Wednesday, February 10, 2010

morality, a thematic project

i recently attended a [curator's] talk with nicolaus shaufhausen, director of witte de with, center for contemporary art in rotterdam, the netherlands. witte de with (wdw) has set up "morality" as a leitmotif (a dominant and recurring theme, as in a novel) for a year's worth of programming, including exhibitions, publications, educational programs and a website to engage people in conversation around the idea. i was intrigued by the idea: an entire year of a contemporary art institution (in the netherlands, no less) using the idea or concept of morality as a guiding conceptual framework. i was looking forward to hearing about the ways in which wdw engaged artists, academics and various publics as they explored the idea through art objects, experiences, events and discussions.

that didn't happen.

the talk was promoted thusly:
Director of Witte de With, The Netherlands, Nicolaus Schafhausen will discuss the thematic project Morality. In the most general sense, morality is a category of aide-memoires for living a righteous life; in its most inflexible sense, it engages the world through categorical imperatives, produces intolerance towards skepticism, and insists on transcendental ideas even when these have become unnecessary. The aim of the Morality project is to present a wide range of attitudes which tend to problematize a total conception of morality.
instead, what happened was a lot of talk about the context of the [contemporary art] institution: the political landscape, the socio-economic situation, the ethnic make-up of the city, funding issues...very little was said about the thematic use of morality. in fact, the talk was framed within the context of curatorial practice and how curating is shifting. even more, the discussion focussed on the possibilities of changing the way institutions function and, by extension, curatorial projects. now, i'm not saying that there weren't some interesting ideas generated by the presentation (or, to be more accurate, and a little snarky, in spite of it), but the presentation was really for institutional curator types, and involved more than just a little navel-gazing and theoretical wanking. i felt a little left out. and bored. and perhaps a bit anachronistic. i guess i'm of the opinion that the institution does have to justify itself; it does have to prove its value and acknowledge (and educate) the public about why it exists and what it does. it should (must?) have a social/cultural function.

i wanted to hear about how wdw presented and discussed various ideas about morality: the questions it asked to complicate questions about morality, how they facilitated dialogue and discussion (and perhaps even argument) about what constitutes morality, and how we define what is moral and immoral. i was interested in how specific they were, rather than having "morality" offered as a giant bucket or catch-all idea that you could throw anything and everything into, and conceivably never discuss anything concrete. i'm all for ambiguity and multivalence, but there has to be something for people to bounce off when discussing this kind of idea. facilitating a discussion means you take a position, or at least offer a proposition to explore. how else will you figure out where you stand?

anyway, it raised a number of questions for me about my own practice, and my desire to work more within the arts community, including curating. are artists
looking to be curated? is a physical site even necessary anymore? where can exhibitions happen? how else can they happen? what scales are possible? can they be generated by larger curatorial projects/agendas, and how does one pursue that? how do i apply my own concerns and processes, and create interesting dialogues around that? what kinds of objects, remnants, resources could that produce? it helped me realize that the model of the institution/gallery/collective i envision is a different one than is currently at play in most situations, and i am going to get back to working on that.

so for that, if for nothing else,
hartelijk bedankt mijnheer. hartelijk bedankt.


Dave said...

Yes, it sounds like the talk had so much potential, and fell way short.

I wonder how interested they are in engaging a true discussion of morality, rather than simply "using" morality as a springboard to art, or even their own institution/project. That's fair, I suppose, but I'd certainly like to see how artists really wrestle with morality, especially because the arts are often seen to be an immoral, anti-moral or at least amoral place. Of course, as in any culture, the arts likely have a strong morality all their own. Just, perhaps, a different one.

I remember being at an arts talk a year ago and bringing up something to do with the ideas of truth a beauty, to which the one woman replied, "no one talks about those concepts anymore". It seemed like a very moral statement to make.

I did visit the project website which seemed to explore the idea of morality more. Of course, like most artistic projects I come across, was fairly (intentionally?) vague and veiled.

Anyways, your closing comments about curating interest me at least as much as those on morality. I see great value in being someone who "curates", because I think there is a role there as a sort of nexus of creativity and community - offering a certain spurring on, idea generation and drawing together. Do you see those elements as part of curating? Or is curating more editorial, and not really generative at all, in your mind?


And what is this personal vision you have? I'd love to hear more.

techne said...

i don't know that they are so interested in a discussion about morality (which would require taking a position at some point) as much as a free-for-all exploring it. which is odd, since everyone engaging does, of course, have a position. i'm not convinced the institution's role is to be neutral.

i too would like to see artists (and viewers) wrestle with this issue - and there are many who do, though morality as it is tied to specific subjects as opposed to a larger abstract Idea or Concept.

i'm also not convinced that the arts are conceived as amoral as much as, perhaps, artists are. that being said (and i refer once again to larry shiner's the invention of art: a cultural history), until the mid-1800s that moral component of the content of art was assumed. and i think that there continues to be a moral component to much art.

beauty (with its attendant moral core) is more and more discussed in contemporary art, and particularly in exhibitions exploring spirituality. exhibitions such as ecstasy, negotiating rapture and faith do that in myriad ways. books like elaine scarry's on beauty and being just or dave hickey's the invisible dragon: four essays on beauty explore the idea, and many artists intentionally seek to employ beauty as a strategy.

as for curating, there is the question of its purpose. in the 90s the curator became an art star on its own, and there's been a backlash. the old idea of the curator imposing a structure, content, order on a selection of work can still be a fruitful one, i think. if anything, the idea of a curatorial project as a collaboration is one that interests me (and which wdw uses, i think). it depends on the goal of the activity of curating, as well as the goal of art as a cultural production.

techne said...

proteus gowanus does this as well - each year they have a year-long theme they explore with exhibitions, workshops, performances and other events. snoop around at

Dave said...

I've looked at that link and I'll have to look more.

I'm really interested in the idea of gallery as community nexus or source of community, inspiration, challenge, formation, etc. I love the idea of a community resting in a theme and allowing it to works it way through them, leading to new works, new relationships, and perhaps even community transformation in some small or large way. It seems like Proteus Gowanus is pursuing some of these goals as they call artists together to create.

Perhaps this is one more place I need to visit when I go to NYC in April.

So what is your own vision for curating, Edward? What would that look like, ideally? What would be non-negotiables and what "would be nice"?

techne said...

hey dave,

i think i'm talking about exactly what you said: "gallery as community nexus or source of community, inspiration, challenge, formation, etc." whatever the artistic centre would be, it would be a place of community, and of collaboration.

i'm not sure what my vision for curating is but i know i want my project to be foregrounded - i want to take positions. i really like the idea of an extended investigation, and to be able to take my time (which would also help with developing conversations about the topics). i'd like to meander at my leisure. maybe it's more about curating events or opportunities than collections of objects.

non-negotiables? a multifunctional space with great flexibility, and partnerships for extending that space conceptually. "what would be nice"? all the equipment and spaces i would need to offer everything i have in mind.