Curatorial Practice as Living History: Processes of Transformation

Priscila Arantes

Professor, Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo
Sao Paolo, Brazil

Among the current discussions in the field of curatorship studies is the role played by new media in curatorial formats. Beyond just exploring curatorial models for digital art, what interests us here is how certain characteristics of media culture—such as collaborative processes and networks—are also present in curatorial practices. The same way museums have been undergoing fast changes in order to keep up with the times, it seems that, increasingly in the curatorial field, we see the incorporation of new formats in dialogue with issues of contemporary art.

The principle of curating, as we know, is linked to museums, which in turn refers to their origin in the cabinets of curiosities. The obscure Wunderkammern began to emerge in Europe during the Renaissance. They were collections of zoological, botanical, and archeological objects, historical and ethnographic relics, paintings and antiques. Unlike traditional museums, however, which have among their responsibilities the documentation, organization, and arrangement of objects in accordance with a filing methodology aimed at the conservation of artifacts for future exposure, cabinets of curiosities lacked the concept of cataloging. Their standard for the exhibition of objects was often personal and thus varied according to the interests of those who owned them.

In spite of the fact that the curator was historically linked to the maintenance and display of collections, in recent decades the curator’s role has gained new dimensions. The curator has ceased to act merely as a head conservator for museums, and started to carry out independent curatorial projects as well, quite often imposing an authorial perspective to the exhibitions. It is clear, in this sense, that there is a change in the role of the curator as keeper of collections and head conservator of museums – whose primary concerns are about the permanence and integrity of collections – to the curator who often articulates a personal vision within temporary exhibitions. These authorial perspectives often incorporate other spaces and exhibition formats into the curatorial practice.

We should remember that until the 1960s, it was the artists themselves who organized their shows. In fact, one of the characteristics of modern art was the initiative of certain artists to come together to set up exhibitions, beginning with the example of the precursor Gustave Courbet. He built a temporary structure to exhibit some of his paintings, which were rejected by the Exposition Universelle de Paris in 1855. Courbet’s example was followed by other exhibitions organized by artists who were on the fringes of the Salons or who had artworks rejected by the Academies. In 1863, having had two canvases rejected in the official salon of French artists, Manet, along with other artists, organized a parallel exhibition to the official salon. It became known as the Salon des Refusés [Salon of the Rejected]. After its exhibition, various artists such as Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, Monet and Morisot, began to organize their own exhibitions.

Some of these exhibits, developed by one or more members of a group or of a movement, established the independent exhibition. Those were organized by what today might be called the ‘artist-curator’, or artist/etc, as Ricardo Basbaum refers to it. A good example of a precursor to the ‘artist-curator’ was Marcel Duchamp, who was invited by the surrealists to put together two exhibitions. One of them – First Papers of Surrealism – was held in New York in 1942. That show became famous for the white threads with which Duchamp entangled the whole space, thus hindering the movement of visitors in the gallery as well the visibility of the paintings.

But it is from the 1960s that the role of the curator and the curatorial practice begins to appear more prominently within the system of the arts as a component for conceiving, producing and disseminating an exhibition. In the 1980s, following the explosion of the market accompanied by the growth of temporary exhibitions and contemporary art museums, the activity of the curator indeed expanded (in response to the phenomenon of globalization, the privatization policy of the governments of Reagan and Thatcher, and the opening of new markets). Many people attribute the phenomenon of the emergence of the figure of the curator as the author of a concept, to the emergence of the mega-exhibitions – biennials, Documentas, manifestas – whose organization would be almost unthinkable without the presence of the curator. Others suggest that changes in the art’s system, as well as in the practice of art itself, which began to incorporate all sorts of media productions, were responsible for the expansion of the role of the curator in the 1980s. It is important to note that the expansion of curatorial practice brought about the creation of new formats and exhibition circuits, often in dialogue with parameters that exist in the production of art itself: curatorial projects based on process, curatorial practices that manifest themselves in circuits beyond the institutional exhibition space, collaborative and networked curatorial projects, are among the examples we could list.

