Fillip 13 — Spring 2011

Measures of an Exhibition: Space, Not Art, Is the Curator’s 
Primary Material
Carson Chan

May this prize be won by the multitudes recently congregated, and may the promise be fulfilled—Wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times, and the strength of thy salvation.1

To know is to experience, without which one can only believe. When the other disciples told St. Thomas that Jesus had been resurrected, he doubted them, making it clear that only by inserting his finger “into the place of the nails” and his hand into the open wounds would he believe their claim.2 Only through physically prodding Jesus’s unhealed wounds for himself would he know. Knowledge, its formation and attainment, has been a source of philosophical fascination since antiquity, and through technology we have learned to aid ourselves in its acquisition. Knowing one’s purview also increases one’s hunger to know beyond it, and in the nineteenth century, propelled by technological advances in communication, trade, and transportation, this growing desire to know gave rise to a new outlet to meet it, a spectacular type of public enlightenment: the large-scale international exhibition. In 1851, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London showcased the latest developments in commercial and industrial products from around the world, allowing those in or able to get to London firsthand access to information of an unprecedented scope. By the time the exhibition had closed, more than six million visitors had seen the fair’s 100,000 exhibits.3 Though the Great Exhibition did not present any fine art, every international exposition thereafter did, establishing a model for the international art exhibitions that would soon pervade Europe. Before the world expositions, art exhibitions in Europe were mostly fashioned after the French Salon, which displayed paintings as surfaces that covered entire walls. Evolving directly out of the World’s Fair, the large-scale art exhibition became popular as a type of presentation where art signified more than its individual creator and became representative of a national style, a declaration of national identity and strength.4 The first of these government-sponsored art exhibitions was hosted in Munich’s Glaspalast by the Bavarian state in 1869; the most esteemed and enduring of this type is the Venice Biennale, which was inaugurated in 1895.5

Today, both the world expo’s and the large-scale exhibition’s roles as central institutions for the dissemination of new artistic ideas, positions, and discourse in general are largely usurped by more technological forms of communication, including commercial print, television, and, most pervasive today, the Internet. The large-scale exhibition, still extant and once seen as an efficient means to physically communicate new knowledge through display, is now ineffectual compared to the near- instantaneous broadcast of image, text, sound, and video over the Internet. The biennial exhibition’s mission as a measure of artistic zeitgeist—its social networking functions notwithstanding—is rendered redundant when the latest output of information can be accessed online. In recent years, Web sites, blogs, and e-mail messages from museums, galleries, art publications, and, indeed, artists themselves have been driven into a flurry of communiqués. This economy of information traded by arts professionals is energized by a Faustian desire to keep current, in exchange for, or even perhaps at the expense of, the firsthand experience of art. As the Internet becomes the primary medium with which most art practitioners learn about new artworks and exhibitions, the subsequent in situ viewing of artwork constitutes a doubling of the art experience. (This doubling condition is even more apparent with architecture exhibitions, their main component being printed images of buildings that are easily viewable online.) Contrary to St. Thomas’s incredulity, we seem to have confused the thing with its representation, knowledge with hearsay. This doubling phenomenon delivers a new imperative to curators to make exhibitions that provide spatial contexts where artworks, new or familiar, are presented in a way that would require visitors’ physical presence for their full apprehension. Large-scale exhibitions, like biennials, are now predominantly administered by committee and organized by teams to illustrate an agreed-upon thesis.6 They are never singularly authored, despite often being attributed to a single curator. Products of consensus, the resulting shows offer up work from the latest rotation of artists and, unsurprisingly, betray a general sense of interchangeability. The contemporary art show has a recognizable look. In truth, the glut of uniform, routine, and platitudinous exhibition experiences highlights a dimension of exhibition-making that is still quite absent in much of the more rigorous discussions on curating—that space, not art, is the curator’s primary material. 

