Week 28 – Patrick Coyle & Francesco Pedraglio – 13-19 July

Fig-2_28_50_-1Fig-2 is famous for its collaborations. The project itself is a direct collaboration with each week’s artist where the artist and curators work closely to craft a seven-day show. Several of the weeks have also featured two or more featured artists in collaboration, and Week 28 was a collaboration between Patrick Coyle and Francesco Pedraglio. They both do a lot of spoken word performance and their show played brilliantly with interactions and slippages between the physical and the verbal.

Fig-2_28_50_36The studio space was set out in a backwards S shape demarcated by the free-standing panels. On the front of these, Francesco’s black vinyl strips were laid out like mazes. Within the back were disparate objects collected by Patrick. Around the space everything was lilac or purple. Ground acai and acai berries, meths in a Dewars miniature, Winsor and Newton galeria Acrylic (purple), random purple markings, a lilac gas canister, purple cups, purple staining. It’s like Prince had a loft clearout.

Fig-2_28_50_-28Throughout fig-2 we have seen the six skylights of the ICA studio space closed off or opened to light, given colourful gels, and with this week they found a new look. One of the skylights has at some point been stepped on and it’s concave rather than convex, so it’s like a sky pond. Patrick filled it with purple water and put in weird objects, some of which over the week went mouldy, some solidified, some returned to liquid.
11157432_806467892757538_4163445423355068377_oThis is reminiscent of Jacopo Miliani’s Week 16 in which the artist brought in flowers every day but left them without water so over the week they faded away, presenting in physical form an illustration of time, which is such an all-pervasive notion in fig-2 with it’s radically curtailed exhibition times and rigid lengths.

Fig-2_28_50_-29Just as Miliani presented space as a choreographic score, here the studio space contained the raw physical ingredients that would go into the word soup of a half hour performance. The pair took it in turns to ‘read’. Francesco delivered a memorised poem three times, delivered almost slickly, with Patrick reading his speeches about purple, the mating habits of cedillas, the acai, the acaiphabet, the lab goo. All of these things were drawn into a verbal texture during the performance that magically transformed words and ideas into new ones.

Purgatorio de l’inferno is a long poem by Genoese avant-garde poet and playwright Edoardo Sanguineti which is kind of a Marxist response to the Divine Comedy of Dante. Francesco read, retranslated and reinterpreted Sanguineti’s tenth canto, a section I read as a warning to the Damned about materialism.

Fig-2_28_50_-22It is in three short stanzas. In the first we see the cat in boots, the peace of Barcelona, the locomative, the peach blossom, the seahorse, and “if you turn the page, you see the money”. We see Jupiter’s moons, the sun’s journey, the checkerboard, Latin literature, shoes, the school of Athens, butter, a postcard from Finland, the masseter muscle, and childbirth, and “if you turn the page, you see the money.” The last section is ironic: we see the generals with their machine guns, graveyards and graves, savings banks, security, history books full of history, and then when you turn this page, “you see nothing.”

Fig-2_28_50_-13Francesco presented his own translation of this three-part poem three times, each time gathering subtle variations and additions (the Arab Spring, spring break, the first day of spring, as well as socks, pillows, headaches, phone bills, and kebabs after a drunken night) concluding the whole performance with the original Italian. For each thing that Sanguineti’s poem lists, Francesco called it into being through the performance, through the imaginative act of saying it into being. The vinyl strips on the walls reconfigured themselves into signifiers that represented like a new language, a neologism, the signifieds of the poem.

Fig-2_28_50_-25By the act of naming, objects are charged with symbolic value. Francesco used the tape as well as red window blinds, lightbulbs, stones, in each case claiming that they represented the postcard from Finland, or the peach blossom or the Peace of Barcelona. This is magical. Literally the essence of magic. The magician tells us that the assistant has been cut in half and we are prepared to accept it, to countenance a new reality imaginatively.

Fig-2_28_50_-26Similarly, we take on trust the signification of words during translation, that this means that. There’s every possibility we could be misled, as happens in the Hungarian Phrasebook Sketch where a prank language book misleads Hungarians. But if we so chose we could accept these alternative meanings, that “My hovercraft is full of eels” is a way of asking for a box of matches. This is literally how codes and cyphers work, by agreed renegotiation of signification.

Fig-2_28_50_-8Francesco stresses that his translation of Sanguineti’s poem is “unofficial”. This underlines the doubt about what is being transmitted, and the possibility of transforming it into something else, perhaps not intended. He could be giving us an accurate translation or he could be giving us a hovercraft full of eels. He is certainly taking a line on the wall for a ride round the poem, so how do we trust language? If we turn the page, is there money, or nothing?

Adam naming things in the Garden of Eden, Francesco redefining the line, Patrick beginning by asking if anyone can “do me a purple” was all part of a performative tapestry of re-appropriation and resignification too. It demonstrates the arbitrariness of signification. The magical realism of bringing objects into being by naming them, the imaginative act in which we are complicit every time we accept that the invisible surroundings portrayed by a mime, or the invisible interlocutor of a stand-up comedian up there on the stage.

Fig-2_28_50_-23Are they there or not there? In Week 18 we went into metaphor, the saying that this is that which occurs with the knowledge that this is not literally that, but our minds accept it for the purpose of comparison or instruction. The show is therefore all about the process of definition and signification, the hypnotic elixir of language that drugs us with its heady excesses of meanings.

Fig-2_28_50_-30The week’s Sipsmith gin cocktail was called the LIQUID HYPNOTIC ELIXIR and it involved orange, sloe gin, and, crucially, acai. The acai is purple. The acaiphabet is a secret cypher invented by Patrick, which is unknown to anyone else and encoded by arrangements of acai berries. This private language is another example of special verbalisation seemingly intended to manifest the non-verbal communications of plants that happens through their strange mating habits involving seeds and berries. Patrick admits good-humouredly that in curatorial terms this idea didn’t go much beyond apparently spelling out the artists’ names on the wall, but it fits into the themes of definition, communication and signification.

Fig-2_28_50_-4Patrick described the life cycle of the cicada, burrowing soon after birth into the earth and staying there, only emerging to mate and having mated dying. The funny little diacritical mark the cedilla, usually found under the c in words like Haçienda, can be found clinging limpet-like under the s in fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek’s name.  It is also found in the unfamiliar Açaí palm but not usually in the familiar Acai berry, the popular purple superfruit.

Having described the life cycle of the cicada, Patrick explained that, in contrast, cedillas live in the sky and burrow into clouds, emerging to mate; the winged cedillas attach to certain letters and once they deliver their seed they die a critic (diacritic). The young hatch and make their way through the artist guide, digging in with their strong legs to feed off “excess of egress”.

