a way out, but also for digging it further in with so many more potentially canonical how-to declarations. The distinction between the three subdivisions is not always very clear as various contributions would equally well function in any of them, but the book will no doubt find its way as a useful and obligatory reader in one or several of the many curatorial educational programs and platforms mentioned before. Its ultimate success will however be highly dependent on whether or not it will truly engender new and inventive curatorial practices without falling in the pitfalls it identifies.

Last Updated 1 July 2016

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