Curating People: Leigh Markopoulos

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the symposium “Curating People” on April 28 and 29, 2011. Participants have been invited to post some brief thoughts on the topic in advance of the event. This guest posting is by Leigh Markopoulos, Chair, Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice, California College of the Arts.
I joined the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition department in 1991, becoming one of a staff of around 70 in the visual arts arm of London’s multi-disciplinary South Bank Center (SBC). At the time there was a very clear-cut distinction between our remit and that of the SBC’s other cultural, mainly music, programs. This distinction was based not solely on different media, but on the assumption that art audiences would never equal concert goers in their numbers, or paying power, and that the Hayward Gallery’s role consequently might not be as vital or valuable. The blockbuster exhibitions of the 90s, from Toulouse-Lautrec to Magritte put paid to this theory, but to this day the Hayward continues to pose conceptual problems for the SBC’s management. The Gallery’s recent exhibitions seem to be following center-wide directives to create “experiences” for audiences, installations that entertain across ages, and appeal especially to the young.  In 2010 the exhibitionMove: Choreographing You sought to trace the trajectory of artworks that propel viewers through spaces, from Nauman’s Green Light Corridor to Tania Bruguera’s installation, “Untitled” (2002), in which participants are alternately plunged into mute darkness and noisy spotlights. As one critic said, usually exhibitions have doubters asking, “is it art?” here they were also asking, “but is it dance?”
At least there’s no question that people are indispensable to exhibition making. From technicians and installers to artists and graphic designers. Occasionally they are indispensable to works, for example the silver-lame-bikini-clad dancer animating Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Go-Go Dancing Platform). And then there are those works which are or were people, or performance, and which consequently may require completely different frameworks for (re)presentation: Marina Abramovic’s “Rhythm 10,” in which the artist jabbed knives at the splayed fingers of her hand. Andy Warhol’s Invisible Sculpture of 1985, created in 1985 by Warhol posing momentarily on a pedestal at the New York nightclub Area, leaving behind a wall label that identified the empty pedestal. Tino Seghal’s “staged situations” which are performed by “interpreters” and activated by viewers, for example This Progress, in which one is led through the space by a progression of increasingly aged (from a child to an elderly person) docents.
Issues both practical and conceptual related to the presentation, documentation and reception of performance are worked through as part of the curriculum of the graduate program in Curatorial Practice at CCA. They are especially relevant again now with the resurgence not only of performance, but also the emergence of performing as part of the repertoire of contemporary interdisciplinary artist. I’m not sure if they call for a new kind of curator, given that curating can most broadly be understood as “exhibition organizing,” but they certainly have galvanized the discussion around exhibition practice and formats and have re-energized thinking around the definition of the parameters of the visual arts and their place in the broader spectrum of culture.