Design & Curation Repost: “Sinister objects demand attention just as much as beneficial ones”

October 2, 2013 · Print This Article

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In the first of his monthly columns for Dezeen, V&A senior curator Kieran Long argues that today’s obsession with authorship and celebrity “leads to serious imbalances in the way we see design in the world” and calls for an overhaul of the way design is curated in the twenty-first century.

Long, who was an architecture journalist before being appointed to curate design, architecture and digital at the V&A last year, points out that museums like the V&A focus on handmade, one-off objects at the expense of the mass-produced, anonymous objects that predominate in the real world. “The museum is more or less silent on the era of extraordinary Chinese manufacturing we are living through,” he says.

Below he sets out “95 Theses” for contemporary curation, including provocative statements such as “Ugly and sinister objects demand the museum’s attention just as much as beautiful and beneficial ones do” and “Museum curators have as much in common with investigative journalists as they do with university academics”.


Every morning, on the way to my office, I pass a sign that reads: “Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” At the Victoria & Albert Museum, the building is always telling you to do something. The didactic, Victorian and Edwardian decoration asks you to pay attention to nature, to design and manufacture, to the provenance of objects, even where your food comes from. But this particular sign is deeply serious in its upper-case, gilded typeface. It can be seen only by V&A staff, and most often by the people who empty the bins in the service road at the back of the museum.

As a motivational slogan, it’s espresso-strength, but it also betrays an emphasis at the V&A on the handmade, the artisanal and the one-off that design institutions, the media and designers themselves share. An object that an artist’s or craftsperson’s hand has touched has far more chance of making it into the V&A’s collection than something mass-produced or anonymous.

In our China gallery, for very good institutional reasons, there are no contemporary, mass-produced objects. The twenty-first century is represented by artisanal glass and works of conceptual furniture design: the museum is more or less silent on the era of extraordinary Chinese manufacturing we are living through. Dezeen has a similar emphasis: while the site is catholic in its tastes, the anonymous, the mass-produced and the semi-designed are suppressed in favour of the work of a fairly coherent group of designers.

There are all sorts of pretty reasonable explanations for this. The most banal is, of course, that star designers are click bait: celebrity matters, especially in the media. On the other hand, some might argue that designers’ work is simply better than the anonymous manufactured stuff that surrounds us. It’s easier to love the milled aluminium monocoque of Jonathan Ive’s Macbook than the awkward black plastic housing of a traffic light.

The emphasis on the authored leads to serious imbalances in the way we see design in the world. In future months, I will use this column to try to broaden the conversation about what design is, to try to move beyond a myopic interest in what designers and architects do, toward understanding what their work tells us about the world we live in. The others writing here (Sam, Alexandra, Justin and Dan) are all much better at this than me: I’m looking forward to reading their work. read more




SAIC Curators Explore the Meaning of Having and Being Had

December 9, 2010 · Print This Article

Tomorrow students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago will unveil four new exhibitions in the Sullivan Galleries, including Having and Being Had, a show that explores “the ritual of curatorial practice and meaning-making in museums.” The latter exhibition also includes a website featuring Q&As on curatorial practice with Chicago curators, cultural practitioners, and me, whose ‘practice,’ such as it is, falls into neither category. All four shows look really interesting – an opening reception for them all will take place tomorrow evening, Friday, December 11, from 4:30-7:00 p.m. in the Sullivan Galleries, 33 S. State St., 7th floor. Read on below for details on Having and Being Had, along with descriptions of the three other shows on view.  All shows run through January 22nd (note that the galleries will be closed for the holidays from December 24 – January 2nd).

Having and Being Had

Having and Being Had stages a performance on the ritual of curatorial practice and meaning-making in museums. As the title suggests, curators and audiences are as much authors of a legitimizing narrative as they are framed by it. The curators of this exhibition complicate our expectations of museum display by inviting the dynamic participation and active imaginings of the viewer. Having and Being Had invites audiences to reconsider the ways in which language, collections, object value, and display technique seduce audiences with illusions of access and objectivity. Art exhibitions educate and entertain, but do they also mislead and deceive the viewer? Having and Being Had exposes curatorial hierarchy, dismantles curatorial voice, and manipulates display space to engage audiences in the power of their own experiences. On display are the ethics of curatorial practice and the viewers’ imagination.

All the best,

This exhibition features new work by the artists and writers in Text Off the Page 2010, including collaborative projects, performances, installations, and language-based projects.
Featured artists: Shanita Bigelow, Troy Briggs, Annette Elliot, Sarah Jones, Nazafarin Lotfi, J.M. Lowe, Joel Parsons, David Scheier, Corkey Sinks, Jillian Soto, Hurmat Ul Ain, and Colin Winnette.
An evening of Readings/Performances in response to works in the exhibition will be held on Saturday, December 11 at 6:00 p.m. in the Sullivan Galleries.

