Curating People: Michele Rabkin

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 Michele Rabkin, Associate Director of the Arts Research Center.


Why I want to be in on this conversation…I am excited to be involved in organizing the “Curating People” symposium because it allows me to re-visit issues that I explored when I was a practicing artist—or to be more accurate, a student artist. 
I first encountered the siren song of performance art in the mid-1980s at San Francisco State, and more specifically at its Center for Experimental and Interdisciplinary Art, where Ellen Zweig, Christine Tamblyn, and Lynn Hershman were teaching.  CEIA was not specifically a performance art program—it was essentially a “misfits” program, home to students whose interests did not fit neatly into the other, more established departments at that time (I myself was a refugee from a “professional theater training program” back East).  CEIA students made video art installations, did persona projects, performed in the back of pick-up trucks.  One of my own projects was a video-enhanced gallery installation I occupied for hours at a time, performing in silent slow-motion.  “Curating People” and its focus on live performers in art galleries awakens memories of my  undergraduate days.
Both at SF State and later in Chicago, I also created works for ensembles of performers (and video screens) that were presented under the rubric of dance. I was inspired by the Judson Dance Theater’s work with pedestrian movement, and by artists who blended dance and spoken word, like Joe Goode. When I decided to go to graduate school, it was unclear to me where I fit in. I looked at programs in dance, in theater, in performance studies—and  ended up pursuing a MFA in Visual Arts at UC San Diego (I seem to recall my application essay focused on the idea of an inter-artistic “pidgin” language). The faculty included Allan Kaprow, Eleanor Antin, and David Antin—genre-defying figures I had studied and been inspired by as an undergraduate. Once again, one of my projects involved occupying a gallery—this time interacting directly with visitors one at a time, rather than performing silently. I also continued to make more theatrical, text- and movement-based works for myself and others to perform (much to the dismay of Professor Kaprow, may he rest in peace).
I long ago traded in my “aspiring artist” hat for that of an arts administrator. My meandering studies in the arts (theater, dance, performance, film, a little art history) turned out to be good preparation for working in an interdisciplinary arts organization. Whether organizing an artist’s residency, a symposium, or a graduate fellowship program, I draw on my past experiences to understand how I can best support the artists and arts scholars with whom I’m working.
During the “Curating People” conversations, I look forward to hearing how the pioneers with whom I studied have or have not influenced current artistic and curatorial practices, and how the challenges and rewards of “hybrid” art-making have evolved since my own brief forays into that world.