The ascendance of the curator as auteur occurred parallel to the increasing popularity of the international art exhibition. Starting in the 1960s, when independent European exhibition makers like Harald Szeemann utilized exhibitions as opportunities to enact sociopolitical ideas through the temporary display of art, the role of the curator began its transition from overseer of museum collections7 into free authority and trusted foreseer of developments in contemporary art. Operating as an intermittent collaborator with art institutions, the independent curator needed to connect and mediate disparate discussions about artist selection, budget, display, and thematic concerns that were previously divided amongst museum staff. Their access to artists as well as administrators gave them a unique position and a critical distance from institutional traditions that licensed them to instigate change and question established practices in exhibition making. Szeemann’s benchmark exhibition, When Attitudes Become Form (1969), at the Kunsthalle Bern, was more of a venue for the curator to stage his ideas about the potential powers inherent to the “inner bearing of the artist”8 and how these forces are unleashed in free and wanton attitudes toward material than it was a month-long opportunity to exhibit works of the sixty-nine individual artists involved. Though Szeemann called the exhibition a “compendium of stories told in the first person singular,” it became obvious that the “first person singular” voice he referred to was actually his own, as compiler of disparate practices, media, and styles. The exhibition, not the artwork, became the independent curator’s autonomous object of study, and, as artist and writer Liam Gillick has pointed out, by the 1990s, when art critics started forging more alliances with the commercial world, they effectively abdicated their critical role, which curators inherited. By the 2000s, when the establishment of a large-scale iterative art exhibition came to stand for a city’s cultural maturity, and the curator in both the professional art context and the public’s eye grew in celebrity,9 curators were being hired to produce at such an excessive rate that, to keep up with demand, exhibitions were reconceived as formulaic commodities, consumable through a press release and accompanying images. To provide content for these exhibitions, cosmetically, lectures and discussions were habitually employed as stand-ins until in the 1990s, when these auxiliary programs became normative and even constitutive of exhibition making. Catherine David’s edition of documenta X in 1997 included an insurmountable program of lectures, film screenings, discussions, and poetry readings, called 100 Days—100 Guests, alongside the art displayed. David found the exhibition of visual art unequal to these other formats in representing global contemporary art production. Damningly, she called the art exhibition “merely the support and the vector” of the other forms.10 At museums, the recent favouring of the lectern within the exhibition context has been called New Institutionalism, and critics have observed that its exponents are probably less interested in education as a mode of knowledge production than they are in the sheer quantity of material generated from a “simulation of discourse and a parody of intellectual exchange.”11 Already in 1972, at documenta 5, curated by Szeemann—who once had trust in the public’s reception of ideas through exhibitions—a winter school was set up ostensibly to introduce coherence to the work of the 622 participating artists. documenta 11 (2002) was supported by recurring “platform” seminars, and a leitmotif of documenta 12 (2007) was education itself. Repositioning exhibitions as a corollary or parallel to lectures changed the way they were perceived and consequently produced. Large exhibitions are now often places for the display of artworks that confirm external claims, rather than events that are themselves generators of knowledge. What was meant to reinstate the intellectual function of the form—harmonizing exhibitions with lectures—in fact rendered it void and expressionless in the absence of its pedagogical crutches of textual and oral discourse. Where curators claim intellectual positions in texts and lectures, the attending displays of artwork simply provide illustration. Though unrealized, Manifesta 6, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art 2006, was conceived of as a school—a gesture of revision that traded the expressive potentials of the exhibition form for an extra-institutionally validated organ of intellectual production. What binds these examples is their emptying of the exhibition’s role as an interface between new artistic ideas and the public; a plighted situation fuelled by their curators’ distrust in the exhibition as a place for the production and dissemination of knowledge, a syndrome that has recently been termed curating’s “educational turn.”12