Fig-2_28_50_-31Excess of egress wasn’t to be found in the beautiful part of the installation that was a video of some viscous purple “Lab goo” being poured into a purple cup. This weird substance has the consistency of the melty terminator in Terminator 2 and won’t quite be poured into the cup but bounces back and forth without quite being poured. This is a wonderful thing to behold and in the performance brought Patrick to lilt poetically “lapping the side, lapping the side! slapping the thigh! lapping the side! shimmering bright – slapping the side! touching the left, lapping the side, lapping the side” – I thought I misheard all of this as “lapping the side” which amused me all the more, assuming it was “slapping” but it was actually “lapping” after all. Part of the show’s pleasure in wordplay delighted in such imaginative slippages as can take place between “the side” and “acai” and ICA.

The performance concluded with Patrick at the piano, and the song began with a reprise of “lapping the side” which you can listen to and enjoy via this here widget. It’s my favourite song. Cedillas sing it as part of their mating ritual.


POSTSCRIPT: The one week of this duo show was curiously dominated by threes. We had this in Week 17 where Charlotte Moth presented The Story of a Different Thought – “a bird with three eyes, three versions of the same name, three versions of a story”. It’s hard to say if this multiplication of threes could be said to be another theme weaving in and out of fig-2 or just a thing we have as a culture about threes, from at least Plato onwards if not earlier. Three’s company.

Week 14 – Suzanne Treister – 6-12 April – HEXEN 2.0

Have you ever wondered what the connection is between Diogenes of Sinope, Anarcho-Primitivism, the Unabomber, and Science Fiction? Me either!

Suzanne Treister’s HEXEN 2.0 is a compendious project that brings together technology, philosophy, politics and literature to discover dystopic and utopic futures for humanity.

There are five vast charts that visually map connections along the following themes:

These five histories are presented as a big historical picture partly intended educationally, to illustrate Treister’s research into histories, movements and ideas that people might not be aware of, or might have been less aware of during its gestation (2009-11). It began with her interest in cybernetics or “feedback loops of control” in society and how Web 2.0 feeds back into that.

The term “cybernetics” was introduced by Norbert Wiener in 1948. Cybernetics isn’t just about cyber- stuff like in sci-fi or “Captain Cyborg” Kevin Warwick’s imagination. The American Society of Cybernetics gives about 200 definitions but it is centrally about feedback loops. Feedback is simply defined as something that is led back to modify a process of production.

A thermostat is cybernetic in that it measures temperature and uses this measurement to change the temperature. This is surprising to the newcomer to cybernetics who might think feedback relies on “understanding” in a human goal-oriented sense. It doesn’t. The thermostat “senses” the temperature via a thermometer and adjusts accordingly. That’s all. But it’s hard to get away from the metaphor: a system can be said to be cybernetic if it has an “understanding” of something else (including itself), which it modifies and reacts to.  Scientific method is cybernetic in that it aims to model the universe, but it then pokes the real universe to test these models and updates them accordingly. Science is constantly updating according to the outcomes of its latest pokings.

In 1943 Julian Bigelow, Norbert Wiener and Arturo Rosenbleuth published Behavior, Purpose, and teleology, which developed a theory of “circular causality” via feedback in which cause and effect are mutually referrent. The paper described ways in which mechanical, biological and electronic systems could communicate and interact. So called First Order Cybernetics is still largely intact in its use in our understanding of impossibly complex more recent systems of the world internet, economics and the brain at a neurological level.

Excitement about the new field of cybernetics led to the establishment of the Macy Conferences (1946-53) whose primary goal was to “set the foundations for a general science of the workings of the human mind” by developing cybernetic theories in order to prevent such circumstances as might lead to another World War or atrocities such as Nazism. With a core of thirty, its members came from a wide range of disciplines from hard to soft sciences – anthropologists, computer engineers, psychologists, physicists.

It was a dynamic moment. Macy alumni went on to do some astonishing things that changed the world. anthropologist Margaret Mead founded the World Federation for Mental Health, mathematician John von Neumann worked on the Manhattan Project, invented game theory and developed the idea of neural nets, the conceptual forerunner to the internet, and he influenced US scientific and military policy.

HEXEN 2.0 documents the Macy Conferences using phototexts and crudely photoshopped images of ‘cybernetic séances’. From Science to Séance… damn, I wasn’t gonna say that. The original conferences were not minuted so these form a kind of alternative imaginary proceedings. The séance brings us to another element of HEXEN 2.0 that blurs ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ elements, including the paranormal. Science, of course, begins as magic.

The next part of HEXEN 2.0 is its tarot deck. The 78 card deck takes aspects of the five historical diagrams and presents them in an interactive, that is, cybernetic, form as an analytical tool. It’s not a fortune-telling exercise, but neither is tarot. In modern practice, away from the husky voices and mysterious caravans of movie tarot, a tarot reading is closer to psychoanalytic practice. It’s a way of structuring the narratives of your life and re-presenting them to gain another perspective on your past and possible futures. The HEXEN 2.0 tarot deck playfully broadens this into an analytical tool to understand our entire world metasystem.

HEXEN 2.0 presents an obsessive interest in the cybernetic feedback loops of the internet and how they manifest themselves in terms of social control — Card XV The Devil is “the Control Society — in essence dramatising the ongoing struggle over ‘who owns the internet’ (and by extension our minds). There are cards for the dread forces of US CYBERCOMMAND, ARPANET and DARWARS, Google, and Intelligence Agencies, as well as countercultural examples of CLODO, Grass Roots Internet Communities, Hackers, and Networked Revolution. This struggle is informed by disparate ideas including Anarcho-Primitivism, Transhumanism, Ethics, Leary’s 8-Circuit Model of Consciousness, and voiced by a super-influential cast including Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, the Macy participants, Thoreau, Rousseau, Lewis Mumford, H. G. Wells, H. P. Lovecraft, Bob Black, Heidegger and William Blake.

The Five of Chalices, H. P. Lovecraft, could contain a comment on the purpose of HEXEN 2.0 and cybernetics more broadly, and their relation toward futures of epistemology, futures which are deeply ambivalent: the battle over who controls the internet, the intellectual burnout of information saturation allied to its ecstatic availability: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age”

A great example of how HEXEN 2.0 projects backwards and forwards simultaneously is the ternary computer, as depicted on the Eight of Pentacles card. Ternary computing calculates using -1, 0, and 1 and is said to be more efficient than binary. The Soviets were developing it in 1958 but by ternary was so over. The Betamax to binary’s VHS, ternary became a fascinating what if because mass-produced binary components dominated the global market. It has been speculated that it could be important in the future, though this might have been profoundly overtaken by the bright future-present of quantum computing (though these calculations are encoded into binary digits, so ternary could conceivably be substituted). Greater understanding of the brain is also influencing how we think about design computer systems and computers.

