Nuno Sacramento and Claudia Zeiske
Art, Informal Space, and
A Curatorial Handbook in
© 2010 by jovis Verlag GmbH
Texts by kind permission of the authors.
Pictures by kind permission of the photographers/ holders of the picture rights.
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Foreword | Paul Shepheard
Introduction | ARTocracy
Curator and Shadow Curator
The Story of the town is the venue
the town is the venue
Reading the Context: Participant Observation and Cultural Audit
Project Layers: People, Context, Processes, Results
Project Practicalities: Fund-Raising, Marketing, Learning
Transferability of the town is the venue
Huntlosen, Sesimbra, Riebeek Kasteel
Shadow Curator Discussion
Theoretical Reflections: Place and Communities
Looking Around | Lucy Lippard
New Communities | Nina Möntmann
Huntly Branding Guidelines
the town is the venue Projects
Foreword | Paul Shepheard
Huntly, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, is a small town built of dour grey stones surrounded by open country and huge skies. Like the other towns around, it is laid out in the military grid of the English occupation of two hundred years ago. There is a central square with a maze of little streets leading off towards the open landscape beyond, a big castle in the style of King George, and a plunging river full of fish and stones and clear water. It carries the usual strains of European modern life in its old frame—not enough money, a slipping demographic, and too much idle time—but in another way Huntly is special. It has become a living demonstration of the usefulness of art. Because here Deveron Arts, an arts organisation named for that river, has taken the idea of taking art out of the galleries and onto the streets and made that simple slogan mean something.
Freeing art from the galleries has been a long and messy affair. First there was the bourgeois revolution that sprung from the churches and the galleries, then the popular one that arose from the salons and academies. Then came the street protests, the graffiti, and the hippy happenings. The protest was about the invasion of capital into everyday life, and the depth of the individuation and the mediation that flows from it. The common milieu of public art—the brass bands, the statues, the people’s festivals—had not survived that invasion. But then neither did the protest. It left us with an art whose objects were carriers for an ironic narrative—and what use is that?
Art is not just a critique. Not just a tool for shocking us awake. It is an enquiry into the nature of change. It is the open-ended and ungovernable part of that essential plaid woven of art, philosophy, and science through which we investigate and explain the changing world. It is indispensable, and that’s why it’s useful. In Huntly, Deveron Arts has curated an invisible gallery made of the whole town: as they put it, the town is the venue. And they take being curators seriously. They point out that the definition of the word has the concept of care buried in it, and from this parlay an attitude that they are in the business of social health, in its widest sense. The artists they invite to take part work in themes that spring from the community as it confronts change. This book shows how it is done, and how it has been achieved—the research, the money, the projects, the effects are all here, in detail—as well as how it could be done in other places, too. In the end, the beauty of their story is in its evolution. It is not a tub-thumping manifesto, but the story of a matrix of collaborations that, like art itself, researches by doing. What could be further from the predations of capital than that?
Introduction | ARTocracy
This handbook is called ARTocracy and proposes a pragmatic curatorial approach, when dealing with contemporary art, context, informal spaces, communities, and social consequence. It was written with one thing in mind: to potentiate and stir a renewed practice-led dialogue between these spheres.
It has been tested through the work of Deveron Arts, a small arts organisation set up in the mid-nineteen-nineties in the small town of Huntly in North East Scotland. After abandoning the possibility of having a dedicated venue for the arts, it became clear that it would have to position itself in the open, where people could see it, and to operate on a town-wide scale.
The motto the town is the venue emerged from this approach.
Today, Deveron Arts is known as the place that invites artists to come to work in Huntly. It has found its place and its legitimacy. It operates with various organisations and stakeholders and introduces new elements for a discussion involving curators, artists, town planners, and other people working at the intersection between art and society.
This handbook will present all relevant information as to how the town is the venue was developed, and also look into how it could be transferred to other locations in different contexts.
ARTocracy is a word we conceived to help structure our thinking with regard to art and society. We clearly wanted to move away from the “white cube” and into the society at large—in physical as well as in conceptual terms. We are interested in publics that have never been confronted with visual arts, different from the usual art audiences and visitors of museums and galleries. We largely sidelined the discussion around curating in dedicated art spaces, and positioned our practice in places where people would come across art as if by accident; we have called them informal spaces.
