Week 38 – Josh Wright and Guillaume Vandame – 21-27 September

photo by steph wilsonIt is not emptying your mind. The instructor explains to the class,

Meditation has got nothing to do with blanking your mind. My favourite quote on yoga is “If you want your mind to go blank, get your best friend to give you a healthy blow on the head.”

Oh God, but my mind is blank. Should it not be? Think about things. Concentrate. I mean, meditate. So it’s not just emptying your mind then?

You wouldn’t want to encourage your mind to be blank, because your mind is designed in a way that is supposed to connect you with the world around you. So why would you ask your heart to stop beating, why would you ask your digestive system to stop working?

CQAqK9TWIAAvx5oDidn’t Houdini slow his heart down or his breathing so he could escape from padlocks under water? No matter. Some gentle stretches. She asks us to move our hands in front of us, and to project an imaginary ball of light in our hands. Oh wow! I can see it, right there in my hands, a big imaginary ball of love or cosmic libido. My body and I are one! Meditating is pretty far out.

We are going to be practicing slow movement, controlled movement, to match our breath, so that our awareness can follow.

I like the stretches and the breathing and the ball of light, and the lying down. I could lie down all day, all night even, just breathing. She tells us to touch one nostril with your thumb and the other with your finger and breathe in through the left nostril and out through the right. But I can’t. I can’t breathe through my nose. This is agony. This is excruciating. I have never been so frustrated. This is not relaxing. Meditation is sheer hell.

What we are trying to achieve through meditation, a sense of stillness, a sense of peace, tap into that sense of stillness and peace within us, something that you carry with you all the time wherever you go.

Seriously, how do they get away with it, the Bedroom Tax and the Welfare Bill, the death of Bdehoobby Sands and parking tickets. I definitely did not ask to be born. This is cruel. My body has dissolved into feelings. At that moment I notice that the ball of light in my hands is a horrendous flaming ball of pure hate.

We are not looking for achieving something unattainable, we are tapping into something that is within – sense of stillness, sense of peace, sense that everything is well.

Everything is not well. The meditation session was not cathartic. After it’s over the guy next to me says, with a bovine docility, that he found it peaceful. In my mind a menagerie of Boschian monsters commit grave acts of bestial cruelty to each other in a landscape of flames and death.

In case you came here with the expectation of blanking your mind, it is not what we are looking for.


fig-2_38_50_14In Week 38 of Fig-2 Josh Wright and Guillaume Vandame turned the ICA studio space into a participatory art gym. The idea was to invite artists as well as exercise instructors, and encourage people to try new things and to promote healthy living as opposed to the impossible ideals of body image, with a social platform to discuss issues inspired by Marjolijn Dijkman’s Salon sessions held in Week 22 of Fig-2 which used the space as an open forum for discussion.

fig-2_38_50_15During the week there were sessions of Pilates, Zumba, Chi Kung, meditation, and eight types of yoga- Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Hatha, Meditation, Yin, Dru, as well as the mysterious “Everlasting Yoga” sessions run by artist Karimah Ashadu, the movement and meditation session that so severely stressed me out, and VOGA, an ungodly but logical mashup of Yoga and Voguing, the ‘strike a pose’ semi-static dance style that Madonna stole off the New York gay scene; logical because yoga is also a kind of semi-static dance of held poses, and ungodly because oh God just Madonna.

victoria-beckham_784x0[1]Vandame and Wright are strongly influenced by Vanessa Beecroft, and their week was in a sense an application of her sculptural use of actual human bodies. The participants in the classes become part of the human sculpture, as well as integral to what are in effect participatory performances. Guillaume says “the classes work within this framework about body image, gender, sexuality, etc. but are also much about chance encounters and possibility — what can happen in these situations and questioning expectations of both performance art and traditional exercise classes.”

TeaserFB-IMAGEIn the sessions from three invited artists, the idea of a performance and exercise class as participatory performance were mixed up so an exercise class that is instructive becomes a participatory art event. Visitors are in a sense objectified, becoming sculptures within the installation. Objectification is a dangerous subject, beginning with how people are perceived and then defined and then repressed according to single objectified aspects of the their sex, gender, race, culture. Tellingly, the doors to the space stayed open, to foreground the aim of inclusivity. So the show’s repurposing of objectification takes issues or representation of the female body as a starting point and extends it to issues of race, sexuality, and so on through the whole list of ‘Tory low priorities’. It addresses perceived alienating effects of performance art (and indeed exercise) by inviting people into the performance.

what-happens-when-a-turner-prize-nominated-artist-leads-an-insanity-workout-body-image-1443199006Zing Tsjeng has written in Vice about “This is insanity!” the class/art performance led by Turner nominee Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, giving such a vivid and amazing account that it made me wonder if I was even at the same event.