It is clear that the physical encounter with objects, particularly artwork, is singular and non-reproducible, but to what degree can this distinctness be challenged through technological mediation? If representation can never replace its original referent, what constitutes the aforementioned doubling when viewers experience art both online and in physical reality? As for the production of subjectivity—within late capitalism—both object and image are things that are simply other than the self.13 For Jonathan Crary, this subjectivity was shaped in the late nineteenth century alongside technological forms of spectacle, display, projection, attraction, and recording.14 Central to Crary’s thesis is that through the processes of modernization and rationalization, vision has changed from being a mode of optical perception to an effect of the forces of modernity. The features of vision in the twentieth century onwards—its qualities varying in respect to what is being viewed—are that it has no features. “Rather,” Crary states, “it is embedded in a pattern of adaptability to new technological relations, social configurations, and economic imperatives.”15 Crary cites a conversation between Fredric Jameson and Anders Stephanson in which they speculate that as the socioeconomic logic of capitalism perpetuates itself, we’ll be required to accept as natural the condition of switching our attention rapidly from one thing to another. What we see, whether online or in physical reality, is reconfigured into what we pay attention to and for how long. Attention, as it were, is what we can term the various ways of seeing that have become fused by the powers of modernization into an institutionally constructed subjectivity. Inflicted bodily, modernization has made our attention become “both a simulation of and compensation for a chimerical ‘real’ experience.”16 The direct experience is thus outmoded. For the large-scale exhibition that seeks to present new work, our attention to it would most likely be caught first online.

Although the Internet is fast becoming a venue and medium for artwork, art online is relayed mostly through texts, images, and videos. Focusing mainly on installation art, Boris Groys has made a case for reconsidering the classical distinctions between the object and its representation in his essay “Art in the Age of Biopolitics” (2002). Proceeding from his observation that documentation of art has been making its way into art spaces in recent decades, Groys, like Crary, situates our culture within the late capitalist system, but he foregrounds the biopolitical dimension in our lifeworld, where objects and their representation are both produced through a technically supported understanding of life. In a characterization of a post-industrial, biopolitically technological world that finds lineage in the thinking of Giorgio Agamben and Anthony Giddens as well as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Groys elides life and art as being traditionally constituted as pure activity. Art was inaccessible without the production of end results or artwork that signified life. Life, and thus art, as reconfigured through biopolitical technologies like planning, decrees, statistics, and technical documentation, now occurs in time. Life became lifespan, a category inflected by politics, and so art also became automatically political. Groys claims that art made under the regime of biopolitics—art that signifies a lifespan—is by definition artificial, as lifespan is itself artificially wrought through biopolitical technologies. Within this rationalization, the “difference between the living and the artificial is, then, exclusively a narrative difference.”17 Narration, rendered through documentation, “evokes the unrepeatability of living time.” Documentation is able to narrate a history, a fictional ontology that injects the artificial with life. “Art documentation,” Groys concludes, “is thus the art of making living things out of artificial ones, a living activity out of technical practices: it is a bio art that is simultaneously biopolitical.” (“Artificial” here refers to art produced within the age of biopolitics.) Groys continues by updating Walter Benjamin’s well-known assessment of the art original and its loss of aura after it was technically reproduced. For Groys, the real difference between the original and the copy is its proximity to the viewer/consumer. “If we make our way to the artwork, then it is an original,” he says. To wit: individually motivated action defines the status of the object’s authenticity. What Groys calls “make our way to,” Crary would term “pay attention to,” and in both of their ideas we see the directed will of simultaneously mediated and mediating subjects intending their experience such that the experience is produced by the intention. In other words, if art since Duchamp was what the artist willed as art, subjective agency now harbours the ability to will art, at least as a category of perception, from anything. Artwork, or any other trappings of late capitalist culture, alone can never hold down the storm of shifting signifiers, never ensure a consistency of their signification. Even speculatively, this conjecture claims that classical definitions of art and perception are, or will one day be, unrelated to the way we experience and find meaning in artwork.

Perhaps more germane to the comparison between art digitally communicated and art presented at large-scale international exhibitions are art’s immaterial properties, its material and disciplinary solubility within the flow of binary codes. Through a discussion of the evolution of information in maps—from Renaissance portraits of cities and Enlightenment geometries to today’s global positioning systems—Antoine Picon posits that today’s digital maps are “occurrences, events and situations, rather than objects, arrangements, and organizations.”18 Maps and art-making are both forms of cultural production, and their correlation within the context of digital media lies in the peculiar nature of information. Taking information as an occurrence rather than a thing, Picon parallels the thousands of events that structure our lives in cities with the thousands of events that constitute our interaction with digital media such as the Internet. In this way, the once-distinct categories of object and representation, physical and virtual, are conjoined as both become moments that “happen.”19 Picon also notes that the rate at which computation has exponentially increased constitutes a monumental shift in our relationship to it. What was once computable was also foreseeable—say, grain shortage—yet today, “we have become accustomed to a world in which the most unpredictable phenomena [for example, financial markets] are often based on computable processes.”20 In other words, the digital systems we have constructed are gaining steer over physical reality as they grow in verisimilitude, in complexity, and in uncertainty. Though still true today, the notion that art materially encountered expresses more than its online representation will soon shift; its online cognate will not show less, it will show differently.

