As a word that emanates from the idea of caring, curating has evolved into an all-encompassing, catchall term that accounts for a wide variety of activities that can be as artistically careless (as in booth curating, which emulates commercial art fair displays they are socially carefree: despite museums’ claims to the contrary, many “curated” community-outreach initiatives only highlight the disconnect between institution and neighborhood, and the museum’s own role in the gentrification driving out those very communities. Curator is an occupation that continues to oscillate between aspirational pursuit within the moneyed class (today’s Sheikhs replacing yesterday’s bourgeois) and standardless profession (with little or nothing in the way of written guidelines about how independent curators should be remunerated or credited). The curator has evolved from object caretaker to exhibition maker with the rise of the independent curator, starting with Harald Szeemann. Indeed, paying direct homage to Szeemann, Jens Hoffmann calls himself an exhibition maker, while Germano Celant might be called an exhibition remaker.1 Still, curating continues to be tied to the museum context and what Tony Bennett called the exhibitionary complex (a genealogy of the making of the Western museum as the dominant art institution).2
Despite its social turn (Claire Bishop) and educational turn (Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson) and “whatever” turn (as mockingly suggested by Lars Bang Larsen),3 despite its extended geographic territories (with strong petrodollar-supported Russian and Middle Eastern expansions) and even virtual manifestations, curatorial practice remains essentially exhibition driven and museum bound. It more generally takes place within a gallery space, formal or ad hoc, and even within the expanded biennial field, it exists within the four walls of a physical space but for a few exceptions.4 A case in point was the Arena designed by David Adjaye for the 56th Venice Biennial curated by Okwui Enwezor. A black box inside a white cube featuring scheduled performances and framed as the beating heart of “All the World’s Futures,” it seemed to epitomize just how difficult it is to come out of the box and break away from the enclosure of the proscenium stage and the gallery space, here conflated into one—a case of matryoshka doll exhibition design, of the same within the same.5
An alternative genealogy of curating would understand exhibition making as primarily about displaying publicly, as opposed to enclosing within walled spaces. That genealogy would take the increasing production of performance into account, not as a trend but as a redress. It would also de facto experiment with other curatorial models based on both prior and parallel exhibitionary histories. One prior history harks back to the traditional itinerant fair in Europe and North America until the nineteenth century. A parallel history looks to the processional traditions in West Africa around the same period. Processions developed as a regal display of wealth in the Kingdom of Dahomey (the present-day Benin Republic) over the course of the eighteenth century, culminated in the mid-nineteenth century, and collapsed in the late nineteenth century with French colonization (Coquery-Vidrovitch).6 (The rise and fall of this tradition followed a course akin to that of museum and international exhibitions in princely European cabinets at the same time.) These so-called coutumes or fêtes des richesses were in effect a living cabinet of curiosities, occurring annually as well as for exceptional circumstances (the funeral ritual of a King), exhibiting European gifts, local artifacts, vodun ritual instruments, slaves, and the kingdom’s subjects.
Placing Bennett’s exhibitionary genealogy in counterpoint, I assert that indeed, “works of art had previously wandered through the streets of Europe like the Ships of Fools in Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation.”7 I further suggest that what was lost and is currently making a return—consider the recent wealth of artworks as processions and exhibitions on and as processions—can pave the way to other curatorial models.8 As they seek to bypass Euro-American cultural hegemony even as they attempt to restore a social link, might these practices constitute a form of countercurating? Is this not a strategy by which antispectacular spectacles (e.g., carnivals) are (off)staged? As a form of cross-cultural curating, it uses performance-based curatorial methodology to accommodate different cultural sensoriums or perceptual regimes. As a form of contractual curating, it follows a process by which a collective cultural situation is negotiated among artists, curators, and viewer-participants.
However they may be called and defined, I have drawn these other curatorial models and their experimental practices from the creative commons of the Americas and its African, European, Asian, and Middle Eastern diasporas whose festival traditions and street celebrations are social movements at the center of public life and civil society. I have further applied curatorial methodologies that emulate social clubs, mutual-aid societies, and communal workshops as found in New Orleans and London, Trinidad and New York. Finally, I am employing exhibitionary strategies that may take the form of speeches, marches, parades, processions, demonstrations, and other occupations. Curating, then, becomes a daily activity, a seasonal festival or a circumstantial celebration that contributes to the transmission of cultural memory, enables intercultural communication, and cultivates the transformative powers of public expression.