Curatorial Practices and contemporary art: new formats and circuits

The exhibition When Attitudes Become Form, by the curator Harald Szeemann, held in 1969 at the Kunsthalle in Bern, was one of these milestones. The idea of designing a theme for the exhibition When Attitudes Become Form, besides being unprecedented, reversed the usual process of an exhibition and marked a major change in the methodology of structuring an exhibit. Until then, exhibitions were conceived according to predetermined formal categories, styles, and chronology, or based upon artists who were part of the same movement. Normally, traditional artworks were completed. They were chosen by the curator and subsequently exhibited. Harald Szeemann proposed a challenge to the artists. Based on the suggested concept, he allowed artists to present concepts and actions, which could be accomplished in the actual exhibition space, or even outside of it. The essence of the exhibition was not in the exhibited artworks, but rather in the “attitudes” arising from the creative process. The theme promoted by Szeemann was “take over the institution.” Because of this, the artist Lawrence Weiner cut a 90 x 90 cm hole in the plaster of one of the walls of the Kunsthalle, which became one of the most emblematic works of the concept of the exhibition. Joseph Beuys filled the corners with his well-known “fat” and Richard Long removed a piece of the structure of Kunsthalle and took it on a three-day hike through the Swiss mountains.

In Brazil we must mention the role of the curator Walter Zanini, not only in the 16th and 17th São Paulo Biennial (1981 and 1983 respectively), which abolished the setting up of spaces reserved for certain countries, but also in exhibitions and proposals such as JACS (1972), Prospective (1974), and Visual Poetics (1977), which were held when he was the director of the MAC – Museu de Arte Contemporânea de São Paulo. In JAC’s (1972), for example, besides the fact that Zanini opened the space for the production of new media (xerox, video, etc.), he raffled off spaces in the museum for artists to produce their work while requesting in the registration form, that the artists attempted to give greater emphasis to the artistic process over the finished object. Prospective 74 was further groundbreaking, in the sense of creating a network of known artists, in which each one would invite another one, and so on and so forth… This network of ‘friends’ resulted in an exhibition with over 150 artists who produced works that exceeded the limits of conventional media, such as video art and mail art. In addition, Poéticas Visuais (1977) were ever more innovating by giving the public the chance to select artworks, which they would like to take home with them. This exhibition provided the public with photocopies of the documents and artworks displayed, thus setting up the spontaneous participation of the viewers who were able to create many potential ‘portable exhibitions.”

It is important that we mention Seth Siegelaub’s Xerox Book, 1968, one of his best-known curatorial projects in the form of a publication. For that show, seven artists – Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, and Laurence Weiner – each contributed a 25-page work. The title Xerox Book was a bit misleading. Although inspired by photocopying, the book was made utilizing traditional offset printing due to the high cost of photocopying at the time.

On the other hand, it became common among contemporary practices, in dialogue with artists exploring circuits outside the traditional ones, that curators invite artists to hold exhibitions in unusual places, such as shut-down factories, churches, abandoned hotels, occupied neighborhoods and parks, radio stations, advertising venues, among others. An example is the exhibition the Chambres d’Amis (A Friend’s Bedroom). This audacious curatorial project was conceived by Belgian curator Jan Hoet in 1986. The curator had previously requested that some residents of the city of Gent, Belgium, make their homes available for 50 artists to do installations or interventions in one or two rooms in their homes. Armed with a map, visitors could go door to door and visit the “exhibitions” for two months. Most of the spaces used by the artists were living rooms, gardens and passageways, such as stairs and doors, except Daniel Buren, who chose the master bedroom to paint red stripes on a white wall.

Another example of exhibitions in this context was the show Arte/Cidade [Art/City], which took place in São Paulo and had its first edition in 1994. Created by Nelson Brissac Peixoto, each edition includes new curators invited to define the theme, the participating artists, and the locations of the public actions. The former Municipal Slaughterhouse of Vila Mariana was the first site chosen to reflect on the weight of abandoned buildings in large cities, with the theme: City Without Windows. The following year, the theme was The City and its Flux, using the top of three buildings as a base for artists to work on concepts of lightness, light, movement and scale. Laura Vinci made use of a hole in a flagstone to propose an installation in one of these buildings, turning two floors into a large sand hourglass. In the 2002 edition, Krzysztof Wodiczko presented an alternative for scrap paper collectors by building a ‘utopian’ aluminum cart with a canvas awning to protect the scrap paper collectors from exposure to the rain and sun.

