Fillip 13 — Spring 2011

On Carnival and 
Contractual Curating
Claire Tancons and Jesse McKee

Claire Tancons is a curator from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe who is now based in New Orleans. For the past five years, Tancons has dedicated her work to the study of Carnival. Specifically, her research, writing, and exhibitions have explored and scrutinized Carnival practices from the Caribbean, South America, and Africa, arguing for these “New World” (i.e., modern) celebrations of Carnival to become part of art historical and contemporary art narratives. Tancons has pushed for the recognition of Carnival as more than a form of popular entertainment or ethnological curiosity. At the 7th Gwangju Biennale (2008), Annual Report: A Year in Exhibitions, directed by Okwui Enwezor, Tancons, one of the curators, organized the mobile exhibition Spring, which took the form of a procession, lasting ninety minutes and showcasing the work of Carnival designers and contemporary artists alike. A series of costumes, floats, and elaborate kinetic sculptures were activated by hordes of local students as the procession played out in the streets of Gwangju. Spring’s rallying point was upon its arrival at the city’s Democratic Plaza. This exhibition reverberated distantly but poignantly with the local history of Gwangju, which is probably best known as the site of a crucial popular uprising in May 1980. This uprising, which was spurred by a constellation of students, labour unions, and religious organizations, is largely seen as a key catalyst in the overthrow of South Korea’s postwar military dictatorship. Spring was able to combine the language of Carnival, the apparatuses of contemporary art, and the history of Gwangju into a perfect synthesis of what theorist Irit Rogoff sees as the intensifying relationship between the circuits of art and cultural globalization. In this decentralized network, where biennials play a major role, research, exchange, and dialogue use specific local features to illuminate regional conditions in various parts of the world. As a result, new conversations take place between the political, social, and economic. 

Rogoff states that conversations such as these are “located in the aftermath of colonialism, diffusionism, and post-colonial self-constitution on the one hand, and on the other hand within their concomitant, ever growing diasporas.”1 Tancons successfully used her local and scholarly knowledge of Carnival to inform Spring’s theoretical mapping. The platform of the biennial served as the exhibition’s machinery, and the buoyant public sphere of South Korea served as its fuel. This procession format for an exhibition has also been enacted by Tancons as part of CAPE 09 in Cape Town, South Africa, and a future procession in this style is planned for the inaugural run of the Harlem Biennial in 2012.

Jesse McKee: I wanted to start with something that has been on my mind lately. It is this gap between curatorial framing and the reality of the exhibition. In his essay “What’s the Point of Art Centres Anyway? Possibility, Art and Democratic Deviance,”2 Charles Esche states: “Reality can never match the rhetoric though it does not mean that the rhetoric itself is not needed.” I was hoping you might be able to elaborate on this idea—your procession format for an exhibition is wonderfully succinct in this regard. As you’ve previously written, the thinking and the practice of your exhibitions are coterminous. 

Claire Tancons: Let me start with an anecdote. I was at an international curatorial conference organized by UC [University of California] Santa Cruz Museum and Curatorial Studies entitled The Task of the Curator: Translation, Intervention and Innovation in Exhibitionary Practice. A young curator presented an exhibition in which she featured faux skeletons of the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny, designed specifically to counter audience expectations about the museum’s mission to present authentic cultural artifacts. I presented my research and curatorial practice on Carnival. Hardly surprisingly, it is much more difficult to legitimize Carnival as a topic worthy of artistic appraisal and curatorial attention than the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny. 

Three things quickly became apparent within the context of the conference. First, invented artifacts around Western cultural icons have way more currency and legitimacy than actual objects and practices that fall outside of the Euro-American canon. Second, curators are reluctant at best, unwilling for the most part, to envision curatorial practice outside not just the physical space of the gallery but the frame of reference of the museum, i.e., Western models of cultural presentation, conservation, and preservation. Third, art institutions are comfortable exhibiting only a very small percentage of the world’s cultural production and addressing an even smaller percentage of the world’s cultural consumers.

Where I come from, though, the Caribbean, and where I currently reside, New Orleans, Carnival and festivals are the cultural mainstream; the dominant display model for culture is the parade or the procession. This cultural context is my “reality” considering Esche’s quote. So is my curatorial rhetoric around the idea of the artistic contract matching my curatorial practice of the Carnival-inspired procession, and, if so, how? The answer might lie in the success of my first procession project and the semi-failure of the second. 

I started to develop the idea of the artistic contract as such in Spring, the text that accompanied (and preceded) the making of the eponymous project: If the avant-garde—as an actual position of leadership as opposed to a metaphorical one, long derided by the proponents of postmodernism—is the strategic and ethical position in which artists should always strive to be, they should all become masmen, leaders of carnival bands or public demonstrations of thousands to whom liberatory, if temporary, power would be conferred through collective artistic creation. Through carnival and other similar public manifestations, the social contract is constantly re-negotiated, turned into an artistic contract between the artist-leader and the viewer-participant that, ironically, best realizes the postmodernist ideal of the viewer completing the artwork, as carnival bands only exist insofar as potential revelers are willing to join in....3

Spring, a ninty-minute, two-hundred-strong procession, took place on September 5, 2008, on the official opening night of the 7th Gwangju Biennale. It was inspired by the May 18 Democratic Uprising and featured the work of five artists—three of whom adapted projects from Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Port-of-Spain, and Port-au-Prince—created in collaboration with and performed by students from Chosun University and other educational institutions. It garnered instant critical and popular accolades.