Without entering into a discussion of the socio-spatial potentials in augmented reality technologies, particularly in mobile telephony, I will point out that the main difference between the apprehension of information-events online and in physical reality is that it is incomparably faster online—hours of travel are atomized to milliseconds of ping-time. Particularly in the art context, information portals like e-flux and e-artnow send out e-mail announcements to hundreds of thousands of recipients each day, notifying a worldwide community of curators, artists, directors, and critics of exhibition openings around the globe. Artists, galleries, and museums are represented by Web sites from which their output can be remotely accessed and consumed in the form of texts, images, videos, and sound recordings. The career of young American artists Daniel Keller and Nik Kosmas, collectively known as Aids-3D, took off online before they were recognized in reality, so to speak. After exhibiting their now-famous OMG Obelisk (2007) in a student exhibition at Berlin’s Universität der Künste—a large black rectilinear column with the letters “OMG” spelled out in electroluminescent wires, flanked on both sides by altar flames—the artists put an animated .gif file on their Web site, the flicker of the flames set in motion by the switch between the .gif’s frames. The transformation of the piece’s physical state into a digital file allowed for its immediate and simple delivery, resulting in its appearance on computer screens around the world. The piece and the artists gained popularity online, and by 2009, the work was materially reconstructed and exhibited at the New Museum, New York, in a group exhibition called The Generational: Younger Than Jesus. By the artists’ own account, both the piece’s online appearance and physical installation are to be seen as a single gesture conceived in toto.21

In this way, OMG Obelisk does not exist in multiples in the traditional sense, but rather in spatial and formal plurality. Even though Web-based art was already institutionally legitimated by its inclusion in documenta X in 1997, it was presented as static and offline, and only now are we seeing an actualization of digital space as ontologically viable and operable for art and its dissemination.22 Already in 1969, artist, critic, and theorist Jack Burnham created a systems theory of art in his article “Real Time Systems,” published in Artforum.23 By transposing the art system into an information system—he called galleries, museums, and art historians “long-term information processing structures”—Burnham separated art from its material incarnation by likening art concepts to software. The “art object is, in effect, an information ‘trigger’ for mobilizing the information cycle.”24 Burnham created a new framework for addressing art without returning to pre-technological categories and definitions. Like software, we can understand art uploaded into various material and non-material hosts. This reconception approaches the shift from art as “material” to “substance” and from “physical” to “mental” processes. As thematized in Jean-François Lyotard’s exhibition Les Immatériaux (1985), it is a shift that seems all the more active today, evinced by the growing number of practices devoted to concepts, performance, atmosphere, and, of course, the Internet.25

So, finally, how is the art experience doubled? How can the curator help reconstitute the first-hand experience, particularly in large-scale exhibitions, from the arbitrating pressures of the late capitalist world? Crary’s reconfiguration of perception into attention, which allows us to compare online and physical experiences of art, together with Groys’s merging of art with its documentation permits a further discussion of alternatives to established practices in exhibition making. Previously, I outlined how large-scale exhibitions have become emptied of their function as an effective survey of the latest artistic ideas, how digital communication has supplanted the large-scale exhibition in this role, and, furthermore, how the Internet is becoming a site in which art is not only represented but actualized and validated. For exhibition makers and curators, this condition presents both a need and opportunity to reposition space, rather than artwork, as the primary material in exhibition making. If art can be apprehended, if not experienced, apart from materiality, the physical exhibition’s raison d’être must be conceived of as an experience structured around the exigencies of tangible space. Particularly for group exhibitions, where artwork by different artists is exhibited within the same space, the matrix of influences and relationships spatially manifested between the works, which forms the context, is always foregrounded, rather than individual artistic statements. The exhibition space, more than a place in which art is displayed, is also the carrier of the combined aims of the artists, curator, and the supporting institutions. As such, the artists’ autonomy, their unique practices, become incorporated into the curator’s motives for the exhibition—the exhibition’s author is the curator, not the sum of the various artistic desires. 