INSANITY® is a provocatively competitive workout – the hardest ever! says the promo material. Chetwynd explained the hideous beast and took the class through some of its moves. It involves high-intensity one-minute bursts of strenuous activity (we did thirty seconds) followed by relative chill. This I guess means the body can’t become adjusted to either, which makes it work harder. It’s obviously stupid, but I suppose some idiots want to give themselves heart attacks.

adhamAdham Faramawy’s “Post Rave Sweat Fatigue Workshop” was a high-intensity session combining the dance moves of rave with standard aerobics. I enjoyed this very much, but it’s hard to dance. An hour of rave anthems was pretty tiring. How the hell did we do this all night long in the nineties? Oh, drugs. Drugs were pretty good, right? I’m glad we got those tattoos.

tumblr_l8brdwNFqL1qdazefo1_500[1]High-intensity exercise is one thing, but nothing compared to what artists and bodybuilders have put themselves through. Francesca Steele is a kind of case study for pushing the limits of body modification as both an art and personal project. She was featured in the Superhuman exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, a show about body modification, and in the first salon discussion session at Fig-2 she spoke about her lifestyle and being a bodybuilder as an art project she did in 2008, physically changing her body and how that changed her identity, particularly regarding gender. Her diet was so rigorous and extreme, full of eggs and spinach and drugs, that upon being invited to dinner with art legend Marina Abramovic she declined because she didn’t want to deviate from her diet. It caused such a personal strain to the extent that she ended up divorced from her husband.

Screenshot 2015-10-05 21.46.42At the second salon session Fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek theorized that the week invites a “critical framework” in which we discuss what forces are at play in “subjectivity and socially engaged art, how we define what is a healthy body and how art deals with this modern subject”. The mirrors along the side of the ‘gym’ were intentionally fragmented, as a visual comment on body image, which was pretty neat.

Developing this theme, three TVs showed one-hour edits of exercise and dance routines taken from movies and videos from the 1970s-80s. Guillaume explains “The exercise videos formally deal more with wider issues of representation and identity in terms of nationality and race — how these identities are constructed and formed across various cultures at various points in time. As well the issues of beauty, normality and difference on display – what it means to be masculine or feminine or the assumption that the individuals are heterosexual because they conform to a heteronormative ideology/society.”

That sounds very theory heavy, but it really resonates. I’ve always had a problem with these kinds of videos. They’re just so sexy. I can’t desexualise them, if anyone can. Can you? The lines of the body, particularly the crotch, are emphasised by the tight-fitting lycra gymwear. It brings out my inner prude. It’s something about the screen, whereas in real life nothing is at all sexy. Rhythmic movements of the pelvis are inherently embarrassing.

toolsAppropriately, therefore, one sculptural aspect of the show was along one wall tools wrapped in lycra. Tools, wrapped in lycra. But seriously, ahem, it’s emblematic of the show’s mixing up of high and low culture to present the hard utilitarian teleology of hammers and saws wrapped up in the soft gaudy kitsch of spandex.

hannah_omshanti_20secsThe classes and events I went to over the week involved me in physical activities that were well out of my comfort zone. What you’re reading now is in a sense a sequel to my piece for Week 27 of Fig-2 in which I dwelt on the chance encounter of my misanthropy and self-hatred with the spiritual and physical rhapsodies of Kundalini Yoga. With hilarious consequences, of course.

I do have a cosmic streak, so I wondered if my broadly positive reaction to Kundalini was more about that rather than the exercise side, and whether Week 38 would answer this. In the case of me getting so stressed out in the meditation class, clearly not.