Here is a whip-wielding devil/jester, a buttocks-and-bosom-padded cross-dressing character, a double-bodied hunchback figure. Under these masks are young male children and older fathers, a young man with an elderly one. Occasionally, though more commonly in the so-called fantasy bands, are women of all ages. Here again are thousand-strong self-proclaimed pretty bands, mostly female, in various states of undress, from beaded bikini to multicolored garment. There are children, some not long out of infancy, walking naked; others run, frightened and enthralled, following the masks. Adults step out on their terraces or balconies, poke a head through doors previously closed and windows just opened, albeit behind bars. There again is a watching crowd, some seated on folding chairs set up early in the day, others standing as if passing by but staying put for hours and sometimes joining in.
Here and there is the same liminal space where something called participation can be said to happen, when the open space of the street and the absence of a stage foster ad hoc interactions that occur on the spur of the moment rather than in response to an open call to volunteers. Streets and sidewalks, terraces and balconies are the thresholds of these masked processions, small-town and big-city carnivals, neighborhood and stadium parades, calling for mass participation. From Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic, to Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago (as described above), or anywhere else in the Caribbean and the Americas, Carnival—born of the experience of slavery and colonization, anticolonial struggles and postindependence nation building—offers a genealogy of performance practices in which community representation and mass participation intersect.
Because in life no one is alone, there is always someone
Oh, there’s no need to cry, because life is a carnival.
The Cuban singer Celia Cruz’s 1999 salsa hit “La vida es un carnival” appropriately uses Carnival as a metaphor for community life. Or as the Russian semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin put it, Carnival is “a feast for all the world.”9 My definition of participation matches the meaning closest to its etymology and furthest from its current primary usage. I understand participation as “the state of being part of a larger whole” rather than as “the act of participating.” Participation, to me, is not a pursuit but a state (albeit an active one), not a modern fad but ancient wisdom. Contemporary artists with an interest in artistic interventions and/or political action as mass participation and/or representation have turned to the space of Carnival and the form of what I have termed processional performance. So did the American musician and composer Arto Lindsay, who worked with a flurry of collaborators: from American artist Matthew Barney and the Afro-Brazilian bloco (street band) Cortejo Afro (on De Lama Lâmina, a mass public performance in the carnival of Salvador, in Bahia, Brazil, in 2004) to the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija (on the Trespass parade in Los Angeles in 2011). Were these carnivals on call and parades on demand, and if so, how does their modus operandi affect the experience of their participants’ participation? Aside from any surviving unmarketed community traditions, is Carnival affected by the global contemporary art infrastructure no less than by the national consumerist systems of which it has become a part?
How do these projects by Lindsay and company compare with the British artist Jeremy Deller’s Procession with local associations in Manchester in 2009? How do they all compare with the Beninese artist Dominique Zinkpè’s Awobobo procession in 2008, based on traditions dating back to precolonial Dahomey? What about Francis Alÿs’s staging of The Modern Procession in New York in 2002 to mark the Museum of Modern Art’s temporary relocation to Long Island City and Simon Fujiwara’s New Pompidou in Paris in 2014 for the opening of the Centre Pompidou’s annual art festival? Have these museum-driven processions become nothing more than exhibitions in motion? When does procession (from the Latin procedere, to move forward) become parade (from the Latin parare, to prepare, to show)? When does participation end in spectacle? Is participation to procession what spectacle is to parade? And what contemplation is to exhibition?
As a curator I understand that if the processional is an artistic medium, it can also be a curatorial one. I also understand that exhibitionary models of mass participation might yield seemingly contradictory results: on the one hand, they engage the increasingly large audiences of the newly institutionalized biennial model, and, on the other, they relay the globalization of mass action toward the constituency of participatory democracy. Such was the aim of SPRING, a ninety-minute mass public processional performance with two hundred participants that I curated for the 7th Gwangju Biennale in 2008. It included works by the Haitian artist Mario Benjamin (Le Banquet), the Trinidadian artist Marlon Griffith (Runaway + Reaction), the Brazilian artist Jarbas Lopes (Demolition Now), the American artist Karyn Olivier (Grey Hope), and the French collective MAP Office (The Final Battle), inspired by the May 18, 1980, democratic uprising in Gwangju.
To return to my initial definitions and central questions, is participation but a contemporary fallacy invented to make up for the loss of the commons? Has the act of participating in a reconstructed reality replaced the state of being part of the larger world?