Curators, beyond selecting exhibitors and 
administering the logistics of display, are the mediators between the artwork and its audience. 
If artists are composers, then curators are their musicians; their purpose is to give voice to the artists’ work, their creations, in a way that is intelligible to viewers. The curators’ instrument, the material they shape to deliver the various artistic voices, is the exhibition space. Art installed incorrectly is easily distorted in its intentions. The curator considers the exhibition space’s dimensions, sociohistorical context, expected audience, and infrastructure (e.g., lighting) in making decisions about how and where to locate artwork to generate and mold the parameters of the exhibition experience—the aesthetic and intellectual scope, or purview, of the space. 

El Lissizky’s Abstract Cabinet (1927), first shown at the Landesmuseum in Hanover, has often been cited as an early example of activating the exhibition space itself to express ideas. Creating the small chamber in which paintings were shown, Lissitzky mounted his works along with ones made by other artists on sliding panels that visitors were allowed to move in order to determine the works’ visibility and juxtapositions. The panels were installed on vertical slats affixed onto a grey wall; painted white on one side and black on the other, the room appeared to be a different colour depending on where one stood. Though Lissitzky called for spectators at exhibitions to become active participants rather than passive viewers, the underlying idea was that the design of the displays—spatially manifested as an extension of the art object—would be instrumentalized for the task.26 Employing the exhibition space as the medium of expression does not necessitate the performativity of its surfaces. Instead, the way space is sensually perceived by visitors already provides a store of potential manipulations in which to produce an environment that can express, or at the very least direct, an experience that conveys the intentions of the exhibition. Ultimately, the call for a concerted use of space as a material is a critique of the status quo in exhibition making today. Like images of exhibitions from almost a century ago, the majority of exhibitions today remain devoted to a modernist toolkit of white walls, ceiling mounted lights, paintings hung at eye-level, and “neutrally” placed sculptures that has become the de facto solution for exhibition making. Space is the vehicle for the exhibition’s meaning. How the exhibition space is lit, how the visitor enters, how the artworks are sequentially introduced and encountered, the footfall, the temperature, and the echo are all embodied by the visitor and readily assailable as vocabulary in the burgeoning grammar of curatorial expression.

Giving space to a particular realm between the private institution and the public sphere, exhibitions allow for cultural values to be inscribed collectively, while the way they are experienced forms a subjective position within each visitor.27 The knowledge produced by the exhibition experience, beyond the particular facts imparted, comes from the non-replicable, firsthand sensations specific to the self-directed way each visitor moves about and takes in the exhibition. The exhibition experience, impossible to fully predetermine, can nevertheless be scripted and choreographed by the curator in a way that best conveys both the exhibition’s and the artists’ intentions. Late capitalism mediates our daily life in such a way that the causes of its effects are vague and untraceable; to this condition, the curated exhibition provides contrast. In deliberately shaping the particulars of the exhibition space for the purpose of cultural dissemination, the curator provides a space where the concepts, themes, and ideas—the exhibition’s expression—are directed at the viewers expressly for their acknowledgment. To the degree that a curator can accomplish this within a given time will determine the size of the exhibition. Relieved of its role of uncovering the newest artwork, perhaps the biennial exhibition will decrease in size to focus its resources on the intensity of the visitor’s experience rather than the quantity of displays.

  1. Rev. George Clayton, Sermons on the Great Exhibition, Preached in York St. Chapel, Walworth (London: Benjamin L. Green, 1851), 36.

  2. John 20:25.

  3. Anna Jackson, Expo: International Expositions 1851–2010 (London: V & A Publishing, 2008), 10.

  4. Bruce Altshuler, Salon to Biennial: 
Exhibitions That Made Art History (London: Phaidon, 2008), 12–13.

  5. Ibid., 13.

  6. Nathalie Heinich and Michael Pollak, “From Museum Curator to Exhibition Auteur,” in Thinking About Exhibitions, eds. Bruce W. Ferguson, Reesa Greenberg, and Sandy Nairne (New York: Routledge, 1996), 242. 

