Curating for live art

Last night I gave a talk as part of the Glasgow Theatre Seminar series on live art, curation and the development of Scottish experimental performance. I’ll post the audio here once it is available. One of the things that I was interested in exploring was a range of different curatorial approaches taken by producers, programmers and artists in seeking to (re)invent contexts of support, development and promotion for ‘new work’. Taking as a starting place the New Work No Definition season – mentioned previously here – I considered the framing of work by artists as varied in their practice as Mona Hatoum, Forced Entertainment and Neil Bartlett (among many others) as the ‘theatre of the visual artist’. 

In the broader context of this project, I am interested in performance curation and performance curators as a means of thinking about the interplay of artists, organisational strategies and institutions, and in turn, about processes of institutionalisation in relation to live art – a line of enquiry that’s strongly motivated by a knowledge of and interest in practitioners who were and are both artists and curators, for whom curation is an extension or articulation of their artistic practice.

Marta Keil has suggested that the presence of the profession of the curator in the performance arts is a consequence of systemic changes in European performing arts characterised by ‘the substantial growth of the international festival circuit and development of networks between artists and producers; the creation of new spaces, enabling the progress of independent projects and shifting the focus to a nascent, non-institutionalized system of work’ (Keil 2018: 320).

In historicising the figure of the performance curator, Florian Malzacher emphasises:

Contexts. Links between artists, artworks, audiences, cultures, social and political realities, parallel worlds, discourses, institutions. It is not by chance that the curator in the visual arts sphere emerged at a time when artworks often no longer functioned without a context, refused to function without a context. (2010: 12)

Writing in the journal Theatre, Bettie Ferdman similarly acknowledges the origins of the term curator in the visual arts before calling attention to the work of 

A growing number of artistic directors, festival programmers, creative producers, and artists [who are] not only are beginning to pay attention to what gets seen—either commissioning new work and/or selecting finished work—but are also conceptualizing how, where, when, why, and for whom such events are structured and presented. (2014: 7)

In illustrating his argument, Ferdman points to the work of Lois Keidan at the Live Art Development Agency as exemplifying the practice of curation as ‘both cultural and financial strategy’ (2014: 9), a process of labelling work in a way that might legitimize it and make it intelligible to and thus eligible for support from funding structures, while also offering a critical frame for its reception through an emphasis on both ‘the live’ and the interdisciplinary. 

Running through these three perspectives is a sense of performance curation as the product and response to a particular set of changing contexts or conditions of possibility, both emerging from the work of artists and serving to constitute the terms of its production and reception. Part of that work is an act of naming or making intelligible – whether directed by a single named programmer or curator, or a committee of artists-as-peers. What conditions of possibility does a phrase like the ‘theatre of the visual’ enable?