On the other hand, some electronic systems are becoming more wild and inhuman, and dominating the  world. Everyone thinks economics is about numbers, but it is in fact a branch of semantics. What human agency remains is reactive, based on subjective readings of numbers that are generated electronically. The majority of the trading in most major stock markets is carried on via machine algorithm without human involvement: cybernetic feedback is automated and detached from traditional physical economies and from ‘real life’. To Treister this is “one of the evil outcomes of cybernetic theory” creating a hallucinatory unreality. Economic Cybernetics is represented in the HEXEN 2.0 deck by the King of Pentacles, which seems ironic; Gardner has this: “An earthly easy going type of man, or when supported by suitable cards in the spread, a man of wealth. When involved in the world of finance he becomes dull, hard and unimaginative.”

HEXEN 2.0 presents all of this knowledge as a cybernetic world model. It is clearly meant as a warning about the dangers and possibilities of cybernetic interconnectedness on a world level as it manifests in changing power dynamics. The capacity for information gathering by governments is unprecedented. The UK government is pushing ahead with its ‘Snooper’s Charter’ and the US is debating Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Who owns the internet? HEXEN 2.0 has the curious status of being a seemingly post-Snowden work created pre-Snowden. It wasn’t really until his revelations in 2013 that we realised just how fucked the NSA (in the US) and GCHQ (in the UK) are. Thanks to Google they can even now mechanically transcribe phone calls. This is a story of the triumph of technology being perverted that Treister’s work curiously prefigured.

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, whom she spurned romantically and so who cursed her so her warnings would never be believed. She would know the future, but never be able to change anything or convince anyone. Maybe this is how conspiracy theorists feel. HEXEN 2.0 contains a lot of material familiar from conspiracy theory, though this doesn’t mean it necessarily creates conspiracy theories, despite its cards about drones, the NSA, electronic surveillance.

The Knight of Chalices card quotes Lawrence Jarach (post-left anarchist, Berkeley, b. 1961)

“‘Conspiracy theory’ acts as a derisive dismissal which serves to characterise counter-narratives as falsehoods or fantasy. Conspiracy is the normal functioning mode of government and other hierarchies”


HEXEN 2.0 has proven to be prescient, but is she a Cassandra whose curse was unbroken? How good is she at predicting the future? Or even predicting the past? The final element in Suzanne Treister presentation of fig-2 at the ICA studio was a kind of ‘world tarot reading’ aiming to reconfigure history and project possible futures of humankind in terms of technology and society, so directly cybernetically applying HEXEN 2.0’s method to itself.

Mark Pilkington led the reading on a Wednesday evening, asking the audience participants to “Think of nothing. Shuffle with a clear mind. Think about what came before the void.” The significance of each card that was drawn was explained in terms of both tarot and HEXEN 2.0. The significance of the connections between the cards was treated discursively and cybernetically with a pleasing level of engaged discussion about politics, technology and culture.

The Hanged Man, Stewart Brand, kept coming up. He was both the first and last card. Spooky! Brand and cybernetics forms a link between counterculture and technology. Brand is a futurist, but one obsessed with the past, a method familiar from HEXEN 2.0. The plot randoming, one audience member happened to know Stewart Brand, and was about to go visit him. Brand’s card has a mammoth on it, because he is investigating reverse-engineering mammoths, like real life Jurassic Park. These mammoths used to get discovered but then rot, but now the hunters have mobiles, and they helicopter the specimens out. What they do with them, I can only imagine.

After several ‘group tarot’ readings we had a cheeky little consult of the HEXEN 2.0 Tarot drawing a single card each for the UK and US elections. This was a month before the UK election. This is the card that came up:

The Emperor (tarot) = Diogenes of Sinope (HEXEN 2.0)

“The Tarot Speaks” describes The Emperor card thus: “The Emperor represents consolidation of manhood. A man of being or power, promotion, honour, worldly knowledge. Father or father figure, one in authority. Negatively an egotistical power hungry intolerant man.”

The HEXEN 2.0 card overviews Diogenes of Sinope thus: “Greek philosopher — Civilisation is regressive — Artificial growths of society are incompatible with happiness — Morality implies a return to the simplicity of nature — Wisdom and happiness belong to the man who is independent of society”

It feels so long ago. History is now what happened this morning is the future. By lunchtime I’m already bored of all the tweets about whatever, and the evening news is sheer torture. Perhaps that’s what Fatos meant when she tweeted me “what is more fearsome is the meta-condition of cybernetics that we are in – and we dont know what it really means!” — but I don’t know what it really means.


photo 4

With thanks to Andrew Wyld, Mike Freedman, Alix Mortimer, Donald Newholm, Mark Pilkington, and Fatos Ustek.

Further reading/viewing:

HEXEN 2.0 is published as a book. This is totally essential. BUY YOURSELF.

Ernest von Glaserfeld’s “Cybernetics and the Theory of Knowledge” is a great overview of cybernetics. TREAT YOURSELF.

Adam Curtis’s three-part documentary All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace is recommended:

Part one’s about Ayn Rand’s influence and Alan Greenspan and money etc https://vimeo.com/groups/96331/videos/80799353

Part two’s about ecology and mathematical modelling https://vimeo.com/groups/96331/videos/80799352

Part three’s about the selfish gene and the monkey in the machine http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2eku4s_all-watched-over-by-machines-of-loving-grace-3-3-the-monkey-in-the-machine-2011_animals

Art Fund Curator Talk #3 – “Politics of Display” (16 April 2015)

The third of the eight part seminar series with the title Politics of Display will investigate the charged liminal space between a work of art and audience, and the art institution. Bringing forward Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine’s publication Exhibiting Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Display, the seminar will focus on the relationship of representation and the cultural relics within participation.

The term “politics of display” refers to how we can describe the considerations and decisions that motivate collectors and curators and museums and galleries when they come into contact with artefacts of non-native origin that they wish to present to the public. It addresses issues of cultural assumption, distortion versus representation, ideology versus impartiality and neutrality, how value systems are expressed through curatorial decisions.

In her third seminar for fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek led a discussion of politics of display starting with a number of conceptions that we find in Karp and Lavine’s 1991 volume of essays Exhibiting Culture, and exploring how these ideas have been developed in the intervening two decades. I’m going to dip between the texts, the seminar, and my own responses.

