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Whose Time is it Anyway? Thoughts on Curating And Temporality

Posted by Kate

10 Oct 2016 — No Comments

Posted in Blog

What is it to curate something today? Often the idea is to spend as much time as possible scouring the world for artists to work with, to spend time travelling as far and wide as possible to conduct studio visits and meetings with artist, and time to communicate with your team, time to design, install open and market your show.

How many curators stop to wonder about the power structures at play that influence how we work and the temporalities of this work? Is our working time determined by certain structures, is it ring-fenced into packages or drawn out over longer periods. Is it recurring and are there patterns forming where we perform the same activities every day, week, month, year, two years, or is it more sporadic? Is it defined by the style of work, as short and intense, long and durational, or fluctuating? Do we accelerate towards an end-point or luxuriate in the process?

Do we distinguish between the different curatorial activities of creating, managing, selecting, researching, caring, mediating and communicating and do we think about how much time should and is devoted to these different areas of work?

How many of us overwork because our field doesn’t expect clear boundaries of working times nor distinguishes between what constitutes „work“ and „leisure“? Because our (often freelance) creative work fits so neatly into the ideal of the neo-liberal individualist society, efficiency becomes equated with acceleration and thus in turn becomes our temporal god. In this society, and in this line of work, you are solely responsible for how you spend your time and how productive you are when you do. The more efficient you are, the more extra time you have for more work and the better a curator you are (you can see more shows, meet more artists, read more books and create more projects). Portrayals in the media of Hans Ulricht Obrists’s dislike for time-consuming sleep come to mind here.

What if we were to turn this idea on its head? Could there be such a thing as slow curating? The idea comes from a recent colloquium I attended at the Center for Metropolitan Studies where Prof. Dietrich Henkel proposed that slowness actually creates efficiency, rather than hindering it. This got me thinking: what would slow curating look like? Would slow curating simply be a matter of allowing more time between projects? Would it mean better distinguishing between work and time and allowing more leisure time? Or would it be a matter of slowing down the pace of work and working in less intense ways, thus extending the duration of projects? Perhaps this form of curating already exists but those who do it are too shy to tell the art world for fear of not being taken seriously, especially given the vast amount of „slow“ movements in the past decade (slow food, slow travel, slow…).




Whilst pondering these questions I realised that perhaps my own curatorial practice embodied the „slow“curatorial approach. A perfect example would be the project I am currently in the middle of working on. I started working on an exhibition with an artist friend and colleague of mine over a year ago. „So what?“ I hear you say. One year is a pretty typical amount of time to curate an exhibition. Yes, quite right. But what if I told you that this exhibition was small in scale, only consisted of about 5-10 works (we haven’t quite decided yet) from one artist and would be staged in a small gallery probably only for a couple of days. An opening, an artists’ talk and that’s it. A year then seems like a rather long time for such a small project. The length of time determined by the artist and myself was actually deliberate and there are two reasons for this decision: socio-geographical factors and political activism.

Geographically speaking, the artist I am working with is based on one side of the globe, in my former home of Melbourne, and I am based in Berlin. This factor alone immediately influences the temporality of the project slowing down communications. The 8-9 hour time difference (depending on the season) influences how productive our conversation is, how quick we are at making decisions and if we are more prone to distractions such as the need to eat (dinner or breakfast times are often the times of the day we are available to speak). Being chained to your computer in order to speak to someone far away is a wonderful thing to be able to do in our time, however it’s not without its problems. Technological problems such as microphones, speakers and image sharing software to discuss an artist’s portfolio can slow down what would otherwise be certainly quicker face-to-face experiences. Socially speaking, both myself and the artist are PhD candidates with already rather full schedules. Both of us place a high value on leisure time thus cutting out a certain number of hours per week as available for “work time”.

In terms of political activism, in the ten years that I have been working as a curator, it is only in the last five years or so to realise that I don’t have to subscribe to the dominant neo-capitalist system guiding the professionalised (or unprofessionalised as some argue) field of curating that celebrates the shifting of responsibility of production onto the individual. It’s very easy to get swept up into the wave of following the idols of curating without giving much thought as to what kinds of temporalities are inherent in their work practices. Trying to emulate the careers of a different generation of curators who trained and created projects in a different time and space with a different set of social (and professional) expectations is quite simply, ridiculous. And just because we have the technology at our fingertips to enable us to transcend time and space in order to work more “efficiently” is equally as ridiculous. Hence, about five years ago, I started to make some decisions.

One such decision was the decision not to stay up until ridiculous hours of the morning to chat to someone on the other side of the planet. The decision not to overwhelm myself by working on too many projects at once. Why should I work to the rhythm of an internationally networked imaginary work clock that seems to have no temporal rules except „curate as many shows as possible“ (and yes, a curator actually once gave me that advice) and let your passion be your work. Here, it’s interesting to draw from the work of Barbara Adam on the temporalities of careers and the social exclusion of deviating from expected social norms.

The other decision was that as a freelancer with very little time and an unpredictable chronic illness that sometimes affects my energy, I have to set my temporal priorities somewhat differently. My daily, weekly, monthly and yearly patterns of work need to deal with the fluctuating abilities (or lack thereof) of my body. Rest time for recharging my batteries, so to say, is more of a priority for me than squeezing in one more exhibition opening in an already packed week. Although, I am also highly aware of the fact that as a white, middle class full-stipend holding PhD candidate with a working life-partner, I can make these choices of when and how much to work somewhat comfortably (at least for now!).

And lastly, I decided that efficiency for me meant as slowness, rather than acceleration. It allows me time to think, to leave pockets or breaks in between discussions, meetings, viewings to think about things (or not to), to consider and to digest. I’m not “on” all the time and I’m certainly not working all the time. When given the choice between working on large group shows with complex themes demanding hours and hours of research and travelling all over the city or dividing my time between different artists, or allowing myself to spend time with one artist to really get to know their work, their desires and ambitions, I will pick the solo show any day. That’s not to say I have no interest in group shows or ambitious large scale projects, but at least at this stage in my life, in order to continue working (at all) as a curator in the long run, I need to acknowledge my own temporalities before that of the global art scene.

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