The word ARTocracy emerges from a conjunction of “art” and “cracy.” The origin of the book’s title derives from a play with words, and by joining the word art with the suffix -cracy (combining form denoting a particular form of government, rule, or influence: autocracy | democracy) resulting in a neologism as well as a new concept to structure our thinking.
Scottish Government Departments
Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries
Arts, Culture, and History
Community, People, and Society
Economy, Business, and Industry
Education, Training, Young People
Health and Community Care
Press and Media
Its political connotations open up a possibility of looking at society through artistic filters. Alternatively, one could talk about looking at art through social filters, through groups, gatherings, and communities. The way this act of looking was structured took this political appropriation a step further and proposed the analysis of the list of government departments in Scotland, the country where we live and work. This demonstrates a necessity of grounding the artistic process in social and political frameworks. Being one of many models to choose from, it helped us move forward with the project.
It was also relevant to assist the choice of topics addressed by this methodology, and how these could relate to specific communities. Being part of a political arena, presumably where the decisions in relation to society are discussed and taken, these topics had the potential of being considered relevant outside the parameters of autonomous visual art.
Another work model we have proposed here is the introduction of the Shadow Curator in the relationship with the organisation’s curator. The Shadow Curator brings in a dimension of dialogue, of word-wrestling, or of “agonism,” through a process of shadowing the curator’s decision processes, while proposing alternatives. This was appropriated from the concept of Shadow Minister and Shadow Cabinet, again from Anglo-Saxon politics. The concept of shadowing became crucial in the development of the the town is the venue methodology and in the writing of this handbook. Working together with the curator, the Shadow Curator constantly proposed a layer of enquiry and of analysis with regard to all aspects of the town is the venue, which then contributed to a consolidation of the methodology. As a result, this is no regular handbook but rather proposes actions, which are always imbued with critique. The writing of the book was the result of an often difficult, mostly pleasurable but constant, agonistic discussion between the curator and the Shadow Curator.
The work of the Shadow Curator is also present throughout this handbook, through questions posed to the right of the text in dialogue boxes. These are meant to contribute to a built-in critique and reflection while analysing or implementing the methodology. This constant questioning is intended to become second nature to the process of thinking through the town is the venue, or of working with art in social spaces.
Another notion we worked with was collaboration, seen in the first instance as between the curator and the Shadow Curator, and subsequently between curators, artists, funders, the public, as well as other stakeholders. In the functioning of the town is the venue, we see artists working closely with interest and lobby groups who passionately engage with the issues relevant to them.
In a time when society seems to be looking for alternatives to the models offered in the late years of the twentieth century, we hope this handbook can offer insight to our work, and reflect some of the joys and challenges of working with art away from the big cities.
This handbook is divided into six sections. The first section introduces the notion of curator and Shadow Curator, and the relationship that gave way to the emergence of the critically documented the town is the venue methodology. Here, we describe the concept and the possibilities created while working from an agonistic relationship.
The second section introduces the town is the venue in relation to the town of Huntly and the organisation Deveron Arts from which it emerged. It is deeply rooted in the local, and these connections become evident as the project patterns unfold. We then describe a number of projects that have been organised, and that show the town is the venue in operation.
The third section proposes the town is the venue, now separated from its original context, and constitutes the mechanisms of transferring it to another location. We then propose ways of reading a new context, as well as of applying the methodology elsewhere. The project layers—which analyse people, context, processes, and results—are the key elements that structure an art project. Those are then followed by the project practicalities like fund-raising, marketing, and learning.
The fourth section looks specifically at transferability and proposes the selection of three very different towns—both in geographic as well as in cultural terms—where the model could be implemented.
The fifth section wraps up the practical part of the handbook with a critical discussion between the curator and Shadow Curator, which tries to address some of the issues that emerged during the process of writing this book. This conversation also epitomises the long hours spent discussing every single detail of the town is the venue, Shadow Curator, and of art taking place in the social sphere.
