What Is an Independent Curator? (Winter 2004)
In 1995, Julie Courtney and Todd Gilens invited twenty artists, some working collaboratively and others in conjunction with institutions such as the Fabric Workshop and Amnesty International, to mount site-specific installations at an abandoned penitentiary in Philadelphia.  The resulting projects – which ranged from discreet interventions (Bruce Pollock’s rearrangement of dust) to activist-oriented works (Fiona Templeton’s petitions on behalf of prisoners of conscience) to documentary pieces (Simon Grennan and Christopher Sperandio’s comic strip narrating their encounter with the penitentiary) – were consistent in this regard: they addressed aspects of the site, whether physical, historical, or social (1).
At first glance, the exhibition, Prison Sentences: The Prison as Site / The Prison as Subject, appears to follow the tradition of Rooms, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center’s 1976 inaugural show at an abandoned school building in Long Island City (2). As they did in Rooms, the works in Prison Sentences “substitute the registration of sheer physical presence for the more highly articulated language of aesthetic conventions” (3). Yet as Courtney and Gilens’ subtitle indicates, the penitentiary itself provides a not insignificant, indeed quite the contrary, common reference point. If Rooms privileged the relationships between individual works and discrete sites within the school (examples include Richard Serra’s indentation following a roofline and Gordon Matta-Clark’s rectangular cuts through three successive floors), Prison Sentences emphasizes the link between the works, collectively, and the penitentiary as a whole. In this sense, Prison Sentences does not showcase site-specific art so much as it might constitute an instance of one writ large: an autonomous project helmed by the curators.

“Autonomous,” of course, is redolent of modernism. And indeed, the following proposes two alternatives for contemporary art after site specificity: installation, which dissolves the boundary between art and dominant, commodity culture only to see the latter extinguish former’s transformative potential; and independent curating, which preserves and extends the trajectory of modernism.  Art history has often been the history of counterparts – the one dystopian and associated with the culture industry, the other utopian and libratory. To cite an example that pertains to ruin-like settings of Rooms and Prison Sentences alike: the fragment. As Anthony Vidler remarks, in the register of postmodernism, the fragment is viewed nostalgically, as “a sign of respected tradition, a guarantee of comfort in history.” In the register of modernism, it can be “an incomplete piece of a potentially complete whole, and points toward a possible world of harmony in the future. . . that it both represents and constructs” (4). Might Prison Sentences be viewed through the optic of the latter? Perhaps it might, and the modernist obverse of installation can be found in this and other independent curatorial projects.

Typically defined exclusively by external factors – institutional affiliation (non-profit or none at all), the status of artists involved (emerging or unrepresented), and fiscal parameters (small to none) – independent curatorial projects in fact emerge endogenously from developments in site specificity. Surveying these developments, art historian Miwon Kwon traces a shift from an emphasis on physical contexts – epitomized by Richard Serra’s famous 1981 defense of Tilted Arc, “to move the work is to destroy the work” – to a tendency to highlight discursive contexts. Later projects like Mark Dion’s Extinction Series or Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum (1992), for instance, take pre-existing cultural debates (global environmentalism, the legacies of colonialism) as their primary sites rather than their actual locations (5).

For Kwon, the resulting slippage between content and context reconfigures the artist in two seemingly divergent ways. On the one hand, the artist-author, long declared dead in texts such as Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?”, is resuscitated as a mediator in an intellectual exchange; Dion and Wilson assume administrative / educational roles that resemble less those of traditional creators than of curators (6). On the other, because the presence of the artist is often a prerequisite for a work’s execution / presentation (Mining the Museum required a yearlong residency on Wilson’s part at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, where it was exhibited) there is “a strange reversal now by which the artists comes to approximate the ‘work,’ instead of the other way around.” It is “the performative aspect of an artist’s characteristic mode of operation that is repeated and circulated as a new art commodity” (7).

In discursively-oriented site specificity, then, the artist at once morphs into a museum administrator and an art object.  Divergent as these transformations are, they lead to similar conclusions. The first directly allies the artist with the curator, and the second, more subtly but no less effectively, replaces artwork with artist and, by implication, artist with curator.