  7. For a thorough account of the changing role of the curator, see Robert Fleck, “Teaching Curatorship?” in MJ—Manifesta Journal: Journal of Contemporary Curatorship (Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2008), 25.

  8. Harald Szeemann, “When Attitudes Become Form (Works, Concepts, Processes, Situations, Information)” (London: ICA, 1969), reprinted in Harald Szeemann: with by through because towards despite (Zurich: Edition Voldemeer, 2007), 225. 

  9. At least within the European context, the curator’s growing popularity amongst the general public was articulated in early 2006 by Zitty magazine, a German weekly. The cover story of the March 16 issue, by Birgit Rieger, was titled “Kunst ist Pop.” It likened the space of the gallery opening to a nightclub; both are where people find a semi-public venue for meeting up under the guise of consumption. The cover of this issue asked in bold letters: Are Curators the new DJs? See Birgit Rieger, “Kunst ist Pop,” Zitty, March 16, 2006, 16–19.

  10. Elena Filipovic, “The Global White Cube,” in The Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions and Biennials in Post-Wall Europe, eds. Barbara Vanderlinden and Elena Filipovic (Brussels: Roomade and Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005), 73.

  11. Sven Lütticken, “Once More on Publicness: A Postscript to Secret Publicity,” Fillip 12, 86–91.

  12. Andrea Phillips goes as far as to say that locating both art and education in sites like biennials where they’re aestheticized as disciplines in fact negates the authority of both. See Andrea Phillips, “Education Aesthetics,” in Curating and the Educational Turn, eds. Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson (London: Open Editions, 2010).

  13. Virginia Blum and Heidi Nast, “Jacques Lacan’s Two-Dimensional Subjectivity,” in Thinking Space, eds. Mike Crang and Nigel Thrift (London: Routledge, 2000), 183.

  14. Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001). 

  15. Ibid., 13.

  16. Ibid., 361.

  17. Boris Groys, “Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation,” documenta 11, trans. Steven Lindberg (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2002), 108–14. 

  18. Antoine Picon, Digital Culture in Architecture (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2010), 193.

  19. Ibid., 195.

  20. Ibid., 197.

  21. Alex Gartenfeld, “Aids-3D in Real Life,” Interview, September 2, 2009,, accessed June 30, 2010. 

  22. Sarah Cook, “Immateriality and Its Discontents: An Overview of Main Models and Issues for Curating New Media,” in New Media in the White Cube and Beyond, ed. Christine Paul (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 29.

  23. Jack Burnham, “Real Time Systems,” Artforum 8, no. 1 (September 1969), 49–55. 

  24. Charlie Gere, Art, Time and Technology (Oxford: Berg, 2006), 127.

  25. Jean-François Lyotard, “Les Immatériaux,” in Thinking About Exhibitions, 162–65. Furthermore, tracing beyond Jack Burnham’s milieu, from which Conceptual art began, Robert Zimmer has detailed how all art springs forth from concept and that the perception of it constitutes the primary strategy for interpreting and recreating the world. See Robert Zimmer, “Abstraction in Art with Implications for Perception,” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 358, no. 1435 (July 2003), 1288.

  26. Judith Barry, “Dissenting Spaces,”
in Thinking About Exhibitions, 308.

  27. Charlotte Klonk, Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800 to 2000 (New Haven: Yale University 
Press, 2009).

Image: Franz Erhard Walther, Sockel, vier Bereiche (Keeping the Canvas Square in Shape), number 49 and Connection (Head), number 31, from 1. Werksatz, 1967. Photo by Timm Rautert. Courtesy of Peter Freeman, New York.

About the Author

Carson Chan is an architecture curator and writer. He is co-founder of PROGRAM, a non-commercial initiative for art and architecture collaborations in Berlin. He is a contributing editor to 032c magazine and has recently been appointed curator of the 4th Marrakech Biennale (2012), with Nadim Samman.

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