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Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. Or a Few Notes on Shifts in Curatorial Practice

Guest editor: Sasa Nabergoj »

Important shifts have been taking place in the realm of curatorial practice. The process started in the early 90s, when a parallel flux of curatorial activities alternative to the prevailing modus operandi emerged in the global world of art. (Coined by Paul O’Neill, the term “para-curating” nicely reflects the relations between the two approaches.) Now, with this issue of Open Systems, 20 years later, when the “alternative” seems to rule the mainstream, I want to ask contributing theorists, curators and thinkers a simple question: “Are there any shifts in curatorial practices and perspectives that we can note today?” And even if due to “contemporary working conditions” I have had to limit myself to already written texts, it turns out that putting together a comprehensive issue on shifts, new directions, reflection and potential of curatorial practice will not be as difficult as I feared. It seems that the debate on the relations, importance and even clashes between both curatorial fluxes, one toward more discourse (where exhibitions are just one possible medium) and the other, which claims curatorial practice has become too discursive, is pretty much in the air.


The new generation of curators that appeared started talking about the process rather than a product, about collaboration between equal individuals instead of fixed relations between the authoritarian figure of the curator and the submissive artist. Curators who understood their practice not “just” as the organization of exhibitions, but more as an agency for “generating, mediating, and reflecting on experience and knowledge.” Nora Sternfeld and Luiza Ziaja used this definition (from Beatrice von Bismarck) in their text, in which they are describing how exhibitions have changed from spaces where things are “being shown” into spaces where things are “taking place.” The shift from artistic practices in the 60s, where artists turned institutions from representational spaces to spaces of ongoing production, has now become the prevailing model of curatorial activity.

Such a modus operandi has not only significantly changed the principles and outcomes of collaboration, but also the curatorial process. The curator is becoming more an experimenter than an expert or connoisseur. With the help of the nice parallel between the working process of a curator and a mathematician, Sarat Maharaj writes about two possible types: the classical curator, specialist/expert, who works on new solutions and possible angles of one theme, and the curator of experiments, who is constantly testing and inventing himself in the course of his work. Andrzej Szczerski brings in the other view: the art historical perspective, transferring the focus back from the context to the art work. From curating that “situates itself between research, teaching and reform,” as he puts it, to curating that resembles an act of connoisseurship. He sees this as a liberation of the “engaged curatorial practice,” which has to correspond to the questions of the here and now, in curatorial individualism and individual (curatorial) mythologies.

It seems as if para-curating has enabled an intensive exchange of knowledge and skills between curators and artists and has contributed to the transfer of various principles of operation, collaboration and participation, which are otherwise inherent in (contemporary) artistic practice, into curatorial practice. The two key procedures DIY (do it yourself) and DIWO (do it with others), which were developed by artists in the 60s, have recently become more relevant, but now also in the curatorial domain. All this, I believe, has contributed to a phenomenon of the growing number of curatorial collectives that Paul O’Neill touches on in his text. At least for large-scale events, it seems that multi-author curating has become almost the prevailing model, and he discusses the distinctions between group work and collaboration, while placing the practice in the wider (artistic) context of the 70s.

Milevska, on the other hand, reveals mechanisms from gender and postcolonial perspectives, and while unraveling her own personal/professional story she sheds light on the wider context of the political, ideological and social realities that one has to take into account when working in contemporary art. In her text she touches on another important fact that influences or limits one’s work: the working conditions. A time of permanent instability and the creation of a new world order calls for rethinking of the prevailing structure and modes of operation not just in our own field. It is necessary to question our own possible courses of action, but also to contribute beyond the boundaries of the art world. She does not discuss women curators in particular, but analyzes the curatorial practices of women who not only use the curatorial profession as a means of mapping and clarifying the construction of gender difference but who also understand curatorial practice beyond the realm of art, more in a sense of the potential for rethinking professional relations between genders.


…Try Again. Fail again. Fail better… The famous Beckett line nicely sums up the para-curating approach and thanks to Sarat for bringing it up in his text. One can only fail better if one understands failure as potential for learning, and thus while working and experimenting develops one’s practice and thinking further. Another important principle that should also be transferred beyond the realm of art.

Supported by:

ERSTE Foundation
Stadt Wien - Kulturabteilung MA 7
MA 7 - Interkulturelle und Internationale Aktivitäten
Stadt Wien - Film, Kino, Neue Medien

Collaboration with:

Istanbul Bilgi University

grafisches Element