For many, the collusion between – indeed contraction of – artist and curator signals an assimilation of the vanguard by dominant culture (which the museum incarnates and of which the curator is an envoy), an extreme example of radical art become institutional that is in no way mitigated and perhaps even exacerbated by the fact that site specificity from the very start endeavored to resist just such assimilation. Yet rather than to lament this turn of events as the ultimate failure of vanguard art (and romanticize the 1960s and ‘70s and preclude contemporary possibilities) or to resist it (and repeat a gesture now demonstrably futile), might site specificity’s inscription be approached not only as a phenomenon of art but as a phenomenon to critique in art as well? To do so would not only continue, even if in radically altered form, the trajectory of modernism (Greenberg: “The essence of modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence”) but to borrow a strategy from site specificity itself (8).

The circumstances which eventually resulted in site specificity – a peculiar impasse in modernism to which site specificity presented a solution – bears some semblance to the contemporary one. If the end of painting had always been implicit in modernism’s fixation on pinpointing the specificity of the medium, art in the 1960s found itself, not entirely unsuspectingly if still a little unexpectedly, confronted with this end in the guise of the blank canvas. On the one hand, painting’s flirtation with the blank canvas was viewed apprehensively if not apocalyptically as the point at which modernism’s reductivist tendencies resulted in a mere object and the aesthetic gave way to the everyday (this was Greenberg’s and Michael Fried’s position). Yet it was also, on the other, considered perfectly compatible with modernism – as the increasing awareness of early twentieth century monochromes by artists like Rodchenko or Malevich would soon unequivocally affirm.

It is the latter view – that the blank canvas not only could but should be integrated into modernism – that artists in the 1960s like Daniel Buren, Michael Asher, and Mel Bochner took. The history of modern painting had been marked by the gradual dispensation, one by one, of every convention of painting, ending up with pure and obdurate flatness of the picture plane, but these artists did not, in a decision that remains radical and that should be instructive, consider this the ultimate end of art. Rather, the blank canvas would be yet another convention to be made explicit, another challenge to surpass in a never ending relay. “The artist challenges the easel when he paints a surface too large to be supported by the easel,” summarizes Buren, “and then he challenges the easel and the overlarge surface by turning out a canvas that’s also an object, and then just an object. . . ” (9). And so site specificity would emerge, phoenix-like, from the ashes of medium specificity with an unaltered ambition and, indeed, an expanded arena in which to fulfill it. As painters systematically approached the flatness of the stretcher, so now would artists, as Buren’s own 1973 Within and Beyond the Frame demonstrates, self-critically unveil the broader architectural and discursive context underlying their practice.

Once again, the flexibility and renewability of modernism is being tested.  Buren’s site specific practice, along with those of his generational peers, has irrefutably and perhaps irrevocably been assimilated into the main.  Yet far from heralding art’s ghastly and imminent demise, might this assimilation once again signal the emergence of a new convention in a still more expanded field of art? This convention, no longer based on art’s physical support (as in modernist painting) nor on its architectural-discursive frame (as in site specificity), hinges on the particular temporality of assimilation itself: the future anterior of that which will have been. Today, only by accounting for its own future institutionalization can art be properly modernist.
It is here that independent curating comes to the fore. Unlike many of their avant-garde predecessors, independent curators do not underestimate the museum’s capacity to temper the radical nor, not unrelated, deny the legitimacy of museums. At the same time, however, lacking mainstream institutional backing, independent curators are limited to proposing objects that could, at some point, become institutionally validated; they deal with objects that can or might be works of art. Internalized with the very structure of independent curating, then, whether by choice or circumstance, is the rhythm of transgression and assimilation – of the future and the anterior, of the vanguard and the museum – that constitutes the central convention of art today.