The introduction begins “Every museum exhibition, whatever its overt subject, inevitably draws on the cultural assumptions and resources of the people who make it. (p1)”; in dealing with artefacts taken from other cultures the challenge to museums is to present those cultures in a manner that doesn’t falsify or degrade them. This has not always been the case. At earlier points in history museums have deliberately set out to create ideologically programmatic narratives in their presentation of cultural artefacts.

Üstek describes museums as “post-Enlightenment examples of rational epistemology”; the way they construct the knowledge they present is guided by the principles of philosophical rationalism, as an expression of underlying truths apprehended via the intellect. This sounds laudable enough, but contains its own danger: it is explicitly ideological. It is a narrative, foregrounding reason, which risks overlooking messy, irrational and contradictory elements.

In Curationism David Balzer describes how in 1793 the Louvre was created as a symbolic part of the body politic, to showcase the values and aims of the emerging French Republic, under Napoleon becoming a propaganda display of spoils of war. After Waterloo the British adopted a similar model with the British Museum. To gallerist Karsen Schubert “The museums presented their political masters as custodians of world culture. In effect, the museum became the handmaiden of imperialism.” The actual qualities of the objects are subsumed by the narrative.

In “Objects of Ethnography” (Ch. 20) Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett makes a fascinating post-structuralist point about how ethnographic objects are not defined by their inherent properties but by their presentation. I’d like to quote it at length: “Ethnographic artifacts are objects of ethnography. They are artifacts created by ethnographers. Objects become ethnographic by virtue of being defined, segmented, detached, and carried away by ethnographers. Such objects are ethnographic not because they were found in a Hungarian peasant household, Kawkiutl village, or Rajasthani market rather than in Buckingham Palace or Michelangelo’s studio, but by virtue of the manner in which they have been detached, for disciplines make their objects and in the process make themselves. (p387)”

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes that ethnographic display is “guided by a poetics of detachment, in the sense not only of material fragments but also of a distanced attitude.” This refers not just to the process whereby displays are curated, but how the viewer is (or was) encouraged to read these displays. In the intervening twenty years since she wrote this we have seen much more effort on the part of museums and galleries to involve the viewer in what is presentated. This has been facilitated in part by technology (such as the interactive iPads scattered around the Grant Museum) and partly by a growing shift in emphasis regarding the relationship between the viewer and the viewed, a shift that began in the 1990s whereby artists began to be talked about as creators of situations rather than objects, and the audience not as the viewer or beholder but repositioned as a co-producer or participant.

Steven Lavine proposes that museums have a moral responsibility to promote conversation rather than their own monologue. This is to address the ideological narrativization of display, but also the problem of aestheticization: that by taking an object away from its origin and resituating it in a gallery it becomes, to Svetlana Alpers in “The Museum as a Way of Seeing” (Ch. 1) “an object of visual interest” (p25) – that it becomes an art object. This is a double detachment, not only in terms of taking objects away but also via that distanced attitude: this is the key to what a “poetics of detachment” means.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett goes even further in drawing an implicit comparison between pre- and post-Enlightenment display in the example of showing people as living rarities. In 1501 live Eskimos were exhibited in Bristol (p402), kicking off five centuries of audiences flocking to displays of ethnic groupings from Aztecs to Zulus. The nineteenth century is famed for ethnographic displays staged and billed as theatre, often dramatising an Imperial duality about its ethnic subjects: their Otherness is framed by the twist-in-the-tale that they also demonstrate familiar attributes of humanity. Today we marvel at the ability of chimps to do human things like communicate or mourn, but in these displays the Victorians were marvelling at human beings appearing human. In the twentieth century, emboldened by Victorian hierarchies of savagery and civilisation, eugenics arrived as “the self-direction of human evolution” applying Enlightenment approaches to the ‘improvement’ of the human, with horrifying consequences.

Fatoş Üstek finds that contemporary display practice is, or should be, concerned with the way that audiences produce knowledge rather than how curators do this for them. The previous fig-2 curator seminar discussed this at length, where in the context of ‘meaning making’ there are the didactic and pedagogical approaches, as well as what Roland Barthes calls “mothering” where learning is supported but not imposed: the analogy is learning to ride a bike; someone can steady you but only you can be on the bike.

I don’t know how persuasive this is in the context of ‘politics of display.’ Surely at some point there has to be an authority when an audience is looking at an unfamiliar object? Otherwise how do we learn what it is? The problem is, as Svetlana Alpers says “we know that any order we place on material is ours and not necessarily theirs [the people who made it]” (p7). Best practice would seem to be to address this directly by, as Üstek argues, creating responsive communities rather than passive audiences. It is a question of engagement.

Society is more hybridised than it used to be, and following the postmodern displacement of grand narratives, we are more informed by a multiplicity of responses to the world and ways of being. Museums nonetheless embody certain assumptions of culture – such as that culture exists at all, and furthermore that there are a multitude of cultures that are different from each other. The act of display recontextualizes the nature of what is displayed – it becomes an art object, it becomes part of a narrative, it is taken away from its maker and given to the viewer. Who is the insider and who the outsider here? If an artefact is taken from a specific country or continent and re-presented in England, are you as someone from that country or continent, or with that background, looking at it in England, on the inside or the outside? Both the object and the viewer have been subject to distance, in both relocation and re-presentation, and the representation of the relocated culture is subject to the implicit or explicit narrative imposed by its display.

The question for an artist is how to relate to the production of your work of art within the assumptions of its recontextualisation by curators in a space and how to regard its new identity – is it yours or not? From the point of view of the organiser/exhibitor, how do you respond to this while producing a ‘spectacle’ and accepting the fact it is a re/-presentation. For an audience, the encounter is situated in a context that you know is not real but is given. Old-fashioned folkloric displays are passé, and the Disneyland-esque spectacle of the recent Bjork show at MoMA has been universally panned. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett concludes “The question is not whether or not an object is of visual interest, but rather how interest of any kind is created. All interest is vested. (p434)”


Postscript: On crypto-relics and universalism

Matthew Bown in a recent article ‘Traces of the holy’ in the TLS traces a compelling analogy between the trade in saints’ relics in the past and art in the contemporary world. Despite the dominance of the Duchampian model of conceptualism, that supposedly defies aura and authenticity, aura and authenticity are what is sought by audiences and collectors alike. If an individual work loses its attribution to an artist it’s still the same work, but it isn’t: it’s not just its value that will plummet, but it will lose that special magic that comes via its association with a name.

There is a ‘holiness’ of the objects that are displayed and sought and bought. In ‘Resonance and Wonder’ (Ch 3) Stephen Greenblatt examines two related concepts: resonance, where a work evokes a larger world to the viewer, and wonder, where the object has a sense of uniqueness to evoke an exalted attention.

