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.