Finally, there is a sixth section, which is theoretical. Place and community are key concepts to understanding the town is the venue and structuring the theoretical positioning of this handbook. While this is primarily a practical handbook, there was also the need to create a theoretical positioning emerging from texts that had informed our practices. We looked at wider practices and ideas that we could relate to. From the many authors and concepts we came across, we decided to include two key texts written twenty years apart by theoreticians on both sides of the Atlantic, who propose critical approaches relevant to our work in this and other small towns. The texts by Lucy Lippard and Nina Möntmann served us well in thinking through the town is the venue and they may be of great importance for people trying to study as well as implement this methodology. While Lippard proposes ways of looking at a place that informed our cultural audit, Möntmann makes us look at temporary communities rather than at ones based on essentialist terms.
As appendices we have the Branding Development for Huntly by artist Jacques Coetzer, a list of past projects, FAQs anticipating some of the questions that the reader might have and a list of resources which have influenced us. This includes books, texts, films, and other things that informed our work. Finally, we propose a glossary with words and terms we have used in the text.
Curator and Shadow Curator
After co-curating the ArtCup, Le Salon des Refusés—a project in Huntly during the World Cup 2006 that brought together art and football—Nuno Sacramento was invited to undertake a residency at Deveron Arts to test his Shadow Curator concept on the then emerging the town is the venue curatorial strategy. The aim was to enter a Shadow Curator dialogue with Claudia Zeiske, the director (and curator) of Deveron Arts, and investigate how this dialogue could feed back into the functioning and development of the organisation, as well as contribute to a wider discussion around curatorial practice.
Traditionally, a curator is someone who takes care of the collection of a museum or historic site. The word itself comes from the Latin word “curatus,” meaning “care.” A curator has a range of responsibilities, which are different from organisation to organisation, depending on the size of the institution, its mission, its financial resources, and the availability of other staff.
In the contemporary visual arts context, the curator’s role is to develop an understanding and overview of both conceptual and organisational tasks. The “caring” element of curating is not related to the objects only, but also to the artists, the community, and the context—which may be a gallery, a residency centre, a site-specific project, an event, a book, etc. The curator generates the necessary conditions for the emergence of visual arts projects and at the same time is responsible for the frameworks of reception by the public. The curatorial scope relates to every stage of the project, from the conditions of making, to the presentation, and finally to the reception of the work.
While they may come from a visual arts training background or related discipline, such as art history or cultural studies, visual arts curators have become interdisciplinary practitioners, who have to balance the theoretical tasks (research and conceptualising of projects) with the more organisational ones (fund-raising, marketing/PR, learning/education, for instance).
“Shadow Curator is to the curator what the Shadow Minister is to the Minister: it is a position of peaceful antagonism or of agonism.” (Nuno Sacramento)
The comparison between Minister and Shadow Minister, and curator and Shadow Curator demands further clarification. While the Shadow Minister is interested in the downfall of his opponent, in order to take his place, the Shadow Curator is interested in consolidating the position of the curator. A robust curatorial practice results in a consolidated arts organisation.
The following four interrogations will help clarify the concept of Shadow Curator:
1. What is a Shadow Curator, and why is there the need for one?
2. Is the comparison to the Minister and Shadow Minister consistent with the curator and Shadow Curator?
3. In what sense can we talk about agonism?
4. For whom should the Shadow Curator work?
1. What is a Shadow Curator, and why is there the need for one? Isn’t a curator with an assistant or with a mentor, enough to run an organisation or to organise a project?
The Shadow Curator’s role isn’t to assist or to mentor a curator in regard to a particular project or programme. Their role is, through the use of dialogue and discussion, to challenge the proposals and actions of the curator in order to consolidate his/her methodology.
Curators who are inclined to invite the critical position of the Shadow Curator are likely to belong to one or more of the following categories: feel isolated from the dominating curatorial discourse, want to gain knowledge and insight about other curatorial practices, feel the desire for challenge and discussion in order to establish their positions, want to enter networks where relevant discussions are taking place, or simply want their practices to be bridged with the practices of others in order to assess whether their work resonates with the work of their peers. The starting points for the Shadow Curator dialogue can thus range from geographic isolation, a keen interest in expanding knowledge on curating and affiliated practices, or a desire for debate and agonistic dialogue, etc. Curators who live and work in isolation regarding contemporary arts feel that although they have access to publications and websites on curatorial discourse, they are often unable to contribute to them, which can lead to the frustration of being at the receiving end of a one-way communication.