Wonder seems very like what Matthew Bown describes: “[Simon] Schama’s test for Rembrandt – you stand in front of a painting and just feel its miraculousness” which is no more plausible than the tests employed in the Middle Ages to gauge the ‘miraculousness’ of an artefact.

Resonance on the other hand I would see as something that the curator can manage by good display practices. Toward the end of the seminar one member of the audience gave an example of a work that she saw that was one erased wall. It resonated with her directly as speaking to the occupation in Istanbul, and the reason she mentioned it was because she acknowledged that it would not have such a resonance to anyone without that experience. As we have discussed, this is not unique to such examples from contemporary art practice, but it is a factor in considering the ethnographic object too (that they are defined relationally rather than by inherent qualities).

Fatos Üstek asked whether in order to engage with other ways of seeing, we would need to reclaim the notion of resonance. I would ask if this is not a mechanism by which we universalize the precise experience of otherness. If we look at an object we find strange, we understand it by recognizing aspects of it that correspond to our experience. In western culture there is a universalizing impetus that assesses the aesthetic value of work, but what does it mean to be universal?

As Bown notes, it is the Mona Lisa’s blandness that has made it iconic. Vasari didn’t see any resonance, wonder or miraculousness in la Giaconda. Furthermore “from the point of view of discourse, the more impoverished, inarticulate, or mysterious – the more rubbishy – the art-object, the better.” Saints’ relics are rubbishy – foreskins, fingernails. The most precious ethnographic objects are not those which have been attributed value in their day, that have not been deliberately preserved; instead the more commonplace and quotidian objects tend to perish and vanish from history, and whatever survives achieves value through its scarcity centuries later.

Value is relational and applied from without. The auction house, the blockbuster big name brand museum or art institution, the individual curator, the artist or maker of objects, all pursue their own notions of value, and, in conclusion, it is this relativism that defines the workings of a ‘politics of display.’ What we find more than ever today is that ethnographic display and art curation are being influenced by the revision of western points of view to include a wider world on a more level playing field: art from China, Russia, Africa, are viewed through the contemporary mirror. But what is the contemporary mirror? Art might aspire to the universal, but whose universal?

Week 13 – Shezad Dawood – 30 March-5 April – The Room


Part 1: Art For All

The fig-2 openings are getting hectic. I think some bastard has been publicising them. This isn’t how counter-culture works. It’s more like.. in the year 2009 full-time Eddie Redmayne impersonator and occasional guest on Star Trek Professor Stephen Hawking threw a party for time-travellers. Afterwards he sent out the invitations. Nobody turned up. Nobody had turned up. He cited this as experimental evidence that time travel will not become possible. My own experimental evidence is more cynical: that we don’t remember the birth of Christ with a sponsorship placement on it. The Emirates Birth of Christ. Wow, that’s confusing. How about ‘The Barclays Birth of Christ – investing in irony.’

I’m kidding about counter-culture. Fig-2 is sponsored and paid-up and part of the mainstream, whether us hipsters like it or not. I’ve been to most of the increasingly popular openings on me tod, avoiding eye contact and scribbling in a notebook. Various people I know have to my surprise popped up there randomly, which has been lovely. This week, lucky Week 13, I must have been tired. I arrived and there they were, these two nightmares from one of my previous lives, suddenly manifesting at my pretentious gallery opening. Two poets, as it happens, representatives of a beaten tranche of the counter culture that has given up on political agitation and gone to nihilism, rejecting everything including itself. Why were they there? I’m not sure. There was the gin. In the truncated time I stayed each managed to knock back three or four of the free cocktails. I kept wondering if they were going to smash shit up. I hadn’t really realised that counter-culture can also mean anti-art. Immediately it was obvious they were not there in an accommodating positively minded spirit.  I gritted my teeth, ready for something embarrassing to happen in which I, by virtue of knowing them, would be implicated. Which publisher was it said he’d sooner have an armed robber in his office than a poet?

I’ll have to invent a term for this experience, when characters from one area of your life suddenly irrupt into another, the clang of cognitive dissonance. You’re at Torture Garden being spanked and suddenly discover it’s your line manager in the next sling. It’s interesting how we separate people and realms. Colleagues and friends. Friends and ‘friends’ (qv Facebook). It might be that, but as I said it’s usually lovely when you bump into people randomly. This felt like a clash of cultures, with me crushed in the middle.

Regarding the art, the crowd, the space, they were unfailingly rude; but had at least the good grace to be rude about every single thing they talked about. I’m not sure which of the creators of fig-1, Jay Jopling or Mark Francis, they meant when they referred to “Cuntface.” As for the ICA, it hasn’t been exciting since 1955. I got the strong impression they thought all art was shit. Everything, really. Just everything. I’m sure I even detected weird homophobic inferences coming out. One of them even drew attention to the university staff card hanging around my neck, and somehow inferred some kind of disapprobation, an obscure subtext of contempt for paid work that made me feel somehow lame for having a job. I suppose to nihilistic counter-culture this is being in cahoots with the capitalist machine. Like voting; with the election coming up, we’re seeing plenty of argument that voting is endorsing the whole sick machine, so you shouldn’t vote. And as for art…

Not everyone in New York will pay to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s face. Not everyone is a critic. But, fuck it, everyone hates art. Everyone hates criticism. So… art criticism?!?!? Jesus. What am I doing? I mean, my pal Sid thinks I’m a twat just (well, not just) because I’m on twitter. Donald has refused to read any of my fig-2 blogs on principle because he is against any and all forms of Criticism. It’s said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. I’ve always thought dancing about architecture sounds ace!

There’s a strong belief in the mind of the counter-culture that mainstream culture is dominated by cabals of powerful individuals working to exclude the rest of us. The art world is notoriously cliquey, so crony credence abounds. Unpublished novelists might become convinced that mysterious powers are suppressing their work. It was interesting to see the irruption of two figures from nihilistic counter-culturalism into the rarefied domain of fine art. Private Views are gurningly good-natured two-faced affairs. That’s what they’re for. Networking and stuff. They are exclusionary. Even when they’re open to the public like the fig-2 openings.


Part 2: Who Rules The World?

For Week 13 of Fig-2 Shezad Dawood created an animation that nods to ideas about posthumanism and secret esoteric societies that decide the destiny of humankind. Two brothers in Saffron coloured hooded robes, reminiscent of Philip Guston’s cartoonized KKK figures talk about Shangri-La in a weird landscape inhabited by Maoi (the Easter Island heads).