A particularly reflexive, and thus exemplary, case is Hans Ulrich Obrist’s do it, initially conceived in 1993. A catalogue published by Independent Curators Incorporated, New York, containing “instructions” by thirty artists forms the basis of the exhibition (10). Drawing from this catalogue, museums can realize do it in three-dimensional form. Although there are several guidelines – for instance that there be a minimum of fifteen artists – variations in interpreting the “instructions” as well as a different combination of artists are allowed for and even expected in each manifestation of the exhibition. do it at once contours art as pure possibility – each “instruction” might become a yet unformed work of art in a yet undetermined exhibition – and links art on a fundamental level to the museum, which figures, before the realization or even the selection of works, as their final destination. 

do it addresses the double bind confronting much art since the late-1970s: on the one hand, established guideposts dictate that an advanced, critical practice must transgress limits and test institutions; on the other, to do this successfully inevitably assures quick assimilation into the main. The choice then becomes one between obscurity and failure, between being overlooked and being institutionalized. Clearly, either a new guidepost must be erected, lest futility and cynicism set in (which is exactly what happened in the 1980s “return to painting,” but that is another story). This double bind was apparent from the very start, if only symptomatically, in one dominant format of independent curatorial projects for which the first and paradigmatic example in the United States is Mary Jane Jacob’s precedent-setting 1991 Places with a Past. Featuring temporary project-based work responding to and inspired by a variety of outdoor sites Charleston, South Carolina, Places with a Past did not “deal with the heroic view of history nor to enshrine further the usual figures and names. . .” but focused instead “on those who had been marginalized and whose stories had been forgotten over time” (11). Social statement notwithstanding, the artists’ emphasis on retrieving repressed histories betrays an anxiety about their own future, a paradoxical desire that even as they critique official history they themselves will be included in some official history yet to be written.  

This essay opened by claiming a kinship between independent curating and the modernist fragment, “an incomplete piece of a potentially complete whole, and points toward a possible world of harmony in the future. . . that it both represents and constructs.” On the one hand, independent curating is less utopian: It proffers a unsoiled future only to declare its impending vitiation; it projects pure potentiality only to assure its near-immediate exhaustion. Yet on the other, it is more so. For in approaching assimilation as a convention to accept and to make explicit rather than as a conclusion to evade, it allows art to be successful without guilt and to be institutionalized without becoming a failure. As the 1970s recedes, the options for contemporary art become increasingly clear: to consider the assimilation of site specificity a given, and reflect it complicitly; and to consider the assimilation of site specificity a given, and reflexively work through it critically. Whereas installation, into which site specificity has largely devolved, submits to the former, independent curating, with its peculiar
future anterior tense, is uniquely equipped to accomplish the latter.

(1) The exhibition, at the Eastern State Penitentiary from May 17 to October 29, 1995, was accompanied by a catalogue available through Distributed Art Publishers in New York.
(2) Organized by Alanna Heiss, Rooms included works by seventy-eight artists.  See Rooms P.S. 1: June 9 – 26, 1976 (New York: Institute for Art and Urban Resources. 1977).
(3) Rosalind Krauss, “Notes on the Index,” The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge: MIT, 1985), 209.  Part 2 of the essay focuses on Rooms.
(4) Anthony Vidler, “Lost in Space: Toba Khedoori’s Architectural Fragments,” Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture (Cambridge: MIT, 2000), 151.
(5) Miwon Kwon, “Genealogy of Site Specificity,” One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge: MIT, 2002), 28, 26.  For Dion’s own comments about the differences between his version of site specificity and Serra and Buren’s as well as Asher and Haacke’s, see Miwon Kwon, “Interview with Mark Dion,” Mark Dion (London: Phaidon, 1997), 26.
(6) Kwon, “Unhinging of Site Specificity,” One Place After Another, 51.  Indeed, Wilson has worked as a curator.  See also Martha Buskirk, “Interview with Fred Wilson,” October 70 (Fall 1994).
(7) Kwon, “Unhinging of Site Specificity,” 47.
(8) Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting” (1960), Collected Essays v. 4, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: Chicago University, 1993), 85.
(9) Daniel Buren, “Peut-il enseigner l’art?,” trans. Richard Miller, Galerie des Arts (September 1968).
(10) In addition to the do it (museum) discussed here, there is a do it (home) and do it (tv).  (11) See do it, (New York: Independent Curators Incorporated, 1997).
(12) See Mary Jane Jacobs, “Making History in Charleston,” Places with a Past: New Site-Specific Art in Charleston (New York: Spoleto Festival U.S.A. and Rizzoli, 1991), 18.