This gap is bridged by the Shadow Curator, who helps to bring together the artistic practices with the core of the discourse.
Curators whose practices relate closely to curatorial discourse, often lack the time and the resources for a more formal discussion around their work. Here, the Shadow Curator potentially contributes to the formalisation of a discussion, by encouraging the curator to build a time frame for the analysis and reflection around practice, within a busy schedule.
2. Is the comparison to the Minister and Shadow Minister consistent with the curator and Shadow Curator?
The idea of Shadow Curator originates from an appropriation of the concept of Shadow Minister in Anglo-Saxon politics. A closer look at the remit and definition—taken from the Oxford English Dictionary—of the Shadow Minister shows that:
Designating members of an opposition party nominated as counterparts of members of the government in power holding cabinet or other offices, or the offices held, as shadow cabinet, minister, ministry, etc.
The role of the Shadow Members of Parliament during their mandate is clear: to scrutinise the function of the Members of Parliament in power and to propose appropriate alternative policies.
As mentioned earlier, what distinguishes the Shadow Curator from the Shadow Minister is that he or she is not interested in the curator’s demise, nor will he or she ever take the curators’ place. They will work together from within the same system to contribute to a more consistent practice.
3. In what sense can we talk about agonism?
To qualify the relationship between the curator and the Shadow Curator—distinguished from the one between the Minister and Shadow Minister or from the relationship between curator and assistant curator—this “agonism” must be discussed. The relationship between Shadow Curator and the curator encompasses a strong element of agonism, originated in a dialogue around practice, which is often undisputed or plainly taken for granted. The vision of the curator is informed by a number of tacit conversations, and is now coming more and more under scrutiny due to public accountability. The more visibility the project has, the more scrutiny it is likely to prompt. The Shadow Curator, in close dialogue with the curator consolidates a process that then becomes more robust. They do this by preempting some critical questions in an agonistic framework. The agonism functions here as an antidote to the possible antagonism created by public accountability.
Chantal Mouffe describes agonism as:
While antagonism is a “we/them” relation in which the two sides are enemies who do not share any common ground, agonism is a “we/them” relation where the conflicting parties, although acknowledging that there is no rational solution to their conflict, nevertheless recognise the legitimacy of their opponents. They are adversaries, not enemies. This means that, while in conflict, they see themselves as belonging to the same political association, as sharing a common symbolic space within which the conflict takes place.1
For Mouffe, the notion of agonism relates to all radical democratic processes. When antagonism, meaning the desire to annihilate the opposition is excluded, all we are left with is agonism. Setting the context for the use of agonism on the curatorial field underlines the need for curators to have a structured and formalised discussion about their approaches, one that will inform their methodologies and contribute to the wider curatorial discourse.
This discussion between curator and Shadow Curator leads to the deconstruction of the tacit curatorial discourse. It promotes the study of curatorial methodologies and consolidates the practices of individuals and of their organisations. It creates a new position in the context of visual arts that strengthens the position of the curator, while contributing to the approximation of practices located at the periphery and at the core of discourse.
4. And for whom should the Shadow Curator work?
For the same organisation as the curator.
Shadow Curator at Deveron Arts
Huntly, a small town in North East Scotland with only Deveron Arts as a place for professional artistic provision, is not a natural breeding ground for progressive contemporary artistic practice. There was a feeling of professional isolation, something the Shadow Curator project could potentially counterbalance through opening up an ongoing dialogue.
After completing a PhD in curatorial practice titled Shadow Curating: A Critical Portfolio, Nuno was invited by Deveron Arts to go to Huntly for a three-month Shadow Curator residency. During this time, he talked to the staff, engaged in conversation with other artists, and met a number of people in the community. His involvement in some of the town’s leisure activities (like playing amateur football, attending committees, or going to the pub) helped him understand how the community was structured, what people’s views were on a variety of topics, and more importantly how Deveron Arts was perceived by the town’s inhabitants. A number of interviews were conducted to assess how much people knew of Deveron Arts’ projects and time was increasingly dedicated to researching the organisation’s public and private archive—including books, catalogues, press-releases, reports, ...