In his fig-2 interview Shezad Dawood says the reason he chose to make an animation was because he wanted to “do something that would surprise people in terms of expectations of practice.” Now, artists should never do this. It’s the equivalent of a band you’ve never seen before announcing “This is a new song!” — darling, to me they’re all new —

Brother P wears an adaptation of the muted trumpet from the postal service in The Crying of Lot 49. In Pynchon’s novella evidence accumulates of a secret underground postal delivery service called the Trystero, which might be a conspiracy, a practical joke, or a hallucination, indicated by arcane references on bus windows and toilet walls.

Brother S has an adapted symbol of the Pharaoh Kih-Oskh in the Tintin book The Cigars of the Pharaoh. The Kih-Oskh Brotherhood is a vast criminal organization smuggling opium throughout Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India and China, in fake cigars, with strong systems of communication and transportation and intelligence operating covertly within all levels of society.

In an amusing random continuity, Fig-2 Week 12’s Tom McCarthy has written an entire book analyzing the Tintin cartoons from a structuralist perspective. He notes that Hergé’s politics move from right to left wing during the course of the books. In Cigars from the mid-thirties the villains are “typical enemies of the right, key players in the great global conspiracy of its imagination: Freemasons, financiers…” and, of course, Jews. By the 1970s, as a consequence of World War II, the politics of the Tintin books has shifted over to the left to the extent that in Tintin and the Picaros the hero sports a CND logo on his moped helmet. McCarthy notes that “there remains the interesting paradox that, despite his political realignment, Hergé keeps the same villains in place: men in cagoules, the secret cabals of Cigars of the Pharaoh, serve as straw men for his leftist world-vision just as well as they did for his rightist one.”

In essence Lot 49 and Cigars of the Pharaoh are expressions of the question “Who rules the world?”

In his series The Secret Rulers of the World Jon Ronson goes behind the scenes of the Bilderberg conference, the annual grouping of the elite that has been accused of being a “secret government of the world”. According to the “American Friends of Bilderberg”’s press release “Bilderberg’s only activity is its annual conference. At the meetings no resolutions are proposed, no votes taken, and no policy statements issued.” Highly mysterious. If it doesn’t rule the world, then what exactly does it do? Daniel Estulin’s The Secrets of the Bilderberg Club describes “sinister cliques and the Bilderberg lobbyists” manipulating the public “to install a world government that knows no borders and is not accountable to anyone but its own self.”

Conspiracy theories exist to address our fear that the world might be completely beyond anyone’s control. It’s a theological impulse, to combat the uncertainty that is inherent in supercomplex systems such as economies and societies. There are certain things we just know (echoing Rumsfeld). Scottish mineral water from Tibet: we know it’s tap water from Peckham. We know a ‘no reply’ means ‘no’. We know the Emperor is in the nip. We know. Look. It’s quite simple. Jewish Islamist Masons in the KKK built Easter Island. It’s obvious.

The world government is really just Capital: money markets that transcend national borders and to which states and governments are in thrall. As David Graeber notes the state is no longer a bulwark against capitalist rapaciousness, but works with it hand in hand. Let us also remember that fine art is capital; owning a verified Rembrandt is a securer investment than owning a flat in central London. In short, if you are not with the boorish anti-art vision of the counter-culture, you are propping up the whole capitalist system.

How do you win? You can’t. The game is rigged. Even your dissatisfaction has a dollar value. There’s that Clash lyric: “Turning rebellion into money.” Counter-culture is culture sold over the counter. I’m a sell-out and so are you. At least Tracey Emin is honest and happy about being a Tory voter. She’s happy because she’s won.

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Week 9 – Deborah Coughlin with Gaggle – 2-8 March

This week in Kabul, Afghan artist Kubra Khademi was forced into hiding after publicly wearing a metal suit featuring exaggerated breasts and buttocks. The suit was so designed because “this is all that men see of women”, to highlight the sexual harassment of women. After only eight minutes a mob of men shut her down.  On the 20th anniversary year of the Beijing Declaration on gender equality, a new United Nations report finds that violence against women around the world “persists at alarmingly high levels.”

On Sunday 8 March civilization celebrated International Women’s Day while a depressingly familiar male sub-class complained about it. Sunday was also the last day of fig-2 Week 9, in which Deborah Coughlin with Gaggle (her all-female experimental choir and performance group founded in 2009) presented Yap! Yap! Yap! — “a celebration of women’s voices. Uncovering the great things that women have said throughout history and also saying new things, now, very loudly, with a roster of incredibly special guests. It’s like the Vagina Monologues only not just about fannies.”


In the same week that Gaggle were in residence at fig-2 I went to a number of different shows that made me aware of the diversity of approaches within fine art and performance that are concerned with gender, or explicitly feminist in theme or intent, or that made me think about the unprecedented number of female artists working today in the UK.

Are there more women involved in and interested in fine art than ever before? The group show Eccentric Spaces (selections from Deptford’s Bearspace Gallery, curated by FutureCity, exhibited at Foyles) featured eight women to four men. Similar ratios seem to apply with the artists chosen for fig-2, and at the Eccentric Spaces private view (perhaps the Yap! Yap! Yap! opening too) there were more women than men.

I suspect that it is the case that at a lower profile women abound but as you go higher up the women disappear, and men predominate. There are some Emins but few. There is a similar case with acting, I believe, with many female actors and few female roles, and I see it in science with many female postgraduates but few female professors. This might chime with examples we find in sociology of the feminization of the workplace in which initially spaces such as the workplace (or by extension fine art practice) are proletarianised at a low level and the work devalued; following on from this devaluation women are suddenly allowed to permeate. I cross my fingers that this analysis is just me being cynical, and that the increased numbers of women creating work at this level will be replicated in time higher up.

One theme that seemed to predominate in the shows I went to this week was space, and spaces, in which women in particular can be, perform, and collaboratively imagine new worlds.

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The Eccentric Spaces show seemed to take off from architectural imaginings of space. Similarly, at Mirrorcity at the Southbank in December 2014, Tai Shani’s Dark Continent was an installation and three-part performance taking the structure of an allegorical city of women, exploring feminine subjectivity and experience, complete with a commissioned theme song.

Best of all though, in the same week as Gaggle, was Fannying On, a weekend of installation and collaboration in a reclaimed office space off Chancery Lane. Kayleigh O’Keefe has founded an imaginary country called Gash Land (of which I am a Citizen – apply here!), or imaginary cuntry, that is also a real ongoing collaboratively generated art project, a “Utopian Cunt Wonderland”. Fannying On included Psychedelic Menstrual Huts (where men can learn about what it’s like) and a strongly in-your-face emphasis on female physicality, which, in keeping with the prevailing paradigm of inclusivity, was welcoming of everyone. Radical feminism’s ‘Angry Snatch’ has become the ‘Laughing Gash’. Kayleigh O’Keefe’s videos about flab, fisting, big labia, queefing, pissjaculation, and menstruation, are hilarious. And very NSFW.