A Walk Into the Night staged a symbolic exodus in Cape Town’s city centre as the opening event of CAPE 09, the 2nd Cape Town Biennial, on May 2, 2009, to commemorate Apartheid-era forced removals. The project was embattled from the beginning, which led to a controversy reported in the local media and a rather mitigated critical reception. I came to understand the experience of both projects as testaments to and tests for my curatorial rhetoric of the artistic contract. 

How could the artistic contract function in Cape Town, South Africa, where the social contract has been broken for so long or never really existed? Did the artistic contract come into effect in Gwangju on account of that city’s role in South Korea’s democratization movement?

My curatorial model of the procession, which comes out of my research into Carnival and interest in movement culture, is constantly negotiating “the difficult terrain between engagement and autonomy,” to quote Esche from the same text. It is dependent upon a contractual relationship between artists and audiences, artistic practice, and audience participation, therefore making it impossible to exist as pure rhetoric and as pure aesthetics.

Jesse McKee: Let’s follow up on this mirroring of trends in your practice. In some of your own writing and others’ writing, your practice has been positioned or affiliated around relational aesthetics. For some years now, we have seen the pitfalls and hazards of the relational and its relationship with artistic and curatorial practice. Carnival and Mas’4 are forms that historically predate the origination of relational aesthetics in Nicolas Bourriaud’s writing. Do you see the use of this term more as a deliberate manoeuvre in order to, like you said, legitimize your work in terms of artistic appraisal and curatorial attention? 

Claire Tancons: Quite the opposite. If anything, my use of the term relational aesthetics is an indictment of the fallacy of what such a term purports to represent and encompass. Carnival by far exceeds the limitations of relational aesthetics both in terms and practice. But let’s resuscitate each term and the practices they mean to describe. My research has been concerned with contemporary artistic practices that come out of modern Carnival in the Americas and Africa, e.g., Carnival in the way it developed outside of Europe as a result of the colonial conquests from the late eighteenth century onwards. I am dealing with dominant art practices in regions ranging from the Caribbean to West Africa taken up by contemporary artists such as Marlon Griffith in Trinidad, Mario Benjamin in Haiti, and Jarbas Lopes in Brazil. Interestingly, these practices are currently being mirrored in the trend in parades and procession in the mainstream contemporary art world with artists as diverse as Francis Alÿs (The Modern Procession at MoMA [2002]) or Jeremy Deller (Social Parade [2004] for Manifesta 5, and Procession [2009] in Manchester). This trend has been noted in at least three exhibitions over the last couple of years, most recently at Parasol Unit Foundation in London; I see it as a modernist’s return of the repressed, of a time when Carnival was a dominant European cultural art form. (An artist like Arto Lindsay, who is conversant in both the Carnival and contemporary art discourses, has bridged both with projects such as De Lama Lâmina with Matthew Barney, at the Carnival of Salvador de Bahia [2004], and Multicultural (Blackout), at the 53rd Venice Biennale [2009].)

Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics5 (1998) is over ten years old by now and describes a particular moment in the development of artistic practices circulating within the Western context of the 1990s. But ten years on, this oversight of a more global context leads Bourriaud to such preposterous notions as “altermodernism,” which is just but a further appropriation of disparate practices under a unified banner, and seems like an attempt to catch up with precisely that non-Western context which was left aside in Relational Aesthetics, while still falling short of accounting for the context of Brazilian, Haitian, or Trinidadian artists, or my cultural reality in New Orleans. 

With Relational Aesthetics Bourriaud was already strongly suspected of using Édouard Glissant’s ideas from Poétique de la Relation (1990). Bourriaud’s use of the word creolisation in the altermodern discourse is a further indication of his appropriation of Glissant’s rhetoric, which came out not of the Western context, but of the particular historical context of the Caribbean, more specifically, of Martinique, where the author was born and came of age, and Louisiana where he once taught and lived.

Of course, none of these post- and alter- prefixes transcend our understanding of contemporary artistic practices in any way, and they actually fall within modernism’s well-established tradition of trends and movements following and replacing one another even as they seek to support ideas of heterochronicity as advanced by Bourriaud along with his notion of altermodernism. Jacques Rancière’s notion that there are different regimes of the identification of art, of which the aesthetic regime is only but one, is more useful insofar as it does not dispose of but rather allows for the cohabitation of different artistic modalities. Bourriaud writes about an “aesthetic paradigm” in Relational Aesthetics, but it is promoted as having become prevalent and replacing all other possible paradigms. 