CPtKVwsXAAA4XVSThe yoga session on Sunday morning was a classic straight-man funny-man double act with Josh (literally straight) performing standard yoga moves, while Guillaume (literally funny) plugged into his iPod and singing along to a playlist of pop songs themed around breathing. The Daniel Johnston-like tuneless strangling of Taylor Swift and Sting was a disruptive art intervention into yoga. It actually made it easier for me to concentrate on the yoga; a sort of focusing distraction. I’m the sort of ADHD guy who generally has two TVs and a radio on while I’m writing while I’m driving while I’m on the tube while I’m on the phone, masturbating and making charcoal sketches.  

File 04-10-2015, 21 03 08The session was nothing like my previous yoga session. It definitely felt like art, art as sustained wind-up, the neo-Dadaism of Fluxus and Naim June Paik. One of the other participants was sustainedly wound up and began ignoring Josh and performing her own yoga shapes, before finally leaving the room for a few minutes, then returning, resuming her own thing, and finally getting so frustrated with Guillaume’s off-key singing that she exploded “Shut up!

In the process of turning the studio space into an ‘art gym’ one of the interesting references that came up in the salons was to Marc Augé’s concept of ‘non-places’, those liminal spaces that are both or neither somewhere or nowhere – airports, shopping malls, motorways, supermarkets – and, why not, the gym. “The art of supermarkets, convenience stores, and so on have been explored,” Guillaume says, “but no one’s really explored the art of going to the gym. There have been references to the body throughout modern art and art history, but this context especially is unique.”

timthumb.php_1[1]In Non-places: An Introduction to Supermodernity Marc Augé draws a distinction between “anthropological places” formed by social bonds and collective history, and “non-places” of atomized, individual travel and consumption: “If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.” (p63).

CMI2LGAVAAASOZM“Clearly the word ‘non-place’ designates two complementary but distinct realities: spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure), and the relations that individuals have with these spaces […] As anthropological places create the organically social, so non-places create solitary contractuality. Try to imagine a Durkheimian analysis of a transit lounge at Roissy!” (p76)

It is not that the gym does not have a culture or that it’s not concerned with identity. For many the gym is active in the development and expression of their identity. It’s a hot-house for growing bodies. However, that phrase “solitary contractuality” crashes down upon it. Most people in the gym are alone. Nobody talks to each other, or exchanges are limited to a few technical reflections on abs or nutrition. It’s like being on the tube, another arena within which one is profoundly solitary not least because one is crammed into a tin with countless other people, none of whom you may interact with, not in conversation, not even making eye contact.

spaceGyms can be sterile, dehumanized environments that can be alienating or estranging, fuelling the suspicion of the exercise shy that it’s not for us, or that it’s for someone else, a body of people from which we are excluded just as ‘homeless spikes’ are not intended to promote a nicer society. “The non-place is the opposite of Utopia: it exists, and it does not contain any organic society.” (p90).

CP6SbfkWUAAzBHySolitary contractuality even extends to communal activities: exercise classes such as yoga or aerobics. Everyone is performing the same acts together, but all mediated through the class leader and each without reference to any other person in the room. It’s not a band, where if the drums stop you’ll notice, it’s not even like an orchestra where you could afford to have a few viola players pass out before anyone noticed anything was up. In these classes you are completely interchangeable, not even a cog in a machine for generating exercise, and if the gym is a non-place, then in the gym class you’re a non-person.

2000px-RegisteredTM.svg[1]I was surprised but not surprised to learn that Zumba® is a registered trademark. So is INSANITY®. I have kind of respect for the holistic integrity of Kundalini Yoga but you do have to wonder if the highly invented and marketed Zumba – never mentioned without its ® – isn’t blatantly like the Scientology of exercise regimes. It’s a huge turnoff, that ®, a reminder of the strongly capitalistic impetus of exercise regimes. That your body is a product that you sell to make you a better machine to generate revenue for the capitalist machine.

61b5ee51cbea456667138efaa4892292.image.435x431[1]By reclaiming the gym in an art context, Vandame and Wright perhaps suggested some ways in which we can go beyond the depressing eighties elements of exercise culture and really grow ourselves.

What I’d like to see is more of these free outdoor gyms. I walk past one in Anerley several times a week, and always think that’s bloody brilliant that is. Obviously I’m too lazy to actually use it, but I’d like to see these things everywhere, because proper gyms are expensive and terrifying. There is a massive moral panic about the burgeoning obesity crisis, so why don’t we build public gyms? Healthy living shouldn’t just be the preserve of the middle classes and the rich.



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?

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