What Gash Land, Dark Continent, Eccentric Spaces, Yap! Yap! Yap! have in common is a concern with creating new spaces for female engagement. This relates back to Woolf’s ‘Room of One’s Own’ and female self-determination, and forward to the notion of ‘safe-space’ where gender and sexuality can be freely expressed, but also has a uniquely modern performative element that spins metaphor into reality without ever losing its ideality or its applied real world seriousness: it is ideally political.

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This duality was well captured by Deborah Coughlin. Over the week the ICA studio space was used to create a “collage of pop and ideas, great nobodies and brilliant nobodies, clever words and weird noise” with performances and installations. When I arrived for the opening night the space felt the most excitement I’d experienced there yet. The bulbs had all been changed to pink and green, and the space very quickly filled up with people (a queue remained all the way up the ramp until the end). On the walls were quotes from feminist writers from Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf to Andrea Dworkin and bell hooks. Speakers blasted riotgrrl bands and anthems, such as the Raincoats’ version of the Kinks’ classic transgender anthem Lola. A drum kit had been set up, and mini stages made ready for the twenty-piece choral force of Gaggle.

It felt like something subversive could actually happen in a gallery space, which was unusual. Perhaps it was the club vibe and my age, or the effects of the free gin cocktail, which this week was called LADY PETROL, and which was INSANE (it involved triple sec, angostura bitters, London dry gin, lemon peel, and, for all I know, petrol).

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Across the space the imagery had a hipstery edge to it, garish and a bit gross, familiar from the look pioneered by political-conceptual-theoretical-performative-musical duo The Knife, who must be a touchstone in the intellectual background to Gaggle. The open-mouthed motif that was scattered around Yap! Yap! Yap! is familiar as the Rolling Stones logo from when they had some counter-cultural cachet, as well as having been co-opted by the 1980s kids TV programme ‘Your Mother Wouldn’t Like It’ and is broadly symbolic of freedom of expression and the rebellious speech act.  The hooded members of Gaggle rolled in wearing thick black lip makeup that seemed a defiant reclamation of makeup and dress from traditional uses of these to service and please the male gaze.


Between the Gaggle choir’s songs, Ruth Barnes introduced readings. Charlotte Church read from Mary Wollstonecraft a passage part of which was excerpted on the wall: “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces.” Paula Varjack read from Virginia Woolf’s essay in which Woolf discusses ‘killing the Angel in the House,’ that tormenting self-sacrificing phantom coming between her and her writing.

Ama Josephine Budge and Dana Jade performed two recent dialogues between transfemale actor Laverne Cox and feminist thinker bell hooks, discussing “liberatory images” in the Normativeheteronormativeimperialistwhitesupremacistcapitalistpatriarchy and whether Beyoncé is a feminist; and the notion of ‘safe space versus risk’ in terms of (trans)gender and love.

Wollstonecraft and Woolf are both pioneering figures of First-wave Feminism, which is concerned with the basic emancipation of women, while Cox and hooks’ concerns are more those of Third-wave Feminism’s focus on queer theory and ethnic experience.

In Week 5 of fig-2, Rebecca Birch’s ‘Lichen hunting in the Hebrides’ studied a women’s community choir who preserve Gaelic women’s work songs. In Week 6 Young In Hong’s ‘In Her Dream’ referenced Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979), a classic work of rediscovery of female artists from history. Such acts of rediscovery of historical female figures and practices are familiar as a process of late Second-wave Feminism.

While Young In Hong used these references, the work itself centred on a more third-wavy exploration of the intersection between Western and Korean female experience. Similarly, Deborah Coughlin’s work Yap! Yap! Yap! seems to telescope generations of feminist thought, but with an emphasis on the performative, the socially constructed nature of women through images, that is associated with postmodern feminism, such as you find in the work of Cindy Sherman, where female images are deconstructed but there is also a certain joy in ‘dress-up’.

Too many isms? Too much theory? Near the gin, across one wall the following lines were painted up:

When can I stop
on the wave?
Different place might
be the right time


Overly rigid historically overdetermined delineations of feminism in the arts, such as I’ve employed in separating various impulses out into First-, Second-, Third-wave and Postmodernism Feminisms, don’t seem as helpful as they have been in the past. Structuring the discourse may have hardened it. Perhaps we are moving into a different place, a new space, a kind of feminism in art that includes all the best of the previous waves: emancipatory, historical, multicultural, queer, militant, dadaist, absurd, imaginary, real… This would make it a more postmodern (that is, decentred) kind of feminism than postmodern feminism itself, but with a renewed militancy. Fourth wave feminism? Post-wave feminism?

On another wall, Coughlin spelled it out:


Past – forensic
Present – ceremonial
Future – political

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The struggle for equality varies wildly across the world, and we can’t describe one simultaneous female experience, other than a broad inequality with men, which is still a universal truth.  Much of the Middle East area still practices sexual apartheid in 2015, which means that feminism occupies a complex position there, directly suppressed but also, where possible, informed by conceptual advances imported from places where human rights have made greater advances, or where they have not been pushed back to the middle ages.

In certain areas, what this simultaneity of intellectual experience and disparity of political position between women across the globe means is that in some places feminist activity and activism has skipped a few steps; if you can imagine the Suffragettes in England over a century ago employing the imagery and means of Pussy Riot. Perhaps the next steps in developing feminism in the arts are characterised by not just the Third-wave’s “ceremonial” inclusiveness and congruence with respect to gender and ethnicity, but also to the First- and Second-wave’s “forensic” means, theories and strategies we employ to move humankind forward: perhaps even, however problematically, a new “political” unifying feminist modernism.


The last word goes to Ruth Barnes: “Let’s have a dance — set yourselves free!”

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POSTSCRIPT: One of the Gaggle opening evening’s special guests, Dana Jade, is the founder of Clit Rock, created to raise awareness and funds to combat FGM. The next fundraiser is on March 27.

Art Fund Curator Talk #2 – “On Responsibility” (19 February 2015)

The second of this eight part seminar series with the title On Responsibility will concentrate on Roland Barthes’ seminal text entitled To the Seminar, investigating the contents and discontents of the current cultural production of art institutions and their modes of audience engagement.

Text of Barthes’ “To The Seminar”: http://www.betalocal.org/pdfs/barthes-totheseminar.pdf

I have a favourite nerdy joke in which a mathematician, upon being challenged to use the smallest possible amount of fence to enclose a herd of sheep, encloses himself in a small fence and declares “I define myself to be on the outside!”

In her second Curator Talk, “On Responsbility”, Fatoş Üstek led an attempt to apply the ideas raised in Roland Barthes’ 1974 text “To The Seminar” in a discussion of how curators approach their responsibilities to the artists they work with, the artworks themselves, and the audience that experiences these works.