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The eight artists participating in the Video Installation course attempt to investigate, analyze, and confront various aspects of this practice by focusing on issues of separation and contact. Their work tackles formal questions emerging from constructing multichannel installation, as well as from the intersection of a single-channel, time-based medium with a given space and performed actions.

Featured artists: Emilie Crowe, Lindsay Denniberg, Marco Godoy, Mikey McPariane, Brianne Milder, MZL, Wang Ye-Feng, and Courtney Bird Ziegler.

Stories of Relativity

How do we relate to one another? The nine artists in this exhibition explore the complex nature of human connectivity, considering how time, identity, and interpersonal tensions shape our relationships and affect our interactions.

Featuring recent work by: Hope Esser, Jang soon Im, Je Je Je Jiyeon Lim, Zihan Loo, Cheryl Pope, Casilda Sanchez, Chryssa Tsampazi, Andrew Norman Wilson, and Wei-Hsuan Vicky Yen.

Curated by Amelia Love (MA 2013), Curatorial Assistant, Department of Exhibitions




“New Style Curators”: Do They Exist?

December 1, 2010 · Print This Article

I was a former “old-style” curator who began participating in the online world right around the time that ideas about so-called “new style curation” started cropping up…everywhere….so this panel — which features Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City, online media consultant Rex Sorgatz, Rhizome‘s Ceci Moss, and panel organizer and moderator Joanne McNeil of the Tomorrow Museum — is really interesting to me. I’m still in the process of watching and absorbing and thus have no commentary to add — I just wanted to pop this embedded video into your feed readers and what-not in case you’re interested in the topic, and/or haven’t already come across this. Also: Paddy Johnson, one of the panelists, has written an extended follow-up to the panel on her blog Art Fag City.  I do think it’s incredibly generous of Johnson to write at length about the ideas behind the panel in addition to speaking on it. Those shared thoughts, and the posting of the entire talk on YouTube, is much appreciated by folks like me, who don’t live in NYC and had no way of catching this talk live.




Ryan Trecartin’s riverthe.net Could Use More Flow

October 18, 2010 · Print This Article

Ryan Trecartin’s latest big project is riverthe.net, an online website in which anonymous users can upload 10 second video clips and are asked to provide them with a maximum of three descriptive tags. The videos are then incorporated into the site’s larger stream of moving images, whose narrative “flow” is dictated solely by these tags. Trecartin collaborated with Tumblr founder David Karp on this project, which will be exhibited as part of the New Museum’s upcoming exhibition Free opening this Wednesday in New York. Trecartin debuted the project on Art Fag City earlier this month, and in conjunction with that Paddy Johnson conducted a lengthy and really fascinating interview with Trecartin about riverthe.net and his recent work in general. Go there for an in-depth take on the project and how it very well could change the (internet) world. (No, seriously, it could).

I feel compelled to note, however, that I’ve been trying to watch riverthe.net without much success over the past few days. For me, the experience can only be described as an exercise in frustration and seriously, seriously delayed gratification minus the gratification. The “flow” of this river is mega-choppy, I get maybe two seconds of video and 10-15 seconds of freeze-frame, and so on throughout the entire experience. From reading Trecartin’s interview with Johnson, I have to assume that a chopped-up subversion of narrative pleasure is not at all what Trecartin and Karp are going for. But that’s been my experience of the project so far, and though I am a numbskull when it comes to tech stuff I know I have a pretty good computer (latest type of iMac with the big screen, and our house has WiFi). So, you know, my setup, which I’m very lucky to have, is not good enough to view this project. Is it because the project itself needs fixin’ on the back end, or because I need even better equipment than that of the average user to view it the way it was intended? Um, if that’s the case – that’s not cool, for all the obvious reasons.

However, if we give the project the benefit of the doubt and assume that the choppiness is just par for the internet course, or better yet, something fixable that will soon be addressed, there’s a lot of interesting food for thought in what Karp and Trecartin are experimenting with here. I’m particularly interested in the idea of riverthe.net as a type of crowd-sourced movie that does away with interface and textual prompts in favor of ideas expressed “without using words,” as Trecartin explained during his conversation with Johnson. And it does so partly by doing away with curation altogether–anyone can upload video material, and that material doesn’t need to be voted up or down or “liked” or “favorited” or any of that type of crowd-sourced curation, in order to gain access or greater visibility within the overall stream. I like that.

Beyond these comments, I’m reserving judgment to see how riverthe.net takes off as greater numbers of people learn about it and start uploading more content to the site. I’m doing my little part by blogging about it here. Go check out the site for yourself and maybe upload something too–this is a project that definitely needs the contributions of the crowd in order to reach its true potential.