However, it is not only in the transformation of sites in the city that curators today seem to be interested. Many also explore cyberspaces, networks, and the Internet. It is worth remembering the exhibition of net art CODeDOC (2002) curated by Christiane Paul for the Whitney Museum. This show made explicit the criticism of the monopolization of technological knowledge. For this exhibition, the artists were invited to create codes with a specific theme: connect and move three points in space. The strategy of the presentation CODeDOC was unique: before “seeing the work”, the viewer-user was asked to access the source code of the work. In this way, the curator made her objective ​​clear: not only to explore the source code as a fundamental part of the work to be developed but also to stage discussions about the democratization of the access to information and free software. Among the showcased artworks we highlight the Sawad Brooks Perl, a project in which the source code changed and interfered with the home pages of three major world newspapers.

Curatorial Collaborations

Many of these curatorial undertakings conceptually rooted in contemporary art, dialogue with the idea of relational practices in the form of collaborative narratives. On occasion, they also include the space of the Internet in their web. Within this perspective we can highlight the project Do It by the Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, an exhibition that is somewhere between the actual and the virtual, between repetition and difference. This project is modeled as an open exhibition (like an open work of art in constant motion) in which artists, invited by the curator propose work instructions that can be activated by the public who that way become the “maker” of the work. Whoever wants to make the performance, the installation, the drawing, ultimately follows the script of the artist who created it. The project is ultimately authored by all participants.

Included in this perspective we also highlight the Project 5X5 conceived by myself and Adriano Casanova. It was exhibited in its first version in the Paço das Artes in January, 2012. 5 x 5: Argentina + Brasil + Chile + Colômbia + México is a curatorial project that presents a selection of contemporary artistic productions spanning countries throughout Latin America in general. It focuses on a compilation of artworks that stand out in the Twenty-First century. By bringing together works with distinct aesthetic perspectives, the project’s main goal is the investigation of the diversity of the aesthetic production of the different artists that make up the show. But instead of searching for similar cultural traces that might define a “Latino identity,” the show focuses on how different Latin American artists explore five key themes: history, archive, identity, memory and colonization. The choice of these themes is not casual, but rather is located within a cartography and a historical moment marked not only by the necessity of revisiting certain aspects that make up the history of these countries, but also because of the necessity to tell the history of art “against the grain,” as Walter Benjamin would say, point out the importance of the Latin American production within systems and circuits of art.

This project consists of five solo shows with works by 5 different artists from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico, respectively. In addition, each individual exhibition is accompanied by a group show comprised of five videos selected by the guest artist for the individual show. In the Paço das Artes, the Project 5X5 was composed of the solo exhibition Ultramar Sur, by Patrick Hamilton, who explored the theme of colonization, and the collective show Copa America – Videoarte latino-americana contemporânea, with works by Alberto Baraya (Colombia), Alexander Apostol (Venezuela), Jota Castro (Peru), Teresa Margolles (Mexico) and Wilfredo Prieto (Cuba), all selected by Hamilton.

In this sense, the project appears, not only as a type of decentralized and collaborative mapping of the production from Latin America, but it incorporates a rule of permutation, that is, each installment follows the same format, but repeats it differently: with each solo exhibit of one of the artists from the 5 selected countries and invited by the curators who conceived the project (Arantes and Casanova), this artist has the right to invite 5 other artists to compose a curatorial project of her/his own. Hence the name of the project: 5X5. Aside from developing a decentralized curatorship format, this project incorporates the idea of ​​networked collaboration, since the curatorial concept is a work-in-progress made up of the different perspectives of the curators-artists who further help to shape the project.


Priscila Arantes is a cultural critic, curator, professor and director. She has been director and curator of Paço das Artes (State Secretariat of Culture/SP/Brazil) since 2007 and professor of Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo since 2002. Priscila completed her postdoctoral research at Penn State University’s Department of Visual Arts (USA) and her doctoral in Communication and Semiotics at PUC/SP. She was associate director of MIS (Museum of Image and Sound) between 2007 and 2011 and member of São Paulo Art Biennial’s Editorial Council of the Polo de Arte Contemporânea Magazine (2010). She is the author of Arte @ Mídia: Perspectivas da Estética Digital (Art @ Media: Perspectives on Digital Aesthetics), Estéticas Tecnológicas: Novos Modos de Sentir (Technological Aesthetics: New Ways of Feeling) Arte: História, Crítica e Curadoria (Art: History, Critique and Curatorship), among others. Among her curatorships I highlight Assim é, se lhe parece (Right You Are! (If You Think So) (2011) and Projeto 5X5 (Project 5×5) (2012), both carried out at Paço das Artes.