hans_ulrich_obrist's picture
Curator, Serpentine Gallery, London; Editor: A Brief History of Curating; Formulas for Now; Co-author (with Rem Koolhas), Project Japan: Metabolism Talks
To Curate

Lately, the word "curate" seems to be used in an greater variety of contexts than ever before, in reference to everything from a exhibitions of prints by Old Masters to the contents of a concept store. The risk, of course, is that the definition may expand beyond functional usability. But I believe "curate" finds ever-wider application because of a feature of modern life that is impossible to ignore: the incredible proliferation of ideas, information, images, disciplinary knowledge, and material products that we all witnessing today. Such proliferation makes the activities of filtering, enabling, synthesizing, framing, and remembering more and more important as basic navigational tools for 21st centurylife. These are the tasks of the curator, who is no longer understood as simply the person who fills a space with objects but as the person who brings different cultural spheres into contact, invents new display features, and makes junctions that allow unexpected encounters and results.

Michel Foucault once wrote that he hoped his writings would be used by others as a theoretical toolbox, a source of concepts and models for understanding the world. For me, the author, poet, and theoretician Eduard Glissant has become this kind of toolbox. Very early he noted that in our phase of globalization — which is not the first one — there is a danger of a homogenization, but at the same time there is a counter movement to globalization, the retreat into one's own culture. And against both dangers he proposes the idea of mondialité — a global dialogue that augments difference. This inspired me to handle exhibitions in a new way. There is a lot of pressure on curators to do shows not only in one place, but to send them around the world by simply packing them into boxes in one city and unpacking them in the next ‚ this is a homogenizing sort of globalization. Using Glissant's idea as a tool means to develop exhibitions that always build a relation to their place, that change permanently with their different local conditions, that create a changing dynamic, complex system with feedback loops.

To curate, in this sense, is to refuse static arrangements and permanent alignments and instead to enable conversations and relations. Generating these kinds of links is an essential part of what it means to curate, as is disseminating new knowledge, new thinking, and new artworks in a way that can seed future cross-disciplinary inspirations. But there is another case for curating as a vanguard activity for the 21st century.

As the artist Tino Sehgal has pointed out, modern human societies find themselves today in an unprecedented situation: the problem of lack, or scarcity, which has been the primary factor motivating scientific and technological innovation, is now being joined and even superseded by the problem of the global effects of overproduction and resource use. Thus moving beyond the object as the locus of meaning has a further relevance. Selection, presentation, and conversation are ways for human beings to create and exchange real value, without dependence on older, unsustainable processes. Curating can take the lead in pointing us towards this crucial importance of choosing.