Screenshot from riverthe.net




Annals of Curation: ‘Curated Computing’

May 24, 2010 · Print This Article

I’ve been following the ‘curation’ meme for awhile now, and find its latest iteration particularly fascinating. Whereas in the recent past, the term ‘curated’ has tended to crop up in marketing and shopping-related contexts (i.e. “to curate” = “to pick and choose,” “to select,” or at its most base, “to shop around so others don’t have to”), last week I noticed that the term is now being slung around by those on both sides of the iPad/Apple wars. In an article titled Curated Computing: What’s Next for Devices in a Post-iPad World, on ars technica, analyst Sarah Rotman Epps puts a new spin on what’s already become a tired (and annoyingly mis-applied) buzz-word, arguing,

There is something very significant about the iPad beyond how many units it will sell: it’s changing how we think about the PC. The iPad creates a use case for a device that doesn’t do everything your laptop does, targeted at a consumer that uses devices more for consumption than production. The iPad ushers in a new era of personal computing that we call “Curated Computing”—a mode of computing where choice is constrained to deliver less complex, more relevant experiences. Let me repeat that, because it’s the essence of the Curated Computing experience: less choice; more relevance.

Oof! The connotations of the word ‘curation’ just get worse and worse, don’t they? “Less choice; more relevance?” Here, the verb curation isn’t merely equated with shopping; it signifies exclusivity and an active process of kicking the riff-raff out of the so-called “walled garden” of Eden that Apple has created and actively cultivates (or polices, depending on your point of view). You can watch a YouTube video of Epps describing her “curated computing” concept in (slightly) further detail here; I think it’s pretty dumb myself, but you can judge for yourself whether the idea of ‘curating’ in this context provides a useful conceptual metaphor or just trendy b.s..

In The Death of the Open Web, NYT Magazine columnist Virginia Heffernan used the term ‘curation’ to drive a related train of thought. In yesterday’s Magazine, Heffernan describes the Web as “a teeming commercial city…where Malware and spam have turned living conditions in many quarters unsafe and unsanitary” and “bullies and hucksters roam the streets.” Before, she argues, there was no way that Web denizens could escape the rabble. The rise of the iPhone, the iPad and the ubiquitous app, however, are now allowing users to migrate into the online equivalent of a gated community in the ‘burbs. Heffernan goes so far as to liken it to “white flight.” She writes,

In spite of a growing consensus about the dangers of Web vertigo and the importance of curation, there were surprisingly few “walled gardens” online — like the one Facebook purports to (but does not really) represent.

But a kind of virtual redlining is now under way. The Webtropolis is being stratified. Even if, like most people, you still surf the Web on a desktop or laptop, you will have noticed pay walls, invitation-only clubs, subscription programs, privacy settings and other ways of creating tiers of access. All these things make spaces feel “safe” — not only from viruses, instability, unwanted light and sound, unrequested porn, sponsored links and pop-up ads, but also from crude design, wayward and unregistered commenters and the eccentric ­voices and images that make the Web constantly surprising, challenging and enlightening.

Heffernan’s analogies are powerful and persuasive, although I do think she’s romanticizing some of the cruddier aspects of internet citizenry a bit.  In any case, Hefferman’s use of  the term ‘curation’ in this context aligns curators with those snooty, front lawn-obsessed Homeowners Associations and NIMBY-types, if not with community policing.

And finally Eliot van Burskirk, in an article written for Wired last week, took a jab at Epps’ opportunistic deployment of what he describe as “a well-worn meme” while acknowledging that Epps is undoubtedly “on to something” in her use of the term curated. Van Burskirk, tongue loosely planted in cheek, goes Epps one better and dubs this “The Age of Curation.”

Curation is the positive flip side of Apple’s locked-down approach, decried as a major, negative development in computing by many observers, present company included. Who would have thought that in 2010, so many people would pay good money for a computer that only runs approved software?

It runs counter to the idea, prized by geeks, that computing equals freedom. If it were Microsoft doing this, we’d all be storming the Gates with torches and pitchforks.

Nonetheless, the Age of Curation (see? anyone can coin a catchphrase) began long before today’s conversation about curated computing. In this Age of Digital Excess (oops, there I go again), we’re surrounded by too much music, too much software, too many websites, too many feeds, too many people, too many of their opinions and so on.

Curation is already fundamental to the way in which we view the world these days, and the iPad is hardly the first technology to recognize this.

I don’t have a dog in the walled garden vs. the riff-raff, suburb vs. gritty city, the iPad vs. Freedom of All that Is Good and True argument. I’m more interested in the ways that the terms curator and curation, which once had such dusty connotations, are undergoing a semiotic rejuvenation of sorts. Its meanings are not confined to a single realm of experience anymore – the curator has finally broken free of the White Cube. Alas, the white cube seems only to lead out into a Walled Garden, but I guess you have to take what you can get.