This is important because the role of the curator is to mediate between the artist, the work, and the audience, while at the same time negotiating her own predilections, history, the future, and formal, financial, temporal and spatial constraints. Bad curation can result in the distortion of meaning via the imposition or implication of an order that is misleading, which has been described as being “comparable to a teacher in the classroom using outdated secondary sources for a lecture on physics.”

Barthes’ work tends to embody and perform its ideas, rather than simply framing and explaining them. This makes it, depending on your view, enigmatic and rich in possibilities for discussion, or just hard to follow. “To the seminar” opens “Is this a real site or an imaginary one? Neither. An institution is treated in the utopian mode: I outline a space and call it: seminar.” — I declare myself to be on the outside!

I’d like to ask, even if the answers are neither real nor imaginary, what we can learn from Üstek’s attempt in her seminar to apply the notions embodied by and expressed through Barthes’ text to the realm of curation, with particular regard to curatorial responsibility, and to ask: was she successful?

Seminars are necessarily small, intimate. To Barthes this safeguards the seminar’s complexity, its potentiality or capacity to generate ideas and discussion. This is a kind of Bolshevik notion that cuts against certain popularising notions that have seemingly held sway over the way that art is curated by institutions like the Tate, who lay on blockbusters of over-familiar work, ostensibly as part of their public service remit but at the cost of not bringing the unfamiliar to a popular audience. This is often seen as deeply cynical, money-grabbing, but also conversely as a demotic and democratic impulse.

In a 2001 symposium, Kathy Halbreich expressed concern that “the popular is the most significant sign of our [curatorial] success. I’m happy when our numbers are good, but I’m happier when the engagement is repeated and deep.” Critic Dave Hickey (ibid.) went on “Let’s get smaller places with better art. […] Small is always okay. In a puritan republic like this one, where there is little interest in the visible arts, it’s perfectly rational.”

This is arguably why seminars are important: as forums for discussing at a specialist level issues that can be expanded at a larger level to work toward managing the conflict between the mandarin and the demotic in art. Does this matter? Were I to be glib (and, believe me, glibness is my default mode) I could say that when an event happens, it doesn’t matter if only two people turn up as long as one of them doesn’t know what’s going on and the other one writes about it. This is one peculiar form of elitism, familiar from such formulations as are applied to the first Sex Pistols gig or the Velvet Underground, that only x people were there but they all went and formed a band. Blockbusters don’t produce anything new; it’s the niche, the cutting edge, the mandarin that generates new directions. Or is this view elitist and pretentious?

If Fatoş Üstek is right, then reading Barthes can help us formulate a response to such controversies. Let’s go into his writing a bit more. In Image, Music, Text (1968) Barthes wrote “We now know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of an Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash”. This is a formulation of Barthes’ notion of ‘the death of the author’ but let’s see what happens if we think of a literal multi-dimensional space (the seminar, the exhibition space) as a text in which a variety of ideas blend and clash. This could be useful in interpreting “To the Seminar”, and indeed it corresponds to Barthes’ third formulation of space, the three being institutional, transferential, and textual. Textual not just because it produces a text, but because “it regards its own—non-functional—practice as already constituting a text: the rarest text, one which does not appear in writing.”

What is this nonsense, a text that is not written? A text that is textual by virtue of just being, or being performed, even if it finds no final form? We can look to oral poetry for confirmation that such texts can indeed exist, though they differ from the modern trope of the text in their lack of final form. This is a fruitful comparison for the seminar or curated space where the conversation (to which Barthes devotes a passage), the discussion, rarely produces a final ‘text’ but embodies textuality by virtue of its discursiveness.

The curatorial conversation results in an exhibition, a show, which is essentially the text that is produced. But it is ephemeral; its documentation is another text discrete from the text itself, which is the show, which must end (even the achingly long blockbuster shows at the Tate eventually end, even if they seem to go on forever). Barthes talks about the production of knowledge from the seminar, but, similarly, notes that “Knowledge, like delight, dies with each body.”

Barthes’ essay then moves from discussion of knowledge and on to teaching it, the transmission of knowledge. But how can that happen if knowledge dies with the body? Clearly some knowledge is transmitted, even if it is a facsimile like the documentation of an exhibition. Barthes revels in the paradox: “To teach what occurs only once—what a contradiction in terms!”

Üstek concluded with a quotation of Barthes’ quotation from Michelet, “I have always been careful to teach only what I did not know,” and in a sense she was right, not in terms of her understanding of the Barthes text or the discipline of curacy, but in her quite brave decision to apply the one to the other. In a Barthean act of incompletion, foregrounding meaning-making as a process rather than an end, she installed in this seminar a conversation as a space for discussion, without resolving it into a final meaning, a final decision or ultimate morality of curation.

It is a fruitful analogy: curating as seminar, as a space for discussion involving multiple competing perspectives and decisions, given that, as I said above, the role of the curator is to mediate between the artist, the work, and the audience, while at the same time negotiating her own predilections, history, the future, and formal, financial, temporal and spatial constraints. While the show must end, and the seminar must end, the questions raised in the specific context of a show will continue through all other subsequent shows.

This is why the curator is like Barthes’ first educational roleplayer, the teacher, with the teacher’s responsibilities to making meaning accessible, even if it is not final. Üstek shares Barthes’ implied view that the master-apprenticeship relationship attempts to transmit such finalised meanings, which is impossible, and finds in Barthes’ third educational practice, mothering, a more valuable way of thinking about the curator’s role: to support rather than transmit individual meaning-making. The Tate tells us what is canonical in art historical terms: to say ‘this is what art is’. Art dealers tell us what is canonical in financial terms: to say ‘this is what is valuable’. The curator is not like an art dealer, but more like a carer, whose responsibility ultimately lies in making a space available in which we as an audience can experience Barthes’ notion of jouissance, where we can find gratification but also experience the danger of disappointment, allowing us to find our own meaningfulness and turn against “an aggressive destiny.”

Further reading

On Barthes: http://jsheelmusiced.pressible.org/jsheel/roland-barthes-%E2%80%9Cto-the-seminar%E2%80%9Dhttp://sweb.uky.edu/~jri236/pleasure/syllabus/https://www.academia.edu/224463/_The_Paideia_of_the_Greeks_On_the_Methodology_of_Roland_Barthess_Comment_Vivre_Ensemblehttp://www.frieze.com/issue/article/barthes-after-barthes/

On curation: http://www2.tate.org.uk/nauman/themes_4.htm http://www.giarts.org/article/curating-now-imaginative-practicepublic-responsibility