Within Rancière’s theoretical framework, my interest is in the ethical regime, whose destination lies within the community, whereas the aesthetic regime no longer has a destination, as it has been suspended under the conditions of the museum, much like perception has been suspended under the reign of vision as the supreme sense. Borrowing from Jonathan Crary (in Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture [2001]), I propose that, in the nineteenth century, modern Carnival in the Americas performed a repossession of perception where all senses were brought forth to account for the artistic experience at the very moment when, in Europe, the Western sensorium became dominated by the sole sense of vision to the detriment of most all others. Into the twenty-first century, Carnival, as performed in Rio’s Sambodromo or around the Savannah in Port-of-Spain, has all too often become complicit with capitalist tactics and been co-opted by spectacular politics. Yet its synesthetic premise and communal destination remains intact, and, in my view, the potential of Carnival is far greater than that of relational aesthetics.

Jesse McKee: What is your relationship in terms of authorship towards your exhibition projects? Recently, there has been a call for a return to the finessed and inspired sense of individualism in curatorial practice, in the contemporary art sphere at least. Most recently, I’m thinking of the critical backlash against the 11th Istanbul Biennial (2009), organized by the Croatian collective What, How & For Whom. In my view, the merits of the transparency and the vigour associated with collectively authored projects, like the last Istanbul Biennial and the 7th Gwangju Biennale, where your first procession exhibition took place, seem to be hard to digest for Western critical positioning. 

Claire Tancons: In my experience with biennials, I have been exposed to both autocratic and democratic forms of curating, for lack of better qualifications. The autocratic form rests upon a romantic vision of curating as a God-given gift available to a few blessed visionaries, while the democratic is based upon a more collective approach, intent on disseminating the task of authoring and the responsibility of authorship. Whether the latter amounts to more than a diversification of subject positions and creates a truly collective dynamic is yet to be verified. The forthcoming Manifesta 8 might give us a better sense of whether or not giving away curatorship to curatorial collectives helps foster just such dynamics.

In Spring, I was happy to release curatorial control if only in the face of the challenge of translation.... Key members of the de facto curatorial collective that was formed were, first and foremost, the artists themselves, who pretty much decided among themselves on the order of their appearance in the procession; workshop and procession manager Anthony Mollineau of the Trinidad-based Carnival production company Callaloo Company, who single-handedly designed the itinerary of the procession; Eunha Lee, Gwangju Biennale project manager; and Eunha Kim, Spring’s special project manager. Spring could not have happened without their input, and I wish to take advantage of this interview to thank them again.

Most importantly, it is not just Spring’s curatorial model that was collective, but the proposed artworks themselves. I am interested in collective curatorship insofar as the diverse experiences of various authors lead to a diversification of the art audience. Spring stemmed first and foremost from a desire to reach out to wider and heretofore untouched art audiences with culturally relevant propositions. To the surprise of many, Carnival, whose ethos is historically political, proved relevant within the politically charged context of Gwangju’s recent past. 

Currently I am involved in what has so far been a true experience in collective programming, if not yet curating, with the team of the Harlem Biennale, the first edition of which is slated to open in the spring of 2012. With the development of art audiences in Harlem as a goal, the Harlem Biennale team is working from the ground up, investigating various alternative curatorial models to respond to Harlem’s unique cultural legacy in the wake of ongoing population changes. The procession project I am working on will be one such model, specifically as it relates to Harlem’s rich traditions of parades (in Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement of the 1920s), Carnival (the Brooklyn Labor Day Parade finds its antecedent in 1940s Harlem), and political protests (during the civil rights movement). The idea of a new renaissance in Harlem rests firmly upon not an individual but a collective genius that demands a contractual model of curatorship in which a curator is accountable to a community, which is the origin and destination of his or her curatorial proposal.

  1. Irit Rogoff, “Geo Cultures: Circuits of Arts and Globalizations,” Open 16 (2009), 109. 

  2. Charles Esche, “What’s the Point of Art Centres Anyway? Possibility, Art and Democratic Deviance,” republicart (April 2004),

  3. Claire Tancons, “Spring,” The 7th Gwangju Biennale Annual Report: A Year in Exhibitions, ed. Okwui Enwezor (Gwangju: Gwangju Biennale Foundation, 2008), 334–63. 

  4. Mas’, short for Masquerade, is used to refer to Carnival in Trinidad and part of the English- and French-speaking Caribbean.

  5. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Presses du réel, 2002); first published as Esthétique relationnelle (Paris: Presses du réel, 1998).

Image: Documentation of the Gwangju Democratization Movement, Gwangju, South Korea, May 1980.

About the Authors

Claire Tancons is a curator, writer, and researcher whose work focuses on Carnival, public ceremonial culture, and protest movements. She was the associate curator for Prospect.1 and Contemporary Arts Center, both in New Orleans (2007–09), a curator for the 7th Gwangju Biennale (2008), a guest curator for CAPE09 (2009), and is the currently the curatorial director for the Harlem Biennale. She splits her time between New Orleans and New York.

Jesse McKee is Exhibitions Curator at the Western Front, Vancouver. He holds an MA in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Art, London.

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